Chapter 24 BWV 139 Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott
He who trusts in God is Blest.
Of the first twenty-three cantatas of the cycle only eight began with chorale fantasias in major keys. Only two, of which this is the second, have been in E major, four sharps, a rather extreme key for the early eighteenth century. While it is true that Bach wrote in all keys for the two books of the Well Tempered Clavier, partly to demonstrate possibilities of keyboard tuning, it is well nigh impossible to find other compositions set in the extreme keys of more than four sharps or flats. True, he sometimes modulated to them within movements but he did not choose them as main keys. This may have been as much to do with the players’ unfamiliarity with them as with problems of tuning.
He seems to have had some affection for E major, however. He chose it for a concerto for violin, another for keyboard, the third unaccompanied violin partita and the last French Suite. The chorale fantasia for C 8 (chapter 16) a musing on death and bereavement and one of his most personal works, is also in E. It was clearly a key which Bach chose to explore a particularly wide range of musical expression.
Chorale and Chorus/fantasia.
C 139 is a compact cantata with some unusual features. On occasions we have departed from the practice of examining the movements in chronological order and looked first at the chorale. This makes sense, of course. The chorale was Bach’s musical starting point and an important source of his inspiration particularly, within this cycle, for the opening fantasia.
And so it proves in this case. The chorale has four phrases, the first two of which are repeated making six in all. Its text admirably sums up the cantata’s main theme, that whilst nevertheless surrounded by trial and tribulation, sins and temptation, I remain protected by God’s word and love—-blessed are those whom He befriends.
We know that Bach’s extreme sensitivity to text nearly always led him to devise a strong degree of complicity between the words and the melodic shapings. The direction of the first two chorale phrases is predominantly rising. This is entirely appropriate since the words have a somewhat aggressive ring—–I defy the death and the multitudes of hell and the misfortunes of the world. The last two lines have a more conciliatory tone, reminding us of God’s beneficence and the blessedness of those He favours. Here the direction of the melody is predominantly falling, again subtly suitable for conveying the impression of returning to the protection and warmth of God’s fold. Not all chorale melodies encapsulate the textual meanings in their melodic shapes as neatly as this one.
The opening fantasia is scored for a relatively modest band of strings, continuo and two oboes d’amore. This in itself suggests that Bach plans to stress not the combative aspects of the battles with Satan but rather the gentler facets of God’s love and protection. The choice of the major key reinforces this point. This is not a highly dramatic movement such as we found in Cs 7, 178 or, indeed C 26 which the Leipzig congregations would hear for the first time in the following week. This is a statement of positivity and unambiguous expansiveness; we can have no doubts about the simple certainty of God’s friendship and all-encompassing protection—-blessed are those who trust in him and receive His benefice.
The ritornello begins and ends the movement and separates the chorale entries either in full or in part. The sopranos carry the cantus firmus apparently without a doubling horn. But it is the cohesiveness of Bach’s use of the material, which warrants particular attention.
From the beginning, the first oboe has a melody which makes continual use of the rising stepwise notes of the opening chorale phrases. Against this is a bustling semi-quaver counter-melody played by the first violins and continuing throughout most of the ritornello sections. It is tempting to suggest that Bach may have had symbolic intentions, the oboe possibly representing an assuring affiliation with God and the violins the sins and temptations abounding around us. This idea is strengthened by the fact that the semi-quavers lessen in the bars immediately preceding the final chorale phrase (from bar 65) which reminds us of the serenity that emanates from God’s friendship.
Oboe above violin.
The contrast between calm solidity and restless energy is also to be found in the vocal writing, the sopranos expressing the former and the lower voices the latter. The altos, tenors and basses—and always in that order—introduce each of the first four chorale phrases with imitative entries built around the rising-note motive, a notable piece of musical economy.
The final two phrases are similarly introduced but now with falling melodic shapes, reflecting precisely the contours of the chorale line (bars 53-4 and 65-6). Bach has taken the simple contours of the hymn tune and manipulated and extended them to reinforce the feeling of the text, the result being a movement of deeply focused intensity.
Great art indeed!
The student will also notice the range of tonal variety that Bach manages to achieve whilst still tied to the constraints of what is basically a fairly unadventurous melody. He modulates through B major, F# and C# minors before returning to the home key.
The second movement, an aria for tenor, presents us with some problems because it has not survived complete; one of the two obbligato parts is missing. Various attempts have been made to reconstruct it and different directors have created their own solutions. Performances will generally utilize two violins or one violin and an oboe d ‘amore above the continuo line. The overall structure is, nevertheless quite clear, a simple ritornello/da capo aria.
The declamation of the tenor melody is noteworthy. No real knowledge of German is required in order to understand the message of the opening words Gott ist mein Freund—-God is my friend. This simple but clear and direct statement, first heard in the surviving violin line, is repeated several times in the course of the movement. It is probable that the number of times it would have been heard in the complete movement was itself symbolic, but this is impossible to determine because of the incomplete transmission.
Gott ist mein Freund
Elsewhere the tenor melody is more convoluted, suggestive of the enemies raging about. The word Toben—-raging—-is given particular emphasis, as is the later Spötter—those who ridicule or mock, the evocation of which is clearly heard (see bars 58-60 and 97-99).
But much as the enemy may rage, attack and ridicule me, I remain safe and unharmed simply because God is my friend—-Bach’s simple and frequent declamation of these words ensures that they remain ringing in the mind after all else is forgotten. The very busy nature of the other three contrapuntal lines frames this simple pious assertion and allows it to shine through the complexities of life with a humble simplicity.
The alto recitative informs us that whilst the Saviour has sent forth his flock to face the fury of the wolf, nevertheless his wise words protect us all. But Bach avoids the obvious images of snarling wolves and evil hordes. Perhaps time was pressing, although as we have discovered, whatever the circumstances, Bach was not a man to cut corners.
The explanation is more likely to be for artistic reasons. The purpose of this recitative is twofold; firstly it reinforces the picture of God’s protection within an environment of potential danger and secondly it forms a link between the essential expression of the simple faith of the tenor aria and the more complex spiritual and earthly circumstances described subsequently. There is no need to use lurid imagery in order to draw attention to these themes.
The bass aria is, however, an entirely different matter. This must rank as one of the most extraordinary movements in the cycle; eleven sections delineated by frequent changes of tempo and time signatures. There are three basic images surrounding the reassurance that God is our Friend—-disasters enslaving us—-the appearance of God’s guiding hand—-the Light of Reassurance. Sometimes Bach will convey different ideas of this kind simultaneously i.e. a texture of counterpoint suggesting converse moods or characters. Or he may differentiate between the outer and middle sections of a da capo aria in order to convey contrary views. Finally, and this is the strategy he chooses here, he constructs a sequence of highly contrasting, chronological dramatic segments.
Violin and oboe parts representing the three images described above.
This is a tactic he used rarely, probably because of its structural implications. Bach was the greatest of architectural designers who strove for logic and economy in every movement, a policy which so often resulted in the most concentrated and intense musical expression. It is interesting that, although he frequently recycled earlier movements, he seldom altered the initial formal parameters. Word setting, contrapuntal detail, invention of idiomatic writing for new instruments, the addition of new melodic lines; all these were grist to his mills of parody. But the movements usually began and ended in the same way, moving through a predetermined group of related keys by means of highly developed material. The architectural planning was always clear from the beginning and almost never required revision (one notable exception being the parody which became the Agnus Die from the Great Mass). It is, however, difficult to see how this highly specific movement, in which the macro-structure is so wayward, could have been adapted for any other text or purpose.
The opening gives only an inkling of what is to follow. The oboe d’amore theme is not unlike that which is to be heard on the violins of the tenor aria in C 92. Both have sweeping skirls of fast notes separating disjunctive leaps in the melodic line and, interestingly, the texts explore different images of the same theme, namely God’s assistance in times of threat. When discussing C 139 Schweitzer (vol 2, p 375) describes this motive as the symbol of the ‘heavy bonds’ or chains in which the Christian is enmeshed. The harsh bleakness of the theme is emphasized by the dotted rhythms in the continuo and aggressive and wide-ranging semi-quavers in the violins.
The bass’s vocal line is equally powerful as he complains of being assailed, fettered and ensnared from all sides. He seems to have just settled into what might appear to be a conventional ritornello/da capo aria when everything changes (bar 27). The moderate tempo becomes vivace and the 4/4 time, 6/8. God’s hand has appeared in order to help the Christian rise to heaven and the lightness of texture and rising oboe arpeggios combine to suggest it. Three bars of the ritornello theme return (37-9) suggestive, according to Schweitzer (ibid p 375), of the flickering light of hope. Next, in a slower tempo, the bass declaims the final lines of text—the flickering light tells me that God is still my truest Comrade.
The initial misfortunes return twice (from bars 58 and 89) but then, so does the hand of God. The final statement of the opening ‘trials and chains’ idea is very short, suggesting that they may have been overcome. And it is significant that the movement ends by reiterating both the helping hand of God and the flickering light of hope (bars 93-end).
On first hearing, this all may seem a little confusing. But having observed and grasped the musical representations of the contrasting themes of assailment, succour and empathetic light, listeners should be able to navigate their way without difficulty.
It is a powerful and formidable movement and a tribute to Bach’s ability to experiment with different forms, seeking out the best ways of communicating complex messages. But some listeners may be left with a slight lack of fulfilment. Bach was the great formalist and unifier and his enormous skill in creating a focused, organic development gives his music unique concentrated impact. The operatic discursiveness of such a movement, no matter how original and dramatic it may be, might not have appealed to everyone in Bach’s congregations at the time; or even today!
Soprano recitative and closing chorale..
The soprano does not find a solo role until the final recitative where its lighter timbre is entirely appropriate for expression of optimism—-I give my soul to God—-Satan’s threats will be no more. The voice is wrapped in a cocoon of warm string harmonies as if enveloped by God’s goodness and protection. The continuo line has an occasional touch of chromatic movement as if to remind us of the vanquished Devil. The harmonies propel us gently towards E major, the key of the final chorale whose melodic shape, so exquisitely contoured in the fantasia, now reveals itself in its elemental simplicity.
The harmonies are uncomplicated with just the merest touch of minor in the penultimate phrase; another echo, perhaps, of the misfortunes that God, and we, have now conquered. The message spelt out so clearly in the tenor aria becomes the thought on which we take our leave; God is our shield and friend and through this, we are blessed.
Like our contemporaries who may enjoy the scares of a horror movie but then emerge to find themselves safe and secure, Bach’s congregation has glimpsed the perils and surfaced unharmed.
And perhaps, after this, might they take just a little more care with their prayers and Christian rituals?
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.