04.05.2014: Misericordias Domini Sunday.
This is a particularly interesting late chorale/fantasia cantata, the date of which has been firmly fixed. Both Boyd (p 136) and Wolff (p 280) give the first performance as Easter April 8th 1931. Bach had provided a cantata for this day in the first cycle (C 104) a work that opens with a pastoral chorus in 9/8 time and ends with a slightly adapted version of the same chorale used for this work.
Returning to the assumption that his grand plan of chorale cantatas may have been interrupted during the preparation of the Easter music for 1725, it makes sense to determine whether he had already produced a work for this day as a part of the second cycle. Indeed he did; C 85, also an appropriately pastoral work and similarly based upon the theme of the true Shepherd.
But C 85 was not a chorale/fantasia cantata. It began (as did Cs 108 and 87, also from the latter part of the second cycle) with a bass aria declaiming the words of the Lord. It ended with a minor-mode chorale very different in character from that which closes 112. It may be, therefore, that Bach intended C 112 to replace C 85 in the second cycle simply because it fitted the established pattern, although why he waited six years to do it remains a mystery.
However there is another cantata with a direct relationship with C 112 and that is C 128, also from late in the second cycle. This was one of only two chorale/fantasias that Bach composed between C 1 and the end of the cycle, the other being C 68. The fantasias composed for both Cs 112 and 128 are based upon the same chorale melody. This is a relatively unusual event and furthermore, it would also be difficult to find two more different movements in character and feeling arising from an identical genesis.
The final general point to be noted about this work is that each stanza set is a verse from the chorale i.e. there are no inserted lines. This may explain the minimum use of recitative.
C 112 is one of the shortest and most concise of just over fifty surviving chorale/fantasia cantatas, typically lasting barely twelve minutes. Its opening chorus seems to be a subtle combination of the festive and pastoral. Although lacking trumpets, the forces are impressive, aided by the addition of two horns to the usual complement of two oboes d ‘amore, strings and continuo. The sounds of the four wind instruments predominate throughout, having been boldly launched with an unaccompanied pair of horns extrovertly announcing the first theme. The first horn has a version of the first chorale phrase and the second supports it with a rising fanfare figure.
The rest of the instruments join in the fun in the third bar.
One can only speculate as to whether Bach went back to the score of C 128 in order to remind himself of what he had done with the chorale some six years earlier. Despite their very different characters, the combination of horns and oboes creates a not dissimilar soundscape. But with an interval of six years and a mass of compositions produced during that time, he may even have forgotten about the specific characteristics of the earlier work. But whatever the circumstances, it is obvious that his powers of invention were unflagging. His ability to be concise and economic with his material and thus produce the greatest possible focus upon each and every phrase had, if anything, evolved and intensified over the intervening years.
This is particularly apparent in the writing for the lower voices. There are no swirls of semi-quaver patterns as had characterized C 128; that sort of activity is left to the orchestra. The vocal lines are restrained and dignified, their melodic material extraordinarily economical. Every soprano entry of the cantus firmus is supported by the tenor, alto and bass imitating each other with an optimistically rising version of the first chorale phrase. The voices convey a restrained sense of decorum, the orchestra a surging festive energy. The lower voices do not repeat the words at the end of each soprano phrase as in several other fantasias. Each vocal statement is formed simply, precisely and lucidly: and that is that.
Thus does Bach convey a powerful and unambiguous image of the protecting Lord, our Shepherd, the very foundation of our security. The music is as direct and uncomplicated as the text—the Lord is my faithful Shepherd—He protects and feeds us from the best pastures of His Gospel.
It is, however, worth noting the subtle change of mood as Bach leads the harmony through Em for the penultimate phrase (bars 51-55), suggesting the sensuousness of the ‘sweet grasses’. A minimally adapted version of the initial ritornello then concludes the chorus and the last phrases of the dominating first horn melody continue to echo in our memories well beyond the final cadence.
The second movement is an aria for alto with an oboe d’amore obbligato. There are three images that are likely to have influenced Bach’s structural and artistic decisions when planning this movement.
The first is the mention of the Lord, ensuring our spiritual refreshment through the Holy Ghost and it is probable that this determined the key signature of 6/8 time; two groups of three notes within the bar. Groups of three are often used to represent the Holy Trinity, but only two of them are specifically mentioned in this text. Three would have suggested a 9/8 time signature.
The second image comes from the opening two lines of text—He will lead me to refreshing waters. This is clearly suggested by the oboe line, flowing, pouring and constantly moving so that eventually even the singer cannot resist its motion. And finally we are told—He guides me on the pathway of the righteousness of His commandments. The quaver movement heard in the opening bars and throughout, particularly in the continuo line, suggests the steps made on this significant journey, the third specific textual image. The quiet strength with which the Spirit imbues us is felt throughout.
This is not a da capo movement but a simple Italianate ritornello, albeit with little in the way of instrumental episodes. Even from his earliest works Bach was interested in experimenting with adaptations of ternary form where the middle and final sections may be suggested but not explicit. It was, however, common practice for the ritornello to be reprised in full, as it is here.
The third movement reminds us that life’s tribulations will not trouble us while we are under the protection of the Lord. It is a hybrid, typical of the kind that Bach experimented with throughout the second cycle. The opening two bars may mislead us for a moment; we would normally have expected a recitative to follow the opening chorus and aria, but instead we have what initially appears to be a bass/continuo aria. The opening ritornello theme encapsulates the two initial images of the text—walking (the first four quavers) and—into the valley of darkness (the descending semi-quaver scale).
The bass voice enters with a short arioso passage, which is thoughtful rather than fearful; the text assures us that there will be no fear of evil even in such a dark and forbidding place. The major mode helps us to appreciate that there is nothing explicitly threatening about it, but note that Bach cannot resist underlining the image of the shadowy valley with one unexpected and ominous e flat (bar 7).
And this indeed, is the essential theme: no matter what our fears or misfortunes, God’s baton will protect us from them.
The arioso sounds as if it might continue for some time but it has just got under way when it melts into a dramatic recitative. Against sustained string chords the singer rages against persecution, pain and woe, albeit with a modicum of civilized constraint; all an apparently pointless exercise since the whole intention of this verse is to deny the malign influence of these conditions under God’s protection. Still, the inherent drama obviously appealed to Bach and this is clearly an example of the excitement of the theatre overwhelming the logic of the message.
Finally we are instructed—God’s rod and staff will reassure us and we should subject ourselves to His word. The broken melodic recitative line almost dissolves back into an arioso as the first violins weave a comforting little melody above all else (last four bars). God’s tread may just be detected in the continuo bass and all potential troubles have been resolved.
Bach has delivered to his congregations a miniature operatic scene in which stage and drama have temporarily become the center of attention.
It is difficult to avoid feeling that Bach had a special affection for the accompanied duet because so many great movements of this kind litter the Leipzig cycles. The fourth movement brings together the voices of tenor and soprano and makes use of a bourree structure derived from the suite. The singers are supported by the full string band and the forceful ritornello is revealing of Bach’s thinking. The text is addressed to God—You prepare for me a table surrounded by my enemies—my heart is strengthened and You pour Your blessings into my soul. Here are a group of tantalizing images for a composer of imagination to get stuck into!
The stolid, almost peasant-like opening theme over a crotchet bass-line probably suggests the solidarity of the table whilst the rising and falling arpeggios on violins and bass may depict the somewhat ineffectual enemy horde without. But a few bars later this foursquare opening transforms itself into rolling violin triplets, the mainly falling direction of which clearly suggests the pouring of God’s anointed oil.
A close study of this ritornello allied to the text will give a splendid insight into Bach’s approach to musical invention. The opening idea is derived directly from the first chorale phrase thereby linking them inextricably together. The melodic ideas are suggestive of both the sturdy reliability of God’s power to anoint and the physical action of the pouring of the oil. Thought, faith, image, traditional hymn and motion are perfectly encapsulated and combined in less than twenty bars of finely focused music.
Of course, the musical logic makes perfect sense even if one does not follow the words or symbols. But an awareness of these contrasting but perfectly complimentary themes enriches our enjoyment as well as illuminating Bach’s methodology. He read the text, observed the allusions and images, translated the most telling of them into musical motives, even incorporating parts of the chorale and finally, he united all of this within one single, joyous mode of expression.
The opening violin melody dominates the entire aria; it is taken up by the tenor shortly to be passed to the soprano. This is followed by another statement of the entire ritornello—and why not? It is interesting enough to sustain repetition and, as we have observed, it encapsulates everything. When the voices re-enter, the soprano now leads with the tenor following. Each of us plays an equal and significant part in God’s scheme.
The middle section (from bar 75) takes us into the minor but with no diminution of energy or conviction. We have reached the pouring of the Holy Spirit and so triplets now predominate. There are significant melismas on the word Freuden—joy—emphasising the inevitable human reaction to God’s anointment. When the tenor reprises the initial melody, the upper soprano line is almost orgasmic in its portrayal of uninhibited bliss (from bar 96).
Yet again the last aria is vital in establishing the principal theme, crux and disposition of the entire work.
The final chorale prolongs the rousing mood—the Lord’s mercy shall sustain me through this life and thereafter. It is a positive and unequivocal assertion of faith with oboes, strings and horns doubling the voices and thereby adding to the mood of jubilation.
There is some evidence that Bach was not entirely at peace with his employers at this stage of his career. There is little indication in this work that he was other than in complete harmony with his Maker. Perhaps this indicates how dangerous it is to make links between a great composers’ personal circumstance (or frame of mind) and the expressive character of his/her art works, no matter how tempting this may be.