Chapter 3 BWV 76 Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes.
The Heavens proclaim God′s glory.
Chorus–recit (tenor)–aria (sop)–recit (bass)–aria (bass)–recit (alto)–chorale.
Sinfonia–recit (bass)–aria (tenor)–recit (alto)–aria (alto)–recit (tenor)–chorale.
The second cantata of the cycle for the second Sunday after Trinity.
Clearly related to C 75 from the previous week, this was Bach′s second original cantata to be performed following his Leipzig appointment. Comparisons between them may be found in the previous chapter where it was suggested that Bach may have initially conceived them as ideal templates for his subsequent cantata structures. On the other hand, he may have simply set out to impress his congregations and employers by opening his account with two extended and imposing works, each consisting of fourteen movements. The complementary nature of the texts, however, implies a considerable degree of forethought and planning, the one dealing with the transient nature of earthly riches and the other a call to turn away from such distractions and honour God.
Both Cs 75 and 76 begin with a chorus but of very different characters. The first is minor and somewhat introspective, the second ebulliently major with a virtuosic trumpet heralding the proclamation of God′s honour. Later we shall discover that C 21 begins with a sinfonia, C 24 an alto aria, C 185 a duet, C 167 an aria for tenor. It is, thereafter, not until C 147, the seventh of the cycle, when Bach returns to the practice of opening with a chorus which, possibly intentionally, has a number of features in common with C 76.
Perhaps, as with the first half dozen chorale/fantasias of cycle 2, Bach is here similarly setting out his stall and demonstrating the sheer range of the possible ways in which a cantata might begin–and, indeed, continue. For whatever Bach′s explicit motives may have been, there is no doubt that his questing need for experimentation and the discovery of new modes of expression meant that he was never going to fall into the trap of becoming a ′formula composer’, mechanically producing variants of an established model.
If Bach did not demonstrate his ability to write an massive chorus in his first cantata at Leipzig, he certainly did so in his second. The instrumental resources remain modest but the scale is epic. The initial trumpet call, immediately echoed by the strings and oboes, establishes a character markedly different from that of C 75.
Trumpet answered by violins and oboes.
After all, this is Bach′s first Leipzig chorus composed specifically to proclaim the glory of God; the opening movement of C 75, expressing the worship of the meek, was conceived more intimately. In one sense it might be misleading to designate the opening instrumental section as a ′ritornello′ since it does not return at the end, short segments only appearing from bars 16, 36 and 59. The material from the opening bars is, however, much used in the support of the voices.
A movement of this magnitude is sometimes daunting for the non-musically trained listener to find his/her way around, but in this case it is a reasonably simple matter. If we accept Dürr′s helpful suggestion that it is essentially an expansion of the established format of the prelude and fugue (p 400) the former ends on bar 67 at which point the latter immediately begins. The general outline may be represented as follows:
Ritornello—bass solo—ritornello (4 bars)—first choral segment (16 bars C-Am)—ritornello (8 bars)—second choral segment (16 bars A-Em)—ritornello (8 bars).
The fugue need not be described in detail but most listeners should be able to note the following:-
First exposition of the lengthy theme (from bar 67) in the order T, B, S and A.
Second exposition (of same theme, from bar 94) S, A, T and B.
The text of the ′prelude′ declares that the heavens themselves proclaim both God′s glory and His handiwork. The fugal expositions assure us that this message is ′heard in all languages′ and their repetitious nature drives this point home by representing the universality of the message. A further sense of insistence is gained from the repeated notes of the fugue subject, echoing the theme from C 75/1 (from bar 67). An accidental coincidence or a further indication that these two cantatas were conceived, perceived and linked as a pair?
God′s glory having been effectively proclaimed, the unknown librettist turns his attention to some of the more subtle qualities of the relationship between God and Man—-that which God and the heavens may do stirs the very soul and body to ascend and hasten to His throne—-arise! The tenor recitative demonstrates clearly the loving attention to detail that Bach frequently expends upon these short movements. It begins with three bars of sustained string chords, suffusing God and Nature in a warm glow of adoration. The divine stirring of body and soul is represented by gentle semiquavers in the violins (from bar 4). The further mention of God′s name prompts a return to the held chords which conclude the movement very much as it began, with implications of a satisfying ternary (ABA) structure.
Further emphasis of the message is achieved through long melismas on regen and bewegen—-prompt, stir, arouse. The call to ′rise up′ is clearly manifest in the shape of the melodic line in the penultimate bar.
A chorus of magnificence and a recitative of carefully moulded subtlety; how, indeed, does one follow them? The text of the first aria is a clarion call for the people to listen and hasten to His Throne. Might one expect a bass aria lead by solo trumpet? Or a duet of driving force? In fact Bach gives us one of the most courtly of the traditional suite movements, a quasi-gavotte (albeit slightly disguised with an additional upbeat). Why?
A journey through the cantatas reveals a number of occasions when references to Mankind′s movements towards heaven and God′s throne are set to gracious and urbane dances of this sort, predominantly the gavotte and the minuet. It would seem that Bach viewed the ultimate journey as the enlightened and refined activity of a civilised humanity. There is no need for vulgar commands or jostling; the faithful Christian will make his way to heaven in a gracious and sophisticated manner.
This charming soprano aria reverts to the traditional da capo ternary form, the minor keys of the middle section (from bar 25) creating a slightly more sombre and serious note as mention is made of His only Son, the foundation and centre of all faith in all eternity.
Nevertheless, the main musical characteristics of the movement continue throughout this section e.g. the charming dotted rhythm and obvious imitation, firstly between the obbligato solo violin and the continuo, latterly with the singer joining in.
Thus a sense of grace, nimbleness and sophisticated elegance remain the memorable hallmarks of the movement.
Bass recitative and aria.
The bass recitative and following aria are clearly paired (mention is made of Bach′s habit of conjoining movements for the same voice in chapter 6, C 185).The former is short and concise and makes no use of the upper strings. The text bemoans the fact that so many follow their own courses of pleasure and turn away from God—-why, even Christians will flee from God! The word ′Christian′ and the action of running away are both underlined by brief continuo figures in the final bars, the only time that the musical line departs from long, sustained notes. Interestingly, by coincidence or design, this figure becomes the single idea used to create the continuo line in the chorale setting which closes both parts of the cantata.
If the invitation to move towards heaven was restrained (soprano aria) the bass aria’s call to banish the tribe of idolaters is more forthright—-leave us! —-the world is yet perverse but I shall still worship Christ, the Light of all Reason. The instrumental forces are similar to those employed in C 75/12 but with the addition of two oboes strengthening the violin lines. Trumpet and voice dominate the melodic writing, the busy strings possibly suggesting the hordes of infidels.
The first vocal section is short (13 bars) and concentrates on calling upon the sinners to be gone. The middle section (from bar 18) is marked by minor keys, lone continuo support and long convoluted melismas on key words—-verkehren—-turned about or perverted, and verehren—-worship or reverence (of Christ). Just prior to the return of the A section, all musical flow pauses temporarily on the word Vernunft—-reason or judgement (i.e. that of Christ′s, bar 36). A well placed moment of pause for reflection!
A truncated A section returns from bar 37 with one final surprise. The music stops again, this time on the word Zunft—-tribe or gang. In fact if we look at the four ideas which Bach has chosen to emphasise: reverence, reason, perversion and tribal clan, we can gain a good understanding of the opposed, yet inter-related, textual themes of the aria.
The alto recitative is addressed directly to God—-You have called us and lighted our way whereas we had dwelt in darkness—-You have sustained us with Your spirit—-in return we send You this humble prayer. At this point the first statement of the chorale follows, ending part 1. The secco recitative has one short scalic passage in the continuo suggesting, perhaps, the holy light of illumination which invigorates the very air (bar 5). The movement concludes in a most tender arioso, nudged on by the quietly insistent quaver bass line, humbly proffering the prayer expressed in the following chorale which ends part 1. Bach also contrives to finish on the chord of E, that on which the chorale begins.
The chorale is well worth waiting for. Although Bach uses the solitary trumpet, there is none of the extrovert glorification of God in this setting. Rather, this is the humble expression of personal supplication—-may God bless us so that we recognise both His work and His aims for man—-nations will turn to Him as they come to appreciate Christ′s power to furnish salvation.
The trumpet has a noticeably doleful sound in its lower register as it both anticipates (and doubles, with the sopranos) each phrase in turn. First violins and oboe join to create an elusive obbligato melody rising above all else but still, with its stream of suspensions, oddly reticent. The most seemingly aggressive part of the arrangement is the continuo line, an unvaried repetition of an unpretentious but persistent four-note motive, previously introduced in the bass recitative.
In short, both humble obeisance and hushed determination may be detected in this strikingly original presentation of what is essentially an undemanding chorale melody. It is doubtful that the Leipzig parishioners had heard anything like it before.
As in the previous week, Part 2 begins with an instrumental sinfonia. But whereas that of C 75 was sustainedly fugal and ebullient, C 76 commences with an introduction that is reclusive and introverted. But it is relinquished after only four bars when a rapid game of ′chase me′ ensues between the upper two instruments.
This is essentially a trio sonata movement employing the unusual combination of oboe d′amore and viola da gamba above a continuo which never really joins in fully; it simply provides the solid bass line, sometimes urging the higher instruments forward with its sequences of repeated notes. Whether this motivic link with the opening chorus is intentional or fortuitous we can only guess. It is quite possible that the sinfonia was adapted from an earlier work; it certainly was later reused by Bach in his organ trio sonata BWV 528. The mood of its allegro is spirited and boisterous although somewhat moderated by the E minor setting and the muted colours of the chosen instruments.
The sustained chords of the upper strings return to encompass the bass as he asks God to bless that throng on earth which, through constant labour and effort, may yet be purified. There is little to note in the setting except perhaps the rising of the melodic line to the word Himmel—-Heaven—-(bar 6) and the degree of rhythmic dislocation at the mention of the hatred and danger that should be resisted (bars 8-9).
But the following tenor aria must, like the chorale, have alerted the congregation members to the fact that with the appointment of Herr Bach, they were, on occasions, going to be startled if not shocked. As if the bizarrely chromatic continuo ritornello was not surprising enough, the tenor′s first note on a dissonant d # against the chord of Am is strikingly disjunctive—-hate me truly you hostile ones—-the text rages and the two musical lines interact to convey a weirdly tortuous quality of revulsion. This is Bach at his most strikingly original and overtly theatrical.
The middle section, however, tells a different story both through text and music—-I would forgo any pleasures just to embrace Christ. The vocal lines become smooth and mellifluous and the disjunctive musical intervals are now absent. The serenity of Christ′s embrace becomes the main focus of attention although the continuo line still retains the vigorous rhythms of the hateful throng; it may or may not receive the embrace of the Lord but it certainly does not go away. And, indeed, we are reminded of that fact by the return of a truncated first section and the harshly resounding d #.
The odious throng is nowhere present in the succeeding alto recitative—-the true Christian is fed with the divine manna of Love which strengthens brotherly bonds on earth. There are only three bars of recitative proper; the rest of the movement is in the form of a gentle arioso expressing the exquisiteness of Divine sustenance and the warmth of fraternal love. The text, expressed in the first person, relates directly to the individual.
The final aria unites the alto we have just heard with the doleful sounds of the oboe d′amore and viola da gamba of the sinfonia. Once again the key of Em and the sombre qualities of both voice and instruments create a feeling of peace and introspection. The opening is remarkably similar to that of the chorale /fantasia of C 125 (vol 2, chapter 38) composed for the Purification in 1725; both are in Em, in compound time and the rising melodic figuration is not dissimilar.
Both texts touch on the theme of death; that promised sleep of the individual latterly portrayed in C 125 and that of Jesus and his Brothers here in C 76. In either case death may be the cause of loss and grieving but it is not a reason for despair; the gigue-like rhythms of the aria testify to this important Christian truth. We frequently note that Bach′s genius often manifests itself in the ability to combine quite disparate ideas within the one movement. There may be sadness and regret but it resides alongside salvation and consequent contentment. We may detect and feel all these mixed emotions in this single aria.
The text simply reminds us of the uniting love which is a consequence of Christ′s death, but the music transports us more deeply into our own inner selves. The form is essentially organic, lacking a clear middle section and laying stress upon repetitions of the main theme—-Christians, bring Love to all your actions—-before the closing ritornello.
The last of the six recitatives is for tenor and it concludes with the, by now, expected arioso section. It does no more than repeat the cantata′s main theme—-all Christians have a duty to praise God′s love and apply it to their own behaviour for all time. In the final bars, voice and continuo line unite in the rapturous act of singing God’s praises.
The carefully wrought chorale setting deserves a second hearing. The verse is different but the sentiment is the same—-let all people thank and praise God and may the Father, Son and Holy Spirit bless us, and the land prosper.
This would appear to be a contract that benefits everyone!
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014 and 2017.