November 2013

Schafe können sicher weiden ("Sheep May Safely Graze") from Cantata No. 208

by Johann Sebastian Bach

And we're back to Bach, someone we introduced when this whole series started. He was the great German composer who lived from 1685 to 1750.

In 1713, Bach was commissioned to write his first secular cantata. He had written a lot of religious or sacred music up to this point, but this was, essentially, a birthday present for Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels. The Duke was turning 31, and Bach wrote a 15-part cantata entitled "Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd" ("What gives me pleasure, is the merry chase alone!"). This is also known as the "Hunting Cantata". The text for the cantata was written by Salomon Franck, the Weimar court poet.

The subject matter was around hunting because the Duke loved to hunt. As Greek Mythology was a popular subject matter at the time (in music and art), Bach wrote the cantata as a quarrel or conversation between four mythological figures: Diana - goddess of the hunt (soprano), Pales - god of shepherds and flocks (2nd soprano or alto), Endymion - a legendary shepherd (tenor), and Pan - god of the wild or nature (bass). As this is a birthday present, the dialog between the mythological figures often goes into what a great guy Duke Christian is, and how great it is that they have Duke Christian to rule over them, etc.

The cantata contains recitatives, arias, and choruses. A recitative (pronounced REH-sih-tah-TEEV) is a vocal solo, in which the soloist sings a few sentences, usually introducing the next work. The phrases do not repeat. It's just sung as if it had been spoken or recited. An aria is a solo or duet that usually surrounds around a single phrase. The phrase is often repeated. A chorus is sung by a group of people, usually representing all four vocal parts (soprano, alto, tenor, bass). This often surrounds around a phrase or two, and these phrases are commonly repeated.

The most commonly recognized portion of this cantata is the ninth section. It is an aria titled "Schafe können sicher weiden" ("Sheep May Safely Graze"). It is sung by Pales (god of shepherds and flocks), represented by the second (or lower) soprano.

Schafe können sicher weiden,
Wo ein guter Hirte wacht.
Wo Regenten wohl regieren,
Kann man Ruh' und Frieden sprüren,
Und was Länder glücklich macht.

Sheep may safely graze,
Where a good shepherd keeps watch.
Where rulers rule well,
One can feel peace and calm,
And all that makes nations happy.

Even though this is Pales' aria, it seems clear that Pan is present. This is because the aria is accompanied by two recorders. This gives the feeling of a pan flute. A pan flute is several reed flutes connected side by side in progressively shorter lengths. It was the instrument associated with Pan.

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

I'm pretty sure the first time I heard this was when I was about 10 years old, and I really started listening heavily to Switched-On Bach, the album series by Walter Carlos. Specifically, this would have been Switched-On Bach II. My favorite track on Switched-On Bach II was the Two-Part Invention No. 13 in A minor. "Sheep May Safely Graze" was two tracks past that. Even though it was played on a Moog synthesizer, I was captivated by the harmonies and the repetitive duet written for the two recorders.

I've never been involved in a performance of this work. I have sought out various different recordings of this, though, and I'll be sharing a few of them as part of the Extra Credit.


So here is "Schafe können sicher weiden" ("Sheep may safely graze"). Enjoy!

"Schafe können sicher weiden" ("Sheep may safely graze") from Cantata No. 208 by Johann Sebastian Bach (4:09)

For those interested, this recording is Ton Koopman conducting the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir with Elisabeth von Magnus singing the solo.

Jon's Interpretation:

It actually surprised me to learn that this was a secular piece. Bach has done so many sacred pieces, and this piece is so serene. I just assumed that the whole "sheep/shepherd" theme was a reference to the New Testament parables involving Christ as the Good Shepherd. Perhaps there was a subtle religious injection there. Who knows?

I really like the sound of recorders. They're particularly nice when they are in a group (or a duet, as in this instance). This is a very memorable melody and something that I've found myself humming long after hearing.

Extra Credit:

Here's the conductor's score:

Conductor's Score for >"Schafe können sicher weiden" ("Sheep may safely graze") from Cantata No. 208 by Johann Sebastian Bach

It would be silly of me not to include the Switched-On Bach version that was my introduction to this piece, so here it is:

Wendy Carlos performing "Schafe können sicher weiden" ("Sheep may safely graze") from Cantata No. 208 by Johann Sebastian Bach (5:11)

This was probably the next arrangement that I got intimately familiar with. Here is the Canadian Brass Quintet:

The Canadian Brass Quintet performing "Schafe können sicher weiden" ("Sheep may safely graze") from Cantata No. 208 by Johann Sebastian Bach (5:47)

And finally, here's a transcription for guitar by Rick Foster, and performed by Christopher Parkening:

Christopher Parkening performing "Schafe können sicher weiden" ("Sheep may safely graze") from Cantata No. 208 by Johann Sebastian Bach (4:47)