Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten

20.07.14: Fifth Sunday after Trinity.

Chorale.
Chorale.

Readers who are working through these cantatas in order must, by now, be wondering just what further ingenuity Bach can contrive in his continuing experiments with the chorale cantata. In C 93 he has, as we have come to expect, devised yet another approach to the opening chorus. But his real innovation, at least at this stage of the current cycle, is the interleafing of chorale phrases/motives into every single movement.

The words ‘at least this stage of the current cycle’ are important because this is a device which Bach had experimented with in his twenties. C 4, a work composed a decade and a half earlier uses not only insertions but a complete stanza of the chorale as the text for every movement. Bach seems to have regarded this work highly since he performed it several times for Easter celebrations, in the first Leipzig cycle and later, in somewhat enigmatic circumstances, as the forty-first cantata of this cycle (see chapter 42).

The setting of complete verses from the chorale for every movement was a technique that absorbed Bach’s attention from time to time; indeed the very next cantata of this cycle, C 107 uses the identical principle and, unlike C 4, even as a recitative.

Chorale.

The chorale upon which C 93 is constructed was written by Georg Neumark and Bach seems to have been particularly attracted to it. Malcolm Boyd (p 521) lists its use in six other cantatas (27, 84, 88, 166, 179 and 197) although this is its only appearance in this cycle. In C 93 Bach presents a simple harmonization, notably less chromatic than the version used in C 179 from the first cycle.

The intense usage of phrases from the melody throughout this cantata may have left Bach inclined, for reasons of balance, to close the work with as plain and unostentatious a version as possible. After its (almost) remorseless appearances in every movement, it might have seemed an overstatement to have concluded with a more flamboyant arrangement. A reflective, unpretentious utterance seems eminently appropriate.

Chorus/fantasia.

The opening chorus is, by contrast, by no means ‘unadorned’. The instrumental forces, though, are modest; the usual four-part choir, oboes, strings and continuo. The oboes and violins interplay with each other in a series of ritornello statements throughout. The former begin with a short canonic statement but by the third bar they are playing in unison.

BBbWV93-2

Thence they inter-relate with the violins playing in thirds, so the ear hears, from this point, two strong melodic lines above the continuo, one on wind, the other on strings.

The soprano carries the cantus firmus line throughout but its relationship with the other three voices is complex. Each chorale phrase is preceded by imitative entries derived loosely from the shape of its first notes, and the sopranos participate in all but two of these introductory fragments. The following summation lists the entries of the soprano chorale phrases which should make the structure easier to follow.

Phrase 1, from bar 10, preceded by four bars of sop and alto.
Phrase 2, from bar 19 preceded by four bars of sop and alto.
Phrase 3, from bar 32 preceded by four bars of tenor and bass.
Phrase 4, from bar 41 preceded by four bars of tenor and bass.
Phrase 5, from bar 55 preceded by four bars of S, A, T, B.
Phrase 6, from bar 65 preceded by four bars of S, A, T, B.

Yet again Bach has produced a chorale fantasia with an original design  unlike any that have preceded it, a ritornello movement with both instrumental and vocal sections separating the chorale phrases. The melodic material is taken from the opening oboe melody and  the chorale.

The text uses the metaphor of the house built upon sand—when we trust in God our foundations are solid and we shall be wholly supported by Him. The first bar of each chorale phrase proper is harmonized in largely unembellished block chords creating the impression of solidarity and permanence. The lower voices thence become more dispersive, dissolving into a continuously moving texture of transience and change.

It seems that, yet again, Bach has used the simplest of textual images to stimulate his insatiable imagination. Is it not unreasonable to assume that the solid chords underpinning the chorale represent the sturdy, standing edifice and the constant movement of the violins and oboes the shifting sands. It is conjecture only; but it is so often the case with Bach that we find clear textual images embedded within, and sometimes wholly conditioning the construction of the musical rhythms, melodies, structures and textures that encompass them.

This hypothesis is strengthened by the observation that in the last two of the six phrases there is less discursiveness in the lower voices as the text affirms divine solidarity—he who trusts in God has not built upon sand.

Bass recitative/chorale.

The second movement is an excellent example of the hybrid recitative which Bach develops throughout this cycle (see also C 2, chapter 3). The tenor intersperses embellished chorale lines with more rhythmically free recitative. This technique seems to have particularly interested Bach at this time and we will be coming across numerous examples in the following cantatas. It is often used particularly as a device for obtaining variety when setting long tracts of text.

Bach sets each line to an increasingly ornate version of the chorale phrases (bar 1-3, 6-8, 9-11 and 15-16). Their oratorical, somewhat obsessed nature is underlined by the persistent, even relentless quality of the quaver continuo line that buttresses them. The text of the separating bars of recitative expands upon, or attempts to answer, the questions proffered e.g.

[Bar 1-3] Chorale/arioso:—"of what use are our torments and fears?"
[Bar 1-3] Chorale/arioso:—”of what use are our torments and fears?”
[Bars 4-6] Responding recitative:—"they merely oppress the heart with a multitude of pain and agonies."
[Bars 4-6] Responding recitative:—”they merely oppress the heart with a multitude of pain and agonies.”
The chorale phrases become increasingly distorted, an aural equivalent of the visual experience of looking at oneself through the old fairground deforming mirrors. The continuo quavers, however, do not allow us to lose touch with them. The distortions of the chorale suggest the twisted and perverted thinking of the misguided but the final four lines of text depart from both the perverse presentation of the chorale and any further expressions of doubt. Direct secco recitative now conveys the text of Christian truth; the true believer bears his cross with divine composure simply because he has undergone the experiences of sorrow and distress.

For musical cohesion Bach completes the movement with a brief reiteration of the quaver bass which had previously underpinned the chorale phrases.

Some critics, and Albert Schweitzer in particular, have not always been kind to Bach in their comments on these recitative experiments. But it is also true that they have not always understood what he was attempting to do. The apposition of chorale phrases and recitative provides an opportunity for dramatic dialogue such as is not possible within the confines of the Baroque aria or chorus.

Tenor aria.

The tenor aria is a strange mixture of ritornello and binary form, demonstrating Bach’s ongoing experimentation with the combining and conjoining of traditional musical structures. The first string motive is simply the first five notes of the chorale translated into a major mode.

First two bars of the aria, followed by the first choral verse.
First two bars of the aria, followed by the first choral verse.

This little figure is employed in many permutations and its main characteristic is the moment of silence (or stillness) following each statement. This clearly relates to the first line of text—e we but still. The immobility is only set aside towards the end when the long vocal melismas render the word senden—God’s sending of our children to their salvation.

But the overall mood is one of serene contemplation. It is an evocation of the moments of calmness and tranquility preceding those times of trial when we may rely upon God the Father to dispel all misfortunes. It is notable that this is the only major-key movement in the cantata. It even strives to remain major throughout, with the barest of excursions into minor modes after the double bar line.

Quoting Schweitzer’s views on this cantata, and with particular reference to this aria, he states (vol 2, p 241) ‘Even the volatile motive that expresses gay insouciance—is derived from the commencement of the [chorale] melody . The device may be very ingenious but it gives no artistic satisfaction. It amounts to a disfigurement of the melody.’ It is strange that Schweitzer, frequently so insightful, should here find a commonplace example of Bach’s economical and focused use of materials so irksome. He makes, for example, no such criticism of C 4 which has a similar concentration upon the chorale melody, exacerbated by the constant use of the one key, E minor. On the contrary, Schweitzer says of that work (vol 2, p 161) ‘the consummate expressiveness of [it] has always been marveled at’.

Soprano/alto aria/chorale.

Minor mode return with the duet for soprano and alto (number 4) and they  remain for the rest of the cantata. Bach returns to the simplicity of simple binary form, this time without the complication of an instrumental ritornello; the vocalists are given virtually no rest from the first to the last bars. But the tonal restrictions of the complete chorale melody (played in unison by the violins and violas, in a low, doleful register) prevent Bach from arriving at a new key at the point where we might have expected a double bar line (bars 16-17).

A great many of his keyboard suite movements are in binary form which, in essence, is an extension of the ‘question and answer’ phrase; an unfinished melodic idea is complemented by one that brings about a sense of completion. Similarly, but on a larger scale, binary form moves to a second key at the double bar line (usually the dominant or relative major) and is thus ‘unfinished.’ After repeating itself, it proceeds through a second section, eventually returning us to the home key and thus bringing about the required sense of conclusion. 

The feeling the listener gains is that of a journey outwards followed by the passage home. Here, however, Bach is forced to remain substantially in C minor with the merest of transient brushes against related keys.

But the listener does not really miss the lack of key contrast. Around the chorale melody Bach presents us with an engaging trio comprising the two voices and the continuo line. All of these are given a little kick through the use of Schweitzer’s three-note ‘joy’ motive—da—da—dah—first heard in the continuo but eventually permeating all parts.

bwv93d

The time for ‘gladness’ is mentioned in the opening line and the somewhat unexpected intrusions of the chorale phrases mark the God who comes upon us unawares but leaves us, somehow, enhanced—He recognizes the appropriate times for happiness and if we are faithful, He will appear when we least expect it.

Tenor recitative/chorale.

This movement is, like the earlier one for bass, a mixture of recitative and chorale/arioso, with several changes of tempo. This is not, perhaps, surprising as it is one of the longer slabs of text we find Bach setting, over two dozen lines. One is tempted to wonder why Bach did not consider cutting it as it adds little to the moral or message. It does, however, provide a succession of the kinds of illustrative images that Bach frequently found difficult to resist; thunder, fire and tempest, the rich man, the poisoned pot, Peter awaiting his catch. The continuo bursts through the opening declaration (thunder and lightning) and thereafter the twists and turns of the melodic lines fit and suggest the textual images precisely.

The six phrases of the embellished chorale melody (beginning in bars 1, 4, 9, 12, 17 and 27) are all incorporated in the vocal line. On this occasion Bach does not point them up by adding a consistently reiterated continuo idea, although a quaver bass does underpin phrases 3, 4 and 6. But otherwise the strategy is much the same as in the previous recitative, the chorale sections enumerating the principle statements, the recitative sections elaborating them. The former warn us not to imagine that God has forsaken us for He shall balance our relative fortunes and apportion to us appropriately. The recitative sections expand these ideas translating them, with examples, into a more colloquial exposition of the dogma.

Once again the hybrid movement proves to have shape, meaning and purpose, presenting a series of contentions in a manner not possible through established aria or chorus forms.

Soprano aria.

Time now to rouse the congregation, perhaps even to ‘jolly’ them along. The Lutheran services were long (up to three hours) and even in summer the churches could be cold! The final chorale is quiet, simple and contemplative, an unpretentious prayer. So if there is any energising necessary, it has to come now; and so it does. Only four performers are required, a soprano, oboist, cellist and keyboard player, the musical character suggesting that in this case the last of these might be a harpsichordist rather than an organist.

This is a joyous, energetic little movement, a straight-forward ritornello structure beginning with an infectiously rising oboe melody. The chorale has, for the moment disappeared. The text is a personal statement—I look to the Lord and trust in God who can truly perform wonders. The generally ascending melodic directions encapsulate the image of gazing upwards to the throne of the Lord.

The soprano takes up a simplified version of the ritornello melody while the oboe supports it with flickering wisps of sound. There is little explicit imagery. The text is fundamentally optimistic and the mood is upbeat, cheerful and positive if just slightly moderated by the minor key. But for the ‘Schweitzarians’ who may deplore constant reiterations of the chorale melody, there is one final surprise. It manifests itself once more in the vocal line, half way through the movement and using the final two phrases only (bars 23-5 and 28-30).

bwv93e

The text of these lines states—He is the Worker of miracles which He does according to His will. This insertion confirms the aria as an indisputable part of the architecture of this cantata but Bach’s intention is not merely structural. These two lines shine out beyond the general mood of optimism to stress the key premise of the work; God’s omnipotence and the implications of this for sinner and Christian alike.

Chorale.

The plainly harmonised closing chorale urges us to sing and pray as we follow His guidance—trust in Heaven and we shall not be forsaken. It completes a work of great beauty and variety, significant especially for the innovation of the hybrid recitatives.

Boyd (p 521) describes this cantata thus; ‘In its symmetry of design, its effective musical structure and above all, its sheer strength of expression, this work affords a notably fine example of Bach’s trenchant originality in the composition of a chorale cantata’.

Few today would disagree. Even Schweitzer should be permitted his occasional lapses.

©John Mincham

Della Proporzione in Architettura

Leon Battista Alberti, Facciata di S. Maria Novella in Firenze
Leon Battista Alberti, Facciata di S. Maria Novella in Firenze

«Continuando parallelamente lo studio degli Ordini, attraverso la lettura delle parti fino alla sequenza delle modanature, ritengo sia giunto il momento di affrontare lo studio delle Proporzioni, che costituiscono la struttura armonica delle sequenze delle modanature, le quali si possono considerare come le linee melodiche dell’Architettura: così come nella Musica le note, oltre a costituire frasi melodiche, sono regolate da rapporti matematici sui quali sono costituiti gli accordi e tutta la struttura armonica, così le varie parti architettoniche, oltre al disegno delle modanature, sono regolate da rapporti matematici sui quali è costituita tutta la struttura proporzionale.

I sistemi di proporzionamento, sia delle parti interne agli Ordini, sia della loro disposizione negli edifici, sia degli ambienti in generale, sono molteplici e diversi: d’altronde anche nella Musica le modalità, le tonalità, gli accordi e le loro combinazioni sono innumerevoli e i compositori, nel pieno e rigoroso rispetto della Dottrina Armonica, possono costruire strutture musicali differenti tra loro.
Nell’Architettura vi sono tre generi di proporzioni: quelle arimetiche, quelle armoniche e quelle geometriche.
Le armoniche costituiscono la grandissima parte, assimilando le fondamenta matematiche dell’Architettura a quelle della Musica, tuttavia a differenza di quest’ultima che esige grandezze commensurabili affinché i suoni siano correttamente definiti e inoltre multipli e frazioni semplici per ottenere intervalli e accordi, l’Architettura contempla anche la presenza di proporzioni non misurabili dal punto di vista aritmetico, come la sezione aurea e la diagonale del quadrato, le quali tuttavia sono perfettamente determinabili geometricamente.»

—D. Napolitano

Mer hahn en neue Oberkeet

Much has been written and supposed about this work, partly because it is like no other of Bach’s cantatas. It is a burlesque, bordering at times on farce, a late composition (1742) composed at a time when Bach appeared to be generally turning his mind away from operatic-type pieces of entertainment and more towards music in its purest and ‘least adulterated’ sense. It contains more movements (24) than any other cantata but, typically lasting barely half an hour, it is by no means the longest; compare it, for example with C 205. It is written in a Saxon dialect, has no chorus, employs just two singers and is very lightly orchestrated.

Elsewhere readers will find opinions as to whether Bach was, uniquely, using the piece in order to make social comment. It is, perhaps, more convincing to argue that he set out to parody aspects of musical composition rather than social milieu, much in the way that Mozart was later to do in his Musical Joke. What we know is that it was written as a work of homage to Carl Heinrich von Dieskau, a tax superintendent who had inherited a number of properties (Dürr p 888). What we can reasonably infer is that the work was intended as entertainment, probably for a relatively elevated social class rather than that from which the characters are drawn.

Sinfonia.

A number of clues as to what the piece is about may be found in the opening sinfonia or, perhaps, a more accurate title would be ‘overture’. It is a potpourri of short dance tunes, some as brief as eight bars. Modes, time signatures, textures and tempi all alter in the course of the eighty-seven bars and, in a sense, Bach is offering a demonstration of how not to write music or, at least, how he does not usually do it. Nothing is developed or extended, there is a lack of musical argument and dialectic; each tune lasts barely long enough to make any impression.

Throughout his career Bach wrote collections of dances (suites) on many occasions, but never as transient as these segments.

On the other hand, the scoring for violin, viola and cello (the parts are complete without a harmonic instrument) evokes the feeling of a rustic ensemble. The fact that only a flute, second violin and horn are called upon to support the trio in the entire work supports this contention. The idea of musicians playing the part of villagers or country folk providing entertainment for their peers is one which may well have amused Bach and his librettist, Picander.

People will doubtless go on theorizing about this rather odd piece, though none can deny its enduring popularity, second only in public affection, perhaps, to the Coffee Cantata. Of course, there may be additional factors in that requiring, as it does, only two singers and seven musicians it is much less problematic and certainly cheaper to mount than almost any other cantata. Nevertheless, its enduring popularity even today supports the contention that it was conceived very much for purposes of entertainment and diversion.

The sinfonia evokes a sense of the opera buffo which many listeners will tend to associate with the latter part of the eighteenth century, Mozart in particular. Bach’s introductory instrumental movements do not always tell us very much about the ensuing compositions except, perhaps, through hindsight. This is not the case in this work. Here Bach seems to be looking ahead to the Rossinian practice of providing an overture which sets the scene for what is to follow. This is a piece of fun, not to be taken too seriously, and we are made aware of this within the first few seconds.

The overall structure of the cantata is simple and clear, a series of alternating arias and recitatives, six of which are duets (two arias and four recitatives). On some recordings, listeners may find that a small choir is employed at times to vary the tonal colours, but there is no need for this. It is a chamber piece for two characters and that is how it is best performed.

Soprano/bass aria and recitative.

The opening duet is a bourrée, further establishing the dance-like character of the work; it announces the coming of the new Lord of the Manor and the strong beer he dispenses. The following duet is a dialogue in which the bass requests a kiss but is quickly dismissed—you always want more! Two brief instrumental intrusions are highly reminiscent of the folk style from the overture.

It will be noted from the opening movements how little there is in the way of instrumental introductions. Analysis of recitatives in the church cantatas makes the important point that those movements, unlike those in opera, were heard but not seen. This allowed for a greater degree of richness of texture and meaning (see Cs 2 and 38).

Here the situation is different. Although we do not know precisely how works such as C 212 were presented, their very structure suggests a strong visual, dramatic element. The characters do not need to wait around as melodies unfold; they have immediate contact with the audience and direct interaction with each other. The very lack of extended instrumental themes is intentional and practical, revealing Bach’s innate sense of the theatrical, even though he never composed an opera. More of the arias have an instrumental coda, however; might these have been included to allow for discrete applause?

Soprano aria.

There have already been mild jokes about beer and sex and when we arrive at the soprano aria (no 4) we are presented with a further insight into human nature—yes, it is good to flirt and the fire in your belly is like the warfare of bugs and wasps. The raging of the insects is depicted in the violin semi-quavers of the latter bars.

Bass recitative.

The bass then changes tack in his recitative (no 5)—our master is good but the tax man will fine you as quick as lightening, merely for disregarding fishing laws. A brief burst of continuo notes on Blitz—lightening—indicates that, no matter how briefly, Bach intends to maintain the practice of word painting, undoubtedly for comic effect.

Bass aria.

The bass aria (no 6) reveals Bach as the skilled composer we know him to be. The imitations between bass and strings are simple but effective and unify the movement. The text is a plea for the tax man to be merciful with the poor peasants.

It should not be necessary to paraphrase every short subsequent movement; readers should be able to follow the progression of ‘plot’ from their translations. Basic principles have now been established and henceforth comments will be selective.

Soprano aria.

The soprano aria (no 8) will sound familiar to many listeners. It is based upon a harmonic progression that was in common usage at the time; Handel was one of several composers who made use of it. It has a sense of aristocratic refinement, highly appropriate to the subject, and its familiarity may have carried other messages to Bach’s audiences of which we are no longer aware. The movement progresses quickly, however, with the addition of more complicated string figurations in the manner of Pachelbel’s well known variations.

Bach’s point seems to be the initial establishment of a dignified context, progressing to one of more abandoned joviality. The text tells of a Chamberlain who is a most affable man; the music depicts this without compromising his position of decorum.

Soprano aria.

The next soprano aria (no 10) is an exception to the rule in that it begins with an instrumental introduction which is half the length of the entire movement. The ensuing misbalance points strongly towards some dramatic purpose. Even so, it is still barely thirty seconds long, but surely sufficient to allow for the introduction of a prop of some kind. Two local villages are specifically mentioned in the context of draconian property taxes. Might there, for example, have even been a crude map to which the attention of the audience was drawn?

Bass aria.

The bass (no 12) bemoans the loss of fifty thalers paid in tax—but we shall just have to save it again. The dotted rhythms create something of the quality of a drinking song or drunken revelry.

Soprano aria.

The soprano aria (no14) is one of two da capo movements (the other being no 20). As we shall see, no 20 is adapted from a work composed over a decade previously and it is almost certain that no 14 must have been similarly paraphrased. In style, proportion and in the requirement for an additional violin, they stand outside all the other movements of the cantata.

No 14 is in the form of a minuet and it may be reasonably assumed that the long ritornello sections, adorned with the arabesques from an added flute, would have provided the opportunity for the singers to perform a stately dance. The phrasing is regular and symmetrical and it may be significant that the soprano sings, almost without pause, in both sections, thus delineating very clear vocal and instrumental segments. Furthermore, when the reprise is taken into consideration, the ritornello theme is heard in full four times, accounting for almost 130 of the 240 bars of the aria; over half! What would the performers be doing if not dancing?

If the aria is paraphrased then one should not look too closely for connections between words and music. The text praises the Chamberlain’s acquired property—as tender and sweet as pure almonds. It proceeds to call for an abundance of blessings.

The specific reference may well have been to almond trees that were known to grow on the property. The general call for blessings is obviously suggested by the flute figurations.

Bass aria.

The next bass aria (no 16) reverts to the practice of eschewing the introduction but retaining a short coda. Dürr (p 890) tells us that it is a traditional hunting song from Bohemia, although there is no reference to that particular sport in the text—may he be wealthy and benefit from good wine! Nevertheless, it is significant that the horn, traditionally associated with hunting, is introduced here although its role is minimal, doubling the voice, playing a number of repeated notes and largely doubling the violins at the end.

This would imply that it was played by a student; or possibly it might have been a second instrument of the flautist or additional violin player.

Soprano recitative and aria.

The soprano recitative (no 17) is important because it informs us that the following aria is indeed a traditional song—what you say is crude, although people here would laugh at it—but so, indeed, would they were I to sing the old song—which is precisely what she then proceeds to do.

The horn is employed again (for the last time), contributing even fewer notes. The words wish the lady of the house many handsome sons.

Bass recitative and aria.

The bass recitative (no 19) is also significant since it provides another clue to the thinking that lay behind the cantata—yes, that was too crude—I must make myself sing something more urbane. We know that his next aria was paraphrased from C 201, Phoebus and Pan, first performed possibly as early as 1729. The lyricist seems to have gone out of his way to prepare for this second complex aria which, like no 16, stands apart from much of the rest of the work. The original text has Pan competing with Phoebus to find the better musician, calling for those about him to dance, relax and make merry. The later version calls for the Chamberlain’s wife to laugh for pleasure as she blossoms in the security of her new home.

Had Bach set this verse anew, he might well have conceived of a figuration more overtly suited to the depiction of laughing. But it is also possible he considered that the motive from bars 5 and 7, or the repeated notes (from bar 9) served this purpose. The aria is explicitly joyful, but is it as sophisticated as the singer clearly believes it to be?

There is a complicated piece of fun to be exposed in this instance. Bach had used this very aria in the Contest between Phoebus and Pan to demonstrate ‘low art’ i.e. music which is not of the highest refinement. Here the rustic singer mistakes it for ‘high art’, a comment on his cultural deficiency and a clever joke to be enjoyed by all who were familiar with the earlier piece.

Bass/soprano recitative and soprano aria.

Four brief movements complete the cantata and if Bach has diverted slightly from the rustic scenario, he now returns to it with gusto. The two recitatives are assured forms of dialogue in which the bucolic couple declare that it is time to repair to the tavern and drink, even in the company of the tax inspector!

The soprano’s last aria (no 22) is touchingly minor mode, giving what is essentially a mildly humorous drinking song a touch of genuine pathos—now is the time to drink and if your right hand fails you, use the left. The setting, simple, almost naive and with modest interjections by the violin and viola, is both sympathetic and touching. Bach appears to convey a genuine sympathy for these simple country people. Well, simple they may be, but still stylish enough to perform some quite demanding music!

Bass/soprano closing recitative and aria.

A final brief moment of agreement as to what to do next (no 23) leads to the final duet. Any moment of pathos is swept away immediately in a melodic line of inspired silliness—as we go to hear the bagpipes drone in the tavern we cry—’long live Dieskau’—and—’may he receive whatever he wishes for’.

One feels that this has the quality of a Bach family quodlibet. It brings to an end a work that remains puzzling to many, but maybe it should not be so. Perhaps we should take it simply on face value as a piece of entertainment, bordering on the crude at times, sophisticated at others.

It is also conceivable that some listeners will come to the conclusion that few other of his compositions reveal the range of Bach as a composer more than this one!

©John Mincham

On true and false friendship

Gerrit van Honthorst, "The Concert" (1630)

1. You have sent a letter to me through the hand of a “friend” of yours, as you call him. And in your very next sentence you warn me not to discuss with him all the matters that concern you, saying that even you yourself are not accustomed to do this; in other words, you have in the same letter affirmed and denied that he is your friend. 2. Now if you used this word of ours in the popular sense, and called him “friend” in the same way in which we speak of all candidates for election as “honourable gentlemen,” and as we greet all men whom we meet casually, if their names slip us for the moment, with the salutation “my dear sir,”—so be it. But if you consider any man a friend whom you do not trust as you trust yourself, you are mightily mistaken and you do not sufficiently understand what true friendship means. Indeed, I would have you discuss everything with a friend; but first of all discuss the man himself. When friendship is settled, you must trust; before friendship is formed, you must pass judgment. Those persons indeed put last first and confound their duties, who, violating the rules of Theophrastus, judge a man after they have made him their friend, instead of making him their friend after they have judged him. Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself. 3. As to yourself, although you should live in such a way that you trust your own self with nothing which you could not entrust even to your enemy, yet, since certain matters occur which convention keeps secret, you should share with a friend at least all your worries and reflections. Regard him as loyal, and you will make him loyal. Some, for example, fearing to be deceived, have taught men to deceive; by their suspicions they have given their friend the right to do wrong. Why need I keep back any words in the presence of my friend? Why should I not regard myself as alone when in his company?
4. There is a class of men who communicate, to anyone whom they meet, matters which should be revealed to friends alone, and unload upon the chance listener whatever irks them. Others, again, fear to confide in their closest intimates; and if it were possible, they would not trust even themselves, burying their secrets deep in their hearts. But we should do neither. It is equally faulty to trust everyone and to trust no one. Yet the former fault is, I should say, the more ingenuous, the latter the more safe. 5. In like manner you should rebuke these two kinds of men,—both those who always lack repose, and those who are always in repose. For love of bustle is not industry,—it is only the restlessness of a hunted mind. And true repose does not consist in condemning all motion as merely vexation; that kind of repose is slackness and inertia. 6. Therefore, you should note the following saying, taken from my reading in Pomponius: “Some men shrink into dark corners, to such a degree that they see darkly by day.” No, men should combine these tendencies, and he who reposes should act and he who acts should take repose. Discuss the problem with Nature; she will tell you that she has created both day and night. Farewell.


Seneca Lucilio suo salutem.
[1] Epistulas ad me perferendas tradidisti, ut scribis, amico tuo; deinde admones me ne omnia cum eo ad te pertinentia communicem, quia non soleas ne ipse quidem id facere: ita eadem epistula illum et dixisti amicum et negasti. Itaque si proprio illo verbo quasi publico usus es et sic illum amicum vocasti quomodo omnes candidatos ‘bonos viros’ dicimus, quomodo obvios, si nomen non succurrit, ‘dominos’ salutamus, hac abierit. [2] Sed si aliquem amicum existimas cui non tantundem credis quantum tibi, vehementer erras et non satis nosti vim verae amicitiae. Tu vero omnia cum amico delibera, sed de ipso prius: post amicitiam credendum est, ante amicitiam iudicandum. Isti vero praepostero officia permiscent qui, contra praecepta Theophrasti, cum amaverunt iudicant, et non amant cum iudicaverunt. Diu cogita an tibi in amicitiam aliquis recipiendus sit. Cum placuerit fieri, toto illum pectore admitte; tam audaciter cum illo loquere quam tecum. [3] Tu quidem ita vive ut nihil tibi committas nisi quod committere etiam inimico tuo possis; sed quia interveniunt quaedam quae consuetudo fecit arcana, cum amico omnes curas, omnes cogitationes tuas misce. Fidelem si putaveris, facies; nam quidam fallere docuerunt dum timent falli, et illi ius peccandi suspicando fecerunt. Quid est quare ego ulla verba coram amico meo retraham? quid est quare me coram illo non putem solum?
[4] Quidam quae tantum amicis committenda sunt obviis narrant, et in quaslibet aures quidquid illos urit exonerant; quidam rursus etiam carissimorum conscientiam reformidant et, si possent, ne sibi quidem credituri interius premunt omne secretum. Neutrum faciendum est; utrumque enim vitium est, et omnibus credere et nulli, sed alterum honestius dixerim vitium, alterum tutius. [5] Sic utrosque reprehendas, et eos qui semper inquieti sunt, et eos qui semper quiescunt. Nam illa tumultu gaudens non est industria sed exagitatae mentis concursatio, et haec non est quies quae motum omnem molestiam iudicat, sed dissolutio et languor. [6] Itaque hoc quod apud Pomponium legi animo mandabitur: ‘quidam adeo in latebras refugerunt ut putent in turbido esse quidquid in luce est’. Inter se ista miscenda sunt: et quiescenti agendum et agenti quiescendum est. Cum rerum natura delibera: illa dicet tibi et diem fecisse se et noctem. Vale.

—Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (III)

On combining instruction with pleasure

Poets wish to benefit or to please, or to speak
What is both enjoyable and helpful to living.
When you give instruction, be brief, what’s quickly
Said the spirit grasps easily, faithfully retains:
Everything superfluous flows out of a full mind.
Fictions meant to amuse should be close to reality,
So your play shouldn’t ask for belief in whatever
It chooses: no living child from the Lamia’s(1) full belly!
The ranks of our elders drive out what lacks virtue,
The Ramnes(2), the young knights, reject dry poetry:
Who can blend usefulness and sweetness wins every
Vote, at once delighting and teaching the reader.
That’s the book that earns the Sosii(3) money, crosses
The seas, and wins its author fame throughout the ages.


Aut prodesse uolunt aut delectare poetae
aut simul et iucunda et idonea dicere uitae.
Quicquid praecipies, esto breuis, ut cito dicta
percipiant animi dociles teneantque fideles.
Omne superuacuum pleno de pectore manat.
Ficta uoluptatis causa sint proxima ueris,
ne quodcumque uolet poscat sibi fabula credi,
neu pransae Lamiae uiuum puerum extrahat aluo.
Centuriae seniorum agitant expertia frugis,
celsi praetereunt austera poemata Ramnes.
Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci,
lectorem delectando pariterque monendo;
hic meret aera liber Sosiis, hic et mare transit
et longum noto scriptori prorogat aeuum.

—Horace, Ars Poetica (333-345)

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, "Favourite Poet" (1888)


(1) A Greek witch that preyed on children, a vampire.
(2) One of the three centuries of knights created by Romulus. The others were the Tities and Luceres.
(3) Two brothers who ran a publishing firm.

Haec tibi erunt artes…

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