13.07.14: Fourth Sunday after Trinity.
A number of speculative questions arise with the consideration of C 24. It is the fourth work of Bach’s first Leipzig cycle and it is clearly much slighter than any of the first three cantatas which were all constructed on a grand scale, in two complementary sections, encompassing either eleven or fourteen movements. C 24 has just the six and it opens modestly with a lightly scored alto aria. The one chorus (disregarding for the moment the closing chorale which maintains the principle of added independent instrumental parts) is concise and compact. Might one assume that Bach, who had clearly hit the ground running at the start of his appointment, was now finding that the weekly rehearsal and presentation of massive works was putting too great a strain upon his young performers, his congregations or even himself?
A glance at the established schedule of performances, however, tells us that such speculation is premature. This Fourth Sunday of Trinity 1723 was graced with no less music than on each of the previous three weeks because Bach presented two cantatas, Cs 24 and 185, at the same service (Dürr p 417). In effect, he was continuing the established practice of the two-part structure simply by cobbling two shorter ones together, one newly composed, the other resurrected. The preparation of the performances would have required no less effort than those of the previous three weeks since these two cantatas contained a total of twelve movements, one more than C 21 and roughly commensurate with the fourteen in each of Cs 75 and 76. Clearly we must not jump to rash conclusions about Bach’s inability to cope with his self-imposed programme.
There is one further point of legitimate speculation. C 24, presumably the first work that Bach composed anew after beginning his duties at Leipzig, is structured differently from Cs 75, 76 and 21; it begins with an aria and places its one chorus centrally. In the half dozen works of the second Leipzig cycle Bach deliberately set out his stall to demonstrate the sheer range of styles, structures and techniques which his congregations could expect over the coming months. Might he have been doing something similar here, near the beginning of this introductory cycle? The first two cantatas begin with a chorus, the third with a sinfonia, the fourth with an aria and the fifth with a duet. There is a mixture of secco and accompanied recitatives. Choruses may be compact and extended and arias may be supported by ritornello only or a variety of obbligato instruments. Stylistically, the music may be intimate and chamber-like or boldly operatic. In less than half a dozen works Bach demonstrated the extensive range of possibilities of what, technically and artistically, might constitute his vision of ‘well regulated’ church music.
Nevertheless, C 24 still comes across very much as a chamber music piece, requiring only the instrumental support of strings, continuo, two oboes and a solitary trumpet. And if only because it seems to have been the first cantata that Bach fully composed after beginning his appointment at Leipzig, it is a significant piece.
The key to an understanding of this cantata lies within the two recitatives that abut the central chorus. The theme is essentially two sided: one part expresses God’s honesty and the positive outcomes that eventuate when the uncorrupted Christian’s mind allows itself to be encompassed by His goodness. The other is the almost ferocious and venomous attack on the hypocrites who turn from Him and wear the devil’s clothes. The central chorus expresses the simple and unambiguous golden rule: do unto other as you would wish them do unto you.
The opening alto aria states unequivocally that an uncorrupted spirit of respectable German virtuousness endears us to both God and Man. This should guide us throughout our lives in everything that we do. As such, the poetic mood is seemingly neutral and it is noticeable that Bach’s music is essentially upbeat and optimistic. The forces may be constrained (strings and continuo only) but Bach demonstrated right from the start that large groups of musicians were not necessary for the expression of musical profundity. Here the repeated notes (bars 1 and 3) and the three-note ‘figure of joy’ (bars 2 and 4) combine to create a feeling of energy and forward movement, something which is essentially ongoing.
The voice enters with a more serene melodic line suggesting, perhaps, something of the tranquillity associated with unsophisticated decorum before taking up the repeated note motive (from bar 17).
The most obvious moment of word painting comes with the melisma (bars 43-8) on Handel—our daily transactions. People are busy; perhaps too busy to heed the word of God, and the music makes the point with admirable succinctness. The long note on stehn—stand, stay or remain, (bars 53-5)—intimates that rooted foundation of appropriate faith and attitude upon which we may build.
The movement suggests ternary form with a reworked A section (from bar 74). But the two motives described above continue to suffuse the texture. Bach clearly eschews any sense of a contrasting musical section which might have diluted the basic theme and so the movement comes as close to being ‘through-composed’ as any that he wrote at this time.
A point of particular subtlety relates to the obbligato theme. Bach requires all the upper strings to combine and play it in unison. Furthermore, the writing is very low, allowing much of the theme to be played on the violin’s darker g and d strings. Thus the essentially optimistic spirit of the movement is moderated by the sombre and shaded tone quality of the obbligato line. An oboe or flute, an octave higher, would have produced a very different expressive effect.
Dürr (pp 420-1) makes the point that the two recitatives are connected by the rhetorical (though not initially overstated) pronouncements of the key words—Honesty and Hypocrisy. But although the secco tenor recitative informs us that honesty is a gift from God which many humans lack simply because they do not request it, the bulk of the movement is a sermonising rant directed at the unworthy—do not make enemies of your neighbours, set aside falsity and cunning and strive for a peaceful nature. Moments of word painting occur in bar 12 where the rising scale suggests the ascent to holy virtue, and melodic and harmonic dislocations occur in bars 16 and 17 at the mention of deceit, falseness and cunning.
The final bars melt into an arioso pointing the way towards the experiments Bach was later to make in the development of ‘hybrid’ recitative structures, particularly in the second cycle. The text exhorts the good Christian to make of oneself what might be expected in one’s neighbour. The final key line of text is stated three times, possibly with symbolic intention.
Bach frequently constructs his shorter cantatas around a central keystone movement which has consequential significance. Often it is an aria or a chorus, occasionally a recitative. The chorus here adds nothing new to the text; its single line (quoted above) emerging from the conclusion of the preceding recitative. Two things are particularly significant about this chorus, the first being the strength of the musical message (apart from the closing chorale, this is the only movement which utilises the full instrumental and choral forces, including a commanding solo trumpet). The second is the ‘busy-ness’ of the rhythm and texture. This is quite possibly an allusion to, and illustration of the idea first introduced in the opening aria i.e. that people need to be guided by God’s word throughout the complex tapestries of their lives, entwined with the numerous deeds and actions which form an inevitable part of human existence. Much is happening in the musical texture where, particularly at the beginning and end, rolling semi-quavers are seldom absent from the contrapuntal lines. The text has given Bach little specific in the way of inspirational images so he seems to have solved the problem by representing ceaseless activity through constant musical movement.
The chorus has two sections, each of which carries the same brief text. The first (bars 1-37) makes initial use of antiphonal gestures between choir and orchestra but they then merge to form a rich and commanding texture. The longest instrumental ‘interlude’ is only two bars (27-8). The second section is faster, and so the continuing activity is now maintained by streams of quavers. The concept is fugal with the singers now solo (i.e. without the ripieno support) entering in the order T, B, A, S. Each entry is accompanied by a countersubject marked by a fragmented rhythm first heard in the basses underpinning the tenors.
The initial semi-quaver motives are again heard in the coda, now faster than at the beginning and creating a sense of breathless urgency. Whether this is an indication of the increasing pace of life with the multitude of things we have to contend with, or an insistence upon the need to take regard of God’s message (or, indeed, both) we do not know.
In the bass recitative the melodramatic overstatement of the devilishly dishonest is, perhaps, typical of its time and Bach was doubtless right to introduce an element of restraint into his setting. The voice is accompanied by upper strings and continuo although the former appear to add little more than emphasis, mainly on the strong beats of the bars. There is, however, a tempered flourish (bar 18) to suggest the universality of the pestilence that infects much of humanity. The text berates those who ‘wear the mask’ of hypocrisy and appear devilish and dishonest. It ends, predictably, with a prayer that God protect us from them.
As in the first recitative, the ending is in the form of a melodic arioso. The upper strings are silent, allowing the bass voice to articulate clearly the repeated prayer ‘protect us, dear God’ (from the hypocrites). Each phrase begins with a rising interval as though reaching up towards the throne of the Lord. The singer is gently nudged along by the quaver bass line but here the harmonies are logical and firmly rooted in contrast to the more disjunct progression of the opening four bars. There is peace and potency in God’s protection from dissenting hypocrites.
The tenor aria is the only movement set in the minor mode and at first sight of the text, one wonders why. The core of the verse is a plea for faith and truth to act as the foundation of our lives on earth—-our true hearts should govern our external actions for indeed this is what makes us like God and the angels. The choice of two oboes d’amore as obbligato instruments accentuates the resigned, almost doleful quality of the movement.
The configuration of the aria is unusual. It begins with a long, instrumental ritornello which, with its complete restatement at the end, takes up almost half the movement: twenty of the forty-eight bars! On two occasions (bars 23 and 30) it seems as if a middle section will eventuate but it does not. In essence, the movement is through-composed.
In the opening bar, the first oboe’s motive has a certain rhetorical stance, possibly an assertion of intent. Or perhaps it represents the very essence or foundation of the well-balanced Christian psyche? It is immediately imitated by the second oboe and continuo, latterly taken up by the tenor and it asserts itself on many occasions throughout the aria.
Perhaps it is a call to God himself. One cannot always be certain of what Bach intended, only that he would have had some image in mind, ever stimulating his creative impulses.
Two further points are noteworthy. Firstly the little runs of oboe triplets which appear in bar 14. It is seldom that Bach employs a figure only once in a movement and when he does, it is usually for imagic effect. Might this suggest the prayers ascending towards heaven?
Secondly, note the convoluted vocal line in bars 36-7 where there is mention of God and the angels. The angels traditionally appear in hordes and the complexity of the musical line is probably a representation of this. Nowhere else in this movement is the tenor’s line embellished in this manner.
The feeling of quiet, personal resignation is sustained throughout the unusual chorale setting. Although clearly in the major mode, its calm restraint almost seduces the listener to imagine it might be minor. The text is a simple prayer addressed to a ‘righteous God’ requesting a healthy body and mind and a clear conscience. The trumpet doubles the chorale melody and then accompanies the string interventions with the repetition of some of the lowest notes the instrument can provide, perhaps suggestive of the essential ‘foundation’ of faith referred to in the tenor aria. The gently throbbing string figurations separate the chorale phrases and seem to emerge out of the very cosmos. The importance of the need to possess a ‘pure conscience’ is underlined by its repetition in the lower voices, taking us directly into the final cadence.
What did Bach intend the strings to represent? A calm but attentive entreaty for personal betterment? Prayers rising to the throne of God? Bach frequently differentiates between personal and communal acts of devotion and there seems little doubt that it is the quiet, modestly sustained act of dedication to the will of God and the individual’s committed journey towards a better life that he is painting in musical terms in this subtle and rewarding, but ultimately enigmatic, little cantata.