Small forces, -strings, 4 soloists/chorus with heavy bass, continuo, supplemented with bassoon and ‘cello.
‘Holy rinsing of water and spirit, which admits us, into God’s kingdom and writes our names, into the book of life. The stream that drowns all evil deeds, through its impressive power, gives to us, this new life. Holy rinsing…’
What is Bach’s response, on reading these words?
And here it is, water and spirit, with a straight-down-to-business attitude, this fine opening, with a building block theme, starting on its second beat, upwardly and downwardly shaped, -and, as it settles in, downwardly and upwardly shaped, with ever decreasing time values, modal in sound, with an ambiguous attitude, to its F#:Is it is isn’t it?
-and the bassoon reinforcing the bass line, but only occasionally.
As we listen, the sound-world, of this sacred spring, of water and spirit, appears stubbornly unfulfilling and rigid, despite what we are told about it. Even though we listen, with C21st century ears, we must just flow, as does the singer, in the mode and direction of travel, ‘the stream that drowns all evil and in doing so, gives new like.’
And flow the music does, as the short building blocks ensure a constant refilling, refreshing and revitalising.
‘The tainted birth, of Adam’s children, brings anger, death and ruin. That born of flesh, is infected, poisoned and contaminated. Happy is the Christian, who, in sacred water and spirit, becomes, a child of grace and fulfilment, clothed in Christ, white silk, and blood, that purple robe of glory.’
A serious and really quite damming opening, reminds is of the serious position, we find ourselves in, at birth, and the reaction, to this, of the almighty, 1 through 4. (dim chord)
‘Death’ and ‘ruin’ (hi-lighted) are apparently the fate, awaiting, ‘…that which is born, of the flesh.’ (4 through 5) This woeful state, and section, ends at 10, with the terrible news and equally appropriate music and vocal-turn, that, that born of flesh, is infected, poisoned and contaminated.
However, all this changes, at 11, where the we find the happy christian, blessed within, ‘sacred water and spirit’ and ‘…a child, of grace and fulfilment.’ (11, through 13).
Surprisingly, it seems, from the music, that this person, is ‘…clothed, not only in Christ, but also, innocent, white silk.’ (14, through 16) and that baptism, dresses us, in Christ’s blood, which is, infact, a ‘purple robe-of-glory.’ (17, through 19)
‘Out of great love, Jesus has offered me baptism, Life, salvation and true happiness. Help me to rejoice, and for the rest of my life, at this renewing; a new covenant, of grace.
This opening continuo figuration, with its characteristic and constant, great leap of a 6th,could so easily have become a chaconne, a round and round repetition, of the great leap of faith, that God has made, to humankind.
Instead, an almost lament-like and sorrowful melody, sets itself off, on a second beat start, -that, mirrored, throughout, in both the voice and continuo accompiament and its definite, first hand knowledge, of the facts, as we understand them.
‘Life, salvation and happiness’, we are told, grant us joy, but it does seems otherwise.
At 13, a prayer, for joy seems not out of place and there seems to be somewhat of a lift.
But the clash, at 15, -‘A’, in the continuo against the ‘G#’, drop, in the voice, sets the pace, for the ever-so-long ‘Lebenszeit’, which, even the long bar, of ‘freue’, at 19, cannot seem to shorten.
4/Recitativo -con stromenti (…with instruments).
‘I have found, my bridegroom’s soul. You have given me new birth and I, -most Holy lamb of God, have sworn to be true, to you. And yet, sadly, I have often broken, baptismal covenant and have not fulfilled, my promises. Have mercy, in your grace. Forgive me those sins. You know how how much, I feel, that old serpent’s bruise and how the poison of sin, seems to corrupt, me, body and soul. Help me, to choose you, in faith, a blood-red-serpent-image, now exalted and lifted up, on a cross, and one, who soothes all pain and revives all strengths, when they seem to be depleted and departed.’
The seriousness of this text and the seriousness, with which it is taken, is reflected, in the halo-of-strings, normally reserved only for the voice of Christ Himself, although, on this occasion, the soul, not Christ, is the speaker, -or singer.
The joys, of the first lines, quickly give way, to some sadder, textual realities.
Before these, a passage, bars 5/6, marked adagio, -arioso in all but name, beautifully intones the ‘…most Holy Lamb of God.’
Thereafter, the situation deteriorates, with a broken baptism covenant and un fulfilment, 8/9, and the heart-felt plea for ‘…mercy…’11 and a chromatically charged ‘…grace…’ 11/12.
The extraordinary and daring, request for the ‘…forgiveness of sins…’ , 12/13, is followed by a more sober, but no less shocking confession of pain and feeling, 14/15, with this strange reference to the serpent and the sting, or bruise, descending arpeggio, 15.
The ‘poison’ and ‘corruption of sin’, passes over, in an almost common-place way, 16/17 but ‘…glaübig…’ believing or faithful is hi lighted, as is ‘…the blood red serpent…’, 19.
Mention of the cross, 21, sees an octave drop, which leads, -via a trilling first violin, straight into the connected understanding, of the part played, by this cross, in the releasing of pain and the reviving of strength, -22, to the end, where exhaustion is, again, beautifully, played-out, as the voice droops, exhausted, -and senza accompagnamemto, as regards the continuo players, but supported, on high, by high, ethereal, violins.
Please listen out for the lone, inharmonized G, continuo, 24.
‘Jesus, you are the end of my death. Throughout my whole life and in my last agony, let this realization, hover before my eyes, that you are my serpent of salvation, as against, the poison, of sin. Heal my soul and spirit, that I may find life.’
The idea ‘of’ and the place ‘in’, of this serpent, now becomes clear.
But the music tells a different sort of tail, one where this unison of two violins, with its problems of the union of intonation, goes hand-in-hand, with the jagged mixture of 4ths and 3rds that these violins chop and change with. The music is joyful but it is complex, psychologically and makes interesting listening, when contrasted to the relative simplicity, of the text.
Again, a very slight ambiguity of key, -13 through 15, C#, or not? takes us into a modal world, and the ‘…final agony…’, 16, may shed some relief, onto these violin prods and pokes.
The mention, of this ‘…serpent of healing..’ sends the tonality sliding, 23, as does ‘…the poison of sin…’, 26.
Only the life-giving ground, of the healing of , the soul and spirit, 30, through 36, saves, not only the day, but the life, as well, as tonality, is re-established, albeit to the slashing and cutting of an agonised pair of fiddlers.
‘His word, His baptism, His supper, -they protect us, in all and every disaster. May The Holy Spirit, teach us, in faith, to rely, upon this.’
The direction of disaster, in the bass line, 2/3, hopes for the best, but is preparing for the worst and belief, in The Holy Spirit, seems a happy and unexpected joy, all the more certain, the more that trust, ‘…vertrauen…’ is taught, and observed.