December 3, 2020

Pic & Cantata of the Week (Sexagesima)


(Click on picture to see larger image)

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EPIPHANY VII (Sexagesima Sunday)

Bach Cantata BWV 18, “For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven”

Sexagesima Sunday) is the name for the second Sunday before Ash Wednesday in the Gregorian Rite liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church, and also in that of some Protestant denominations, particularly those with Anglican and Lutheran origins.

Bach wrote three cantatas for this Sunday: BWV 18, 181, 126.

BWV 18, “For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven,” is an early Bach cantata (1713). Ryan Turner of Emmanuel Music describes its importance in Bach’s musical development:

Soon after arriving in Weimar in 1713 Bach discovered the Italian concerti that he was to arrange for keyboard solo. These Italian works were to be very influential in the development of his international style. The Sinfonia that opens our cantata is Bach’s first original foray into the Italian concerto form. The movement for the unusual combination of four violas and continuo shows complete mastery of the Italianate style that he had seen in the Vivaldi models that had so impressed him.

The Gospel for that Sunday was Luke 8:4-15, the parable of the sower. Richard Stokes’s text emphasizes the life-giving power of God’s Word from Isaiah 55 and the enemies of God’s Word, who continually seek to rob it of its effectiveness in the world. Before the final chorale, a soprano aria states the believer’s desire to honor God’s Word above all (My soul’s treasure is God’s word”).

Today, we will ignore the sung parts, and give us all an opportunity to meditate on God’s Word as we listen to the beautiful opening Sinfonia from this day’s cantata.


  1. Is this what you would have seen in church in Bach’s time? Seems to me it’s pretty much a praise band such as we love to castigate but with a different style, and different than what King David’s praise band must have been like too. What is the big box keyboard? There was one a week or two ago, and it doesn’t seem like an organ could be detached like that. I’m assuming they didn’t have a Hammond B3 back in Bach’s day, tho I bet he would have loved it. Did they have pianos then?

    • >> Did they have pianos then?

      Apparently I have to answer my own question, and the answer is yes and no according to all I can find. No one knows when the piano was invented but it was around 1700 in Italy. However it did not catch on in Germany that early. According to Wikipedia “Silbermann [a German piano builder] showed Johann Sebastian Bach one of his early instruments in the 1730s, but Bach did not like the instrument at that time, claiming that the higher notes were too soft to allow a full dynamic range. . . . Bach did approve of a later instrument he saw in 1747, and even served as an agent in selling Silbermann’s pianos.” Thus today’s 1713 composition would not have used a piano.

      That still leaves unanswered the question of what is that box the woman is playing? Assuming it is a keyboard instrument, which is not certain, it would likely be a continuo or a harpsichord. Continuos weren’t very loud and not used for performance except in smaller rooms. Harpsichords that I found online all seem to be built like grand pianos. There are other varieties such as Virginals, Spinets, Clavicytheriums, which are built like an upright piano and might be a possibility, Clavicymbalums, and Ottavinos. I’m way beyond my pay grade here and quite surprised that no one of our many know everythings has answered the question. What’s that box? Probably going to turn out to be a digital keyboard or even my B3.

      • Charles,

        Dana has given a very thorough and concise answer. I agree that the box is probably a positive organ, common in Bach’s time. According to the website of this ensemble (“Alia Mens”) they use the type of instruments that would have been available to Bach. This former music teacher commends you for your questions and for finding out answers for yourself. Thanks also to Dana for good information.

    • 1. Yes – in towns that had wealthy enough people to give money toward supporting church musicians. Churches in small villages didn’t have that luxury, but they almost always had an organ of some kind; see #2.

      2. It’s a kind of organ, sometimes known as a box organ. They made them that size, and some even smaller. Look up Positive Organ (an instrument that can be “posited” – placed where you want it) on Wikipedia. Everything you need – pipes, bellows and a manual – is included in the apparatus. Box organs were the Hammond B3s of the day 🙂

      3. In Bach’s day, the harpsichord and organ still reigned supreme. Bach was known to compose in bed – people slept much more upright in those days – using a small clavichord perched on his lap. The clavichord had strings that were struck from underneath with little metal triangles, like the hammers of a piano, rather than plucked like a harpsichord. It was very portable, and you could manipulate the keys to produce a bit of vibrato and a bit of variation in loudness. It was too quiet to play in an ensemble of any size, but with a solo instrument it sounded nice.

      Pianos weren’t really on the scene until Mozart’s day, and even then the technology didn’t yet exist (combination of wood work and metal work) to support all the tension you need to put on piano strings to keep them in tune. Because of that, the first pianos only had 5 octaves’ worth of keys and sounded quite tinny; the action of moving the hammer was also much simpler, and there was no sustain pedal. The technology exploded in the 19th century, and by Liszt’s time the piano had developed into pretty much what we have now.

      I got to see a piano in a museum in Budapest that was owned by both Beethoven and Liszt – made me very happy!


      • … and “continuo” refers to the combination of a bass instrument (usually cello for Baroque music, though sometimes a bassoon was used) plus a keyboard instrument. This combination formed a more or less continuous carpet of harmonious sound underneath whatever solo instrument was playing, including a vocal line. Often Baroque composers would notate only the bass instrument’s melodic line. The keyboardist would know what to play referencing a sort of shorthand system comprised of Roman and Arabic numerals the composer would write underneath the bass instrument’s notes. The numbers would tell which chords to play in which positions on the keyboard. Barque keyboardists would play these “on the fly” all the time – quite an art. There are some Baroque specialists today who know how to do this well.


        • Yes, I did run across what you are talking about with “continuo” in my half hour musical education. I think I confused continuo with clavichord, which is pretty easy to do as they both start with “c”, but then so does calliope. I was pretty sure the box wasn’t a calliope. Thanks,Dana.

      • Thanks, Dana. All new to me about the positive organ. What wasn’t clear to me on reading up on it is how they are powered. I know we’ve got old organs in our local museum that you pump with your feet but I’m not seeing anything like that in the pictures of positive organs. Would make sense today to power them with electricity if authenticity wasn’t required, but how were they powered in Bach’s day? Ten year old kid? Squirrels in a squirrel cage? The woman playing in the video doesn’t seem to be working out especially. As far as that goes, how did they power those monster pipe organs? Mules? They must have needed huge amounts of air.

        • Hi again, Charles

          Before electricity, a positive organ would have been pumped by the player or a second party. As I understand it, large organs sometimes required several persons to operate the bellows. This is one reason organists practiced on other types of keyboard instruments, such as pedal harpsichords (a harpsichord with an organ style pedalboard). There have also been organs that used water pressure to operate the bellows.

          I had an organist friend who came along in Holland during WWII when electricity was rationed. For church services a bicycle was hooked up to the drive shaft of the blower motor and someone “rode” the bike to run the blower.

          • >> . . . someone “rode” the bike to run the blower.

            Now that sounds like something I would have wanted to do when I was ten years old. Thanks, Ric!

            • Years ago, sometime in the early 1970’s, I heard the then president of the American Guild of Organists tell of an occurrence many years before in a town in Michigan. A young (I’m guessing teenage) girl was the substitute organist at a local church. When she started to play, the organ wouldn’t play. She was very embarrassed. Come to find out, the organ was powered by water pressure. All the non-church-goers took their baths on Sunday morning and there wasn’t enough water pressure to operate the blower.

              • I played a church organ once when I was about ten years old for as long as it takes to play the kind of piece you teach ten-year-olds. I was taking piano lessons from an old retired Episcopal priest and he had me play the organ one time at his church during the week when no one was there. About all I remember of it was doing it because I was told to, which is why I was taking the piano lessons. That’s regretful because with a different teacher and different music I might have actually learned to play music rather than struggling to play notes. I still think about it.

                • I don’t mean to keep this thread going, but it is probably not too late to learn. I have had a number of adult beginners over the years. One was an 80-something lawyer (still practicing law) who had to memorize the music for each hand separately with a lighted magnifying glass because his vision was so poor. He was very determined. If you do learn to play, that’s great.
                  Well-informed listeners with good curiosity are also much needed. Thanks for all your input.

                  • Actually, the lawyer wasn’t a beginner, but was probably my oldest student ever.

                    • Thanks, Ric. I’ll be 80 in two years, which amazes me no end. I once lived next door to Richard “Groove” Holmes. The hundred year old church I attended in town until it shut down a year ago is still there waiting for someone to do something with it. It occurred to me yesterday that at some point the organ might come up for sale or auction, but I’d rather have a B3. I’m guessing there are probably digital keyboards that replicate the B3 close enough for me. I do seriously think about it, but so far that’s as far as I get, thinking about it. This house came with an old upright piano in the basement but I only played it enough to find out some of the keys don’t work. My fantasy is playing blues at the local tavern, but that’s something you couldn’t buy with a million dollars, even a billion, unless you bought the tavern and hired people to come in and drink free beer. Not even if I changed my name to Ray Charles or Charles Earland, but I’ll remember this conversation a couple years from now. Who knows?

  2. yesterday crocus
    green stems and purple flowers
    thirsty for sunlight