Chapter 36 BWV 111 Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit
That which God ordains, must ensue.
Chorus/fantasia–aria (bass)–recit (alto)–duet (alto/tenor)–recit (sop)–chorale.
Tempting as it is to launch straight into this energetic and commanding A minor fantasia, let us begin with the chorale which has an interesting and somewhat enigmatic history. It was traditional to sing it on the third Sunday after Epiphany, although Bach did not use it in the cantata for this day in the first cycle, C 73. However, four versions of it are readily traceable in Bach’s choral works. Listeners familiar with the Saint Matthew Passion will recall it from Part 1 of that great work although close scrutiny reveals that its structure has been subtly altered. The harmonization has been changed but we would expect that. What is surprising is the different phrase configuration.
The pattern here is 2–3 (repeated)—-3–2–2–3. However in the Passion all three-bar phrases have been condensed so that we end up with a succession of two-bar units.
Why should Bach have done this? The answer usually lies in the different texts. The stanza used for the Passion (the same as that of the opening fantasia of C 111) is simple and direct—-that which God determines must come to pass—-He helps the faithful, treats us mercifully and so we trust in Him. This is an uncomplicated statement of faith and it may be that Bach felt that a four-square, direct melody constructed only of two-bar phrases was a suitable expression of it.
The stanza of the closing chorale of C 111 is slightly more complex—-you will not deny what I ask, Lord, which is that You help and sustain me in times of temptation—-help, so that we may glorify Your name, and grant this to us all. The mixture of phrase lengths renders the melody marginally less clearly defined and certainly not as predictable. It now has a flowing and more human quality, not so easily articulated.
Interestingly, Bach makes use of both versions in other works; the Passion version may be discovered closing C 103 (chapter 45) near the end of this cycle, although there is no fantasia constructed from it. C 65 from the first cycle ends with the mixed phrase version slightly adapted, both harmonically and melodically.
But perhaps most surprisingly of all, Bach makes use of this same chorale in two adjacent cantatas performed a week apart in January 1725, Cs 111 and 92 (chapter 37). Consequently we have, and for the only time in the cycle, two neighbouring fantasias built upon the same melody. The miracle is that they are so vastly different in character.
In C 111 we encounter another of those vital, dynamic, bustling Am movements which set the pulses racing (for purposes of comparison, Cs 178, 33 and 26 all have similar characteristics: see chapters 9, 13 and 25). The instrumental forces are modest but clearly sufficient, two oboes, strings and continuo. The opening bar sets the tone, mood and spirit of the entire movement.
The first three oboe notes, partially reinforced by the strings and spelling out a descending minor triad, would seem to represent God’s power, might and resolve. The constant use of Schweitzer’s three-note ‘figure of joy’ is then thrown around between oboes and upper strings, eventually to be taken up by the continuo bass. This results in an instrumental section of almost primeval force, developed entirely from the motivic seeds emerging from the very first bar; in fact the entire movement is wrought essentially from these simple ideas. And if that is not enough, we also find the musical shapes imbued with the most powerful of imagic connotations.
Bach’s great genius lies in his ability to create striking and original ideas of this kind and to develop their musical potential to the fullest possible extent whilst ensuring that they fully illuminate and colour the given text. It is this ability to communicate so much on so many levels that ensures that we revisit his music.
And of course, as we discover more we are moved more, upon every renewal.
The text requests that whatever God wills must come about—-He helps and corrects us and He will not abandon those who trust Him. Bach does not ask for the soprano cantus firmus to be reinforced by a horn on this occasion, perhaps because the forces are relatively small and the lower voices lack complexity, playing a relatively subordinate role throughout They enter imitatively but with uncluttered lines of bare crotchets and quavers. The main movement resides in the strings, which swirl in encompassing semi-quavers through and around the choral entries as if instilling them with God’s spirit, strength and support.
Only once, on the fifth phrase, does Bach alter his strategy. This line of text reinforces our acknowledged need of God’s succour and its particular significance leads Bach to set it differently. The strings cease their encompassing scales and join the oboes in throwing around the ‘joy figure′ and the lower voices enter as one on solid, forceful block chords.
The objective is simply to ensure that this line stands out. Bach does a similar thing in the seventh choral entry of the fantasia of C 128 (chapter 46). Whether these changes were too subtle for the parishioners to detect on their first hearing of the work we shall never know. We can only be certain of the fact that Bach would not have made such alterations without good reason but just who might have detected and appreciated them, aside from the Lord, remains a matter of conjecture.
Before leaving this movement, note the directions of the motives used by the lower voices to introduce each chorale phrase: 1, 3, 6 and 7 use rising figures, 2, 4 and 8 falling. A symbol, perhaps of the balance of God′s justice in helping and correcting the deserving in equal measure?
We might have expected the respite of a recitative after this vigorous chorus, but that is not what we find. The second movement is an aria for bass and continuo. It entreats—– be calm, beating heart—-there is no need for disquiet since God’s plan is for your salvation—-and no man can alter that which God has ordained. The opening four bars of ritornello are strangely hesitant, perhaps suggesting a palpitating heartbeat but the overall mood is subtly confident and self-assured.
We may be frightened of what is to come and that is only natural and cannot be avoided, but the Christian message tells us that the journey, and its outcome, can only be positive. Many may feel that the music conveys the idea more effectively than words. Some members of the congregation may recognise that the singer’s phrases carrying the words Gott ist dein Trost—-God is your comfort and confidence—-are a variation of the first notes of the chorale. It is not unusual for Bach to make such references to the chorale melody in other movements, presumably as a way of putting greater emphasis on key ideas.
The melismas on widerstreben—-struggle, opposition—-indicate something further of the composer′s attitude to the text (bars 29-30 and 32-34). The idea that God’s will is immutable and his plans cannot be altered is one that Bach stresses for the recognition of everyone.
The first section of the aria is reprised but in a slightly modified form. The higher register of the bass voice is exploited, possibly to give the words even greater gravity and import.
Alto and soprano recitatives.
The ebullient duet is enclosed by two recitatives, both retaining the minor modes of the first two movements. That for alto is the more dramatic, albeit accompanied only by a few continuo chords. It berates those who are foolish enough to flee from God—-He knows all and those who allow themselves to come under His protection are blessed. There is passion in this melodic line and possibly even a hint of sulphur and brimstone, despite the relative lack of harmonic interest. Note, however, (bars 7-9) the encompassing chromatic harmony supporting the notion of the blessedness arising from the acceptance of the Lord′s protection!
The soprano recitative leads to the closing chorale and has a very different quality. We have just heard the alto and tenor joyously describing the firm footsteps which will take us through death to the salvation beyond. There is now no need of fear or palpitating heartbeats, death has become a positive journey and a release. Now all we shall require is for the Lord to help us to sustain our faith.
Two oboes accompany the voice above the continuo and their long notes have a sepulchral feel befitting the grave. But they emerge from these sustained chords of accompaniment to weave a quietly resigned, contrapuntal texture around the voice’s final line—-oh blissful and long awaited ending.
Death may still be sad because of the loss of loved ones but it is only a journey towards longed-for redemption. Even the oboe suspension on the final chord suggests a death sigh; but it is not one to linger over. Structurally this recitative moves us gently back to the key of the closing chorale about which enough has been said. Despite the minor mode its mood is strongly affirmative.
There remains only the duet, the longest movement of the cantata and the only one predominantly in the major mode. The text affirms—-I shall follow Him through Death with firm footsteps—-there will be no bitterness when I come to be touched by His hand. This is a statement of undoubted positivity and optimism.
Bach chose the alto and the tenor voices, thus ensuring that all four voices had solo parts. Perhaps he set it as a duet so as to convey the universality surrounding themes of faith, death and redemption. It is not so much a matter of what I shall do–the message now applies to us all, universally.
The ritornello has something of a Handelian quality about it, somewhat reminiscent of his Concerti Grossi opus 6. By now we should be aware that the image of firm, resolute or treading footsteps was one which always tempted Bach. Interestingly however, this action is not represented in the movement, as we might expect, with a marching rhythm of two or four beats in the bar. This is in 3/4 time:–a minuet yes, but a minuet of a strongly assertive and confident character. But this should not surprise us; we have seen how Bach often takes suite rhythms, particularly minuet and gavotte, to represent the civilized movements of souls progressing towards heaven.
The little bursts of semi-quavers on the violins suggest the flashes of celestial light we glimpse along our journey. The melodic contours, appropriately, are generally ascending, the direction ever upward. The ritornello itself is a complete miniature binary form movement twenty-four bars long and it is heard, complete, four times in all; at the beginning and end of the first section, and again as part of the traditional da capo reprise.
The middle section returns us briefly to E minor, the key of the bass aria. The long melismas (from bar 100) underline the simple truth that our days are numbered, and there is nothing we can do about that. But the energy and optimism of the singers continue, supported by the inevitable dotted rhythms. This important journey will not be inhibited by sobering thoughts about our limited spans of life on earth. It will now continue to its joyful and inevitable conclusion.
A beautifully planned and balanced cantata that puts thoughts of death in their proper place. It is a remarkably consoling work. Consolation, after all, was an emotion which Bach, and his family, must have had much need for, and familiarity with.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.