Chapter 25 BWV 19 Es erhub sich ein Streit
Great discord arose.
Chorus--recit (bass)--aria (sop)--recit (tenor)--aria (tenor)--recit (sop)--chorale.
For St Michael’s Day.
The feature common to all of the cantatas that Bach wrote for this day is an imposing opening chorus. That for the second cycle, C 130 (vol 2, chapter 17) is one of the most lavishly scored employing three trumpets, timpani and three oboes added to the strings and continuo. C 149 (chapter 44), generally considered to be one of the few extant works from the fourth cycle, uses the same forces plus a solo bassoon. Only the first movement of C 50 (chapter 55) has survived but it continues the tradition of large instrumental ensembles and further, introduces a double choir, a luxury that Bach was only once afforded in the weekly cantata performances. C 19 utilises the three trumpets with timpani and oboes although the latter have no independence in the chorus, doubling the upper strings throughout.
Each of the three cantatas ends with a four-part version of a chorale, strongly supported by the instruments, trumpets having a degree of independence although it must be said, only minimally in C 149. However Cs 19 and 149 are further linked in that the chorale melody heard in the tenor aria of the former work is a slightly adapted version of that which concludes the latter. The choruses of all four cantatas are steadfastly major, two in the key of C and two in D. Only one however, C 130, is a true chorale fantasia.
A further, albeit tenuous, link may be found in the rhythmic structures of the vocal entries at the beginning of C 19 and those of the lower voices underpinning the chorale melody in C 130. In each case these fugal themes are formed from initial groups of three quavers transforming into peals of continuous semiquavers, possibly with symbolic connotations.
Not sufficient of C 50 survives for us to determine the textual theme with absolute certainty, but the first three works are all concerned with God’s host of angels and their powers as a protective army, shielding us from Satan and his wiles. But as we have come to expect with Bach, the emphases are different. The opening stanzas of Cs 130 and 149 concern themselves principally with songs of joy and praise for God who, with His creation of the angel horde, has ensured victory over Satan. C 19 begins not with the completed conquest but with a picture of the battle----great discord arose as the enraged serpent vents his terrible vengeance against heaven itself. This image, entreched in the culture of the period, pervades the first part of the stanza, complemented by a latter section which deals with St Michael’s victory, aided by the angel army.
The text clearly suggests a bipartite movement, the first half dealing with the battle, the second with the victory. But the proportions of Bach’s chorus are quite unexpected. The entire first section, ending at bar 42 and later to be reprised in full, sets only the first line, stressing the notion of conflict. What is musically the middle section of a conventional da capo structure (bars 42-89) deals with the remaining five lines of text, beginning with images of the raging serpent. It is not until we are about half way through this section that we reach the point where St Michael triumphs----Aber Michael bezwingt. Thus, in a movement of 130 bars (including the repeat) just over 20 are needed to portray the victory!
These proportions may seem somewhat bizarre at first sight, but closer observation leads us towards a greater understanding of the work as a whole. Schweitzer (vol 2, p 195) completely misses the point, claiming that Bach inserts his da capo ‘out of habit’ it being ‘a sin against both the text and the music’. He fails to take into consideration the wider picture which an examination of the complete cantata reveals.
The point is that Bach has made this cantata a personal statement of Man’s situation within God’s sphere of protection. This is not a simplistic proclamation of praise for the Almighty and His band of angels. The message here is more profound and it is this: God has, in His mercy and wisdom, created the forces which protect us from Satan’s raging. He has done this in order to protect even the most miserable of worm-like sinners (tenor recitative) and it is our responsibility, with the help of the angels, to keep steadfast and true whilst offering eternal gratitude to the God who made all this possible.
The contrast and connections between the enormity of God’s victory and the responses of base and wretched Mankind is the true theme of this cantata. Little wonder the, that Bach chooses to stress the extent of the struggle in the opening chorus because this ensures that the ultimate victory will be seen to be all the more magnificent. The true Christian’s responsibility is to understand this and to respond appropriately.
After the solid block of forty chorale fantasias in the second cycle, Bach seems to have felt the need to experiment with the structuring of his large choruses. Three magnificent examples may be found in the latter half of that canon, Cs 6, 103 and 176, but it is particularly in this third cycle that Bach may be found innovating with different combinations of ritornello, fugue and da capo structures. One of his preoccupations seems to have been the cohesive use of material in the instrumental and choral forces, bringing them evermore together to form a series of totally original, fully unified, powerfully convincing conceptions.
Bach does away with the opening ritornello statement, latterly using only a few short instrumental sections as punctuation marks to separate the structural choral sections. The first (bars 38-52) marks the end of the A section. The second (bars 58-62) forms the transition between the two halves of the stanza i.e. the battle and the victory. The third, and longest, denotes the end of the middle section and leads back to the da capo repeat.
Clearly Bach dispenses with any opening instrumental section because he wants the opening phrase to have immediate dramatic effect----there arose great strife/discord. Even the notion of ‘rising’ is conveyed in the first vocal interval, an upward stretching octave. This striking sound quickly dissolves into a continuous flowing of semiquavers on the word Streit----strife, dominating the first section of the movement.
Tumult is further suggested by the order of fugal entries first rising (B, T, A and S from bar 1) and then falling (S, A, T and B from bar 8). The flowing semi-quaver melismas are a continuing feature of the movement,conveying different images on key words: strife, raging, vengeance, the host [of angels] and the cruelty [of Satan].
Readers may consider how many of the great choruses begin, like this one, without any form of instrumental pre-amble. It raises the technical issue, how the basses got their first note. Surreptitiously provided by one of the instrumentalists? Obtained from a short improvised 'prelude' on the organ?
While the opening and closing movements of this cantata are confidently set in C major, Em plays considerable significance in the inner movements. Two of the recitatives are set wholly or mainly in this key as is the aria for tenor, the keystone of the entire work. The first bass recitative stresses the significance of Michael’s victory which was somewhat glossed over in the opening chorus----the serpent now lies in the darkness and in chains and we, though still alarmed by his roaring, shall enjoy the continuing protection of the angels.
Victory is assured. And yet the gloom of the minor mode does not engender a complete sense of triumph or exultation. The path ahead for sinners may still be hard and there may yet be moments of despair and despondency.
The major mode returns for the soprano aria, two oboes giving obbligato support. The text suggests a moment of peace after the battle, an oasis of protective tranquillity under the shields of the angels. The imagery, to the modern listener, is almost that of a twentieth century American Western film, the wagons encircling a ring of defenders.
But Bach does not give us the undisturbed picture we might expect. In a number of the most subtle ways he indicates that our lives are still not entirely free from tension. The first is the odd three-bar phrasing with which the ritornello begins.
Secondly, a constant dialogue between the two wind instruments creates a sense of movement and change rather than one of calm and stillness. The semiquaver passages which formed such an important part of the melodic lines in the opening chorus are here shorter, but still to be heard on each of the four melodic lines in turn.
In this aria there is no resting upon one’s laurels under the angels’ protection. Perhaps the metaphor is one of constant change; nothing remains still and peaceful forever. There is a temporary calm after the battle but Man must continue to engage with his own spirit and with the forces of the elements.
The word painting of----so nah als fern---so near and far---- is charming. And if one regretted the lack of long ritornelli in the chorus, Bach more than makes up for it here. An extended instrumental section begins and ends the aria and a shortened version of it separates the two vocal sections.
The tenor recitative returns us to the minor mode and prepares for the following aria. Here we are reminded of our human frailty----man is no more than a wretched sinner, a worm; but insignificant though he is, God continues to love and defend him. This notion, reinforced by the aria with which it is paired in theme and key, takes us right to the heart of this work; God, who has conceived and created the whole universe, still loves and protects the weak, sinful and insignificant.
Consequently it is the muted, yet heart-rending cry of frail human entities that is to be heard in the last and greatest aria.
Schweitzer refers to the siciliano rhythm as a motive of angels (vol 2, p 80) and he draws comparisons with the sinfonia from the Christmas Oratorio. Dürr (p 700) calls this ‘one of the high points in all Bach’s arias’. It is certainly the longest movement, lasting typically seven minutes in performance, over one third of the length of the entire work. It occupies the place in the cantata that Bach frequently considered especially significant; the last major movement before the chorale. It is, therefore, worthy of particular attention.
Much of the text of this cantata is couched in the first person, giving it a particularly personal feel. But there is no doubt that Bach’s representation of the individual response to the thesis of the day comes through most strongly in this aria----be vigilant, sacred guardians and stay with me; ensure that my step is certain and teach me to sing Your praises and those of the Almighty. This is the key to the entire work; the individual has responsibilities and these have been clearly described. But divine assistance may still be required and in return we must offer our praises and appreciation.
These few lines of text are set in the most expansive way. The scale of the movement is determined, in part, by the decision to have the trumpet play the full thirteen phrases of the chorale tune which Bach was later to present more conventionally as the concluding movement of C 149, also written for St Michael’s day and also requesting the Angels’ guidance of the soul.
The gently pulsating rhythm is immediately shared between the continuo and upper string lines. Perhaps it denotes the unsteadiness of tread as one is guided along the path of righteousness, an angel supporting each arm.
The proportions of the movement are significant in that by far the greater part is concerned with a heartfelt plea for the angels to stay with us, guiding and teaching throughout. The listener will, without difficulyu, note the various melismas and their use to emphasise key words.
But the touch of genius is the trumpet’s declaration of the chorale melody soaring above earthbound plodding. Each entry is surprising, coming upon us at unexpected moments. Its eeriness is partially explained by the fact that this essentially major melody has been minimally adapted so as to fit the fundamentally minor mode of the aria. There is a wonderfully subtle contradiction here, perhaps between earthly fallibility and heavenly certainty.
Following this monumental aria, some lightening of the mood is essential for both artistic and thematic reasons. Bach clearly wants to leave the congregation in an optimistic mood and the last recitative and final chorale are linked, through major modes, to provide this function. Furthermore, the overall textual theme is essentially one of hope; the battles have been won and protection surrounds us: providing that we keep to our proper pathway.
The brief recitative asks that we honour the angels, do not allow our sinfulness to repel them but rather permit them to transport us to heaven when the proper time comes. One wonders why Bach set this as a secco piece rather than employing the upper strings which might have created a halo of heavenly sound with sustained chords. Somehow one feels that this would have been more effective here than in the previous recitative. But Bach would have had his reasons.
The closing triple-time chorale has the quality of a minuet, the elegant dance form being entirely suited to the positivity of the message----let the angels travel with me and protect my soul until my body rises from the earth and rests upon Your lap. Oboes and strings double the vocal lines and the trumpets add reinforcing harmonies. Again the battle has been won and salvation is available to us all.
And yet even here there remains a degree of tension. There is a constant pull between the five and four-bar phrases which is only partially resolved. Conflict between earthly temptations and righteousness of conduct in the eyes of the Almighty still remains.
One likes to think that the subtlety of the musical expression of this fundamental inconsistency, embedded within the very fabric of this chorale melody, would have appealed to Bach.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.