With Cs 213 and 214 we come to the two secular cantatas that Bach most comprehensively plundered for the Christmas Oratorio which was first performed over the seasonal period of 1734/5. Almost half of the thirteen movements of the former were paraphrased, giving some indication of Bach’s own opinion of this work and its potential for one of his greatest religious masterpieces.
This essay will not deal comprehensively with those arias and choruses which are discussed in C 248. It will, however, place them in their proper context within C 213 and it will pay additional attention to the remaining movements.
The first performance of this work is accurately dated as September 5th 1733, given in Zimmermann’s coffee house to celebrate the birthday of Crown Prince Friedrich of Saxony (Dürr p 824). Hercules, by legend, was stronger and more skillful than most men and, with implications of immortality, he was an appropriate mythical character to compare with the young Prince. The focus of the slight plot is upon the youthful Hercules seeking the right and proper path through life and choosing between the temptations of two allegorical figures; Lust or wanton pleasure (soprano) and Virtue (tenor).
The text of the opening chorus is delivered by the Gods—let us watch and care for our divine son—our throne shall make a wonder of him. There is little fundamental difference between this and the later religious verse which gives thanks for the arrival of the Son of God and notes His potential as the Saviour of Mankind.
As noted in the essay on C 248 (part 4) this is a gentler chorus than many others in the Oratorio. Its pairs of horns and oboes (no trumpets or drums) befit its lullaby-like character. Homage is paid, in this cantata, to a child not a gown adult and the chorus reflects the caring, soothing responses of the benign and compassionate. The choral writing is relatively simple, with sustained notes and chords emphasizing the notion of tending or caring for—sorgen.
In the first recitative Hercules asks two questions, both of which are musically represented—where is the right path to be found that permits my nature, loving of virtue and glory, to attain its ambition? (bar 5) and—since reason and intelligence demand that I pursue such qualities, can they not now counsel me? (Bar 9). The writing is direct and without embellishment or word painting; simply a declaration of Hercules’ desires at this moment.
Furthermore, the lyricist is setting up the classic plot device whereby Hercules’ conscience may be wrenched in different directions, forcing him to make his own decisions.
This is the cue for Lust to enter, and at her most beguiling—sleep and rest, taste the wanton pleasures and seek no boundaries to your actions. It is slightly astonishing that Bach could use the same music for the Oratorio (no 19) in which context it is the Baby Jesus who is lulled to sleep before He begins the task for which He came to earth. Both are lullabies, but the one points to dreams of lasciviousness, the other to reveries of salvation. The beauty of this long, serene movement is centered, in the Oratorio, on the acceptance of true moral ‘goodness’.
Perhaps Bach saw the luring of the young towards the pleasures and temptations of sinful acts much like the sensuous appeal of Christ and the joy of salvation. Both paths may be depicted in the same manner and the individual must make, hopefully, the correct choice. The allure of both pathways can be depicted, it seems, by the same music.
Bach adds flute and oboe parts to the Oratorio version although their roles are principally to double the vocal line and existing string parts, respectively. The substitution of the alto for the soprano voice may have been to suggest an added dimension of spirituality.
This recitative encapsulates the age-old good angel/bad angel, good cop/bad cop dichotomy with which everyone is surely familiar. Lust beckons Hercules towards the path of easy virtue whilst Virtue points out that integrity and diligence better exalt the noble mind. Lust suggests that no one would choose sweat over ease and frivolity and Virtue responds, rather primly—that is not the road to salvation. The stark presentation of the two options allows for Hercules to spend the following aria vacillating between them.
For this Bach chooses the ‘echo’ aria, a popular form in Italian opera dating back to Monteverdi’s Orpheo of 1607. It is a simple, dramatic device which allows certain words to be endearingly emphasized. Hercules receives the response ‘no’ after asking whether he should allow himself to be led astray and ‘yes’ to whether application in life might better prepare his way forward; the responses here are almost certainly intended to represent his conscience.
The original setting is for alto with an oboe d’amore obbligato but in the Oratorio, a soprano replaces the alto in the higher key of C and a customary oboe replaces its darker cousin. The skill with which Bach has incorporated the notion of echoed motives into the main melodic material is discussed in chapter 48.
Virtue, the tenor, now has a paired recitative and aria. The former is direct and unembellished, a plain delivery of the message addressed directly to Hercules—you, in whom we have placed our hopes, take my hand and follow my counsel—it glories in the very deeds of your ancestors whilst even now I embrace you.
And if there is little that is musically striking in this secco recitative, it may be that Bach simply did not wish to detract from the ebullient aria which follows. Virtue (tenor) declares that Hercules shall soar on his wings like an eagle to the stars, thus achieving true perfection.
Bach tends to make less use of fugal textures in the secular than in the religious cantatas. There may be a number of reasons for this, the first being the need for clarity of words (it will be remembered that in the church cantatas the texts were printed for the congregations in booklets).
Equally likely is the association of seriousness and gravity with the ‘learned writing’ of the fugue which may not have been deemed as appropriate in works that, although composed for people and functions of significance, may have been viewed more in a context of lighthearted fun and enjoyment. But here Bach provides us with a vigorous and thoroughly captivating fugal exposition within the structure of a da capo aria. Oboe, violin, voice and continuo play equal parts in the development of the soaring three-bar theme.
For the Oratorio Bach retained the tenor, replaced the oboe with another violin and transposed the movement down to Dm so as to be more in keeping with the new tonal plan (no 41). The music is, perhaps, marginally less suited to the words, although the themes of aspiring strength and courage remain similar.
The following secco recitative marks the third consecutive movement from Virtue. She issues a direct warning—Lust entices, but all are aware of her dangers—they afflict empires and heroes alike. She ends with a rhetorical question that Bach marks clearly by means of an imperfect cadence—who does not know what she is: and that she is spurned by the Gods?
Hercules has heard enough and madkeshis decision—I shall not listen to you, Lust—I have crushed the serpents that might have entrapped me. This is asserted in a vigorous muscular da capo aria for alto, continuo and violin obbligato. The middle section is laden with imagery, the writhing of serpents clearly audible in all parts and even implied in the sequences of the ritornello theme. The assertive vocal line is suggestive of their being crushed and the brief two bars of fragmented rhythm (bars 110-112) depict the actions of their being torn apart.
It seems impossible to think of such a specific setting being used for another text, but Bach has no problems with this. Adding only an oboe d’amore to double the violin, he makes use of the aria in the first cantata of the Oratorio (no 4) with the words—prepare yourself Zion—your cheeks become more radiant as you lovingly hasten to your Bridegroom. Clearly the vigour of the action of crushing the snakes has been transformed into an ardent religious fervour for Christ. The scenario that engenders deep emotion may be different; the urgency and immediacy of the passion is not. The perfect union of the violin and vocal lines remains a metaphor for the soul’s embracing of Christ.
It is important to note, however, that in this respect Bach makes some minor changes to the vocal line. The fragmented bars mentioned above are smoothed out and the final part of the section is rewritten to include a joyous melisma on prangen—shine or be resplendent (in anticipation of the coming of the Saviour).
Such attention to detail is a mark of the composer, an example for students to emulate and a lesson to us all!
The following recitative seals the bond between Hercules and virtue as he adopts her as his guide; metaphorically she ‘weds’ herself to him and they end together with a vow of unity.
The duet is the last movement to be reused in the Oratorio (no 29). Here it is for alto and tenor (Hercules and Virtue) there, transposed up a third, it is for soprano and bass, with two oboes d’amore replacing the original viola obbligati. In the secular work the characters commit to each other almost as if as man and wife, in the Oratorio they commit to Christ.
It is a long movement with all the quiet tranquility of a love song but, perhaps, one that commits minds and emotions rather than bodies. It is sensual, poignant and deeply touching; but it not the physical commitment of young lovers. In both cases it is a spiritual devotion which stirs the emotions and engages the mind. The initial ritornello melody quickly unites the lovers as one as viola 2 joins viola 1 in the third bar.
The penultimate movement introduces a new character, Mercury, winged messenger of the Gods. His is the only recitative to be accompanied by the upper strings, the probable intention being to create an effect of a halo or haze of God-like mysticism. Mercury takes to the other Gods the picture of Saxony’s young Prince, a man already attracting attention as a personage of virtue—the entire land happily watches the young eagle’s flight and, as he blossoms, so do the people rejoice.
Bach had, it seems, considered using this closing chorus in the Oratorio but changed his mind (Dürr p 826). It is in the form of a rather grandiose gavotte and is one of the few surviving parts of a lost earlier work C 184a. In fact, it is almost an aria for Mercury, accompanied by the muses who interject, on several occasions, with the cry—delight of people and nations, prosper, Oh gracious Frederick. Mercury reminds him that the light of day that already illuminates his strengths awaits him.
The dance-like character of the gavotte is reflected in the symmetrical structure of the music in a manner which makes one wonder how Bach may have conceived of it as a part of the Oratorio.
It works thus:
B1 (first bass solo)
A (orchestra and chorus)
B2 (second bass solo)
The A section is equally balanced thus:
4 bars orchestra, 4 bars orchestra+chorus, 8 bars orchestra, 8 bars orchestra+chorus.
A dance rustic suited to the country folk, yet sufficiently sophisticated for the Gods, is surely the appropriate end to this cantata of homage. It doubtless also cheered Zimmermann and his clients at the coffee house.
For students it provides a fascinating opportunity of studying Bach’s different applications of some of his best music.