Chapter 26 BWV 27 Wer weiss, wie nahe mir mein Ende?

Who knows when my end shall come?


Chorus + recit (S A T)--recit (tenor) --aria (alto)--recit (sop)--aria (bass)--chorale.

For the sixteenth Sunday after Trinity.

A contextual approach to this splendid work is more than usually complex, not only as there are four extant cantatas written for this Sunday, but also because the chorale featured in the first chorus was used by Bach in a surprisingly large number of other cantatas. Neumark’s melody, in conventional four-part harmonisations, is usually employed by Bach to close various cantatas, with alterations of harmonic detail and in a range of keys. However, in two of them, Cs 27 and 93, it also forms the basis of the opening chorus, albeit in different ways. Additionally, Cs 93 and 88 both conclude with this chorale, having also in common the fact that they were composed for the same day, the fifth Sunday after Trinity.

Two of the cantatas from the first cycle,Cs 166 and 179, also end with this chorale melody. In the latter, Bach’s harmonisation is particularly flamboyant, with ostentatious lines for the altos and tenors. In the third cycle Bach calls upon it to close C88 and 84 and likewise for a later secular wedding cantata, C 197.

Of the compositions which use the melody as the basis for the opening choruses, C 93 (vol 2, chapter 7) begins with a chorale fantasia and C 27 with a hybrid chorus/chorale/recitative. Consequently a comparative study of these two movements is particularly informative. The fantasia of C 93 is constructed around the metaphor of the house built upon sand with concepts of solidity and transience embedded within the structure and texture of the music. C 27, on the other hand, employs alternating elements of choral and solo writing as individuals meditate upon notions of death articulated in the chorale text.

Turning to Bach’s four extant cantatas for the sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, the first, C 161, originated from Weimar in 1716 (Dürr, p 544). It is a work of extraordinary depth, passion and imagination, demonstrating Bach’s early use of the genre. C 95 (cycle 1) begins with a chorus of great originality containing (bars 73/89) a passage in which the time signature constantly fluctuates between triple to common time. C 8 (cycle 2) commences with a chorale fantasia which poignantly enquires, to the sounds of the passing of time----when, Lord, shall I die? A similar theme is expounded in C 27.

Thus all four cantatas written for this day are built upon the theme of death and our earthly and spiritual attitudes towards this momentous event. C 161 (vol 1, chapter 69) concerns itself with the sweetness of Death as a release from a life of burden. C 95 (vol 1, chapter 19) places more emphasis upon the falseness of this evil world and the relief of leaving it so as to join with Christ. C 8 (vol 2, chapter 16) deals with the natural fear of demise that inhabits the human psyche, allied with the help we must seek from Jesus in order to overcome it.

In passing, one should note certain similarities between these works which cannot be accidental. One such example it the use of pizzicato strings in three of them (Cs 95, 161 and 8) and high repeated recorder notes in the latter two.

C 27 might almost be thought of as a summation of these various attitudes towards death and its consequences for mankind. As with C 8, it concerns itself with the natural question of how long we might live, our proper preparation for that event and a sense of weariness with this world of conflict and vanity. But whilst all four cantata texts express a yearning for death this one is, at least in the latter verses, the most positive. Death is confidently welcomed, it being an essential pathway towards the one true goal in life.

  Thus there can be no doubts about the rightness and appropriateness of the transition into the next, much longed-for existence.

Chorus/recitative.

And yet the opening of this cantata is about as tragic as it gets and three of the six movements are solidly based in minor keys. There is no brass emblazoning of triumph or victory, no hallelujahs of celebration. The opening four bars of the instrumental ritornello proclaim if anything, the wretchedness of death, certainly not any delight in the liberation it affords us.

The initial oboe phrase, derived from the first notes of the chorale upon which the movement is based, strikes a harsh dissonant b natural against the pedal c in the continuo.



Very quickly we discover more chromatic notes, an unforgiving d flat followed by an e natural in the second oboe. Underpinning all this are slow, doleful falling arpeggios reiterated on the violins and violas. The semi-quaver passages in the oboes are more suggestive of the wails of the damned than the rejoicing of the redeemed. This is music lacking even those redeeming, reflective qualities expressed in the fantasia from C 8.

It is music about pain, anguish and grief.

There are two possible explanations for this extraordinary beginning. One is that Bach, even if he believed unquestionably in the ‘rightness’ of Christian death as the pathway to salvation, nevertheless had sufficient experience of it to know the pain of bereavement felt by those left behind. Is it this most natural and sorrowful of human emotions which he seeks to encapsulate?

The other explanation relates to Bach’s overview of his textual themes and his careful structuring of the ‘emotional journeys’ along which many of his religious works carry us. Perhaps he felt it appropriate to begin with the pain, fear, apprehension and sense of loss that death brings to us all and thence to lead us gently towards the Christian's necessary acceptance of these natural emotions. Fear, loss and uncertainty form the beginning of the journey; the end is our ability to transcend them and to accept unquestionably Christ’s love, offer of salvation and promise of eternal bliss.

Thus we need to view the cantata as a totality. One element leads to the next and no part is fully explicable if taken in isolation.

The structure of the opening chorus is striking and original but quite easy to follow. The instrumental ritornello opens and closes the movement, presenting the essential musical material. The choir sings the phrases of the chorale melody (sopranos doubled by a horn) separated by short solo passages in the order soprano, alto and tenor. The macro structure is thus:

Instrumental ritornello--  chorale phrase 1--soprano solo--
                                            chorale phrase 2--alto solo--
                                            chorale phrases 1/ 2--tenor solo--
                                            chorale phrases 3/4--instrumental ritornello.

There is no obvious reason why Bach dispenses with a bass solo unless it was to avoid undue repitition.

The four chorale blocks deal in turn with the following lines:

    1 Who knows when I shall die?
    2 Time passes and death arrives.
    3 How quickly the sufferings of death come upon us.
    4 I pray to God to make good my ending.

The three solo interpolations elaborate upon the following thoughts:

  Sop: Only God knows whether my time on earth shall be long or short.

  Alto: Eventually they {time and death} shall come together.

  Tenor: In the event that today I might speak my last, I must pray (the prayer itself is stated by the final choral entry).

The solos are marked ‘recitative’ but are as much arioso lines. They need to be sung metrically since the orchestra continues to support them with ongoing material, the inexorable bass suggestive of time passing and, equally notably, the descending four-note arpeggios taken from the ritornello. In fact, it is these instrumental motives which provide the structural ‘glue’ around which this extraordinary movement coheres.

Tenor recitative.

The tenor recitative delivers a direct and unadorned message of the certainty of faith ----my only goal is to die in a state of grace----all my efforts are to ensure that, whenever I might die, I will be prepared for it. The vocal phrases are forceful and vaulting but despite the confidence of the message, Bach does not take us through any major keys, not even to prepare us for the warmth and welcome of the first aria. Even the final phrase----everything is well that ends well----conveys no feeling of gratification despite its sense of positive finality.

Alto aria.

Even in this flowing and encouraging aria, Bach subtly tempers the fundamental mood of optimism. It is not the brightest of voices, the soprano, which takes this solo role but the slightly darker alto, possibly because of its associations with matters spiritual. Neither does Bach choose the most cheerful sounding member of the oboe family. On the contrary, he again opts for a more shadowy sound, that of the lowest member, the oboe da caccia. Finally, there are some unexpectedly odd chromatic notes, momentarily colouring and casting fleeting shadows over the melodic lines. A song of welcoming it may be, but it is still Death, with all of his baggage, who is being received.

Whilst there is some debate about whether the solo keyboard instrument should be the harpsichord or organ, it is generally accepted that the former was used for the 1726 performance, the latter for a later revival. If so, this cantata is another demonstration of Bach’s restless urge to experiment with different tonal colours. Perhaps he considered the brighter timbre of the harpsichord better suited to an atmosphere of greeting and salutation. Death is very likely to be met in the domestic home where the harpsichord is more likely to be heard than the organ. And once again, although one may still look for explanations of the imagery, it could be that Bach simply liked the sounds of the harpsichord and oboe da caccia pitted against each other in a continuous tapestry surrounding the voice.

Whether the almost incessant semi-quavers of the two obbligato lines are meant to suggest Death coming to our beds, his pervasivenes, or the plagues we leave behind us, is unclear. However, one cannot ignore the richness of invention in this movement. Commencing with a springy, almost dance-like character, the oboe soon declaims a sighing figure (bars 4/5) followed by a quasi-tragic line descending over nearly two octaves (bars 6/7).

    From bar 4.

These two ideas are designed to be combined at the mention of Tod----Death (bars 27 and 70). Noteworthy also is the one descending chromatic scale in the vocal melody representing the earthly plagues we leave behind us (bars 51/2).

Death is no longer tragic; indeed it is to be welcomed; but not without those natural human qualms and misgivings which music can portray so more effectively than words.

Soprano recitative.

The second recitative is for soprano with the accompaniment of sustained chords from the upper strings. It is a plea to depart for heaven immediately and the text paints images of the Lamb of God and the Bridegroom of the pious. The only image which Bach reflects musically, however, is that of the wings which might ultimately transport us to heaven. Two rapid skirls of notes in the first violins make the point with no pretensions of subtlety.

The final phrase rises, partially unresolved, towards the heaven to which it aspires.

Bass aria.

The second and final aria allows Bach an opportunity of representing apparently divergent images within the same movement, a challenge he always relished. The text is firstly an expression of farewell----I already have one foot in Heaven. But the parting is one from a world of turmoil and tumult.

Both ideas may be heard in the ritornello and, indeed, throughout the entire movement, a touching and poignant farewell followed by the agitation of earthly disorder. The first is depicted by the low, rich, close harmony of sustained strings, the second by rapidly repeated note figurations.
    Opening bars, strings.


The vocal line navigates its way through these differing moods and textures with confidence and conviction.

Aurally, the shape of the music is very easy to follow:

    Instrumental ritornello: farewell theme--tumult theme.

    Vocal section:  farewell theme----tumult theme----farewell theme----tumult theme.

    Ritornello----farewell theme. 

The proportions of the movement betray Bach’s emphases. It begins and ends with the farewell theme and by far the longest section, a full third of the movement, is devoted to it on its second appearance in the vocal block.

Earthly strife is significant but the leaving of it is even more so.

Chorale.

The closing chorale is both striking and unusual. Firstly it is in five, not four parts, with two soprano lines. Secondly, although composed in the mid seventeenth century by Albinus, himself a teacher and organist at Leipzig (Boyd, p 523), it has very much the feel of an English madrigal. The embryonic imitation at the beginning, the cadences and the latter move into triple rhythm all bespeak that style.

The text is a further farewell to a world of which one is tired and the mortal strife is contrasted with the peace of heaven. Whilst jarring stylistically with the rest of the cantata, it nevertheless brings a wholly positive and joyful conclusion to a work which has hitherto seemed somewhat ambivalent in its attitude towards the theme of the day.

All has, at least, appeared to come right in the end!

LINK: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV27.htm

Copyright: J Mincham 2010.  Revised 2012 and 2014.
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