Chapter 24 BWV 17 Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich
Whosoever proffers thanks, praises Me.
Chorus--recit (alto)--aria (sop).
Recit (tenor)--aria (tenor)--recit (bass)--chorale.
For the fourteenth Sunday after Trinity.
This is the last of three extant works, one from each cycle, written for this day. All three commence with a large chorus and end with (different) four-part chorales. C 25 (vol 1, chapter 25) dates from 1723 and is concerned with the corrosive nature of sin and the need for Jesus to free us from it. Its opening chorus is, to an extent, an embryonic fantasia since the phrases of the chorale, although not in long notes and not used to close the work, are heard played by the cornet above the choir and continuously pulsating strings. The chorus opening C 78 (vol 2, chapter 14)is one of Bach’s most majestic and original creations; embedded within the constraints of a ritornello-based chorale fantasia is a chromatic passacaglia suggestive of Christ’s pain and death upon the cross.
The opening chorus of C 17 differs in many ways from its predecessors. It is in the major mode, the bright sharp key of A. It has the most modest forces, two oboes supporting strings and continuo. It is certainly the least original or experimental in structural terms, relying upon the adapted ritornello principle which Bach tended to favour at this time. A long instrumental section begins the movement but is not repeated at the end, nor does it provide any substantial sections between the choral blocks. In fact, somewhat unusually, major modes predominate in this cantata as the basis of all movements except the recitatives. This may explain why some listeners may find it initially a less compelling work than others of the same period.
However this is a composition which rewards revisiting. There are many subtle and hidden treasures which do not immediately reveal themselves.
Nevertheless, it is immediately apparent that there is nothing in this work of the angst and pain of the opening choruses of the previous two cantatas. Part 1 is principally concerned with noting God’s great works and praising Him for them. The chorus states simply that the proffering of thanks is in itself a form of praise, thus suggesting a way to salvation.
One technical point of interest is that the first thematic figure, played on violins and oboes, is identical to that of the Eb prelude from Book 1 of the WTC. Bach’s ability to take the same basic motive but develop it to markedly different expressive effect is powerfully demonstrated by a comparison of these two pieces.
Violin and oboe 1 echoed by violin and oboe 2.
In fact some listeners may even find the initial constant repetition of this motive a little tedious, a rare experience in Bach’s music. It occurs in each of the twenty opening bars before metamorphosing into a continuous stream of semi-quavers propelling us to the first choral entry. It is difficult to see how the music relates to the text more than presenting us with a general image of God’s unremitting blessings.
Another departure from one of Bach’s established practices at this time is the immediate statement of a fugal exposition. Hitherto Bach has tended to explore the opening line(s) of text through a variety of choral textures before turning to the tried and tested fugal procedures. Perhaps the opening stanza is too short to allow this; possibly Bach feels less inspired than usual with this particular text.
In fact, the overall structure of this movement is surprisingly simple, two fugal expositions of the same theme (beginning bars 28 and 81) separated by a more lightly textured passage (bars 71-81) in which fragments of the ritornello material are alternated with the head of the fugue theme. Perhaps this symbolises the coming together of thankfulness and praise as two parts of a single process.
The order of entries of the first fugal exposition is T, A, S and B and of the second B, T, S and A. Both end in a glorious blaze of continuous semi-quavers, the first espousing acclaim and gratitude, the second God’s response, His offer of salvation.
All three recitatives are concise, lacking in any overt word painting and accompanied only by the continuo. And far from resulting from pressures of time or a possible lack of engagement by the composer, close scrutiny reveals that Bach has sculptured them with great care. Minor keys predominate and it is convenient and illuminating to consider them as a group.
The first is for alto and it informs us that the entire world and all its elements must stand witness to God’s majesty----God has put them into place and in return, they must praise Him. The second is for tenor and relates how one, a Samaritan whom He had cured turned, fell upon his face and praised Him. The third, for bass says----see what I am is what You made me----Your streams of blessings, love, peace and justice are revealed to me and they heal me perfectly
Thus the three stanzas depict a process that appears to have been neatly planned by the librettist. They move from a general picture of God’s created world to a particular example of His work, the healing of the Samaritan. The last one encapsulates the gratitude which God’s blessings and gifts engender, culminating in a depiction of that state of bodily and spiritual health which is a natural consequence of His Grace and favour.
Despite the fact that Bach set them all as secco recitatives, he took great care over their shaping and construction; they are carefully crafted and not in any sense merely ‘thrown off’. They all share arresting sharp-minor keys and have boldly vaulting melodic lines. The first and third commence with a striding rising phrase immediately balanced by a falling one, perhaps symbolising the universality of God’s benefice. All three melodic lines are deeply expressive and personal.
In a sense, and perhaps unusually, it is the recitatives in this cantata which reveal the inner core of the work.
The two arias elaborate upon the responses of the individual. The first marvels at the universality of God’s truth and goodness. The second is more personal, accepting the greatness of His gifts and asking what we should do in return.
The first aria is the only movement in which the soprano features----your benefice and justice reach to the heavens and the clouds----I see how great You are from Your works, I praise them and in return shall receive salvation. This is a simple outlining of the process developed through the recitatives, here all encapsulated within the one verse and clearly recognised by the devoted Christian.
The omission of the violas would indicate that each of their lines was intended to be played by a single violin; they have obbligato functions rather than acting as components of a full string ensemble. The aria is a simple ritornello structure, in which segments of the eleven-bar opening statement are heard at the end and between the three vocal blocks (commencing bars 11, 29 and 40). The instrumental theme has two main ideas, firstly the rising groups of semi-quavers (bars1-2) and secondly the syncopated countersubject highlighting certain high notes which stand out from the rest of the melodic line (first violin, bar 3). (Note the reuse of the initial figure from the opening movement here in the second bar).
As is so often the case, we can assume with some certainty that Bach attached symbolic significance to each of these ideas although what this might have been is not fully clear. The first may represent God’s benefice, streaming out in all directions and the second the extension of God’s truth towards the clouds, a theory strengthened by the singer’s first use of this image for the second line of text. Whatever the initial inspiration for these musical shapes, it cannot be disputed that they were conceived as a contrapuntal totality, once again suggesting the universal nature of God’s benefice and favour.
The first vocal section is predominately major and simply describes the range and extent of God’s goodness and truth. The second (from bar 29) is predominantly minor and has the feel of a contrasting middle section; it conveys the idea of perceiving God’s goodness from His works. The third returns us to the major and asks God----how would it not be possible to praise the One who provides our salvation? The long melismas on preisen----praise----and weisen----showing or indicating [the way to redemption]----make the meaning abundantly clear.
The second recitative is followed by the second aria, both for tenor. The full string section is recalled and the movement is constructed along similar lines to that for soprano. Again the instrumental ritornello is eleven bars long, leading one to wonder if there was any numerological significance intended. Unlike the soprano aria however, it is repeated in full at the end, adapted only so as to keep it in the tonic key of D major. It begins with a four-square, almost peasant-like theme played twice. Its stolid character is reinforced by the slow trill in the continuo line.
There is a simple, earthy, human quality about the melody which is slightly at odds with the later ‘reaching’ or ‘stretching’ figure (first heard in bar 7).
The two arias share various characteristics including the similar layout of the vocal blocks. Each deals chronologically with a section of the text; in that for tenor, the first with the excess of favour God gives us, the second asking what we might offer in return and the third presenting the Christian solution----I know not what to give You but praise and song. Again the melismas in the final section underline the message; Dank----gratitude and Lob----praise.
There is an additional structural oddity, first noted by Dürr with reference to the soprano aria (p 531). However the principle he outlines is also to be found in that for tenor. In both cases the third vocal block is combined with the instrumental ritornello theme commencing in bar 47 in each movement. Again one must suspect a numerological meaning. Musically, Bach seems to be experimenting with ways of avoiding a direct da capo reprise whilst retaining strong elements of recapitulation.
Whatever the hidden meaning may be, this is strong evidence that these two arias were conceived together to form part of the same cantata. Whilst it is true that the opening chorus was later reused as the final movement of the Mass in G BWV 236, it seems certain that this cantata was initially written and conceived as a unified whole.
The closing chorale is long (12 phrases) and in triple time. It is packed with images which, had Bach been using it as the basis of a chorale fantasia, would surely have stimulated his imagination and strongly influenced the textures of the choral writing: dust, grass, flowers, the falling leaf and the blowing wind all feature. But here we have no added instrumental lines, simply a conventional four-part harmonisation with the expected doublings. The only discernable piece of word painting is the ‘autumnal’ quality (noted by Dürr, p 531) achieved through the minor mode setting of the fallen leaf followed by the subdominant harmonies suggestive of the blowing wind.
Did Bach wryly regret the lost opportunities? Or perhaps he was content to leave us with the reflective theme of this final stanza----we are wretched children, no more than transient dust in the eyes of the Lord and we will soon pass from this life.
This, in itself, must have been a potent theme for a man who, still only in his early forties, had suffered so much personal bereavement.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.