Chapter 25 BWV 26 Ach wie flüchtig ach wie nichtig
Ah how fleeting and insignificant are our lives.
When enjoying a cantata such as this, the listener may be tempted to speculate about the relationship between Bach and his librettist. We have some evidence that Bach did not always accept texts meekly because there are instances of his making changes, particularly later in the cycle. However, one wonders, did he give clear indications as to the sorts of text he would welcome or expect? Was he, on this and possibly other occasions, pro-active in seeking stanzas which contained the sorts of imagery that begged for musical expression? Or did he simply wait until they came along, grasping the more imaginative possibilities with enthusiasm and doing what he could with the more pedestrian offerings?
We shall never know, but it is not unreasonable to assume that he seized upon this particular text with relish. There is an energy and enthusiasm in the setting of these images, the pugnacious cantor quite possibly extending them further than his librettist had thought possible.
The theme is the transitory nature of fortune and beauty and, indeed, of life itself, all those things which we humans are tempted to both over-value and take for granted. The chorale is short, dour and solidly minor. The overall mood of the text is pessimistic and gloomy, nevertheless, Bach’s interpretation is far from negative. Clearly this raises some interesting questions, not the least of which is; to what extent did Bach agree with the premises of the various texts he was given, and this one in particular?
His unrelenting optimism in the most extreme circumstances continually shines through his art. Bach was not a man to give way to depression; for one thing, he would hardly have had the time! His expression of faith is always positive and even given the most disheartening of texts, somewhere he will find some light and hope. This is manifestly true of this cantata. If taken out of its context, one would hardly suppose that the first aria had emerged from a libretto and chorale of such general dourness; it is as buoyantly carefree as any in the cycle.
Some have doubted whether Bach was a staunch Lutheran believer although there is no evidence to support this view. A more interesting (and equally hypothetical) question might be, what sort of believer was he? Just how much did he accept of the Lutheran dogma without analytical scrutiny? To what extent did he, whilst accepting the basic premises, create his own sensibly pragmatic position—–one that would have to satisfy both his inherited religious beliefs and his ever-questing, restless intelligence?
Certainly it could be argued that he did not absorb uncritically the ‘all is ephemeral’ premise of this cantata. He lived quite comfortably. His last years were spent ensuring that his greatest masterpieces (e.g. Art of Fugue, Mass in B minor) were presented so as to survive beyond his lifetime. His great and well-attested enthusiasm for both teaching and composing indicates his ability to rise above personal tragedy and look optimistically towards the future. This was, after all, an individual who was orphaned at ten and widowed with young children in his thirties but who still made of himself an organ authority, adept composer and performing virtuoso before he was out of his teens! Bach must have been an exceedingly positive and determined human being!
Certainly, a belief in a positive afterlife would have been helpful to him. But there is little in what we know of his life and music to indicate any fatalistic or pessimistic streak in his core faith. And it does seem that he may have been one of the first European composers who actively sought to ensure that at least some of his music survived beyond him; although whether he thought that survival was to be on earth or in heaven (or both) we can only speculate.
Furthermore, one finds these positive attributes leaping out from his music more often than not. Despite the fatalistic theme, nowhere in this work do we find the tragic inevitability of torment that is expressed, for example, in one movement from C 20 (chapter 2). Schweitzer describes the alto aria from that work as ‘quite excessive’ (vol 2, p 196). ‘Nowhere else in music’ he continues, ‘has the painful writhing of a body been so realistically depicted’ (ibid, p 196).
So Bach could certainly trawl the depths of hopeless dejection when he considered it appropriate. But whilst the theme and imagery gave him every scope for doing so in this cantata, he declined it.
The opening chorus likens the ephemeral and temporary nature of life to the dispersal of mist and fog, images which imply movements of wind and air, although they are not specifically mentioned. Bach′s musical setting, however, provides an example of his extending an image one step further than is explicit in the text. Dissipating mist suggests the wind which, in turn, becomes the main focus of Bach’s imagery. But his wind is not a gentle zephyr; it is more akin to a raging typhoon, a primeval force before which, it might seem, nothing can stand. It is the energy of the cosmos and the force of nature that Bach is portraying here. Schweitzer (vol 2, p 57/8) describes other examples of Bach’s similar portrayal of the wind through rushing semi-quavers, clearly an image which he found stimulating and energizing.
The choral writing is starkly different. The sopranos, reinforced with a horn, sing the chorale melody in long notes as expected whilst beneath them, the three remaining voices punch out the chords. There is, somewhat unusually, a minimum of rhythmic variety in their parts; they sing in a series of stressed quavers evincing a feeling of primeval power and solidarity. The mists may disperse in the wake of the wind and the librettist′s metaphor is one of our corporeal lives having similar vacuity and impermanence. But the eternal soul remains intact, buffeted though it may be. The choir stands firmly for the eternal core of continuing existence which true faith ensures.
The three-note ‘joy’ motive is also a feature of the instrumental accompaniment but in this context it has more the feeling of macabre absurdity. The choral writing reflects the final line of the closing chorale—-he who fears God shall remain forever. An eternity of sorrow is God’s will and it is to be feared; but there is, nevertheless, an alternative upon which Bach places full emphasis.
No one could possibly be depressed by the forceful, driving energy of this movement, which seems to reveal something of Bach the man as well as Bach the (perhaps slightly sceptical) Lutheran. Similarly forceful fantasias in this key may be found in Cs 178, 33 and 111.
If any doubts about Bach’s stance towards this text remain, the second movement dismisses them instantly. It is interesting that there is no recitative at this point. Clearly Bach intends to sustain the feelings of energy and positivity for as long as possible; hence this ebullient major key setting.
Here the text is somewhat more explicit about the nature of the primeval force as it compares the passing of life to the surging waters of a stream or river. Bach who, as we have seen, had the services of an excellent flautist throughout this cycle, frequently used that instrument to depict the images of flowing. The repetitive semi-quaver idea with which the flute and strings commence this Italianate ritornello movement is typical. (Similar figuration is often to be found later in much Romantic music and particularly in the accompaniments of several Schubert songs which depict flowing water).
One hardly needs to be able to read the German text in order to recognize this moment; it only lasts for a few bars, but it occurs twice and is a telling image. The final tenor line of this section, supported by scales in all instrumental parts, imitates the rush of droplets towards the abyss of hell (from bar 107).
Two points emerge strongly at this stage. The first, as stated above, is the surprisingly strong sense of positivity which the music conveys. It is a progressive feeling that has developed particularly through the first two movements and even extends into the alto recitative. Secondly, there is the force of the tone painting which is not only more powerfully optimistic than one might expect from the text, it is also conspicuous and unambiguous, clearly intended to be recognized by everyone. It does not, however, disrupt or disturb the main musical thrust, it is always conceived as an integral part of the flow, drawing our attention to particular points as appropriate but never at the expense of the overall architecture.
With the positive optimism continuing, the alto recitative remains major-mode and there is an immediate torrent of notes on the word Freude—-joy. But this word is only mentioned in the context of the transformation to sorrow, a feeling underlined by the harmony which moves to, and then remains solidly in, the minor. The singer continues the theme of death extinguishing human achievement, an image which leads us neatly to the following aria.
The transformation from major back to minor is now complete and minor keys remain until the end of the work. Bach, of course like all composers, frequently modulates to a major key in the middle of a minor movement simply for the purposes of light and shade; this may be simply for musical reasons with no imagic implications. But this aria is relentlessly minor; Bach does not want harmonic ‘light and shade’ at this point. Musical variety will be achieved through melodic, harmonic textural and instrumental means, but not through the contrasts of mode.
Reasons for this become apparent as we study the movement. The text is that of a sermon—-it is easy to be seduced by the pleasures of the flesh but the elements will destroy them. This homily is delivered by the bass, the voice of authority, perhaps in this case the Pastor of the people. The stocky, almost peasant-like bourree rhythms convey a feeling of elemental strength and assurance. This is a sermon to be heard, noted and acted upon! It is a serious matter and it will be dealt with sternly and without frivolity—hence the unrelenting minor mode.
Nevertheless, as in the first movement, Bach will not permit his listeners to sink into depression or despair; the heavy, reiterated rhythms have a rustic, ponderous and almost primeval dance-like character, which prevents it. Boyd (p 6) describes is as a ‘veritable Totentanz′—-a dance of death.
Bach clearly liked the combination of voice, continuo and three oboes which he used on several occasions. It may be worth comparing this movement with the first bass aria from C 20 (chapter 2). Both sermonize and both touch upon the themes of the shortness of time on earth and the eternity of suffering. But the C 26 aria is minor, that of C 20 predominantly major. Both employ dance rhythms. They have similar themes and use the same instrumental combinations. So why are they so different?
The glib answer would be that Bach neither repeats himself nor falls back upon cliché; no one who studies the entire cantata canon can come to any other conclusion. But this is not the whole story. One needs to look at the placement of these movements within their respective cantatas. In C 26 the aria comes late, at a time when Bach has expressed the text as positively as he dares and when he needs to lend some weight to the other aspects of the weekly moral. In C 20 it comes earlier and the singer does not give out a full-frontal sermon directed at the congregation. Rather, he is delivering a soliloquy—-would that people might listen to my warning! This aria has a different function within the overall architecture of the work and so, despite the obvious similarities, their expressive characters are markedly different.
Readers may also care to compare both these movements with the bass aria from C 68 (chapter 49) also using three oboes. It is instructive, occasionally, to examine examples of similar text, theme and instrumentation across the cantatas. If nothing more, it enables insight into Bach’s subtly varied and complex planning stratagems which, considering the timescales of his compositions, is awe inspiring.
Returning to this movement, a point of detail to notice is the reprise of the semi-quaver runs from the opening chorus now depicting thunder, flames, stormy seas and the destruction of the world. The descending scales played in unison by the three oboes (from bar 56) have great force. The vocalist has several prominent images, notably the long melisma on the word zerschmettert—-shatter—- (bars 60-61) and the weird, descending chromatic phrase towards the end, suggestive of a world of chaos and foolishness (bars 98-99).
The soprano recitative does little more than reiterate the main theme of the work—-all earthly glory and pretention will disintegrate upon death and anyone who disregards this truth shall be forgotten. But it carefully guides us back to A minor, the key of the closing chorale.
This final verse offers nothing new, hearkening back to the images of fleeting life and human achievement dissolving in death. Nor can the chorale boast a particularly prepossessing melody constructed, as it is, in a series of short, seemingly truncated and rhythmically bare phrases. Nevertheless its opening rising notes form the basis of the main bass aria motive and it also provides the backbone for the outpouring of enormous energy in the opening chorus.
Whatever its apparent lack of potential Bach, as always, manages to extract gold from gravel. It appears, however, that this was not a chorale he reused. After this cantata it is quite probable that he felt that it had no more to offer him.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017.