Chapter 32 BWV 55 Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht
I, a desolate man, am in bondage to sin.
A cantata for solo tenor.
For the twenty-second Sunday after Trinity.
Thus far in this third cycle we have had three solo cantatas for alto and one for bass. This, the only extant one Bach wrote for tenor, is one of the least expansive of the five but this does not detract from its quality. One can only wish that Bach had written more works for this voice because this cantata is a perfect little gem!
Lasting well under a quarter of an hour in performance, it consists of two arias (accounting for two thirds of its length) two recitatives and a final chorale. Its chamber qualities are further enhanced by the instrumentation, one flute, one oboe, strings and continuo. Even the violas are dispensed with in all but the second recitative and the normal doubling duties in the chorale.
Departing from our usual practice, we will look at the two other extant cantatas written for this day (Cs 89, vol 1 chapter 24 and 115, vol 2, chapter 23) at the end of this essay and launch straight into a study of this memorable and rewarding work.
Two characteristics of the opening aria are likely to strike the perceptive listener even upon first hearing. The first is the delicate interplay between the two woodwind instruments and the violins. The second is the high tessitura of the vocal writing communicating, right from the start, a sense of stress and tension.
The text throughout is couched in the first person and is consequently deeply personal----I, sin’s servant, stand trembling before my God awaiting His judgement---He is just and I am unjust.
As usual, the instrumental ritornello of the opening movement encapsulates several of the textual implications. The main theme is first carried by the flute and oboe in sixths, a haunting and somewhat hesitant melody, nevertheless poignant and lingering. Against it the violins declaim a repetitive figure, presumably inspired by the ‘trembling’ of the sinner as he awaits his judgement. From bar 9 the main melody strives upwards as if an effort is being made to gaze upon the fearful visage of the just Lord; but to no avail. The trembling violin figure is finally heard on the wind instruments before ushering in the solo tenor.
Bars 1-4 oboe and flute theme above the string 'trembling' figure.
And what a striking entry he makes, his initial phrases continuously stretching upwards towards a high g and even going beyond it to a b and b flat. The stress of the sinner is communicated by the tension of the performer, forced to deliver his lonely song of desolation in the extreme upper registers of his vocal range.
The structure of the aria is one that Bach employed frequently at this time, a ritornello theme at the beginning, middle and end, also separating two main vocal blocks. The central statement is shortened by four bars and the roles of the instruments are reversed, strings taking the main theme with the trembling figure on flute and oboe.
It is difficult to over-praise the exquisite phrases Bach has wrought for the soloist. They rise and fall with a sense of the breathless anticipation with which the sinner awaits his verdict, always beautiful and utterly memorable. Perhaps the most telling is the tortuous falling scale which ends both vocal blocks----I stand before God, fearful and trembling, awaiting His judgement.
This is a phrase not quickly forgotten.
The long first recitative narrates the background, preceding the point of arrival at the place and time of judgement----I have not followed His path and where-so-ever I might flee He will find and punish me----the earth itself would engulf me and in Heaven God would judge me. This is a clear case of being caught between the ‘devil and the deep blue sea’ or, in this case, the bowels of the earth and the wrath of the Lord. This sense of being trapped and terrified between the extremes, is encapsulated particularly in the wide ranging final phrases, spreading themselves over two octaves. Note the use of the high b flat on the word Gott just before the end, momentarily emphasising the elevated and terrifying seat of Divine judgement.
Sometimes it is not clear why Bach chooses to write an unaccompanied secco recitative; on occasions the demands of time and deadlines may well be a factor. Here there is no need to cast around for explanations. The solo melodic line set against the most minimal of harmonic support is ideal for expressing the state of the lone and friendless sinner.
The second aria is almost as long as the first and certainly as memorable. It is a personal prayer for mercy----allow my tears to soften Your heart and abate Your fury. The lone flute becomes the obbligato instrument, at first sight an odd choice as the more astringent timbre of the oboe d’amore might seem more suited to the mood of the piece. Presumably it is the undulating arabesques characterising the melodic line that determined this option.
Listeners who follow the texts closely will notice the change of emphasis that takes place at this stage of the cantata. The first two movements have been concerned with our state of sin and the Lord’s (presumed) reaction to it. Now the sinner turns to the one escape route he has remaining, earth and heaven both, as has been made clear, denying him. Only repentance and a heartfelt plea for mercy can offer him hope, and these responses must be real and genuine.
The second aria encapsulates them both and Bach invokes the act of pleading in the first three notes. The chromatic e flat is lent upon in the very first bar, the expressive Neopolitan 6th chord suggesting a moment of imploring entreaty. This feeling of doleful petition dominates the movement as it unfolds, supported by a plodding continuo quaver bass line suggestive of the weary footsteps of the supplicant.
The richly embellished flute melody would surely have had symbolic meaning for Bach but we cannot be certain what it was. Is it God’s benefice and blessing always surrounding us and continually sought by Man? Might it be His fury, softening as the sinner pleads? Or does it represent the flood of tears intended to soften His heart? This is another example where it may be assumed that Bach had a clear textual image in mind in order to stimulate his musical imagination. But his listeners may take from it what they will; we do him no service by attempting to force too specific a picture onto the artifice. We are guided by the master, but still permitted our own personal interpretations of what the music means, portrays and stirs within us. Bach's illumination of the human condition continues to stir our emotions.
The general structure of this aria is akin to that of the first movement. Note though, how Bach gives the tenor a moment of respite (bars 27-8) before the exquisite rising phrase asking that the Lord’s fury be stilled for the sake of Jesus.
It would take a heart of stone to ignore such a heartfelt entreaty which, of course, is both the essence and the keystone of the cantata. The final recitative makes this abundantly clear.
It begins with the same words----have mercy! But this time it is not the prayer of the condemned with nowhere else to turn. This is the confident stance of the redeemed sinner who has determined to transgress no more. Christ has addressed our sins and we may stand with conviction before a God who is now ready to receive us.
For the first time in this work the tenor line is suffused in warm major chords sustained by the upper strings. Even the viola is pressed into service, although the part is simple and it may well be that one of the versatile woodwind players was capable of performing it. If, as seems likely there were only two violins used in the first aria, just the one violist would have been required for an adequate balance.
Note that the last three bars of this recitative almost seem to be ‘tacked on’ as an afterthought. They serve a technical purpose in that they take us to Bb, the key of the final chorale. But they also serve to isolate, and hence to emphasise, the ket imaget towards which the entire work has been guiding us----God will, once more, receive me with His blessing.
The chorale is simple and affirmative and will be familiar to listeners of the St Matthew Passion. The phrasing is stolidly symmetrical, the two bar units giving a rustic feel ‘of the people’. It is set throughout in the major key, harmonised simply, lacking even those fleeting moments of minor modes which Bach frequently used to colour these melodies. This is the final denouement----I turned from You, but have returned----Your grace is greater than my own sin.
The cantata is likely to last little more than 12 minutes. But within that short time we have made a seamless and unforgettable journey from the fearful insecurities of isolation to the certainties of rescue and deliverance.
Other cantatas for this day.
The first of these is C 89 from the first cycle (vol1, chapter 24), although Dürr considers it may have been reworked from earlier material (p 612). The theme is similar to that of C 55, and it makes an equivalent journey away from the apparently unredeemable sins of mankind towards the Divine love which, through the blood of Christ, exorcises all guilt. Apart from one additional aria, the structure reflects that of C 55 with two paired aria/recitatives and a final chorale. Interestingly, all voices are called upon except the tenor: Did Bach look upon this score and decide, albeit three years later, to redress the balance?
C 115 from the second cycle is the only cantata written for this day containing a large chorus. It begins with a splendidly striding fantasia which itself has thematic connections with C 114 (see vol 2, chapters 18 and 23). The theme of C115 is preparedness; it is all too easy to lose one’s vigilance and become entrapped in Satan’s snares----let us pray and watch and we will be victorious through the joint strength of the Father and Son.
Once again we have a fascinating opportunity of comparing Bach’s approaches to very similar or identical textual themes, particularly during his first years at Leipzig. He was, after all, fulfilling his ambition of producing a canon of ‘well regulated’ church music. His ability to take virtually identical theses and yet present them in new and fresh ways without repetition of musical invention, was unparalleled.
If, indeed as the Obituary claims, he composed all or most of five full cycles of cantatas for the church year, he may well have had a clear overview of the particular emphases he wished to explore within each. We know that he maintained a very definite control of the structures of the individual cantatas and how individual movements related to one another. In the second cycle he had created a consistent template which, although not universally applied to every individual work, aimed at unifying and binding together the body of cantatas conceived and performed within a single church year.
Did he envisage that the cantatas composed for the same days of the church year across the cycles were also to have had precisely devised connections? Did he deliberately look back on the earlier scores composed for the twenty-second Sunday after Trinity before embarking upon the planning of C 55? Whilst we cannot be certain of this, there are tantalising pieces of evidence that suggest he was fully aware of, and deliberately created, relationships that united and conjoined these works whilst still retaining their distinctiveness.
Whatever the answer, the study of the cantatas in cognate groups across the cycles only enhances our understanding of them as works of art and, indeed, of Bach himself, still remaining one of the most enigmatic of our great composers.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.