Cantata No.209

Johann Sebastian Bach

Cantata No.209

BWV209 • “Non sa che sia dolore”

About this work

While Bach is primarily associated with the sacred cantata, he also composed a number of secular works in the form. BWV 209 ("He does not know what it is to suffer") is unique among the extant works of this type in being the only one set to an Italian text. The principal source is a copy made around 1800 by Bach's first biographer, Johann Nokolaus Forkel, and its authenticity has been doubted by some scholars. The date of composition is unknown, but the anonymous poet's specific address to the town of Ansbach has led Bach experts to believe that it may have been composed in honor of Johann Matthias Gesner, a native of Ansbach who was rector of the Thomasschule in Leipzig between 1730 and 1734. The court at Ansbach was strongly inclined toward Italian culture, not only performing operas by such composers as Cesti and Alessandro Scarlatti but also employing Italian musicians, most notably the famous instrumental composer Giuseppe Torelli. Bach's cantata for solo soprano closely follows the model of those of Scarlatti in its adherence to alternating recitative and aria. In addition to newly written poetry, the text also draws on passages from such famous writers as Giovanni Battista Guarini (his Rime of 1598) and Pietro Metastasio. The subject is apparently concerned with the departure of a young man to sea to enter military service. The cantata is prefaced by a lively sinfonia for flute and strings in the form of a concerto. The following accompanied recitative is concerned with the pain of departure, a topic taken up in the succeeding aria, "Go then, and with pain leave to us the suffering heart," an expressive movement embellished by a highly ornamental part for the solo flute. The central section is more lively, with a vocal line suggestive of the rocking motion of the sea while the continuo intimates the prospect of military glory. After a brief secco recitative, the second aria takes up the sea metaphor, pointing up the relief felt by the steersman when he regains control of his ship after experiencing stormy weather.