Chapter 36 BWV 154 Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren
My dear Jesus is lost.
Aria (tenor)--recit (tenor)--chorale (SATB)--aria (alto)--arioso (bass)--recit (tenor)--duet (alto/tenor)--chorale.
The thirty-fifth cantata of the cycle for the first Sunday after Epiphany.
Another cantata with two chorales and no chorus, C 154 compensates for the loss of the latter by having eight movements which include three splendid arias. Dürr (p 184) suggests that it may have been composed some years earlier but whilst certain stylistic characteristics may support this contention, there are no confirmed sources.
The tenor aria with which it begins is loaded with musical imagery. The theme is, yet again, that of a sense of demise when parted from Christ----my beloved Jesus is lost----words bring despair, swords lacerate my soul and I have the sound of thunder in my ears. The key word for Bach must surely have been ‘loss’ and the unexpected harmonies of the enigmatic ritornello theme encapsulate this idea with immense artistic skill. Nothing ever loses its way within Bach’s certain sense of harmonic movement but he could, at times, appear to be so abstruse as to temporarily bemuse the listener. This is one of those moments. The bass line is one of his most disjunctive. It denies the rule of the 7th note resolving and it is chromatic to a degree which calls to mind the Second Viennese School and the construction of atonal rows; it uses nine of the twelve available notes and, until the cadence, seems to have little clear tonal direction. The violin melody is more coherent though no less chromatic and the whole impression is one of searching for something and lack of direction.
The continuo line is repeated throughout the movement in the manner of a ground bass. The tenor adopts the ritornello melody with the minimum of adjustment and above it the first violins immediately begin the kernel of their own wispy line of sadness and abandonment. This begins with a motive consisting of a mere five notes (bar 10) but it extends gradually as the sense of alienation develops.
This is music of isolation and estrangement, melody, harmony and texture conjoining to unsettling effect.
Even the conventional cadence which usually separates the main musical sections is missing as the strings commence a threatening, repeated figuration in the middle of the tenor’s phrase (bar 37). The imagery now is of the Word and Sword of Thunder resonating in the ear. This leads to a return of the first section, now condensed and lacking the violin’s commentary upon life’s sadness. Instead there are two remaining echoes of thunder (bars 51 and 52), a reminder of terror in the midst of isolation. There is, it has become clear, no solace to be found anywhere when there is separation from Christ.
The short recitative, again for tenor, is secco and begins with an ascending phrase which marks a question----where will I find my Jesus, He who can show the path I wish to follow? It ends with the assertion that nothing could be as traumatic as losing Him, but Bach offers here a ray of hope. He moves from the dark key of F#m, in which the movement began, to the brighter key of A major. This is the key of the following chorale and Bach’s reason may have been largely technical, particularly if he intended the one to follow immediately upon the other. But one also notes the way in which such a change of mode might signal movement towards more hopeful sentiments.
The chorale was later to be used to close C 55 (vol 3, chapter 32) the only extant cantata for solo tenor. It will also be found in Part 2 of the Saint Matthew Passion and the harmonisations vary between these three usages, but only in details. The text of the verse used in this cantata is not yet fully reassuring; it consists rather of a series of ongoing entreaties----Jesus my haven and Redeemer, my slayer of serpents, the light of my life, how much I ache and long for You as I remain waiting. The balance of the work has altered but only to a degree. The first movement painted a picture of complete abandonment. Loss remains but now there is a modicum of hope.
But Bach’s librettist still seems inclined to leave his congregation on tenterhooks a while longer; there is to be no immediate reconciliation. The mood of Bach’s music, though, is tempering and this aria of prayer, if not actually jolly, has an optimistic pastoral-like quality which suggests a happy ending. The soul, in this case the role appropriately adopted by the alto, asks----Jesus let me find You----let my sins be not as clouds wherein You conceal Yourself. The obbligato theme is taken by a pair of oboe d’amores but surprisingly Bach introduces a harpsichord doubling the upper strings. It is still not clear the extent to which this keyboard instrument may have been used in the performance of the cantatas, although its specific designation here would suggest that it may not have been frequent.
Oboes above continuo.
Bach seems to have been inclined towards the use of unexpected instruments or combinations at this time; the previous week he had brought horns, flutes and oboe da caccias together in an aria (C 65) and in the following week the bassoon was to be introduced in an obbligato role, so it may have simply been a search for something different. But there might also have been other reasons. The harpsichord was more associated with the domestic scene than the organ (absent from this movement) and it is possible that Bach had in mind an image of familial observance i.e. family rather than congregational prayer. We cannot know, but Bach’s relentless sense of purpose and search for the appropriate ideal would suggest that his reasons were based upon something more than just ‘liking the sound’. The complete absence of a continuo line may have several implications; Dürr suggests ‘innocence’ (p 185) although here it may also have implied loneliness and alienation. (Further discussion of this point may be found in the essay on C 11, vol 3, chapter 50).
Even as we reach the fifth movement it seems that Christ’s protection is not fully assured; He asks----are you not aware that I am about my Father’s business?----. It seems like a reprimand for inconveniencing Him but, as the following recitative makes clear, this is not the case. It is, in fact, a reminder of Christ’s purpose to redeem Man and if there is any sense of reproach it is for forgetting this fact and the consequent loss of faith.
The bass declaims his words to a melody which is constantly passed between himself and the continuo. Furthermore, disregarding the last note it has precisely the same shape as that of the opening phrase of the first chorale and is not unconnected with the second. In a sense it could be viewed as the link between these two movements, the one seeking Jesus, the other confidently declaring----I will never let Him go
Chorale phrase. Arioso melody.
The tenor recitative is long and appropriately so since it is the cantata’s fulcrum. It is here that the soul moves from a position of doubt and seeking to one of faith and acclamation. There is very little overt imagery, the main drift of the verse being a narrative of explanation----Jesus announces Himself as the voice of my Friend----I was sick with sorrow but am now filled with the joy of my Sun----prepare, soul, to go with Him to His Father’s house where He will restore you, and you shall kiss Him in penance and faith.
A good performance will illuminate the evolving mood and meaning without need for recourse to the words. It begins with the positive major-mode celebration at the sound of His voice and then touches upon the sorrows of yesteryear, after which faith grows stronger and rapture results. The positive rising phrases (from bar 16) suggest the ascending of the soul in preparation for the inevitable union with God in His house.
This is a verse which begins and ends on notes of positivity. Bach, however, commences in the jubilant key of D major but ends in the darker one of F#m. There is no structural imperative; the following duet returns us to the optimism of D. Perhaps Bach is suggesting that the entry to God’s House, whilst evincing joy and rapture in the soul is still a matter which we need to view very seriously, at least from our perilous position still bound to the mortal coil!
The verse of the duet is neatly organised in three couplets----I am happy that He is found and will be sad no longer----My soul loves Him as He appears at this happy time----I shall never leave You now but shall embrace You evermore. Bach constructs the movement about these three assertions in a manner that pays little heed to conventional musical constraints.
The ritornello theme is announced with strings, oboes doubling the violins. It is one of those happily insistent melodies urged on by the off-beat ‘joy’ figures in the continuo.
The writing for the alto and tenor is of several kinds, initially speaking in parallel movement as in one voice, an expression of the collective elation of the moment. Soon the sustained notes on wohl---joy, contentment----cut through the busily moving textures. Individual happiness is expressed firstly by the tenor and thence the alto (bars 18-21) and there are urgent, almost staccato expressions of pleasure echoing the ritornello theme (from bars 14 and 24). All of this variety of invention occurs within the first musical section dealing only with the initial couplet.
A repeat of the ritornello takes us to the second couplet (from bar 33) where the vocal writing is less varied, a conjoined and contented pairing of voices expressing the bond between souls and Saviour.
At this point Bach reveals himself to be a composer who cares nothing for convention and everything for effective communication. The obvious thing would have been to plan a da capo aria with the reprise setting the final couplet, a perfectly effective solution requiring the minimum of effort for a composer pressed for time. Bach declines the temptation and decides to move the emotional level up a notch by changing the time signature to a rapid three in a bar and creating a trio of entwined commitment, tenor, alto and continuo each with roles of equal significance and musical interest.
The emphasis is clearly upon the eternity of mutual devotion and dedication that the renewed relationship with Jesus brings about.
Even then Bach has not quite finished. In the final vocal bars the string figuration from the original ritornello theme is recalled, a musical drawing together of the twin notions of human rapture and everlasting allegiance.
The time signature returns to the original four beats to the bar and the movement ends with a reprise of the complete ritornello theme, a piece of musical structural balance that finally unites the related themes of the three couplets.
Bach had used the chorale less than two months previously to conclude C 70 at the end of the ecclesiastical year. Clearly he was not averse to repeating a good hymn if he felt it to be right for the occasion. The verses are different however, and although they both emphasise the theme of clinging to and refusing to leave Jesus, there is a difference in their presentation. In C 70 the voices are enclosed with a halo effect created by the upper strings, an appropriate ending to a cantata that exhorted us to watch and listen in awe to the God who has the power to punish all sinners. C 154 places more emphasis upon reunion with Christ after a period of alienation and there is, therefore, a determination to ensure the continuing relationship once rekindled. The basses move in a series of dogged quavers from beginning to end, an obvious musical representation of the resolve----I shall not leave Him, I shall always walk beside Him and He shall guide me to life’s fruitful springs.
Bach’s attention to the nuance of the text becomes apparent in every detail, extending even to the most appropriate form of the chorale presentation. The melody may well be familar to the congregation but the different setting endows it with a unique perspective.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.