Chapter 38 BWV 125 Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin
I depart in peace and joy.
This is one of five surviving cantatas for the Purification of the Virgin Mary. Boyd (p 296) lists the others as Cs 158, 83, 82 and 157 and the serious student may wish to compare and contrast them all. Such a study is outside the scope of these volumes but brief contextual comments may be illuminating (see vol 3, chapter 36).
One obvious point is the lack of choruses in all except C 125. C 82 (1727) does not even boast the usual simple chorale at the end and is one of that relatively rare group of cantatas for a single voice, in this case the bass. Interestingly, C 157 from the same year also emphasizes the use of the deeper voices, tenor and bass.
Despite the splendid alto aria in C 125, it seems, for some reason, that the lower voices of tenor and bass were used much more in the cantatas for the Purification than the higher ones. Whether this is coincidental or if there is some underlying symbolic reason is not known. Might it have been thought inappropriate to have used the soprano voice, albeit sung by a boy but most suggestive of a woman, in these works?
Whatever the background, this cantata delivers a balanced emotional palette, something which we may expect from Bach, although not in every work. C 122 for example, is a more emotionally contained composition (chapter 31). But in C 125, whilst we discover sadness, poignancy and even fear and, by way of contrast, it would be difficult to find a more extrovertly ebullient movement than the tenor and bass duet. Again Bach seizes the opportunity to use the final aria to paint a contrasting picture from that which precedes it.
Anyone who knows Bach’s music well cannot help but make comparisons between the first movement of this cantata and that of the Saint Matthew Passion. But when one writes as much music as Bach, there are bound to be convergences of key, time signature and even motive. These may or may not be significant and in this case are probably not, except for the fact that Bach did seem to have particular associations with the key of E minor. The Crucifixus is the only movement of the B minor Mass in that key and there are similar resonances in C 4 (chapter 42) and elsewhere.
But in this opening chorus the emphasis is more upon the individual’s path to God, approached through the inevitability and acceptance of death—-I depart quietly, joyfully and peacefully—- God has promised me that my death will be but a sleep. Unlike the less moving and somewhat ‘matter of fact’ text and music for C 122, this lyric is rich with imagery and undertones; death, sleep, a journey of departure, peace and consolation are some of the intertwined themes and images. Bach is always at his most creative and imaginative when dealing with such complexities.
The time signature of the fantasia is, relatively unusually, 12/8, used barely half a dozen times in the fantasias. It is also to be found in the first movement of C 123 (chapter 33) but in neither case does it have the character of a gigue or a pastorale. The two movements share a certain pensive quality, although it is worth noting the predominant downward direction of the initial musical motive in C 123 and the upward one in this. This alone helps to set the individual characters of the music immediately.
Rising flute and violin melodies.
The instrumental ritornello of this fantasia is one of Bach′s most richly inventive. Flute and oboe imitate and entwine around each other above the continuo line and broken upper string parts which Schweitzer (vol 2, p 361) interprets as ‘the weary, uncertain steps of the pilgrim of heaven’. Steps perhaps, but the text seems more concerned with peace and consolation than with movement and fatigue. The figuration continues to stretch endlessly upwards and there is, throughout, a feeling of compliant resignation. There are some movements which we can tell are going to be substantial and significant from the opening two or three bars; this is one of them.
By now aficionados will have become attuned to the sheer range and complexity of Bach’s writing for the voices not carrying the chorale melody. To call them ‘supporting’ would be to mislead; they frequently take a more active part in the narrative than the voice carrying the hymn. Furthermore, Bach often finds ways of manipulating the themes, rhythms and textures of these voices to make all sorts of symbolic and metaphorical suggestions. If he relegates his lower voices to doing little more than providing the harmonic framework, it is more likely to occur in the final chorales, though even there the part writing is often highly inventive. The vocal writing for the fantasias, on the other hand, offers a never-ending source of musical and representational interest, sometimes overt, at other times abstruse and enigmatic, but never less than musically, emotionally and intellectually invigorating.
Of the six chorale entries, the first three are treated similarly. The lower voices enter imitatively always in the order tenor, alto, bass with either the opening motive or other material taken from the ritornello. They entwine and support the soprano’s cantus firmus almost as if to sustain the resigned and peaceful soul on its journey to heaven. And so, in the hands of a lesser composer, this process might have continued.
But Bach is the master of manipulating his choral forces to paint the subtlest of shades and changes of meaning. On the fourth and shortest phrase expressing the words ‘calm and quietness’, the order of entries is altered (A, T, B) and all voices die away, simply harmonized in the remote key of G minor. One bar later (bar 52) even the orchestra comes to a halt for a brief moment of reflection, an unusual event in these fantasias.
The writing that underpins phrase five is somewhat more assertive, perhaps to emphasise God’s given promise.
But it is the final entry that really catches our breath. This is the setting of the line—–death has been transformed into sleep. Counterpoint is now abandoned in the choir, and f naturals appear in both the chorale melody and harmony, allowing the highly expressive Neapolitan chord to tug at the emotions.
Here can be few better examples of Bach’s vocal writing, artfully and imaginatively manipulated so as to convey explicit textual concepts whilst simultaneously illuminating and infusing them with the emotions they suggest. This is a symphonic poem, the magnitude and depth of which ranks with those of C 101, 6 and 103 as well as the opening choruses of the great Passions.
There is no recitative to break the mood or interject what might have been an inappropriate note of drama or narrative. Instead we have another moderately slow, heavily minor-mode movement. The text informs us that even with failed vision—-blindness or a fractured body—-faith still remains strong. The last two lines reassure us that Jesus cares even in death, there being no good reason for sorrow. We have then, a stanza in which the first four lines deal with the body’s decay and the last two (from bar 80) with Christ’s support and sustenance.
Even the ritornello has been constructed so as to mirror these different ideas. The first ten bars involve the flute and oboe moving together in a series of broken, drooping motives and dotted rhythms representing the lurches of the blind and the fracturing of the body.
Flute and oboe.
But just as we come to the cadence heralding the alto entry, dotted notes become evenly flowing semi-quavers, falling directions become rising and, just for an instant, the music represents hope and acceptance as we pass through the barrier of death (bars 11-12).
The long drawn out notes on Sterben—-dying—-conjure up images of the final death rattles. But even here, and at odd other moments throughout this extended movement, the little semi-quaver figures of hope remind us that Jesus still watches over us. It is, indeed, a statement of great beauty and subtlety in which Bach has, as always, responded imaginatively to the challenge of representing quasi-opposing ideas within the same movement.
The following bass hybrid recitative is richly accompanied by a reiterated flickering figure on the upper strings. Bach has interwoven an embellished version of the chorale into the texture, sung by the bass in one long line of continuous melody.
The recitative sections are supported by the usual slow-moving continuo bass with a minimum of chords. Aurally Bach clarifies the structure by ensuring that whenever sections of the chorale are sung, the continuo breaks into patterns of moving quavers (first heard in bar 5). He is, as a rule, keen to highlight the appearance of the chorale phrases in these hybrid movements, and the bass line serves the purpose of drawing specific attention to them.
In a sense this is no more than a unifying structural device, although it may too have had another function. Did Bach have so little faith his congregations′ perceptiveness that he supposed they might not have recognized the chorale phrases, particularly when they are richly embellished?
We might think it unlikely that he would feel the need to do something so obvious, particularly when we hearken back to the complex layers of metaphoric meanings embedded within the choral writing of the fantasia. But those may have been intended principally for God, whose perception of the music′s structure and detail we could assume to be more acute than those congregations who would hear it, perhaps, only once every five years! Mere humans may well have needed a little additional guidance in their aural journey through the structures and symbolism of these intense works!
The text is still preoccupied with the idea of passing into the next life, the emphasis being upon positivity. The essential moral is that we should not fear death; it is simply a passageway to salvation. Note how the recitative concludes with the convoluted last line of the chorale at the mention of death and dying. The ultimate objective is noble and to be celebrated but the process may still be painful and Bach reminds us of the inevitable death rattles.
At first sight the bass and tenor duet might seem to have come from another work such is the complete change of mood it creates. It portrays the euphoria associated with the culmination of the journey pictured so painfully in the alto aria. The text tells us of a great light filling the circle of the earth as God’s word suffuses and blesses everyone. All fears of death are now gone but the universal wonder of salvation remains.
Interestingly, Bach does not use the violas here although clearly, from their use in the first movement, they were available. One guesses that he wanted to focus upon the brightness of the great light and the higher strings would best suggest this. Or perhaps the viola players put down their instruments to swell the ranks of the violins. But for added brilliance why no flute, also available, as we found in the fantasia?
We saw how the motives which formed the material for the ritornello of the alto aria directly mirrored the text. Similarly here the close imitation of the initial motive on strings, afterwards on voices, suggests the ‘spreading out’ of the enigmatic light around the corners of the earth.
This idea is reinforced by the long convoluted melismas on Kreis—-the circle (of the world)—-from bars 9 and 15. The echoing of God’s word is clearly portrayed by the overlapping of voices and strings in the middle section where the final melisma on selig—-blessed—-underlines the principal idea that mankind is, indeed, blest if it can aspire to salvation by means of the Holy Promise. The feelings of liberated bliss which this movement expresses are simply Bach’s communication of the rapture associated with divine deliverance.
The alto recitative does little more than elaborate the theme of God’s boundless compassion and our response to it. But note the unexpected chord on the line ein Stuhl der Gnaden—-a throne of clemency. This is the seat of all compassion and salvation and Bach underlines the point by means of a musical punctuation mark.
The closing chorale is rather oddly and awkwardly phrased, something which would have both challenged and stimulated Bach in the writing of the fantasia. The text reiterates the image of the light of the Lord, illuminating and nurturing all. Perhaps the rising bass scale at the beginning symbolises this.
This final verse affirms that God shines forth and nurtures all people in their quest for salvation. For this we should praise Him. Clearly there now is no further reason to fear death.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.