Chapter 16 BWV 8 Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?
When, dear God, will I die?
Chorus/fantasia–aria (tenor)–recitative (alto)–aria (bass)–recitative (sop)–chorale.
It has often been said that although Shakespeare reveals much of the human condition and its range of emotions, he discloses, at least in the plays, very little of his own personality and attitudes. He can delve into the whole gamut of human endeavour and behaviour without allowing us into his personal world.
The same may be said of the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. Certainly, important themes and values keep returning, but then the nature and topics of Lutheran services throughout the church year, rather than Bach’s personal preferences, would have determined this. As an additional complication, Bach sets similar texts in quite disparate ways, sometimes seeming to be quite contrary to their spirit. Occasionally he appears almost satirical, bringing an almost frivolous approach to serious religious contentions.
What does shine through in these works, however, is a deep and unquestioned faith in the powers of redemption and a sense of unfailing optimism, even in the midst of constant bereavement.
Bach’s sincerity has been questioned by some; he was, it has been suggested, merely a ‘jobbing’ composer who had no strong personal commitment, simply composing a lot of ‘church music’ because that was what he was paid for. I doubt if many people seriously believe that today.
But, partly because musical statements have an inherently unambiguous quality and partly due to the sheer range and scope of the man’s inventiveness, there is room for much conjecture about what he really felt about the philosophical, social and religious issues articulated in the texts he set.
Notwithstanding all this, one is tempted to suggest that this cantata, written a third of the way through the cycle, might be different. The text poses questions of supreme relevance to every human being: ‘When will I die?’ ‘What will happen after death?’ ′What will I leave behind?’ These questions must have resonated particularly for Bach because death, in his immediate family circle, had touched him consistently since the demise of his mother when he was nine years old and his father shortly afterwards. When he composed this cantata he was in his fortieth year and, in addition to his parents, he had lost his first wife, two brothers an uncle and three children!
It is true that he could take a pragmatic view of death as he did when he later bemoaned the fine weather bringing fewer fatalities and, consequently, fewer funeral fees! But there can be little doubt that a man as sensitive as Bach must have been deeply touched by the unremitting personal tragedy which dogged his life and this cantata, as with the early Actus Tragicus C 106 (vol 1 chapt 79), would appear to convey strong personal feelings.
This is, perhaps, most apparent in the massive opening fantasia. The first surprise is that a text of such gravity, musing on the time and nature of one’s own death, should be set in a major rather than a minor key. The somber, shaded qualities of the minor would, at first sight, seem more appropriate. Bach was, of course, always constrained in this respect in his fantasias; because they encapsulated the chorale melodies, they necessarily took on their modes. (Nevertheless the stunning virtuosity of this composer may be admired in the final chorus of C 11, the Ascension Cantata, where he sets a solid minor key chorale within an ebullient and uplifting major-mode fantasia: vol 3 chapter 50).
However, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider Bach’s use of minor keys which he possibly called upon more than any other significant composer. By comparison, Mozart wrote forty-one symphonies only two of which (25 and 40) are in minor keys. Only two of the twenty-seven piano concerti (20 and 24) are minor as are two of Beethoven’s nine symphonies (5 & 9) and one of the five piano concerti (3). Of course these composers worked within different cultural and stylistic environments and they used minor keys for inner movements as well as for contrasting events within the architecture of single movements. But they did not select minor keys as the basis of complete works as frequently as Bach; we have noted in previous essays how often the minor mode was chosen for the chorales and (consequently) the fantasias of these cantatas.
Similarly, we have seen that Bach had an extraordinary sensitivity to the colourings of the major/minor scales, lacking superficial preconceptions about their characters. For him a minor key was often not so much sad or tragic but powerful, dramatic, dignified and driving (see the outer movements of the double violin concerto, the Dm keyboard concerto or the Am triple). And, as we discover in this cantata, the major can be quietly peaceful, contemplative, pensive and profoundly moving.
Despite this, it is likely that Bach was attracted to this particular chorale because it offered a variety of tonal possibilities, moving progressively through E, B, C# m, B, C# m and E. When translated into the larger scale of the fantasia, this offers the potential for a particularly varied tonal skeleton which many chorales deny. It also provides an alternation of three and two-bar phrase lengths which, despite the melodic embellishments, Bach retains in the chorus.
The fantasia is scored for strings and continuo, two oboes d’amore and a piccolo (or possibly a high recorder). A horn doubles the chorale melody. The fact that Bach wrote detailed phrasing and articulation marks for the performers suggests a particular involvement with this work since this was not always his practice. Players would be assumed to know how to phrase and articulate and they could be further instructed at the (probably minimal) rehearsals and within school lessons.
The sopranos have the chorale melody, adapted to the 12/8 rhythm and accompanied by the other voices which, on this occasion, have limited independence. They do not weave a complex texture around the chorale melody as we find elsewhere (for a few of the many examples see the fantasias from Cs 1, 91, 92). Here they simply support the tune. Thus Bach creates a feeling of essential simplicity, which is entirely fitting to the overall mood of reflectiveness. Reflection about death rather than fear of it is the underlying theme and the choice of a major key, albeit muted, now makes complete sense.
Much of the musical interest lies with the orchestra. The oboes imitate each other with a persistent rocking motion, which possibly underlines the phrase ‘ever does my time run on′.
Oboes d’amore above pizz strings.
The high, repeated notes of the recorder were interpreted by Schweitzer (vol 2 p 77) as representing funeral bells sounding in the distance. He also quotes Spitta (ibid p 203) as describing this movement as an ‘orchestral tone poem that is woven out of the sounds of bells and is filled with the spirit of a grave-yard in the spring’. (The work was, however, first performed in the autumn of 1724. When later revived in 1746-7 it was transposed down to D major—-Dürr p 552)
But it is also reasonable to interpret the repeated notes as the ticking of the clock, marking the passage of our mortal lives, inexorably leading us towards the moments of our own deaths.
One should also note the pizzicato strings which add to the feeling of quiet insistence. They pause, momentarily, on just four occasions, principally in order to give space to the sopranos as they commence their phrases with a simple but exquisitely expressive, embellished upbeat. The feeling of the movement is dominated by the poignancy of the opening line, ′When, dear Lord shall I die?′ a question we are all bound to consider during our own earthly journeys.
Note should be made of Bach’s not infrequent insertion of minor notes into major scale melodies. In this chorus he introduces, even before the ritornello ends, all three notes which differentiate minor from major: the 7th (d natural, as early as bar 1), 6th (c natural, first heard in bar 3) and 3rd (g natural, bar 8). These notes colour and soften both the melodic lines and the harmony, producing an effect of reflective wistfulness. It is, however, the flattened third note (the g natural) which impacts so much upon the character of the movement.
Occasionally the use of this technique almost tempts us to suggest that Bach invented an early version of ‘blues’ where this note is predominant. However, he usually harmonises it with a diminished rather than the dominant-seventh chord. He employs it for a moment of colour, nostalgia or a fleeting echo of sadness; just another of his inexhaustible supply of melodic and harmonic techniques. A particularly extrovert example of the ′Bach Blues′ is to be found in the obbligato line of the alto aria from C 30 bar 14 (vol 3, chapter 52).
Between the opening and closing movements of this cantata one finds a precise structural balance, two arias each followed by a recitative. The four solo voices are given one movement each.
There could hardly be a greater contrast than that between the two arias, the first minor, slow and heart-rending, the second major, fast and ebullient. This is both an indication of Bach’s use of the cantata to make an emotional and spiritual journey and an illustration of his own unfailing optimism emerging out of the very human trepidation normally associated with death.
The tenor aria asks the question—-why be fearful as we near that place of rest to which so many have already gone? The voice is accompanied by the continuo with one oboe d’amore providing a convoluted but deeply expressive obbligato. There is a five-note figure in the bass (da-da-da-da——da) which some have interpreted as a further representation of a funeral bell. However, its low pitch, and the emphasis upon the tonic and dominant notes would seem, rather, to depict the beating of a funeral drum.
Feelings of persistence and inevitability are carried forward from the opening chorus and, if Bach felt any loss of the lack of the minor key there, he makes up for it here; this movement is almost unrelentingly minor.
There are several details of graphic word painting. The tenor has a long, static note on the word Ruhstatt—-rest (bars 70-72). In bars 29-31 the single quavers in the vocal line suggest the slow pealing of the bell as one′s final hour approaches. The oboe melody has a quaver rest in the second bar just before the rising interval of a seventh. This is like an emotional hiccup; a catching of breath in the throat, a physical manifestation of a moment of fearfulness, particularly poignant when, as seems inevitable, it is taken up by the tenor. The oboe d’amore, apart from the occasional hiatus, weaves its continuous melodic line of great beauty, but also apprehension in the face of the lingering pain and fear which the following recitative will make explicit.
The alto recitative asks the questions to which the final three movements attempt answers. Where will I find rest? Who will free me from sin? (a recurring Lutheran preoccupation!) Where will those close to me be driven in their grief?
The last comes as something of a relief. Luther’s Calvanism was often interpreted in a rather egocentric way. What will happen to me? How will I be redeemed? How will I attain the grace of the Lord? Here, at least, is some thought for others and one is tempted to speculate how this particular question might have preoccupied Bach in significant periods of his life, perhaps not least when his father died and he was sent to live with, and be educated by, his uncle. These questions are expressed musically by a series of imperfect (i.e. unfinished) cadences.
The bass aria bursts upon us like a breath of fresh air; the whole mood has now altered. The questioning has gone and is now replaced by an assertion of total positivity—-rid yourselves of your fears, trust in the call of Jesus—-to stand before Him is to transform your day. Musically all this has in common with the opening chorus is the 12/8 time signature but, performed at a quicker tempo, this rhythm is transformed into a gigantic, and slightly odd, gigue. The sadder, more muted tones of the oboes are absent and the flute takes on the main melodic role, vying with the accompanying strings and sparkling with optimism and joy.
This is an Italianate ritornello movement at its most abandoned. The message is unequivocal—-you may question the process of death and muse upon your own mortality. But do not allow yourself to become morbidly absorbed with these issues for Christ has provided you with an honourable and fulfilling eternal afterlife; rejoice in that simple, undeniable fact!
Bach frequently juxtaposes quite different shades of feeling and emotion with an infinitely subtle musical palette. But here he is completely unequivocal.
Depending upon the tempo, the opening ritornello may last for a full minute with the flute appearing almost as a concerto soloist. Had this been a gigue closing one of the keyboard suites, this section alone would have taken us to the double bar-line, thus comprising almost half a complete movement. This in itself gives some idea of Bach’s sense of scale in his cantata movements; he was not one to cut corners despite the huge demands that constant deadlines must have placed upon him. It is clear from the beginning that this is to be a significant movement.
The flute bubbles along with swirls of semi-quaver scales and makes good use of the three-note figure of joy. It has just one echo of the reflectiveness of previous movements when it touches upon a g natural, a note of the minor scale, just before the bass enters (bar 15). This delicious moment comes three more times, evenly spread throughout the movement and providing an echo of the seriousness of that which has gone before. But it is over in a flash and does not inhibit the stream of almost unrelenting optimism.
Neither aria uses the da capo repeat, although that for bass strongly suggests a ternary structure when the initial vocal theme returns, in the original key, from bar 70. Bach rewrites, rather than blindly repeats, his material and in this way he seems to be extending the conventional format into that of a somewhat more ′through-composed′ structure. Both arias are built on ritornelli although that which concludes the one for bass is greatly truncated, perhaps because of its considerable length.
The second recitative returns to the minor, underlining the image of the mortal world; it may reclaim our flesh and bones, and even our earthly poverty, but we shall retain our faith, renewed every morning. This last idea is a very common one in early Lutheranism to the extent that one may still find examples of it carved into wooden furniture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: ′God′s goodness is rekindled every day′. The final melodic phrase twists tortuously around the chromatic Neapolitan 6th chord, expressing the idea of a faith that ‘cannot die’.
The closing chorale returns us to the assurance of the major key. It is a prayer requesting that we be allowed a good and honourable death. All instruments double the choral parts including the horn (which had similarly supported the sopranos in the opening chorus, but played no part in the other movements). The asymmetrical phrasing produces a slightly enigmatic and uncertain feel; the mood is serene and beautiful but the unpredictable phrases convey just the slightest feeling of unease, a very natural emotion to feel when contemplating one′s own demise.
The harmonization is, unusually, not Bach’s own. He has retained the original, possibly as a tribute to the composer Daniel Vetter (Boyd p 267). The soprano upbeats to several of the phrases are not harmonised, giving a sense of space and openness, a technique which Bach exploited to great effect in the fantasia.
Thus the closing notes of this fine chorale leave us with a clear and unequivocal message: faith has conquered the fear of death.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.