There can be little doubt that this is the best known and admired of Bach’s earliest cantatas. Dürr (pp 758-765) devotes an unprecedented six pages to its description and analysis, a clear indication of the significance he attaches to it. His summation is direct and insightful: ‘it could be argued that in later years Bach’s art became a great deal more mature, but it hardly grew more profound’ (p 759). It is strongly recommended that students read his notes on this work.
It is one of those art works that stands at the crossroads of time, seeming to look both forward and backwards. In the latter instance it is highly sectional, with little in the way of the extended, developed movements of the later years, it is lightly orchestrated, begins with a short introductory sinfonia and it draws principally upon chorales and biblical references with the minimum of added text. On the other hand it is created from structural elements which operate across and unite movements, the writing is highly idiomatic and the musical architecture derives principally from the essence of the text.
It is a work of such depth and intensity that one can scarcely avoid speculating that the deceased for whose interment it was composed, had some personal connection with the twenty-two year old composer. Or perhaps it simply struck a chord that reminded him of the death of his own parents, scarcely more than a dozen years previously. But whatever the personal impact the occasion might have had on him, there is no disputing the depth and profundity which the emerging composer managed to elicit from the minimal lines of conventional text.
The segmented nature of this work makes it seem more complex than it really is. It falls into four basic movements thus: sinfonia, chorus (with solos), aria (becoming a duet) and closing chorale. The longest and most complex of the two hybrid movements is the second, an analysis of which appears below.
From his earliest essays into the cantata genre Bach had been attracted to the notion of making the instrumental introduction an organic part of the total composition: see, for example, Cs 4 and 150. His choice of instruments for this work, two viola da gamba (perhaps most widely known for their later appearance inBrandenburg 6), two recorders and continuo produce a sound that is today archaic and unworldly. Whether mourners in the first decade of the eighteenth century would have felt the same way cannot be known. But the soundscape is intimate, ethereal and totally suited to the processes of mourning and personal reflection upon the soul and character of the departed.
It is only twenty bars long but that is sufficient to establish the mood and ambience. The recorders play mostly in unison but when they do not, their differences are subtle but significant. For example, in bars 4, 5 and 6 the second instrument falls silent in the latter part of each bar, thereafter to reunite itself with its companion. The effect is a telling one of division and togetherness. In bar 7-8 the oscillation about two notes (f and e) has the effect of a slow, macabre trill. Even at this early stage, Bach’s sensitivity to the subtleties of instrumentation was well developed; the details may seem trivial but they are artistically significant.
Chorus with arioso interventions.
The second movement is a compendium of short segments, tenor and bass solos enclosed by two choral sections. The text stresses God’s and nature’s law that we should all die, the universality of this concept reinforced by its statement by the choir rather than through an individual aria. The tenor represents the voice of Man asking for divine guidance and the bass that of the Lord who commands us.
Thus, although a superficial analysis of this movement might deem it to be backward-looking, particularly with regard to its various short segments, closer scrutiny reveals an inspired elucidation of the substance of the text by means of a fully mature architectural grasp of the musical material. The general structure is as follows:
A Chorus (andante/allegro/adagio): God’s time is the best time: through His will we live and have our being: in Him we die at the right time, just as He wills.
B Tenor arioso (lento): Lord, Teach us that we must die so as to become wise.
C Bass arioso (vivace): Set your house in order since you will cease living and die.
D Chorus (andante): The ancient law is, Man you must die: so come Lord Jesus.
The first six bars act as an introduction to the main substance of the movement but they also convey the opening words of text with admirable clarity; they do, indeed, form the basis of the thinking underpinning the cantata as a whole—God’s time is the best of times. The mode remains that of the sinfonia (major) and the mood is similar retaining, for a few additional moments, the established sense of reflective bereavement.
The allegro which follows moves into triple time, a possible musical allusion to the Trinity, and the text develops the initial notion—we live, breathe and have our entire being within Him so long as He wills it. The writing is both direct and communal, a simple five-note fugue subject passed from S, to A, T and B.
Virtually every bar is characterized by flowing quavers in the vocal or instrumental parts or, indeed, both.
The return to the rhythm of four beats to the bar within a slower tempo (from bar 41) again requires only seven bars, during which the chromatic harmony encapsulates both the dignity and sadness of death and the majesty of God’s will—in Him we shall die at the right time as He decrees. This short section ends on an imperfect cadence, clearly indicating that the narrative is not yet complete.
In the ensuing arioso, the tenor asks the Lord to teach us to appreciate two things: firstly we must die and secondly, that through this process we acquire wisdom. The instrumental figuration echoes that of the opening sinfonia but is now dominated by minor modes and the insistent repetition of the opening two bars; Man’s need for succor and advice is both urgent and resolute.
It is interesting that both of the solo sections of this movement are in the turbulent key of Dm, one which Bach was later to choose, not only for some of his best known concerti but also for several of the most striking choruses from his later cantatas e.g. Cs 46 and 109 from the first Leipzig cycle and 101 and 68 from the second. Despite this, the difference in character between the tenor and bass solos remains marked.
God’s response (from bar 71) is dynamic and declamatory, positive if not openly joyous in tone. He is issuing an instruction, of course—set your house in order—but it is one that will ultimately provide a happy ending i.e. salvation for all who have done as He commands. The two recorders provide, in unison, a sparkling obbligato theme above the Lord’s pronouncements, imparting energy and optimism as well as lifting the mood and character of the cantata as a whole.
Contemplation of death has now been replaced with hope and buoyancy which, of course, both lie at the heart of a conviction in salvation. In fact, the voice is tacet for fully half of this section which ends with a nineteen-bar dance. It may, at first sight, seem odd that Bach sets the chilling thought—thou wilt die—in such a way, but familiarity with the wider canon demonstrates the immense positivity of his religious stance. Death and salvation for the chosen is a matter to be celebrated, and what better means than through music and dance.
The final section of this complex movement (from bar 131) is the longest and most scrupulously worked out. The text—this is the ancient law that Man will die—is sung fugally by the lower three voices above the continuo.
The imprecation—come Lord Jesus—is delivered by the soprano. These two thoughts are further separatedmusically in that the choir is set above the continuo only whilst the soprano is supported additionally by the four string and woodwind instruments. Everything is underpinned by a solid marching bass line, perhaps to suggest the inevitable and inexorable march to the grave.
All the musical elements (recorders, gambas, choir soloist and continuo) come together finally in the last few bars, a symbol of the totality of faith conjoining the elements of law, death, God’s will, Christ and salvation. The ending is as stunning as it is original, all voices and instruments falling away to expose the soprano’s final heartfelt plea to Jesus.
Readers who seek a more detailed analysis of this section should consult Dürr pp 761-3.
The third movement is again a hybrid, an alto aria transforming itself into a duet. The former is only supported by the continuo which provides a line of great expressivity. Its opening statement, taking us to the alto entry in the third bar, ascends over a full two octaves and its inexorable sense of direction and the assured cadence which ends each of its statements combine to produce a melodic line of unequivocal confidence—I commit my soul to Thy hand for You have redeemed me Oh great, devoted God.
The line has the appearance of a ground bass, initially repeating itself in the keys of C and Gm but Bach seldom allows himself to be restricted by the constraints of this repetitive principle. As in many later continuo arias which begin similarly, he quickly detaches sections of the melody and develops them independently, here as early as bar 10 where the initial seven-note rising scale is sequenced.
This movement is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly it demonstrates the range of melodic interest and musical expression which may be wrung from two simple lines. Secondly, it reveals that very early on Bach was prepared to experiment with ways of inserting chorale melodies into the textures of other movements, not just content to use them as free-standing hymn tunes. Thirdly the hybrid structure, combining as it does, aria, duet, chorale and incipient ground bass, indicates his eclectic approach to musical forms and their various combinations. Fourthly the shape of the initial continuo motive seems to have been derived from notions embedded within the text, a process that, in his continuing maturity as an artist, Bach was to develop in ways beyond those of any other contemporary composer. The reaching upwards towards the hand of God (bar 1) and the suggestion of His fingers closing protectively around the vulnerable spirit (bar 2) are clearly implied within the carefully moulded musical shapes.
The bass voice (God) enters in the twenty-fifth bar with a new and reassuring melody—today you shall join Me in Paradise.
Against the seamless flow of this line the alto re-enters (bar 39) with the chorale melody Mit Fried und Freud—-with peace and joy (I go there). The chorale verse is sung once in its entirety, the text reaffirming God’s will, our acquiescence and the notion of death as being no more than a welcomed sleep.
The recorders are silent throughout this movement, another sign of Bach’s restraint; even with such limited resources he does not feel constrained to use everything all of the time. In fact, the flowing gamba scales convey a sense of the archaic nature of the ancient law and custom, now allied to the continuous streams of God’s blessings. Once again, the inevitability of the continuo quavers draws us to the inescapable moment of death, but the movement ends not with God’s reassurances but with our acceptance of them.
The chorale melody was also used by Bach to conclude cantata 83 (vol 1, chapter 40) for the Purification, another work displaying unusual instrumental scoring.
The cantata concludes with a chorale, but not in the plain four-part setting we might have expected. The recorders return, echoing the earlier movements and evoking a sense of structural completeness; indeed even the figurations which dominate their writing remind us of the opening sinfonia.
The first five phrases of the chorale melody are set in four-part harmony, very much as we would expect to find closing a Bach cantata, although not without a few embellishments. The modest instrumental group provides a six-bar introduction and separates the phrases which give honour and praise to each of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit; and that might well have been that. But Bach takes the final phrase—through Jesus Christ, amen—and extends it semi-fugally to create what some might call a coda. But such terminology is misleading. This section comprises over thirty of the movement’s fifty-one bars; the amen to Christ has become the major focus of the piece!
Bach did something similar at the end of the second movement of C 4 (vol 2, chapter 42) where the final chorale phrase was extended to create the rolling hallelujahs. Clearly he may well have had C 106 in mind when he composed it, for the principle is the same. But in C 106 when the instruments enter they too have their turn at declaiming and emphasising the chorale phrase, firstly in crotchets (from bar 35) and later in minims (from bar 43).
The movement ends in a wash of semi-quavers and flowing counterpoint, the musical embodiment of honour and praise of the Lord.
It is a remarkable work, firstly for its expressive intensity and secondly for its many original characteristics. But perhaps its most extraordinary feature is the fact that it was created by a largely self taught young composer who, perhaps, even himself had only a glimmering of the marvels he was yet to create.