The cantata BWV 116, features strings, 2 x Oboe d’amore, Continuo, in its instrumentation, with Chorus, and a single Corno, which appears, in the first and last choral movements, the others being an Alto aria, followed by a Tenor recitativo, followed by a Terzetto, with soprano, alto, bass and continuo only.
‘Prince of peace, Lord Jesus Christ, true man and true God. You are a strong helper, in times of distress and in life and death. Therefore, in your name, do we cry, to your Father.’
This concerto-like movement, a chorale fantasia, with its opening rhythmic turns, immediately, sets a pace, of peaceful vibrancy.
This lively and convivial mood, -the first violin, setting up, ritornellos and interludes, ‘concertante-energy’, creating a sound ‘wrap-around-aura’, prepares us, at 16, for that choral entry, (+ corno), giving a Princely sparkle.
Long and sustained vocals, chime and clash, nicely, with independent and ongoing, semiquaver movement, creating occasional music, fit for this occasion.
The length of the opening Continuo chord, hangs on, over the anticipation, of the rest of the band, which wants to ‘get-on’, with down and upward movement.
But a forward movement, written into this movement, is not going to be held back, by anything.
Textual lines 1, 2 and 7, stick to their 4-part ‘chorale’ shape, the continuo bass line, following its namesake, closely, -at least on its first beat.
Lines 3 and 4, now align with previously free instrumental texture, fugal in spirit, if not in attitude, the melody alighting on the usual soprano line, but this time, 4 bars late.
In lines 5 and 6, lower voices, break away, with dynamic and rhythmic, independence and also, in the interests, of some textual illustration, -and ‘…in your name, alone,’
The last line, returns, as the first did, within and enclosed, with the now familiar sound world.
This scene, of Princely peace, should prepare us, -with all of its strengthened, inner parts, to face anything.
‘Unspeakable, is our distress. -And the menace, of an angry judge.
We are hardly able, -and in our fear, to call to you, in your name, as you have asked us to. ‘
A solo song, with Oboe obbligato, or even, -with modifications,- a concerto slow movement.
Whatever it might have been, or could have been, what it actually is, is an exercise, in harmonic agonies, equalled only, by the textual agonies, of its words.
Sighs and shapes, -dissonant, chromatic and speech-like, as they are, and setting a slow and gripping pace, are rather beautiful, in their mirroring of such terrible fear, and that, in the face of such menace, -the terror of the soul in anticipation of the judgement. Everything is sigh and a trauma.
The thin, withering vocal start, faltering and fearful, is thickened, with a rich veneer covering, of dread.
It is not, so much, an Ah!, or an Oh! but a scream, Munch-like, an attack of sheer panic, such as might be felt, on awakening, -and that, in the dead of night, 04:30- by one condemned, by a crime, to swing, from a rope, -and at the appointed time, 08:00.
Our Oboe creeps and groans, -on the ground and in the saw-dust, never really settling into, any sense at all, of getting a grip, on this situation, so-much-so, that, as our singer awakes, preparing to sing, there is no comfort, or balm, to loosen an already tight and constricted neck, hence only these constricted and tight cries that, perhaps, in total terror, seem to force themselves, from all of humanity.
Notice the flattened supertonic chord, G major at ,Not’ or ‘distress’, the beginning of a long phrase that ends on ,Richters Dräuen‘ or ‘Judges threats‘, where the continuo bass line, enthusiastically takes up a semiquaver ‘tut-tut, naughty boy’ attitude, helped out, with accented oboe appoggiatura.
At ‘…erzürnten‘ or ‘incensed/enraged’ melisma takes over, followed, at the end of the vocal wail, by an oboe sigh.
Bach hi-lights ,Angst’, with a rare long vocal trill and the end of this phrase, is chromatic in response to the ‘…screaming to The Father…’ and an eventual arrival, in g# minor, at 50.
The angry judge looms large.
‘Remember, Jesus, that you are still called, Prince of Peace. Out of love you decided, to send us your word. Would you really and abruptly, turn your heart away from us, You, who have always, shown us great help?’
Notice how the continuo bass, gives the opening line of the final chorale, surrounding these words.
For three voices, -part glee, part madrigal, although excluded from both, on account of both sex and religion, -although perhaps not gender, is unusual in any Bach cantata and yet, in this one, it forms, not only the kernel, but also the highlight.
Be prepared for rich, special fare, as three spirits, do three things: confess, ask and receive.
‘We realise our debt and ask for nothing, except patience and immeasurable love. Your merciful heart, did indeed break, when the pain of the fallen, drove you back, into this world, to rescue us.’
The textual gasps, sighs and anguish, of the second movement Aria, are here replaced by introductory musical gasps, or gaps, of a totally different nature, those of a trampoline-like bounce, rests, within a continuo bass line, where breathing, -and not only that of our singer, is reset, measured and structured, towards the start, of this simple, crafted, treasure.
I say ‘simple’, but after a common-place vocal start, -imitative octave leaps, of tonic-dominant variety, although of a thoroughly dominant persuasion, at the mention of patience, -or forbearance, um Gelduld’, tenor and bass, lead off, with a new idea, picked up by a soprano D natural, flattened second, in c# minor, with parallel 4ths , 17-18, and a chromatic descent, via tenor, with soprano echo’s, and bass ‘shapes’, based on its own line, and opening material.
At 24, a recap of the opening, based, this time, on ‘B’, throws up a minor 7th leap, in the tenor voice, and soon, a flattened 2nd, G natural, in f# minor, 29, leading to some more chromatic descent.
At 35, rapid and ‘immeasurable love’, hastens a change, in the emphasis of time, as stable three time, gives way to a breathless two.
At 47, another spirit comes close, that of Brahms and in so doing, characteristically, the emphasis of time, again changes and 6/4 takes in two bars at once and counterpoints are seen and heard through rich polyphonic eyes and ears.
Indeed, time changes many times, -2/4 back to 6/4 and even 4/4 @ last beat of 61-62, and 9/4, 63-5.
All is leading onwards, to the ‘…pain and anguish of the fallen’, at 78.
A short ‘codetta’, 129, shows our tenor exceeding his gilt, with the leap of a 9th, 130, perhaps a measure, of the real lengths to which Bach has gone, in this small but absolute masterpiece, to set these important words.
Our three singing spirits are not just the only spirits, in on this act. The spirit of Mozart hovers low, guiding Bach in the ways of musical humility.
No Heap-of-humbleness here, just a humble humility, -and that, music-like.
Also, no established vocal-bass-tonic, -in this case, an E, in itself, creating a wafting and floating, a lightness and peace, in an imitative opening.
At 13, patience bounces in and a chromatically drooping tenor, goes with it, descending, right down to 24, it being picked up, again, by the soprano voice, 31-34.
This Aria contains, perhaps, some of Bach’s most enlightened and crafted music, enlightened, after Mozart, crafted, later, by Brahms.
‘Grant that, under heavy and sharp lashes, we do not bleed, too much. You are a God of order and you know, that in the enemies fury, what cruelty and wrong there is. Stretch out your hand, towards a land, that is suffering. It can conquer, the enemies might and bring us lasting peace.’
A prayer, enveloped, within a halo of Christ-like strings, towards a lasting peace, where God’s knowledge of the enemies ‘grim rage’ is acknowledged, -A#, at 5, leading into un- diminished ‘cruelty and wrong’.
The ‘outstretched hand’ is followed by a melisma, or arioso, of, ‘…lasting peace.’
‘Illuminate our hearts and minds with the spirit of your grace, so that we will not bring it, into disgrace or disrepute, to the loss of our souls. You alone, are the only one, who can do this.’
Notice beautiful tenor line, starting with an (almost) held and prepared E, which rubs, nicely with an alto F#, illuminating the text, as if, with the very spirit of Grace, itself.
Bars 2, last bear, 4, tenor again, shows and exhibits classic, smooth and perfect writing.
The evocation of Christ, in music, as the only one who can do this, -with all of its shocks and passions, bars 9-10, is what makes this music, a vital cornerstone, of our civilisation.