29.05.14: Ascension Day.
There are four cantatas extant for this day and contextual comments may be found in the essay on C 43. Though referred to as an oratorio, C 11 is no more than an extended cantata, commensurate with a number of other of Bach’s longer works.
The main peculiarity of C 11 is the string of recitatives, five in all. Although neither presented in nor, presumably, intended to be performed in two parts, a natural division could easily be made after the first chorale, number 6. Otherwise there is little of a structural nature to distinguish this from many other works in the canon.
Dürr gives the background to the opening chorus and the two arias, all of which are paraphrased from earlier works. By definition, the nature of paraphrased movements is such that the commentator must be cautious about assuming intentional links between textual and musical imagery. But that is not to say that they may not exist, albeit often in a generalist sense. It has been frequently argued in these essays that Bach did not take pre-composed music ‘off the peg’ without due care for its appropriateness. Furthermore, it is clear that on occasions the paraphrasing lyricist was careful to retain images from the initial text that had generated musical shapes and structures (an excellent example being the flames pictured in the first movement of C 34).
In other cases Bach deliberately chose music which, fortuitously, contained melodic, motivic, harmonic, textural and/or structural features that related to the re-written text. This was surely a part of Bach’s mantra that all music should be wholly fit for its specific purpose. On occasion, and when driven by pressures of time, he might not have always met his own standards. The miracle is that he so often did.
The text of the chorus is yet another conventional offering of honour and laud to God in his kingdom with the added injunction to praise Him appropriately in ‘assemblies of choirs’. Such generalised texts are usually multi-functional, appropriate to formal services, weddings, civic events and a number of other occasions for which a ‘jobbing’ composer might be commissioned to write. It is tempting to think, however, that Bach’s reason for resurrecting this particular chorus might have been the descending and ascending octave scales emerging as early as the second bar, although the predominant impression throughout the choral sections centres upon the former! They could be thought to neatly encapsulate images of Christ’s demise and descending into the tomb, followed by his ultimate resurrection and ascension. They also underpin, with great vigour and joyousness, the pleasure of honouring the Almighty.
The ritornello theme is a perfect example of Bach’s ability to create extended melody and also of his generosity as a composer; he frequently gives the listener more than they have a right to expect. It is thirty-two bars long and most composers would have deemed it sufficient to end it at the cadence over the fifteenth and sixteenth bars. However, having paused there in the traditional dominant key, Bach then proceeds through two related minor keys (B and E) before returning to the tonic key of D and the choral entry.
The vocal blocks are ideally suited to carry the various forms of praise to the Almighty and they lead us once more to a cadence in the dominant key of A major (bar 72). At this point, sixteen bars of the ritornello theme take us to the middle section proper (from bar 89).
This is built about two vocal blocks, themselves separated by a sixteen-bar ritornello segment now adapted to the related keys of F#, B and E minors. It is concerned principally with the uttering of proper praises from the assembled choirs and, coincidentally, the forceful offbeat writing for voices draws the ear naturally to the choral sound. A further four bars of the ritornello (bars 138-141) take us to a reprise of the A section, re-written so as to remain in the tonic key.
There is no doubt that Christ’s sufferings on the cross are to be recognised and lamented by all good Christians. Equally, the sense of jubilation at his rebirth and God’s immaculate plan for Mankind is to be heartily celebrated. This apparent contradiction lies at the root of much Christian theology and, significantly for us, became a generator of much of Bach’s most sublime music.
Tenor and bass recitatives.
It is important to note the functions of the three voices chosen by Bach for the numerous recitatives. The tenor’s traditional role is that of the narrator and he begins by simply describing the action—Jesus lifted His hands and blessed His disciples but as He did so He was parted from them. The action of raising His hand is encapsulated within the opening rising phrase, those of blessing and departing by short, continuo scale-passages. The word painting is present and easily discernible but subtly drawn.
The bass speaks for Mankind—is the parting so near? Is the hour come? See the hot tears rolling down our wan cheeks as we yearn for You—do not leave us. Now the singer is supported by two flutes whose predominant movement is falling, a clear representation of dropping tears. The mood is one of bereftness and desolation, a stark contrast to the recitative that preceded it.
Nevertheless, both these short movements begin in minor keys and end in the major, a symbol of the hope that is embedded within the parable.
The alto aria will be familiar to all Bach devotees as a version of the much loved Agnus Dei from the Mass in Bm. Dürr informs us, however, that it would be a mistake to assume that the one was paraphrased from the other; the original template for both comes from an earlier, lost cantata. Nevertheless, a comparative study of the two versions yields much of interest for the student, not least in Bach’s observance of seemingly insignificant detail. For example, whilst the bulk of the nine-bar ritornello theme is unaltered there are, besides the transposition to the lower key, a number of small but telling modifications.
Firstly the ornamental skirls from the first and seventh bars are removed in the version for the Mass. Secondly, three bars of the violin melody are raised one octave (from bar 5), partially a practical matter of one potentially unavailable note due to the lower transposition, but it also has a marked affect on the spaciousness of the melody. Thirdly, Bach changes the third to last note from the supertonic (b in Am) to the dominant (d in Gm). It is only one note, which might be thought to be of little or no consequence, but it has a profound effect on the expressive character of the phrase ending.
Even the bass line does not escape Bach’s scrutinising eye. Three quavers are added to assist with the passing modulation in bar 5 and the approach to the cadence is simplified; I, VI, IIb, V becomes I, 1b, Ic, V.
Every alteration seems to pare away the unessential and concentrate upon that, and only that which is absolutely necessary for the communication of emotion, uncluttered by detail. There can be little doubt in listeners’ minds that the version Bach produced for the Mass is in every way a superior piece of artwork.
Similarly with the macro-structure. Bach omits, for the Agnus Dei, the entire middle section from bar 29. This necessitates the re-writing of much that remains although not of the coda which he could have left unaltered. Nevertheless, that for the Mass version is shorter by four bars, again a concentration of meaning and an intensity of emotion.
The text is broadly similar in the two versions, that in the Mass praying for the sacrificed Lamb of God who absolves us from sin, to have mercy on us and grant us peace. That for the Oratorio is an entreaty for Him to stay and not cause us untold pain through His parting from us.
The tenor’s second recitative is much like his first, business-like and descriptive of events—as they watched, He was taken in a cloud to sit upon God’s right hand. The very shape of the opening phrase suggests that action taking place.
The chorale is appropriately upbeat and optimistic, celebrating Christ’s elevation and His position as the superior to all things and all men—angels, princes and the very elements themselves must now do His bidding. A higher setting of this melody may also be found in part 2 of the Christmas Oratorio substantially altered, not least through the change from three to four beats in the bar. The last two phrases are shortened, conveying an indefinable sense of something more yet to come.
The final three recitatives.
In the cantata repertoire Bach only very occasionally places two recitatives together; here he has three, the decision being entirely driven by the narrative. In the first, two men in white apparel are specifically mentioned and they are portrayed by bass and tenor following the narrator’s setting of the scene. The alto represents the reaction of the soul to events after which the tenor returns to summarise. Tonally, the first two merge together and may be thought of as the one movement but the third should, for textual and musical reasons, stand apart.
Returning to the first of these three recitatives, the tenor begins the process by announcing—whilst the disciples looked up towards Heaven, two men in white stood nearby and spoke. The act of ‘looking upwards’ is caught in both the shape of the first melodic phrase and the little burst of activity in the continuo line (bar 2). Bass and tenor then join in an arioso section which is partially canonic—why do you gaze unto Heaven?—this Jesus will return to you just as He departed. Their dialogue runs directly into the short alto recitative in which two low pitched and decidedly mournful flutes establish the mood—come back soon and take away my unhappiness lest every miserable moment seems like years.
The tenor returns for the third recitative which begins and ends in major modes in preparation for the last two movements—-they worshipped Him and returned joyfully from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem, a day’s journey.
The three recitatives now reveal their structural functions, moving emotionally from a sense of loss, demise and bewilderment to one of faith and acceptance. This will be expressed in different ways in the two concluding movements.
The soprano aria is the most delicate of the cantata’s several movements. Scored for flute, oboe and upper strings only, it eschews the usual continuo bass; the lowest part is played by combined violins and violas, the range of the former ensuring that the harmonic foundation line could not descend lower than the g below middle c. The harmony is complete throughout and there is some doubt as to whether Bach intended that an organ or harpsichord would be called upon; there is a good argument that says that an additional harmonic instrument could have muddied a texture conceived with great intrinsic clarity.
Several theories have been put forward to explain Bach’s very occasional dispensing of the traditional bass line. They include the desire to avoid solid, earthly implications in the portrayal of spiritual matters, the expression of natural innocence and/or implications of the removal of the basis of our faith. It may be that Bach had some or all of these metaphors in mind. It is also possible that, having heard some of the Italian concerto slow movements with similar textures, he wished to replicate the sound. Whatever his reason may have been, it is the case that in such arias he usually creates translucent gems of great beauty and apparent simplicity.
The counterpoint is always in three or four parts and is continually moving but never cluttered. The text declares—I constantly see Your merciful glances since Your love remains on earth—I may thus refresh my spirit until such time as I stand before you. The internal structuring of what, on the surface is a straightforward da capo aria, is almost certainly unique.
UsingRIT to represent ritornello and VOC for vocal sections we arrive at:
RIT (16 bars) — VOC (16 bars) — RIT (16 bars) — VOC (16 + 16 bars) — RIT (16 + 16 bars).
This takes us to bar 112 and the beginning of the middle section proper. However, if we examine it from the point of view of the use of material, we discover that, of the seven 16-bar groups, the first, second and sixth are similarly structured as are the third, fourth and seventh! There is an even, balanced symmetrical quality to the movement which would certainly have had symbolic significance for Bach. Whether it suggests in some way the present or future spiritual union of Christ and Soul (albeit separated in space) one can only speculate.
The middle section develops the given material in the context of Christ’s love remaining to vitalise mortals until His return. The first section is then fully reprised.
It is hard to imagine a more ebullient arrangement of a chorale than that which completes the work. But then one remembers the forty-two unique chorale/fantasias from the second cycle and realises what a parochial statement this is. In fact this chorus too is a fantasia, the soprano intoning the hymn tune in long notes amidst a virtual maelstrom of instrumental quaver streams.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to note about this movement is that whilst firmly rooted in the exultant major key of D, it embodies a chorale which is clearly conceived in a minor mode. Readers who wish to examine a conventional four-part harmonisation of it should look back to C 73, one of the most original works from the first cycle.
It is most unusual, though not unique for Bach to do this and his purpose was almost certainly symbolic. The text asks when it may be that the day dawns when we might behold Him in His glory and greet and kiss the Saviour. Perhaps the minor-mode chorale represents the human state of waiting and hoping amidst the expectation of His continued blessings and promise of return.
Bach’s setting is a tour de force of compositional virtuosity. He manages to manipulate the cadences of all but those of the last two chorale phrases so that they are harmonised in the major, where the movement also begins and ends. Nevertheless, there is a tension between the chorale melody and the environment in which Bach places it that is wholly fitting to the ascension narrative.
The impression of continuous pouring of blessings is achieved through the interplay of three groups of instruments, brass wind and strings and indeed, sometimes four as the flutes and oboes separate their roles. In addition to the rolling semi-quavers, the other instrumental idea which fixates itself upon the listener’s ear is the syncopated repetition of a single note (see trumpets 1 and 2, bars 2-4). As in the second cycle chorale/fantasias, the writing for lower voices is endlessly inventive, frequently related to the textual images; note, for example, the passionate and clinging representation of kissing the Saviour beneath the caressing flutes, in the penultimate phrase (from bar 52).
The movement, and indeed the cantata, ends with a reprise of the ritornello theme. It leaves us with a sense of breathless excitement, allied to the conviction that all will ultimately be well.