Chapter 101 BWV 209 Non sa che sia dolore
He does not know what sorrow is.
A cantata for soprano voice for an unknown occasion.
Like its more concise sister work C 203, this cantata has generated doubts about its dating, function and authenticity; some of these issues are addressed in chapter 100. In fact, the two pieces sit well together as a part of the same concert programme and should be performed more often as such.
The reference to the town of Ansbach in the second recitative gives us a clue as to the cantata’s original function. The Italian violinist and composer Guiseppe Torelli, now largely remembered for his trumpet concerti and sinfonias, had been appointed to the court of the Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach in 1698 where he introduced a number of Italian works. Bach certainly knew some of his music, having transcribed a violin concerto of his at Weimer (BWV 979). Torelli established in the town a liking of Italian culture and this seems to have permeated through to the setting of C 209. Whether Bach was commissioned by someone from Ansbach, or wrote the cantata for a friend or colleague from that town cannot be established, but the Italian connection is historically substantiated. The text indicates that its function was that of a valedictory ode.
The work is conceived as two paired recitatives and arias preceded by a substantial sinfonia. The use of a virtuoso flautist in three of the five movements might indicate that it was written around 1724-5 when the religious cantatas reveal the existence of such a player in Leipzig. The opening sinfonia is quite likely to have been adapted or adopted from a lost concerto and its many similarities to the Orchestral Suite no 2, in the same key, are obvious to anyone who knows both works.
A second connection may be detected between the motive announced in the first bar of this piece and that from the double violin concerto in Dm. It is almost certainly coincidental, of course, and it lasts for six notes only.
In the second bar, Bach introduces the baroque ‘weeping’ figure which is notable for two reasons. Firstly, it allows room for, and pre-empts, the charming echoing between flute and violin that becomes a feature of the work (first heard in bars 26-8). Secondly, since it is a valedictory work about parting, this simple idea encapsulates a brief flash of the pathos of farewells. This, perhaps allied with the positivity and good wishes for one departing possibly in order to better himself, is very much ingrained in the character of the movement. (Readers are alerted to the various essays in these volumes in which comments are passed on the particular appropriateness of sinfonias to the texts or themes of the works they introduce; see C 207, chapter 92 in this volume, and numerous examples in volume 3).
There is no mistaking the energy and positivity of this piece, tinged though it is with moments of melancholy. It follows the concerto/da capo structure of a number of concerti e.g. the first movements of the E major violin and harpsichord concerti and the last ones of Brandenburgs 5 and 6.
The first recitative is a quasi-philosophical musing on the nature of human sorrow—-he does not understand sorrow who parts from a friend (though not in death)—-like the child whose mother comforts him in distress—-Go now and satisfy Minerva. The mythical reference provides another clue as to the genesis of the work. Minerva was the Goddess of Wisdom and the reference strongly suggests a student from, or departing to, Ansbach in order to advance his studies.
Indeed, the very tonal planning of the movement supports such a view if only in general terms. The initial reflections on ‘sorrow’ take place in the context of the minor keys B and F# but when mention is made of the fulfilling of the Goddess’s bidding, Bach moves quickly into the positivity of A major and even the upper strings, hitherto employed in a purely sustaining role, play a moderately more active part in the dialogue.
But then the first aria challenges this notion of the young man departing for reasons of study. The references now are to his serving his fatherland and crossing the seas! This stanza is packed with images, some of a semi-contradictory nature e.g. sadness at parting, but pleasure in ambition and achievements. Both themes may underlie the choice of the somewhat morose key of Em, although the primary image that seems to have stimulated Bach’s imagination is that of favourable winds and waves.
The twelve-bar ritornello theme (strings, continuo and flute) is packed with musical interest and seems longer than it really is. Its charm lies partly in the juxtaposition of notes in groups of four semi-quavers with those in groups of three (triplets).
Its character is engaging, oscillating between the rather poignant opening motive on strings and flute and the streams of triplets which expand and develop like a burgeoning flower. The A section maintains the atmosphere of heavy-heartedness, sustained by the richness of texture (sometimes in five contrapuntal parts), despite the apparent joviality of the flute obbligato theme.
The B section is much more rooted in major modes, particularly the relative key of G. The texture becomes less dense, particularly from bar 62 when a gentle rocking motion between flute and strings suggests the movement of propitious (and clearly non-threatening) waves.
But the flute triplets return, rooted in the major mode for the last five bars before the reprise of the first section.
(One tiny technical detail will interest few listeners but may encourage students. In bar 15 the flute and vocal lines move together for a few notes in consecutive octaves. Even Bach, it seems, made occasional technical errors!)
The brief, second recitative is addressed directly to the individual in whose honour the work is performed, although its sense remains obscure. What is one to make of the statement—-your wisdom contrasts with this age but your virtue and courage will triumph? Is it a reference to a creative mind, an original thinker working outside the confines of convention and tradition? Following this, advice is proffered—-who will progress your present greatness? Why the wise men of Ansbach! This would appear to mean that the young man is retiring to that town in order to advance himself. But it may also refer to his upbringing and education which has so well equipped him for his later life. We cannot know; and the mysteries of the text do not lessen as we examine them more closely.
Bach retains minor modes for this short secco movement, thus giving a nod to the seriousness and sadness of the event as well as ensuring an immediate contrast between it and the concluding aria.
Indeed, this is the only one of the five movements to be ebulliently major. It retains the da capo structure in which the outer sections declaim—-leave trepidation and alarm behind you, as does the boatman when the wind is calm. The B section paints a final picture of the departing individual—-no longer fearful, he faces ahead and sings as he makes his voyage. It is a fully and maturely developed aria, over three hundred bars long, in which energetic strings and flute provide the instrumental support as before.
The character of the ritornello theme is mainly positive and optimistic, a bold, symmetrical melody in clear four-bar phrases. However, it is not without its moments of trepidation, most notably the unexpected chromatic German sixth chord (bar 13) and the rhythmically inverted ‘scotch snaps’ in that and the following bar:
Any concerns must be left behind as the future is faced, but flashes of their memories remain. Associations with dread and forgiving are confirmed with the extended use of this rhythmic idea from bar 75. There are other transient moments of word painting throughout, such as the unexpected b flat in bar 35.
The main feature to catch the ear in the B section is the long melisma on ‘cantando’—-a representation of the singing as one traverses the waves (from bar 168). Despite the minor modes, called upon principally for the purposes of musical variety, and the reminders of the mildly nervous ‘scotch snap’ rhythm, the section contrives to end in a triumphant C major before leading to the reprise.
The reservations which some people may have about hearing Bach’s music set to Italian texts are touched upon in the previous chapter. One should not, however, dismiss either of these intriguing and entertaining pieces lightly. Once acquainted with them, listeners are likely to wish to revisit them.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.