The ascension oratorio, is scored for strings, continuo and chorus, with two each, of oboes and flutes, three trumpets and drums.
Not all the music is original, some being drawn, by Bach, from earlier woks.
‘Praise God, in His kingdom, praise Him, in His honour, glorify Him, in His splendour. Seek to do this and tell this, rightly and truthfully, when, with the assembled choirs, you sing, to His honour.’
A festive feel, from the beginning, with ‘fanfare’, bar 1 and ‘flourish’, bar 3, both a part of the opening trumpet line.
This fanfare material, is developed, 8 through 16.
16, through 24, seems, as it unfolds, to be bearing-in-mind, a responsibility, to rightly-tell the ascension, as revealed, so far.
The chorus entry is, very largely, new and independent material, although some ‘fanfare’ and ‘flourish’ material, finds it way, into the soprano line.
The syncopated rhythm, at 89 and the eventual settling, into f# minor, at 137, further reinforces those responsibilities of narrating, correctly, this important and far reaching event, as does, a general shift, in the choral writing, from the rather static and inhibited homophonic approach, towards, a generally liberates and energised, free contrapuntal style.
‘The Lord lifted up his hands and blessed His disciples. As He did this, He departed, from them.’
The tenor voice, takes on the job, of singing Jesus’ words, in this case, Luke 24:50-1.
Listen, for the blessing, -upwards, and the departure, -downwards, outwards and onwards, towards the end cadence.
‘Jesus, is your departure, really so near? Has the hour already arrived, when we must let you leave us? Look at these warm tears, rolling down our pale cheeks. How we long for you, now that we lack almost all comfort. Please do not leave us, quite yet?’
The self explanatory text, is set, by Bach, using colour and articulation, which combine, into one and all at the same time: a pair of flutes, colour, coupled up with, semiquavers, articulated, portato, or mezzo-staccato, articulation.
This combination, in turn, hi-lights, in order of appearance- firstly, the imminent departure, of Jesus, twice, the tears resulting from this, first appearing, in the vocal narrative and mirrored, in the orchestra, and- secondly, the yearning desire, for Him, mirrored wonderfully, in the continuo, followed by ‘lost-comfort’, and, sadly, again, departure.
‘Stay, dearest life and do not flee away, so soon. Your leaving and early departure, will cause me, the greatest suffering, of all.’. Yes, please stay here a little longer, or else, I shall be quite overwhelmed, with pain and grief.’
This long, woeful and sadly-strung lament, -on tutti violin 1, giving greater body and pathos, than a single solo, could not be more self-serving and reflecting, in its depression, typically reflecting an attitude, based on, ‘what-if’, rather than, ‘what-is’.
It start out with two negative thoughts, -two continuo chords, continuing, with a train of thoughts, and some ‘throwaway’, -bar 2, first beat, that covers all possibilities, -F# and G# are certainly acceptable, but Bb and D# right off, in this key? -Bb of course, a supertonic, in this A minor tonality and D#, a tritone…
…of course, it is, in one sense, a straight modulation, to E, major, or minor (?).
The melody itself, drops down, 5 through 6, to nearly the lowest gloomy extremity, of the violin, G#.
A vocal mention, of ‘…Leben…’, sees the violin embarking, on a slow, painful and miserable, upward climb, 11, really through, 17, the way out of this pit of despair.
A repeat, of the same words, the first line, 15, brings a combination, of the same vocal line with an inversion, of firstly, the last thee fiddle notes of bar 12 and the first of 13, and then, an octave higher, the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth notes, of bar 11.
Clearly Bach is considering life and its contents and make-up, in the light of an existence, without Christ.
At half-way through 17, the fiddle assumes the vocal melody and at 21, the voice takes up the drooping fiddle depression, 5 through 6.
Some life begins to return, with a shift on ‘…Leben…’, 23, but it all still slowly settles woefully down, at 25.
The ‘…leaving and early departure..’, seems, on the face of it, to exhibit some resignation, at the situation, almost joy and the ‘…stay here a little longer…’, opposite emotions.
The re-statement of the text, from Dein Abschied is very beautifully set, exploring as it does, to the extreme, every possible possibility of emotion and feeling, at this parting, of Christ, especially, the last line, of ‘…encompassing pain…’, complete with pralltriller + hook, on Schmerz, with the ghostly repeat of the first line, 53 through 55.
The first two lines are repeated, 59 through 71, as if the voice is one, from a life that is fleeting, almost dying away, from sorrow and loss.
‘And He was visibly lifted and went up to heaven, a cloud taking Him away, before their very eyes. He now, sits at the right hand of God.’
This is ‘matter-of-fact’ recit writing, except, possibly, for the rising line, reflecting, the rising Saviour, as He rises up, to heaven.
These 6 bars need careful declamation.
‘Everyone now, is beneath you, you yourself, being the only exception, to that. Angels must, for ever, wait upon you. Princes also, must stand on the way and be willingly subjected, to you. Air, water, fire and earth, must also be, do your service.’
Every bar, of this chorale, has quaver movement, within it, moving between and through, all the parts, except the soprano line.
This gives the impression, of tremendous movement, restructuring and redesign.
‘Dienste werden’ is ‘pointed’, beautifully, with a prepared dissonance, F#/G, last beat of bar 28 and the alto crochet C#, 29, lasting just long enough to, clash very naturally and beautifully and regretfully, for a half beat only, with its tonic, D, in the last bar.
These next 3 Recitativo, run on, continuously, back to back:
Tenor(Evangelista): ‘And as they watched Him, rising up, there stood, beside them, two men, in white:
Tenor + Bass: You men, why are you looking up to heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken from you, shall return, just as you have seen Him go.’
These three recitativi, form a group, a tableau, a mis-en-scene.
Listen out, for Jesus going up, second bar and the two men in white, who look the same and also sing, the same, firstly, in sync, homophonically, 5 through 7 and secondly, out of sync and in canon, at the minim, 8 through 18.
‘Yes, come back soon and take away my sad looks, or else, every moment will seem like years, and I should hate that.’
The flutes join in, and with that, their long notes, seem to emphasise, those long lasting moments, the dropping bass line, throughout, painting a picture, of the saddening, drooping and stretching skin, of an unhappy demeanour.
The final flute quavers, really do ekk-out, not only these final moments, but also all those moments, without Jesus.
‘They worshipped Him and returned, from the olivet-mount, to Jerusalem, -which is a actually, a Sabbath-day-journey, and with great joy.’
This rather matter-of-fact setting, ends with an acknowledgement, of this great joy.
‘Jesus, your glances of grace and mercy, I constantly see. Your love stays behind, so that, now, here on earth, I can refresh my spirit, -and in advance of that day, in future glory, when we shall all, stand before you, together.’
This very long minuet-aria, or vocal-quartet, rather uniquely, has no continuo part, a bassett, of unison violins and violas, with their alto tone, gives a sense, of ground-bass, to a top heavy tessitura, of 2 flutes and 1 oboe.
This combination, gives elevation, upward-mobility, in lifted eyes, as well as lifted bodies.
The slightly cutting oboe colour that Bach decides to use, rather than the available and blending, second flute, is outnumbered, by the rest. It does not sit, so well, with the rest, which portray a soft and sustained orchestration, perhaps a detail of Bach’s understanding of human nature being non-compatible with the world of faith? (N.B the immediately and dismissive F naturel, bar 2, audibly supported, by the bassett…)
However, the music dances itself away, in the joy of its own text, one, actually quite full of faith, and quite easily sung with the mouth, but much more difficult, to believe, with the heart.
Bach knows that we ‘…see…’, -bars 24 through 29, and bars, 56, through 61, and this with a regained F#, better than we ‘know’,
At 114, the flutes and oboe move homophonically, right up, until 124, surely, a uniting of vision, which, mostly, continues, onto 152.
Listen for ‘…Geist erquicke…’, ‘spirit refreshed’, 147, where the high ‘B’ in the bassett, becomes a prepared dissonance, with the flutes, which resolves, with the D7 chord, the real point, in this moment, the vocal part, C natural, which, prepares itself, to clash nicely, with the flute D… and all this, coinciding and highlighting, the textural, ‘…Geist erquicke’, or ‘spirit-refreshment’, all perhaps stock-in-trade, for Bach, and perhaps, even unconsciously done, but still, nevertheless, a point of artistic, textual and tasteful cleverness.
‘When shall it come about, and when shall the day dawn, that I shall behold Him, in all His glory? O day, when will you dawn, that day, when we shall greet and kiss, The Saviour? Come then, do appear.’
It is important to remember, that, this fine choral-movement, concertante, in style, -scored for tutti orchestra, from the point of view, of metre, has a relatively slow, subdivided, two-in-a-bar. This allows it to be suitably majestic, with sincere and genuine longing but containing and creating energy and interest, through quaver inner parts (chorus) and semiquaver instrumental parts, (orchestra).
From a textual point of view, Bach re-orientates his orchestra, extending the number, of choirs, from 1, to 5, the vocal choir, with additional others, strings, flutes, oboes and brass with drums. He uses these ‘choirs’, individually and in combination, antiphonally, as well as, in unison.
Listen for the many ways Bach varies his brilliant accompaniment.
He chooses to set the choral melody, assigned to the soprano line, in the jubilant and celebratory trumpet key, of D major with the lower vocal parts mainly homophonic, energized with quaver movement and crochet repetitions.
A splendid end to a splendid work, that needs to be better known.