This is a brilliant, early work, most probably written, when its composer was only 22 years of age. It is expressive and profound, leaving all previous and comparable works, a long way behind, in really every way. We can hear Bach’s unique and distinctive voice, as he excels beyond, all the comparable works, of his predecessors.
The orchestration, in this ‘tragic-acts’ cantata, is modest, almost ,stille Musik, comprising, 2 x recorders, 2 x viols, 4 x soloists/chorus + continuo.
The musical style is motet-like, highly diverse in theme, style and scoring and forming symmetrical coherence, unique at this time.
The occasion was most probably funereal.
The text falls into two parts:
death under the law,
death under the gospel.
An analytical structure, laid out in Dürr, helps us to see and hear this symmetry:
The four movement structure subdivides into 8 sections, 2d forming the central point and surrounded, on both sides, by two solos and a chorus. An short introductory, or preludial Sonatina, or symphony/sinfonia, opens up and the penultimate section comprises a solo + chorale. A Chorale + fugue finishes up.
This molto adagio, almost Handelian, opening, with its precisely marked harmonies, with their changes and quaver-semiquaver/semiquaver idea, moves at a funereal pace, although with not a trace of morbidity, in the air. The gambas, sonorous and singing and in a close harmony, weave around and about, but never to far from each other and likewise the heterophonic recorders, managing to remain, in total unison…almost.
This unison appears as strangely stereophonic, or 3D, multidimensional, to our ears. The visual recorders, appear as one, albeit with a richness, but sound, sometimes, as an illusive two.
How much more, to the ears, of Bach’s mourners, -they being so much more attuned, might they lead those distressed faithful, gently, towards the thoughts and things, of the afterlife.
This second part, with its three distinct sections, forms a triparte motet, the sequence of sections determined by the textual theme.
At the start of this opening section, continuing that molto adagio feel, -with perhaps a little more time impetus, in line with the text, the chorus confidently pipes up:
‘God’s own time, is the very best of time’
This short, 6 bar homophonic choral section, draws its semiquaver movement from the introduction, and gambas and recorders continue in that vein.
This is followed by an Allegro fugato section, fugato.
‘In Him we live and move and have our being, and as long as He wills it.’
‘…as long as He wills it…’ is sung to a long and sustained soprano tone.
A slipping of the tempo towards an adagio assai brings distinct change, reflected firstly’ in the text and then in the pleading and sustaining of the music:
‘In Him, we will die, -and at the right time, as He wills it.’
Block chords. Notice sustained soprano ‘D’ at 42, followed by the chromaticism and the final, ominous bar, leading to,
‘Lord, teach us to number our days, so that we become wise.’
A tenor voice over a free chaconne, decorated with (again unison) recorders and gambas, that continues, up to the beginning of 56.
At 58, the application if the hearts to wisdom compels the voice to more thoughtful musing, with step-wise appoggiaturas.
‘Put your house into order, or else you will not live, -but die.’
A bass voice, with only continuo support. Notice coloratura on ,Lebendig’.
For the whole 60 bars, the recorders, again unison, take on the roll of concertante ‘house-maid’, fussing about, in the most imaginative, but obtrusive way, as they work towards, putting this house, back into some sort of order.
2/[fourth-part] andante. chorus/solo arioso, with instrumental chorale:
This final section of part 2, 54 bars, is an invigoration, of the old-style motet:
‘This is the ‘old idea’: Man, you must perish.’
Bars 131-145, supported by continuo only, the lower parts sing a choral-fugue, exploring, in music, every aspect, inflection and meaning, of this text.
This breaks off, after 2 expositions.
‘Even so, (‘new idea’) please come, Lord Jesus.’
A lone soprano announces, this new idea.
At 150, recorders, supported by gamba embellishment, announce the chorale melody, Ich hab mein Sach Gott heimgestellt, the text if which, it should be noted, associated with this tune, is of striking a similarity, to the text, of this cantata, justifying its use?
This sequence of,
is repeated 3 times.
In this process, there are significant alterations, really a gradual compression of the music, resulting in increasing intensity:
Shortenings, false and early entries, reversal of entries and’ most far-reaching of all, a distinctive, thematic transformation.
The fugue subject remains unaltered, but its significance, is reduced.
This is a complex section and can be appreciated, fully, only within, the listening experience.
‘Into your hands I commit my spirit; you are a God of faithfulness and truth.’
A strange rising bass line, repetitive, with an embellished top, introduces this alto interlude.
‘Today, you shall be with me, in paradise.’
In an answering section, a bass voice, -Vox Christi, drops any hint of a repetitive bass line and as it does so, it also moves away, from any hint of recitativo, embracing a total arioso feel, with an integrated bass line, imitative to the voice, as it is imitative, to Christ.
Notice the way he enjoys his moments of paradise.
At 39, while the Vox Christi is still singing, the alto enters, -again, but this time, with gamba accompaniment, derived from the figured line, with the chorale melody:
,Mit fried und freud ich fahr dahin’, ‘With peace and joy, I go to that place, according to the will of God.’
Bach takes care, in his score, to mark as piano, the words ,sanft und stille’ 55 and the last line,
‘…death has become my sleep.’
‘Glory, praise, honour and majesty, be given to you, God the Father and Son -and to the Holy Spirit, by name.
May the power of God, make us victorious, through Jesus Christ. Amen.
A plain 4-part setting of this chorale text, preceded by a 5 bar ‘introduction’, -2 x 2 bar phrases, 1 bar phrase and an up-beat.
Each line of the text followed by an ornamented reprise-echo of the introduction, the last line, being expanded and augmented into a lively and exciting ‘allegro-fugue, joined at 34 by the rest of the band and at 43, the last line of text,
‘Through Jesus Christ. Amen.’
is augmented by the sopranos.
After a spirited ‘Amen’, the recorders have very last word.
This is a complex and especially difficult cantata to grasp and assimilate.
The continuous nature of the music, is a challenge, but with repeated listening, a greater sense of ‘sign-posting’ and direction will become apparent, leading onto an appreciation, of the rewarding sense of musical coherence and order.