CD review: Charmed by world-premiere recording of Passion cantatas by Bach colleague Christoph Graupner

Christoph Graupner, Wo gehet Jesus hin, Passionskantaten (Carus)

Johann Sebastian Bach was the city of Leipzig’s second choice to become music director at St. Thomas’s Church. Their first choice, Christoph Graupner, couldn’t get permission to leave from his patron.

Such are the funny personal twists that make history so interesting.

As a 26-year-old in 1709, Graupner had already written five operas for the Gänsemarkt Opera in Hamburg when he landed a job with Landgrave Ernst Ludwig of Hesse in Darmstadt. The prince wanted an opera company at his court. The opera venture didn’t last long, but Hesse wanted Graupner to stay. The composer obliged, living and working in Darmstadt until his death in 1760.

Among his duties, Graupner was asked to write a new cantata for nearly every Sunday, resulting in more than 1400 canatas collected in 46 bound yearbooks found at the former court library in Darmstadt.

Among them were found these four canatas written for Passiontide services. The texts were composed by Darmstadt’s court architect Conrad Lichtenberg from Biblical sources.

The cantatas on on this 70-minute CD, not performed since the 18th century and recorded for the first time here, are: “We know that affliction brings patience,” from 1744; the title cantata, “Where is Jesus going?,” from 1739; “Friend, why have you come?,” from 1741; and “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,” from 1731.

The pieces are musical sermons, alternating recitatives and arias, and ending with a traditional Lutheran chorale. The music is beautiful, nicely textured. The chorale settings are imaginative, sometimes odd. The final cantata’s whimsical setting of the Passion Chorale is completely incongruous with the solemnity of the occasion. (Perhaps the Landgrave needed cheering up.)

The Anton Webern Choir of Freiburg contributes chorales as well as soloists — all of whom do a beautiful job under director Hans Michael Beuerle. Period-instrument accompaniment comes from Ensemble Concerto Grosso.

It’s enough of a sweet taste of Graupner’s work to whet the appetite. (For more details on this disc, click here.)

Graupner left instructions to his heirs to destroy all of his music. The Dramstadt court refused to hand over the music, considering it to be its property. The argument turned into a 60-year legal dispute that, in the end, preserved the music while at the same time burying it in the dusts of time once the people who had known Graupner and his work were gone.

It has only been in the last generation that muscologists and period performers have taked serious interest in this prolific and gifted composer. These canatas definitely make one want to hear more.


In a completely different vein, here is the opening of Act 2 from Dido, Queen of Carthage, an opera Graupner wrote in 1707, followed by an aria, “Auf, Dido, auf!”:

John Terauds


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