Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats

27.04.14: First Sunday after Easter.

Although grouped with C 4 because they both commence with sinfonias, this is a very different piece. Whilst C 4 is an early cantata, possibly hurriedly resurrected, C 42 appears to be a new composition; at least, to a degree. It is still possible that parts of it may have been put together in something of a hurry with some movements adapted from earlier lost works.

Sinfonia.

Whatever its genesis though, it stands alone as being the only cantata in this cycle to begin with a large-scale orchestral sinfonia. Inevitably one asks, why?

Schweitzer (vol 2, pp 339-440) offers an extraordinary interpretation of this movement. Firstly he states, mistakenly, that it ends in a minor key. The opening ritornello section is in the jubilant D major key and the score terminates with a cadence in F#m. Were Bach to have intended ending there, it would have been a unique moment in his output. Nowhere else does he end a concerto-like allegro of this type in a key other than the tonic. True, there is an exception to his normal practice to be found in the final chorus of C 68 (chapter 49) and he sometimes concludes a slow movement of a concerto on the dominant chord of the following (final) allegro (e.g. keyboard concerto in Fm). But the former is for imagic reasons and the latter relates to the placing of slow, middle movements. He does not do it in movements of this kind

The answer is that Bach would have assumed a da capo direction at the F#m cadence, requiring a return to the beginning and a conclusion at the perfect cadence in the tonic key over bars 52-53. Was the ‘da capo’ indication missing from Schweitzer’s score? Even so, it seems an extraordinary error to have made.

Further internal evidence comes from the style of the piece. Dürr (p 296) suggests that this movement originated as an introduction to a lost serenata , C 66a, from the Cöthen period.  But it is highly reminiscent of the opening movements of concerti that Bach had been writing at that time, particularly those for violin (and later keyboard) in the key of E (BWV 1042 & 1053. Not only do all three first movements have a similar feel, they also have an identical structure. They are all combinations of ternary (A-B-A) and ritornello forms. They all pause on a massive central cadence in a related minor key and then reprise the first section. Bach had been experimenting with ‘mixed form’ principles since his late twenties and various combinations of such structures are to be found in the Brandenburg Concerti and elsewhere. The last movement of number 4 is a combination of fugue and ritornello, that of 5 is fugue, ritornello and ternary and that of 6, ternary, rondo and ritornello. The last two are also ‘da capo’ movements, repeating the entire first sections.

The evidence is not definitive but it is convincing. It seems very possible that Bach resurrected this movement from a lost Cöthen violin concerto; it is not difficult to see how a solo line could be reformed for the two oboes. And, perhaps even more daringly, might the bass aria be a version, possibly omitting a middle section, of the last movement of the same work? 

Of course this is pure speculation but it is not outside the bounds of possibility. There is precedence for Bach recycling two movements from a previously written concerto within the one cantata; the reuse of the first two movements from the harpsichord Concerto in D minor in the later C 146 (vol 3, chapter 14) serves as an obvious example.

If we accept these arguments about the opening sinfonia, it makes a nonsense of Schweitzer’s interpretation (vol 2, pp 339/340). He must have thought of it as a much slower tempo than we now believe it to be because he compares the mood to that of the opening chorus of C 6. The strings, he suggests, paint a picture of ‘the hovering shades of evening’ which ‘melt into each other and become darker and darker’. The first oboe ‘sings a hymn of longing that dies away in the light’. Schweitzer was, of course, not fully aware of the extent of Bach’s recycling which modern scholarship has revealed although, ironically, he is sometimes quick to condemn a movement when it is assumed to have been retrieved from another (possibly inferior?) work if he dislikes it (see C 38, chapter 22). 

Nevertheless, all this does demonstrate the dangers of ‘over-interpretation’—an accusation which, doubtless, some may also level at this author!

Two interesting questions remain: why did Bach dispense with the established fantasia and why limit the use of the choir to the final chorale only? The answers are possibly linked.

As to the first, the closing Lutheran chorale of this work has a number of features that would have made it ideal for the basis of a large-scale chorus. It has almost unprecedented tonal variety, set in the (unusual) key of F#m and passing through various related keys. Even more stimulating for Bach, one would think, would have been the variety of phrase lengths. So why did he not seize the opportunity to exploit its potential?

One reason may be that he had already used this chorale as the basis of a fantasia in C 126 just two months previously (chapter 39), although this was not necessarily a barrier to reuse, even in works presented in consecutive weeks (see Cs 111 and 92, chapters 36 and 37). His adaptation of this chorale in the fantasia of C 126 was rather odd however as he truncated it, making use of only the first four phrases. Might he have discovered something about this particular chorale that made it fundamentally unsuitable as the basis of an extended fantasia?

Perhaps the answer lies in the timing of the first performance. It is the third cantata to appear after Bach either lost his librettist or deliberately changed direction. When this work was presented on the 8th of April 1725 (Wolff, p 277) Bach’s choir had performed C 1 (with a massive opening chorus) the St John Passion, the Easter Oratorio and Cs 4 & 6 (both of which made large demands on the singers) all within ten days! This was a mammoth undertaking, particularly when one remembers that a number of the boys were young (14-18 years) and not full professionals. They must have been hard pressed, as indeed must Bach himself, despite his almost superhuman energy. It is not, therefore, surprising that he asked the choir to do the absolute minimum in this and some of the following cantatas (e.g. Cs 85, 87 &108).

Tenor recitative.

The first movement with text is the tenor recitative. It describes the gathering of the disciples in the evening, Jesus amongst them and shutting the doors for fear of the Jews. The repeated notes in the bass suggest the coming together of the disciples with just an echo of apprehension about their enemies. The ominous effect of the repetitive semi-quavers above the sustained bass notes is unexpected and almost unprecedented.

Alto aria.

The alto aria is remarkable for both its structure and its length; in performance it will run to around ten minutes, indicating that while Bach may have considered the demands upon his choir, he certainly did not spare himself or his soloists. It is richly orchestrated, using a full band of strings and continuo pitted against a woodwind group of two oboes and bassoon. It is a long da capo aria in which the section (to bar 52) describes Jesus coming amongst the assembled disciples and the B section the deliverance of His Amen. 

Bach goes to considerable lengths to make this differentiation. The first part is very slow and in 4/4 time whilst the second is slightly faster and in 12/8, giving it a pastoral feel such as is to be found (in the same key) in the Christmas Oratorio. The two oboes weave a filigree of sound around the vocal line, the strings doing little more than supplying the harmonies.

Of interest is the four-note motive with which the oboes imitate each other in the opening bars.

bwv42a

Mention has been made of this recurring motive in the discussion on C 3 (chapter 35). Bach seems to associate it with doubt and possibly misgiving; in this aria it may suggests uncertainties felt by the disciples. Bach’s use of shapes of this kind (and a similar one may be found in the minor mode, in C109 from the first cycle) is different from, say, those of the constantly recurring walking or treading motives. These figures also permeate melodies and textures, becoming the main building blocks of complete movements. But the oboe motive that begins this aria is a holistic, almost metaphysical idea, not the representation of an action. It conjures up, almost subliminally, a particular emotion or frame of mind. It is a signal across the cantatas from which one might elicit echoes of moments of similar import. 

Once again, how many of Bach’s congregation members might have made these connections is a matter of conjecture. Nevertheless, they are there. And if they are, they are there for a purpose. Even if the chord they may have struck with the listeners was entirely subconscious, then no matter, the composer’s purpose would still have been served. In any case, God would have noticed!

Soprano/tenor aria.

The text of the soprano and tenor duet comes not from the closing chorale but from another by Jacob Fabricius (Boyd p 12). Although its melody forms the basis of the vocal lines it is so embellished and distorted as to be almost unrecognizable. However, the persistently repeated note for the words—Es wird nicht lange währen—it will not last long (from bar 54), is clearly linked to the final phrase as, indeed they are to the opening three notes of the closing chorale. Fabricius’s hymn was used again in this cycle in more readily recognizable forms in Cs 108 and 74 which may suggest a common librettist for all three works.

The duet is principally an admonition, firstly to the disciples—do not fear or dread the enemy’s attempts to destroy you, they will not last long. The message is, of course, directly applicable to the congregation who, doubtless, will hear it repeated later in the sermon. This is, arguably, the most searingly beautiful movement of the cantata. The two voices imitate each other in lines of great expressiveness about a persistently striding and sinewy chromatic bass line played by bassoon and cello. Bach himself added the phrasing to this line (Schweitzer p 341) creating a most unsettling effect as it constantly suggests a tension between 3/4 and 6/8 rhythms.

bwv42b

This is an excellent example of Bach’s setting out two ideas or positions concurrently. The voices encapsulate a soothing, almost appeasing quality while in the bass we hear the persistent voices of the enemy attempting to unsettle us. Notable are the melismas, which give emphasis to the words Versage—despair—and verstören—destroy.

Bass recitative.

The bass recitative underlines the moral of the previous movements, offering a historic example of Christ’s protection of the disciples. It is not without some further intimations of the persistent dangers; note the continuo agitating around the final phrase, suggesting the fury of the enemy. The last aria, however, dismisses all doubt.

Bass aria.

Now the expected Bachian optimism takes over—Jesus will protect his people—and the sun shall shine upon them whatever their persecution may be. The bass voice conveys the authority of Jesus from his opening phrase which, structured as it is like a brass fanfare and ranging over an octave and a half, conveys a sense of force and confidence. The violins proclaim the ‘joy’ motive as early as bar two although it is the bass line, previously used to suggest the dangers of the enemy, which adopts it from bar 9. Both swirling semi-quavers and the overall mood link it directly to the opening sinfonia.

Bars 1-2 violins followed by bars 9-11, continuo.
Bars 1-2 violins followed by bars 9-11, continuo.

bbBWV42-2

Note the details of the three settings of the word Verfolgung—persecution (bars 25-26, 61-3 and 65-71). Each is based upon successively longer melismas accompanied by striking quaver or semi-quaver string figures. Bach has taken care to give significance to the notion that despite Christ’s comforting shield, persecution continues unabated in the world around us. It is a stark warning of the perils which may still engage us were that protection to be lost.

Chorale.

The long, closing chorale is a plea for God to provide the means for peace and good government to our leaders and through them, to us. It is in the minor mode, and thus, rarely for this cycle, ends the cantata in a mode different from that in which it began (see also Cs 108 and 74, chapters 44 and 48). Not only that but it takes us to the remote and unusual key of F#m. It would seem that doubts, fear and the threats of our enemies have still not been wholly dismissed. 

Nor, perhaps, has a satisfactory peace for the multitude been fully established by those in power. 

Is it any doubt, after the miseries which much of Germany had suffered throughout the previous century that Bach and the more astute members of his congregation may not have felt totally reassured by the abilities of their earthly leaders to achieve ideals of peace and harmony? And do we not share similar reservations today

Upon this note of recognition we come to the end of an interesting cantata which, on closer observation, reveals much more than it initially seems to promise.

©John Mincham

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