Chapter 37 BWV 84 Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke
I am content with my destiny.
A cantata for solo soprano voice.
This is the last of another trio of extant works for this particular day, one surviving from each cycle. C 144 (vol 1, chapter 41) is unusual in that it uses the same chorale twice, with different verses, as the third and last movements. The emphasis upon the rightness of God’s will and statute is thus doubly stressed. The opening chorus is in the form of a sturdy four-part motet, instruments doubling the vocal lines throughout. The text is an injunction to take what is justly ours and depart, the actions of moving away clearly suggested in the persistent continuo line.
C 92 is a chorale/fantasia from the second cycle (vol 2, chapter 37) and is a work of considerable distinction. The first recitative sets almost three dozen lines of text, chorale and recitative techniques interacting above a graphic and impressionistic bass line. The following tenor aria, warning of the disasters ensuing if God’s arm does not hold, is one of the most dramatic and operatic in the canon.
Nevertheless, it is the opening fantasia that resounds in the mind. Wistful and yearning, yet forever striving towards a state of grace, this lovely chorus stands perfectly balanced between the extrovert commands of the C 144 motet and the exquisitely personal first aria of C 84. Notably, all three works begin with movements set in minor keys, although their forms are very different: motet, fantasia and aria.
C 84 may also be compared with the only other solo soprano cantata in the cycle, C 52, performed less than three weeks previously. It has often been conjectured that both works might have been written especially for performance by Bach’s wife, Anna Magdalena. The most obvious difference between them is the use of a large sinfonia in the earlier work, itself a clue as to Bach’s intentions. C 52 is essentially an affirmation of faith in God’s powers and protection; some doubts are voiced, but only in order that they be subsequently quelled. C 84 moves the emphasis from an expression of confidence in the Lord to an articulation of personal trust and affirmation; a totally unquestioning assurance, not only in the Lord’s judgement, but also in one’s own. It is as if we have passed through a doubting, even fearful stage of ‘adolescent’ Christianity to arrive at a ‘higher’ level of mature wisdom.
The student should also refer to C 199 (vol 1, chapter 14) a graphic youthful work, the dramatic imagery of which contrasts strongly with the mature acceptance of C 84.
Many of the cantatas have dwelt upon human weakness and the fact that we may not be capable of living up to God’s exacting standards: we are sinners and so we sin and must repent. But C 84 paints a scene of total acceptance of our lot in this life and the assurance of the next.
The very first line encapsulates these private, personal thoughts with an elegant simplicity----I am content with my destiny. The text throughout is couched in the first person, the choir is called upon for the closing chorale only, and the instrumental forces are meagre. The work can be performed with a mere ten musicians, four singers, including the soloist, strings, continuo and oboe. Every aspect of this cantata is attuned to the exclusively personal perspective of its message.
The first aria expresses the resigned nature of the soul, still unworthy, but content with its consigned place, no matter how lowly that might be. One of Bach’s most delicately touching extended oboe melodies comprises the ritornello, although the listener should not neglect the part played by the accompanying strings. The gentle rocking dotted rhythm of the melody, heard from the very first bar, suggests a quiet sense of dignity and solemnity whilst its subsequent contours depict a rising and falling as in the very action of taking breath.
And yet there is an additional sense of disquiet, communicated on a level which music is, perhaps, the only art form capable of achieving.This cantata was composed four years into Bach's cantorship when all the evidence indicates that the scales had fallen from his eyes and his satisfaction with his appointment had greatly diminished. He had come to the end of a period of regular cantata output, and was soon to cast his eye about for other positions. His Draft for a Well appointed Church Music document to the Leipzig town council (August 1730) gives evidence of problems which had been brewing for some time (See the New Bach Reader, p 145, for this document, and elsewhere for other relevant pieces of evidence). So Bach's sense of satisfaction with his position was certainly less than complete and one does not have to seek far to feel the ripples of an underlying sense of personal disquiet.
Bach’s tweaking of the conventional da capo aria format, albeit enveloped by the reoccurring ritornello theme, is again clearly apparent. The latter acts like a picture frame, marking, enclosing and enhancing the main vocal blocks. The A section (bars 25-53) is fully reprised, virtually without alteration (bars 116-144) and deals with the first two lines of text only----I am content with that fortune God has allotted to me. The B section is in two clear parts, bars 68-79 and 88-107, both setting the latter lines of the verse----even though I have little, I thank Him for it and remain unworthy of it. In the second segment, longer than the first, we encounter a flowing melisma on Gaben----gifts----indicating, almost as an afterthought, an appreciation the Lord’s endowments, no matter how insignificant they may first seem.
One can only speculat whether Bach, through the very act of composing such profound music on such a theme, obtained a degree of solace and consolation. This cantata should be heard in conjunction with C 204 (vol 1, chapter 102) I am content within myself, also a highly personal work for solo soprano with a similar theme, exploring comparable human emotions.
The first recitative is long and set as a secco, with bare continuo accompaniment. Once again Bach reveals his consummate skill in imbuing a single melodic line with a meaning that goes far beyond that of the written words. The text declares that whilst God owes us nothing, Man is nevertheless often despondent because He has not made him rich. Man’s impatience and his sense of dejection may both be perceived in the turns of the phrases of the final melodic bars as the singer, in an act of almost pompous obeisance declares----it is enough for me that I do not go to bed hungry!
The subtlety of Bach’s melodic depiction in his recitatives is not only confined to colourful images. Simple statements, states of mind and fleeting emotions may be similarly coloured in the most delicate of fashions. Certainly, a lack of fluency in the German language can be a drawback but with translations now readily available line against line, the assiduous listener can follow the shadings and relate to the manner in which Bach colours his texts.
This cantata is somewhat oddly proportioned, the two arias taking up about four fifths of the total performance time, itself typically barely a quarter of an hour. It would be difficult to imagine two more contrasting arias. That which holds the central position is major, ebullient and joyful almost to the point of unabandonment. Oboe and solo violin share the obbligato duties and Bach’s writing for them is worth noting.
The text continues the metaphor of sharing one’s barely adequate bread. This leads, so we are told, to a clear conscience, an uplifted spirit and grateful heart that swells our blessings. The spirit, it seems from the character of the music, is much more than ‘uplifted’----it is ebullient almost to the point of ecstasy. This is not the expression of resignation; rather it is a depiction of the unabandoned joy resulting from the acceptance of our lot in life with good grace and a full recognition of God’s benefice. The violin and oboe play out a swirling scene in which one clearly detects the whooping of high spirited jollity (the rising intervals of a 6th).
The opening ritornello theme is played by the oboe, the violin reinforcing the main melodic line with additional rhythmic impetus. Students who have spent hours learning the ‘rules’ of harmony which Bach was often supposed to have established and applied may be surprised to find the consecutive octaves in the first eight bars.
They are not, of course, accidental harmonic octaves which are avoided so as not to weaken the progression, but here a technique for ornamenting the melodic line. Additionally this gives the main melody, set rather low in the registers of both instruments, some additional reinforcement. But it is likely that he also intended it to convey an additional textual image. Is it the grateful heart, joyful, complete and content in itself, yet through its very sense of ‘rootedness’ able to multiply its blessings and praises? Might it be a suggestion of the image conveyed in the opening lines, the sharing of what we have with our neighbour, the one portion dividing into two, thence to become an entity in the eyes of God? This writing is unusual for Bach and therefore suggests a purpose beyond the purely musical.
Thereafter the two instruments break free of each other to create, with the continuo, a genuine three-part contrapuntal texture, only to double up again at the approach to the cadence just before the voice enters (bars 23-4).
The form is very like that of the opening aria, a minimally modified da capo enclosed by a ritornello which occurs four times without adaption: at the beginning and end and before and after the lengthy B section. This middle segment (from bar 97) is predominantly set in minor keys. Part of the reason for this is the obvious need for musical contrast required to sustain a reasonably long movement. However, this is not the minor-mode drama of the opening of the Bm Mass nor is it plumbing the depths of despair such as we may come across elsewhere. Here we have the embodiment of the quietly assured Christian conscience, the ‘blessed heart’ and the soothing of distress. This is a musical portrait of the inner being, the private, personal state of the acceptance of grace, salvation and the word of God. Minor keys seem to have a colouring most suited to the expression of thoughts and feelings emanating from the inner world of the human psyche, elements of the human condition which are often inadequately communicated through formal language.
Bach’s double emphasis upon the word----Not----(from bars 108 and 148) is an indication of his complex approach to texts. The word conveys a sense of the trials, tribulations or requirements we encounter in this life. But the text speaks of their being ‘sweetened’ through our clear consciences and gladdened hearts. Nevertheless Bach strives to remind us that, appeased or not, these factors remain as inevitable parts of our daily lives. The first melisma suggests a limited degree of striving and endeavour but the second (from bar 148) provides a greater emphasis. It is longer and accompanied, for the first and only time in the movement, by a sighing motive on the obbligato instruments. Finally it pauses for a moment of reflection (bar 156) before proceeding to the final cadence of the B section.
Bach has reminded us in the most subtle of ways that, sweetened though it might be, we can never really be free from sorrow in this world. And who should know that better than he? Nevertheless, his fundamental optimism is reaffirmed by the reprise of the entire joyful A section before the end.
The second recitative immediately takes us back to the minor modes which dominate every movement except the second aria. Now the singer is supported by sustained string chords. The image of consuming one’s spare allotment of bread continues----I take my bread even as the sweat lies on my forehead. Thus the melismas from the previous movement depicting the stresses of living may, in retrospect, be viewed as a preamble to this more specific statement.
The main thrust of the recitative, however, is that of a prayer for God to allot to us that which is appropriate. Given this, we have need of nothing else. The final phrase----I shall require nothing more----is musically terse and abrupt. There is, it seems, no more to be said.
Except, of course, for the closing chorale which neatly summarises the theme of the day----I live, content in the Lord’s blessing and die without sorrow----I am satisfied in and totally committed to God’s ordinance----through His grace and Christ’s blood I shall die well. Alert listeners may note that the first four notes of the opening phrase, transposed into the major mode, were used to form the beginning of the violin and oboe melody from the second aria. The echo remains, therefore, of those joys of sharing and acceptance.
But, overall the melody is dour and stolid, conveying more of the steadfastness of the Christian faith than the ecstasy which (we have been told) it engenders. It is simply harmonised with the minimum of passing notes in the lower voices. This is a hymn of contented resignation, not a spontaneous outpouring of bliss.
Nevertheless, its impassive aloofness conveys to contemporary audiences something of the strength, confidence and perhaps even the discipline of eighteenth century Lutheranism.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.