Chapter 12 BWV 13 Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen
My sighing and my weeping.
Aria (tenor)--recit (alto)--aria/chorale (alto)--recit (sop)--aria (bass)--chorale.
For the second Sunday after Epiphany.
From time to time one comes across a cantata that is dominated by the intensity, quality or sheer originality of just one of its movements. The opening aria of C 168 (chapter 2) is one such example. Another aria, also for bass, stands out alone from C 13. The rest of the work is lacking in neither invention nor musical interest but it is the portrayal of the combination of sorrow, pitiful tribulation and yet hope, which ensures that this great aria remains in the memory.
The other extant cantatas written for this day are C 155 from the first cycle (although composed some years earlier; see vol 1, chapter 37) and C 3 from the second (vol 2, chapter 35). The first of these begins with a heartrending soprano recitative espousing the never-ending misery of separation from the Saviour. It contains a duet which has one of the most captivating bassoon solos in the canon and it culminates in a joyously dancelike soprano aria dispelling all previous doubts. A sense of a fully completed emotional journey is thus graphically portrayed.
C3 follows a similar theme but is generally more quietly contemplative, especially in the opening fantasia and the soprano and alto duet. C 13 also deals with these issues but, as we shall see, does so rather more overtly. It uses the chorus only for the closing chorale and employs a restrained and delicate instrumentation, two recorders and oboe da caccia supporting the strings and continuo.
A further point of interest is the significance which Bach and his librettists may have attributed to those liturgical days which are simply numbered following a significant event e.g. the first, second, third (etc.) Sundays after Epiphany (or, indeed, Trinity). In the case of the two Sundays immediately following Epiphany, there was a particular concern with the passage of the Soul from a state of sorrow to the bliss of the heavenly state of salvation. However, in the second of these days the emphasis seems to have been more upon the miseries, tears and pain of separation than upon the actual journey itself.
And, even bearing in mind the unrelenting torment of some of Bach’s earliest essays in this form, there is probably no more angst-ridden cantata in the repertoire than C 13. Bach, the consummate musical architect does, as we shall see, achieve a considerable degree of artistic contrast (the third movement has an important role in addressing the emotional balance) but the main theme of human misery is never really lost sight of.
The instrumentation and key of the opening movement is indicative of what is to come. D minor was the key of the fantasia that began C 101 (volume 2 chapter 11) a depiction of a ravaged war-torn landscape of devastation. In C 13 it is the desolation of the individual soul which is portrayed; a more personal and intimate theme, albeit dealing with similar emotions. The strings and continuo are supported by two recorders and an oboe da caccia, the last of these significantly defining the mood throughout.
The time signature is 12/8 but it has no echoes of the pastorales it evokes elsewhere. In one sense it is a typically Baroque depiction of tears, sighs and sorrows. In another it shows Bach at his most profound, delving into the inexpressible depths of human emotion. Convention and artistic profundity come together in perfect union.
The oboe da caccia catches the mood immediately with its opening sustained note sandwiched between two oboes and the continuo.
But it does not remain static for long. Its essential role is to meander below the recorders which either move in parallel thirds or sixths (bars 1-4) or in imitation of each other (bar 5). Theirs is a gently sighing, throbbing motive, preparatory to its adoption by the tenor. The subterranean wanderings of the lower oboe in the nether regions are suggestive of the mysteries of Purgatory or Hell itself.
The tenor sings first of the tears and sighs which are too numerous to be counted. The texture is exceedingly rich, frequently consisting of five independent melodic lines. That, and the relentlessness of the minor modes combine to depict turgid, hopeless miseries.
The middle section (from bar 33) is not, in this case one of contrast but rather more of the same! The texture becomes a little less dense and the lowest oboe temporarily restrains itself from its flow of semi-quavers. But there is no lightening of the mood through major modes; in fact tonally the music sinks ever deeper into remote keys of F and Bb minors! A long sustained note on Pein----pain----and a convoluted melisma on Verschwindet----the sense of our sorrows never fading away but remaining forever----both emphasise the state of never-ending misfortune (bars 38 and 43)
One might expect Bach to have ended an aria with so little tonal variety with an abridged version of the first section but he does not. He fully reprises it with a conventional da capo, another signal that pains and sorrows do not disperse quickly.
The anguish of the human penitant calling to God in vain and bemoaning his condition is clearly and echo of, and metaphor for, Christ's misery and feelings of abandonment on the cross. In a sense it is that realisation which brings to this most angst-ridden cantata a gleam of optimism. Awareness of the historic context offers hope after the pain.
The alto recitative begins briefly in the major but only to plunge us back into even deeper minor-mode misery----God allows me to call, but it is in vain!----the time of solace may yet be far away. The setting of the final word demonstrates one of those details that proclaims Bach the ultimate genius. Flehen----an entreaty or beseechment----is set to a melodic line of great emotional beauty above an octave-treading bass.
Recitative becomes arioso in order to emphasise the main themel of the cantata----we implore You from our states of our misery, but You appear not to notice our prayers.
The centrepiece is the third movement, the only one of the three arias to be set in a major key. One verse of the seventeenth century hymn by Heermann (Boyd p 290) is simply intoned by the alto(s). The woodwinds lie silent but the string band is kept busy accompanying and enfolding the voice with a stream of almost continuous semi-quavers. The key is now F major which of itself lightens the mood. Is this one of those movements where, as some critics declare, the music does not exactly fit the sentiment of the text or the temper of the cantata? But such conclusions are glib and tend not to take into account the complexities of Bach’s approach to details of text on the one hand and the need for overall structural balance on the other.
It could be argued, of course, that Bach felt the need for some relief from tension at this point and his impeccable sense of the macro-structure balance of the work took precedence. This might explain a minor mismatch between text and music. On the other hand, Bach seems never to do anything without good reason and an explanation of this kind verges on the simplistic. We need to look more closely at both words and music.
The essential point is that this particular stanza poses questions rather than asserting statements. The opening aria was a personal declaration of a state of misery. Now the poet asks whether God, who has promised His help on occasions, will remain angry and withhold His mercy for all eternity. Such a question implies possibility of hope; and there is a degree of optimism in this aria which contrasts strongly with the pessimism of the first two movements.
The alto intones the eight asymmetrical phrases of the chorale without embellishment. The core of the musical interest, however, lies in the busy string writing. Just what image Bach had in mind is uncertain. Might it have been the ongoing activity of the remote Almighty, preoccupied with matters other than that of our immediate redemption? Might it suggest His anger alluded to in the text? If so it is a rather pallid expression of ire, but perhaps that is intentional. Might it be, indeed, our own limited human perceptions that bring about a mistaken interpretation of His temper? Nevertheless, in setting the fifth and sixth lines of the stanza----will He remain angry with me for all eternity?---- Bach manipulates the harmonies to pass through the related minor key of D, that of the opening movement. It would appear that God’s potential anger is of some significance even though we may have misjudged its endurance.
But it seems that such small hope that we might aspire to appears not to be soundly based. The fourth movement is a recitative for soprano, the only solo in this cantata for this, the brightest of the four voices. It begins with further lamenting; the deadening sorrows not only remain, they increase; and they numb the very heart.
But it finishes with a brief moment of optimism as we are told that God can, if he so wishes, turn bile into wine, an obvious metaphor for the fulfilment of our wishes. The movement ends in a major mode, the tonality underlining the message of hope.
Those who know Bach’s cantatas well could be forgiven for allowing themselves to be misled at this point. Sorrow and tribulation have been expressed with great feeling. Hope has been hinted at, albeit tentatively. The soprano recitative leads us to a major key at the point where we would expect the penultimate aria, that which may be expected to resolve matters or put a different viewpoint. Might we not now expect a joyous duet, proclaiming God’s blessing and our grateful acceptance of it?
Indeed, we might but that is not what Bach offers us. We are now presented with one of the most searing expressions of human misery and alienation in the canon. This is the ultimate portrayal of desolation and wretchedness; and yet, even here there are some vestigial signs of optimism.
It is worth noticing the proportions of the cantata. There are six movement but the two most tragic ones, the tenor and bass arias, occupy over two thirds of the performance time. Both, despite the chamber resources employed (the bass aria requires only half a dozen musicians), are symphonic in their stature. Taken together they dominate the entire work.
The bass aria is textually lighter than that for tenor, three melodic lines as against five. But in every other sense it is as intense, passionate and powerful. Continuo and voice are supported by two recorders and violin, all doubling to form the obbligato line, a particularly distinctive and doleful sound. The harmony is dissonant and chromatic of the type to be found in the A minor prelude (WTC book 2) and the Musical Offering. The melodic intervals are disjunctive and abrasive. The overall effect is not easily dismissed or forgotten.
The text concerns itself initially with the moaning and weeping of the desolate and this image clearly has inspired the initial musical material. However, even within this depressive context there is a suggestion of that possibility of hope touched upon in the two previous movements----looking towards the light of heaven may engender comfort within sorrowful souls. The miracle is that Bach encapsulates both these apparently contradictory ideas, not only within the same movement but even within the opening ritornello. For this reason, it is worth spending some time examining its structure.
The opening two bars make use of a chromatic ‘weeping’ idea with strong emphasis on the interval of a falling second.
Bars 3-4 find a version of this idea transferred to the continuo whilst Schweitzer’s three-note ‘joy’ figure is interspersed with the drooping figure of lamentation.
Bar 5 sees the melodic line stretching upwards, the dissonances and chromaticisms in temporary abeyance as the tonality reaches towards, and touches temporarily upon, the major mode.
Bars 6-8 see the continued use of the joy motive falling, thence climbing but inevitably sinking to its lowest level and returning to the minor mode at the cadence. Eight bars only and just two lines of counterpoint, but a perfect encapsulation of the present torments of the soul set amidst the possiblity of seeing, and perhaps attaining, the redeeming Light of Hope.
The entry of the bass with the initial melody returns us to the primary mood of ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’. There are too many points of detail to be explored here but the assiduous listener will notice the falling chromatic scale (bars 10-12 and elsewhere), the echoing and overlapping of the weeping motive between the upper two lines (bar 18) and the arresting and positive quaver writing for the voice as the upper line points the way to the light of heaven (bars 17 and 26).
The structure is straightforward. A complete restatement of the ritornello ends the A section in D minor (bar 38) and the B section begins with an emphasis on the light of heaven. Here the weeping motives are temporarily absent and this middle section culminates in an extraordinary bar (51) where voice and obbligato lines both reiterate the motive of hope, but slightly ‘out of sync’ with each other. The light of heaven may have been perceived from afar but our lowly spirit has not yet fully bonded with it.
The A section returns in bar 53 but in the key of C minor, thus preventing Bach from making use of an exact da capo reprise as in the first movement. But there is nothing surprising about this. His practice at this time was to aspire to through composed musical structures eschewing conventional, and tonally restricting repeats.
After all of the angst of this work it is slightly surprising to find it ending with a rather nondescript major-mode chorale. Perhaps Bach felt that he had given his audience a sufficiency of tears and sorrow and that he should leave them reflecting on a more positive note. But it remains an unusually lame conclusion to an emotionally highly charged musical experience.
The text simply urges one to be true to one’s self and trust in the God who counsels well, in all things. Not bad advice, perhaps, for the Lutheran congregation; and certainly worth considering if the alternative is the misery and desolation hitherto pictured as a dire warning to us all!
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.