Chapter 19 BWV 96 Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn
Lord Christ, the one Son of God.
Chorus/fantasia–recit (alto)–aria (tenor)–recit (sop)–aria (bass)–chorale.
This cantata has an especially carefree character lacking much of the misery, angst, pain, burdens of sin and fear of hell that we find in a number of these works. Not that we should complain; some of Bach’s most searing and moving music comes from texts dealing with such themes. But it is also uplifting to find Bach in a seemingly more relaxed frame of mind where the allusions to sin and death are relegated to passing shadows in the harmonies.
The initial reason for this lies, as always, in the text. It is principally a hymn of praise to God (symbolized as the guiding ‘morning star’) and a plea for Him to envelop us with his love. Technically, one of the ways in which Bach communicates positive expressions of this kind is through brilliant instrumentation. Another is the imaginative use of major keys. Consequently, all movements but one (the bass aria) are set in the major, even the two recitatives, which is atypical.
Bach reused this cantata at least twice with modest changes of orchestration (Wolff, notes for Koopman recordings, box 13). In this 1724 version the strings and continuo are supported by oboes, flute and solo piccolo with a horn doubling the chorale melody.
Superficially, the first movement would appear to hold few surprises. However the 9/8 time signature is relatively unusual and not often used for the fantasias. Also one would not, perhaps, expect in such a relatively light-hearted work that the altos would carry the chorale tune, the brighter sound of the sopranos seemingly the more obvious choice.
But this layout allows the sopranos to dance their own hymn of joy in the upper register above the chorale tune, thus lightening the texture and mood of the entire chorus. It is of interest to compare this movement with the fantasia of C 2, the second of the cycle because there Bach also requires the altos to carry the cantus firmus melody, but to vastly different expressive effect. Another constructive comparison may be made with C 1 (chapter 41) a fantasia also centered around the morning star, on that occasion depicted by solo violins.
It is worth spending a moment looking at Bach’s different approaches to choral writing. It is almost always contrapuntal, independent melodies permeating every line. To ask why Bach wrote his music in complex counterpoint is as absurd a question as to inquire why Shakespeare wrote his plays in poetry; these were the expected conventions of the time. Furthermore, Shakespeare was a natural poet; that was the way his mind functioned. Similarly, Bach was a natural contrapuntalist; he thought in simultaneous as well as consecutive musical events.
But even so, Bach devised a myriad of different methods of writing for choir. Occasionally he would split one of the groups and allow himself the luxury of a fifth vocal line, though virtually never in the cantatas, presumably because of resource issues, the short learning periods and lack of rehearsal time. He did, however, use the technique to great effect in the B minor Mass.
Sometimes the writing is simple and almost homophonic, the lower voices providing uncomplicated bedding for the chorale melody and drawing a minimum of attention to themselves (C 8). Sometimes there is no independent orchestral writing and the choir performs an ‘old fashioned’ motet (Cs 2 and 38). It may be that the three voices pre-empt the chorale phrases, setting the mood or painting the text to prepare for their entries (C 78). Or material from the chorale melody and/or the orchestral ritornello may be thrown together in a tapestry of imitative counterpoint which surrounds and seems almost to ignore the insertions of the simple hymn tune (C 33).
Thus does Bach’s imagination freely roam, fully buttressed by his all-embracing technique.
To accompany most of the chorale phrases in this fantasia the sopranos, tenors and basses imitate each other, sometimes more closely than at others and frequently using the melody borrowed from the very first orchestral bar.
Oboes and violins.
Thus do they contrive a dance of lightness and grace around the altos’ long notes. But just once, on the words—-Er ist der Morgensterne—-He is the morning star—-the tenors and basses enter together, giving focus and emphasis to this important image (bar 86).
The lilting 9/8 time signature, the ultimate ‘three within three’ rhythm, is used elsewhere to suggest the Holy Trinity, two of whom are mentioned in this text. However, it is the pastoral feel and quixotic dancing rhythm of the compound time that Bach exploits here.
The final point to notice, and it can hardly be missed, is the use of the piccolo or sopranino recorder. We have heard this instrument previously in C 8 where its high, insistent repeated notes are thought to represent the funeral bell or the passing of time. Here the writing, albeit in the same high register well above the rest of the orchestra, is very different. It literally twinkles away aloft, suggesting the spreading of the morning star’s light through, and beyond the rest of the firmament.
Alto and soprano recitatives.
We will have noticed that, for his recitatives Bach uses minor keys more often than major. There are a number of possible reasons for this. The recitatives in these cantatas often have a stern moralizing tone. Alternatively they may be used to tell part of the story or to relate, or interpret, important parts of scripture and the minor mode has a certain gravitas that seems to make it particularly suitable for these purposes. Furthermore, minor keys offer a greater range of intense chromatic harmony; doubters should look at the Chromatic Fantasia, the fugues in Em and Bm WTC book 1, the Musical Offering or, perhaps most striking of all, the prelude in Am WTC book 2. Seldom, if ever, do major keys allow this range of grinding chromaticism. Recitatives which remain wholly within the major are rare, even on the occasions when they begin there.
The alto recitative is principally about the power of love and the coming forth of His Son. Thus its optimism makes it sensible for it to begin and end in the major. Nevertheless, the touching upon minor harmonies in the middle suggests the incomprehensible aspects of this great event.
The final recitative for soprano is similar in concept in that major keys at the beginning and end depict, firstly, the plea to be led to the paths of righteousness and secondly, affirmation that this will surely happen. Touches of minor underline the darkness of doubt and error that lie between.
Thus, simply by tonal means does Bach paint a picture of movement, away from circumstances of error and confusion and towards the light of heaven.
Neither recitative incorporates arioso or ritornello elements. However, the moment of the flowing bass line underpinning a line from the chorale verse in that for alto should be noted (bars 4-5). The text refers to the image of the end of earthly time. The rising musical phrase is borrowed from bars 8-10 of the chorale melody which alludes to the new life here on earth.
The tenor aria continues the theme of the light of the Saviour, illuminating those who seek true faith. As so often with arias of joyous affirmation, the flute takes on the cheery obbligato role, demonstrating a clear motivic connection to the chorale, the three rising notes of which are used to generate much of the musical content.
Flute and continuo.
Bach’s ability to create new musical ideas from well-worn material is apparent when we come across the constantly re-iterated flickering of the three-note motive which appears in the first bar of the flute melody. Once again we recognise Schweitzer’s motive of joy–-da–da—dah—but somehow it does not sound overly repetitive. This, and the streams of semiquavers on the flute (and later in the vocal line accentuating such words as kräftig—-powerfully, forcefully—-and erleuchte—-illuminate) combine to produce an effect of joyous confidence.
But not so the next movement for bass, the only one set in the minor, and it is not difficult to see why. The final aria in these cantatas often deserves particular attention since it is frequently the key to an understanding of the complete work. It is at this point where either matters might be resolved or another side of the argument be put. If, for example, we compare this work with C 87 (chapter 44) we find an interesting point of similarity. C 87 is essentially a sermon, serious to the point of hectoring. It is almost unrelentingly minor until we come to the final tenor aria which, rising above the sorrows of pain, guilt and sin, expresses a contrasting view of the world; one that is deeply moving and reflectively calm. As the one major key movement in the entire cantata it stands out like a signpost to a traveller and provides us with a different perspective from that of the rest of the work.
Reverse the tonalities and we find that here Bach is using the same technique. Until the bass aria everything has been major and positive; now it changes to an almost aggressive minor, raising the possibility of doubt. Lest we become complacent about our views of true faith and unswerving belief, a stern warning must be given—–there may be steps to the right and steps to the left and it is quite possible that I will stray from the righteous path—-I need the guidance of the Lord!
One gains the impression that Bach might have been grateful at this point to have been handed a particularly obvious image into which he could sink his creative teeth. With no time to wait for ‘inspiration’ and perhaps producing two or more arias and recitatives in a single evening, Bach must have welcomed a clear and unambiguous image to stimulate his fertile brain. He would fall back on well-tried and trusted motives and rhythms to express recurring images (such as quaver bass treading) but such was the scope and fertility of his powers of invention that these never became pointless clichés.
The physical image here is of faltering steps taken alternatively to the left and right. The cerebral idea is that of a faith that wavers and is uncertain. Thus does Bach bring together the physical action and the mental images it evokes. Combined, they produce a powerful impact which leads us to some inexplicable form of spiritual experience. There is so much going on in this music that description and analysis, illuminating though they might be, can only explain a degree of the complex creative processes and the emotional effects they have on us.
Bach often represents faltering uncertain steps, implying a wavering or weakening faith, with insistent dotted rhythms. Again it was Schweitzer who first drew attention to this connection (vol 2, p 93). Here these rhythms emerge immediately, articulated antiphonally by strings and oboes.
violins oboes both
If, as seems likely, Bach used balconies on opposite sides of the church, he might well have created a stereophonic effect, strings on one side and oboes on the other. This may well have produced some problems of ensemble; and players could have taken advantage of the preceding recitative to reposition themselves. But imagine the effect as the congregation craned necks first to one side then to the other, physically depicting the actions the music described! It sounds simple enough today, but at that time the effect would have been spectacularly dramatic.
One wonders if Bach knew much of the music of Monteverdi and Gabrieli who had pioneered such experiments in St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice a century or more earlier.
The dotted rhythms cease just the once. On the admonition ‘walk with me’ (from bar 34) the strings and oboes play block chords. The steps of the Lord are sure and steady. There is no place for vacillation in the description of this holy action and the music makes the point strongly. Furthermore, we discover the shapes of the vocal line representing the directions described in the text—-sinking (into danger) and rising (to Heaven′s gates).
The final chorale is summative both textually and musically. In the first instance it takes us, albeit briefly, through the cycle of life towards the ultimate existence attainable only through our focus on the Lord. This is, as is most of the cantata, positive and affirmative.
The melody is very simply harmonized; apart from the rising bass notes in the penultimate phrase (possibly aspiring and turning one′s thoughts towards the seat of the Lord?), there is little to distract attention from the melody.
But the harmony subtly reminds us of our spiritual journey. It begins and ends in the major although there are tiny excursions through the relative minor key which delicately echo the theme of the cantata.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised, and 2014, 2017.