Chapter 40 BWV 127 Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott
Lord Jesus Christ, Man and God.
We have now arrived at the penultimate work before Bach abandoned, at least for the time being, his composition of chorale fantasias. It is for the Sunday before Lent, during which time music was generally absent from services. Between this and the Easter celebrations, only C 1 (chapter 41) would be performed. That work, for the Annunciation, was the last of a solid block of forty chorale fantasia cantatas that had begun with C 20, over nine months previously.
C 127 may be compared with Cs 22 and 23 (vol 1, chapters 44 & 45), both written for the same Sunday and surviving as a part of the first Leipzig cycle. Their full history is beyond the scope of this chapter, but it is generally believed that they were also performed as part of Bach’s audition for his Leipzig post. There is no equivalent work from the third cycle but C 159 (vol 3, chapter 41), also composed for this day, is one of less than a dozen surviving from the fourth. It is, however, a much more intimate work with the choir making its appearance only in the closing chorale.
Whether or not Bach knew at this stage that he was coming to the end of his cycle of chorale fantasias is a matter of conjecture (see further discussion on this point in Chapters 1 and 42). What is unarguable, however, is that he displays no lack of commitment in these final works. He is certainly not running out of steam because the final two fantasias (Cs 127 and 1) are magnificent pieces, combining the highest degree of technical skill with incomparable artistry and invention. These are amongst the very best cantatas in what, by any standards, must be judged to be an outstanding and unique canon of work.
The fantasia of C 127 returns to the gentle key of F major used sparingly in the cycle, most notably for that of the first (C 20, chapter 2) and the last (C 1, chapter 41). Strings and continuo are augmented by two recorders and two oboes, and much delicate use is made of them. The text calls to Christ, as both Man and God, reminding Him of His sacrifice on the cross and asking for His mercy to be bestowed upon poor sinners.
The gently rocking sounds of the wind instruments create a mood that is both pastoral and elegiac. There is an infinite profundity suggested by the comforting major harmonies and the quietly inexorable forward movement of the dotted rhythms. Boyd (p 218) and Dürr (p 249) both point out that the long violin notes in the opening bars (later repeated on the oboes) declaim the first phrase of the Lutheran Agnus Dei hymn tune. Dürr further explains its relevance within this context, particularly with relation to Christ’s Passion and Death.
The sopranos carry the cantus firmus doubled by the trumpet, due to make its more extrovert solo appearance in the fourth movement. The chorale has six phrases; but the fantasia has seven entries of the choir, reasons for which will become apparent.
It occurs eleven times in the ritornello in all sections of the orchestra initially in the sequence wind, continuo and upper strings. It supports every entry of the cantus firmus, usually in imitation. Perhaps this is most clearly heard when, just prior to the first soprano entry, we hear it sung by the tenors, then altos and finally basses constructing a supporting texture which is dignified but not flamboyant.
Note also how, for added emphasis, the lower voices repeat the words—-wahr Mensch und Gott—true Man and God—-after the sopranos have stopped (bars 21-2). These words are too important to risk being obscured within the complexities of rich contrapuntal textures.
Two further points about this movement are worth recording. The first is the beginning of the chorale, an easily recognizable motive of three repeated notes. This is an idea that Bach seldom can resist. It is a figure with the potential for great force and can be manipulated in a myriad of ways to express a range of emotions; look what Beethoven did with it in his fifth symphony and what an iconic figure that has become. As we shall see, Bach uses this idea not only in his many repetitions of the first chorale phrase within the fantasia, but as a structural and unifying factor throughout the entire cantata.
The second is Bach’s use of unrelated minor keys throughout the fantasia. This happens as early as bar six of the ritornello where the music passes, slightly unexpectedly, through C minor. The last four bars of the movement are in F minor, emerging onto the tonic major only on the final chord. Bach’s use of the minor modes at unexpected places endows the music with dark colourings and touches of unforeseen profundity. Further, it is almost certainly intended to express the pain of the sinner alluded to in the last lines of the verse.
But why the additional vocal entry right at the end of the movement?
The reason lies in the unusual tonal structure of the chorale, which begins in F but ends in C. There are very rare examples where Bach devises a long movement so as to begin and end in different keys and when he does, he has good reason (see C 68, chapter 49). In this case, he does not consider it appropriate and so he repeats the last line of text, adding one additional ritornello statement and choral entry for the explicit purpose of re-establishing F, the tonic or home key.
Following which, the expected reprise of the ritornello does not eventuate. It seems that Bach planned to end the movement with the ambivalence of major/minor ringing in our ears. Christ’s agonies and our sins resonate; but the final F major chord, blazoned by the full choir and orchestra, is hopeful if not overtly triumphant.
It may finally be worth noting that, although Bach had good technical reasons for adding the additional chorale phrase in this fantasia, he also modified (in this case curtailed) the number of phrases in the fantasia from the previous week′s cantata, C 126. This might suggest that he may have been tiring of the restrictions placed upon him by the narrow tonal confines of the chosen chorale melodies and had already decided to depart from this practice in the repertoire planned for the forthcoming Easter celebrations.
The second movement is a simple secco recitative for tenor. At first sight it may seem surprising that Bach appeared to ignore the powerful images, dread, the sweat of death, a silent tongue and breaking heart. These are all precursors to the sought-after moment when Jesus meets us and accompanies us to our place of rest. Bach depicts none of these images overtly and the reason may well be related to his precise and unfailing sense of musical architecture. This recitative separates two very different but equally intense movements. Bach’s innate sense of balance may well have led him to avoid too much focused concentration upon drama within a short time span. The recitative gives us a moment of welcome respite before the extreme intensity of the soprano aria.
Nevertheless, at the end he maintains the subtle ambiguity of F minor and major which characterized the last bars of the fantasia. Perhaps this mirrors the contrast expressed in the last two lines of text—-the path will be difficult but the final reward shall be one of rest and repose.
The soprano aria plunges us into a new world of tragic passion. It is longer than the first two movements combined and its intensity is unflagging—-my soul shall rest with Jesus when I am covered with earth—-let the tolling of death summon soon because I am ready for it.
The languorous oboe melody suffuses us with the feeling of the grave, and the repeated notes from the chorale in the recorders become an endless ticking of the clock, measuring the ebbing away of life. The pizzicato bass line provides a similar inexorable tread towards inevitable death. Long melodic notes in the oboe and voice clash dissonantly with the bass, a practice established as early as the very first bar. The ultimate message is one of hope and fulfilment but the journey remains, nevertheless, difficult and demanding.
Flutes and continuo supporting oboe theme.
The instrumentation of the middle section (from bar 29) is unlike anything else in the baroque repertoire. Pizzicato upper strings join the ongoing flute and continuo to generate what some critics believe suggests funeral bells (Schweitzer vol 2, p 114). That may well be so but the feelings of time passing and life ebbing away are also manifest.
The first section is repeated and we are still left, at the end, with emotions of sadness and dread. A useful comparison may be made with the fantasia from the earlier cantata C 8 (chapter 16) which poses the question—-when, dear Lord shall I die? The movements are also linked by the representations of funeral bells and the relentless ticking of time.
How many times have we found Bach changing tack in the final aria? In this case it is not a conventional aria as such but another of those hybrid movements with which Bach experimented so much in his second year at Leipzig. The theme is that of the Day of Judgment and the sounding of the last trumpet; and Bach has clearly lined up a player adequate for the occasion. The text for the movement is long, around twenty lines, and this is obviously why Bach chose not to set it as a conventional aria.
For those whose listening is enhanced by a clear concept of the musical structure, the following might be helpful. Section by section we have: A1–B1–A2–B2–A3–B3–A4 in which the A segments are tempestuous, fiery and fully orchestrated, the B sections calmer, more serene and accompanied only by continuo.
This description of the layout might be considered slightly misleading because the movement is essentially through composed, no two sections being exactly alike. For example, the first A section is in 4/4 time and the others in 6/8. The three B (arioso) segments are not identical although they are united through the use of the commanding three-note figure from the first chorale phrase. Repeated notes form an important part of the string and continuo writing in all sections.
A1 introduces the trumpet, mentioned in the text and clearly evoking the Day of Judgment and the agitation it excites amongst the unworthy; the whole world is upturned and the order shattered. A2 reinforces the idea of the end of the world. A3 paints God’s strong and stretching arm of assistance and A4 returns us to the theme of A2.
The first and third B sections do little more than provide a syntactical framework —-Verily I say to you—-but the second cuts to the quick of the matter. The authoritative voice of the bass relates God’s words—-the true believer will not be called to judgment, nor need he even die, as long as he trusts in the Lord.
The music is convoluted in thought and structure, but, nevertheless, maintains a remorseless logic. The message too, is complex but ultimately clear—-the Day of Judgment will come, the earth and even Heaven will be overturned, but the true believer shall have no fear. Changes of texture, tempo, time signature and instrumentation follow each other rapidly, but with no loss of musical cohesiveness.
If any evidence is required to dispute the view that Baroque movements were designed to express a single emotion or ‘affect’, it can be found here. A similarly compelling but less discursive representation of that Day of Judgment and its terrors may be found in the opening aria, also for bass, of C 168 (vol 3, chapter 2).
Lord forgive us, teach us to be patient and strengthen our trust in preparation for our deaths—-this is the invocation of the closing chorale.
Our journey began with a sense of profound resignation and a plea for mercy. It led us through the horrors of death and the Day of Judgment. But it ends with a simple prayer, which, like the chorale, has no clear ending. It is eternal and ongoing.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017.