Chapter 31 BWV 98 Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan

Whatever God does is done justly.


Chorus--recit (tenor)--aria (sop)--recit (alto)--aria (bass).

For the twenty-first Sunday after Trinity.

There are four extant cantatas written for this Sunday, one from each of the existing cycles: Cs 109  (vol 1, chapter 23), 38 (vol 2, chapter 22), 98 and 188 (vol 3, chapter 45). It would be difficult to conceive of a greater range of contrasts than that which exists between the opening movements of these works.

That for C 109 is a startlingly original chorus encapsulating a fervent cry to the Lord----I do not doubt Thee, yet I need Your help to prevail over my misgivings. The harmonically inventive ritornello introduces the main musical ideas which the chorus so richly develops.

C 38 begins with a chorale fantasia with a similar theme----I cry out to You Lord----hear the prayer of a sinner. The combination of daring, ‘modern’ harmonies within the archaic German motet form (i.e. lacking individual instrumental writing) produces a landscape of stark pitilessness.

Cs 98 and 188 convey a more positive message, asserting confidence in God’s faith and justice. The latter contains no large-scale chorus, commencing with an arrangement of the last movement of the Dm keyboard concerto. This sinfonia has survived incomplete in the cantata score but fortunately may be reconstructed from the original concerto, the first two movements of which had already been resurrected for C 146.

There are numerous contextual connections that C 98 has with other cantatas. It begins with a chorale fantasia which would not have been out of place in the second cycle but, somewhat oddly, it does not end with a four-part version of the chorale melody. The use of a fantasia links it structurally with C 38, although the contrast in character between these two choruses could not be greater. In a somewhat tenuous way this also connects it to C 109 the last movement of which is a fantasia, in all but name, the relatively bare chorale phrases accompanied and separated by an almost frenzied instrumental texture.

Finally Dürr (p 606) points out that the chorale melody used in C98, employing the same verse, also formed the basis of the fantasia of C 99 (second cycle) a movement reused in the secular wedding cantata C 100. This allows the student a rare opportunity of studying Bach’s ability to weave equally compelling movements of similar structures but quite different characters from the same basic materials.

So we may place the opening fantasia of C 98 contextually within a relatively large group of conjoined yet highly contrasting cantatas.

Choral/fantasia.

The scoring of the opening chorus is, in itself, suggestive of the gently confident expressive character of the entire work. Three oboes double the upper voices but have no independence, strings and continuo providing the ritornello material and contrast to the chorus. The continuo mildly embellishes the bass line during the vocal entries. Otherwise the structure is that of a straightforward ritornello/chorale-fantasia, the string orchestra supporting and separating the (mostly) modestly harmonised chorale phrases.

The text of the opening stanza is conventional but assured----Whatever God does is well and justly done---He controls the events of my life and I will allow Him to rule me. The bubbling flute writing in the fantasia of C 99 had ebulliently expressed the blissful joy of this confident statement of union with the Lord. The fantasia of C 98 is no less positive and the musical texture compares with C 99 in that again we enjoy an effervescent and persistent quasi-obbligato line, this time performed by the strings.

However, the mood of the later work is subtly different. It is in triple rather than in common time and this produces a courtly effect. If C 99 communicates the unabandoned joyousness of youth, C 98 suggests a more seasoned, mature reaction. Assertive, faith-fuelled confidence in the positive consequences of union with the Lord lies at the root of both movements.

But in the first of these cantatas, faith follows bliss. In the second, as befits a responsible Christian, the process is reversed.

As in C 99, the chorale phrases are simply harmonised in four parts, much as we would expect to find in most closing chorales. The last phrase, where the text declares the yielding of all our powers to the governance of the Lord, is the exception. The flowing out of these energies is represented by the imitated raft of semi-quaver figures in the altos and tenors and the significance of the event by the repetition of the last line of text. The long melismas in all four parts on walten----to rule, govern or act----further emphasise the image and leave us in no doubt as to who is ultimately in control.

Tenor recitative.

After this sparkling yet decorous movement, the first minor chord of the tenor recitative slightly surprises. It takes but a moment for us to realise that the torments of our earthly existences remain with us and now our principal preoccupation is to ask, how long we must endure them? This, however, is not the arid and tenuous position of frailty that the opening chorus of C 38 so well depicts; in C 98 there is no more than a natural desire to be informed of the scale of our sufferings. Now there is no doubt at all about the final outcome; the last line of the recitative rings out triumphantly----He does not betray His people.

The tonal movement from minor to the final major cadence is symbolic of our journey from a state of natural human misgiving to one of steadfast resolution and unshakable faith.

Soprano aria.

If we are to bear our trials stoically, then we must refrain from weeping and begin to trust in the God who governs all things; this is the message of the soprano aria. Supported by the continuo and one obbligato oboe, the singer presents us with a slightly grotesque dance. The mode is minor, and consequently subdued, but the rhythm is a minuet which, with courtly echoes of the opening chorus, negates any tendency there might have been to fall into a state of depression or self absorption.

Stop weeping, eyes, for I bear my yoke with fortitude----God lives on and abandons no-one. This is the thrust of the message which is essentially positive, hence the 3/8 time signature and the little skipping rhythms first heard in the latter part of the ritornello. But the composer is also concerned with, and accepts, the inevitability of human suffering and its consequent lamentations; hence the minor mode and the melodic images of sighing which precede the voice’s entry.

Once again Bach has brought seemingly contradictory images together into the one movement, combining and contrasting them with the greatest possible imagination and artistic skill. The sixteen-bar ritornello melody encapsulates it all with utmost economy. It begins with the lilt of the minuet but then stretches upwards, as if striving in effort. Then we hear the little skips of Schweitzer’s ‘joy’ figure and, in the last three bars, suggestions of weeping.

   Ritornello theme, opening and closing bars.


And if this is not enough, we discover that the opening two bars have been derived directly from the first phrase of the chorale and the motive in the third bar is borrowed from bar four of the fantasia. There can be no doubt that Bach viewed the work as a unified musical entity and not a group of unrelated movements.

The design of the aria is simplicity itself and one that Bach employs frequently, with certain degrees of latitude. The 16-bar ritornello is stated three times, at the beginning, middle and end, consequently separating two vocal blocks, the first of which deals with the injunction to cease weeping and remain patient. The second begins with a picture of God’s resoluteness and, for the first time, flowing triplets are woven into the vocal line.

But the movement ends with a reminder of the weeping that we must try to resist but, perhaps, may never ultimately escape. There is no avoiding the impact of the final, long melisma on weinen----to weep----just before the end.

Alto recitative.

The second recitative for alto is, like that for tenor, accompanied only by the continuo. It continues the essentially positive theme----God is merciful and He will have mercy upon us, particularly when He is reminded of the agonies of the cross----we can rely upon His word. There is no overt word painting although there are numerous examples of Bach bestowing great expressivity upon certain lines. The penultimate one----in the greatest distress do we hover----is shaded with an appropriate touch of darkness. The final line----lifting our hearts to God alone---- rises upwards, offering a final suggestion of encouragement.

Bach’s ability to subtly colour each phrase by the addition of a single chord or particular turn of the vocal line is the key to his powerfully expressive recitative melodic writing.

Bass aria.

The final movement is an aria for bass, thus ensuring the inclusion of all  four voices. The unusual decision to omit the final chorale leads us to look a little more closely at this movement. One might speculate that Bach may, at other times, have regretted having to end conventionally with a chorale when, as in this case, a more rousing, upbeat finale may have seemed more appropriate.

That aside, there seems to be no obvious reason why Bach omitted the chorale here. Dürr does, however, make the interesting observation that the bass’s opening vocal phrase ‘I shall not leave my Jesus’ is an ornamented version of the first phrase of the Keymann hymn set to the same words (p 606/7). Thus this movement might be seen to function as both the final aria of the cantata and the conventional closing chorale by simply combining them contrapuntally.

Bach’s habit of taking a structural idea and experimenting with its possibilities is well attested to in these essays. Within this context one may note the final movement of C 49, presented only the previous week. There Bach also omits the traditional four-part harmonisation, replacing it with a hybrid aria/chorale. Two different resolutions are thus provided for the solution of the same problem.

Whatever Bach’s intentions may have been, there is no disputing the extrovertly joyous mood of the final aria of C 98. Any hints of doubt, fear or sorrow are now completely dispelled. God will ultimately deliver us from all earthly misfortunes and this is a matter for joy and celebration. That is the essence of this music.

It begins with a simple imitation of the ‘figure of joy’ between the violins (who happily unite to declaim the obbligato line) and the continuo. This is Bach seemingly at his most unsophisticated.



The figuration is bare and almost naive, the harmony is the commonest of all progressions, chords I, 1V, V and 1. But as is so often the case, what seems simple and straightforward is mere illusion. The plain initial idea grows like an exotic bloom evolving from a closed bud. The rising scale (first heard in bar 4) matures into a soaring, self-assured line (bars 9-10) which perfectly encapsulates the confidence of the text. This scale also follows and gives emphasis to the first vocal entry, the chorale phrase alluded to above.

The statement of faith in the retaining of Christ’s support is immediately underlined by an assertive musical declaration of burgeoning self-reliance. The individual musical motives may appear to be undemanding in themselves, but when combined to form a perfect contrapuntal texture, they take on a greater depth and meaning, extending well beyond mere words.

With a couple of minor deviations this aria follows the structure of that for soprano i.e. ritornello statement at the beginning, middle and end, separating two main vocal blocks. On four of its five entries the singer declaims the words ‘I shall not leave my Jesus’ to the embellished chorale melody. The only exception is the entry (bar 47) on the words er allein----He alone [shall defend me in all things].

Wecan now be confident that our union with Christ is of the greatest significance and our repeated assertion of it is indicative of our personal mantra. But still He stands alone, above and in control of all things, a fact that Christians need to recognise and accept. Thus the cantata ends, not with a moment of reflection but with an ebullient assertion of faith and the bliss it entails.

What chorale melody could follow this without diminishing the effect?

LINK: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV98.htm

Copyright: J Mincham 2010.   Revised 2012.
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