20.07.14: Fifth Sunday after Trinity.
Readers who are working through these cantatas in order must, by now, be wondering just what further ingenuity Bach can contrive in his continuing experiments with the chorale cantata. In C 93 he has, as we have come to expect, devised yet another approach to the opening chorus. But his real innovation, at least at this stage of the current cycle, is the interleafing of chorale phrases/motives into every single movement.
The words ‘at least this stage of the current cycle’ are important because this is a device which Bach had experimented with in his twenties. C 4, a work composed a decade and a half earlier uses not only insertions but a complete stanza of the chorale as the text for every movement. Bach seems to have regarded this work highly since he performed it several times for Easter celebrations, in the first Leipzig cycle and later, in somewhat enigmatic circumstances, as the forty-first cantata of this cycle (see chapter 42).
The setting of complete verses from the chorale for every movement was a technique that absorbed Bach’s attention from time to time; indeed the very next cantata of this cycle, C 107 uses the identical principle and, unlike C 4, even as a recitative.
The chorale upon which C 93 is constructed was written by Georg Neumark and Bach seems to have been particularly attracted to it. Malcolm Boyd (p 521) lists its use in six other cantatas (27, 84, 88, 166, 179 and 197) although this is its only appearance in this cycle. In C 93 Bach presents a simple harmonization, notably less chromatic than the version used in C 179 from the first cycle.
The intense usage of phrases from the melody throughout this cantata may have left Bach inclined, for reasons of balance, to close the work with as plain and unostentatious a version as possible. After its (almost) remorseless appearances in every movement, it might have seemed an overstatement to have concluded with a more flamboyant arrangement. A reflective, unpretentious utterance seems eminently appropriate.
The opening chorus is, by contrast, by no means ‘unadorned’. The instrumental forces, though, are modest; the usual four-part choir, oboes, strings and continuo. The oboes and violins interplay with each other in a series of ritornello statements throughout. The former begin with a short canonic statement but by the third bar they are playing in unison.
Thence they inter-relate with the violins playing in thirds, so the ear hears, from this point, two strong melodic lines above the continuo, one on wind, the other on strings.
The soprano carries the cantus firmus line throughout but its relationship with the other three voices is complex. Each chorale phrase is preceded by imitative entries derived loosely from the shape of its first notes, and the sopranos participate in all but two of these introductory fragments. The following summation lists the entries of the soprano chorale phrases which should make the structure easier to follow.
Phrase 1, from bar 10, preceded by four bars of sop and alto.
Phrase 2, from bar 19 preceded by four bars of sop and alto.
Phrase 3, from bar 32 preceded by four bars of tenor and bass.
Phrase 4, from bar 41 preceded by four bars of tenor and bass.
Phrase 5, from bar 55 preceded by four bars of S, A, T, B.
Phrase 6, from bar 65 preceded by four bars of S, A, T, B.
Yet again Bach has produced a chorale fantasia with an original design unlike any that have preceded it, a ritornello movement with both instrumental and vocal sections separating the chorale phrases. The melodic material is taken from the opening oboe melody and the chorale.
The text uses the metaphor of the house built upon sand—when we trust in God our foundations are solid and we shall be wholly supported by Him. The first bar of each chorale phrase proper is harmonized in largely unembellished block chords creating the impression of solidarity and permanence. The lower voices thence become more dispersive, dissolving into a continuously moving texture of transience and change.
It seems that, yet again, Bach has used the simplest of textual images to stimulate his insatiable imagination. Is it not unreasonable to assume that the solid chords underpinning the chorale represent the sturdy, standing edifice and the constant movement of the violins and oboes the shifting sands. It is conjecture only; but it is so often the case with Bach that we find clear textual images embedded within, and sometimes wholly conditioning the construction of the musical rhythms, melodies, structures and textures that encompass them.
This hypothesis is strengthened by the observation that in the last two of the six phrases there is less discursiveness in the lower voices as the text affirms divine solidarity—he who trusts in God has not built upon sand.
The second movement is an excellent example of the hybrid recitative which Bach develops throughout this cycle (see also C 2, chapter 3). The tenor intersperses embellished chorale lines with more rhythmically free recitative. This technique seems to have particularly interested Bach at this time and we will be coming across numerous examples in the following cantatas. It is often used particularly as a device for obtaining variety when setting long tracts of text.
Bach sets each line to an increasingly ornate version of the chorale phrases (bar 1-3, 6-8, 9-11 and 15-16). Their oratorical, somewhat obsessed nature is underlined by the persistent, even relentless quality of the quaver continuo line that buttresses them. The text of the separating bars of recitative expands upon, or attempts to answer, the questions proffered e.g.
The chorale phrases become increasingly distorted, an aural equivalent of the visual experience of looking at oneself through the old fairground deforming mirrors. The continuo quavers, however, do not allow us to lose touch with them. The distortions of the chorale suggest the twisted and perverted thinking of the misguided but the final four lines of text depart from both the perverse presentation of the chorale and any further expressions of doubt. Direct secco recitative now conveys the text of Christian truth; the true believer bears his cross with divine composure simply because he has undergone the experiences of sorrow and distress.
For musical cohesion Bach completes the movement with a brief reiteration of the quaver bass which had previously underpinned the chorale phrases.
Some critics, and Albert Schweitzer in particular, have not always been kind to Bach in their comments on these recitative experiments. But it is also true that they have not always understood what he was attempting to do. The apposition of chorale phrases and recitative provides an opportunity for dramatic dialogue such as is not possible within the confines of the Baroque aria or chorus.
The tenor aria is a strange mixture of ritornello and binary form, demonstrating Bach’s ongoing experimentation with the combining and conjoining of traditional musical structures. The first string motive is simply the first five notes of the chorale translated into a major mode.
This little figure is employed in many permutations and its main characteristic is the moment of silence (or stillness) following each statement. This clearly relates to the first line of text—e we but still. The immobility is only set aside towards the end when the long vocal melismas render the word senden—God’s sending of our children to their salvation.
But the overall mood is one of serene contemplation. It is an evocation of the moments of calmness and tranquility preceding those times of trial when we may rely upon God the Father to dispel all misfortunes. It is notable that this is the only major-key movement in the cantata. It even strives to remain major throughout, with the barest of excursions into minor modes after the double bar line.
Quoting Schweitzer’s views on this cantata, and with particular reference to this aria, he states (vol 2, p 241) ‘Even the volatile motive that expresses gay insouciance—is derived from the commencement of the [chorale] melody . The device may be very ingenious but it gives no artistic satisfaction. It amounts to a disfigurement of the melody.’ It is strange that Schweitzer, frequently so insightful, should here find a commonplace example of Bach’s economical and focused use of materials so irksome. He makes, for example, no such criticism of C 4 which has a similar concentration upon the chorale melody, exacerbated by the constant use of the one key, E minor. On the contrary, Schweitzer says of that work (vol 2, p 161) ‘the consummate expressiveness of [it] has always been marveled at’.
Minor mode return with the duet for soprano and alto (number 4) and they remain for the rest of the cantata. Bach returns to the simplicity of simple binary form, this time without the complication of an instrumental ritornello; the vocalists are given virtually no rest from the first to the last bars. But the tonal restrictions of the complete chorale melody (played in unison by the violins and violas, in a low, doleful register) prevent Bach from arriving at a new key at the point where we might have expected a double bar line (bars 16-17).
A great many of his keyboard suite movements are in binary form which, in essence, is an extension of the ‘question and answer’ phrase; an unfinished melodic idea is complemented by one that brings about a sense of completion. Similarly, but on a larger scale, binary form moves to a second key at the double bar line (usually the dominant or relative major) and is thus ‘unfinished.’ After repeating itself, it proceeds through a second section, eventually returning us to the home key and thus bringing about the required sense of conclusion.
The feeling the listener gains is that of a journey outwards followed by the passage home. Here, however, Bach is forced to remain substantially in C minor with the merest of transient brushes against related keys.
But the listener does not really miss the lack of key contrast. Around the chorale melody Bach presents us with an engaging trio comprising the two voices and the continuo line. All of these are given a little kick through the use of Schweitzer’s three-note ‘joy’ motive—da—da—dah—first heard in the continuo but eventually permeating all parts.
The time for ‘gladness’ is mentioned in the opening line and the somewhat unexpected intrusions of the chorale phrases mark the God who comes upon us unawares but leaves us, somehow, enhanced—He recognizes the appropriate times for happiness and if we are faithful, He will appear when we least expect it.
This movement is, like the earlier one for bass, a mixture of recitative and chorale/arioso, with several changes of tempo. This is not, perhaps, surprising as it is one of the longer slabs of text we find Bach setting, over two dozen lines. One is tempted to wonder why Bach did not consider cutting it as it adds little to the moral or message. It does, however, provide a succession of the kinds of illustrative images that Bach frequently found difficult to resist; thunder, fire and tempest, the rich man, the poisoned pot, Peter awaiting his catch. The continuo bursts through the opening declaration (thunder and lightning) and thereafter the twists and turns of the melodic lines fit and suggest the textual images precisely.
The six phrases of the embellished chorale melody (beginning in bars 1, 4, 9, 12, 17 and 27) are all incorporated in the vocal line. On this occasion Bach does not point them up by adding a consistently reiterated continuo idea, although a quaver bass does underpin phrases 3, 4 and 6. But otherwise the strategy is much the same as in the previous recitative, the chorale sections enumerating the principle statements, the recitative sections elaborating them. The former warn us not to imagine that God has forsaken us for He shall balance our relative fortunes and apportion to us appropriately. The recitative sections expand these ideas translating them, with examples, into a more colloquial exposition of the dogma.
Once again the hybrid movement proves to have shape, meaning and purpose, presenting a series of contentions in a manner not possible through established aria or chorus forms.
Time now to rouse the congregation, perhaps even to ‘jolly’ them along. The Lutheran services were long (up to three hours) and even in summer the churches could be cold! The final chorale is quiet, simple and contemplative, an unpretentious prayer. So if there is any energising necessary, it has to come now; and so it does. Only four performers are required, a soprano, oboist, cellist and keyboard player, the musical character suggesting that in this case the last of these might be a harpsichordist rather than an organist.
This is a joyous, energetic little movement, a straight-forward ritornello structure beginning with an infectiously rising oboe melody. The chorale has, for the moment disappeared. The text is a personal statement—I look to the Lord and trust in God who can truly perform wonders. The generally ascending melodic directions encapsulate the image of gazing upwards to the throne of the Lord.
The soprano takes up a simplified version of the ritornello melody while the oboe supports it with flickering wisps of sound. There is little explicit imagery. The text is fundamentally optimistic and the mood is upbeat, cheerful and positive if just slightly moderated by the minor key. But for the ‘Schweitzarians’ who may deplore constant reiterations of the chorale melody, there is one final surprise. It manifests itself once more in the vocal line, half way through the movement and using the final two phrases only (bars 23-5 and 28-30).
The text of these lines states—He is the Worker of miracles which He does according to His will. This insertion confirms the aria as an indisputable part of the architecture of this cantata but Bach’s intention is not merely structural. These two lines shine out beyond the general mood of optimism to stress the key premise of the work; God’s omnipotence and the implications of this for sinner and Christian alike.
The plainly harmonised closing chorale urges us to sing and pray as we follow His guidance—trust in Heaven and we shall not be forsaken. It completes a work of great beauty and variety, significant especially for the innovation of the hybrid recitatives.
Boyd (p 521) describes this cantata thus; ‘In its symmetry of design, its effective musical structure and above all, its sheer strength of expression, this work affords a notably fine example of Bach’s trenchant originality in the composition of a chorale cantata’.
Few today would disagree. Even Schweitzer should be permitted his occasional lapses.