6-part cantata, 2 x oboes + strings, continuo and chorus, each voice, -except alto, singing one aria or recit, -except the soprano, who sings two, the last recit and the last aria, which includes, in its orchestration, 3 x flauto dolce, or recorders, 3 trombones + cornetto, -with that trio of recorders, are all used for the chorale, in the first movement:
,Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem selgen End.‘
and also, to supplement the whole, in the last chorale.
The chorale melody, cited above, with its German title, translates, in English as:
‘Truly, I long for a blessed end.’
-and after reading the first line of the sung text, who would not.
The first 6 notes of that melody, is quoted immediately, in the bass line, -the continuo, in long, sustained minims.
In counterpoint, with this, a quaver figuration, motivic, -because it reappears-, sea-saws and pivots, across the 2nd and 4th crochet beat, forming some striking, diminished dissonances, on each 2nd beat.
Bach’s sound-world is sinister and uneasy.
The opening words of the sung text, in the chorus, -when they arrive, are, as I said, simple, but nevertheless, stark and sobering:
‘There is nothing sound in my body, because of your threats,’
This text speaks of ‘the body’, – what the bible calls ‘the flesh’. Bach speaks of the unease of that ‘owning’ of the flesh, that it encases the spirit, and of its very necessary destruction, through the tearing, the ripping and the mutilation, of crucifixion.
This sound-world is slow and painful.
After a 4 bar introduction, which reappears again, a double fugue, -alto + bass and soprano + tenor- slowly sets it all off, on its grisly and morbid exploration, of these conditions, of flesh and pain.
Remedy and emancipation come later.
The music has a mass of flattened seconds, -a Phrygian’ flavour, giving those shapes and senses, of unease, each lowered second, continually surprising us, with not only that expected turn, but also, an uneasy expectation.
In time, the choral tune, ‘I long for a blessed end,’ -wordlessly though, appears, cutting through the texture, with a faltering message of hope, although, not a hope of a cessation, of agonies, but one of a cessation of duration, of those same agonies.
Even with the addition of a trio of Angels, -see movement 5- in the form of a trio of angelic recorders, supporting the cornetto, it is still difficult to hear and grasp, that ‘top-line’, of slight hope, as the splendid weight, of the splendid trombones, must have their way, certainly in sound, if not in word.
, und ist kein…’
‘Nor is there any peace in my bones…because of sin.’
Grinding of bones, -as if tearing of flesh was not enough, commence, in earnest -and with relish, the continuo continually bowing and scraping away, any flesh, with tantalisingly evocative flattened seconds.
Grinding and tearing combine, together, at 58/59, a veritable saw-mill of pain.
-and at this moment, there is no Christ anywhere to be seen.
‘Major’ harmony, to finish with, brings no balm.
-this and the following two movements, are accompanied by continuo, only.
‘The whole world, is a hospital, where men, in countless numbers and even children, -in the cradle, are lying down, severely ill.’
Syllabically declaimed, this horror picks up morose interest, at:
‘One is tormented, in his breast, by a ranging fever, of wicked pleasure. Another lies sick, from the hateful stench of his own honour. A third is consumed, by a lust for wealth, which hurls him, into the grave, ahead of his time’
And, further at:
Der erste Fall hat jedermann beflecket’, ‘The fall of man has stained everyone,’
A moment of considered thought.
The ending too is thoughtful and musically turned, by Bach:
‘Where do I, poor wretch, find medicine? Who will stand by me, in my misery? Who is my physician? Who will restore me?
Movements 4 and 5 will, eventually, provide that poignant question, with a considered answer.
Until then, nothing, but more pity, mostly of ‘the self’ variety.
Aaaahhhh!!! Poor me. Where can I seek advice? My leprosy and my boils, neither herb or plaster, can heal them, only the balm of Gilead, can do that. Only you, Lord Jesus, my Physician, know the best cure for souls.’
Me, me, me.
The accompaniment continues to be bleak, no instruments providing any contrapuntal relief at all, to the, seemingly, never ending monotony of this selfish obsession.
In a sense, the slow moving, predictable melody, moves around, in an endless circle, desperately trying to get somewhere, only ending up, back, again, at its beginning.
It is just a ruminating, cud-chewing exercise, not, so much static, but vacant.
Even when the ‘balm of Gilead’ is intoned, or the words become more hopeful, joy seems non existent, the heaviness of a depressive, ‘me-only’ mentality, crippling any sense energy.
The line is laboured and subdued.
Signs of life begin to stir:
‘…fleeing…’ to the Master.
‘ …have mercy…’
,Mein Heiland’, ‘Savior’ and then, at last,
‘All my life, (I will) thank you for Your help.’
The mood of optimistic faith now really rises -and continues to grow.
Then, as woodwind and strings come together, after three movements of bland dry austerity, we arrive at this:
‘Open your ear of grace, to my poor songs, O Jesus. When I am there, in that choir on high, I shall sing with the angels. My song, of thanks, shall sound much better.’
And actually, already, this song does, ‘…sound much better’. It is not as ‘poor’ as it could be. Bach knows how faith can makes things look so much brighter.
And brighter they are, as, not only is faith, around, in the air, but also, a heavenly host, is on hand, in the shape of a trio of graceful -and grace-giving, flauto dolces, or recorders.
They sing and dance a minuet and all is sweetness and light. A new faith filled and energised perspective on life has, at last, arrived.
But they are a strange trio.
Are they behaving, as an echo, or are they just late, in coming in? -three bars at the beginning, then sometimes two, with long long phrases, and then at 28, and 33, after the singer, a false entry. At 51, they seem to get ahead of the orchestra.
And so it goes on.
It is good to see that, again and at last, that the continuo players, have something to get their continuo teeth into!
But are these three, just unruly, or is it that Bach is trying to show us, that, faith is just not co-ordinated, with our fleshy and fleshly world. Have we to be prepared, for it to arrive, when it wants to?
In any case, in Bach’s hands and ears, allthe instruments, dance and sing, in a myriad of different ways, combinations and varieties.
He himself allows them all, their head and their heart. Then, he re-shapes those head, or heart decisions, those wrongs and rights.
And if bars, or beats, are dropped, shortened, missed, or even elongated, in any possible way, he is literally, on hand, to re-make and re-form, those wrongs and rights.
Whatever it is, it is varied, life giving and energising, bringing salvation, not only to this cantata, but also to the musicians, particularly the singers and, of course, the, -most probably, again- astonished faithful, who, gathering together, in anticipation of what is going to happen, on this particular Sunday, find themselves, singing, in the exulted choir, with the angels.
And sing they do.
‘ I would, for all my days, glorify your strong hand, with which, all my torments and complaints, have been so fully averted. Not only while I am alive, shall I spread your praise around, but, I will also continue, afterwards, and extol you in heaven, for ever.’
The full compliment of instruments and peoples join together in this true song of thanksgiving.
There are not too many surprises in this harmonisation, -unless of course you spot the elongated phrase, on ‘heaven,, or hereafter, reflecting, of course, the length of eternity- just a true sense of joy, -and that, written into the thoroughly smooth and natural flow, of words and pure tonal musical line.
But of course, there is much more going on, as we listen and learn, to assimilate, in our spirit, the totality of oneness and fulfilment, both of words, instruments -and of sound.
As the roof is raised and instruments and people, are raised with it, I am certain that, at least some, in that building, may have realised that, the hearing and the experiencing, of such music, as this, is bringing, to them, something that is much much more, than just the sum, of its very many -and varied, parts.