Chapter 23 BWV 115 Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit
Come, prepare yourself, my soul.
If the reader is working through these cantatas in chronological order, the first question s/he is likely to ask on hearing the opening bars is, ‘where have I heard this before?’ It’s not a query that comes up often due to Bach’s incredible ability to produce, in a relatively short period of time, so much music with so little repetition. But there is no doubt about the similarities, first noted by Schweitzer (vol 2, p 368) between the opening themes of the two chorale fantasias C 114 and C 115. True, C 114 (chapter 18) is minor and C 115 major; but both use G as the tonic key and the swooping, striding intervals and rising quaver figures in the relatively uncommon 6/4 time all combine to produce a similarity of musical character rarely heard in the canon.
Was it intentional or accidental? Only five weeks separate these works and so they would have been heard by the same congregations within quite a short period. Are there any clues to be found in the texts?
C 114 is both a confession and an invocation—-do not despair since the Lord is merely testing us with the punishments we fully deserve. C 115 exhorts the good Christian to be always guarded and prepared for Satan’s cunning ruses. In a sense the two texts are different versions of the same theme. Trials and punishments will be put upon us through God’s will and Satan, of course, is a part of God’s plan to tempt and test mankind. Obviously it is dangerous to attempt to second-guess Bach’s complex thinking and planning; but could it be that he wanted to present his congregations with an echo of the earlier work? Might he have wished to remind them of its emphasis i.e. that we need not despair but should take comfort even from the most distressing of circumstances?
One wonders how many of his congregation would have noticed. Or again, might this be another example of Bach’s personal relationship and manner of communicating with his own God?
C 115 is lightly and subtly scored for one each of flute and oboe d’amore with the usual strings and continuo. A horn doubles the soprano chorale line. The piccolo cello, clearly a favourite instrument of Bach’s, joins the flute as a second obbligato instrument in the fourth movement, an aria for soprano. Despite the light scoring and the initial major key, the strength of the themes and use of minor modes in all but the outer movements gives the work a feeling of gravity and substance.
Combined violins and violas accompanied only by the continuo announce the fantasia’s first vaulting theme. The three-note ‘joy’ figure, so predominant in C 114, also makes an appearance as early as bar three but it is now not used so remorselessly. Before long the flute and oboe take up the violin melody in close canon with each other.
The music then moves into a line of bubbling semi-quavers, initially on the flute, although oboe and violins will later have their opportunity to take it over. The restless instrumental lines are reminiscent of the first movement of the second Brandenburg Concerto, lacking the piccolo trumpet of course.
The rhythmically charged, highly inventive and tightly constructed ritornello theme dominates the movement from beginning to end. The lower voice choral entries make use of the opening motive on occasions e.g. note how the basses, tenors and altos enter imitatively using the octave ‘dip’ to support the first chorale line. As though to suggest the dangers of temptation, the harmonies darken even during the course of this phrase, settling in the minor mode of E. Reminders of the Devil′s wiles can never be entirely absent from exhortations to remove the soul from temptation
And further subtle harmonic shading may be detected in the second chorale phrase. The text exhorts us to fleh und bete—-implore and pray (in order to prepare the soul against Satan’s assaults). The G major harmonies darken and threaten as Bach colours the text with the briefest of sojourns through C minor, not even a related key! The effect is startling and memorable; it is even repeated on the fourth line which portrays the evils that may befall us without warning. The last phrase is similarly tinged with C minor harmonies, rapidly dispelled as an adapted version of the initial ritornello takes over and carries us triumphantly to the final cadence.
The major mode of the chorus was, of course, dictated by the chorale melody and it suits Bach’s essentially optimistic outlook. He does not want to dwell too much upon the dangers of the lurking Devil. But the major context allows him, like a painter, subtly to imbue appropriate phrases with fleeting shadows of minor-mode foreboding.
But in retrospect, has the opening chorus been a little too upbeat and optimistic for the theme of the day? Is this why Bach forgoes a recitative and plunges into an alto aria of strikingly heavy, ponderous mood? Enlightened only by the lilt of the 3/8 time signature, this is a profound and intense movement of considerable length, likely to take eight to nine minutes in performance. The form is da capo/ritornello with a short, unexpected allegro middle section.
The ritornello theme establishes the mood of lotus-eating languor. The oboe d’amore doubles the first violins for the most part but has its occasional moments of independence where its direction is one of stretching upwards, inevitably to fall back as if to return to sleep.
The key is Em, which Bach often associates with death and the crucifixion. The text calls upon the sleeping soul to rouse itself from its aimless slumbering lest death overtakes it.
On first hearing, the listener may well be deceived into thinking that the aria has drawn to its conclusion on the completion of the second long (thirty-two bar) ritornello statement (bar 110). After all, this will have taken nearly four minutes, a customary length for many baroque movements. But the allegro section now bursts upon us as the text warns—-if you are caught sleeping, you may be overpowered by punishment and death!
The oboe now relinquishes its independence and doubles the violins. The texture becomes an imitation of upper and lower strings with the voice caught in the middle. The mood is as energetically wakeful as that of the enclosing sections is languid and morose. And there can be no doubt about the contrast Bach intended because this is one of the cantatas in which his tempo markings have survived.
But despite the strong contrast, it is the image of the heaviness of deep sleep with which we are ultimately left. The dangers of remaining unwatchful have not disappeared; but at least we have been warned!
The following recitative is for the bass voice, always an expression of authority whenever God is talking, quoted or spoken about—-God watches over our soul, but He also expects us to do our part! We must be watchful and alert in order to qualify for the gift of His Grace. This is an uncomplicated recitative; but note the change of mood as mention is made of Satan’s endless stratagems for trapping unwary sinners (from bar 7). With one solitary melodic line and the barest of harmonic accompaniments Bach is able to infuse a sense of drama and a marked change of atmosphere into the musical narrative.
The soprano aria is exquisite. The muted tones of the piccolo cello, frequently used by Bach for rapid virtuoso parts, are here exploited principally for their colour. It, and the flute, entwine and imitate each other, creating a distinctively serious and somber timbre within a tempo marked molto adagio. The continuo bass line plays little part in the development of the musical logic other than to underpin the harmonies.
The movement thus becomes, in effect, a subdued trio between voice and obbligato instruments, restrained not only through the slow tempo and colouring provided by the piccolo cello but also because it remains resolutely in minor keys from beginning to end.
The text places emphasis upon the main theme underpinning the cantata, that of prayer and its importance to our relationship with God as He guides us in the avoidance of sin—-as you remain awake, continue to pray for deliverance of your sins. The quiet, almost understated peace of this aria communicates this caveat with great potency. One feels that there is an inner strength of character and purpose informing the message, which, perhaps, reflects aspects of Bach′s own character, or at least the little we can glimpse from the scanty source materials. There is no place here for doubt and no necessity for negotiation. The meaning is simple clear and beautiful; prayer is the pathway to God’s blessing and through that, to our ultimate salvation.
And just in case there might be any reservations about this, listen to the declamation of the words bete—-pray. The soprano articulates it immediately on two falling notes, always underpinned by the dissonance of a harmonic suspension, thus conveying a sense of resignation and entreaty.
But although the shape of the motive falls, as the word is repeated the pitch of the motive rises, as if in supplication to the One above. Thus do the vocal lines shine through the encompassing counterpoint like shafts of light emerging from a complex world but with the simplest of injunctions.
The tenor, in the recitative that follows, does not have an easy task. How to follow such perfection? The text is clear enough—-God listens to our prayers sympathetically and His Son gives us strength and steps forward to assist us. The motion of stepping is one that Bach always responds to and the last long melisma stresses the word—-treten. Similarly, the bass line moves to tread-like quavers becoming, just prior to the cadence, semi-quavers. Might He be quickening his steps towards us?
Und will als Hel-fer zu uns tre………………………….ten
But of greater significance than the painting of individual images is the tonal planning. The recitative begins in the key in which the soprano aria ends, B minor. But as the text informs us of the Saviour having been moved by our prayers and coming to our aid, the tonality evolves powerfully but logically into the major. One reason is obviously functional because it takes us to the key of the closing chorale. But there is also something much more subtle happening here; the musical changes prise us away from any possible sense of negativity. The purpose of this cantata and, presumably, the entire Sunday Service, is to remind us of the positive power of prayer and the important part it should play in our lives. There is an underlying message of affirmation and encouragement; this is how we prepare ourselves for the next life and the inevitable Day of Judgment.
The closing chorale confirms the unequivocal affirmation which the move to the major key initiated—-you must continue to watch and pray because that awesome day is not far off—-stay awake, pray and prepare yourselves! Could the message be clearer?
And there is one final place where musical structure and textual meaning are fused together to reinforce the message. The rhetorical fifth and sixth phrases of the chorale are extremely short, each just three notes long. They declaim the words Denn die Zeit—-and—- Ist nicht weit—-since that time—-is close at hand! Here is a piece of pedagogic finger wagging surely. Have we not all heard a parent or teacher talk thus to a child or pupil? It is almost the musical equivalent of ′I will say this just once—listen and obey!’
Whether the sophisticated Leipzig congregations took notice of this admonition or not can only be conjectured!
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.