Chapter 11 BWV 101 Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott
True Lord and God, remove the harsh punishments.
Two aspects of Bach’s preoccupation with experimentation at this stage of his career are to be found in this grave and imposing work. The first is the ′hybrid′ method of dealing with long tracts of text by combinations of recitative, arioso, ritornelli and/or chorale phrases (movements 3 and 5). The second is the almost relentless plundering of the chorale melody, explicitly made use of in all movements but the second.
Additionally, Bach gives us an opening fantasia like no other.
Its main theme is that of prayer, in this case a desperate plea for God to remove the punishments for our sinning and ravaging of the earth which have resulted in war, plague, pestilence and fire. The notion of destruction is bolstered, in this case, by references to the Gospel of the day (St Luke 19) in which Jesus is portrayed as both prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem and lamenting its devastation (Boyd p 316). Thus are the complimentary notions brought together—-the world leads us astray to sin and abominations—-but do not punish us to the point of destruction—-rather escort and protect us and, ultimately, grant us Your mercy.
Boyd (p 318) points out the cantata’s chiastic (symmetrical) structure, a chorus, aria and recit/chorale leading to a central aria after which a recit/chorale, aria (duet) and chorale complete the work. Such a layout bestows a particular significance upon the fourth movement, a bass aria that encapsulates the message of the day whilst acting as the structural keystone of the entire work.
But our initial attention is drawn to the magnificent opening movement. Boyd (p 316) refers to this ‘austere and grave choral fantasia’ claiming that it is almost unique in Bach’s works. Here he is in agreement with Schweitzer: ′we cannot help wishing that Bach had left us more chorale-choruses of this type’ (vol 2, p 376). Schweitzer has his criticisms of other aspects of the work as we shall see, but our examination of the opening fantasia is at least reinforced by united critical judgments of its exceptional quality and unique status.
This is a movement of extraordinary scale, lasting around eight minutes in performance. It is in D minor, the key of the well known double violin concerto and one which Bach was wont to choose for choruses of particular gravity (see for example the magnificent opening choruses of Cs 46 and 109, both from cycle 1). The massive thirty-bar ritornello (it is, despite the fantasia structure, a strict ritornello/concerto movement) is heard at the beginning and end, additionally providing material for five complex episodes between the choral blocks. The cantus firmus is articulated in augmented notes by the sopranos, preceded by imitative entries of each phrase in the lower voices, varying both the timing and order of entries.
Phrases 1 and 4—-preceded by entries in the order B T A
phrases 2, 3 and 5— ” ” ” ” ” ” T A B
phrase 6— ” ” ” ” ” ” A T B
(Students may notice that Bach used a very similar strategy in C 2 (chapter 3) albeit within the context of a motet).
Thus is formed the scale and shape of this scrupulously planned movement. Apart from the organ continuo′s traditional task of doubling the harmony, there is no improvisatory aspect to this structure; it is devised, both in its macro- and micro-structure with the attention to detail of a complex battle plan. The entry of the basses before the completion of the ritornello (bar 30) and the commencement of the closing ritornello before the choir has reached its final cadence (bar 232) both bear testimony to the scrupulous designing and conjoining of the interlocking sections.
The instrumental forces are relatively large, comprising flutes, oboes (three) and strings with a cornet and three trombones doubling the voices. The flute also doubles the sopranos’ chorale line and the oboes provide an additional doleful and ominous palate. Bach’s penchant for indulging in powerful chromatic harmony over a marching crotchet bass is well in evidence. All these elements combine to create a highly distinctive soundscape of deeply moving intensity.
But it is the harmony which grips us throughout, doing much to convey the starkness and desolation of a conquered city laid low with war, plague and fire. This is a landscape of despair and misery, made particularly poignant through the highly dissonant clashes of intervals, first appearing in the ritornello but intensified with subsequent entries of the lower voices. The ongoing development of the sometimes drooping, otherwise aggressive three-note figure (first heard in wind and violins in bar 25) is, when accompanied by rhythmically bare chords, a powerful intensifier of feelings of dejection and isolation.
The first three bars merely hint at the idea as it emerges in bar 25.
In typically Bachian fashion this motive is extended to form two of the later ritornello episodes (from bar 121 and 195) and it also provides much of the material for the instrumental accompaniment to the voices, constantly producing iridescent flashes of momentary, and often quite ′modern′ sounding, dissonance. The text is a heartfelt plea to remove our punishments and miseries and keep us from war, plague and pestilence. We hear the entreaties of the afflicted and we sense the barren world of war-torn despair. This is a powerful tone poem of human wretchedness.
A potent picture of a dejected, war-strewn landscape indeed, but, as so often with Bach, not one of complete hopelessness. Somewhere in all this warranted misery lies just a glimpse of God’s protective cloak and what it might do for us. We cannot but feel that before the cantata is over, this must become more explicit.
Students will note the various and expressive uses of the Neapolitan chord in this movement. Others will feel its power without needing to know its name.
The tenor aria retains the minor mode but the level of energy and activity is of a different order—-do not visit Your justice upon us, rather upon our enemies. The comparison with the destroyed Jerusalem is here made explicit. The rapid scales on the obbligato violin possibly suggest God’s dispersal of the adversaries, something only hinted in the text.
Much of the ritornello is lightly accompanied by off-beat chords and, in a manner similar to that of the three-note motive in first movement, it conveys suggestions of isolation. There are also numerous examples of word painting e.g. the beseeching phrase on the word Flehen—-to implore (bars 65-7), and the death gasps of the long falling phrase on vergehen—-perish—–the singer′s very last word!
(Assiduous listeners may find that the obbligato might be played by either flute or violin; Bach used both at different times the former originally.)
We now approach another of those movements of long text which Bach set by alternating recitative and chorale phrases. Schweitzer, as always, is extremely dismissive of this practice. With specific reference to this cantata he states it to be ‘sadly disfigured by the excessively tasteless recitative-passages that are dovetailed into the chorale text’ (vol 2, p 375). He, mistakenly, attributes the text to Picander and further claims that ‘Bach himself was unconscious of the wretched quality of this text’.
This is, perhaps, an assumption too far and unlikely to be the view of cantata lovers, or critics, in the twenty-first Century. Bach, more than most great composers, knew exactly what he was looking for in his texts. Nevertheless, it is something of a mystery why Schweitzer felt so strongly about this particular practice.
He does, however, make a more neutral observation about the repeated dotted bass motive. This he describes as a variant of a universal Bachian rhythm conveying charm, happiness or felicity (ibid p 98) in this case obtained through God’s mercy and goodness.
The chorale phrases are embellished, in 3/4 time and always accompanied by the delightful but slightly tentative continuo figure. The recitative sections are always in 4/4 time and the ritornello frames the movement at the beginning and end. The chorale phrases articulate general supplications to the Lord to help and sustain us, and the recitative lines offer examples of how, and in what circumstances, God’s aid might be most needed.
Only one voice, the soprano, is employed but it is as if the singer is having a quasi-philosophical dialogue with him/her self. Much careful thought may be given to the different perspectives which Bach’s setting underlines but Schweitzer seems to have entirely missed the point.
The significant position of the bass aria was alluded to above. After the initial representation of the flames of God’s fury, the key question is put—-why are you so angry? —-be patient with us and restrain Your punishments—-they bear down on us like flames. Bach planned this aria with great care; exceptionally constructed, it contains a number of sections delineated by tempo changes.
We may be temporarily deluded into thinking that this will be an aria in the same mould as that of the ‘staggering reason’ from C 178, heard only a fortnight before. But we would be wrong!
The moment the bass voice enters, the tempo relaxes, the complex texture dissolves, and the singer enquires touchingly—-why are you so incensed with us? It is a phrase of extreme poignancy due to its unexpectedness a) because it is sung to the chorale’s first line and b) because of its drooping, sighing accompaniment. The flames return: but so, again, does the question, this time extended into a recitative-like line of heart-rending sadness (from bar 17) before the flames appear yet again.
Then (bar 38) we come to the specific plea—-withhold your punishments and be patient with our weaknesses. An extended arioso section articulates this entreaty with uncluttered simplicity. Touches of the chorale hover about in both vocal and instrumental lines and the flames also flicker from time to time; but they are now subsiding. They shall return though, completing the movement as it began and reminding us that God’s wrath may be both extensive and ongoing.
A touching, almost naïve question and a sincere and simple, childlike plea both emerging from the conflagration of Divine wrath: Bach encapsulates all of this at the epicentre of the cantata. The basic structure may best be appreciated in the following simplistic outline;
Flames bars 1-9
Question bars 9-11
Flames bars 11-17
Question bars 17-20
Flames bars 21-38
Entreaty/arioso bars 38-59
Flames bar 59-end
As we approach the fifth movement we should, perhaps, spend a moment defending Bach against Schweitzer’s waspish attack. As in the third movement, the division of lines into a) chorale phrases (virtually unadorned and always accompanied by the skittish ritornello figure) and b) ′free′ recitative passages, are neither arbitrary nor lacking in artistic judgment. The chorale phrases are used to declaim the moral, the recitative in order to insert more colloquial and explanatory comment. Thus, from the beginning we hear:
* Sin has seriously corrupted us (chorale).
* Even the most righteous must tearfully admit this (recitative).
* The devil continues to plague us (chorale).
* Yes, this murderer, like the lion, seeks to devour us (recitative).
And so on, until the end. It becomes an easily approachable discourse, unified and emotionally intensified by the expressive continuo line. It simply reiterates the premise of the cantata with inserted comments verging on the vernacular. One wonders if Schweitzer would consider it ‘excessively tasteless’ today! Perhaps he viewed it as an early example of ‘dumbing down!’
The penultimate movement is one of nearly twenty duets from the cycle. It calls upon God and man not to forget Christ’s painful death and, through his sacrifice, to grant us mercy and absolution. It returns us to D minor, the key of the fantasia and reminds us just how little of the major mode we have had in this essentially mournful work. The scholar will note Bach’s own phrasing which accentuates the falling two-note appoggiaturas and consequently the sense of lamentation that lies at the heart of the movement.
This is an aria of such exquisite beauty that it almost seems impertinent to describe or analyse it; undoubtedly Bach at his most sublime. The opening and closing ritornello is a duet between flute and oboe da caccia, yearning forever upwards, but necessarily dragged back to its earthly environment.
Flute above oboe da caccia.
The first chorale phrase (alto) impresses itself upon us as flute imitates oboe from the opening bars. Similarly the two singers (soprano and alto) imitate each other using chorale phrases and material drawn from the extended flute melody.
Of particular note is the feeling of deep sadness evoked by the mention of Christ’s wounds and the expression of despondent wretchedness at the memory of His suffering (bars 21-2). Bach uses deeply expressive falling chromatic scales to generate the harmony at this point and this will not surprise those who may recognize the suggestion of Christ’s blood on the cross. Such patterns are also to be found in Cs 78 and 4 from this cycle whilst C 12 and the Crucifixus from the B minor Mass exploit the idea in the form of a reiterated ground bass.
The cantata ends as it began, still in the doleful key of D minor. The chorale entreats God to lead, bless and protect us. The harmony is simple and direct, the setting virtually homophonic, little more than a series of unadorned chords. There is nothing overtly triumphant about this expressive melody but even through the depths of despair, one feels that there is still hope.
This is a work which can stand many hearings. One speculates as to how much of its greatness Bach’s congregations might have noticed and appreciated from just the one.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.