Chapter 38 BWV 73 Herr, wie du willt, so schicks mit mir
Lord, do with me as You will.
Chorus/recit (tenor/bass/ sop)–aria (tenor)–recit (bass)–aria (bass)–chorale.
The thirty-seventh cantata of the cycle for the third Sunday after Epiphany.
It can scarcely be denied that C 73 is one of the most original cantatas from this period of Bach′s output. Whoever the librettist was, and history does not record his name, the structure of this work is unique, raising yet again the question of how much contribution Bach himself made to the texts he set. Two of the features particularly worth noting revolve around the opening movement, which has an almost unprecedented twenty-nine lines of text, and the second aria which is structured around three self-contained stanzas.
With occasional exceptions where notes have survived showing that Bach made changes to libretti, it is not known how much input he had into their length, form or content. Indeed, in most cases we do not even know who the librettist was. It is believed that the verses were vetted to ensure that they were suitable, containing no questionable or heretic content. They would have been prepared some weeks in advance of the performance dates since booklets of the texts had to be set up and printed. Only a few of these publications have survived but they do indicate that congregation members, if they so wished, had the opportunity to study the words and themes of the cantatas in advance of their performance. This may well have enhanced their appreciation of the subtleties of Bach′s settings, bearing in mind that they would only have heard them once or, if the Obituary statement is correct and Bach had prepared five annual cycles of cantatas, possibly twice in every decade.
Did Bach work closely with his librettists and play an equal part in the presentation of the texts? Did he advise as to what sort of verses were appropriate for the construction of arias, choruses or recitatives? Did he look for verses that would provide sufficient musical variety within individual movements? Or did he, although from what we know of his character it seems unlikely, simply accept what he was given, treating any deviation from the norm as a stimulus to his imagination?
We do not know the answers to any of these questions and the internal evidence is ambiguous. If, for example, we look at the text of the first movement of C 73, we find that the eight lines of the chorale have been divided into four sections. Between them are interspersed twenty-one inserted lines which comment upon and develop the chorale entreaties. Clearly no coherent aria or chorus could be constructed around such a massive slab of text, but even set as a recitative, twenty-nine lines produce real challenges of coherence and variety.
In the second cycle Bach was to set a number of texts of this length and occasionally even longer, devising ways of maintaining interest through ingenious combinations of chorale, recitative and arioso inserted within the recitative textures. Clearly this was a challenge that interested him but whether because he demanded, requested or was simply presented with such texts, we can only suppose.
Bach′s solution to the problem in this opening movement is to combine the elements of chorus, chorale and recitative within an Italianate concerto/ritornello structure so as to create an entirely original dramatic and musical structure.
The macro-structure of the movement is set out thus:
Section 1: from bar 1——-ritornello—–two chorale phrases (chorus)—–recitative (tenor).
Section 2: from bar 26—–two chorale phrases—–recitative (bass).
Section 3: from bar 40—–three chorale phrases—–recitative (soprano).
Section 4: from bar 62—– ritornello combined with repeated chorale insertions of the last chorale line (which relates back to the first).
Thus do both the chorale and ritornello frame a trio of rhythmically consistent recitatives. The chorale text is a plea to be dealt with by God as He wills and the recitative interpolations, while emphasising the importance of His inscrutability, nevertheless touch upon the misery on earth and the potential punishments of Hell. The theme of the cantata is that of the importance and dominance of His will and our need to obey it, whatever the fears and pains of death or the torments of a continuing mortal existence might be.
There are two principal musical ideas that form the ritornello material both of which dominate the movement. The first is the flowing oboe figure from the opening bar, repeated twice at higher pitches, very possibly symbolic of the higher will or purpose of the Lord. Bach was to use a similar technique at the beginning of the much later chorus of C 177 (vol 2, chapter 56) and in the same key, again raising the pitch from Gm to Bb major. The oboes are supported by a spiky quaver figure in the upper, thence the lower strings, a four-note version of which detaches itself and is of great significance in the development of the movement. It is possible that Bach means us to associate the oboe figure with the tremulous soul and the string motive with the immutable divine will; whatever functions were intended, both ideas are used regularly to support the choral and solo sections throughout the movement.
The ending is masterful. The ritornello returns (from bar 62) but Bach has not quite dispensed with the chorus. The last phrase of the chorale verse—-Lord, as You will—is exclaimed three times against the four-note string motive which has been heard throughout the movement.
The second movement is the only one of five in a major mode, a decision made partially for variety and balance within the cantata as a whole and justified, at least in part, by a text that calls for the implantation of a joyful spirit within the heart—-the sickness of my soul is such that joy and hope vacillate, leaving me afraid. It is a conventional da capo aria in which the first and third sections are devoted to the entreaty, the middle section picturing the sickness within. Oboe, tenor and continuo combine to create a balanced three-part texture throughout.
The ritornello theme is an odd one consisting of rolling semi-quavers punctuated by a ′stretching′ figure of two quavers. The first of these has a predominantly falling direction, later (from bar 9) to be reversed almost as if to suggest that the planted seed of joy has taken root and begun to grow.
From bar 9.
The quaver idea suggests a hiatus, a possible catching of the breath, appropriate to the text. Bach has done his best to make this movement as positive and cheerful as possible for reasons suggested above. But the image remains of planting joy within a heart that is morose and sick in spirit, and gentle reminders of human sadness are entirely commensurate with the text.
Despite the need for musical uplift Bach does his best to ensure that the image of the faltering human spirit is pictured in the middle section where it becomes more the central focus. The fears of the timorous soul are strikingly expressed in the convoluted melisma of bars 32-33, and those on—-Kranken and wanke—-emphasise the notions of suffering and vacillation that these words convey.
The short secco bass recitative leads directly into the following aria. It contrasts the natural human response to death with that of the Christian—-we are perverse, sometimes obstinate and at others even despairing and we wish not to think of death—-but the Christian, in God′s spirit, submits to the will of God and says—-. Both the incomplete sentence and the establishing of the key of the following aria indicate that the one follows immediately upon the other. The contrary nature of the human being is portrayed musically by the high, then low trajectory of the melodic line in bars 2-3 and the musically perverse moving of the bass line supporting it: a flat, a, a flat.
Like the opening chorus the bass aria, with strings, is both strikingly original in concept and markedly powerful in its emotional effect. It is also very rich in imagery. Each of the three short stanzas begins with the words—-Lord if it is Your will—-and moves on to request: a) banish my pangs and sighs b) lay my limbs to rest in dust and ashes and c) sound the funeral bells that I might follow with all fears dispelled. The choice of three stanzas may well be related to the Holy Trinity mentioned individually in the last movement.
The bass enters with a short motive which will be familiar to many Bach lovers as the opening of the song Bist du bei mir copied into the Anna Magdalena notebook. Bach did not compose it although it is often attributed to him.
It is unlikely to have had any religious symbolic significance in this cantata but Bach certainly knew it and it is possible that its inclusion was a private connection between him and his wife whom he had married two years before his Leipzig appointment.
Whether the quotation is intentional or not, it is clear that the expressive effect is very different from that of the song. Apart from the ′head motive,′ the predominant musical idea here is the semi-quaver one for violins first heard in bar 2 which is very similar in shape to that heard on oboes pervading the opening chorus. The individual verses are easily recognised beginning, as they do, with three statements of the initial phrase (but not always set to the same musical motive). Musical painting occurs throughout from the image of death pangs in verse one (bars 14-15) to the suggestion of dust and ashes in verse two (bars 33-34). But the most telling and persistent image is that of the funeral bells suggested by the pizzicato strings in the final stanza.
Bach had yet to compose his magnificent chorale fantasia Lord when shall I die? (C 8, vol 2, chapter 16) which also suggests the tolling of funeral bells (and the passing of time) but achieved through very different means. He had, however, produced an equivalent effect through similar means in the tenor aria from C 95, presented nearly four months earlier within this first cycle (see chapter 19).
The student would do well to study and compare all three works.
The sense of quiet, devout resignation which pervades this aria persists in the chorale. Its short phrases are clear-cut and definite, its minor mode accepting and acquiescent—-Everything is God′s will in that He has created us, Christ has provided us with goodness and grace and the Holy Spirit governs us in our faith—-God leads us to the Kingdom of heaven and for this we honour and praise Him.
A very different setting of this hymn tune may be found concluding the Ascension Oratorio C 11 (vol 3, chapter 50). A comparative analysis of just these two movements will take the student a long way towards an understanding of the multifarious ways in which Bach viewed and exploited the possibilities of chorale melodies within his vision of ′well regulated′ church music.
A remarkable cantata which declaims the immutable will of God and our acceptance of it. The extent to which Bach personally accepted it or not, we do not know. What he certainly did not accept was musical conventions for their own sake or easy, facile solutions to artistic problems. This fascinating work perhaps, tells us more of Bach the man than it does of his, or anyone else′s, Lutheran faith.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.