Chapter 33 BWV 52 Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht
World of treachery, I do not trust you.
A cantata for solo soprano voice.
For the twenty-third Sunday after Trinity.
This is the sixth solo cantata of the cycle thus far (three for alto and one each for bass and tenor) and the first for soprano. It therefore sits within a number of different contexts, the first being this group of works for one voice. Eight were written for the third cycle with a further two following, C 82 (bass, chapter 36) and C 84, again for soprano (chapter 37). (See chapter 35 for further contextual comment).
Bearing in mind that there were no solo cantatas in the second cycle and few in the first, it is reasonable to suppose that the influence of opera had brought about a broadening of taste in the Lutheran congregations of the mid 1720s.
C 52 may also be compared with C 199, also a cantata for soprano, which lacks a chorus or even a closing chorale. In the form of an arrangement of an earlier work, Bach presented it as his first solo cantata at Leipzig, perhaps not entirely successfully (see vol 1, chapter 14). It is a dramatic chamber piece, bearing us along that well-furrowed pathway from sin to redemption. At Leipzig it was performed for the eleventh Sunday after Trinity.
Finally, C 52 resides as the third and last cantata written for the twenty-third Sunday after Trinity, the earlier ones being Cs 163 (again an early work revived for cycle 1, chapter 25) and 139 (cycle 2). C 163 offers ample evidence of Bach’s urge to experiment in his early years; it contains a recitative for two voices of equal importance and a splendid bass aria supported, uniquely, by two obbligato celli and continuo. The message is one of the heart, offered to God in gratitude, along with a prayer that He may help to discern that which is true and not counterfeit.
C 139 (vol 2, chapter 24) opens with the only large choral movement of these three works, a fantasia of the type common within the second cycle. The theme is similar to that of the earlier work, dealing with the trust we must maintain in the God who will always remain our friend. Only He can guard us from our misfortunes and the enemies who, in envy and loathing, might direct us falsely. The bass aria is one of the most strikingly original in the whole canon, incorporating eleven sections, three textual themes and frequent changes of time and tempi. There can be little doubt of the influences of contemporary operatic practices here.
The textual theme of the false world pitted against the true God also pervades C 52 which, as is so commonly the case in Bach’s third or fourth cantatas written for a particular day, is the most personal of the group. Couched in first person terms throughout, it takes us on an excursion from an initial position of distrust in this dishonest world to the ultimate one of steadfastness at the hand of God.
Precisely why Bach chose the first movement of Brandenburg Concerto 1 as the opening sinfonia is a mystery, as is the reason for selecting the earlier version which lacked the violin piccolo. This hardly detracts from the piece built, as it is, around the apposition of three main groups, strings, two horns and three oboes. It is a matter of conjecture as to whether Bach may have chosen this movement first, using the blocks of available instruments in the remainder of the work simply because he had them to hand. Certainly this cantata is more richly scored than several others for the solo voice, and the instruments are deployed in groups i.e. aria 1 violins, aria 2 three oboes and the two horns in the chorale.
However, it has also been argued elsewhere that Bach seldom, if ever, reused earlier works for purely pragmatic reasons. This applied equally to sinfonias which had to be fully fit for purpose and that meant creating a perfect matching with the text, mood, balance and aesthetic qualities of the remaining movements. How does this movement fit these criteria?
It is an extrovert major-key piece which will be followed by two movements in the minor. The ultimate message of the cantata is positive so this movement helps to provide an overall sense of balance. It is an invention of great ‘busy-ness’ perhaps indicative of the crawling hordes of scorpions and serpents mentioned in the first stanza. It certainly has none of the malice of these creatures, merely a sense of their activity; but as we find out towards the end of the work, they cannot harm us anyway because, with God’s protection, we will simply mock them and cast them aside.
But attempting to ascribe meaning to Bach’s musical ideas and structures is fraught with dangers, although close inspection of his processes within a framework of knowledge of the whole repertoire can yield interesting insights. It would be ridiculous to assume that Bach had serpents and scorpions in mind when he composed the Brandenburg Concerti some years before the bulk of this cantata. The question is whether he might have chosen this movement because, coincidentally, it encapsulated elements of the cantata’s imagery.
Perhaps, then, Bach considered the inherent refinement of this fine piece an appropriate depiction of the commotion of the ‘false creatures’. Thus the minimum of significance may be attributed to them because in God’s properly ordered society they can have negligible command or authority.
Which is not to say, however, that individuals will not recognise their presence and fear their influence. It is after all, the point of the cantata that we should acknowledge such evils and align ourselves with God so as to vanquish them. The opening recitative outlines this precise scenario.
Following an initial depiction of the false and untrustworthy world we are forced to live in, this recitative proceeds to describe the situation in which the good Christian is likely to find him/herself----after all this, and despite the fact that in this world of enemies I am isolated and disconnected from You, yet You remain my true and reliable companion----the world is a false and dishonest place where hypocrisy reigns----it is a truly woeful situation.
Bach calls upon none of the instrumental forces available to him for the support of the singer. This is the lament of the individual, the carefully crafted sweeping melodic lines conveying a sense of disgust and frustration. In the middle Bach migrates to the most foreign of keys (Bbm) in order to underline the darkness of mood. This is another of those examples whereby Bach demonstrates that ‘less is more’.
The first aria retains the minor mode which, however, will then be dispensed with for the remainder of the cantata----nevertheless, even though in this alien world I may be isolated from You, God remains my true friend. First and second violins provide the obbligato lines, at first in unison but very soon divided so as to form a three-part texture with the continuo.
The symbolism of separation and union may be clearly detected within the structure of the ritornello theme. The three groups of instruments follow each other, come together and move apart, manipulating the musical motives so that they can be perceived from a variety of different perspectives. The allegoric representations of togetherness and apartness are complex and intense. Consequently the following summary may be helpful:
Bars 1-4 violins in unison with rising motive A imitated by continuo at ½ bar intervals.
Bars 5-7 violins now divided in imitation with themselves and bass at ¼ bar intervals, motive A inverted.
Bars 7-9 three-note ‘figure of joy’, motive B, on violins with minimal bass support.
Bars 10-12 motives A and B combined above a flowing semi-quaver bass line constructed of A in both its original and inverted forms.
Of course, this is also an example of superbly skilled compositional technique, making the most economic and imaginative use of a couple of basic musical shapes. The point is simply that Bach’s consummate technical skill is inextricably combined with the representations of the textual imagery so as to provide us with a musical metaphor of great, often subliminal, force.
When the soprano enters, the violins oscillate between unison and two-part writing. Thus the texture of the movement alternates between 2, 3, 4 and 5 part writing, a further example of the allegorical symbolism.
Structurally speaking, this is again a ritornello movement with strong suggestions of a middle section (from bar 29) and a reprise (from bar 45), the former bringing together the opposing ideas of a world that is false and a God who is true.
The second recitative again eschews support from the available upper strings or oboes, which is slightly surprising considering the warmer and more affirmative character of the text----God is true and faithful and I shall commit to Him my mind and soul. The key phrase----God is always true—is stated at the beginning, middle and no less than three times at the end; there can be no doubt of the emphasis of this message which Bach sets consistently to similar descending phrases.
The last statements of this affirmation of personal faith emerge as a flowing arioso duet between the voice and the continuo line.
The two arias are differentiated by key, mode, tempo, rhythm and instrumentation. Now three oboes act throughout as a choir against which the solo voice is highlighted. Bach’s three oboe arias, frequently written for the bass voice, often have an element of the opera buffo about them, a droll sense of the comic which, post-Mozart, listeners may interpret quite differently. Bach’s intention was more likely to have been to create a sense of positive solidarity, aligning oneself with the Lord and letting the world operate as it may.
Certainly the writing for the oboes conveys a sense of unity and concord. They operate as a group throughout, there being no solo passages and only an occasional flicker of two-part writing. The initial repeated musical motive is the epitome of potency and accord.
Three oboes above continuo.
The ritornello is heard in full at the beginning and end and phrases of it separate the vocal sections. The stressed word halt----to hold [alongside God) is significant as are the melismas on Spotte----ridicule or derision [cast upon the hypocrites]. The form of the music is undoubtedly ritornello but again with sufficient suggestion of a middle and reprised section so as to imply the da capo.
It was noted above that the orchestral concept underpinning the Brandenburg movement was the playing of the three ‘choirs’----strings, oboes and horns----against each other. Bach appears to have designed the successive movements around a similar principle. The recitatives are bare, voice and continuo only. Strings and oboes having been employed en bloc for the arias, it is now the turn of the horns in the chorale. Bach did not, however, write flamboyant parts for them, the first horn merely doubles the chorale melody, the second horn providing a modest fifth line in the midst of the harmony.
Perhaps because of the enduring personal, individual nature of this work, Bach did not wish to draw attention away from the hymn tune and its message. So we are left with a discreet colouring of the melody rather than a virtuosic line drawing attention to itself as in the chorale which closed C 1 (vol 2, chapter 41).
The text is the final affirmation of faith and loyalty----I have placed all faith in You, praying that You uphold me and protect me from shame and derision. The melody is an odd mixture of phrase lengths which would have appealed to Bach. The two short phrases in the middle emphasise strongly the essence of the prayer----I pray to you ----sustain me!
God’s support for the individual in an eighteenth century world of danger, falseness and hypocracy was, in Bach’s terms, clearly worth praying for!
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.