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Johann Sebastian Bach in Weissenfels: Sheep May Safely Graze

Multimedia Program
Tomoko Yamamoto
, photographer and soprano

View of Old Weissenfels

View of Weissenfels in the Old Times

Schloss Neu-Augustusburg print
Schloss Neu-Augustusburg Print

This program presents the background to the famous Bach aria, "Sheep May Safely Graze" in the original German, "Schafe können sicher weiden." The aria comes from the hunt cantata, #208 "Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd" (What pleases me is the lively hunt only), which Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) composed on the occasion of the birthday of Duke Christian of Sachsen-Weissenfels in 1713. It is understood that Bach was commissioned to write this cantata by his employer in Weimar, Duke Wilhelm Ernst as a birthday present to Duke Christian in Weissenfels. The original text in German (with the English translation) was written by Salomo Franck (1659-1725), who was also employed at the Weimar court as secretary, librarian and poet. Bach used Franck's texts for all the other cantatas he wrote in his Weimar period. The hunt cantata was first performed in the hunting lodge (Jaegerhof) in Weissenfels (See the print right below and the photo toward the end).

According to Klaus Eidam, "Das wahre Leben des Johann Sebastian Bach," the cantata was a Tafelmusik, dinner-time entertainment. Because Bach's employer in Weimar, Duke Wilhelm Ernst, was invited to the birthday celebration, the Duke took his musicians along for this celebration. Not only Bach composed the cantata, but also he conducted the first performance, presumably with four singers and instrumentalists (2 Corno da caccia, 2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, 1 Oboe da caccia, 1 Bassoon, 2 Violins, 1 Viola, 1 Cello, Violone grosso, Basso continuo).

Since the purpose of the cantata is to celebrate the birthday of Duke Christian, who presumably loved hunting as he had a hunting lodge away from his castle on a hill. It is customary to praise the nobles on such an occasion, so one expects abundant praises on the Duke in the text as to his character and his rule on his land and people.
Jaegerhof Print Photo
Jaegerhof Print

Characters in the Hunt Cantata

There are four mythological characters appearing in the cantata: Diana (Soprano 1), Endymion (Tenor), Pan (Bass), and Pales (Soprano 2). Pales is a Roman goddess of shepherds and flocks, who sing "Sheep May Safely Graze." Thus this is a soprano aria originally. Diana is the virgin goddess of hunting and childbirth and Endymion, her lover, is a beautiful youth who feeds the flock on Mount Latmos. Pan is a Satyr, a human-like figure with hooves as feet as well as the tails of goats. Pan, a son of Hermes and a nymph, is the god of green fields and the guardian of shepherds.

Movement by Movement Description up to "Sheep May Safely Graze"

The hunt cantata consists of 15 movements (including several recitatives). The four characters (no alto) form the four-part choir for the cantata. The story line goes like this:Diana opens this secular cantata by singing a recitative, "Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd (What pleases me is the lively hunt only" (note this is the title of the cantata). Her first and brisk aria is "Jagen ist die Lust der Götter" (Hunting is the pleasure of gods). Endymion asks Diana, with a recitative, "Wie, schönste Göttin, wie?" (How, beautiful goddess, how?) and an aria, "Willst du dich nicht mehr ergötzen an den Netzen, die dir Amor legt?" (Don't you want any more to be delighted in the mesh Cupid put on you?). Diana replies with "Ich liebe dich zwar noch." (I love you still), but she explains that she has to help celebrate the birthday of Duke Christian today and then the two sing a duet. After the duet, Pan enters with a recitative, "Ich, der ich sonst ein Gott in diesen Feldern bin." (I, who is a god in these fields) and sings an aria, "Ein Fürst ist seines Landes Pan" (A prince is like the Pan of his country). Then Pales enters with a recitative, "Soll denn der Pales Opfer hier das letzte sein?" (Should the Pales' offering be the last?) She answers her own question by saying, "Nein, nein! Ich will die Pflicht auch niederlegen, und da das ganze Land vom Vivat schallt, auch dieses schöne Feld zu Ehren unserm Sachsen-Held, zur Freud und Lust bewegen" (No, no! I want to offer my duty and the whole country will shout three cheers for the Duke, "To the honor of our Saxony Hero, to bring joy and gladness" )

"Sheep May Safely Graze"

photo of sheep grazing near Broglesalm, Italy; photo by Tomoko Yamamoto, ©2004 Tomoko Yamamoto

At this point Pales sings the famous aria, "Sheep May Safely Graze." The original German text of this aria with a line-by-line translation of mine is as follows:
Schafe können sicher weiden, wo ein guter Hirte wacht,
Sheep can graze safely, where a good shepherd watches
Wo Regenten wohl regieren, kann man Ruh and Frieden spüren und was Länder glücklich macht.
Where Princes govern well, one senses peace and harmony and what makes the region (Duke's territories) happy.

The good shepherd who watches over the sheep is not Christ, but none other than Duke Christian. Here the sheep are the people (peasants) governed by Duke Christian, whose birthday is being celebrated. In the New Testament Bible, Jesus tells a parable of a good shepherd and a lost sheep. Probably the relationship of a good shepherd (lord) taking care of sheep, even one lost sheep, may have been transferred over to the relationship of people to their earthly lord as in this text. I surmise that later on this shepherd-sheep relationship in the aria comes to take on the original Christian meaning when the feudal system of a secular lord over vassals and peasants collapsed. I have seen the English text for a choral transcription of this aria, in which the latter part of the original text, which refers to an earthly lord, has been changed to an explicitly Christian type.*

*Note: Various Internet sites mention a choral version of this aria associated with the name of Katherine Davis. I'll check out the score to find out whether she created the Christian text in English or whether there is another German text, which refers to Christ explicitly, other than the original Franck text.

Movement by Movement Description to the End

The rest of the cantata includes a recitative by Diana followed by a four-part chorus of "Lebe, Sonne dieser Erden, weil Diana bei der Nacht an der burg des Himmels wacht" (Long Live the Sun (Prince) of this earth as long as Diana watches at the fortress of the heavens). This is followed by a duet between Diana and Endymion, "Entzücket uns beide, ihr Strahlen der Freude" (Enchant us both, your Stream of Joy).

Pales' second aria comes after the duet. The text is "Weil die wollenreichen Herden durch dies weitgepriesne Feld lustig ausgetrieben werden, lebe dieser Sachsenheld." (Long live the Saxony Hero as long as a wool-rich herd will be happily driven to the widely praising pasture!) The wool-rich herd is the sheep, thus as in "Sheep May Safely Graze," this aria sings about the happy relationship between the Saxony prince (Duke Christian) and his peasants under him. I should note that sheeps kept high on the alpine region are herded by a shepherd without the use of any dogs. This is what I saw in Villnöss in South Tyrol in northern Italy. I note that in the original German text, the word "Feld", meaning the field, was used which rhymes with the word "Held," meaning the hero. The accompaniment of this particular aria was used later by Bach for a soprano aria, "Mein Gläubiges Herze," in the Cantata BWV 68, Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt, The tune was changed, though, with some resemblance**.

The Movement 14 is an aria by Pan, "Ihr Felder und Auen, lasst grünend euch schauen" (Your field and forest, let them appear green). The concluding chorus is "Ihr lieblichste Blicke, ihr freudige Stunden" (Your lovely glances, your joyous hours).

**Note: "Bach" by Malcolm Boyd (1983) and its translation into German, "Johann Sebastian Bach" (2000) show a comparison of the two tunes, "Weil die wollenreichen Herden" and "Mein gläubiges Herze," note by by note with the same accompaniment. The latter aria is far better known, and in fact I had studied the latter first before I learned the former, which is easier to sing.

Multimedia Program of "Bach in Weissenfels"

In the multimedia program I sang all the three soprano arias from the cantata including "Sheep May Safely Graze," and presented a slide show-talk of Weissenfels and a brief biography of Johann Sebastian Bach. You can see additional photos associated with Bach in the photo galleries of Bach and Churches in Germany.

Weissenfels across the Saale
Weissenfels Today across the Saale
Weissenfels is a small town along the River Saale located east of the Thuringia Forest. In the above photo and the old print, you can recognize the tower of the castle on the hill and the spire of the church (Marienkirche) in the old town. The photo in the center below, taken from the arched entrance to the courtyard shows the clock tower. This arched entrance is seen small in the old Schloss print above if you look carefully. The old town of Weissenfels is on the south side of the River Saale where the river bends. It is a train ride south of Leipzig where Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was to live from 1723 until his death. The train station is on the north side of the river and it is convenient to go to Weissenfels as a side trip from Leipzig.

When I went to Weissenfels in 2004, I chose to stay there for several days and visited Leipzig as a day trip from there. The Museum of Weissenfels, which is housed inside the Schloss Neu-Augustusburg, kindly let me photograph several old prints they have in their collection. Hotel Jägerhof has a restaurant on the first floor (ground floor), and at the time I was visiting, they were having a lunch special, of which I took advantage. Although I asked about any hall dating back to Bach's time, they told me that they did not have any.
Schlosskirche St. Trinitatis,

Schloss Neu-Augustusburg
Schlossturm (Castle Tower),
Schlosskirche Organ (Orgel)
Jägerhof ( Photo), Weissenfels
Photo of Hunting Lodge (Jägerhof)
Today it is Hotel Jaegerhof
Although he might have composed while he was working in Arnstadt (his first post), we know his first composition to date from his brief stay in Mühlhausen. His reputation as organist and composer began to be established during his tenure in Weimar where Bach worked from 1708 to 1717. The photo on the right is a present-day view of the hunting lodge which is now Hotel Jägerhof.

It is interesting to note that Bach was to marry a woman from Weissenfels after his first wife Maria Barbara died in 1720 during his fourth post of Köthen, located north of Leipzig. His second wife was Anna Magdalena Wilcke (the name may be spelled,Wülken, Wülcken, Wilcken) , daughter of a court trumpeter in Weissenfels and she herself was a singer. The Bach family visited Weissenfels many times when Bach was Thomaskantor, basically the music director of the school associated with the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.

© 2019 Tomoko Yamamoto: Photographs and Text
Update March 28, 2019