Chapter 22 BWV 102 Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben
Lord, Your eyes seek out true faith.
Chorus--recit (bass)--aria (alto)--aria (bass).
Aria (tenor)--recit (alto)--chorale.
For the tenth Sunday after Trinity.
This is the last of three extant cantatas composed for this day, the others being C 46 (vol 1, chapter 12) from the first cycle and C 101 (vol 2, chapter 11) from the second. All three end with a chorale, 101 and 102 using the same one but with different verses and harmonisations. That for C46 is embellished with two added recorder parts suggestive of the opening chorus, possibly even hinting at those connections between the outer movements to be exploited in the chorale fantasia cantatas of the second cycle.
But what really bind these three works together are their immense opening movements. All are in minor keys and sturdily orchestrated. All commence with a massive instrumental section that introduces much of the essential musical material. That for C 101 stands apart as the only chorale/fantasia, but its powerful depiction of a war-torn landscape, the result of God’s punishment of continuing sin, aligns it well with the theme of C 46, a picture of the sorrows that the Lord has inflicted upon us. Both in the dark key of D minor, they evoke the distress that God’s righteous anger delivers, C 101 from a public, communal perspective and C 46 more from the viewpoint of the individual.
C 102 takes a slightly different approach to the same basic theme and begins with the least anguished of the three choruses. Its standpoint is that of the onlooker and it is therefore less personal and somewhat more objective----Lord, Your eyes demand Faith and those You punish do not feel it----they are harder than rock itself and will not come to You. This chorus is not about we or us, it is about them. It is, however, no less powerful or compelling and remains a fine example of Bach at the peak of his compositional powers.
But it differs markedly from the earlier two choruses and provides an excellent illustration of the insights to be gained from examining these works as groups, connected by the particular days for which they were composed.
The initial melody that appears most dominant is played at the outset by the two oboes. Slightly masked by it, but of no lesser importance, is the countermelody on first violins. This is to become a significant part of the vocal material and it raises an interesting point of conjecture: might Bach here be making a point of exquisite subtlety? Could the oboes be suggesting God’s penetrating search for faith which sinners ignore by going their own ways? Might the string melody represent those wayward sinners ignoring His injunctions? There can be no certainty about Bach’s precise intentions but a close study of his compositional methods has revealed that such conjoined musical ideas usually have close relationships with, and have been derived directly from, images in the text.
Oboes above violins.
At this stage of his career Bach often modifies the ritornello principle so that it appears more like an instrumental preamble to the movement proper rather than a continuously repeating device of unification. Used thus, it still introduces all of the musical material, is not reprised at the end and appears only sparingly to separate the choral blocks. Here, once the choir has entered, there are no passages in which it is silent that last longer than three bars (23-5). It continues almost unchallenged throughout the entire movement, creating a perfect interplay between the vocal and orchestral forces.
The initial writing for the voices is somewhat unusual and is, as always, closely allied to the text. The full choir cries Herr----Lord----(bar 21) and the altos alone deliver the first line of text----You seek commitment and You strike them. Thence follow three bars with a figure like a slow trill on the oboes, hovering around the note of d. Is this the power of God’s eye? Or His smiting of them? Or does it suggest the stubbornness of those who ignore His requirements? There is a pugnacious, determined character to this little idea, which suggests the last of these interpretations, but again one does not know.
Then the full choir delivers the opening line. This complete process from the first vocal entry to the tutti statement is then repeated, with the solo line now taken by the sopranos, supplanting the altos.
Bach’s common practice in these choruses is to introduce one, two or in this case three fugato expositions after setting the initial line(s) of text. These are easy to follow and the fundamental scheme is set out below:
Exposition 1 (from bar 46) A, S, B, T. You smite them but they do not feel it.
Exposition 2 (from bar 72, using a different theme) B, T, A, S. With faces hard as rock they will not be converted.
Exposition 3 (from bar 87) S, A, T, B The same theme and words as exposition 2.
There are many fascinating details in the setting of the words which are beyond the scope of this essay but which the keen student may delight in uncovering. One is the disjunct note on the word Fels----rock or boulder (perhaps the best English interpretation is ‘as hard as granite’). A difficult and stretching interval of an augmented fourth makes this one note stand out strongly from the rest of the fugal theme.
The movement ends on a blaze of instrumental and choral colour, repeating the initial address to the Lord that had been delivered in the opening lines of the verse.
The bass secco recitative is not the voice of God but that of a Pastor. How, he asks sternly, can that image which He has stamped within us remain when the perverted self denies it?----He seeks to discipline through meekness but rejection and stubbornness can only cloud the heart. There are various delicate touches of word painting e.g. the high e on the word Höchste----highest----and the Bbm colouring of the ‘darkness of the heart’ of the final line.
This is a powerful piece of sermonising which gives rhetorical vent to the opening chorus’s thesis of rejection. What is required now is a trenchant example; and this is precisely what the alto aria provides.
The spirituality of the alto voice combined with an oboe obbligato in a minor key is always something worthy of particular notice. Here the ear is immediately assailed with the oboe’s first note, a d flat which does not sit comfortably with the key chord, F minor. We have barely assimilated this unexpected dissonance when the oboe moves to an e natural, a note that simply yearns to resolve upwards to its keynote.
Chromatic passing notes continue to complicate the melodic line whilst below it a slowly writhing continuo accentuates the enigmatic quality of the piece. This is very odd music indeed, ‘modern’ in sound even to the twenty-first century ear and one wonders what an eighteenth century congregation might have made of it.
The voice also exploits both the d flat and e natural in its first phrase but the opening word provides some clue to the music’s essence----Weh----woe, sorrow, misery. The verse gives us a graphic picture of the lost soul, cutting itself off from God and no longer even aware of its own abandonment. This is, unusually for Bach, a world without hope or redemption and the long searing notes cut through the musical texture, powerfully evoking the cries of the hopeless and desolate.
The serpent is not actually mentioned in the text. But does one read too much into the score by suggesting that the serpentine twisting of the continuo line is meant to depict the one ultimately responsible for our condition of sin and consequent separation from the Almighty?
The bass aria completes part 1 and may be compared with that from C 45 from the previous week. The themes are similar in that in the earlier work God, in His own words, is denouncing those who pay only lip service to His commands. Here it is the voice of the Pastor who asks imperiously----are you not aware of God’s mercy, power and patience?----for because of your stubbornness His righteous judgement can only heap anger upon you! The theme is essentially the same but approached from a slightly different perspective. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that in C 45, part 2 began with God’s injunctions whereas in C 102 they conclude part 1.
It would be interesting to know whether Bach liased with the Pastor when composing these two-part works. One can certainly imagine that a careful placing of these movements around the sermon, with an understanding of its premise, could have added greatly to the dramatic delivery of these biblical themes and their presentations to the Leipzig congregations.
This aria does not contain the impressive swathes of semi-quavers of that from C 45; this is, after all, Man not God who is lecturing us! The pontification is a little lighter and gentler than we might expect. The 3/8 time signature is as suggestive of dance as it was in the tenor aria of C 45. But here the mode is major and the sparse string writing (e.g. bars 17-20) is of a wholly different character. This is more like the kindly tutor or schoolmaster, instructing us in the errors of our ways but helpfully and with not too much overt censure.
Nevertheless, there are a number of clues which indicate that, kindly given or not, the message is still one of significance. The asymmetrical phrase lengths and the fleeting touching upon the d flat in the opening bars of the ritornello both imbue what might have been a superficial minuet with a sense of weight.
The unusual full bar of rest (bar 53) gives us an additional moment to meditate upon God’s patience and tolerance.
Perhaps the passage which grabs the attention most is that of bars 79-83. The repetition of the rhythm around the high repeated d flat (first heard as a chromatic note in the opening bar) graphically portrays the sense of stubbornness to which the poet alludes----and, indeed, criticises.
This aria has something of the feel of the steel claw in the velvet glove. On the surface it appears reasonably friendly and benign. Dig a little deeper and the message becomes more robust. Furthermore, after the angst of the alto aria, Bach may well have felt the need for balance by producing a movement of lesser intensity.
But the emotional power is racked up again in the final aria, for tenor with violin obbligato. It is slightly odd that the more hectoring tone of this movement does not come from the bass voice of authority; the tenor is the traditional voice of the narrator. But whosoever conveys the message, it is clear that the steel claw is now out and the tone becomes positively hectoring----be afraid----yours is a false sense of security---think of the burden of that yoke of sin and the ultimate wrath of God that must fall upon you!
The melodic structure of the ritornello theme mirrors these sentiments precisely. It begins with a minor-mode yet basically benign theme, perhaps representing the unawareness of the trusting soul.
By the fifth bar, however, it becomes a petulant torrent of semi-quavers, rising and falling as the tension mounts.
But the voice, when it enters, will have none of the material offered so far! His theme is a rhythmically fractured and impassioned decree----be afraid!
This injunction is swept along with the violin semi-quavers and into the dominant minor key; no consoling major-mode is to be heard here!
Following a shortened version of the ritornello theme the voice re-enters with a smoother, more coherent line inviting us to remember what the yoke of sin presages; not that we are likely to forget it because the violin semi-quavers are never far away.
The three passages which betray the essence of the theme come in the latter part of the movement. From bar 68 remorseless, repeated quavers (voice and continuo) are pitted against the violin semi-quavers to convey the gravity of the Lord’s anger. Finally the two different, but equally compelling melismas on schwerer----reinforce and underline the sheer gravity of His wrath.
This is a statement intended to compel the unwary to wake up and take notice; and who can deny that it succeeds in doing just this!
By now we are aware that Bach almost certainly looked back over the earlier scores of cantatas written for the same day when planning his new additions to the canon. Might a glance at C 46 have reminded himself that a flickering, repeated figure on woodwinds can be very effective as a recitative accompaniment (C 46/2)? There flutes were employed but in 102/6 he makes use of the available oboes; and very little else. Perhaps it was the image of the twinkling of an eye that suggested the little three-note ‘joy’ figure which appears in every bar but the last. The message is one of repentance----it takes a mere flicker of an eye to turn back, become penitent, and prepare yourself for the ultimate judgement.
This cantata does not lack warnings. They are given on a variety of levels and with contrasting degrees of intensity.
Two verses of what, in truth, is a rather tedious hymn tune close the cantata. The text of the first reminds us, yet again, that we must repent whilst we live, for if we wait until we die it will be too late and we will burn. The second is a direct entreaty to Christ to save us before death overtakes us. The rhythmically bare, asymmetrical phrases offer little of musical interest after the contrasts of the preceding movements.
But that may be the correct artistic response; quiet reflection upon the fate of one’s own soul is not necessarily a matter best expressed in dramatic or highly emotive terms.
Bach later reused the opening chorus and the alto and tenor arias in two of his masses, although some think not as effectively. It is, perhaps, as well to get to know them first in their original context.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012.