21.04.14: Easter Monday.
The position of this cantata within the cycle makes it of particular interest. It comes immediately after Bach revived the earlier work C 4, possibly in some haste because he may have lost his librettist (see chapters 1 and 41). That for C 6 is unknown and s/he may well have been forced upon Bach in circumstances amounting virtually to crisis. The text is not especially notable or poetic, containing few striking images except for the overturning of the lamp (at the end of the single recitative) and the pervading references to contrasts of darkness and night, with all their symbolic implications.
At first sight it almost seems as if Bach may have made some attempt to revert to the idea of beginning each cantata with a large-scale chorus in that, unlike C 4 and six successive works, this is precisely what he does here. But it is not the sort of chorus which we find in the first forty cantatas of the cycle; it is not a chorale/fantasia but an impressive tone poem written in slowish triple time, giving it the feel of a gigantic sarabande. It is immediately reminiscent of the chorus Bach composed to end the St. John Passion; note the similar descending shape of the opening phrase.
It is the first of four cantatas in the final quarter of the cycle that begin with an extended choral movement which is not a chorale/fantasia. The others are Cs 103, 74 and 176. It is also the first work of the cycle in which the text for the opening music is not a chorale verse.
So what was Bach thinking of when composing this work? Was it a half-hearted attempt to return to the established pattern and complete the cycle as he may have originally intended? On the face of it this seems unlikely; Bach was half hearted about very little throughout his busy composing life and in any case, the pattern had already been partially broken with C 4 (although he may have intended to replace it with a fantasia cantata at a later stage). He did, in fact, compose two more chorale/fantasias in this cycle (Cs 128 and 68) and an additional dozen over the following decade.
But it is also very possible that, with forty chorale cantatas produced in as many weeks, he felt that, at least for the time being, he had exhausted its potential for creative development. Some of the clues that point in this direction have been alluded to in previous chapters. He might have relished the freedom of composing large-scale opening movements that allowed him opportunities of exploring the mood and themes of the text, uninhibited by the technical constraints of individual chorales. It is certainly the case that in C 6 he draws less upon his closing chorale for musical ideas than in many earlier works and he introduces a second hymn into the third movement.
We shall never know how he felt about these issues. But it is undeniable that, whatever the external circumstances which governed his actions, his powers of invention and eloquent expression were entirely undiminished. This opening chorus is quite masterly.
The single theme of the cantata is the request for the light (enlightenment) of Christ to shine upon sinners in order to protect them from darkness (sin and ignorance). This Christian requirement is reflected in each of the movements in different ways.
The mood of the opening chorus is one of quietness and contemplation at the end of the day, and the addition of three oboes to the gently throbbing strings creates the mood immediately. Schweitzer called this ‘a masterpiece of poetry in music’ and noted how the vocal phrases descend ‘as if the gloom of night were weighing upon them’. ‘Tarry with us’ the disciples plead, ‘the evening will soon be upon us as the day is drawing to a close’. This is a large-scale tripartite structure in which the opening sarabande idea gives way to a more fugal central texture in 4/4 time, before returning in modified form.
Bach is often at his most impressive when developing a thoughtful, contemplative mood over a period of time and this is precisely what he does here. There is no story, no plot, no moral; whatever there is of these will come later. This is an evocation coming at the end of day, the dimming of the light, the entering of the gloaming and the preparation for impending darkness. The minor key and the downward direction of the opening ideas combine to express a sense of apprehension about the shadows. The metaphors of diminishing light (redemption and knowledge) and impending darkness (ignorance and sin) would surely not have been lost on the members of Bach’s Leipzig congregations.
The choral writing is a mixture of a homophonic (chordal) texture and imitative counterpoint, the latter predominating in the middle section. The importance of the expression of faith through both individual/personal and communal means is a recurring Bachian theme and is possibly implied through these contrasting textures, chordal passages representing the individual and contrapuntal sections the many.
In the middle section (from bar 80) a new theme is treated fugally in the order T, A, S and B.
Against what would otherwise be a normal fugal exposition, the sopranos announce a counter-theme (bar 80-82), itself destined to play an active role in the developing imitative textures. Both ideas are amalgamated and merged to form a complex tapestry of themes enjoined and clinging to each other as if for support. Against this the basses intone—Bleib bei uns—tarry a while—on the same note. A feature of this middle section is the almost drone-like articulation of this phrase by different voices cutting through the contrapuntal opulence.
An example may be found here of Bach’s economy of material and skill in developing the simplest motive. Fugue theme and countersubject and the intoned of the first words of the text all make use of, and imaginatively develop and extend, the repeated-note idea, the genesis of which is to be found in the closing chorale’s second phrase.
The expected recitative does not follow; in its place is an upbeat da capo aria for alto with a flowing, and virtually continuous obbligato from the oboe da caccia. Major replaces the minor of the preceding movement and the opening figure (on both oboe and voice entries) is formed from the notes of a rising major chord or arpeggio. This is a subtle moment of word painting; the opening words call upon the exalted or ‘raised’ Son of God and the musical figure represents the idea of ‘upwardness’.
The mood is essentially optimistic but not wholly so. Had Bach wished to convey a feeling of truly abandoned joy he could have chosen the higher, brighter sounds of the soprano with a flute or oboe proper. A sense of the potential darkness still encompasses us and the softer, less brilliant sound qualities delicately modify our responses.
Bach’s sensitivity to orchestral timbre was of the highest order. He knew exactly how to shade or modify a mood by use of contrasting, or even contradictory colorings and this movement is but one of many instances (see, for example, the tenor aria with viola obbligato in C 5). He works like a visual artist, mixing his paints in order to achieve just the right degree of light and shade. One can only speculate as to what he might have done with the resources of the symphony orchestra of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries!
The instrumental shading is here matched and enhanced by harmonic colouring. In the middle section (from bar 57) the mood of the opening chorus returns on the further allusions to the darkness of night creeping in. Here Bach moves us to the extreme flat keys of Bb and Eb minors and the ominous quality of the night is clearly to be felt in both the chordal sequence and the melodic shape. Note the setting of the last line, just before the repeat of the A section. On the words Weil die Finsternis einbricht—the darkness steals in—the descending alto notes underline that feeling precisely (bars 107-110).
The third movement is another departure from Bach’s expected procedures in this cycle because he introduces a new chorale and not than that which will conclude the work. (The words ‘in this cycle’ are significant because he had introduced one or even two additional chorales on several occasions in the first cycle). Bach draws upon both melodies for motives with which to construct other movements; indeed, it is the opening phrase of this central chorale that Bach modifies for the main theme of the later tenor aria. Major modes are maintained and we have to make the most of this while it lasts; minor will dominate the last three movements.
This is the centerpiece of the cantata and it radiates the joyousness that the never-fading light of the Saviour delivers—now it is evening and Your undiminished Light and Word will guide us. The vocal line would almost certainly have been sung by a single soprano.
The effervescent piccolo cello part was actually added for a later performance of the cantata (Wolff, notes for Ton Koopman’s complete recordings). Bach seemed to be particularly fond of this five-stringed instrument which made it technically possible to play very difficult solo obligato parts in the upper register. Also, he must have had an excellent player at his disposal, Buzzing semi-quavers and leaping angular figures all add to the optimism of the movement. Confident buoyancy which, one feels, may well have been a characteristic of Bach’s own personality, and the Light of the Saviour assert themselves in this significant moment of joyous optimism.
The short (four-phrase) melody is sung through twice to accommodate two stanzas, the first requesting Jesus to remain and shine the light of His holy word upon us, the second a prayer for constancy in a miserable world.
But the librettist is fully aware of his responsibility to remind us of the gravity of the situation in which we humans find ourselves and the final three movements underline this stricture. The recitative, with a strict moralizing tone, is sung by the bass, a voice of depth and gravity underpinned by a threatening chromatic bass line. We are sternly lectured on the reasons why darkness still abounds, the explicit moral of this work. Our duty to be righteous and our obligations are clearly articulated in the interwoven text and music.
The last line contains a strong image of the overturned lamps for which we, in our sins are directly responsible. Bach suggests the action by a particularly powerful vocal phrase descending over almost two octaves.
The tenor aria is both powerful and theatrical, delivering a strong plea for Christians to keep their eyes upon Jesus so that his light might shield us from the direction of sin. There is a rhythmic relentlessness about this movement which is totally infectious and impossible to ignore depicting, as it does, the treading of sinful ways. Bach constantly invented musical ideas to create the image of walking or treading, often with octaves or continuous quavers in the bass.
In the fourth bar the Schweitzian figure of joy is transformed into an almost macabre doggedness, squeezing down upon a single note.
As so often with Bach, the portrayal is not just the depiction of a physical act; at the same time he drives home the metaphysical idea, in this case that of being dragged down by those sins which the light of the Lord has failed to reach.
Two other brief points should be noted about this striking movement. The rhythmic determination is somewhat mitigated by the flows of descending triplets in the violins which very possibly represent the light of Christ’s word shining over us. Secondly Alfred Dürr (p 280) makes the interesting suggestion that the shape of the strong four-note opening figure (firstly on the violins and later the voice) represents the cross (in which case the message would only be detectable by God and the performing musicians!)
Nevertheless, it is the case that this motive sounds very similar to that which Bach uses to form the main material for the bass aria Come healing Cross from the St Matthew Passion. In the latter example the motive has a pervasive dotted rhythm suggesting Christ staggering under the weight of the cross. In C 6 the motive consists of bare quavers. Here there is no sense of lurching or unsteady movement; rather the cross is depicted as a powerful, almost magnetic symbol for us to gaze steadfastly upon whilst receiving its redeeming light.
This aria invests the listener with a sense of holy mightiness. There is no room for doubt, hesitation or skepticism in this music as the message is conveyed in all its confidence and certainty.
Apart from the repeated notes in the opening chorus the final chorale shows itself to have been quarried very little for musical building blocks. It asks the Lord to declare His might and, in return for the appropriate acclaim, to guard and protect all Christendom. Its minor mode leaves us in more in somber mood than one of unrestrained joy.
This is entirely fitting; our need for Christ to reveal Himself and protect us is clearly a matter for serious contemplation.