16.02.14: Septuagesima Sunday.
The closing chorale of this work had been used by Bach just one month previously to end C 65. The harmonisation is altered only in detail but the pitch has been raised from Am to Bm, offering evidence of Bach’s care in the planning of the tonal schemes of his cantatas. It is certainly the case that at this stage of his career he was not as scrupulous about using the same key for the opening and closing movements as he later became, particularly in the chorale cantatas, but this is not to say that key planning was entirely disregarded.
In C 65 the opening chorus and last aria are in the key of C. Both chorales are in the relative key of Am. The important central aria is in Em, another related key. Thus, omitting the recitatives, the tonal plan becomes C, Am, Em, C, Am. For C 144, it is Bm, Em, Bm, Bm and even the recitative ends in Bm. Clearly, this is the predominant tonality and to have had the last movement end in the lower and unrelated key of Am would obviously have been unsatisfactory.
In transposing it Bach made certain changes, some of which may have been no more than second thoughts. But the different text was, as always, at the forefront of his mind as can be seen in the tenor line of the final phrase. Bach makes a specific point of the word verlassen—in the context of God never abandoning us—with a melisma of the type which is unusual in chorale settings. It seems that while the key plan of the new cantata required the transposition in the first place, nevertheless Bach rarely took anything simply ‘off the peg’. Everything that was reused was carefully scrutinised to ensure that it was fit for its adapted purpose.
The chorale inserted as the third movement had been called upon earlier in the cycle to end C 69a with an unaccountably altered fifth note. It was also put to use as a wedding chorale. As the only major-mode movement in C 144, it takes on a special significance.
Returning to the practice of considering the movements in order, let us now focus upon the opening chorus. At this stage, two-thirds of the way through the cycle, it is still impossible to predict whether Bach will incorporate a chorus into a cantata or not; indeed, one cannot even forecast the form that the opening movement might take. It is frequently an aria, occasionally a recitative, and from time to time a more complex hybrid structure, often of striking originality. Similarly, one cannot predict whether Bach will make use of one or more chorales. A brief survey of the previous ten cantatas reveals the following:
Cs 40, 64,190 and 65 commence with choruses.
Cs 154, 81 and 83 commence with arias.
C 153 commences with a plain chorale, C 155 with a recitative and 73 with a hybrid combination of chorus, recitative and chorale.
Cs 40, 64 and 153 include three plain chorales, Cs 65 and 154 two and the rest one. All ten cantatas end with a four-part chorale, perhaps the only thing that structurally unites them.
Beginning with a chorus and incorporating two chorales, C 144 is the only cantata in this group with this particular structure apart from C 65, although that work, with an additional recitative and aria, was obviously longer. It seems indisputable that Bach either had taken a view that the cantata structure was a fluid and flexible medium capable of adaption in any ways that made it suitable for given texts or that he was still experimenting and searching for an ideal format. His eventual adoption of the chorale/fantasia configuration in the second cycle, although latterly largely discarded, would imply the latter.
The text for this opening chorus is one of the shortest—take what is yours and depart. Whilst the biblical reference is not difficult to identify, it refers to the sense of grievance of the workers in the vineyard who felt it to be unfair that they were paid no more than those who had come later and done less work. They are firmly instructed by the vineyard owner to ‘take what is given and go away’ (Matthew 20.14). Perhaps this is a reference to Christ’s comment to the effect that those who were last shall be first and vice versa. But the central theme of the cantata is one of being satisfied with your lot in life. As such, it is a somewhat morbid premise. Whilst it places faith in God’s judgements, it decrees that we should accept what we have and what we are; we should not be seeking anything better.
Whatever his personal view of this text may have been, Bach cannot be criticised for any lack of vigour in his setting. He temporarily abandons the ritornello/concerto structures which had been the mainstay of the choruses over the Christmas and New Year period and returns to the motet, two oboes and strings doubling the upper voices with the continuo largely in step with the basses.
The fugue subject is bold and decisive, reflecting the vineyard owner’s command. The countersubject, first heard in the tenors (bars 4-6) is busier and perhaps suggests the congregating, or departing, workers.
The entire text is completed by the fifth bar and is repeated constantly thereafter. The four voices enter initially in the order T, B, S and A and, after one additional (redundant) entry in the bass line (from bar 17), tend to be presented in pairs i.e. B then S (from bar 24), A then T (from 33), B then S (from 54). The episodes are characterised by a series of suspensions which may, or may not have symbolic meaning; are they suggestive of the workers still congregating around the vineyard, hoping for more and unwilling to depart? And although the premise of this work is one of passive resistance, it cannot be denied that Bach has produced a tightly knit, powerful and highly economic chorus.
Mention has already been made of the predominance of minor keys in this cantata, the overall effect of which is to produce a sombre and serious character. The combination of the key of Em with some low and dark writing for strings and voice creates an atmosphere which encapsulates the feeling of the words perfectly—murmur not when things do not go your way—be content with what God has disposed as He knows what is best for you. Furthermore, there is a sense of disgruntled mutterings in the movements of the lower strings within the opening bars despite the minuet rhythm.
Bach creates a further, and one must say rather abstruse, message through the ritornello theme by freely inverting the first four bars of melody in bars 9-12. The implication, perhaps, is that just as a melody may be upturned and transformed, so may petulant grumblings be converted into attitudes of acceptance and greater positivity. The form of the aria is da capo, the first and third sections dealing with the rejection of discontent and the more lightly accompanied middle section with the satisfaction derived from the acceptance of our destiny through God’s will.
If the main themes of this work have not been clear to everyone to date, the bright, major mode chorale makes them more explicit—What God does is well done—He sustains and comforts me and I am content to stand by Him. The major mode is significant in that it underlines both the confidence in and the pleasure taken from a declaration of simple faith.
The short secco tenor recitative enlarges upon these two points—where satisfaction with His will reigns, there is contentment—where there is discontent there will be grief and sadness and as a consequence, we may forget that what He does is done well! The melodic line reflects this progression of ideas with great clarity moving effortlessly from expressions of confidence, to images of sorrow and regret, concluding with a final affirmation of His rightness in all things.
The key word of the soprano aria is Genügsamkeit—contentment—and we hear it sixteen times within this relatively short movement. Indeed, its repetition in the bars before the final ritornello theme becomes almost obsessive. The opening motive of that theme (bar 1) is constructed so as to carry this word when the singer enters and the entire structure is predicated around the need for its continual emphasis.
It is a simple, ritornello movement and the text is set fully twice. Contentment is, we are told, life’s jewel bringing great pleasure amongst our sorrows; it simply confirms God’s ordinance. Bach might easily have chosen to set it as a da capo aria with a middle section exploring this latter thought. But his choice to set the text as he did presumably sprang from a desire to emphasise the notions of satisfaction and gratification highlighted against a backcloth of clarity and simplicity.
Bach’s notion of contentment in this context is a subdued one. The oboe d’amore in the minor mode is restrained and soothing. This picture of gratification is quietly personal and individual as, indeed, is the message of the entire cantata. Hence, it is suggested, the concentration upon the minor modes.
The spell is not to be broken. The closing chorale’s combination of two and three-bar phrases gives it a particularly contemplative feel and that is how it is most effectively performed. It is a prayer, again conveying a sense of privacy as one communes—may God’s will be done always, for He helps those in need and punishes justly and moderately—whoever trusts in Him shall not be abandoned.
In terms of the libretto this may well be one of the less dynamic of the texts Bach was given to set but his natural sense of energy and capacity to represent a dynamic life force still prevails. It is also clear that he gave no less attention to detail than elsewhere, where the poetry may have been more inspiring. As a consequence, the logic and emotional intensity of this work emanate mainly from its musical rather than its textual or narrative qualities.