Chapter 23 BWV 35 Geist und Seele wird verwirret
Soul and Spirit are bewildered.
A cantata for solo alto voice.
For the twelfth Sunday after Trinity.
This is Bach′s third cantata of four for solo alto and the second of this cycle. The first was C 170 and contextual comments on all four works may be found in chapter 19. Little of value can be gleaned from comparisons with the other cantatas written for this day because they are so different. C 69a (vol 1, chapter 15) from the first cycle begins with one of those massive D major choruses praising the Lord and reminding us what He has done for us. C 137 is one of the later chorale/fantasia works, possibly written to fill a gap in the second cycle where none was composed for the twelfth Sunday, due to Bach′s absence. It is listed by Wolff (p 280) as the second work of the third cycle and its structure and the background to its composition are dealt with in chapter 3 of this volume.
C 35 also differs from its companion works in many ways, most of which will become apparent in the course of this essay. It does not begin or end with a chorus; even the closing chorale is dispensed with. It is in two parts, not unusual in this particular cycle, but here each part, uniquely in the canon, begins with an instrumental sinfonia of considerable proportion. It continues the practice begun in C 170 of using the organ as an obbligato instrument for arias. And finally, whilst Cs 69a and 137 commenced with strong affirmation of the Lord and His powers, the first stanza of C35 is much more hesitant.
It is generally believed that the two sinfonias are derived from a lost oboe (or perhaps violin) concerto composed during Bach′s Cöthen or Weimar days. It is possible that the second movement is a reworking of the slow movement from the same work. None of this can be established with certainty, but if it is the case, this cantata is doubly valuable in preserving the music from an important lost concerto.
An interesting question might be why Bach chose to begin each part of the cantata with a substantial sinfonia. The reason could have been partly practical so as to give his young alto soloist, who must have been very good, some respite. But this seems an unlikely explanation if it is the case, as is generally believed, that a (lengthy) sermon separated the two sections. Was it, then, to maintain energy within a work exploiting the minimum of vocal strength and little otherwise in the way of forceful allegro movements? It is likely that an instinctive regard for the most effective overall balance figured strongly in Bach′s thinking and perhaps there is no need to look for further reasons.
The opening allegro has all of the characteristics of Bach′s concerto writing. The ten-bar ritornello is repeated at the end and appears in expected related keys, separating long solo episodes. The organ plays the main melodic line, adapted from whichever was the original solo instrument, and also performs the continuo function in the tutti instrumental sections. Two oboes and an oboe da braccia join the strings and continuo and they are also employed in four of the seven movements 1, 2, 5 and 7.
Thus the writing strongly resembles that for the numerous extant harpsichord concerti and comparisons with those in minor keys are particularly apposite e.g. Fm, Dm, and the Gm arrangement of the Am violin concerto. A notable feature of this particular movement is the quasi cadenza-like passages against sustained string harmonies beginning bars 72, 92 and 116.
Whether the first alto aria originally belonged to the same concerto or not is a matter of conjecture. Against the theory is the fact that all three movements are in minor keys. This is unusual but not without precedent since there is one other example in the Dm concerto BWV 1052. The lilting compound rhythm of the slow movement of C 35 evokes very strong echoes of that from the keyboard concerto in E, BWV 1053.
A lost concerto for oboe, violin or keyboard? The paraphrase of a single work or movements resurrected from two or more earlier compositions? Unanswered questions which we must now put to one side as we consider the movements in this cantata.
The somewhat doubtful and uncertain quality of the first aria is accentuated by the doubling of the strings by the three oboes and the broken, almost indecisive character of the ritornello theme. The text speaks of the confounded soul and spirit as they behold the Almighty—-the pronouncing of the wonder that people perceive, strikes them deaf and dumb. Here there is none of the fanfare-proclaimed certainties of Cs 69a or 137. This is a moment of vacillation not, it must be stressed, a lack of fundamental faith but uncertainty brought about through an inability to comprehend or commit to the power and might of God.
The aria is a conventional da capo, the first and last sections dealing with the bewilderment of the soul and spirit, the much shorter middle section with the wonder we perceive and the proclaiming of it.
The organ obbligato melody does not enter until bar four. What textual images Bach intended the organ to suggest is a matter of conjecture. He had used the instrument in a similar way before, but only rarely. Was its very presence on this occasion meant to ′bewilder′ those who did not expect it? Is its emergence, sometimes after three, at others four bars into the ritornello, intended to be mildly perplexing? Are its insistent baroque embellishments counterpointed against the more straightforward string and vocal lines intended to be gently confounding?
The middle section continues to make use of the ritornello theme pitted against the torrents of organ notes. There are two examples of vivid word painting that cannot pass without comment. The first is the complex melisma on Jauchze—-joyfulness. It is wrought from a series of rising fanfare-like motives, each echoed by the organ (from bar 66). Trumpets may be lacking but the individual has finally found a forceful and appropriate voice with which to declare God′s majesty.
The second comes at the end of this section just prior to the da capo. The words taub und stumm—-deaf and dumb—-are drawn out in a series of powerfully evocative sighing motives (from bar 71). In the space of a mere dozen bars Bach has vibrantly painted the contrast between the joyous shouting of praises, and the awed silences which follow.
The following secco recitative offers little upon which to comment. It is, however, couched in the first person as indeed is the rest of the cantata, underlining its personal and individual emphasis—–I am amazed at everything pertaining to Christ who rises even above miracle—-You can make the deaf hear and the blind see and not even the angels do justice to Your greatness. This movement begins in the major mode as a contrast to the darkness of the previous aria but soon embeds itself back into minor. There is a dignity about Christ′s eminence which the solemnity of the minor mode seems to convey best.
For the first time in the cantata an ebullient major mode bursts upon us. In this second aria, the organ again does the honours as the obbligato instrument. The theme is a common one in German religious folklore—-God has organised the world so well in that His goodness is renewed every day—-He gives us comfort and watches over us in times of fear and troubles.
The ritornello theme has two parts, the first an insistently repetitive figure of one quaver and two semi-quavers, the constantly reoccurring figure of joy and affirmation. This rapidly dissolves into a stream of continuous notes suggestive of His blessings pouring down upon us.
The structure of the aria is particularly easy to follow falling, as it does, into three clear vocal blocks. The first (to bar 25) deals with God′s perfect plan of renewing His goodness daily, the meaning underlined by the two melismas on alles—-all [things] and Tages—-[all] days. The second (32/41) tells us of His blessings given at times of tribulation and the third (47/65) stresses His daily watching over us, finally repeating that initial message of His perfect plan.
The joyous ritornello returns to close a movement which, unlike those that preceded it, is essentially affirmative.
This begins with the second sinfonia which may have been a concluding concerto movement. There are reasons to doubt this however, the first being its binary form structure. Frequently used in suite movements, Bach does not usually choose it to end a concerto. He occasionally opts for conventional patterns; the last movement of the E major violin concerto is a strict rondo. But more often he prefers a ritornello structure or a combination of that and fugue.
The second reason for doubt comes from the integration of solo line (organ) with the tutti instruments right from the beginning. This is not without precedent as may be seen in the first movement of the keyboard concerto in Fm when the harpsichord triplets emerge. However, it is unusual. But whatever its genesis, the impetus of this movement assists in the drive from vacillation towards the sense of total certainty that this cantata seeks, ultimately, to encapsulate.
The second recitative suggests a way of dealing with the problem posed in part 1. God is addressed by the individual directly—-may I infuse You within my soul so as to soften my spirit and restrain my tongue—-only thus may I become Your child and praise Your great wonders. Once again the melodic line is accompanied only by the continuo and there is no attempt made to represent the images musically. Prayers to the Almighty should, apparently, be offered in the simplest terms, without distracting complications.
Like the second sinfonia, the last movement is in triple (3/8) time. Their characters are very different however, the former one of those driving, relentless, typically baroque allegros, the latter more in the guise of a civilised minuet. This, and the gavotte, are often used by Bach to depict the movement from the bondage of earth to the celestial bliss of heaven.
The verse describes the longing for that event—-would the time come when I might live with Him and sing joyously with the angels—-Jesus, release me from this yoke of torment and allow me to complete this painful life. Death is now not only acceptable, it is confidently sought after.
It is interesting to hear the first and last arias one immediately after the other, as this demonstrates clearly the extent to which an emotional journey has been made. The predominant mood at the end is affirmative and positive. The long-awaited union with Jesus may not yet have occurred but it is optimistically expected. We have learnt how to deal with the fact that though we may never comprehend God′s greatness, with His help, our faith leads us to certain salvation.
Where the musical portrayal of textual images may have been lacking in the recitatives, Bach now makes up for this in a number of ways. Minor harmonies colour the mention of the yoke of pain (bars 80-81) and the life of torment (86-8). The joyous hallelujahs evoke a melisma of swirling triplets (bars 32-6) as does the plea to finish this earthly life (90-95). Handen—-the image of being held within the safety of His hands, is reflected in a long, sustained note suggesting the stability of support amidst a background of turmoil.
As the sound of this final, positive aria dies away, we may reflect upon the certainty of Bach′s judgement. The solitary alto voice seems to be the perfect vehicle for conveying this most personal of messages. And do we really require a chorale to follow this positive and extrovert declamation?
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.