The glory of Rome

Pierre Mignard, "Clio" (1689)

19.08.14: 2000th anniversary of the death of Octavian Augustus, first Prince of the Roman Empire (63 BC – 14 AD).

“Survey,” pursued the sire, “this airy throng,
As, offer’d to thy view, they pass along.
These are th’ Italian names, which fate will join
With ours, and graff upon the Trojan line.
Observe the youth who first appears in sight,
And holds the nearest station to the light,
Already seems to snuff the vital air,
And leans just forward, on a shining spear:
Silvius is he, thy last-begotten race,
But first in order sent, to fill thy place;
An Alban name, but mix’d with Dardan blood,
Born in the covert of a shady wood:
Him fair Lavinia, thy surviving wife,
Shall breed in groves, to lead a solitary life.
In Alba he shall fix his royal seat,
And, born a king, a race of kings beget.
Then Procas, honor of the Trojan name,
Capys, and Numitor, of endless fame.
A second Silvius after these appears;
Silvius Aeneas, for thy name he bears;
For arms and justice equally renown’d,
Who, late restor’d, in Alba shall be crown’d.
How great they look! how vig’rously they wield
Their weighty lances, and sustain the shield!
But they, who crown’d with oaken wreaths appear,
Shall Gabian walls and strong Fidena rear;
Nomentum, Bola, with Pometia, found;
And raise Collatian tow’rs on rocky ground.
All these shall then be towns of mighty fame,
Tho’ now they lie obscure, and lands without a name.
See Romulus the great, born to restore
The crown that once his injur’d grandsire wore.
This prince a priestess of your blood shall bear,
And like his sire in arms he shall appear.
Two rising crests, his royal head adorn;
Born from a god, himself to godhead born:
His sire already signs him for the skies,
And marks the seat amidst the deities.
Auspicious chief! thy race, in times to come,
Shall spread the conquests of imperial Rome
Rome, whose ascending tow’rs shall heav’n invade,
Involving earth and ocean in her shade;
High as the Mother of the Gods in place,
And proud, like her, of an immortal race.
Then, when in pomp she makes the Phrygian round,
With golden turrets on her temples crown’d;
A hundred gods her sweeping train supply;
Her offspring all, and all command the sky.

“Now fix your sight, and stand intent, to see
Your Roman race, and Julian progeny.
The mighty Caesar waits his vital hour,
Impatient for the world, and grasps his promis’d pow’r.
But next behold the youth of form divine,
Ceasar himself, exalted in his line;
Augustus, promis’d oft, and long foretold,
Sent to the realm that Saturn rul’d of old;
Born to restore a better age of gold.
Afric and India shall his pow’r obey;
He shall extend his propagated sway
Beyond the solar year, without the starry way,
Where Atlas turns the rolling heav’ns around,
And his broad shoulders with their lights are crown’d.
At his foreseen approach, already quake
The Caspian kingdoms and Maeotian lake:
Their seers behold the tempest from afar,
And threat’ning oracles denounce the war.
Nile hears him knocking at his sev’nfold gates,
And seeks his hidden spring, and fears his nephew’s fates.

Nor Hercules more lands or labors knew,
Not tho’ the brazen-footed hind he slew,
Freed Erymanthus from the foaming boar,
And dipp’d his arrows in Lernaean gore;
Nor Bacchus, turning from his Indian war,
By tigers drawn triumphant in his car,
From Nisus’ top descending on the plains,
With curling vines around his purple reins.
And doubt we yet thro’ dangers to pursue
The paths of honor, and a crown in view?
But what’s the man, who from afar appears?
His head with olive crown’d, his hand a censer bears,
His hoary beard and holy vestments bring
His lost idea back: I know the Roman king.
He shall to peaceful Rome new laws ordain,
Call’d from his mean abode a scepter to sustain.
Him Tullus next in dignity succeeds,
An active prince, and prone to martial deeds.
He shall his troops for fighting fields prepare,
Disus’d to toils, and triumphs of the war.
By dint of sword his crown he shall increase,
And scour his armor from the rust of peace.
Whom Ancus follows, with a fawning air,
But vain within, and proudly popular.
Next view the Tarquin kings, th’ avenging sword
Of Brutus, justly drawn, and Rome restor’d.
He first renews the rods and ax severe,
And gives the consuls royal robes to wear.
His sons, who seek the tyrant to sustain,
And long for arbitrary lords again,
With ignominy scourg’d, in open sight,
He dooms to death deserv’d, asserting public right.
Unhappy man, to break the pious laws
Of nature, pleading in his children’s cause!
Howeer the doubtful fact is understood,
‘T is love of honor, and his country’s good:
The consul, not the father, sheds the blood.
Behold Torquatus the same track pursue;
And, next, the two devoted Decii view:
The Drusian line, Camillus loaded home
With standards well redeem’d, and foreign foes o’ercome
The pair you see in equal armor shine,
Now, friends below, in close embraces join;
But, when they leave the shady realms of night,
And, cloth’d in bodies, breathe your upper light,
With mortal hate each other shall pursue:
What wars, what wounds, what slaughter shall ensue!
From Alpine heights the father first descends;
His daughter’s husband in the plain attends:
His daughter’s husband arms his eastern friends.
Embrace again, my sons, be foes no more;
Nor stain your country with her children’s gore!
And thou, the first, lay down thy lawless claim,
Thou, of my blood, who bearist the Julian name!
Another comes, who shall in triumph ride,
And to the Capitol his chariot guide,
From conquer’d Corinth, rich with Grecian spoils.
And yet another, fam’d for warlike toils,
On Argos shall impose the Roman laws,
And on the Greeks revenge the Trojan cause;
Shall drag in chains their Achillean race;
Shall vindicate his ancestors’ disgrace,
And Pallas, for her violated place.
Great Cato there, for gravity renown’d,
And conqu’ring Cossus goes with laurels crown’d.
Who can omit the Gracchi? who declare
The Scipios’ worth, those thunderbolts of war,
The double bane of Carthage? Who can see
Without esteem for virtuous poverty,
Severe Fabricius, or can cease T’ admire
The plowman consul in his coarse attire?
Tir’d as I am, my praise the Fabii claim;
And thou, great hero, greatest of thy name,
Ordain’d in war to save the sinking state,
And, by delays, to put a stop to fate!
Let others better mold the running mass
Of metals, and inform the breathing brass,
And soften into flesh a marble face;
Plead better at the bar; describe the skies,
And when the stars descend, and when they rise.
But, Rome, ‘t is thine alone, with awful sway,
To rule mankind, and make the world obey,
Disposing peace and war by thy own majestic way;
To tame the proud, the fetter’d slave to free:
These are imperial arts, and worthy thee.

—Publius Vergilius Maro, Aeneid (VIII, 756-853)

La Tempesta

No, non turbarti, o Nice; io non ritorno
a parlarti d’amor. So che ti spiace;
basta così. Vedi che il ciel minaccia
improvvisa tempesta: alle capanne
se vuoi ridurre il gregge, io vengo solo
ad offrir l’opra mia. Che! Non paventi?
Osserva che a momenti
tutto s’oscura il ciel, che il vento in giro
la polve innalza e le cadute foglie.
Al fremer della selva, al volo incerto
degli augelli smarriti, a queste rare,
che ci cadon sul volto, umide stille,
Nice, io preveggo… Ah non tel dissi, O Nice?
ecco il lampo, ecco il tuono. Or che farai?
Vieni, senti; ove vai? Non è più tempo
di pensare alla greggia. In questo speco
riparati frattanto; io sarò teco.

Ma tu tremi, o mio tesoro!
Ma tu palpiti, cor mio!
Non temer; con te son io,
né d’amor ti parlerò.
Mentre folgori e baleni,
sarò teco, amata Nice;
quando il ciel si rassereni,
Nice ingrata, io partirò.

Siedi, sicura sei. Nel sen di questa
concava rupe in fin ad or giammai
fulmine non percosse,
lampo non penetrò. L’adombra intorno
folta selva d’allori
che prescrive del Ciel limiti all’ira.
Siedi, bell’idol mio, siedi e respira.
Ma tu pure al mio fianco timorosa ti stringi, e, come io voglia
fuggir da te, per trattenermi annodi
fra le tue la mia man? Rovini il cielo,
non dubitar, non partirò. Bramai
sempre un sì dolce istante. Ah così fosse
frutto dell’amor tuo, non del timore!
Ah lascia, o Nice, ah lascia
lusingarmene almen. Chi sa? Mi amasti
sempre forse fin or. Fu il tuo rigore
modestia, e non disprezzo; e forse questo
eccessivo spavento
è pretesto all’amor. Parla, che dici?
M’appongo al ver? Tu non rispondi? Abbassi
vergognosa lo sguardo!
Arrossisci? Sorridi? Intendo, intendo.
Non parlar, mia speranza;
quel riso, quel rossor dice abbastanza.

E pur fra le tempeste
la calma ritrovai.
Ah non ritorni mai,
mai più sereno il dì!
Questo de’ giorni miei,
questo è il più chiaro giorno
Viver così vorrei,
vorrei morir così.

—Pietro Metastasio

James Carrol Beckwith, "A Wistful Look" (?)

Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist

10.04.14: 8th Sunday after Trinity.

This is the third of three extant cantatas for this day, the others being C 136 from the first and 178 from the second cycles. They are very different works but have some common features. All begin with an extended chorus and end with a (different) chorale, encompassing a mixture of arias and recitatives. Only C 136 contains a duet (for tenor and bass) and it also reveals some original features which Bach recur in later works e.g. the faster middle section in a different time signature (alto aria) and the (bass) recitative melting into a few bars of mellifluous arioso. The theme of that work is mortal sin and the power of the Lord’s blood to disperse it. The opening chorus boasts a solo horn part of great effectiveness.

C 178 deflects attention to the enemies who may lead us into sin rather than concentrating upon the nature of sin itself. The opening fantasia is a tornado of energy and excitement depicting those dangerous ones who rage around us. The chorale, or parts of it, is incorporated in most of the movements, the fifth of which is an early example of Bach’s experimentation with the setting of long tracts of text by using combined forms, in this case harmonised chorale and recitative.

C 45 is the only one in two parts and its opening chorus is the longest and most broadly conceived of the three works. Even the ritornello, which is not repeated at the end, is almost forty bars long! The scoring is for a pair of flutes and oboes added to the strings and continuo. The movement structure, two recitatives forming the second and penultimate movements enclosing a central group of arias, was one that Bach apparently found satisfactory at this time. It is shared by Cs 39, 102 and 187.

PART 1.

Chorus

The opening chorus has a confident, rhetorical character markedly different from those of Cs 136 and 178. The text is that of a stern and serious sermon—Man, you have been told what the Lord requires, namely to abide by His word, to engender Love and to humble yourselves before Him. The poet seems imperious and dogmatic but Bach’s setting comes across in a somewhat lighter vein. Perhaps it is just his way of ensuring that his transmission of the message is congenial and available to all.

But effortlessly as this great movement appears to flow, the immense compositional skill in its making is effectively disguised as the shape of the forest diverts attention from individual leaves. For a better understanding of Bach’s consummate technique a degree of technical analysis is unavoidable.

Three basic building blocks (motives) are unveiled in the opening four bars. The first (A) is the simplest, just two minim notes (the second an interval of a third lower than the first) heard on first flute, oboe and violins. The next  (B) is also immediately stated on second flute, oboe and violins, a five note motive beginning with two crotchets which are, in fact an inversion of A. Finally we have a thrice-stated figure, upwardly striving towards the tonic note in bars 2-4 (C).

Ideas A and B are both directly derived from the first phrase of the chorale melody and C (loosely) from phrases 5 and 6. From such small acorns do great oaks grow. The listener, having identified the three ideas, should not have much trouble in tracing them through the ritornello despite the accompanying swathes of quavers. It is, however, when the choir enters that a familiarity with these three motives becomes particularly beneficial.

The first three choral blocks deal only with the words—Es ist dir gesagt—you have been told. The first (from bar 37) uses B imitatively, stated in the order bass, soprano, alto and tenor, then reinforced by the full choir. This is immediately followed by a repetition of the same process but this time the order of entries is bass, tenor, alto and soprano (from bar 43). Finally (from bar 49) the order of entry, with the same motive, is tenor, bass, soprano and alto.

Bach now moves on to the second line of text—[you have been told] Man, that which is good and what the Lord demands of you. Motive B now combines with motive C to form a theme which is given a full fugal exposition (from bar 54) in the order sopranos, altos, tenors and basses.

This takes us to the centre of the movement and a short slab of the instrumental ritornello ends in a cadence in B major (bars 106-7).

If the non-musically trained enthusiast is a little lost in the plethora of detail at this point, it does not really matter. What now stands out clearly and allows the listener to navigate him/herself back into the structure of the movement is the return of motive A, the two-note figure from the very beginning. This is articulated twice (and again latterly) on the word—nämlich—namely (from bar 107) This rhetorical device enables Bach to move on to the setting of the main message, God’s three decrees i.e. abide by His word,  engender Love and  humble yourself before Him.

The music of the latter part of the chorus is recognisable as a slightly reconstructed version of the first half, the blocks built from motive B and the fugal exposition all appearing much as before. It sweeps to its triumphant conclusion with the dogmatic insistency of motive C left ringing in our ears.

God himself may not be delivering the message personally; He will do that in the second aria. But it could hardly come across more forcefully had He announced it Himself.

Tenor recitatiive.

The short secco recitative for tenor simply tells us—He informs us of His will and of what pleases Him—His word is the touchstone against which our actions may be properly measured. The harmony takes us from the major of the chorus to the minor of the next aria.

Tenor aria.

The tenor aria is in the extreme key, for the period, of C#m, itself a clue to its character. It completes part 1 of the cantata in a somewhat downbeat mood. We have not yet reached a point of certainty and optimism; there remains room for doubt and vacillation. And yet the 3/8 time signature creates the impression of a dance, albeit sombre or even macabre in character.

The text is essentially an individual assertion of an awareness of what God requires of us—I know God’s justice and what He demands of me—the soul must follow this in order to save itself—otherwise it must suffer scorn and suffering. But both the minor modes (there is very little of the major in this movement) and the general melodic shapings are suggestive of continuing doubt—whilst I know what is required of me, might I yet be incapable of fulfilling my obligations? This exquisite balance between the certainty of knowing and the natural reservations of personal confidence is beautifully captured.

Perhaps it is the fear of pain and scorn—Qual und Hohn—that dampens the spirit; note the powerful depiction of these words in bars 96-9. The aria ends with an emphasis on these thoughts, underlined by long melismas on drohet—threatening. The natural dichotomy in the human condition of knowing what is right, and yet not knowing whether one is capable of following the path of conscience, has seldom been more effectively portrayed.

One final note of detail. The very first two notes of the melody of this aria are a minor version of the two minims (theme A) from the opening chorus. The first three bars of the continuo line are constructed from ornamented versions of theme B. Both relate also to the chorale melody; a fine example of Bach’s macro-planning across the movements.

PART 2.

Bass aria.

If part 1 ended with a degree of uncertainty, part 2 immediately dispels any doubts or misgivings. God himself now speaks for the first time and His message is formidable—for the many who claim to have done much in My name I will say I do not know you—go away from Me! Clearly to merely claim to have done things in the Lord’s name is not enough and in case any misunderstandings remain, the alto will shortly expand upon this theme. Lip service to the Lord’s commands will not ensure salvation.

But against the voice of the Lord, the busy semi-quaver strings suggest power and resolution as well as evoking a number of textual images: the casting away of the ungodly, gathering hordes wishing to explain themselves to their God, His fury at their behaviour. The restless energy hardly abates throughout the movement and the long melismas stressing weichet—withdraw or go—and alle—all—emphasise both the Lord’s injunction and its universality. This is a movement of force and authority and it is significant that there is no final statement of the ritornello theme; God’s command ‘go from Me all you who indulge in evil deeds’ is left ringing in our ears.

Alto aria.

The nub of the matter is left, as is so often the case, to the final aria or duet and that which follows, for alto with flute obbligato, is no exception. Just in case the message has not been fully comprehended, here it is fully spelt out—whoever truly acknowledges God does so from the heart—if your love is simply a form of insincere expression, you will inevitably burn for ever. God, in the previous aria, had informed us in no uncertain terms what was unacceptable to Him. Here we are reassured, if we had not already deduced it for ourselves, that the sincere acknowledgement of God within our hearts is what He really seeks. Those who cannot do this will burn in the fires of hell.

The ritornello flute melody is in two parts, reflecting as we so often find, different textural ideas. The first four bars suggest steadfastness and a reaching upwards towards the Lord.

Thence follow the flickering semi-quavers of hell’s infernos, typically bubbling Bachian flute writing.

Both ideas intertwine and interlace in what, despite the dark key of F#m, is essentially a reassuring, almost jolly movement.

Jolly yes, because we have now achieved a position of certainty about our obligations and our ability to fulfil them. Minor key, perhaps, because despite this personal achievement, God’s requirements remain a profoundly serious issue, involving the salvation of our souls and the threats of dire consequences should we fail.

In a sense this movement might be viewed as the companion piece to the tenor aria. Both are somewhat enigmatic, expressing a delicate balance of positive and negative viewpoints. But both are pieces of depth and charm to which we may be repeatedly drawn, taking a little more from them on each subsequent hearing.

Alto recitative.

The final recitative takes us back to E major, the key of the opening chorus and closing chorale. This choice is both structural and symbolic. It is the ultimate assertion of one’s ability to do the will of the Lord, albeit with His assistance—I shall be judged through my heart and mouth and His work shall be seen to be accomplished in me. One might, perhaps, have expected a somewhat richer accompaniment to this unadorned secco recitative; flutes, strings and oboes were all available to add sustained chords or touches of colour.

But Bach calls upon none of them. Perhaps the simplest forms of expression are the most effective when conveying the most profound aspects of faith.

Chorale.

The closing chorale is one of the best known in the Lutheran canon. It was also used for the later wedding cantata 197. Here the second verse has been chosen and its aptness is obvious—grant me that I do what I must, and as You command—also that I do it well and quickly. There is an honest, rustic quality about this melody, which makes it particularly appropriate for the summing up of the vacillating states of the soul throughout this cantata.

Conclusion.

This work has not always been allotted its true value by critics. It is, however, particularly elegantly structured, moving from injunction to personal doubt, from further injunction to a final position of faith and certainty. Bach’s music follows these nuances perfectly, delicately balancing the subtle distinctions of uncertainty and conviction.

It remains a masterpiece even if it has not always been acknowledged as such.

©John Mincham

 

Haec tibi erunt artes…

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