Chapter 34 BWV 36 Schwingt freudig euch empor
Lift your voices joyfully unto the very stars.
Chorus–chorale (sop/alto)–aria (tenor)–chorale.
Aria (bass)–chorale (tenor)–aria (sop)–chorale.
For the first Sunday in Advent.
Like the late chorale/fantasia cantata C 80, this work has a complicated history, not all of which is known. It is thought to have existed in five versions, originating as a secular cantata in 1725 and achieving its present form in 1731. However Wolff (p 283) lists it as a late member of the third cycle with a possible first performance in church in 1726. (Brief comments on Cs 36b and 36c may be found in chapter 99 of vol 1).
Those who wish to pursue the complicated background to this work should consult Dürr (pp 80-83) and the concise account in Boyd (pp 444-445). Otherwise we can do no more than consider the work as it is generally performed today. C 36 is the third of three extant works composed for this Advent Sunday, the others being Cs 61 and 62.
C 61 (vol 1, chapter 29) is precisely dated in Bach′s hand in the year 1714 although it was again pressed into service for the first Leipzig cycle (Dürr p 77). It is an excellent illustration of Bach′s experimental nature manifesting itself so early in his career. The opening movement is a skilfully adapted chorale-cum-French Overture, aptly creating a dignified setting for Christ′s entrance into this world. In retrospect, it may be viewed as an early template of the fantasias which were to dominate the second cycle. Pizzicato strings (used most imaginatively) suggest the action of knocking at the door (bass recitative) and the final (truncated) chorale is set below a soaring violin counterpoint.
C 62 (vol 2, chapter 27) is a chorale fantasia from the second cycle and it makes use of the same Advent chorale and verse as its predecessor. The opening movement, a model of conciseness, nevertheless has an edgy, almost nervous quality about it, perhaps indicative of the sense of awe and wonder surrounding the virgin birth.
Interestingly, the opening choruses of both Cs 61 and 62 are set in minor modes, in neither case conveying a sense of the uninhibited ecstasy which one might think appropriate for the celebration of the birth of the Saviour. We should also remind ourselves that Advent is the beginning of the Lutheran church year, although Bach′s first Leipzig cycles are grouped from the time of his appointment, commencing with the first Sunday after Trinity.
Bearing in mind the secular roots of C 36, one perhaps should not attach particular significance to the fact that it is the only one of the three Advent cantatas to begin with a major-mode chorus. Nevertheless, the three-in-a-bar rhythm and numerous triplets may explain why Bach revived it, presumably as symbolism of the Holy Trinity. Triple time abounds in these works; the main fugal section of the chorus of C 61 is also 3/4 and the 6/4 time signature of C 62 is divisible into two groups of three.
In its 1731 version C 36 is divided into two parts, each of which concludes with a four-part chorale setting. There are no recitatives; instead there are two additional settings of the closing chorale (movements 2 and 6). Thus, although no chorale melody is used in the opening chorus, four of the eight movements are based upon them, three on Luther′s Advent hymn tune and another (movement 4, closing Part 1) by Nicolai.
Both the text and music of the first movement are assumed to be largely unchanged from the original 1725 version, C 36c. The notion of raising one′s voice to the stars above is neatly suggested in the ritornello through the rising scalic passages and the rippling triplets. A pair of oboes d′amore join the strings, playing a major solo role in both this and subsequent movements.
The texture of the choral writing is determined absolutely by the text, the opening lines of which carry the command to raise our cheerful voices upwards to the very stars. Two passages of close imitation (from bars 14 and 26) stress the ascending nature of the imagery through the orders of entry: bass, tenor, alto and soprano. But following a shortened version of the ritornello in which the triplets predominate, the choral writing suddenly becomes forcefully homophonic (from bar 42)—-but cease—-there is no need of a great sound, the Lord of Glory approaches even now!
Continuing within the framework of a conventional ritornello movement, Bach then sets both sections of the text a second time (from bar 63) ending with a swirling of rapid entries of all four voices representing the approaching Lord (bars 95-6).
The ritornello is tightly constructed, a perfect example of Bach′s keen eye for motivic potential and development. The first bar contains all three seeds which form the basis of the remainder of the movement: a falling scale followed by the three-note figure of joy (both on oboes) below the triplet (violins).
Oboes and 1st violins.
The string triplet provides an excellent demonstration of the technique of introducing an idea some time before it is substantially developed. It sticks in the subconscious mind almost subliminally; we feel, somehow, that the later streams of triplets are ′right′ because the rhythm has already been suggested to us and lodged in our brains.
A further excellent example of this technique, also involving the early introduction of a triplet as an ornament prior to becoming a structural entity, may be found in the ritornello of the first movement of the Fm keyboard concerto.
Some may feel that the duet which follows is somewhat less striking than others, particularly by comparison with the numerous examples from the second cycle.
Bach′s obsession with Luther′s Advent hymn which closes the cantata becomes immediately apparent; a version of its first phrase is heard four times in the first five bars and, on the continuo, it precedes each entry of the chorale.
Bach′s structural plan is very clear. Each of the four vocal phrases is introduced by the singers in imitation thus:
Phrase 1 from bar 4, alto followed by sop.
Phrase 2 from bar 11 sop followed by alto.
Phrase 3 from bar 21 alto followed by sop.
Phrase 4 from bar 32 alto followed by sop.
It will be seen that the phrases are extended, each successively for a longer period than the last. This may well have had symbolic significance for Bach although it is difficult to ascertain what it might have been.
Similarly hard to explain is the richly ornamented continuo line.
Perhaps it is intended to suggest a sense of joy at the approach of the Saviour, or a depiction of the marvelling at His presence. It may even hark back to the original setting of the second movement from the earlier version, a recitative which speaks of the myriad of pleasures unable to rest within a tender heart. The musical imagery is obscure, although it must surely have had some meaning for Bach and, perhaps, his congregations.
The first of the two tenor arias is a gentle da capo movement with one oboe d ‘amore providing the obbligato. The text has echoes of the dialogue cantatas between the Soul (soprano) and Jesus (bass) and the metaphor of the bride and groom. But here Bach chooses the (tenor) voice of the narrator, perhaps seeking a less subjective perspective; the bride, enchanted at the sight of her groom, is observed rather than depicted expressing her own feelings.
The first musical section tells of the drawing together of bride and groom (Christ and Soul) in the truest of love trysts. Bach is at some pains to stress that this is not an immediate process. The long melisma and later held note on allgemach—-gradually—-both make this very clear. Indeed, underneath the former, the hesitant footsteps can clearly be detected in the continuo line (from bar 50). The process may take some time but we are heartened by the knowledge that throughout we are continuously embraced by Christ′s benefice, as suggested by the rippling oboe semi-quaver lines.
The middle section portrays the sense of enchantment as bride follows groom and the Soul, Jesus. But the mood alters little, the text does not allow for it. Apart from a little more urgency in the continuo line, the message of a quietly personal mutual attraction and fascination remains undisturbed.
There is a doleful, resigned quality about this little aria that defies accurate description.
The chorale that ends Part 1 is that which had also been used to close the earlier version of the cantata. The four-part setting is surprisingly simple and calls for instruments and voices to rise up and lovingly encompass Jesus and give Him thanks. The continuo bass melody marches forward in two bars of quavers to underline the cries of jubilation exalting the Lord.
This aria, aside from the opening chorus, is the most ebullient of the eight movements. Indeed, the two are linked together by virtue of sharing the same basic building blocks, the three-note figure of joy with triplets predominating. This is a mantra of welcome, suggestive of a wedding march. The leaps with triplets (bar 5) suggest the physical action of a welcoming gesture or wave.
Bach gives the impression of a da capo shape, albeit embedded within a clear ritornello structure, a seemingly contrasting middle section emerging at bar 25. But at bar 35 where we might expect a reprise of section A, we are not much more than half way through the movement. Bach sets again the text of the complete stanza, a musical bringing together of the expressions of welcome and the warmth of a heart now prepared for the Saviour′s reception.
Thus has the heart become fully ready to greet and receive the Saviour. Any doubts or hesitancy which may have been detected in the earlier tenor aria are now dispelled.
The second aria for tenor is something of an oddity. Bach has already set the Advent chorale, somewhat embellished but clearly recognisable, in the earlier duet. Now he presents it vocally bare and unadorned but encased by two oboes and continuo which, between them, virtually never relinquish an urgent surging of semi-quaver activity. The initial one-bar figure, copied by the second from the first oboe, provides both the musical material and the concentrated power. There is an intensity and passion about this aria which, at first, surprises.
The text speaks directly to Jesus—-You, God′s equal, have led the conquest over the flesh so that Your great and Divine power may reside even now in our earthly bodies. The music suggests command and energy. Is the indefatigable activity meant to convey a sense of the Saviour’s vitality which we may now draw upon and take into ourselves? Do the three equal lines of counterpoint (two oboes and continuo) suggest the all-encompassing supremacy of the Holy Trinity? Is the bare chorale line a depiction of the earthly human spirit surrounded by the surging dynamism of divine forces?
Perhaps it is this Divine vigour that we recognise when we attempt to speak to the Lord, even with our feeble and exposed voices. The message of the final soprano aria is—-no matter how weak our utterances, they are sufficient to Honour the Lord because He hears, even from His place in heaven, the ineffectual spirits cry out to Him.
The mode is again major, the rhythm that of a pastorale and a solo violin, significantly muted, provides the obbligato. The subdued violin perfectly represents the frailty of the human voice, even the figuration (from bar 3) encapsulating an attempt to raise its sound which, nevertheless, always falls back upon itself.
The soprano melodic line also suggests this action (bars 22-3) and the entire section evokes a dignified and resigned atmosphere through which frailty is recognised and accepted.
In the middle section of this charming but conventionally structured da capo aria, the rhythms are more pointed and less flowing, the mood becoming entirely positive. Here we find the depiction of the spirit voice, resounding such that it shall be heard and notice will be taken of it. The brief moment of echoing imitation between voice and oboe (bar 36) on the word schallet—-to sound or resonate—-leaves us in little doubt of this.
But the first section returns to remind us that we remain mortal and are still contained, here on this earth. The significance of the message is that although we remain weak and frail, we are not unheard. Bach makes use of the most conventional of aria structures in order to emphasise this key point of doctrine.
The Advent hymn would surely have been well known to the members of the congregation before a note of this cantata sounded. By the end it will have become doubly familiar. It seems inconceivable that they would not have joined in the final chorale, lifting the rafters of the great churches in their outpourings of praise to the members of the Holy Trinity, although there is no clear evidence that they did so.
But whatever the practices of those filling these buildings on a chilly Sunday morning, it can scarcely be denied that, unlike some of the earlier cantatas of this cycle, a rousing chorale was a most satisfactory way of concluding this interesting, if somewhat enigmatic work.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.