Chapter 31 BWV 40 Dazu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes
The son of God came forth for this.
Chorus--recit (tenor)--chorale (SATB)--aria (bass)--recit (alto)--chorale (SATB)--aria (tenor)--chorale.
The thirtieth cantata of the cycle for the second day of Christmas.
It is unusual for Bach to present three plain four-part chorale harmonisations within the one cantata but he does it now, thrice in an eight day period! It is not known why he decided to do it at this particular time although there are variious possible reasons, some practical and some aesthetic. Presumably the chorales were ‘off the peg’ movements which were either well known or could be performed at sight by the choristers under Bach’s direction. Therefore, it would be a relatively simple matter to ‘fill out’ a cantata by adding additional ones.
At certain times of the year, of which Christmas, New Year and Easter were most notable, Bach’s musicians, even if they were not actually over-loaded, had plenty to do and it may well be that the addition of extra chorales was partially a practical matter. A glance at the 1723 Christmas schedule (Wolff pp 271-2) shows that, as well as to the usual music required for services and performances of the Magnificat in E flat, no less than five cantatas were performed within nine days Cs 63, 40, 64, 190 and 153. It is no wonder that several of them included more than one chorale or that some incorporated as many as three (Cs 40, 64 and 153).
Let us begin by considering the chorales used in C 40 as a group. They are all presented in the usual four- part harmonisations with the available instruments doubling the voices. As befits a cantata preoccupied with sin and the work of Satan, all three are in minor keys, G, D and finally F, the darkest of them all. Dürr (p 109) lists the composers and years of composition but we shall content ourselves with noting their usages in other cantatas.
The first closes two works, part 3 of the Christmas Oratorio and C 110, in each case using different verses (vol 3, chapters 48 and 6). That from the Oratorio is the lowest setting (F#m) surprisingly so since it celebrates the birth of Christ. C110 offers the highest setting, an Alleluia of praise to God. That for C 40 lies in between the others, pitchwise, and presents an apposition of ideas----sin brings us sorrow while Christ brings us joy. The rising chromatic bass under the last line----as we are Christians we cannot be condemned----is affirmative and assertive.
The middle chorale seems not to have been popularly used but the words of the chosen verse fit perfectly into the cantata’s theme and act as a prelude to the aria it precedes----tell the serpent to flee----its head is smashed and it cannot renew its agonising sting as I have now escaped to the House of Joy. These hymns were clearly harmonised with the text in mind; there is an obvious emphasis given to the mention of Satan’s sting (bar 6) and movement in the bass line suggests the crushing of his head (bars 9-10).
The chorale that closes the cantata is, again, not one in common usage. The text has less specific relevance to the cantata’s theme, being a conventional prayer of combined entreaty and joy----Give peace and blessings to all Christians, joy and bliss abound as the Sun of Grace ends all sorrow. The bass line moves from crotchets to quavers to mark key moments e.g. reviving the Brethren and the Christian multitude (bars 7-10) and later underlining the expressions of joy and bliss. But the melody may also have been chosen for its modal possibilities. With Bach’s harmonisation it constantly veers between minor and major modes (in particular F min and Ab maj) a reminder, perhaps, of the fact that divine ecstasy is only possible within environment of sin and sorrow from which it is the Christian's duty to attempt to escape.
Without doubt the most impressive movement is the opening chorus, although for sheer dramatic intensity the bass aria is second to none. In a sense these are the two most memorable of the eight movements and they complement each other well. The first is a simple statement of manifesto----it was for this reason that the Son of God materialised, to destroy the devil’s works. The second is a warning and a prediction and, musically at least, a graphic picture of the scene in the Garden of Eden. But these two musical edifices also have to be aligned with the tenor aria in the context of the overall cantata structure which, it turns out, is clearly tripartite;
Chorus, recitative, chorale---Christ’s purpose in a world of sin
Aria, recitative, chorale---Christ’s actions in dispelling Satan
Aria, chorale---consequential Christian delight.
In this way the architecture of the cantata becomes clear and the placing of the three carefully chosen chorales may be noted and explained. Even if there were pragmatic reasons for the use of their inclusion as suggested above, they should not be seen merely as ‘fill-ins’. Further internal evidence of their significance comes from the fact that certain melodic shapes derived from the chorales may be found embedded within the structures of the larger movements. For example, the very opening horn call, omitting the upbeat, mimics precisely the shape of the first chorale’s opening phrase. This would even suggest that the chorales were chosen before the main movements were composed.
The opening chorus is not, however, a chorale-based movement. It is structured more upon the broad principle of prelude and fugue, often used by Bach in this cycle. The twelve-bar introduction provides most of the instrumental material but nothing in the way of extended episodes and it does not re-appear at the end. It is characterised by delicious interplay between the three main groups of instruments, horns, oboes and strings. The continuo bass asserts its presence with a bustling semi-quaver passage (from bar 8), more of which later.
Once the choir enters it has little respite. The ‘prelude’ section of the movement takes us to bar 29 and accounts for just over one third of the movement. It is characterised by rhetorical statements of the complete line of the text announced in chordal blocks with the minimum of counterpoint so as not to obscure the important message of Christ’s presence and purpose.
The choral fugue begins in bar 29 with the voices entering with a new theme in the order T, B, S and A.
This is immediately followed by a second exposition, this time in three parts, the sopranos only articulating part of the subject. This emphatic theme is characterised by several repeated notes followed by a stream of semiquavers.
The voices enter in the order, T, A and B, thence moving to an animated entwining of both themes, theme A on voices and theme B on oboes underpinned by the insistently driving semi-quaver bass which had first been heard in the introduction. The movement ends with a return to the oratory of the prelude, accompanied by much of the material first heard in the orchestral introduction.
The semi-quaver bass lines (e.g. bars 53-56) are significant when viewed within a perspective of Bach’s overall cantata programme. There are numerous places where Satan is represented by a bustling bass line, an ‘opera buffo’ figure if not of derisory fun, then certainly of diminished stature. It is entirely to be expected that Bach would suggest his presence within a musical portrait of Christ emerging to vanquish him.
In fact, one might well go further and suggest that the two themes (above) are each derived from, and linked to the twinned textual statements. The first----the Son of God materialised for this purpose----is encapsulated in the bare nobility of theme A. The second----that He eradicate the Devil's works----is suggested by the busy-ness and scurrying of the semi-quavers in theme B. Once again, Bach rises to the challenge of portraying opposing images within the one movement.
The first recitative is secco and it describes the process of Christ materialising from the throne of heaven to become a mere child. We are exhorted to consider the enormity of this unique experience----the Lord becoming a servant for the salvation of mankind. The melodic line is packed with moments of imagery e.g. the light of illumination (rising vocal scale, bar 3) the looking up to the throne of heaven (continuo scale, bar 4), the act of descending into lowliness (bar 7), and the penetrating song of the 'Word in men's ears' (bars 13-14). We are left in no doubt as to Christ’s objective, but we still await its outcome.
After the relative calm of the chorale the bass aria erupts with the sheer force of its momentum----serpent of hell, are you not afraid?----He is now born who will crush your head and redeem those lost. Assertive dotted rhythms permeate the oboes, violas and second violins and continuo suggesting the act of stamping and crushing. First violins alone resist the powerful rhythmic impetus with a continuous semi-quaver theme suggesting the slithering of a snake.
Oboes above first violins.
Indeed, they only relinquish this idea on brief occasions in order to permit the continuo to take it up, a further reminder of the presence of Satan and the temptations he evokes.
There is, however, the barest hint of the peace to come following this epic battle; the last line of text is intoned by way of two sustained notes suggesting the concord which may now be enjoyed by those who had previously fallen.
But the energy and impetus continues without impediment to the end. Bach leaves us in no doubt about the vigour and significance of this historic battle.
The greatest contrast between adjacent movements arrives with the following alto recitative and its gentle major-mode Alberti-like strokings of the upper strings. The war against evil has been won for us and a sense of Eden-like innocence has returned; except that the clock cannot be turned back and that which has been done cannot be undone. Bach reminds us that sin and sorrow, once taken on by mankind, can never fully leave us. Firstly there is the cold and unexpected g flat depicting the serpent’s poison (bar 3). A second mention of this venom is underpinned with a diminished chord in bar 7. And the final vocal phrase with its long d flat, although purportedly comforting the sinner, actually emphasises his continuing sorrow. The subtlety with which these points are made is a counterpoint to the backdrop of inevitable rejoicing. It seems right that we should celebrate this victory; nevertheless sin and sorrow have not been wafted away with a magic wand.
Which may explain the choice of the vigorous but still relentlessly minor-mode chorale which follows.
The final aria returns us to the positivity and, indeed, the musical colours of the opening chorus. A pair of horns and oboes supports the tenor above the active continuo line. The text calls upon Christians to rejoice for whilst we might still find Satan terrifying, we are now convinced that Jesus can save us----He protects His chickens with His covered wings. The mood is ebullient and festive, the four wind instruments vying with each other in order to provide wisps of supporting material, some motives of which refer directly back to the opening chorus. The main theme recalls and, indeed, has the structure of a celebratory fanfare, not simply because it fits so well on the horns but because that is what the text calls for; this is a celebration and observance of Christ’s actions and a tribute to them.
But Bach, and in this case prompted by his librettist, is still eager to keep persisting perils in the forefront of our minds. Not only do the ominous semi-quavers return in the continuo (extremely effective if a bassoon prevails) but the vocal line becomes fractured and almost incoherent at the mention of Satan’s fury (bars 31-2).
But as is so often the case, the significance of the message is determined by the proportions of the music. Mention of Satan takes up but a few bars of an aria the majority of which is dominated by fanfare figures, festive wind instruments, joyful melismas on the word freuet----rejoice----. Even the protective fluttering of Christ’s wings 'protecting his chickens' might be detected in the distance (oboes, bars 27-8).
The third and final chorale closes the cantata. As suggested above, it is tonally structured so as to suggest the interplay of light and shadow upon human existence. This is a point that is easy to overlook but it remains a masterly stroke of musical architectural planning.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.