This is Bach’s very first Leipzig cantata and for this occasion, he presents himself, at his very best.
In the hierarchy of Bach masterpieces, this particular one registers as supreme.
A seemingly long cantata, with considerable dimensions,
-14 movements and bipartite, it is actually the case,
-revealed, via close score reading and some careful and attentive listening time, that this is not so at all, as Bach’s careful structuring throughout, combining fine musical and structural balance, with insightful regard for the text, condenses content and time.
A repeated chorale, movements 7 and 14, subtly makes its presence known throughout, including in the fabric of the opening sinfonia, to the second part.
The orchestra is undistinguished and relatively modest, being a basic ‘oboe-band’,
-a trio of oboes, with the d’amore option, strings, 4-part choir and soloists.
The addition of the Tromba, movements 8 and 12…and 14, in the second half, brings added weight and presence to those particular texts, although the colour and character of this instrument, is not so dominant, as to inject any change of sentiment, questioning or destroying, in any way, the overall mood, or character, of the whole.
‘The poor shall eat and be satisfied
and those that seek The Lord shall praise Him.
Your heart shall live forever.’
This poised and elegant introduction, is more Handelian than French and a wistful and thoughtful oboe fills in the stark and telling gaps between the opening full string chords.
Those ‘telling gaps’, are surely the bewildered response, to such a startling opening line and only two voices, those of the poor, are heard during the first 7 bars, as if to emphasis the poverty of this opening.
The full chorus, after a bass lead, 20, gets going and the tenor part picks-up, on that witfulness, of the semiquaver oboe, all this leading, to ‘…satisfaction…’, bar 31.
At 41, ‘…and they shall praise…’, choral layering takes us through bar after bar of superlative choral writing,
-the music of mystical mastery, finally, to bar 58, a passage full of praise, from and by those, who seek.
The fugal subject, is in two parts:
Part 1, strident quavers, with an upward leap and a drop.
Part 2, florid semiquavers.
The voices, in inverted order, T/B/S/A appear, firstly, as soloists and then tutti, commencing, at 83.
Bach really has been careful to get this choral and orchestral mix second-to-none. The overwhelming effect, is of an ever increasing weight, not of heaviness, but of seriousness.
Bar 96 ups-the-game, with the emphasis, on ‘…forever…’ and this is presented, again, with such exquisite skill and craftsmanship.
This fugal section is supreme and a very good example of concise and measured construction.
Despite the quality and depth of this opening, Bach is consciously restrained and reserved,
-a slow release of energy, allowing the whole to unfold, in its own time, that the riches of both text and music, will carry the congregation forwards, towards the final choral, of course appearing, at the end of both parts.
2/Recitativo1 col accompagnamento:
What good is purple’s majesty,
since it fades?
What good is great abundance,
since it vanishes?
What good is the arousal of the senses,
since the body itself, must die?
How quickly does it happen,
that wealth, pleasure and luxury,
condemn the soul to hell.’
The sustained strings provide a strong, yet flexible base, on which to lay out this dramatic and questioning text, the bass voice, wide, in its vocal range, emotionally supported, with genuine insightful empathy.
The contextual seriousness, of ‘…verschwinden muss?’, forms a natural centre-point, as, in quick succession, ‘wealth’, ‘pleasure’ and ‘luxury’, we are told, condemn all of us, to hell.
‘My Jesus shall be my all!
My purple, shall be His precious blood
and He Himself, my highest good,
the glowing love of His Spirit,
my sweetest wine, that of joy.’
This aria, a the possible hi-light for the whole cantata, is a charming cantabile dance,
-more polonaise, with its semiquaver accent, every 2 bars, than minuet.
Notice the bars of 2-time, 11, through 13, where some careless and excited ‘tripping-feet’, manage to avoid totally tripping over themselves.
A leaning towards the sub-dominant, with the cancelled F#, adds vulnerability to the whole, as this honest text and sincere soul, tell faithfully, together, of their combining faith, although, some written-in pp dynamics, bar 26, tell us, that this is a whispered faith.
The passage, bars 50, through 70 are celebratory.
Bar 84 is bringing some pain to that celebration and that ‘tripping’, now at bar 96, becomes, almost, the norm.
Thankfully, ‘…the glow of love…’, bar 99, through 102, does warm the heart, with some sustained dotted crochets and a minim, leading to this extended ‘…sweetest wine of joy.’, 105, complete with strong string fanfares and vocal excess.
The whole is brought to its memorable end, with a refrain of the opening lines of text.
‘God casts down and raises up, both now and in eternity.
Whoever in this world, seeks heaven, will be cursed.
Whoever overcomes Hell here, will rejoice, in heaven.’
This secco recit, is dark and startling, textually and musically.
Listen out for for spine tingling harmony, apparent in overcoming hell, bars 5, through 6.
‘I take my suffering upon myself,
and with joy.
Whoever endures with patience
, the sufferings of Lazarus,
shall be taken to heaven, by angels.’
This is a serious minuet, dark in colour and mood.
A single, obbligato oboe d’amore sets the tone, for these somewhat melancholy proceedings.
Even so, the tempo is sufficient to encourage something of a hop-and-a-skip,
-albeit only onto the second beat, with no third,
-that remaining silent.
This concept, ‘taking-suffering-upon-oneself’, is both serious and unfashionable, yet, it seems to be executed with a genuine, if somewhat stoic joy, bars 33, through 38, and again, more so, bars 53, through 58.
The textural mention of Lazarus,
-his pain and torment, brings added anguish to the shape of the oboe line, always convolute, but now genuinely explicit and indicative of suffering, as a dissonant experience.
These moments of horror, bars 74, through 82, gradually stabilize, as an angelic homecoming appears, serene, in the musical direction, bar 85, through, 90,
-and again, much more so, through to the end of the aria.
‘Meanwhile, God gives us a clear conscience,
with which a Christian can enjoy the simple things,
-and with great joy.
Even though we pass through anguish,
-on our way towards death,
in the end, all will be well.’
This text is straightforwardly set, by Bach, as he understands the need to keep the narrative moving.
But do not miss the hushed mention of death, bar 6.
‘What God does, is well done,
– although, I must still drink, of the cup.
If, according to my misconception,
this cup tastes bitter,
I shall feel no terror,
because, in the end, I shall find joy,
and in my heart, that sweet comfort.
Then shall all pain disappear.’
A spectacular movement, indeed worth the swift, ‘moving-on-of-the narrative, as the significance, of this choral,
-Bach was and is, the master of the chorale, and its treatment, in and to, this cantata, cannot be underestimated.
Vocal textures has been ‘spaced-out’, giving more musical and practical breathing space to the 4-part experience of the parts and as a whole, this, in turn, giving width and majesty, to the independent orchestral writing.
Surely, the opening busyness, of string and oboe semiquavers, reflect the joy and ‘…sweet comfort…’, found in the heart of the text and the energy of the textual narrative, is ‘picked-up’, to almost running speed, by this audible ‘whir’ of a pulsating musical commentary.
Incidentally, the opening 3 notes of the oboe/violin theme, are formed, from the opening 3 notes, of the chorale.
Again, the chorale melody makes its presence clearly felt, with the tromba, in this chorale-arrangement, again, using this same the same tune, as a musical and structural inspiration.
The first three note ‘bell motive’, bar 1, appears throughout and the energised semiquaver figuration, is developed as the concertante texture and accompaniment.
This is a fine piece of 4-part fugal-like concertante writing, where the strings and continuo explore every possible combination,
-of subject and answer, theme and accompaniment,
commenting on the chorale and all the while, the tromba adding that very same chorale tune, with its shape, weight and character, to the whole.
Listen for the penultimate viola note, end of bar 52, an F#, grinding with a G, of the sustained tromba and the continuo bass.
‘One thing it is, that grieves the Christian soul,
when it considers, its poverty, in spirit.
Even though it believes in God’s spirit,
-which makes all things new,
it lacks any strength, to renew the life of that spirit,
with any increasing growth and fruit.’
Secco drama, grieving, yet believing, throughout.
Listen out for the final cadence, slightly whimsical, forming a clear break, between this and the movement to follow, despite both of their questioning attitudes.
‘Jesus makes me rich in Spirit.
If I can receive Him,
I shall desire nothing else,
because my life will grow,
as Jesus makes me rich in Spirit.’
The somewhat brisk, 2-part-like-invention aria, with a stomping and stoic character, confirms a short phrased, 3/8 time signature.
In the complete edition, this seems to be questioned.
A dance, that of French passepied, might be proposed, as a convenient label.
Notice the repetition of the first vocal phrase, again no doubt reinforcing this, perhaps somewhat unbelievable text.
Richness of spirit, seems only to be gained, at a price, bars 45 onwards, hence a stoic bearing and the bare continued, rather basic, 2-part texture.
‘Those who dwell in Jesus, cultivate self-denial,
so that, in and through God’s love, they may practise His faith,
and find themselves,
-when earthly things have vanished,
truly, in God.’
After a promising start, this ‘cultivation-of-self denial’, during this secco recit, takes its toll, leading us to a strange chord, bar 2, d min + B…, a sort of b min added 6th chord, with a lingering ‘A’.
The ‘…practise of faith’, seems unfulfilled, bar 4, yet the comedic ending, Leporello-like, is definitely very pleased with itself.
‘My heart believes and loves,
-because and for, the sweet flames of Jesus,
from which my own enthusiasms are born.
Engulf and envelope me completely as well,
because He devotes Himself to me, completely.’
This brilliant movement, the hi-light of this seconda-parte, is certainly concerto-like and reintroduces our tromba, this time as a fully independent soloist.
The opening rising 4th and the following three notes, fanfare-like, of this tromba, puts us immediately in-mind, of our ever present choral tune.
-both trumpet and tune, is significant and brilliant.
These ‘…flames of Jesus…’, are surely evident in the string accompaniment, flame-like, in figuration, full, in their sustained weight, are continuous throughout in their alternation, from triplet, to duplet, as first announced on the trumpet, dancing and swaying and bringing that special sense of splendid occasion and corporate adoration.
The vocal part, sung full-bloodied, follows the fanfare lead, with wide leaps and triplet and duplet and timings.
All of this, is Bach at his extreme finest, no so much, in the ways and sounds of music, but those ways, of a subtle cleverness’s of understatement, restraint and balance, throughout the whole of this cantata structure.
‘O poverty, that no wealth can ever equal!
When, from my heart, the whole world withdraws,
-leaving Jesus, alone, reigning,
then, a christian, can be led to God.
Help us not to forget this.’
This masterful setting explores all aspects of this rather profound text, not least the biting agonies, that accompany, the last line.
‘What God does well, is well done.
I shall stand by this.
Although I am driven onto the rough (road),
by affliction, death and misery, God,
-in a fatherly manner,
will hold me in His arms.
I shall let Him prevail.’
All that was said, about movement 7, applies here, although there is one more point to add:
Tremendous abandon is certainly in the air and the music, as the rough road, with its horrors, is literally, in a haze of semiquavers, cast asunder, in favour of the fatherly arms and the prevailing of God.
The ‘…standing-by…’, seems replaced, by a ‘dancing-off’, sure footed and deftly executed.
What a triumph for this Sunday morning masterpiece.