Chapter 14 BWV 199 Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut
My heart is swimming in blood.
A cantata for solo soprano.
For the eleventh Sunday after Trinity.
Just as it seems that Bach was beginning to establish a definitive format for the structure of his weekly cantatas, he changes direction. C 199 is the first solo work that he presented at Leipzig, a practice which might not have been wholly favourably received at the time since he did not resume it for a number of years. As part of his third and fourth cycles (as set out by Wolff, pp 281-28) Bach composed cantatas for all four solo voices, suggesting a possible change in fashion. It is conceivable that operatic influences may have had an increasing influence on the church music in Leipzig by the middle and late 1720s. One can hardly disguise the fact that the combination of solo voice with the most dramatic of declamatory musical settings marks this as one of the most operatic cantatas Bach presented in 1723.
With this work Bach reverted to the practice of representing a piece composed a decade earlier when he was still in his twenties (Dürr p 494). This is unsurprising when we note the workload; two cantatas, 179 and 199, were presented on this Sunday performed on either side of the sermon. Was this a requirement placed upon the new Cantor? Or, as is more likely, was it a further attempt by Bach to re-establish the principle of the large scale bipartite work, even with all the implications it had for composition and rehearsal time?
It seems likely that he had had limited resources available for the original performance. No use is made of a choir; even the chorale is sung by the soloist (movement 6). Just the one wind instrument is called upon to support the strings and continuo. There is a viola obbligato part for the sixth movement and it is tempting to speculate that if players were in short supply, Bach may well have performed this himself. (These comments apply only to the cantata's earlier performances; when later paired with C 179, oboes and a choir were obviously available).
Thus we have a perfect ‘chamber cantata’, capable of being performed with a minimum of just eight musicians:- two violins, viola, cello, bass, organ (or harpsichord) oboe and soprano.
In fact none of the three extant cantatas for this day make use of very large instrumental forces. C 113 (vol 2, chapter 12) uses, like C 179, two oboes with an additional flute for the tenor aria.
The theme of C 179 is hypocrisy, that of 113 and 199 the burden of and redemption from sin. But there is no doubt that the imagery is most graphic and lurid in this, the earliest of the three works, presumably appealing to, and stimulating the imagination of a young man revelling in his technical expertise and creative ingenuity.
C 199 particularly demonstrates Bach’s interest in the dramatic and expressive use of the recitative. One forms the opening movement, another pre-empts the da capo in the first aria. Three are warmly accompanied with sustained string chords. Bach tended not to overuse operatic techniques in his earliest cantatas but here they assume real significance. Clearly, he was intrigued by the idea of beginning a work with a soul-searing recitative; we find him doing it also in C 155 composed at about the same time.
The initial key (in the later transposed version) is D minor, one which Bach would be calling upon for some of his most strange and brooding choruses (see Cs 109 and 46 from this and 101 from the second cycle). He sets the four arias successively in D minor and F, G and C majors, the journey from minor to major reflecting the progression from sin-oppressing distress to the joy of confession and redemption. This is the essence of this cantata.
The text of the opening recitative is excessively Baroque in gesture and imagery---- my heart drowns in blood since in God’s eyes I am but a monster----my sins are my executioners as Adam’s seed robs me of sleep and I must hide from Him from whom even the angels conceal their faces. The melodic line is most carefully crafted, allowing moments of pause for important statements to register. Its very shape highlights, in the soprano’s upper register, key words and images such as ‘pain’, Adam’s tainted seed and the door of heaven closing. There is no major-mode relief in this movement, which almost drips with the self-obsessed agonies of sin, pain and abandonment. Darkly melodic throughout, it is scarcely necessary to understand the language in order to be carried along with the torment of an abandoned soul swamped by its own sin and sorrow. Its finely wrought contours portray dramatically the vacillating emotions ranging from horror and terror to lonely and dispirited resignation.
The darkness of Dm continues as the oboe obbligato announces the ritornello theme of the first aria. Bach divides the text into three sections and deals with each differently----my sighing and mourning that the mouth cannot express---torrents of tears bespeaking a heart that repents----my heart and eyes cascading, would that they could rest. Finally comes the rhetorical, but central question----who, God, can ever gratify You?
The shape of the beautiful oboe ritornello melody suggests striving, sorrow and falling tears. It takes us briefly to a cadence in F major as though offering a possible moment of hope, but it returns immediately to the minor.
Minor to major (bar 4) returning to minor.
The oboe withdraws for a moment as the voice enters on the briefest of phrases----silent sighs and quiet lamenting.
Thenceforth the aria becomes, with one significant hiatus, a trio for singer, oboe and bass continuo. There are two long rising melismas on geschlossen---- closed [mouth]----accentuating the silent loneliness of the lamenting sinner as well, perhaps, as suggesting the effort of trying to articulate through a mouth that remains steadfastly mute.
The middle section (beginning at bar 29) is notable for the dissonance on which it begins, underlining nassen---the watery streams of tears. The pause and long notes towards the end evoke the moments of repentance of the sinful heart.
The third section of the stanza is set as a secco recitative, accompanied only by the continuo. Time almost appears to stand still with this final expression of misery, allied with the direct plea to God----when shall this pain be enough?----who can ever satisfy You? A da capo of the first section completes the movement, returning us to the place from whence we began; a condition of silent sorrow and inarticulate grief.
A direct plea to the Almighty pervades the following recitative. It is the ultimate expression of sackcloth and ashes, seeking to pacify Him----I bathe my head in ashes and beat my heart with remorse. It culminates in an emotional plea----God take pity upon me a poor sinner (bars 8-11). It ends by leading us directly into the second aria----God must, indeed be touched when He hears my soul; and what the soul has to say forms the text of the following movement.
A point of detail not to be missed is that this recitative leads us from minor to major mode. There is, indeed, hope for the sinner once guilt is confessed.
The second aria, in F major, is in the form of a civilised and refined minuet and it conveys a direct statement of repentance. Leaving aside the following three-bar recitative, it is the central movement of the cantata, and the longest, indicating that Bach would have expected his audience to attach particular significance to it.
Warmly accompanied by strings, the soprano expresses remorse unreservedly----I confess my guilt before you, God----have patience with me. This, the keystone and turning point of the cantata might even be said to express the centrality of fundamental Lutheran dogma. The sorrow will drain away when the sinner repents, reforms and expresses compunction. The mood is now dignified and almost formal, the style of the melody strangely Handelian.
The long (25 bar) ritornello contains two striking features. One is the held suspensions on the violins later taken up by the voice.
The other is the simultaneous trills on all upper strings (bars 19/20) a bizarre effect which possibly evokes the distant rumblings of Satan, the begetter of sin, temporarily vanquished but not destroyed or forgotten. The rising bass intervals have intimations of aspiration.
The middle section returns us temporarily to Dm (the key of the opening movements) also suggesting that neither the journey towards God nor the act of contrition is without effort. It all takes time and this point is exquisitely conveyed in three ways; with the repetition of the word Geduld----patience---, by the two bars of adagio and, thirdly, the pause before the music returns us to a major key (Bb) and a reprise of the opening section.
Most recitatives as short as that which follows have syntactic functions e.g. Jesus spake to Simon. Here we are told that following these moments of remorse, appropriate words will ensue; in fact we shall be hearing them in the next movement. The astute singer however, may notice that the first phrase is almost identical to that which begins the cantata. Even as the voice of penitence speaks, there is a musical echo of the torments of the heart swimming in blood. The shading and pointing of these conjoined moments requires subtle interpretation.
With no choir available, Bach had to find an alternative way of presenting the chorale. He could, of course, have dispensed with it entirely as he did in some of the later solo cantatas for alto, but at this stage a chorale seems to have been considered an indispensible part of the work. Often its function was summative or reflective, a moment to pause and consider the cantata's message prior to the sermon. But here it carries the message directly from the penitent to the Saviour----as we distressed children cast away the most hidden and terrifying of our sins, we find our salvation through Your own agonies. A well-known chorale melody is a clearly an appropriate way of delivering this message to the congregation.
It could, of course, have been sung simply by the soprano, the strings providing the traditional four-part harmony; but Bach will have nothing so easy and unimaginative. He converts the chorale into a short but complete ritornello aria by separating the melodic phrases (as in a chorale fantasia) but bonding them with the string ritornello melody. This was originally conceived for the viola although in subsequent performances it is thought that Bach substituted viola da gamba and/or piccolo cello.
This movement provides us with an excellent example of the subtlety of Bach’s word setting. The distressed child calls to Christ through the miasma of sin, misdemeanour and failure that surrounds him. But salvation is accessible only through Christ’s wounds. Above a treading continuo, the pure voice carrying the chorale melody suggests the latter, the busy semi-quaver obbligato line the former. Furthermore, Bach has developed the viola melody directly from the chorale; a glance at the opening phrase of each reveals their congruence.
First chorale phrase followed by the opening viola motive.
Sin and redemption are musically shown to be two sides of the same coin.
Second chorale phrase between continuo and viola obbligato.
The penultimate movement is another string-accompanied recitative, describing the situation and disposition of the one who has confessed----I lie fixed as a rock through the action of Your sacrifice----here shall be my place where, contented, I may sing of my faith. The final bars, with the soaring melisma, form a joyously uplifting prelude to the song itself which becomes the final movement.
This explains, of course, the early placing of the chorale movement rather than at the end. (This is the first work of the cycle not to end with a chorale, the next being C 181, the forty-first). It could not come between the final recitative and aria because the one leads directly into the other. It could not end the cantata because Bach wished the transformation of mood to one of extrovert joy to be complete. And what better way to express jubilation than in a gigue, incidentally, the second suite form to be found in this cantata.
The gigue is short but in perfect balance with the remainder of the work. It is a conventional da capo movement which bustles along, oboe, first violins and soprano all having their turn at the essentially rustic melody. The text tells of the joy of the heart when God has pardoned the repentant sinner----now can one look, with confidence, towards an eternal life.
The proportions are slightly odd in that the first vocal section is exactly the same length as the instrumental ritornello; one would expect it to be longer. The middle section is of similar proportion. This is the kind of gigue which, played on the keyboard, one might expect to find at the end of a French suite. Perhaps the point is that a life of pain is short when compared to the everlasting bliss of the eternal afterlife which redemption enables.
This cantata, expressed throughout in the first person, is highly personal. It makes a clear and dramatic journey from the cesspools of sinful misery to the euphoria of redemption and salvation. It has no trumpets, horns or drums to drive its message home; they are not needed within this highly private context.
Furthermore, if they had not noticed it already, the Leipzig congregations must now be beginning to detect those contrasts between the depictions of personal and communal faith, individual belief and collective doctrine that we have come to recognise in so much of Bach’s ecclesiastical music.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.