This long, 8 section cantata, is scored for standard orchestra, -oboes, strings, continuo and 4-chorus, with solo parts.
The three oboe players, are, throughout, required to take up, as requested, by Bach, their variants, oboe, oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia and Taille.
In the broad choral opening movement, the continuo, with organ and violone, -or its modern stand-in, the double bass, supports an independent bass line, written out, for ‘cello and cembalo.
1/(opening choral motet)
‘A mighty fortress, is our God, a sure defence and a weapon. He saves us freely, out of all the trouble, that has befallen us. The old, evil enemy, has serious intent. Great might and much cunning, are his cruel armaments. On earth, he has no equal.’
The festive trumpets, with timpani, that a well taught and well meaning son, Wilhelm Friedemann installed, posthumously, into this opening movement, (and movement 5), are well meant, but ‘well-off.’
Powerful and stirring words, such as these, instigated, into Bach’s ears, hands and quill, a dominance of vocality with a subservience of any other colour.
No need for and additions.
With this in mind, father Bach perhaps unwittingly and certainly unknowingly, penned one of the high points, of any vocal writing, a superb motet, certainly scaling those dizzy heights, of that select and exclusive, band of ‘greats’ and very possibly, eclipsing, them all. Certainly Brahms, if he had known this work, and he may very well have done, would have whole-heartedly agreed with me.
A motet, a stand-by word, from earlier ‘Renaissance-times’, is, in reality, a word that describes, a peace of polyphonic, or many voiced, vocal music. And this example is certainly that and a lot more.
Each entry, is an essence of each musical line, of each verse, of the well known chorale, that ends this cantata. listening, to all this, is rather like tasting a good wine, over and over again, and the same does, come over and over again, but of course, with some sort of ‘difference’, -unknown and certainly un quantifiable.
Each line is subtly changed, re-fashioned perhaps, not so much to ‘fit’, but just according to this composers tasteful whims.
Every now and then, a punctuation occurs, with a serging bouquet effect. One such place is bars 12 and 24, a W.F place, where certainly, J.S knows better.
Rhythmic vitality abounds and within an expensive 4/2 time, itself, in a large 2-in-a-bar, 2 time- scheme, giving absolutely enough space, for vital and exploratory melodic quaver embellishment and an off-beat ‘up-beat’ attitude, to the style.
Form the start, a ‘false bass line’, -and a very good one at that, ghost balances the whole, making the eventual proper and living bass line entry, bar 12, all the more the ‘main event’, rather than just the supporting act.
Bar 17, 24 and 53, are good examples of this.
These vocal gymnastics increase and at 46, where a bass pedal, ‘D’ leads us all, into a new section, ‘…the old evil enemy,’ where forced accents, drive home and drive out, this old evil. Notice flattened thirds, F natural, in the D/A major world we are now in.
At 72, the ‘…serious intent,’ gives rise to a rising up of pitch.
Follow it all through, with ‘…great might and much cunning,’ and onto the, ‘…cruel armaments’, bar 93, for instance, where we have a cruel chromatic alto part, cutting into the texture, right up to the end of this section, bar 100.
The final line of text, ‘On earth, He has no equal.’ take up the content of the final 14 bars if music, which, like their set text, possibly have no equal, where the final ‘stretto’ has independence, of part and combination of idea reach cosmic levels of metaphysical experience.
‘Every creature, born of God, is destined, for victory.’
C- With our might, nothing is done and we are very soon lost. The righteous man shall fight for us, whom God himself has chosen.
He, who at baptism, swore loyalty, to Christ’s banner, is, forever, victorious.
C- Do you ask, ‘who is he?’ He is Jesus Christ, The Lord, of the Sabaoth and there is no other God. He must hold the field.
Every creature, born of God, is destined, for victory.’
In this due,t for a single soprano and bass, with string accompaniment and a single solitary oboe, Violins and violas are joined together, in this attractive opening, string-friendly, moto-perpetuo’, that is a foretaste of what is to befall our bass singer.
An extended coloratura, with little respite, continues, throughout and this voice and is the vehicle, for this setting, of the non-chorale-text, written out above.
The chorale melody, sung by the soprano voice, embellished and refashioned, by an oboe accompaniment, in, mostly, unison, sings the chorale text, marked ‘C’, above.
At talk of baptism, 52, the bass part, probably with some great relief, to the singer slackens, to a mainly quaver movement, but generally, both melody and accompanying melody, bounce along nicely, with little concern, between the two.
‘Consider, -child-of-God, this great love, that Jesus Himself, pledged to you, with His blood, through which, He enlists you, to fight against Satan’s army, the world and sin.
Let not satan and his vices, enter your soul. Let not your heart, -God’s kingdom on earth, become a desert.
Repent your guilt with grief, so that the spirit of Christ, maybe firmly bound, to you.’
The second, very beautiful section, an arioso, grows out of the ambiguities of the first, and is characterized, by the music, as if the spirit of Christ, is binding around, the soul, uniting and joining with it, convolute, turning and tightening, firmly, onto and into, the life of the believer. This is, as opposed, to the twisting of the serpent, around the non- believer.
The first, recit-proper, section, comes out of a chaos-like background, the highly ambiguous 7/5 chord, leading, eventually, to a first inversion. In-fact, we get no root chord, until the arrival, of ‘…the bloo’d, at half-way through 4.
5 starts off optimistically enough, but at the mention, of the adversary, Satan, we loose focus, until a major event, at 7, the entry of vice, into the soul, of this soul.
These two ‘let-nots’, 8 and 10 are hi-lighted by the chromatic ‘desert’, arrived at, at 11/12.
The closing arioso, has already been alluded to.
‘Come into my heart’s abode, Lord Jesus, my desiring! Drive out Satan and the world and let your image, shine out, from a renewed me. Get away, vile sin.’
The opening, continuo ritornello, provides material, for the whole musical thematic structure.
This sad and forlorn dance, which has a skeleton crew only, soprano and continuo, has, inevitably, because of its textual nature, -and that, within each written bar, an uneven gait.
This singing dancer, is a true Paralympian.
The 12/8 time, -or 4-in-a-bar, is best understood, as a 9/8, -or 3-in-a-bar:
Opening ritornello time-signature, is 6/8, the first 4 rests and note, up to the ‘E’, in the continuo, then a time signature change, to 9/8, for two bars, of this metre, and so-on. The 2-in-a-bar continuo arpeggio, normally forms a 6/8 bar.
This 6/8, 9/8 combination, sometimes, one of 6 and two of 9, -but not always, works, if you follow it right through!
Why might Bach do such a thing?
To flag-up, perhaps, the unnaturalness of this transition. A meter that cuts across simplicity, masks that simplicity.
As written, the music takes on a strange ‘other-worldliness’, and it is difficult to know, where we, the listeners, are, in relationship, to the performers and the music. All this is intentional, and in keeping, with an understanding, the text.
In any case, text and notes -and in particular, within the three-quaver-unit, which remains a constant, fit perfectly, each part, of the combined two-part counterpoint, -and albeit, melancholy in its character, rises and falls, stately-like, complimenting and challenging each, through those long phrases, and ultimately, combining perfectly, in perfect harmony, illustrating, every aspect of, what, for Christ, is a small step, and for human-kind, a big step.
‘And if the world, was filled, with devils, about to devour us, -that might really frighten us!
But, we shall conquer, the prince of this world, however grim, he is. He cannot harm us, for he has been judged and therefore, a single word, can destroy him.’
Those devils dominate, from the start, as rushing semiquavers, create a certainly oppressive, although, pseudo-frightening atmosphere, where such devils might move, or fly, through the atmosphere of our lives. The chorale, melody, with its words, are totally surrounded by them, really right up ,to the end.
But something is wrong.
What do we hear?
A brilliantly trivial, dancing gigue, in quavers, -in which, incidentally, the oboe players must make their first change of instruments, to the d’amore sound, the first two introductory bars, rhythmical parody, the first phrase of the tune and in doing so, immediately defeat and destroy, any outward show of warfare and inward threat, of fear.
This possible threat, is forced, to take itself, so very much less seriously than it wants to, being bounced, really, right out of reality, into a rather rip-roaring, different sort of, ‘learning adventure’, one in which we are shown, how to set words, against an orchestral palette.
‘Stand fast, beside the blood-stained banner, of Christ, o soul. Believe that your leader will not desert you. Believe that His victory will lead you, to your crown. March gladly, to war. If you hear and keep the word of God, the enemy will be forced to flee. The Saviour remains, your protection and salvation.’
The previous chorale-movement, bids us realize out position and this secco movement, shows us to be standing-fast and firm, bar 3, marching to war, bar 7, the enemy being forced, to flee, bar 10, and, as in the third recit movement, a closing extended arioso section, shows us, that The Saviour, remains our protector and our shield.
‘How blessed are those, who carry the word of God, on their lips. Even more blessed, is the heart, that holds Him strong in faith. That one remains unconquered, striking at its enemies, and when, at last, it defeats death, it will be crowned.’
The assigned oboe player, must now take up the da caccia, and joined by a lone fiddle player, also take up this rather lament-like vigil.
The opening 7 notes of the oboe, pass through a noteworthy flattened 7th, F natural, setting, again, an ambiguous tone, to these proceedings and this is echoed, imitatively, by the contrasting fiddle, with his C natural, in the corresponding place.
Incidentally, each is restored, F#, at bar 4 and C#, at bar 5.
Does all this inspire confidence in this text, or does it make us wonder how blessed we really are?
After a long and convolute introduction, the voices join in, synchronizing together, which, in turn, for-shadows the same, in the soloists.
It doesn’t last and the voices imitate the opening instrumental texture, allowing oboe and violin to spawn antiphonal arpeggios and with these a continual dialogue, -beautiful and transcendental, reminding us, that God’s word, is on their,-and our, lips.
At, ‘…more blessed is the heart…’ 39, the continuo bass line, turns into even quavers, and at 45, the semiquavers abandon their ‘word-of-God’ flow, becoming more ornamental to the line, as the text, reminds us of the challenges associated with blessedness. There is the feel of a change-of-pace here, a slackening of forward drive.
With this in mind, notice the harmonic ambiguities, 51 through 52.
The orchestral, ‘trio-sonata-texture’ continues, through, into 64, where the mood changes, again and a stoic sense, of determination and forward movement, is evoked, with words and on-beat quavers and long groups of semiquavers, reminiscent, of the string writing of movement 2, the second Aria, ‘…the unconquered heart, striking out, successfully, at its enemies.
At 80, again, a different mood takes the music and us, one that slows both our moods, with long crochets.
The Crown has arrived.
But, really more-so, hear the unmistakable dropping and drooping, bar 85 through 90, as we all realize, that death is really, the prerequisite, for crowning.
‘We should not touch, or comment, on God’s word, because, He is with us, with His gifts and spirit. If our enemies, take our body, goods, honour, children and wife, then let them do so. It will bring them, no profit, as His kingdom, shall remain, ours.’
Tutti ensemble, with oboe d’amore throughout, -the lower two parts, in the first crochet beat, similar motion and the two middle ones, in the second and third, contrary, give this harmonization its very familiar flavour, again, so very 19th century British sounding, this setting, by its stages and verses, carries on and through, with its repeat, really without much ado, except, it you like, the extra ‘odd’ phrase, 13, through 14, ‘…bring them no profit…’, and the beautifully turned alto line, in the middle of 15, ‘…His kingdom, shall remain ours.’