Chapter 16 BWV 77 Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren lieben
Love the Lord, your God.
Chorus--recit (bass)--aria (sop)--recit (tenor)--aria (alto)--chorale.
The fifteenth cantata of the cycle for the thirteenth Sunday after Trinity.
In any competition to find the dozen least performed cantatas, C 77 would surely figure. This is probably because the opening chorus is less immediately accessible than many others. It has an austerity and detachment which requires re-hearings and thorough familiarity before one can fully penetrate its heart and core. It is, from a contemporary perspective, not unlike some of the ascetic movements from the Art of the Fugue which, although perhaps not immediately appealing, seize the imagination and touch the heart with increased acquaintance.
We will discover in our examination of the cantata canon occasional works which accord more stylistically with the last great pieces, the Musical Offering, Art of Fugue and the Variations on vom Himmel hoc. In one sense this would seem to make a nonsense of the classification of Bach’s works as ‘early’, ‘middle’ and ‘late’. Superficially there are some technical practices and stylistic features that appear to be detectable in certain works at certain times. But Bach seems to have been one of those composers who burst upon the world, fully equipped from an early age. The character, depth and expressiveness of his melodic gift was apparent from his late teens and he made use of and adapted it to suit the forms, styles and harmonic language that attracted his attention as his circumstances, experience and knowledge grew and intensified over the years.
The opening chorus of C 77 is of particular interest to scholars because of its symbolic implications; but how to help make it more accessible for the non professional music lover? One hint, when approaching a complex or enigmatic movement, is to listen to it, concentrating upon only one or two specific melodic lines. This provides a focus of attention and awareness which may reveal characteristics of the piece that can later be related to the entire jigsaw. In this movement the two key lines to focus upon are, because of their relative pitches and timbres, probably the easiest to isolate as well as being of central structural significance i.e. the solo trumpet and the continuo bass.
Let us commence with the continuo line. Quite obviously it has two quite different rhythmic characters. The first is a rapid, at times almost jaunty line emulating the upper strings. The second is built of long, slow notes. Concentrate firstly upon the latter; there is no need for bar numbers as these sections are obvious to both ear and eye. There are five of these ‘drawn out’ passages, the last one culminating in a very long held note (tonic pedal) that heralds the final cadence. Taken together, these sections spell out an entire chorale melody, details of which are explained below.
Once the shaping of that chorale has been grasped, it will become immediately apparent that it is the same melody that the trumpet is playing, though in shorter notes and with much more repetition. It declaims the first phrase no less than five times at different pitches before the final, triumphant proclamation of the complete theme concludes the chorus.
First chorale phrase (trumpet, bar 8) followed by augmented version in continuo.
This relationship between trumpet and continuo therefore functions as the essential backbone of the movement upon which flesh is placed by the choir and upper strings. Whilst the counterpoint is rich, complex and at times even dense, much can be gained by following the canonic entries of both voices and instruments using a theme derived from the chorale; a short upward scalic passage followed by a set of repeated notes. This is how the movement begins with first and second violins making their entrances as, subsequently, does the choir in the order B, T, S, A.
Why produce such a convoluted texture of overlapping themes and motives? The first response to such a question is probably that Bach loved exploring the potential of specific musical ideas and the challenge of seeking out just what could be made to work. At the same time, he always tried to align musical assemblages to textual images in a way that served the sense and quickened the emotions. Here the text is an injunction as to what man is required to do if he aspires to salvation----you must love God mightily with body and soul, mind and vigour and also your neighbour as yourself. It is the very comprehensiveness of this message that Bach has responded to, the total commitment of mind body and soul to both spiritual and corporeal matters. All aspects of the known universe are bound together and united as one, just as are the various musical components. Both the imagery and Bach’s response are more esoteric than usual which probably explains why the cantata is not better known and loved.
Finally, the hymn which Bach chose as the skeleton for this enigmatic movement is Dies sind die heilgen zhen Gebot----these are the ten Holy Commandments. Scholars have made much of the apparent symbolisms; the ten entries of the trumpet, the canonic interlinking of man, Master and neighbour and the final injunction to love one’s fellow being, all trumpeted above the firmly rooted foundation of the extended tonic pedal note. One cannot imagine that all of this would have been perceived by the Leipzig, or indeed any other congregations, on just the one hearing. Much of this complex allegorical representation must have been intended for the ears of God.
The intricacy of the opening chorus is balanced by the simplicity of the bass recitative that follows it. A mere dozen continuo notes are needed to support a direct and straightforward address to the faithful----it has to be thus----we must choose Him whole heartedly and we will never be more content than when He inspires us with His spirit, grace and goodness. There are no images to paint and the warm C major mode seems appropriately inclusive.
Minor modes impinge upon us in the first aria as, indeed, they do for most of the remainder of the work but in this movement the effect is principally one of a warm and all-encompassing affection. The soprano is supported by two oboes and continuo and the librettist continues with the theme of God’s commandments, in particular those requiring fealty to Him and honour to our neighbour----I love my God dearly and cling to You----but let me know Your commandment that I may love You forever. The writing for the oboes is atypical of Bach; much of the time they are musically and symbolically bound together in parallel movement in thirds or sixths. They have only the briefest of moments of independence so the overall effect is that of a trio (parallel oboes, voice and continuo) rather than of a quartet.
It is, however, essentially a love song, almost a swaying barcarolle tenderly expressed through graceful and flowing contrapuntal lines. The direct entreaty to know the commandment is expressed in a moment of genuine passion as the voice surges upwards (from bar 44). But it is the four complex and alternating melismas that really highlight the basic moral, two on each of entbrennen----inflaming (with love) and ewig----for all eternity (bars 34-55). Thus the central message at the centre of the cantata is perceived as one of loving God forever, an underlying premise of the first three commandments.
The unassumingly affectionate ritornello theme returns in full to complete the movement.
Whereas that aria was a loving serenade, the tenor recitative is a forthright appeal for support in doing the right thing----Give me, God, a Samaritan’s heart that I might love and support my neighbour and abhor my own love of self----only then may I aspire to the life of bliss that You can grant me. Any undue brashness in this direct entreaty is softened by the sustained string chords and the echo of the first movement chorale in the penultimate bar which, perhaps, is just sufficient to remind us that it is God’s law and wishes that shall prevail, not our own.
The second and final aria is an enigma in a number of ways. Firstly, we might have expected a text of fulfilment and satisfaction in the recognition that God’s law has been evoked and His assistance petitioned. Once received, we should be set firmly on the road to redemption; but this is not how the librettist saw it. On the contrary, we have a confession of weakness and potential failure----nothing remains within my love but defects and deficiency----much as I desire and will myself to do God’s bidding, I cannot do it! An example of Lutheran preoccupation with a dearth of faith and commitment yes, but quite possibly a dilemma for Bach whose attitudes and settings were never wholly negative. It seems as if the cantata that began with a positive, if intricate view of the cosmos has to end on a more negative note. Perhaps that is why Bach chose the almost bizarre combination of solo trumpet with alto and continuo.
The aria has the feeling of an eerie sarabande or minuet, much depending upon the tempo chosen. The first three notes are rhetorically powerful and are taken up by the soprano on entry----Ah, there remains (nothing but imperfection). Trumpet, voice and continuo together create a powerful scenario which may seem at odds with the confessions of inadequacy.
But Bach is almost certainly being much more subtle than that. The trumpet is a symbol of power and potency frequently used to celebrate the powerful and the divine. When announcing its opening theme these are the impressions the listener gains. But its bursts of semi-quavers, a weirdly fascinating sound, particularly on the original valveless instrument, give an impression of stress, tension and effort. Indeed these passages must have taxed the skills of some of the best practitioners at the time; the effort just to get the notes out may well have been apparent to all, thus reinforcing the message of the text through sheer physical endeavour.
Similarly the marching quavers in the continuo are forceful and energetic (from bar 42).
It would seem that Bach’s approach, positive as always, was to accentuate the potency of the human spirit and its efforts to do what needed to be done. This is not an aria about weakness, failure and humility. On the contrary it is the encapsulation of a strong and determined spirit who will, as everyone does on occasion, find certain tasks overwhelming. The exquisite subtlety of Bach’s mind and his sensitivity to the text have produced yet another movement which is captivating and engaging, ultimately inscrutable and certainly unique.
Having touched upon the difficulties which Bach may have had in ending this cantata it is a source of frustration to find that the text of the closing chorale has not survived. The chorale itself is also used to complete C 2 as well as forming the basis for its fantasia (vol 2, chapter 3), the verses used being preoccupied with sin and the Godless. It also begins C 153 (chapter 34) which is a prayer for God to sustain us in the face of the enemies. In neither case do the stanzas seem appropriate for ending C 77 and that which is generally adopted is an entreaty to strengthen our faith so that it might be active in doing good works and serving our neighbour.
Possibly that was the verse that Bach originally set in this stolid and rather grimly uncompromising melody. But it would be nice to know. We are left with a question as unanswered as the incomplete and enigmatic cadence of the final bar with which Bach leaves us.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012.