Cantata for unknown occasion (Penitential service?).
The indirect transmission of this cantata has led to much speculation. Is it actually by Bach? When was it composed? Might it be his earliest surviving cantata? Why are there no chorales? Is the lack of violas in the string ensemble significant?
Internal evidence should dispel any doubts as to the authorship. Firstly, the highly expressive melodic writing could surely have only been created by Bach; if not, then who else displayed such intensity in the early years of the eighteenth century? Secondly, the work displays a number of features commonly to be found in the early cantatas. If we pause to examine the opening sinfonia we may discover evidence which addresses both these points.
It is a trio for two violins and continuo and it closely resembles that of C 4, an early Easter cantata reused by Bach on several occasions (see vol 2, chapter 42). Both introduce important melodic material which will be developed at later stages. In C4 it is the embryonic motives that form the opening phrase of the chorale that will dominate all succeeding movements, in C 150 it is the falling chromatic scale and the two-part violin texture (bars 5-7) which together form the basis of the first chorus.
Both of the sinfonias avoid regular symmetrical phrase lengths, an enduring feature of Bach’s music. Both create the impression of a seamless flow of unstoppable melody evolving from the apparently most insignificant of musical motives. Indeed, even the opening kernel ideas are similar, commencing with a tonic chord played only by the continuo and followed by two notes on the violins, falling (g to f#) in C 4 and rising (f# to g) in C 150.
The short prelude with which C 150 commences is dominated by the descending chromatic scale, a figure used in the second movement of C 12 (chapter 52) another early work resurrected in the first cycle. That cantata also begins with a sinfonia, but one which is extended as a lavishly embellished, baroque oboe melody.
The second movement of C 150 is a chorus, somewhat waywardly constructed despite its relative brevity (53 bars). The falling scale dominates the opening bars, introduced in turn from the lowest to the highest voices.
Both themes (the two-part string texture and chromatic scale) were initially introduced together in the complete three-part texture of the sinfonia (bars 4-6). But now Bach separates them, the latter forming the basis of the vocal blocks and the former, two brief instrumental episodes. The text states simply—I long for You Oh Lord—and the section (but not the movement) ends on an original and unexpected cadence—my God! (bar 20).
The remainder of the chorus is less bound structurally to musical formal conventions than to the substance of the text, a familiar characteristic of Bach’s early works. It increases the tempo to allegro (from bar 21) with a highly effective and urgent articulation of the phrase—I place my hopes in You. The plea to be undefeated through shame brings about a brief moment of the slower tempo (bars 29-33) but the final 20 bars see a return to the allegro—may my enemies not triumph over me! The fugal subject is a variant of the original chromatic scale which is also an important element of the continuo line. The strings, now with busy semi-quavers, seem to represent the raging of the enemies without, an image which Bach was to also portray, with great vigour, in some of the later chorale/fantasias.
It is easy to criticise this movement for being episodic and lacking that sense of overall unity which the imposition of a single tempo imposed upon many of Bach’s later, extended choruses. But that is to miss the point. The material is concise and economical and developed with great skill. The various sections move easily and effortlessly from one to another and, above all, the fidelity to the meaning and feeling of the text is consummate. It might feel different from much of Bach’s later composition; but it is still impressive art!
The soprano aria is, at just under two dozen bars, extremely concise. Nevertheless, it is a perfect ritornello movement in miniature with violins 1 and 2 combining to share, with the continuo, the obbligato melody.
The text presents the composer with a challenge in that it states—whilst I remain content—tribulation and storms rage, death and Hell remain—but whatever mishap may strike Your faithful servant, justice remains. The mode is minor, but the rhythms are sprightly and the overall mood is both serious and positive. There are numerous moments of word painting e.g. the divided violins accentuating the images of Cross and storm (bar 7), the falling diminished interval for death and hell (bars 10-11) and the melisma (bar 20) on ewig—everlasting [justice]. Bach’s ability to compose such perfectly judged miniature movements was later brought to perfection in such works as the Magnificat.
The second chorus is even more episodic than the first; four sections marked by changes of texture and tempo in just under 30 bars. But again, the text is the determinant of the musical shaping. The opening section is grave and serious, the four vocal lines moving as one in a portentous sarabande requesting, perhaps even demanding, to be led to the Divine Truth. Thence follow four bars of allegro semi-quaver activity, punctuated by a repeated three-note figure on the upper strings, the text declaring—and teach me!
The burst of energy associated with the desire to be taught is rather interesting. Bach was an adept, imaginative and much sought-out teacher for much of his life and his curious and questing mind clearly led to his also being a great teacher of himself. Perhaps, even unconsciously, he reveals in this short passage a glimpse into his enthusiasm and fervour for seeking out and passing on new and exciting ideas.
The second andante section (from bar 13) addresses God, He who provides us with salvation, and the movement concludes with 11 bars of frenetic energy—on Thee do I daily wait.
Thus the two sections addressed to God are solemn and dignified. Those which relate to our own condition and responses are vitally energetic and passionately enthusiastic. This surely reveals something of Bach the man as well as Bach the composer.
The trio (A, T, B) is the first of only two movements in major modes, clearly part of Bach’s plan to achieve tonal variety over the course of the cantata. He seldom wrote trios, although there are three splendid examples in the second cycle (see Cs 38, 116 and 122), each with a wholly distinctive character. That for C 150 is the earliest of Bach’s extant trios known to exist. It is more embryonic, the simple, sustained vocal lines giving pride of place to an energetic semi-quaver continuo line reinforced by some punctuating bassoon notes. The text is a direct metaphor—cedars suffer and are uprooted before the storm—but trust in God and disregard what rages against you—His word teaches otherwise. The moto perpetuo continuo line clearly represents the howling of tempests and the sustained, unruffled vocal lines the steadfastness of the stalwart Christian. Only once does the vocal trio show some sign of agitation, at the mention of that which ‘howls against us’ (bars 29-30). But such things are ultimately to be disregarded and the calmness returns almost immediately.
There is a charming touch at the end when the bassoon, for the first and only time, hijacks the cello’s semi-quavers, perhaps a symbol of the storms ebbing away into the distance.
The unique structure of this work provides it with four choruses and the last two are the more internally integrated. The text of the third (movement 6) falls into two complementary sections—my eyes are always turned towards the Lord—He shall pluck my feet from the net. The instruments play an imaginative role in the depiction of the main images, beginning with a busy semi-quaver figuration which may well suggest the Divine celestial haze.
From the sixth bar this becomes a complicated texture of syncopated violins above a trill-like bassoon solo which might be interpreted in a number of ways. Perhaps most appealing is the speculation that it is a representation of pedestrian Man looking upward towards a complex and ultimately unknowable Divinity? Whatever the image that generated it, the musical texture is original, fresh and invigorating.
In the final bars, the broken string figures suggest the meshing of the net, reinforced with echoes of the original falling chromatic scale in the voices and bassoon parts. There is no doubt that Bach is already thinking beyond the insular boundaries of individual movement structures and linking them with appropriate ideas across the work as a whole.
The last chorus is that relatively rare thing in Bach’s choral music, a ground bass. It is a simple four-bar rising scale announced in the continuo from bar 1.
Interestingly, it latterly attracted Brahms’ attention; he commented on the fact that with some chromatic alteration it would make a good basis for an extended movement. This he did, inserting the raised fourth note of the scale and using the resultant theme for the generation of over thirty highly individual variations forming the passacaglia that was to conclude his fourth and last symphony.
It remains a trifle odd that he should have felt inspired by such a melodically bare theme which basically amounts to no more than a minor scale and a cadence figure.
Bach does not adhere rigidly to his theme but manipulates it so as to move through a number of related keys, F# and E minors and D and A majors. He even inverts it at one point. Imposed upon this basic skeleton are four choral sections, each dealing with one of the four verse couplets.
The first of these affirms—my days of suffering are, through my God, joyfully ended. Here the writing is as if for a single voice until the phrase of happiness rolls out in sixths between the soprano and alto lines. At this point, significantly, Bach has contrived to move the ground bass to the major mode (bars 20-21). The second section (from bar 25) confirms that Christians on thorny paths are guided by the power of heaven, a statement given only to the upper voices.
The third couplet (from bar 37) allows the lower voices to endorse the fact that human afflictions may be averted with God’s support and we notice that the movement in the upper strings has become increasingly active, preparing for the fourth and most extended section—Christ defends us and helps me to triumph daily. Over one third of the entire movement is devoted to the transmission of this culminatory theme. The upper strings are emphatic in the repetition of their repeated quaver figures as the movement climaxes in a tutti espousal of this fundamental Christian truth.
But the cantata ends more with a whimper than with a bang. In the final bars this concluding chorus dies away to echo the dignified textures and quietly assured mood of its opening bars.
The student will want to compare this with another early ground-bass chorus from C 12. Many will declare the latter a more sophisticated piece, affirmed through the fact that Bach later reworked it for the Crucifixus of the Bm Mass. In terms of the expressive manipulation of certain musical elements, the Crucifixus may well be deemed superior. But in terms of fidelity and imaginative and creative responses to given texts, there is little to separate the movements.
If this is as early a work as some suppose, it might be conjectured that Bach was still finding his feet in the shaping of the cantata form and the sustaining of interest in the structuring of extended movements. There are no chorales included; but then we do not know whether the original purpose of the work was secular or ecclesiastical. There are no recitatives; choruses and arias predominate, particularly the former. On the other hand the fecundity of invention, the expressiveness of the melodic writing, the contrapuntal competence and above all the faithfulness to every nuance of the text all denote a creative mind of enormous potential, albeit not yet fully realised. It would appear that even as a young man and a reasonably inexperienced composer, Bach was already forming a clear vision of what might constitute ‘well regulated’ church music.
There is one final, and particularly intriguing, thought that may be derived from this work. In his early post at Arnstadt in 1705 Bach was involved with a scuffle with a bassoonist of whose playing Bach had spoken most disparagingly. It is one of the few well documented events of Bach’s life: see the New Bach Reader pp. 43-45. The opening chorus of this cantata reveals a few bars of a technically demanding bassoon solo (from bar 25). Might this have been the passage which the player was unable to perform, thus eliciting Bach’s censure? If so, this would date the work with certainty, composed when Bach was just twenty years old.