Chapter 37 BWV 155 Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange?
How long, my God, how long?
Recit (sop)--duet (alto/tenor)--recit (bass)--aria (sop)--chorale.
The thirty-sixth cantata of the cycle for the second Sunday after Epiphany.
After six consecutive cantatas each of which was based around either two or three chorales, Bach returns to a more compact, chamber structure, possibly directly related to the decision to adapt another of his early Weimar cantatas (Dürr p 193). Many of these were concise and lightly scored, in this case for four singers, strings, continuo and the single obbligato woodwind instrument. Assuming one player to each string part, this requires just a dozen musicians and in none of the five movements are they all required. There is no chorus, just two paired groups of a recitative and aria, rounded off by a four-part chorale.
Were the Leipzig congregations surprised when they were presented with very different types of devotional music from that to which they had become accustomed? There is no documentary evidence but it may be safe to assume that by this time, probably not. In fact Bach may well have deliberately set out to present as wide a range of styles and structures as possible so that his audiences would become tolerant of, and accustomed to, his endless need to experiment and innovate. He had, including C 155, presented Leipzig with three dozen cantatas in eight months, no two of which are the same. Some have massive choruses, others none. There are works in one or two parts, others with multiple chorales, there is one solo cantata and a clutch of sinfonias. The number of movements range from five to fourteen wherein he makes use of various dance forms and secular styles (such as the French Overture, the Italian concerto and Italian opera) communicated through a range of instrumentation and timbres that was quite remarkable considering the limitations of his resources.
And even in this modest work he introduces an element not previously heard at Leipzig, the bassoon as an obbligato instrument. In fact this cantata has so many original and imaginative features that it is worthy of detailed scrutiny.
The opening movement is a recitative for soprano and strings and it serves to remind us how passionate, poetic and, indeed, operatic Bach had been in the years before his Leipzig appointment. The theme is a commonly recurring one of impatience with human distress----How long, God must I endure?----I see no end, Your countenance is obscured, Your loving hand withdrawn----my cup of tears overflows and my confidence ebbs away. The notion may be conventional but the distress is real. Bach’s genius is the ability to replicate and communicate feelings of genuine human suffering, the sources of which become ultimately irrelevant, allowing his music to move deeply even those without any knowledge of the texts. The words tell of the anguish of separation from God; the music touches a chord of human suffering and loss that we may associate with a number of circumstances, bereavement, persecution, pain or alienation. In this way we may begin to separate the music from its predictable lyrics and feel its power within the context of our own experience.
The most striking characteristic of this movement is the throbbing pedal bass, the note of d being repeated from the beginning until the twelfth bar. Just before it moves, it clashes strongly with an e flat in the vocal line, a representation of the cup of bitter tears (bar 12). At the mention of the ‘wine of joy’ the upper strings, which until this moment had only reinforced the harmonies on the first and fourth beats of each bar, change to a pulsating figuration supporting the melisma on Freuden (bar 14). But the notion of joy, although extrovertly depicted, is illusory since it is clearing missing when personal confidence declines. Upper strings and voice intertwine with each other as they literally ‘sink’ with their descending pitches (bar 16).
Thus in less than twenty bars Bach presents us with a picture of relentless and persistent misery, a momentary glimpse of the joy that life presently lacks and a final image of confidence ebbing away to nothing. Whether or not his congregations were surprised, they could hardly avoid being carried away by the sheer drama and intensity of these opening bars.
Dürr (p 193) describes the duet for alto and tenor as ‘probably one of the most original that Bach ever wrote’. It is a da capo aria but the ritornello theme is not repeated before the reprise; it occurs fully at the beginning, the end and preceding the middle section.
It is an extraordinary theme and the fact that it is played by the bassoon is not the least of its peculiarities. It ranges over almost two octaves and, although it appears to be an independent counterpoint against the continuo line, at times it is an embellishment of it. Students who have wrestled with harmonic exercises may be shocked to find a number of reoccurring consecutives between the two parts e.g. g-f in bar 1 and c-b-a in bar 3. Clearly they were intentional but they are oddities because of their occasional appearances. This is not the sort of consistent heterophony that one finds, for example, in the bass parts of the slow movement of Brandenburg 6.
The text pre-empts the theme of Christ’s recitative that will follow----you must believe, hope and trust in God-----Jesus knows when to help you and He will be there when this cheerless time ends. In the first section the two voices are calmly reassuring, moving together in thirds and sixths or reinforcing their message through simple imitation. The middle section, from bar 25, deals with two ideas----Jesus knows the right time (bar 25-31) and ----after this turmoil His heart will be open (bars 33-42). The subtle changes in the character of the melodic lines depict each of these notions perfectly, first gently assertive, thence more anguished and finally ripening into acceptance.
Bach has also structured the aria around three key words, each of which is proclaimed with an extended melisma:----gottgelassen----faith in God (bars 15-17)----erfreun---- His gladdening (of our hearts, 28-30)----offen---- the openness (of His heart, 36-40). All three express the positivity of the message and the last is the longest.
The bass recitative is wrought with as much care and eye for detail as that for the soprano. It draws an analogy between the friend from whom you are only temporarily parted and God’s absence which, it transpires, is no more than a test of faith in times of suffering. After this, we are told that His light will appear all the more lovely so that, everything considered, it is best to let His Will prevail. Bach’s setting is a textbook example of the range of expression that may be gained from the interaction of two melodic lines; there are no upper strings and so any imagery has to be painted either through the shaping of the vocal melody, changes of harmony or continuo interruptions. Bach makes use of all three techniques.
This is the first of the cantata’s movements to begin and end in major modes, also a characteristic of the second aria and chorale. For the most part the bass line is typically slow-moving, providing the essential harmonic support but it departs from this practice on four occasions, each time to mark a point of text. In bars 4 and 11 its bursts of rapid notes signify firstly the departed friend and secondly running honey replacing the bitterness of wormwood. A more measured and considered quaver movement is introduced in bar 18 (suggesting God’s lovely light) and again at the end where God’s Will is seen to prevail. Unexpected flat notes surprise us in the melodic line in bars 10 (wormwood bile) and 16 (our weeping in times of sadness). The keen listener will notice much more of course, the most obvious being the little rushes in the vocal line. But all is integrated into an endless flowing melody which, even without the advantage of an understanding of the nuances of text, leaves us with a sense of translucent beauty.
The soprano aria is the one movement of this cantata which can be described as being truly joyous and it encapsulates the delight and, indeed, relief of complete commitment----Heart, throw yourself into His merciful arms----lay your burdens and oppressions upon His compassionate shoulders. The skipping rhythm with which the ritornello theme is announced pervades the entire movement; there is not a single bar in which it is not heard in one or more of the upper strings, voice or continuo. The image of throwing or casting (your heart) seems to have caught Bach’s eye and the action is perfectly captured in the upward skirl of notes in the continuo line as it takes on the dotted rhythm (bar 7). Even the soprano cannot escape its ebullience although the initial violin line has been subtly tailored so as to fit practical vocal capacities (compare bars 1-4 violin with 9-12, voice). When the soprano does relinquish the pervasive rhythm it is to revolve about a single note, firstly to suggest the act of being embraced within God’s loving arms (bars 16-17) and later the removal of repression (bars 46-47).
The detail and subtlety of these moments is remarkable; in each case they convey a sense of something persisting and enduring and the progression from minor to major suggests motion of various sorts; into or towards or, in the latter example, perhaps away from (life’s oppressions).
A middle section appears to emerge from bar 26 with clear emphasis upon the word Gnaden---- God’s mercy (from bar 31). A truncated version of the first section returns, as does the complete ritornello theme, to close the movement. The contrast between the affirmation of this movement and the dejection of the first cannot be overstressed. The miracle is that Bach can make the emotional journey so convincingly in such a relatively short space of time.
It would seem that these contrasts may have been at the forefront of the mind of whoever chose the closing chorale and its particular verse. The text recognises the disparity that exists between what seems and what is----it may seem to you that He is not willing, but do not be put off----He does not disclose when He is most with you----you must not fear even though your heart says ‘no’.
Fortuitously or not the hymn tune captures this dichotomy within it melodic shape. It moves first to the subdominant key (Bb) thence to the dominant (C). In musical terms it looks backwards and then forward before, in the final three phrases, setting a tone of complete optimism. Bach’s harmonisation places emphasis upon a sturdy three-note figure in all parts, but most assertively in the bass.
It seems a wholly appropriate way to end a cantata of great emotional power, narrative progression and, above all, stunning originality.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.