Chapter 102 BWV 204 Ich bin mir vergnügt
I am content in myself.
A cantata for soprano voice for an unknown occasion.
Like C 209, this is another cantata for solo soprano, similarly structured except for the fact that it contains four, not two recitative/aria pairings. Dürr suggests that it dates from 1727-8 (p 905) but is not clear what its original purpose might have been.
The text, adapted from a cantata libretto by Christian Hunold (ibid) is one of the most subjective and introspective of any that Bach set. Hunold had worked at Halle and had been at school in Arnstad in 1691 and, although it was over a decade before Bach took up his appointment there as organist in 1703, it is likely that the two men knew each other in later years.
If any cantata can be described as unjustly neglected, it is this one. Perhaps it is the personal nature of the text, or it might be the apparent lack of vocal variety, with only the one singer called upon for all eight movements. Another reason may be because we do not know why or for what type of function or event it was written. It certainly contains themes that are regularly explored within the religious cantatas e.g. the contention that wealth does not bring happiness or spiritual contentment and the satisfaction to be gained from the inner peace of accepting God’s word and His decrees. But here these contentions are not centred upon a particular day, or theme of the church year; nor is God, or our praise and appreciation of His benefice, the focal point of the text. Rather, this is a work which looks inward within the human psyche, exploring notions of personal demeanour, attitudes and the search for spiritual solace and inner peace.
Like the early cantata for solo soprano C 199 (chapter 14) C 204 lacks a chorus and is based around recitative/aria pairings but it dispenses with the chorale, another indication that it was not intended for use within a Sunday service.
One would not normally expect to find Bach setting twenty-four lines of balanced couplets as a recitative, which is what he does in the opening movement. It results in a series of short, fragmented phrases, lacking the fluidity we are accustomed to find in his usually eloquent, flowing melodic lines.
Bach solves the problem in three ways. Firstly, he gives the impression of an assemblage of question and answer phrases, thus extending the musical flow over two bars rather than just the one. Secondly, the shaping of the four-bar units is carefully wrought, each having its own finely judged rise and fall. Thirdly, the tonal scheme of the overall movement is developed rather like that of a cohesive, architecturally conceived aria, sinfonia or chorus: Bb to F, moving through relative keys of Gm, Dm and Cm to return to the tonic Bb for the final cadence.
The end result is strangely compelling and entirely suited to the theme—-I am content, neither rich, grand or boastful—-let others be so and become consequently despondent—-I can curb my desires, be happy on earth and seek, eventually, to enter heaven.
The contemplation is measured, as are both verse and music. There is the occasional moment of word painting as a touch of unexpected Fm denotes the barking of discontented dogs (bar 12).
The four arias, all being for soprano, achieve a sense of variety and contrast through different instrumental combinations. The middle two call upon a violin and flute respectively as obbligato instruments, the outer ones being slightly more richly scored, the first for two oboes and the last for string orchestra and flute.
In a cantata devoted to inner contentment, one might expect to find arias of the peaceful, contemplative kind such as we find elsewhere; consider, for example, the assured and absolute commitment of the alto aria which begins C 161 (chapter 69). The odd thing is that we do not get this, at least not in the arias. Bach’s personal inner peace seems to be continuously underpinned with passion and this is nowhere more apparent than in the first aria.
The text would suggest to most of us a major key expression of unruffled calm—-to be at peace with oneself is the greatest of treasures—-he whose heart remains despondent amidst what the world offers him can enjoy no enduring pleasure.
What we get, however, is a minor key, two busy oboes and reiterated suggestions of striving and endeavour.
The first balanced, symmetrical four-bar opening phrase of the ritornello theme does not surprise us. But from bar five there is a sense of extension, of reaching out or upwards towards some unseen goal.
This restless feeling of effort becomes an important recurring theme of the movement; see the sections from bars 27, 70, 127 and 155.
Admittedly such passages eventually fall to moments of rest at the cadence points, the most obvious occurring just before the reprise. And there are sustained notes on Ruhig—-peace and tranquillity, but Bach balances these with an even longer one on behält—-the retaining (of an impoverished heart, bars 144-153). When the ritornello theme returns to close each of the A sections, the oboes present themselves individually, not in parallel as at the beginning.
The subsumed meaning of the music seems clear, even though a superficial examination of it appears to place it at variance to the text; inner peace is a great attribute, but it is ultimately acquired through personal effort and achievement. What better mirror could there be than this to reflect Bach’s own industrious and creative life?
Three of the four recitatives are secco, although as indicated above, that does not mean that Bach did not give them close attention. The second, however, is accompanied by the upper strings throughout. It begins on a warm chord of Eb major, and this, combined with the soprano’s rising interval of a seventh, deludes us for a moment into thinking that we are about to enter an inner world of utter serenity.
But again it is not to be. In the very next bar the f flat in the vocal line jars our sensibilities and the harmony begins to slide around like quicksand, eventually settling, but only for an instant, in the seventh bar. The text describes those who run about off-course, seeking the illusory treasures of the mortal world, only to find that they scatter like dust, an image graphically pictured by the awakened strings in the two presto bars.
The latter part of the verse is somewhat mundane—-he is like the trader, grown rich from others and forever fearing bankruptcy. Bach’s music rises far above the quality of the verse. The harmony continues to be enigmatic, the dire warning of spiritual insolvency is underpinned with great expressivity (bars 20-21) and the singer concludes on a powerful proclamation—-to despise wealth, pleasure and fame is much the better way!
The first aria is the only da capo movement of the four, the following two using a looser ternary structure imposed upon a concerto/ritornello form.
The second employs a solo violin to deliver the extremely active obbligato theme which, again, seems at first to be at odds with the text. The ritornello melody is an unbroken stream of semi-quavers, underpinned by a continuo line that alternates deftly between on-beat quavers (bar 1) and a neatly nudging syncopated motive (bar 2).
The text entreats the temptations of the world to leave the soul in peace—-heaven is still there for those who are rich in poverty.
Once again, what are we to make of this setting? It seems that the overt energy and the sense of joyousness that the music conveys, conjoin in a complex intertwining of two diverse textural ideas. The first is the concept of worldly pleasures and, misleading and potentially hazardous though they might be, they are still enjoyable. Despite ourselves and the warnings that our religious and moral codes deliver, they may still sweep us along in a torrent of lustful stimulation.
The second is the ‘true’ pleasure that may be derived from a spirit at ease with itself. Whether Bach intended to depict either state of emotional being or both simultaneously, we cannot be certain. We are aware, however, that the music bounces along, full of either the joys of life or those of the comfortable soul. Bach’s contentment would still seem to be dynamic, neither placid nor negative. The fact that the two commanding melismas are on ruhig—-the peace (of the soul) and—-weiten—in the sense of the wide world—-would suggest that he intended to depict both types of pleasure simultaneously.
The dynamic ritornello theme is heard several times in full or in part. A contrasting middle section commences at bar 39 and a reprise of the A section, manipulated so as to retain the tonic key of F, begins in bar 59.
Though not intended for a formal service, it would be unusual if an eighteenth century cantata dealing so overtly with matters of the inner human state did not contain some references to God, Christ or the inevitability of salvation. The third recitative confirms that it is the light of heaven that governs the voice of conscience—-heaven releases it as the sun’s warmth engenders the sweet fruit of the oyster—-only through heaven may Man receive a jewel that surpasses all the treasures of the earth.
The text is less formalized than in the first and last recitatives, allowing Bach more latitude with his phrasing. Nevertheless, the echoes of world’s temptations and the tensions between desire and conscience are still reflected in shifting chromatic harmony which conveys us, in less than a dozen and a half bars, from Dm to cadence in the wholly unrelated Ab major! There are two bursts of operatic virtuosity, one depicting the suns’ rays opening the mussels (bar 17) and the other illustrating the universality of the earth’s hollow treasures (bar 24).
Specific mention of God is made in the third aria, perhaps the only one which purports to have an overtly spiritual perspective. But even here the message is more complex than we might initially suppose. The text asks that my soul may be contented whatever God decrees—-to plumb the corporeal ocean is both dangerous and arrogant—-the pearls of true peace and happiness can only be found within oneself.
It may be that the restless movement of the ocean waves is suggested by the endless flow of flute semi-quavers but this, in itself, is a superficial reading. This aria, more than any other, seems to lie at the core of the cantata. Its minor modes suggest both dignity and solemn significance; gone now are the transient pleasures of the previous movement; and yet the sense of effort and exertion, so apparent in the first aria, has not completely disappeared.
There are long sustained notes at various times in all three parts (flute, voice and continuo) suggestive of inner peace and a cessation of effort.
There are moments when the aria almost seems to lose its way (bar 18, 60-61 and 69) as if the singer is musing upon the imponderable nature of God’s decrees. This is profound music and it reminds us of such movements as the final duet from C 101; and it is in the same key. There, the intensity of feeling related less to our own human psyche and more to the pain of Christ’s death. But one cannot help feeling that, for Bach, the mysteries of the human condition were irrevocably bound together with the revelations and ‘truths’ of the Christian story.
The structural principles are precisely those of the previous aria, an overall ternary shape set within a ritornello architecture; the B section begins at bar 29 with the reprise from bar 57.
The final recitative is, like the first, set in couplets and it brings with it the same musical problems i.e. a succession of short, usually one-bar, phrases. Again Bach attempts to maintain the musical interest by creating the impression of balanced, integrated musical segments and a strong, though now not so chromatic harmonic progression. But even this can only be maintained for so long and he eventually retreats into a fluid arioso melody above a strongly rhythmic bass line.
It is indubitably a stunningly beautiful passage although it seems, even more than in some of the previous movements, to be at variance with the words. The theme is one of friends and the inadvisability of trusting them; they, like everything else, are subject to decay and ultimate extinction. Was Bach, the committed family man and teacher whose house, we read, was always welcoming to visiting musicians, really comfortable with such sentiments? Or are these echoes of his battles with persons of authority, some of whom he may, at one time, have considered to be his friends?
Perhaps a clue lies in the exceedingly odd final cadence. The soprano ends as the supporting harmonies delineate G minor. The following five bass notes take us rapidly to Bb major. Is this simply a ruse to move quickly to the key of the following aria? Or a musical suggestion of the decay and death that comes to all earthly things? Or is it something even more subtle, a hint that the sentiments hitherto expressed should not be taken too seriously after all?
The final aria is the only one to make use of the full ensemble, strings and continuo, flute and two oboes. The flute is permitted a degree of independence, but the oboes merely double the first and second violins. The text is formed into two discrete stanzas, the first of which declares heavenly contentment—-the heart surrendered to God enjoys a golden age. The second declares that God enriches the poor when the human heart is dedicated to Him. The essential point is, simply, that true contentment lies in the union with God and nothing else.
The structure is slightly different from the preceding arias because Bach has two stanzas, each of which he sets twice thus: A B A B. This is, however, again superimposed upon a concerto/ritornello structure in a manner similar to the middle two arias. The character of the opening theme is foursquare and dance-like, the enigmas of the previous movements now swallowed up in a seemingly unsophisticated, at times almost rustic, dance.
Bach also has a surprise in the fourteenth bar where, as we expect a cessation heralding the voice entry, we have an interrupted cadence. Moreover, this becomes a feature of the movement, quite possibly having some symbolic significance for Bach, although what that may have been is unclear.
For those who wish to follow the peculiar setting closely, the first stanza ends at bar 50, and the second begins at bar 67. The first verse is repeated from bar 93 and the second from bar 119. Each of these sections is separated by all, or part, of the ritornello theme which is heard in full three times, at the beginning, the end and from bar 51; elsewhere it is abbreviated. Bach contrives to make the music of the first A and second B sections similar, and the middle segments are more rooted in minor keys, thus retaining a broad impression of ternary form.
The writing for the flute is unusual and probably symbolic. It doubles the first violins (and oboe) throughout the instrumental sections but then gives reign to a joyous obbligato melody above the voice; is this intended to suggest the perfect relationship between the contented soul and the happiness and divinity of heaven?
We are given a moment to contemplate this during the general pause just prior to the final ritornello statement. In the three preceding bars, flute and voice are joined in perfect union.
It is always dangerous to attempt to make deductions about great artists’ characters from analysis and observations of their works. Does a study of Shakespeare’s plays or Mozart’s symphonies enlighten us as to what sort of people they really were? But even with this caveat in mind, it is difficult not to deduce that the apparent mismatch between words and music in this cantata illuminates something of Bach’s true nature.
A study of the canon assures us that any eccentricity of setting by Bach is never a matter of carelessness or incompetence. What he did was always for a reason, if we can only seek it out.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017.