Shadow Bachs

Today, March 21, is simultaneously Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthday and World Puppetry Day! Seems like a perfect time to talk about my long term goal (possibly very long term) to create what I call Shadow Bachs. The basic explanation is that I want to create a shadow puppet show for all 9 of Bach’s solo soprano cantatas, then perform them puppeteering and singing at the same time. I created the first show in this series back in 2017 for the cantata Weichet nur betrübte Schatten (I’ve been calling it Bach and Bunnies lately) but if I keep working at this rate I won’t be finished until I’m 108 years old! I probably won’t be in good voice by then, so the clock is ticking.

This year I will make another one, Falsche Welt, dir trau’ ich nicht. The English translation of this means False world, I do not trust you, so I’ve decided to make it about artificial intelligence and how easily we’re all being deceived by it. It’s a sacred cantata, as most of them are, so as usual it will be a challenge to reframe the references to God into something that fits the new context. Luckily for me, I consider literally everything to be God, so I have a lot of options! I’ll have a lot more to say about this work later, but for now I’m going to focus on Shadow Bachs as a whole.

The nine solo soprano Bach cantatas are as follows – with links to videos of some lovely performances:

1. Weichet nur betrübte Schatten (Be gone troublesome shadows) BWV 202

2. Falsche Welt, dir trau’ ich nicht (False world, I do not trust you) BWV 52

3. O, holder Tag, erwünschte Zeit! (Oh blessed day, longed for time) BWV 210

4. Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (Praise God in all lands) BWV 51

5. Non sa che sia dolore (One knows not what sorrow is) BWV 209

6. Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (My heart swims in blood) BWV 199

7. Ich bin in mir vergnügt (I am content in myself) BWV 204

8. Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke (I am content with my fortune) BWV 84

9. Ich habe genug (I have enough) BWV 82a. Originally for baritone solo with oboe obbligato, Bach also created a version for soprano with flute.

Of these nine two were composed for weddings, one is technically secular with a sacred bent, one is a secular cantata in Italian (one of only two cantatas Bach wrote in that language,) and five of these are sacred cantatas. They each vary in length from just under 15 minutes to over 30. I’ve been singing through them all over the past three years...or longer in some cases, and the first step in any solo puppet show is always to embed a piece firmly into my subconscious. This can be a long process, so perhaps the very long time it’s been taking me to complete this series is appropriate. I was happily surprised to find that I had sung through Falsche Welt so many times that actively memorizing it was easy!

I have some very vague thoughts on the vibe or aesthetic for some of these. I started a shadow puppet show for Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate, which I left unfinished because it became a non-shadow show. I may fit Bach’s Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen to the bones of that shadow show, which would make it about birds, bugs, and rodents all praising God. Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut is so metal, and yet I feel compelled to make something that simulates stained glass. The two “vergnügt” cantatas may end up having an anticapitalist theme considering the texts seem formulated to keep the masses from wanting “too much” lest they start demanding the aristocracy stop being so greedy. That’s as far as I’ve gotten considering Shadow Bachs as a whole, but the bunnies may make a comeback in a couple of them too.

It’s still kind of dismaying to realize I may not be done with this project until I’m in my mid fifties, but at least once it’s done I can die fairly content. You are all encouraged to keep me accountable for finishing it. Stay tuned for more blog posts about each of these cantatas individually. And happy Bach Birthday/World Puppetry Day!

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