Chapter 34 BWV 124 Meinen Jesum Lass ich nicht
My Jesus, I shall not abandon you.
The first point of focus must be the chorale melody, originally composed by Andreas Hammerschmidt (Boyd, p 289). It clearly appealed to Bach since he used it three times in the first two Leipzig cycles.
In the key of C it closed Part 2 of C 70, a large-scale work which, in November 1723, completed the church year. It also concluded C 154, raised a tone to the key of D, and it is yet again to be found, in the same key in the 1727 cantata C 157. (Cs 154 and 124 were both written for this same event, the first Sunday after Epiphany). In C 124 it appears in E, the highest pitch of all; possibly the choir needed to be kept on their toes! Otherwise the harmonisations for all versions differ only in detail.
C 124, however, is the only one of these three works for which Bach composed a chorale fantasia based upon the melody, so perhaps this excuses the repetition. That apart, the chorale melody is not inserted into other movements such as we find in many works of this cycle, as indeed was also the case with C 122, performed just a few days previously.
It is possible to conjecture that Bach looked back on the score of C 154 when setting out to compose 124. It is believed that before settling to his composing desk he would frequently go to the harpsichord and play through a piece of his own or some other composer’s as a way of stimulating his creative processes. Perhaps he found the perusal of cantatas written in previous years for the same events equally inspiring.
This could explain the extraordinary similarities between the two tenor arias, no 1 from C 154 and no 3 from C 124. Both are in minor keys and in 3/4 time. Both are highly chromatic, utilizing similar ‘weeping’ melodic shapes and accompaniment patterns. The one is not a copy or a reworking of the other, but they have a similar stark, bleak and austere feeling of alienation from Jesus, a textual theme which also unites them.
C 124 is not a pessimistic work, however, since it develops the idea of a positive and enduring relationship with Jesus. This thought pervades every verse with three of them (first, third and sixth) ending with the statement ‘I will not leave my Jesus’. But only one movement, the tenor aria, really plumbs the depths of deep misery which utter alienation engenders.
We are aware that Bach, the great eclectic, borrowed from any styles and forms that suited his purpose. In particular, the specific rhythmic structures of traditional suite movements were regularly pressed into service as appropriate. C 130 (chapter 17) provides a good example, making use of a gavotte for the tenor aria, elegantly describing the hordes swept up to Heaven to seek their rightful place with Jesus.
The key is major and the disposition polite. The orchestral forces are meagre; only one oboe d’amore joins the strings and continuo, but his role is a starring, not a subsidiary one. He breaks into a number of sweeping semi-quaver passages, perhaps suggesting the heavenly hordes of angels and seraphims seeking out Jesus although, admittedly, they are not explicitly mentioned in the text.
But this declaration of affinity with Christ is not one that requires the blazing of trumpets and drums. The decorous minuet and the darker tones of the oboe d’amore both suggest individual rather than communal expression of commitment. It is a statement of faith and intention and consequently it is dignified and personal rather than extrovert and ebullient.
In many of his ritornelli, Bach happily shares the musical ideas between the instrumentalists and singers. Not so here. There are three distinct groups, each having their own specific functions and characters without exchanging roles or musical material. Apart from a few bars of doubling, the strings perform the minuet, the oboe the celestial light and the choir provides blocks of confident assuredness. Unsurprisingly the sopranos, doubled by horn, intone the long notes of the cantus firmus.
The writing for the lower voices is extremely subtle and reflects the character of the strings rather than that of the oboe. They are restrained and support the chorale in much the way that we might expect from the conventional concluding harmonizations. There are some half-hearted attempts at fugal imitation (phrase 1) using the repeated notes of the chorale melody but they are minimal, stretching contrapuntal technique little more than what we might expect from any reasonably able student. What is of interest, however, is the way the choral phrases end.
The final soprano note of every phrase is extended to four or more bars, eight on the last entry. But the lower voices carry on as if unaware that the sopranos have completed their allotted portions of the melody. They repeat the words, giving the impression that they do not want to be parted from the warmth and comfort of the chorale melody. Only once, on the line—-Klettenweis an ihm zu kleben—-cling to him as if fettered—-do the lower voices sustain the chord, emulating the soprano’s long note. Here they are, as the text suggests, chained and clinging together.
Otherwise they simply convey an impression of not wishing to be parted from Jesus. After all, is not this uncomplicated sense of unity and bonding how good Christians should feel about their relationships with the Saviour?
Such is the subtlety of this composer. His intimate and precise decisions about the structure and texture of his music are designed to convey, often simultaneously, the most complex yet precise metaphoric and literal meanings.
Bach’s recitatives can be colourful and more than usually meaningful; see, for example, C 116 (chapter 26). At other times they are little more than functional, though never less than melodically beautifully sculptured. This tenor recitative falls into the latter category. It tells us briefly and efficiently that as long as blood runs in my veins, Jesus remains everything to me—-I have only my body and its life to bestow on Him.
But if this short movement serves little in the way of musical or narrative purpose, it at least affords the tenor the opportunity of warming up in preparation for his splendid keystone aria. Bach was always the most practical of composers!
We return to that obsessive and often repeated Lutheran theme, the day of our death. ′When will I die?′ Bach asked in the great fantasia of C 8 (chapter 16) and, dogged as he was by so much demise and bereavement in his own lifetime, it is not surprising that this is a subject which finds him at his most profound. This aria, accompanied by strings, continuo and a ravishing oboe d’amore melody, proves the point.
Oboe d’amore and supporting upper strings.
The text is little more than an extension of that of the previous recitative, which may explain why Bach appeared to show relatively little interest in it. It is here, in this superb aria that his real interest and passion is to be found, and we are fortunate that this was the case.
The imagery is explicit, evoking death, the enemy of the flesh and bringer of terror and dread—- it destroys the senses and twists the limbs. The oboe ritornello melody is convoluted and tortuous. It seeks to rise but always falls back. The continuo bass has three crotchets to the bar, the second two on the same note emphasizing the feeling of holding back. Occasionally it, like the oboe, seeks to rouse itself with a lurching movement of dotted crotchets; but they too, never really seem to get anywhere. The strings emit an accompaniment figure of four repeated notes suggesting a funeral drum. And in the midst of this lies the tenor line, a searing melody such as only Bach could write.
As in the first movement, the functions of the four groups (oboe, upper strings, voice and continuo) are distinct and do not mix. But the structure, seemingly a straightforward ritornello aria, is quite original.
The key to a full understanding comes from noting that this death-fumed verse ends with the words ‘I will not leave Jesus’. After the ritornello, Bach sets the whole stanza and emerges into a major key (A) for these last words (bars 25-27). He then sets the verse a second time, now surfacing into the higher major key of E (bars 52-3). A final truncated version of the stanza, nevertheless retaining the last line, eventually settles in the shadowy tonic F#m, a key that sits, in terms of pitch, between A and E. Death places us firmly in between corporeal and spiritual existence.
Thus the symbolism and meaning is principally conveyed through both the character and tonal structure of the music as an enriching adjunct to the words. We have twice made efforts to rise above our earthly tribulations to join with Jesus. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. Whatever our circumstances on earth, so long as we are faithful Christians, we remain united with Him. The extraordinary subtlety of key relationships and tonal planning conveys a message which is virtually subliminal; and presumably intended for God.
The second recitative conveys somewhat more passion than the first. Apart from some additional self-obsession with the distress which our earthly lives heap upon us, it adds little to the cantata’s main themes. But it does have a structural function, taking us neatly to the key of the soprano and alto duet. Furthermore, we feel strongly the progression from the tragic minor of the tenor aria to the optimistic major about to suffuse us in the duet.
Completely dispelled, now, is the tenor’s angst. The message has become—-hurry and cast away the cares of the world. The tenor had attempted this previously but found only resignation in the face of a terrifying death. The lighter alto and soprano voices journey further and find true happiness in heaven.
This movement also has the lilt of a dance, but it is not the stately minuet of the fantasia. It is an abandoned song of celestial bliss, although its expression is of an earthly, almost carnal nature. The continuo figuration is highly reminiscent of that from the first aria (no 3) of the Wedding Cantata C 202 (vol 1, chapter 72) with vaulting quavers interspersing rolling semi-quavers. That earlier secular movement describes Phoebus rushing through the world anxious to become a lover.
Is this so different? Here it is the Christian who wishes to rush to heaven in order to love Jesus. Both the fundamental concept and imagery are similar and it is not surprising that Bach, although probably not intentionally, uses much the same figuration. Need we have further proof of the fact that he drew little distinction between secular and ecclesiastical styles?
The first section of this duet (repeated as a da capo) is extrovertly major in mode and mood. It is worth noting that the ritornello is always stated in the tonic key of A. Bach may have intended this as a point of anchorage and stability, a symbolic suggestion that, having been united with Jesus, one will not be parted from Him.
The middle section is predominantly minor and thus provides a satisfactory musical contrast. But although the energy never slackens, there is just a slight shadow cast over the celebration as the text reminds us of that day, which we have not yet reached, when we shall see and be pacified by Jesus. Nevertheless, the mood remains one of appropriate awe and reverence at the wonder of such an occasion. There can be no real sorrow or regret and, in any case, expressions of triumphant joy are certain to return by way of the reprise of the first section.
The chorale is dignified and regal in tone. Its alternation of two and three-bar phrases endows it with a sense of musical interest, suggesting a touch of the infinite or indefinable. The solid tread of the quavers in the bass gives it a forward inertia appropriate to the expression of a committed march towards heaven.
There is one final question. The fantasias of this and C 8 (chapter 16) are set in the relatively extreme key of four sharps. Both cantatas address issues of death (emerging most strongly in the tenor aria in the latter work). Can this be coincidental? Or did E major have some hidden symbolic meaning for Bach that eludes us today? If E minor represented the death of the Divine Christ, might E major have had, for Bach, implications of the death of Man?
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014 2017.