Chapter 100 BWV 203 Amore traditore
A cantata for bass voice for an unknown occasion.
Like C 209 discussed in the next chapter, C 203 is an oddity. Both works are set in Italian, the only ones in Bach’s repertoire. Their authenticity has been challenged, principally due to inadequate sources, yet they bear unmistakable Bachian fingerprints. Both follow the Italian solo cantata tradition, which was certainly not unknown in Germany in Bach’s lifetime, and the texts are particularly subjective in the manner of the Italian and English madrigals of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; the first deals with the pain of unrequited love and the second with human sorrow and distress of parting.
Each is scored for a chamber group suggesting domestic performance, although no one has been able to pinpoint definite occasions for which they might have been written. The most probable period of composition is during Bach’s years at Cöthen, where Italian cantatas were a part of the repertoire, although it is possible that they may have been commissions from German towns where the culture of Mediterranean music had become strong. Such works as these may have been produced, not necessarily for particular events, but as a part of the regular Cöthen entertainment programme.
Of the two, C 203 is the smaller work, consisting of only three movements and requiring a minimum of two performers, a singer and a harpsichordist. It is, however, more probable that a gamba or cello would have been added to the bass line, particularly in the first two movements. The left hand part of the harpsichord in the second aria is highly idiomatic in its keyboard writing and was probably not doubled. And if Bach intended that only the harpsichord should be used throughout, why write out the full part in one aria and not the other?
The bass line of the first aria is of a melodic, cantabile character and it is difficult to believe that it was intended to be played just on a keyboard instrument; the imitations between it and the vocal line, from the very beginning, seem to demand a sustaining, singing tone quality. Directors will make different choices, but it makes most musical sense for the first aria and recitative to be performed with cello/gamba and harpsichord and the last movement to make use of only the latter instrument.
The opening ritornello theme of the first movement is powerful, varied and wholly Bachian in character. In just three bars it casts itself over a range of more than two octaves, settling quickly into a strong quaver sequence.
Just before the vocal entry, it offers a hint of the chromaticism to come. The lyric of the first section of what transpires to be a da capo movement is direct, but not as overly exaggerated as is often the case with such texts—-treacherous Love, you will deceive me no more.
Bach’s imagination seems to have been fired by the dual notions of betrayal and deception; note the one extended melisma emphasizing the latter (from bar 22). But the main depictions of painful and dishonest human behaviour are to be found in the chromatic, at times almost tortuous lines for the voice; see for example bar 32.
He also establishes a practice of landing upon unexpected, and slightly bizarre, flat notes (bars 10/11, 21, 28, 45).
In the middle section, the lyricist states, somewhat more emphatically than before—-I wish no more for chains, anguish, sorrow or slavery. Again, long melismas, such as that on catene—-shackles—-make the point clearly and simply. (It is interesting to note the directness of this setting with the more sophisticated interplay of the counterpoint in the trio of C 38 where despair is also equated with physical fetters: see vol 2, chapter 22).
This section culminates in a rising tide of distress as the vocal line twice stretches upwards to a high e at the top extremes of the range (bars 55 and 59).
The short secco recitative holds no surprises except, perhaps, its strong Italian operatic ‘feel’. Whether this is simply a matter of the innate sound of the language or the alluring Italian vowels eliciting a different response from Bach’s sensitive melodic gifts, is something which listeners may debate. The text is one of hyperbole which Bach does well not to over-stress; his setting bears only the slightest trace of chromatic intensity—-can I heal my soul of its fatal wounds?—-let false hope no longer delude or mock me.
It is an interesting fact that in neither of these Italian cantatas does Bach seem to have any regard for an over-riding tonal cohesion. The first movement of C 203 is in Am and the last in C major, related keys but not sharing the same tonic note. The recitative begins in C and ends in G. Unity through tonal alliances across the movements is clearly not a significant part of the compositional thinking and this may be taken as a further piece of evidence that this is an early work.
The final movement is also da capo form and it is unusual in its layout, demanding just the voice and harpsichord. The keyboard writing is extremely sophisticated, moving between streams of semi-quavers (shared between left and right hands) and stark chordal passages. It is highly reminiscent of that to be found in some of the sonatas for flute, cello, violin, and keyboard, essentially a series of interchanges between three contrapuntal lines, of which the harpsichord provides two.
Opening bars of ritornello theme.
The stanza divides neatly into the two parts of an ABA structure—-it is madness to stop loving simply because of unlucky experiences—-and—-turn aside from the anguish wherein no reward is to be found. The character of the piece is positive and ebullient, even determined; note, for example, the resolute, almost dogmatic return to the G7 chord at the beginnings of three consecutive bars (6, 7 and 8). For the most part, the singer leaves the bustling semi-quavers to the harpsichord, preferring a more cantabile bel canto line, completely in keeping with the Italian tradition. The persistent flow of notes is occasionally interrupted by marked chords in order to give particular emphasis to certain words e.g. bars 86-9—-he finds no rewards for his suffering.
There are a number of examples of highly sophisticated compositional techniques which strengthen the contention that the work is by Bach. For the technically minded, let us look at just one. In bars 25-6 we discover an attractive melodic phrase which is repeated, as a sequence, a tone lower in the following bars. The question is, what might happen next? It is a strong idea which might have been repeated (sequenced) one or more times, taking us to the key of Em that Bach is aiming for. The likelihood is that Vivaldi, or for that matter, many a contemporary composer, would have done just that; the sequence is a powerful, if at times lazy, way of extending a composer’s material.
But Bach eschews the obvious. Instead he takes the second bar of the initial sequence (bar 29) and uses that to lead us towards the cadence i.e. he sets up an obvious expectation but does not quite fulfil it. This is a refined and urbane use of compositional technique and one that is highly typical of Bach.
Perhaps the unexpected and, possibly, even slightly shocking sounds of Italian vowels carrying Bach’s music may put some listeners off this cantata and its sister work; but it should not do so. This is an engaging piece containing two fine arias. And, directors and impresarios please note, it is not expensive to mount!
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017.