Chapter 15 BWV 43 Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen
God is risen with Jubilation.
Chorus--recit (tenor)--aria (tenor)--recit (sop)--aria (sop).
Recit (bass)--aria (bass)--recit (alto)--aria (alto)--recit (sop)--chorale.
For Ascension Day.
We are fortunate in having four extant works by Bach for this important day in the church year. C 37 (vol1, chapter 55) was composed for the first Leipzig cycle, C 128 (vol2, chapter 46) for the second and C 43 for the third. The Ascension Oratorio, C 11 (chapter 50) was first performed in the mid 1730s although it drew upon earlier composition.
All of these cantatas, however, are original and substantial works as befits the significance of the event. C37 deals principally with the matter of faith and it is built around an opening chorus of great charm and a final chorale, enclosing arias (including a highly significant duet) and recitatives. C 128 is structurally one of the oddities from the second cycle, beginning with a fantasia based upon a chorale other that that with which it closes. Perhaps its most memorable movement is the rousing aria for bass, trumpet and strings. C11 has its own peculiarities of design, its string of narrative recitatives putting one in mind of the St John Passion.
C 43 concerns itself more with Christ’s actual ascension and our subsequent journey to follow and sit at His right hand. Furthermore it is, with the single exception of C 20 (vol 2, chapter 2) the first bipartite cantata Bach produced in over two years.
Leaving aside the oratorio, C 43 is the most broadly spread of the three works, comprising eleven movements and the only one to be set in two parts. Opinions differ as to the specific purpose of this format, one suggestion being that one part could be performed before and one after the sermon. The pairing of movements is notable, a recitative followed by an aria for each of tenor, soprano, bass and alto in turn.
The scoring is the most expansive of the three cantatas for this day requiring three trumpets, drums, two oboes, strings and continuo. The mood is particularly festive as it celebrates the rising of Christ to sit at the hand of God, His work of Salvation on earth having been completed.
An impressive chorus uplifted by brass and woodwind is the appropriate way to begin the proceedings, perhaps especially because there have been relatively few of them in the cycle so far. Of the eight cantatas following C 110 only two begin with a chorus (Cs 16 and 72), that for the former work is unusually concise and neither uses trumpets or horns. Nevertheless, there is evidence that Bach was renewing an interest in providing expansive opening movements for his cantatas at this time, be they choruses or sinfonias.
The structure of C 43/1 is slightly unusual although clearly based upon fugal principles. The text simply states that God has risen to the sounds of pealing trumpets----Praise Him! This is no more than the standard requirement to glorify the Lord before the detail of the story begins.
Bach commences, unusually, with a short slow introduction invoking the dignified mood of the occasion. Violins (doubled by the first oboe) and continuo imitate each other freely in a theme that, had it been given dotted rhythms would have strongly suggested a French Overture. Another connection with this form is the fugal nature of the main section and echoes of this courtly style might evoke something of the sense of majesty associated with this occasion. On the other hand, Bach may have intended the introduction to suggest the primary event of the ascension followed by the human rejoicing (inherent within the bustling fugal shapes).
Christ has risen to the ringing of the trumpet and consequently the trumpet must sound; and so it does with an allegro theme that provides most of the material for the rest of the movement.
The chorus enters en bloc informing us of the ascension, but the latter part of the initial trumpet theme is soon to be used as a fugal subject (from bar 26).
The order of entries themselves incorporates the notion of ‘rising’, bass then tenor, alto and soprano. As the sopranos take up the theme, confirmation that the climb to heaven has been completed is verified with the return of the trumpet playing the initial melody. This is an assured and breath-taking piece of musical building which perfectly captures the mood, action and metaphoric meaning of the text.
Two further limited fugato passages occur, the first beginning with the altos in bar 57 the second, also led by the altos, in bar 99. Much of the largely homophonic coda is over a rooted, tonic ground bass. Christ has risen, God is pleased, praises are given and now He has arrived in His true place. All this is embedded within the very fabric of the music.
The first of the recitative/aria pairings begins with the tenor assuming his traditional role as narrator----all should prepare for a parade of victory----God’s own congregation must offer Him acclaim, sound ceremonial trumpets and proffer eternal Hallelujahs. The tonal journey from minor to major may well represent Christ’s movement to emerge with triumph to sit at God’s right hand. Technically it also takes us to G major, the key of the tenor aria.
This, the shortest of the four arias, none of which are particularly extended, loses nothing from its brevity. It purports to give us Jesus’s words before His departure, a point later made clear in the alto aria. The essential contrast here is between the ‘lowly’, who bow down in their multitudes in order to praise Him and succumb to His will, and Christ’s own ascension marking the salvation of all good Christians. The metaphorical perceptions of low and high are encapsulated in the unison violin theme of the opening two bars. It plunges two octaves before recovering and ascending to the note whence it had begun, a high g.
This balance of directional movement is a marked feature of both vocal and violin lines throughout. The long, low notes on erliegt----referring to those who have succumbed to His will-----close the first and third vocal sections and further illustrate the image of the abased masses.
The soprano has little to tell us in the following recitative other than that after He had spoken, He was lifted up to take his place upon God’s right hand. It is just five bars long and begins and ends in E minor, the key of the following aria. In fact Bach has planned the tonality so that each one of the four recitatives ends in, and thus prepares us for, the key of the following aria, further evidence of the composer’s careful tonal macro-planning.
Oboes double first and second violins which join with violas and continuo to complete the soprano’s support. The first violins provide an obbligato melody and the other strings support in a subsidiary role. The text is one of finality and therefore appropriate for the completion of Part 1 of the work----Jesus has completed His work of salvation and returns to the place from whence He came. Heaven will welcome Him home!
But there is no overt sense of triumph in this aria. The ritornello theme twists around the note of b and makes several attempts to climb upwards.
Is Bach alluding to the difficulties of Christ’s period on earth before He can ascend to his proper home? Or is it a reminder of the fact that we too will have to struggle on our own personal journeys? Whatever the musical metaphor, it pervades the movement throughout and cannot be ignored.
The aria gives the impression of a ritornello/da capo movement in that there is a first and second section (ending respectively on bars 25 and 35) but no reprise of the first.
Was Bach working under time constraints for this cantata? Might he have been given a limit as to its overall length? The general brevity of all the movements suggests that there might have been a factor of this sort applying. The proportions of the movements however, balance each other well, reminding us of the similar mastery of miniature forms to be found in the Magnificat in D major.
This opens with a commanding bass solo, a metrical recitative accompanied by fanfare figures on the strings. The mood is now entirely triumphant----the Hero has arrived, He who has conquered death and routed His enemies----come and lift Him up! The aggressive ascending passages on strings and voice paint the picture clearly. The low repeated notes on the strings are suggestive of the vanquished enemies. Short though it might be, this is operatic music at its most urgent and dramatic.
At first sight it might seem surprising that Bach did not make use of the available trumpet in the heroic little recitative. The reason becomes obvious when it bursts upon us at the beginning of the bass aria, another example of Bach’s planning across the movements.
The ebullient final melisma itself paints, musically, the physical action of elevation.
This is a reflection on Christ’s lone achievements on earth----He alone trampled the wine-press of torment in order to affect salvation----wake yourselves and crown Him appropriately! Christ’s suffering is real and we must not dismiss it. Indeed, elsewhere Bach has written superb music depicting the agonies of Christ but this is not the place for it. The fundamental mood now is one of celebration and His anguish is a thing of the past, to be remembered but not to be dwelt upon. Thus Bach chooses a major key and sets the text with a strong sense of optimism.
The trumpet enters, unaccompanied for the first bar, symbolising Christ in His solitary state just as the text suggests. The second bar uses a motive from the trumpet solo from the first movement (bars 9-10). Clearly Bach intended to invoke echoes of the original shouting of praises.
Long melismas underline the metaphor of the trodden wine-press of anguish, which adds little to the cantata’s basic theme although one suspects that the librettist may have been very pleased with it. The commanding passage of musical genius remains, though, the composer’s and we find it in the five bars 23-6 where minor harmonies and somewhat tortuous melodic lines graphically depict the torments that Christ was forced to undergo.
But this change of mood and sentiment never interrupts the overall flow of the music which emerges triumphantly from the agonies just as Christ had done Himself.
The aria is again in truncated ternary form although, unlike the previous one, Bach here makes an effort to allude to the first section before the resounding trumpet ritornello closes the matter.
The text of the alto recitative adds little more than that of the soprano----the hour has come for Him to receive His crown for the countless adversities He endured----I can but stand and gaze upon Him. There is no heroic quality in this simple minor-mode melody. This is a plain, personal expression of acceptance and faith, emphasised only by the melisma on schau---the act of gazing adoringly upon Him.
Musically the alto aria puts one in mind of that for tenor from C 38 (vol 2, chapter 22). Both are personal statements set in Am. Each employs the same instrumental resources, two oboes and continuo. Furthermore, the three-note figure of joy is a persistent part of both continuo lines. The earlier work is more about listening for a word of comfort from Jesus in the midst of personal sufferings and this explains the constant and delightful but anguished, suspensions between the oboes. The later movement portrays the good Christian watching how God dispenses with His enemies and continuing to gaze, with awe, upon Him. The ritornello theme is consequently now busier, suggestive of the adversaries waiting to be smitten by God’s hand.
Of the four arias this is the one most packed with hidden delights. The distress from which God saves his people is depicted by the long notes (between bars 46 and 55) and again in the unexpected falling chromatic scale (bars 58-9). The passive act of standing and gazing, in adoration at the Lord, is portrayed by the repetition of a single note of a (bars 62-5) repeated on e (bars 68-71).
The enemies rage around but are kept under control. The viewpoint of the passive yet committed individual is powerfully communicated. This is an aria of great emotional depth demonstrating superb attention to textual detail.
The soprano is recalled for the fifth and final recitative, a clear statement of personal faith----He will prepare a place for me near Him where I shall be free from mourning and sorrow----I remain here now and call to Him with gratitude. Christ’s duties on earth, now completed, have been described and understood. We have been made aware of the consequences for ourselves and accept them gratefully.
And yet the final chorale is not entirely reassuring. It is a rather odd tune, with shortened last phrases, sung through twice to accommodate two verses. Its shape reinforces the idea of ascension as it also stretches up towards an eventual top g. It places Christ in His proper place and asks how we can best laud His victories.
But it ends on a note of uncertainty----when shall I go there, when shall I stand before You? There are echoes here of C 8 (vol 2, chapter 16) and C 27 (chapter 26)----when shall I die? True, faith may sustain us through our earthly struggles but it cannot tell us when they will cease, nor when we may depart from this earth.
There can be no ultimate certainties about human matters and this cantata concludes gently reminding us of this fact.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012.