Chapter 17 BWV 25 Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe
Nothing in my body is sound.
Chorus–recit (tenor)–aria (bass)–recit (sop)–aria (sop)–chorale.
The sixteenth cantata of the cycle for the fourteenth Sunday after Trinity.
Sin, decay, God′s fury and the rotting of bones permeate much Lutheran theology in general and this opening chorus in particular—-my flesh cannot recover nor my bones rest because of my sin and Your anger. The opening chorus is based upon a similar principle to that of C 77 performed the previous week, but the techniques applied ensure that the resultant musical character is very different. The essential structural principle is that of taking a chorale and using phrases of it throughout, separated from each other but consistently played by the same instruments. In C 77 the trumpet and continuo lines carried the melody albeit in different rhythmic permutations. In C 25 it is a brass quartet of one cornet and three trombones, liberated from their traditional roles of doubling voices, particularly in motet-like choruses.
Before looking at the specific chorale used, it is necessary to note that it is not the same as that which ends the cantata. In a number of his earlier works it was common practice for Bach to use two or even more within the one composition, a practice he later largely abandoned. The principle characteristic of the great second cycle is the fact that cantatas were united through the use of a single chorale which formed the basis of the opening fantasia, ended the work and frequently generated, or were quoted in, arias and recitatives.
The chorale used for the basis of this movement is Herzlich tut mich verlangen, a melody used in the St Matthew Passion and several other cantatas. Perhaps its most notable use in the context of these volumes is in C 135 (vol 2, chapter 5) where it is sung to great effect by the bass voices in the opening fantasia. Might Bach, when he sat down to compose that work just over a year after his arrival at Leipzig, have recalled the opening of C 25? Here the very first phrase of the chorale is heard in the continuo line, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, in the same key of Am. It provides the foundation that underpins the nervous off-beat, upper string figures which establish the character of this work.
But while this initial phrase generates the fundamental motivic material, it soon becomes clear that it is only a prelude to the main event. With the exception of the repeat of the opening bars (from bar 21) the chorale is transferred away from the lowest part to be played by cornet with three unison flutes doubling an octave above. Accompanied by the trio of trombones this produces a curiously eerie, archaic effect. The complete chorale melody is heard integrating with the choir, strings and oboes in four separate blocks of brass and flutes.
The opening four bars set a mood of tremulous anxiety, the upper strings and oboes persisting in their broken figurations, at least for the first half of the movement.
Opening bars, upper strings above continuo.
It is often the case with large opening choruses from the first cycle that Bach planned them in two complementary sections, even if it did not always precisely accord with the textual structure. Indeed, his development of the chorale/fantasia in the second cycle may well have been a result of a decision to abandon the sectional nature and create a more homogenous, unified structure for the later commanding opening choruses. In this movement the division comes at bar 41 and is marked as much as anything by changes of instrumentation.
Section 1 deals with the unsoundness of our flesh and God′s wrath. The vocal writing is constructed around entries of pairs of imitating voices A, S (from bar 5) and B, T (from bar 10) but with the return of the same musical material the process is reversed B, T (bar 25) and A, S (bar 30).
Section 2 is immediately marked by the end of the broken string figuration and the introduction of a sinewy, slithering continuo melody suggestive of Satan or the serpent and the sin they both engender. The voices enter imitatively with their version of the first chorale line but not now in their pairs.
Continuo from bar 41.
Subsequently the strings and oboes return but now doubling the rich vocal counterpoint and suggesting, by their presence, a traditional motet. The imposition of the chorale phrases, sometimes when they are least expected, continue, set against what is already a rich and complex contrapuntal texture.
The mood of sinful decay having been established, a hectoring narrative takes over in the tenor recitative. It is an extraordinarily inflated piece of Baroque rhetoric —-the world is no more than a hospital where many are sick—-their fevered pleasures, odious honours and lust for riches propel them to the grave—-Man′s fall has created our leprosy which still infects my very limbs—-where shall I find my medicine, my doctor and be restored? It is a long slab of text which Bach may well have given hybrid treatment to, had he set it a few months hence but here it is simple secco, melodic shapes, selection of chords and control of dissonance being the techniques he uses for creating expressive and dramatic effect. A few examples will suffice; the chromatic representation of a grave illness (bar 5) the raging fever (bar 8) and the appalling stench followed by the lust for gold (bars 10 and 11). The recitative ends, not with the expected perfect (complete) cadence but with one that is unfinished as, indeed, is the question, articulated in the most beseeching of tones—-who can restore me now?
The bass aria is expressed in the first person, the singer aligning himself with earthly sinners rather than with God, Jesus or the Pastor. It is interesting that Bach chose the tenor to give the ′sermon’ and the bass to reflect upon it; one might have expected it to be the other way around. Whatever the reason, the combination of bass and continuo makes a powerful pairing, even more so, as here, when the melodic lines are so focussed and tightly constructed.
The librettist continues his theme of sickness and medication and the quest to find one′s healer or physician—-where can a pauper such as I seek aid?—-no medicine or bandage can cure the ulcers of leprosy—-only You, Jesus Christ, know my soul′s cure!
Except for the approaches to the cadences, and three central bars, everything comes from these two short and seemingly unprepossessing ideas. In fact the continuo line gives the strong impression of being a ground bass but this is an illusion; after three exact statements in the tonic (Dm) it begins to migrate, firmly establishing the dominant key of Am. After one more airing of the ritornello melody in that key Bach moves directly into the aria′s second contrasting section (from bar 26).
Here the librettist moves away from the obsession with personal putrefaction to address the Lord directly and the music reflects this change of focus immediately. Although still rooted in minor modes, the vocal melody takes on a warmer, more flowing quality and the continuo escapes temporarily from its essential character and figuration (bars 26-8). The one extended melisma in the whole aria is on Arzt—-physician—-thus concentrating the attention directly upon Christ the Healer.
Three points of detail should not be missed. Firstly the aforementioned intensity of the almost unrelenting minor modes; F major is touched upon in passing but the music never cadences there. Secondly the nervous, unsettling rhythm of the continuo line. Thirdly, Bach does not return to the first section nor repeat the initial lines of self-focussed text; he leaves the aria with the entreaty to Christ ringing in our ears. All three points demonstrate the extreme attention to detail which Bach has given to what might easily have been a slight little piece of minimal depth or consequence. On the contrary, he can create out of just two conjoined melodic lines a miniature gem of memorable beauty.
A second secco recitative, this time for soprano, has two prime functions. Firstly it expands upon the prayer of the bass aria—-Dear Lord I seek refuge—-have mercy, strengthen and cleanse me—- do not reject me and my heart shall be Yours. The two ideas given particular emphasis are ′refuge′ near the beginning and ′for my entire life′ (I shall remain grateful) near the end. The melody acquires a quality of pleading and humility and fulfills its structural function by transporting us to the major key of C where the music remains for the last two movements.
With the exception of the opening chorus, the soprano aria is the most richly scored, a trio of three flutes playing against a further block of oboes doubling strings supported, of course, by the continuo. The character is that of a brisk minuet, an appropriately civilised vehicle for the singing of heavenly praises.
In fact the librettist has amalgamated the earthly airs of today with the angelic harmony of tomorrow, although for Bach it seems to make little difference. The journey of this cantata has been from spiritual sickness and putrefaction to a state of health and well-being. Furthermore, there is the suggestion of a mutual contract—-if Jesus listens to us mercifully now, our paeans of gratitude will be all the better when we are in heaven! It seems that a bargain is being struck, but the main point is that this is the movement where the transformation is completed; we have determined our faith and allegiance and the ecstasy of our rewards can be boldly articulated.
The text of this stanza may have presented Bach with a problem i.e. how to maintain sufficient musical variety with a verse that only extols the joy of expressed gratitude. The traditional method would be to set a contrasting middle section in minor keys thus producing a palette of subtly different musical colourings. This, indeed, is what Bach appears to have planned and the ′middle section′ commences halfway through the movement at bar 75 where the focus moves from corporeal to celestial celebration.
But it transpires that this is not a middle section at all but a complementary second part. Colour there is and minor keys provide it, but Bach maintains the joyful character by retaining the exchanges between flutes, strings and continuo and providing the soprano with a strongly extrovert vocal line. But the most crucial factor is the movement′s proportions. The ebullient, though refined, ritornello theme is 25 bars long. It is heard in full three times, at the beginning, at the end and between the two vocal sections. In all, it occupies fully half the length of the aria; the joyful declaiming of this heavenly music, it appears, achieved as much through ‘pure’ instrumental musical expression as through words.
The closing chorale reaffirms the vision of conjoined earthly and divine expressions of joy and gratitude—-I praise, forever, the strong Hand that averts my torments both in mortal life and in my existence forever hereafter! The chorale melody is one of the most forthright and uncluttered of Bach′s harmonisations. It is a blunt, plainspoken statement of faith and intention.
We do not know if the congregations sang these closing chorales. But there are some melodies, and this is one, with which one hopes they might have joined in as lustily and enthusiastically as possible!
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.