Chapter 12 BWV 113 Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut
Lord Jesus Christ, most elevated goodness.
Let us pause to consider the place of the opening fantasia within the context of the cycle thus far. Going back a month to C 178 we find a powerful and energetic chorale/fantasia in Am, announced through aggressive dotted rhythms but quickly transforming itself into a veritable deluge of semi-quavers. Following this, C 94 could not form a greater contrast, an ebullient flute concerto movement and the only major-mode fantasia since C 20. Thence C 101 delivers a tone poem of such poignant beauty and sadness, unparalleled in the cycle to date. And, looking forward a week, C 33 delivers an opening movement which has more in common with that of C178, using the same key and with similar turbulent, insistent semi-quavers.
The first point to notice is this extraordinary expressive range of the chorale/fantasias that Bach was producing at this time. Secondly, even a cursory examination of C 113 shows that it is utterly unlike any of the others. And yet it has echoes of other works, which we should recognize, even pieces that Bach has yet to compose. It uses the key of the first great Kyrie of the Bm Mass and there are similarities with the tonal processes e.g. both exploit the relationship between F# and E minors. The cadences with the suspended leading note (a #) are highly reminiscent of the final chorus of the Saint Matthew Passion. This particular fantasia is a movement we may feel that we know; but it still conveys a distinctiveness that makes it unique. It has none of the forceful energy of Cs 178 or 33, or the deep introspection of 101 and it lacks the brilliance and ebullience of 94. It has a pensive, almost modestly apologetic air, a self-effacing diffidence lacking in any other fantasias of the period.
The text is a simple prayer to Jesus, the fountainhead of all that is good and merciful—-I am bent down with pain and my sinner’s conscience is pierced with constant arrows. Encapsulated within these words are two ideas which it might seem impossible to represent within the one piece of music; the greatness and righteousness of the Saviour to whom this wistful prayer is offered and the painfully exposed sins of the seemingly abandoned offender. There is an innate dignity, which suggests the former; but there is also a sense of alienation and isolation in the latter which creates images of bearing weighty burdens.
Possibly the first decision Bach made in setting this text was to change the chorale’s time signature from 4/4 to 3/4 thus suggesting a heavy, ponderous minuet or sarabande. (The upbeat might well indicate the former). Added to this are the constant suspensions, mostly falling but some rising, conveying a sense of continuous sighing. The choral entries, with the sopranos carrying the cantus firmus, are harmonized in the most simple and unadorned of styles. These, and the long final soprano note, all add to the feeling of individual isolation endured by the poor sinner someone, we may feel, with whom Bach has a fair degree of sympathy.
The dotted rhythms in the bass accentuate the images of heavily laden plodding. The scoring is sparse, just two oboes joining the strings and continuo and there is no doubling of the choral parts, not even of the soprano cantus firmus. And, like a single thread running through a tapestry, there is the first violin line with its constant stream of semi-quavers.
Oboe d’amore 1 above upper strings.
But these semi-quavers convey nothing of the infectious vigour of those in Cs 33 and 178. Here, forming a doleful counterpoint against the choral entries, they accentuate the ceaseless sadness of the lonely sinner. They may, although it seems unlikely, even represent the piercing arrows mentioned in the text. It is also possible that they suggest the pouring balm of the redemptive blood or sweat of Christ, briefly alluded to in the final chorale and portrayed more explicitly in Cs 5 and 7; it is not unknown for Bach to present, in the opening chorus, an image alluded to in the text of a later verse. As always, a deep understanding of these great works comes from viewing them as a totality rather than as a compilation of individual movements.
Thus we are left with a chorus of immense subtlety and power to move. The inner state of isolation, an inherent element of the human condition, is pervasive throughout.
The further use of the chorale in the second movement reminds us of Bach’s particular focuses at this stage of the cycle. Firstly, there is the imaginative treatment of these melodies, often given vastly different settings and frequently embellished whilst retaining their recognizable shapes; throughout this cycle Bach seems to be challenging himself to find ever more inventive ways of presenting them. Secondly, there is the practice, which Schweitzer disliked (see Chapter 11, C 101), of combining chorale phrases with additional lines of recitative (fourth movement). Finally, there is the focus upon highly expressive duets (seventh movement).
Thus C 113 is another of those culminatory works in the sense that it brings together many of Bach’s current compositional preoccupations.
The alto aria is no more than a plain setting of the chorale, transposed into F#m so as better to fit the voice. The text asks for compassion for the load one has to bear but it also conveys a sense of optimism—-a great burden presses, but I will not allow it to overwhelm me. The chorale melody is completely bare and unadorned, again suggesting that sense of loneliness and alienation embedded within the first movement. But it is the instrumental writing that offers most interest.
Despite, or perhaps because of the lack of musical invention in the alto line, this movement has much the feel of a chorale fantasia. Like a large gas planet not quite imposing enough to become a sun in its own right, it doesn’t qualify, largely because the chorale melody is not harmonized by the other three voices. But it has a substantial ritornello, generating material that sustains and surrounds the hymn just as we have come to expect in many of the opening movements.
And what a concise and elegantly constructed ritornello it is, almost entirely woven from a motive of four descending notes, heard first in the upper strings and imitated immediately in the bass. They are virtually ever-present even when generating the scale passages, themselves reminiscent of the opening movement.
This is musical composition at its most focused and concentrated and it conveys precisely a sense of weighted oppression which, despite the pressures it places upon us, shall not ultimately defeat us.
The only time that the strings break away from the relentless plodding quavers is for the syncopated violin figure first heard in bar five. This flickering of tortuous melody provides a momentary reminder of Christ’s death pains on the cross.
The third movement is the first in the major mode and Boyd (p 218) notes the similarities between this and Et in Spiritum sanctum from the B minor Mass. Both are for bass, in compound time, in the same key (A major) and accompanied by two imitative oboes. There are even some similarities in the shapes of the motives.
Opening bars of C113 followed by those of Et in Spiritum.
But the one is an unequivocal statement of belief and the other a concern with the personal relationship with God and the pain eventuating when we forego our responsibilities to Him—-When I have sinned against Him, I know that it would shatter my heart were it not for the fact that His word placates me. Once again Bach takes the optimistic view and refuses to over-emphasise the obvious aspects of fear and pain. The persistently ascending, positive scales heard on the oboes are not to be found in the assertion of faith from the movement from the Mass. Here they tend to provoke our optimism and invite us to look ever upwards, seeking out the comforting words of God. (See also the rising chromatic progression first heard in bars 5-6).
Nevertheless, the fact that these two arias are so similar is, perhaps, affirmation of Bach’s consistency of conviction.
The chorale returns in the fourth movement with recitative interpolations. Once again the text has been prepared with care in that each has a different function and emphasis. The chorale articulates the principle of God’s healing word and the joy penitents may receive from it. The recitative sections personalise this and relate more to the effects on the individual—-His words comfort me and so my corroding conscience will no longer torture me.
The chorale is accompanied by a repetitious, rolling figure in the continuo bass, highly reminiscent of the F#m prelude from WTC Book 1. It underlines and gives gravitas to the diktats of the chorale text, perhaps with the additional echo of the sweet incantations of the word of God himself.
Both of the central solo arias are unrelentingly major, providing musical balance for the overall work as well as optimistic affirmation of the powers of, and personal gratification to be gained from the act of redemption. The ritornello of the tenor aria begins with a musical assertion of the text which is to follow—–Jesus welcomes all sinners! Two short but assertive statements, each one and a half bars long, appear to set the tone, an unequivocal, unadorned and uncomplicated statement of faith. Or so it seems.
But this blunt beginning metamorphoses rapidly into a series of swirling triplets, these becoming an all-encompassing mantle of rushing demi-semi-quavers. In short, the notes become faster and more frenetic. Bach’s virtuoso flautist is recalled as the soloist, and what a player he must have been! The text tells us that Jesus calls to us and forgives us and Bach encapsulates the all-encompassing word of Jesus and the sense of rapture it conveys. We are wrapped within a cocoon of almost hectic elation.
Key words are stressed by means of melismas or long notes e.g. Leben—-life and Seelenruh—-peace of mind. The marked declamation of Dein Sünd ist dir vergeben—your sins have been forgiven—-is a divine assertion sounding through the passionate cloud of rushing notes (bars 41-3). Vigilant listeners will notice that this is an ornamented version of the chorale’s final phrase, an echo of the similar practice found in the soprano aria from C 93.
Sometimes Bach is enigmatic, sometimes he teases. But the message contained in this aria is as clear as crystal.
The tenor recitative begins in the major mode but quickly returns to the minor in preparation for the final two movements. This may be why Bach retained this piece of text as it does little more than re-assert that which has already been expressed. It also seems slightly odd that, in the midst of his experiments with hybrid recitatives setting long texts, there is no attempt to bring such an approach to this stanza.
But he does accompany the tenor with strings, varying the writing accordingly. We begin with sustained chords (the warmth of the Lord′s benefice?) and move to wisps of semiquavers evoking echoes of the violin writing in the fantasia. The humble prayer—-God be merciful to me (bars 11-12) is marked with repeated block quaver chords and the following words—-Ach, tröste meinen blöden Mut—-Ah, placate my enfeebled soul—-produce a moment of genuine and poignant pathos.
Perhaps Bach considered that a change from the euphoria of the tenor aria to the stark warning of the duet would be too abrupt. Artistically, the recitative does help to make a smooth transition into a movement, the text of which has changed direction—-forgive me Lord, Satan has placed a yoke of sin upon me—-break it, that I may return to a state of grace and childlike innocence.
Here then, is the warning counsel. We must not get too carried away with the potential euphoria that redemption offers us; the dangers of Satan’s cunning and our vulnerabilities to it are not to be underestimated. Redemption is available and we should celebrate this fact, but fear, anger, weakness and temptation have not gone away.
The writing for the two singers strongly emphasises this point. Bach returns to the rhythm of the opening movement, that of an oddly bizarre minuet. But here there is no preparation and no opening ritornello; the alto enters immediately—-God forgive me.
This fervent plea is taken up four bars later by the soprano against which the alto sings—-Zorn errege—-the rousing of [God’s] anger—-declaimed by a long convoluted melisma of semi-quavers. A marked feature of much of the movement is the coming together of both voices in extended melismas in 3rds and 6ths, of quite extraordinary length. Where, one wonders, is it possible to take breath? Perhaps it is a depiction of the prayer which is not, in this instance, so much an expression of refined reflection as one of breathless urgency.
The momentum carries on unabated until the very last line—-in kindlichem Gehorsam lebe—-[living] as an obedient child. Here in these final bars the vocal rhythms become more plain and foursquare as the music expresses the simplicity of the idea. Nevertheless, God’s anger echoes to the very end in the continuo′s semi-quavers.
Not, then a conventional minuet, but an expression of passionate intensity, a warning, perhaps, to the unwary against unthinking complacency.
The closing chorale reiterates the substance of the prayer underpinning the entire cantata—-heal, wash and fortify me as I depart this world. The danger has passed and recuperative faith has been restored as the chorale reverts to its traditional four-beats-in-a-bar rhythm.
But the mode is again minor and the mood somber. The sinner has been warned and chastised and his prayers for strength and healing are matters of seriousness.
Students may wish to compare this with the arrangement of the same chorale at the end of C 48 from the first cycle, set a third below and harmonized quite differently.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017.