Chapter 27 BWV 90 Es reisset euch ein schrecklich Ende
You will be swept away with a terrible ending.
Aria (tenor)--recit (alto)--aria (bass)--recit (tenor)--chorale.
The twenty-sixth cantata of the cycle for the twenty-fifth Sunday after Trinity.
Can one imagine a more stirring and invigorating opening movement than this? Of course the question is absurd; look, for example, at that from C 168 (vol 3, chapter 2) or the choruses of 178, 26 and 111 (vol 2, chapters 9, 25 and 36). But art is art and great art creates great illusions which is why, when faced with a first rate performance of this aria for tenor and strings it is difficult to rid oneself of the impression that little else could create quite the same level of excitement.
The text, in fact, is not so very different from that of C 168 which pictures the very mountains crumbling at the fear of God’s judgement. Here the warning is of a similar terrible end and the sweeping away of those
whose sins abound but whose stubborn brains disregard their Judge. The images are of unrestrained terror, limitless sin and wilful stubbornness, over-ridden by the mighty power of the Divine Referee.
The text warns of the terrible end which will sweep away the disdainful sinners----the beaker cup of sin overflows as they disregard God, their ultimate arbitrator. Bach could have created a turbulent and tempestuous chorus from these images akin to those mentioned above. The reason he did not is probably because he was already immersed in the compositions of, and/or preparations for imminent and necessarily imposing works that were to commence with C 70 the following week.
The twenty-five bar ritornello (strings, possibly with oboes doubling, and continuo) is heard in full four times and it is packed with powerful images. The semiquaver theme is carried throughout by the first violins without being passed to the other instruments at any time, in itself a symbol of stubborn perseverance. The lower strings support, often with hammer blows, on only the first and second beats of the bars.
The striking ascending scale (bar 10) suggests the arm of God sweeping away the reprobates and the final eight bars of the ritornello are a masterpiece of rhythmic and harmonic distraction and agitation. The tenor enters with a long melisma with implications of the rending apart of the body at the moment of demise.
The overall effect may be considered the equivalent of a twentieth century horror movie, an extraordinarily dramatic, even baroque representation, particularly from a composer cautioned against presenting music of operatic scale and spectacle!
The middle section is more lightly scored but hardly less intense. It takes the manner of a stern sermon in which verbal instruction and direction become as significant as emotive arousal---- your sins abound and you flout your Judge (at your peril!). The strings make their presence felt in blocks of approximately six bars each, derived precisely from the ritornello. Their function is to remind sinners, in these moments of explication, of the ‘terrible end’ that still awaits them.
Not that it is likely to be forgotten since the entire opening section is reprised, presenting us with two more statements of that disturbing ritornello.
The worst case scenario has been stated and pictured and the poet now begins to lead us gently towards a more palatable alternative. The secco alto recitative begins with a typically German maxim of the time, often carved into wooden sideboards----God’s goodness is renewed every day. Immediate musical contrast, major to minor, now marks the recollection of the natural iniquities of man in whose sins and ingratitude lie the seed of our own destruction (bars 1-5). The text thence becomes cajoling----are you not moved by His innumerable good deeds? But apparently not. A movement which began hopefully ends with a return to the despair at human failings----such are your transgressions that His good works are wasted upon you. The light of redemption flickers vaguely in the distance but not, apparently, sufficiently to be grasped by those who most need it.
The central aria is for bass, strings and either horn or trumpet. Dürr (p 639) informs us that the extant score of this cantata does not indicate the instrumentation, hence the additional uncertainty about whether oboes were intended to double the strings. The likelihood is that the trumpet was Bach’s choice if only for the implications of the Day of Judgement. The writing is extravagantly virtuoso, much of the rapid scale work being affected through lip glissandi. The effect, particularly when it is performed on period instruments, remains stunning if somewhat archaic to the modern ear.
The text follows the pattern established in the opening aria of a rant against sinners and an assertion of the dangers in which they find themselves----God, in His fury, will extinguish even the light of His word----you depraved sinners have desecrated His house and made it a den of criminals! The music suggests a number of images, the trumpet of judgement day, the fury of the Lord and the sweeping of His arm, eradicating not only His light but the very root and origin of the wickedness corrupting His house. This is a striking movement intending, as was the tenor aria, to strike fear in the heart but now also dramatically portraying both the power and the vehemence of an avenging Divinity.
Opening trumpet theme.
The ritornello begins with all parts playing a fanfare-like figure in unison. This is not a device that Bach employed often but when he did use it, the result was striking e.g. the great harpsichord concerto in Dm and also that for three harpsichords in the same key. The effect is one of beginning as a single unit, thence blossoming into a flourishing declamation of import, significance or complexity; great oaks emerging from small acorns.
Here the opening bar is a simple, conventional and almost naive statement of display but before it has finished the trumpet gives us a taste of what is to come. Its rolling demi-semi-quavers elicit a similar response from the strings as early as bar three, whereafter the music becomes a battle between first violins and trumpet. The middle strings do little more than punctuate this skirmish above a continuo which alternates between the reiteration of a persistent three-note figure and ominous repetitions of a single pitch. The scene is set for the voice of authority, the bass, to enter confidently and berate us loudly.
His theme is based upon the shape of the fanfare and a moment of dramatic expectation arises with the temporary cessation of all activity on the word aus----the putting out of the flame of His word (bar 17 and again later in bar 49). The middle section begins at bar 23 and particular musical point is given to those words which convey the sense of villainy and outrage in the temples (bar 27). The upper strings hark back to the initial message much as in the opening aria, the stubbornness of their repeated figuration a constant reminder of the avenging Judge.
We are certainly not permitted to forget Him. An adapted version of the first section reappears to conclude the movement (from bar 38). The warning has been given and both the consequences of sin and avenging Divine anger have been graphically depicted. The morality of the Sunday cantata, presumably like that of the sermon, now demands that people note the cautions and take immediate steps to redeem themselves.
So the tide has turned and the text of the penultimate movement moves towards a position of reassurance of God’s protection The tenor recitative, like that for alto, is plain secco, perhaps another indication that Bach was preoccupied with the Christmas and New Year repertoire and limited in the time, though clearly not the quality, that he could devote to these smaller works preceding it. We are reassured that God’s eye looks upon us as the chosen ones and He and His lieutenants offer protection even against limitless enemies----thus is His power revealed to us. It is slightly surprising to find an essentially triumphant movement set in minor modes; perhaps this was to prepare us for the measured message and musical character of the closing chorale returning us to Dm, the key of the opening aria.
This chorale was later to be used, transposed down a tone, for C 102 a cantata for the tenth day after Trinity 1726. It may, however, be familiar to more listeners as the fifth movement of the St John Passion where it carries a similar prayer for the Lord of all creation to bestow His good will upon us and save His vengeance for those who seek to thwart Him. C 90 ends with very much the same entreaty----lead and bless us all in town and country----protect us from the devil’s intrigue and homicide----from that blessed moment, grant that we may remain with You forever.
Bach clearly harmonised the chorale with an ear for the requirements of this work. The bass line erupts into a stream of quavers to underline the mention of Satan’s influence but more striking is the chord of d flat which ends the penultimate phrase. It casts a brief cold shadow over the ‘blessed moment’ which clearly is a reference to that event of passing from this world to the next, death. In Lutheran theology, demise and the leaving of this life may be portrayed by the prelates in terms of optimism, bliss and something to be yearned for. But Bach knew well, indeed who better, the pain of separation and bereavement and he often reminds us of it in purely musical terms.
We will discover various occasions when he conveys this message more expansively. Here he does it subtly and succinctly with just one bleak and unpredicted chord.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014