Chapter 40 BWV 83 Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde

A time for celebration of the new order.

Aria (alto)--aria/chorale/recit (bass)--aria (tenor)--recit (alto)--chorale.

The thirty-ninth cantata of the cycle for the Purification.

Boyd (p 296) lists five surviving cantatas for the Purification of the Virgin Mary, Cs 83, 125, 82, 157 and 158 although Dürr (pp 288 and 756) casts doubt as to whether the last two should be so designated. There are, however, elements which appear to unite these works, one being the omission of choruses in all but C 125 (see vol 3, chapter 36 for further contextural comments on these cantatas).

A noteworthy feature is the predominance of the lower voices in these works. C 82 is for solo bass and C 157 uses only tenor and bass. Cs 125 includes an alto aria and recitative and 83 one alto aria. Cs 83 and 158 are predominantly for bass alone or for tenor and bass. In all five cantatas the only solo role for the soprano is the intoning of a chorale line within a bass aria in C 158/2.

Why should this be so? Is it merely coincidental? Certainly the purification with all its implications of blessedness, humility and obedience attracts a sense of reverence and veneration and Bach would have been careful to ensure that his musical offerings were justly appropriate. Might it be that it was deemed inappropriate to make any substantial use of the soprano voice, that which most resembled a woman’s, in works about the Blessed Virgin? Was it thought better to celebrate Her purity more as an abstract ideal rather than representing her as an actual human being? Alas, although the predominant use of lower timbres seems too consistent to be accidental, there are no obvious answers to these questions.

Alto aria.

Another enigma arises from the opening alto aria of C 83. It is, rather unusually, scored for pairs of horns and oboes added to the strings and continuo and furthermore, it includes an active solo violin adopting the obbligato role. So unusual is this combination that it gives rise to the speculation that it might be an arrangement of a pre-existing but now lost concerto for violin. The choice of F major as a key for movements highlighting this instrument as a soloist is not unprecedented; see for example the first two Brandenburg Concerti and the chorale/fantasia from C 1. Moreover, the opening fanfare-like figure is an exact replication of that which begins BWV 1061, the concerto in C for two harpsichords.

Once again the similarities may be entirely accidental but such an accurate quotation by Bach of his own theme is unusual in this context.

The presence of the solo violin throughout the ritornello theme in the alto aria might mitigate against the ‘existing concerto’ theory since Bach’s normal practice was for the soloist to enter at the end of the tutti orchestral statement. But there is precedence within the very keyboard concerto to which the theme is related, the soloists predominant from the very first bar.

The first movement of C 83 is a celebration----joyous time of the new alliance whereby our faith holds Jesus----how jubilantly will that final place of rest, the grave, be prepared. It is in da capo form, a structure which Bach had previously used for first movements of concerti, notably those in E major for violin and for keyboard. This ritornello theme is sixteen bars long and dominated by the continuous semi-quaver violin figurations ranging over two octaves. The first and last of the da capo sections deals with the initial couplet where the accent is very definitely upon the bliss of the occasion; the five melismas on Enfreute----joyous----make this abundantly clear.

Joy is not lacking in the middle section although mention of the grave and the ‘final hour’ is reflected in various ways. It plunges straight into Dm and makes its way to Am where it pauses momentarily before the reprise. Of course, if it had been a pre-existing work these structural decisions could not have been created specifically for the accommodation of this particular text; they would have been made purely for reasons of musical variety. But this raises a further interesting question. Did Bach request,or particularly look for, verses which encapsulated specific moments of mood or feeling which he had similarly represented in earlier movements? In so many of Bach's paraphrases we discover the new texts fitting perfectly with the established structures, keys,  modes and even rhythmic, harmonic and melodic details. Verse and musical structuring coming together in this way would have made it much easier to paraphrase earlier works with new texts; they would  fit well together in all but the most specific details of imagery which, if felt important enough, could still be accommodated through reworked rhythmic or melodic details (see C 248, vol 3, chapter 48).

The violin figuration changes for much of this part of the middle section, now concentrating upon a succession of repetitions of single notes. The freudig----joy at the final hour----is given one more melisma, the only one of any consequence in this section, thus ensuring that any sadness at the prospect of death is set within its proper perspective. On the other hand, eleven ‘joyous’ melismas in the entire movement make an even stronger point. The grave cannot be entirely ignored however; the rocking movement of the vocal line and the plunging downwards (bars 66-69 and again at 82-85) give us moments for thought.

Bass, aria/chorale/recitative.

Dürr states that a parallel to the second movement is ‘hardly to be found’ in the canon of cantatas (p 657). In this he is presumably referring to the insertion of psalm tones generally archaic by Bach’s time. They were based upon the Gregorian modes and were used as the foundation of psalm singing within the services proper. For the technically minded, the psalm here is based upon the mixolydian mode of b flat and phrases of it are intoned by the singer at the beginning and end of the movement.

Ritornello canonic theme.

Whilst the inclusion of the psalm melody in a cantata is unusual, the general structural principles of the movement are not. Bach’s combinations of chorale, recitative and ritornello are not uncommon, particularly in the second cycle. The easiest way to think of this particular movement is to consider the psalm as if it were a chorale melody split into two main sections and divided by fragments of recitative and ritornello e.g.


N.B. each of the psalm sections is divided by the ritornello theme with which it also combines. Although this sounds complicated, the  psalm, ritornello and recitative sections are aurally very clear.

The text of the psalm is biblical----Lord let thy servant depart in peace as is Your will----for my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before everyone. The recitative sections muse upon death, a tragedy, as it seems to us, but nevertheless an entry to the life and peace to which He leads us----knowing this, is it unsurprising that the heart loses its natural fear of death.

Bach does his best to give the movement interest and the canon between the upper and lower strings forms the basis of the ritornello theme as well as symbolising the ultimate union of Man and God. But the psalm is melodically deficient and the movement comes as near to ‘note-spinning’ as any piece of Bach’s work. Perhaps the most successful moments are the three sections of recitative, a form in which Bach seldom loses his innate touch of melodic expressiveness. Here there are several moments of word painting, particularly at references to the fear of death.

Tenor aria.

There is no recitative separating the second and third movements, presumably because there was so much of it included within the former. The tenor aria is, like that for alto, one in which the instrumental themes and rhythms do as much or more to establish and maintain the ecstasy of the occasion as the words and vocal line. It is, perhaps, something of a relief to encounter this happy movement after the somewhat wearisome dirge that preceded it!

The first violins almost literally dance their way through the ritornello melody, supported by positively marching lower strings and continuo. The tenor enters with an initially less complex version of this theme but it too is soon immersed in the triplet streams driving the movement. Four long melismas on treten----walking, or in this case tripping or possibly even dancing----mark the sheer physical pleasure of approaching the Throne of Grace. There are no shadows of the grave here.

But as usual they cannot be totally ignored no matter how strong the optimistic thoughts of salvation may be. The middle section contains but one extensive melisma commensurate with those heard earlier, this time on erlangen----stressing the gaining or receiving of comfort and consolation. But elsewhere there are reminders of the facts of mortal life. 'Times of sorrow' are underpinned by a falling chromatic line in the continuo, the only appearance of such a figure in the movement and a possible further reminder of Christ’s agonies (bars 48-9).

The necessity for continual prayer is stressed by the powerful Neapolitan chord (bar 51) and a moment of reflection is created by the cessation of all movement in the following bar. Hope, joy, salvation and expectation are all ours, but we are reminded yet again, and in this movement by the subtlest of means, that they are only attainable through prayer, sorrow and, ultimately, death.

Alto recitative.

There is, by now little of the narrative remaining. This is a reassurance that even through the darkness of doubt and the dread of death, His light will still be there to guide us. A low phrase depicts the darkness of the grave (bar 4) and the eyes are depicted turning up towards the divine light (bars 7-8) but apart from this there is little to note. Bach may have felt that after the aria of joyous support and encouragement, there was little more to be said.


The closing chorale is genuinely reflective and simply set. Another harmonisation of it exists, possibly from a lost cantata, which has a more robust marching bass line. Here Bach has dispensed with busy lower lines, allowing the melody to speak for itself----He is the gentiles’ light and salvation, illuminating and guiding them----He is the praise and rapture of the people of Israel.

One point may be coincidental but Bach would have been sure to have noticed it. The third phrase is extended from the established two to three bars and it carries the thought of His illumination of those who do not yet know Him. The idea of the light spreading outwards to those beyond is thus nicely encapsulated within the musical structure, either a happy accidental convergence or a sensitive choice of the perfect concluding verse.


Copyright: J Mincham 2010.   Revised 2012 and 2014
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