Chapter 29 BWV 56 Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen
I will happily bear the cross staff.
A cantata for solo bass.
For the nineteenth Sunday after Trinity.
Of the three extant cantatas composed for this day, C56 is the smallest in scale. Being a solo work, it might be seen as having more in common with the three alto cantatas of this cycle, Cs 170, 35 and 169 (chapters 19, 23 and 28). It has a similar structure to C 170 except that it ends, as does C 169, with a conventional four-part chorale.
Notions of the burdens of sin particularly underpin the first two cantatas written for this Sunday. C 48 from the first cycle (vol 1, chapter 21) opens with a chorus that includes a trumpet declaration of the chorale melody, clearly a precursor to the fantasias of the second cycle. The movement is a powerful depiction of the wretched being, steeped in sin and seeming not to know how to redeem himself. C 5 (vol 2, chapter 20) begins with a much more tempestuous movement, a fantasia which depicts the aggressive panic of the burdened sinner not knowing where to turn. A comparative study of these two choruses demonstrates Bach’s ability to breathe new life into virtually identical textual themes, constantly revealing different perspectives. Again he calls upon the trumpet to declaim the chorale melody (now doubling the sopranos) suggesting that he may have looked back over the score of the earlier work written for this same day.
C 56 is less concerned with sin itself and more with the journey that must be made from this life on earth and, through death, into the next. Despite the lure of salvation, stress and sorrow remain to make our lives terrifying, and the thought of death itself is no less horrific. Images and metaphors of challenging treks and voyages abound but the decisive message underpinning the entire cantata, unlike that of the earlier two works, is ‘I am prepared for all that must ensue’.
All three cantatas are couched in first person terms but C 56 is the most personal and also the most positive. It is the definitive statement of the shriven Christian, prepared to face and conquer all challenges en route to a salvation by way of the path along which God himself has shown the way.
It is, therefore, doubly appropriate that this deeply personal work was conceived for a single voice and furthermore that of the bass, heavily symbolic of weight and influence. This is an uplifting message which needs to be delivered with strength and conviction.
C 56 is the first of three solo cantatas for the bass voice composed by Bach and the fourth for a single voice in this cycle. It has been suggested (chapter 28) that there may have been some changes of taste in the Leipzig congregations leading to a greater acceptance of this type of cantata. It is possible that the growing popularity of Italian opera may have influenced audiences who, in turn might have become less resistant to operatic forms, styles and devices intruding into their traditional religious ceremonies. It is quite possible that by this time Leipzig had been influenced by some of the Italian traditions of performance that Torelli had been establishing since the late 1690s in the town of Ansbach (see further comments in chapter 101, vol1).
The first aria opens powerfully and positivity with the words ‘I will happily bear the cross staff,’ clearly a metaphor for God’s light guiding us through the torments of life, through the grave and to the Promised Land. Boyd (p 236) defines the cross staff as a navigational instrument ‘a forerunner of the sextant’. Mention of various modes of travel, or the making of safe harbour after a taxing voyage, are to be found in every stanza. One cannot doubt, after listening to this work, that the trek towards ultimate salvation is the most challenging journey of our mortal lives and furthermore, it is to the credit of the ‘good Christian’ when s/he prevails.
The opening aria is one of Bach’s most expansive, combining perfectly the notion of challenge with that of resolution of purpose. Three oboes are added to the strings and continuo, but for colouring and re-enforcement purposes only; they have no independence, doubling the violins and violas throughout.
No Bach cantata which begins with a bass aria lacks impact. Comparisons may be made with Cs 162, an early work reused in the first cycle, 85, 108 and 87 from the second and 168 from the third. But perhaps none are as extensive and spacious as this one.
The opening ritornello is heard in full four times, at the beginning and end as well as separating the three vocal sections, each of which deals with two lines of text. The first four-bar phrase encapsulates the essence of the work perfectly, a rising, striving figure on second violins, followed by a falling motive of resignation.
This entire phrase is immediately taken up by the first violins and the two ideas are combined and cultivated until the bass entry.
Although the very first line of text informs us----I will gladly navigate God’s pathway----this is hardly a joyous movement. Its most striking sentiments are those of struggle and resignation. There is a world-weary, albeit determined, quality about this music which is uniquely captivating.
The first vocal block concerns itself with the opening two lines of text. The long melismas on tragen----to bear or carry----stress the significance and challenge of this action. The second block tells us of being lead away from earthly suffering to the Promised Land and the melismas on----Plagen----depict the agonies which we shall ultimately leave behind. The final vocal section describes God wiping away our tears as we lie amongst our sorrows in the grave.
This notion of the ‘wiping of tears’ is also a metaphor for the cleansing away of sin and Bach depicts it with flowing triplets in the vocal line, not previously heard (from bar 127). It is notable that the triplet figurations almost never appear in the strings and oboes; their preoccupation is with the motives of resignation that continue throughout. Acceptance of our condition has to be ongoing, and the music conveys this message in the subtlest of ways.
Furthermore, the reprise of the complete ritornello at the end ensures that whatever the final success of the achievement of salvation might offer us as individuals, life on earth is still largely about the process of becoming resigned to struggle and effort.
The first recitative calls upon a cello to replicate the movement of waves as the metaphoric voyage continues.
When the foaming waves come to an end, so does the Alberti figuration, the cello thence moving to long, held low notes suggestive of the rootedness of the safe harbour. Shelter and security have been achieved although the final scale on----vielem----reminds us of the magnitude of torment from which we have escaped.
The second aria is almost as long as the first and, in the wider context of the whole work, balances the opposing viewpoints of confinement and freedom perfectly----my yoke must be removed and then I shall be free. Thus the juxtaposition of the first and third movements tells the whole story, an artistic sense of equilibrium having been achieved between the initial resigned struggle and the ultimate freedom and joy of union with God. The oboe obbligato sets the mood of almost unabandoned delight, its opening rhetorical motives forming the basis for much of the developing musical material.
As usual, it is important to note the proportions of what, on the surface, is a conventional da capo-cum-ritornello aria. The first section, which begins and ends with the instrumental ritornello, is 63 bars long, 126 when one includes the repeat. It deals with just two lines of text----at last my yoke shall be removed from me. The middle section is only seventeen bars long and here five lines are set. They outline, simply, obligatory conditions of strength and speed as well as what might be gained when, like the soaring eagle, we shall be set free.
It seems that Bach’s primary emphasis in this work is the concentration upon the breaking free from earthly bonds rather than the actual bliss of achieving the redeemed state. It is the journey or process which mainly occupies him and his music at this stage, rather than the ultimate goal.
But if we need any reminding of the fact that we are still embarked upon the most taxing voyage of our lives and must be prepared for the difficulties ahead, the final recitative fulfils this function. It is a carefully crafted movement, taking that special place in the Bachian cantata structure just prior to the closing chorale where something of particular significance may be conveyed. Here the message is----I stand prepared----with Christ’s help I will reach that harbour of respite, laying my sorrows in my grave while the Saviour wipes away my tears.
Listeners will note that the last part of the recitative repeats the final two lines from the first aria. It is not common for textual phrases to be reused in later movements so it can safely be assumed that the intention was to cast particular emphasis upon this point. In fact it is not only the text that reappears; Bach also brings back two of the initial musical ideas.
(Did the idea of this reiteration emenate from Bach or from his lyricist?)
The first is the quaver motive of resignation introduced in bar 2 of the opening aria. Then follow the triplet passages which formed the bulk of the third vocal section of that movement. The one long and deeply affective melisma in this movement is articulated on Trane----tears.
Furthermore, Bach concludes with a few more bars of the resignation motive, itself emerging on a strong dissonance, d flat against a low held c (bar 17).
A sense of purpose, an attitude of resignation and a journey of sorrow; all are inevitable ingredients of the tortuous voyage that must be made before salvation can be achieved. Bach has no qualms about reminding us of this yet again before the finale chorale closes the subject.
It is probable that the final chorale was sung with only one singer to a part. It is also likely that only three more musicians would have been called upon at this point if the bass soloist were to sing the lowest line. Musically this is the most interesting and demanding of the four parts, the descending scale under the fifth phrase reaching down through nearly two octaves. Possibly this is symbolic of the final journey into a safe haven or anchorage.
The combination of three and four-bar phrases gives this chorale an unworldly sense of spaciousness where time has little relevance. The text calls upon Sleep’s companion, Death, to lead us into this sheltered harbour where Death is seen as a friend not an enemy. The dread of earthly demise, so graphically portrayed in other of Bach’s great works has no place here because Death marks the conclusion of mortal struggles, appropriately completing our most difficult of voyages.
Nevertheless, the sense of those natural human sentiments of loss and bereavement are never fully absent from Bach’s depictions of Death and the impending afterlife.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012.