Chapter 35 BWV 58 Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid
Ah God, how much grief.
Chorale/aria (sop/bass)--recit (bass)--aria (sop)--recit (sop)--chorale/aria (sop/bass).
For the Sunday after New Year’s Day.
If Bach wrote new cantatas for the Christmas and New Year season of 1726/7 they have not survived. Following C 36 (for the First Sunday after Advent and itself a reuse of an earlier composition) music would certainly have been required for Christmas Day, the days which followed it, New Year’s Day and the Sunday after that. Until C 82, written for the Purification, the only new extant cantata to fill this gap is C 58.
Bach may, of course, have resurrected cantatas from the earlier cycles. This season was one of the busiest of the year for the Cantor and his musicians and, judging by the ‘sabbatical’ he took from composing new works after C 176 at the conclusion of the second cycle, he may well have been tiring of the relentless deadlines he had forced upon himself since his 1723 appointment.
Nevertheless, it would seem odd were he not to have produced at least one new work for either of the two big Christian festivals and it is tempting to speculate that one or more important works may have been lost.
Other cantatas written for this day are C 153 from the first cycle (vol 1, chapter 34) and C 248, Part 5 of the Christmas Oratorio (chapter 48). The Lutheran year fell such that nothing was required for this day in the second cycle. C 153 begins, most unusually, with a four-part chorale setting, the first of three uncomplicated harmonisations, the last of which concludes the work. Dürr (p 165) suggests the reasons for this were essentially pragmatic so as to allow the chorus some respite in the middle of a particularly heavy period. It is also likely, of course, that Bach decided to make good use of this restriction by experimenting with new ways of using chorale melodies for structural unity and balance within his ever-developing cantata formats.
Whatever the reason, it seems that Bach was not prepared to spare his soloists or string players. The tenor aria, a dramatic depiction of the storm of enemies around us is especially demanding, particularly when considered in the context of the extremely limited rehearsal time that must have been available.
C 58 is the fourth and last of the Dialogue cantatas that Bach composed for the third cycle, the earlier ones being C 57 (part of the Christmas music of the previous year), Cs 32 (performed less than three weeks later) and C 49. Essays on and contextual comments relating to these cantatas may be found in chapters 7, 11 and 30 and in vol 1, chapter 68 (C 152). A point worth noting however, is that the first two dialogue cantatas end with four-part chorales while the second two do not. This observation prompts a review of Bach’s use of the chorales in the solo and duo cantatas of this cycle.
Of the three for alto (170, 35 and 196) only the last ends with a conventional chorale setting, as do both for soprano (52 and 84) and the single one for tenor (55). Of the two for bass (56 and 82) the first ends with the chorale and of the four dialogue cantatas for soprano and bass, only the first two have concluding chorales. It would seem that Bach was still undecided about the best ways of incorporating chorales into these works, continuing to experiment with various permutations.
If so, Cs 49 and 58 assume particular significance because in the final movements of both works Bach found another solution to his problem; in each case he melded the chorale with the closing aria. In one sense this might not seem like a radically original solution. Bach had previously demonstrated many ways of combining chorales with choruses, arias, recitatives and ariosi, not least in the second cycle which is virtually a textbook on the subject. But seen within the context of Bach’s experimentation with the use (or not) of chorales in this cycle, it does appear to mark yet another stage in his thinking about what might constitute the most effective and appropriate typse of concluding movements in his canon of ‘well regulated’ church music.
The closing arias of these two cantatas are not merely economical in that they merge two potential movements into one. It is done in such a way that, while still highlighting the chorale as a contemplative reflection (Soul) Bach combines it with an encouraging, more colloquial, assertion of love and support (Jesus). In each case the orchestra envelops the singers with an ebullient depiction of the bliss of heaven and much sought-after salvation.
If a broad range of structures are appropriate to end cantatas, then why should a composer not adopt similarly diverse configurations to begin them as well? Of the earlier three dialogue cantatas, C 49 began with a sinfonia, C 57 with an aria for bass and 32 with an aria for soprano. All four were composed in a little over a year and it is reasonable to conjecture that Bach looked back over the scores before taking a deliberate decision to approach C 58 differently. The principle of the combined aria/chorale having been established, Bach decided to make use of it in both the opening and closing movements of C 58.
The version of C 58 known today is not exactly that which Bach composed in 1727, but a later arrangement which added three oboes and replaced the middle aria for soprano (Dürr p 167/8). The continuo part only remains of the original movement (Bârenreiter scores vol 2, p 377) but it is sufficient to suggest that Bach may have had radically different second thoughts about the appropriate character of the piece.
There may well have been powerful aesthetic reasons in that, sandwiched as it was between two recitatives, a little more dynamism might have been appropriate to keep up the impetus. But Bach’s change of mind may also have reflected a revised and more developed view of the text. Both movements are in Dm but the original was in the more pastoral time of 12/8, and seems to have been much more flowing. The soprano aria which replaced it is more assertive and aggressive. If the earlier one stressed the images of contentment and resignation in the midst of suffering, the substitution portrays the muscular strength that unites God and Soul under His firm hand. Indeed, the crux of this cantata is the difficult journey the Soul must take and latterly Bach may have felt that the pastoral quality of the original aria simply did not adequately convey it.
Without the complete missing movement one cannot be certain. But it may well be that this serves to illustrate how Bach became increasingly focussed upon the appropriateness of the imagery and significance of texts as he continued to mature.
Additionally, he was always making efforts to 'improve' his compositions. Why else take the trouble to replace the original aria?
The opening duet has two obvious features, the pervading dotted rhythms and the falling chromatic motives. The first has echoes of the dignified opening and closing sections of the French Overture and has a particularly ‘Handelian’ feel to it.
The oboes do little more than double the strings in the ritornello sections and the lowest of them, the oboe da caccia, adds strength and a darkish timbre to the soprano’s intoning of the chorale melody.
There are only four chorale phrases but it is interesting to note how Bach incorporates them with the bass’s line conveying the voice of Jesus. The Soul begins its lament----how much more sorrow----to be answered by the reassuring tone----be patient, the times are evil. The Soul’s second phrase----must I now endure?----is imposed above the continuing bass vocal line. This is not a conversation between equals. It is a lament set against the continuous, eternal forbearance of the Saviour.
A second statement of the full ritornello is heard (bars 42-59) before Bach repeats the process but with different words; the Soul bemoans, in two more phrases again counterpointed with the unremitting bass melody, its tortuous pathway to heaven. Jesus patiently, and without pause, gently reminds the Soul of the joy that will inevitably follow pain through the process of salvation.
There are a number of subtle but extremely effective moments of word painting. Note the extreme upper range in which Jesus declares the wickedness of our times (bars 40-41) and the contrasting melismas picturing Freude----joy----and Schmerze----pain----in Christ’s final phrases. The first of these (bars 74-7) is a hallelujah of rising ecstasy, the second (bars 79-81) a deadening, falling chromatic moan of anguish.
Bass and soprano recitatives.
The bass has the first recitative, the soprano the second. Both are simple secco constructions underpinning the intimacy of the relationship between Soul and Saviour. The differences in their mood and structure are indicative of Bach’s great attention to detail.
In the first, Christ stresses the difficulties of the journey ahead as a way of illustrating the power and necessity of God’s helping Hand. Analogies are made with Herod’s sentence and the angel sent by God to warn Joseph----even though mountains may sink and flood waters drown us, God will never forsake us.
The movement falls naturally into two parts, the first characterised by striding angular phrases as the historic tale of persecution is told. But from the words----Gott hat ein Wort----God has a word----melodic contours soften as the emphasis turns from the evil world to the Goodness of the Lord. Two notes at the very top of the bass’s range (d and d flat) emphasise the words Gott and nicht----God will not forsake us.
The later soprano recitative, although it commences in a softer major mode, nevertheless begins compellingly----the world continues to persecute me. But from this point (bar 5) the Soul melts into a gentle arioso sung over a walking quaver bass line as she declaims----nevertheless God directs me to another place, a paradise----would that I could enter it today.
Thus both recitatives begin defiantly and end more gently. But the transformation is greater in the latter one. After all, Jesus knows everything and His purpose here is simply to reassure. It is the Soul who must take the challenging voyage which, initially, is principally one of discovery. For the Soul it is a life-enhancing experience; hence the greater the personal journey that must be made.
Sitting between the two recitatives is the ‘new’ soprano aria, its central position in the cantata perhaps seeking to explain why Bach may have decided upon a movement of greater impact. It is essentially a statement of acceptance of suffering under the Hand of God. If the original aria had been benign and peaceful, this one seems more unsettling.
The motto phrase played at the beginning by the obbligato violin is persistent and assertive, as is the initial continuo motive.
The violin melody soon transforms into a semi-quaver figuration which verges on the hectic.
This is not the passive, placid Soul meekly accepting without question. This is a positive, confident Spirit, committed but independent. Somehow the message has all the more potency if true faith is assumed by a Soul who exhibits a degree of self determination.
Bach’s was a powerful and pugnacious personality. Might this be close to an expression of his own attitude towards his faith? And could he here be communicating the fact that faith is as much about strength and potency as passive acceptance?
The text falls into two clear parts making it appropriate for a da capo or modified A--B--A1 shape, which is what we here find. The A section declares a contentment with affliction and a confidence in God. The high and held notes on Gott----God----pierce through the texture of the music, asserting dramatically God’s strength and the power of His arm.
The middle section begins at bar 32 and the text tells of the barrier which faith erects, so strong that Hell itself cannot breach it. The vocal line becomes more muscular and the oddly bizarre violin figuration comes into its own as the ultimate encounter, which Satan cannot win, is implied.
The rewritten A section returns (bar 52) to complete the movement but it is unheralded. No ritornello statement precedes it; it simply emerges, almost unassumingly, from the B section.
In retrospect, all the components of the instrument ritornello now have acquired meaning; the repeated motto theme is an assertion of faith and strength, the flowing semi-quavers suggest a form of contentment, though not entirely divorced from striving and effort, and the oddly shaped figurations convey elements of struggle, threat and resistance.
This is the only one of the four dialogue cantatas to begin and end with a linked duet. In the finale the soprano intones the four phrases of the chorale used in the opening movement where it was originally in triple time. Now it is in 2/4 time and imbued with a stronger, more assertive character, immediately established by the ascending ritornello melody, the initial three notes of which bring to mind the E major violin concerto.
The continuous semi-quaver figuration (from bar 5) conveys the joyous ebullience of the salvation that allays all sorrows.
The Soul’s message is----my arduous journey to Paradise is yet to come by grace of Your own spilt blood. Christ is continuously encouraging----be of good cheer as you proceed from this life of sorrow, for here is grief and there is glory. As at the beginning we hear the Soul first, with Jesus responding, continuing through the second chorale phrase. This takes us to the middle point of the movement and a further eight bars of the ritornello theme.
Bar 66 marks the beginning of the second half and the voices now enter virtually together, the soprano completing her two final phrases against the bass’s counterpoint which continues uninterrupted until the end of the movement. Thus, as in the first duet, Christ’s dominance is asserted, the Soul playing a significantly assured, but definitely secondary, role.
The closing statement of the ritornello is not, as we would expect, played only by the band. It is adorned with Christ’s final and repeated comparison of the conditions on earth and in heaven, thus ensuring that Jesus has the last ebullient words. And encouraging these words are----be of good cheer; here sadness, but there is glory!
It is a message Bach has contrived, through structural means, to leave ringing positively in the ears of his congregations. There is, consequently, no place for the traditional, reflective four-part chorale.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.