25.03.14: Feast of the Annunciation of Mary.
The split viola parts in the opening sinfonia alert the listener to the fact that this is an early work predating the first Leipzig cycle. In fact Dürr (p 259) suggests that it may have been the very first of Bach’s cantatas composed for the Weimar court. The version that you will hear on CD may, however, be one of three since Bach revised the cantata on at least two occasions at Leipzig. The earliest is the most lightly scored and arguably the most effective.
Bach begins with a chamber sinfonia movement. A solo recorder and violin are responsible for all the melodic material (until the last four bars) supported by light pizzicato viola and continuo chords. In later versions Bach added additional violins and continuo instruments with a doubling oboe. The music remains delightful whatever the setting, but its unforced natural charm seems to be enhanced when the contrasting timbres of the recorder and violin discourse are undistracted by the minimum essential harmonic support.
The dotted rhythms of the sinfonia bring to mind the outer sections of the French overture, a form associated with pomp, pageantry and procession.
It will not, then, surprise us to discover that the second movement declares welcome for the King of Zion (Jesus) whom, one imagines, the sinfonia had heralded as He took his proper seat. Furthermore, the warmth and allure of the beguiling opening movement evokes an image of a King who is welcomed, loved and capable of attracting great affection without assuming affectation.
It is possible that with the effortless imitation between the recorder and the violin, Bach intended to evoke a sense of ‘one-ness’ between Christ and the soul. Indeed, a further conjoining of elements is also encapsulated, musically, in the closing five bars where the lower strings abandon the pizzicato chords, firstly sustaining the upper melodic lines and then joining with them. Simultaneously supporting this is the continuo, taking on for the first and only time, the dotted rhythm theme that the flute and recorder had previously kept to themselves. Such subtle allusions may well have escaped the members of the congregation if they had not studied the printed texts in advance, but it matters little. This delightful movement is not quickly forgotten and even viewed retrospectively provides a perfect and most amiable backdrop to the King’s welcome arrival.
The first chorus displays a number of unusual features. It is a da capo movement which begins, motet-like, with the instruments doubling the voices but asserting their individuality in a more Italianate style from the tenth bar. The middle section contrasts the close, quaver imitative blocks of chorus with the largely semi-quaver recorder line. The first (and third) sections are built around three vocal fugal blocks (beginning bars 1, 10 and 15) in which the four voices enter in a symmetrically balanced way, top to bottom (i.e. first S, A, T and B), thence in reverse, and lastly (from bar 15) top to bottom again. The text is a song of welcome to the King of Heaven (Zion) and a plea that we may be permitted to become conjoined with Him. Both the song of welcome and the entreaty must be heard clearly and so Bach sets the opening lines of text in plain chordal interjections to close the first section (bars 21-25) and ultimately the movement proper.
The concise middle section begins with an equally terse and rhetorical statement—come in—and it proceeds to announce that You (Christ) have completely won our hearts. The vocal writing is no longer fugal but tersely spiky, the four lines entering in rapid imitation, only a crotchet apart.
A further unusual feature of the movement is the resetting of lines from the opening section, a symbolic gesture which is presumably intended to conjoin and unite the notions of ‘welcome Jesus’ and ‘let us be a part of You’. The movement has an energy, effervescence and sense of commitment which, while contrasting musically with the sinfonia, complements it fully in terms of the cantata’s overall theme.
The bass recitative is the voice of Christ—See, I come and it is written of Me in the book—that I delight to do Your will, My God. The first of these two phrases is contextual and set as a simple secco recitative. The second is a statement of personal commitment, an arioso above an active continuo line, possibly suggesting the physical motion of His approaching. The key is C major, also that of the following bass aria.
We hear the same bass voice but now it has a different function. The aria addresses itself to Christ and represents the voice of Mankind, and the singer may be assumed to be the voice of the pastor—what powerful love it was that drove You from Your glorious throne to become, for the salvation of the world, a blood sacrifice. This, the fourth consecutive movement in the major mode, is warmly accompanied by strings and continuo, a flowing yet tenacious first violin melody floating continuously throughout.
For the most part, the continuo and supporting string lines operate as flowing quavers to the main semi-quaver melody thus imparting a sense of purpose and impetus. Perhaps Bach had it in mind to suggest the ‘driving out’ of Christ from throne to sacrifice. And short and compact as the movement is, Bach nevertheless manages to range through a number of keys, even touching upon the unrelated key of Bm! This tonal migration through various minor keys darkens the mood subtly, perhaps as a reminder of the sacrifice that was made in blood.
After these meanderings Bach returns to the home key (bar 30) and we are tempted to expect an extended middle section. But it doesn’t transpire. In less than half a dozen bars, Bach resets the first four lines of the stanza. As the ritornello theme brings the aria to a close, we are left with the positive image of the great love of the Son of God rather than one of His painful and bloody sacrifice.
The alto aria is the first movement to be cast in the minor mode and may be usefully paired with that for tenor which follows, also in the minor. Both are lightly orchestrated, the first for continuo and flute obbligato and the second for continuo only. Both are expressions of the need to be ready and prepared, pure and confident in our approach as we draw near to, and ultimately unite with, Christ.
The alto aria is in da capo form, very clearly marked since the middle section has a faster tempo than the outer ones. The high, thin recorder obbligato melody imbues the movement with a forlorn sense of longing, a marked characteristic being the long descending phrases stretching over almost two octaves, thus making use of the full range of the instrument. Did Bach intend these phrases to suggest the prostrating of oneself before the Saviour as proclaimed in the opening line of text?
The first and last sections make great play of this idea through much repetition and particularly with the singer proclaiming these words on long, low notes towards the bottom end of the vocal register (bars 11-12 and 17-18). The tone is one of hushed and reverent awe, sometimes almost bordering upon what, in these circumstances, some may feel to be an inappropriate melancholy or sadness.
And very possibly it was the realisation of this possibility which led Bach to increase the tempo of the middle section—be clothed in the pure robes of your faith and go to meet Him, dedicating life, body and chattels to Him. The second half of this section is in major modes, the flute temporarily abandons its long swooping phrases and these factors, combined with the faster tempo, invoke a mood which is substantially more optimistic.
The first section returns in full, however, to complete the aria, abutted by full statements of the flute obbligato melody.
There is one further oddity about this movement. Just before the alto’s first entry we hear a strange and unexpected interrupted cadence (over bars 5-6). Students of harmony will note that it is not the expected progression of chords V-VI, but the much less commonly heard one of V-IV.
It occurs a half a dozen times in the course of the movement and Bach would have had a reason for it although one has to speculate as to what it might have been. Does it represent the action of genuflection before the throne of the Lord? Is it a brief moment of self doubt?
Despite its light scoring, the next movement, the third aria in a sequence of three, is the cantata’s most rhythmically dynamic. It retains the shadows of minor modes and the reasons for this are not difficult to define. It suggests that the following of the Lord is only possible by means of a voyage of misery and buffeting (a point which will be made again in musical terms, in the final movement) and it refers to the historic cries of ‘crucify’ which the world had directed at Him. Nevertheless the text claims that we shall follow and not abandon Him and find both palm and crown through His banner. This aria, essentially a duet between tenor and continuo cello, is another of those which demonstrate how expressive Bach can be through the use of just two inter-relating lines of counterpoint.
The opening theme is busy and commanding, constructed, as in the previous flute melody, from a series of descending phrases.
The first line of text declaims—Jesus, let me follow You—and this sense of movement may lie behind the apparently unstoppable semi-quaver activity. But it is not inexorable; the moment the voice enters, the rhythms of both parts become more measured and consequently pensive, a reminder of the fact that the journey may not be easy or necessarily joyful.
The aria throughout is a skilful counterpointing of these two ideas against each other, the relentless activity of the continuo and the more measured, imploring tones of the tenor. The singer only adopts the continuous semi-quavers twice, firstly on the word—Kreuziger—crucify, and then on—fliehen—to abandon or escape from (see bars 41 and 49).
Bach does not divide the verse so as to construct a clear middle section. He has set the whole stanza before the fortieth bar after which he reinforces the connected themes of crucifixion and the commitment not to abandon Him. He simply returns to the opening lines of text with a partial recapitulation of the first vocal theme (beginning in bar 74) and we are left with a powerful sense of the need to follow Him, whatever pain and torment might be encountered along the journey.
The next movement demonstrates the interest that Bach clearly had, even at this early stage in his career, of using the chorale melodies as the basis for much longer and more intricate pieces. In a sense this is a looking forward to the chorale fantasias of the second cycle, although the doubling of the vocal parts with instruments harks back to the traditional German motet. The technique whereby the notes of some of the chorale phrases are introduced in their proper note values preceding the soprano statements, is also a motet feature. The eight chorale phrases are presented by the sopranos in long notes and separated by other material, a technique associated with both the motets and the later fantasias.
It is something of a mystery why Bach took the trouble to compose this complex movement when a plain four-part setting of the hymn could have sufficed; indeed, this is what Bach did to close C 159 some five years later (see vol 3, chapter 41). C 182 already contained two choruses and it is unusual to include three within the one piece, particularly one immediately following another. Perhaps the answer lies in Dürr’s suggestion that this was Bach’s first Weimar cantata in which case he may well have set out to impress and to test the capabilities of the vocal resources available to him. There are, however, signs that Bach was now experimenting with suggesting the meanings of the text within the nature of the shapes and interactions of the vocal lines, a marked feature of the second cycle fantasias. Dürr (p 261) gives two examples.
The text is a simple pious statement—Jesus, Your passion is my joy, Your wounds and ignominy the pastures of my heart—my soul treads upon roses when I think of Your preparing our places in heaven. The busy movement of the three lower voices doubtless suggests the ecstasy that accompanies thoughts of salvation. The final phrase, however, is set more starkly and simply; the notion of our prepared places in heaven is clearly a matter for serious contemplation.
The third chorus completes the cantata, leaving us with the impression of a joyful dancing gigue. Like the second movement, it is a strict da capo making much use of fugal imitation but modified by Italian ritornello principles. The recorder announces the main theme, followed by violin and continuo, the remainder of the twenty-four bar ritornello revealing a discussion of the main ideas, principally by the violin and recorder. The voices enter with the principal theme in the order S, A, T and B but there is insufficient time for the development of a full fugue.
There is one additional entry of the subject (sopranos from bar 44) followed by a single episode based mainly upon the second half of the ritornello theme. The text, which the confident rising fugal subject encapsulates admirably, states—Let us enter joyful Salem and attend Him in times good and bad. It is worth noting the fleeting moment of minor harmonies just before the section ends which are suggestive of inevitable moments of sorrow.
The text of the middle section states simply—He leads the way and prepares the path. The vocal writing throughout is less complex and ebullient, quaver movement predominating. It begins by musically encapsulating the notion of leading as the bass (Christ?) sets off with the upper three voices immediately following. But in the final phrase before the da capo it is the sopranos who lead the rest. Perhaps full union and a full sense of fellowship with Christ has now been achieved.
The reprise of the opening section leaves us with the reinforced notion of attending the King, and the third and fourth playings of the happy instrumental ritornello theme place emphasis upon the joy rather than the sorrow of the journey.
Bach is about to embark upon his first Easter celebrations at Leipzig. The next work his congregations will hear will be the original version of the Saint John Passion. The next cantata in the series, C 31, will introduce itself with a sinfonia of vastly different scale and proportion from that which began this one.