This 5 movement, 1731 cantata,
– string orchestra with chorus/soloists, + 2 x oboe d’amore, with 2 x horns, –
sets the full text of Ps 23, in 5 movements.
‘The Lord is my faithful shepherd.
He keeps me in His care,
where I shall want for nothing that is good.
He feeds me continually,
on pastures where the sweet tasting grass,
of His wholesome gospel grows.’
The presence of 2 x horns sets a the backdrop, for this peaceful, pastorally centred cantata and this introductory chorale-chorus, sets off on an up-beat, where 6, two-bar-phrases, precede the choral entry, the chorus entering upon the second minim beat of bar 12.
The opening shape of the theme owes much to the soprano chorale melody…and the closing movement 5, the beautiful falling sequence, bars 2, through 6, is accompanied, as nearly always in these opening movements, by concertante strings, along with oboes, where semiquavers give energy to these long sustained two-bar phrases.
A swift, slick move, via B major, into e minor, at 44, colours the text, which references ‘feeding’.
An affaire in a minor, bar 48, twists itself, via e minor, into a glorious A major, 50 and G major is established, once again, at bar 52. But it is short lived, as ‘…the sweet tasting grass…’ leaves us with a taste of b minor, bar 55.
The home key is saved by ‘…his wholesome gospel…’, 63, with a thorough banishment of a stubborn G sharp, at bar 61, alto part.
‘He leads me to pure waters, that refresh and restore my soul.
It is His Holy spirit that makes me cheerful.
He leads me on the true path of His commandments ceaselessly,
-and for his names sake.’
Refreshing and restorative pure water, along with His spirit, are evident in many plaintive and flowing oboe d’amore semiquavers, throughout.
Minor-mode, with drooping theme,
-as opposed to the rising one of the opening horn idea, movement 1, is quickly over-run, with settled, one-bar phrasing, although brief, half-bar interchanges, with the continuo, 7 through 8, prepare us, the listeners, for a brief mediant shocker, G major, bar 10, which makes it clear, to us, that this pure water, comes at a price,
-and part of that is a for-shortened bar 12.
This trio sonata balances mostly bass line continuo with semiquaver oboe, the alto voice holding its own, with its re-stated theme, although this is never always the case, as a quick look at 29, through 33, will show.
The text, ‘…that refresh and restore my soul…’ 19, through 22, does indeed restore the ‘settled one-bar-phrasing-material’, from 3, through 6, ending, this time, in b minor, where ‘…the Lord’s holy spirit’, takes over and the long interchange between bass and oboe begins, ‘…light in heart…’, bars 33, through 37.
‘The proper path’, continues, 46, and ‘…ceaselessly’ , 58, through 63 and ‘…for His name’s sake.’, 64, through 70.
3/Arioso and recitativo;
‘And though I walk through the valley of darkness,
I fear no misfortune, persecution, suffering, sadness, or malice, in this world.
You are constantly with me, your rod and staff comforting me.
I trust in your word.’
The ‘walking’, introductory, 2-bars,
-more arioso than recitativo,
introduces the low bass voice, to even lower levels and as this valley becomes even darker, so it seems that misfortune does not bring fear.
At 12, the strings enter, representing Christ, as we are told,
-more dramatic-recitativo than arioso,
that neither persecution, suffering, etc, will have any affect and that ‘…rod and staff…’, 16/17, will comfort us.
The musical language becomes impassioned, as ‘your word’, is revealed as the object of trust and devotion.
‘You prepare a table for me, before my enemies,
-on every side
and you make my heart unafraid and fresh.
My head, you anoint with your spirit,
-the oil of joy
and you will fill my soul with your spiritual joys.’
This, a joyous bourree, and one that bounces along in a musically straightforward way, AABAA, taking great pleasure in being danced and sung, in the presence of its enemies.
Again, the up-ward shape of the melody, reminds us of the opening movement and closing choral.
The vocal parts are challenging, neither being totally relaxed, in each other’s fach. Nevertheless, this is a fine duet and one that should be better known by teachers and students.
‘Goodness and compassion will follow me,
all the days of my life and I will remain always,
in the house of The Lord,
-on earth, in the Christian community
and after death, with Christ, my Lord.’
The choral melody, so alluded to in this cantata, is now revealed in its fulness and tutti, with horns.
The second horn has an independent part.
Bach avoids any sense of trouble-and-strife, end of bar 2, through 3, where repeated soprano ‘B’s’ and an awkward ‘turn’, end of 3, might lead any student to get bogged down.
An e minor chord, last beat of three, allows the bass line to save the day, with a drop of a 6th and and rise of a third, where D major can be nicely set- up, for a return to the G major tonality.
The confident stroke of genius, again in the bass line, appears, 9, where a bold and daring chromatic drop and E7, with a bass ‘D’, seals a half-close with ‘Christian company, on earth’, 3rd beat, 10, followed by similar, with, this time, a G sharp pivot, ‘…death…’, to unexpected B major, 3rd beat of 12…’…after death…’. A fresh start, in e minor, means that D sharp, mid-point, 13, is, inevitably available, thus slowing up the inevitable, a return to G major.
Bach understands, that any delay here, is akin to absence and where The Saviour is concerned, this can lead only to fondness.