Chapter 43 BWV 18 Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt
For as rain and snow descend from heaven.
Sinfonia--recit (bass)--recit/chorale (SATB)--aria (sop)--chorale.
The forty-second cantata of the cycle for the Sexagesimae.
It is as well to consider this cantata with that from the previous chapter where it was explained that they may have been paired to form a two-part work, played on each side of the sermon. The precedence with Cs 24 and 185 near the beginning of the cycle may be noted. It also may be that if Bach intended to pair 181 and 18, he might have cast his eye back over Cs 75 and 76, the earliest works designed to straddle the Leipzig sermons.
Another tantalising piece of evidence comes from the reversion to the practice of using an instrumental sinfonia. Cs 75 and 76 both call upon them as opening movements of their second parts and the next work in the series, C 21, did so to open part 1. Bach subsequently departed from this practice in the bipartite works, notably the 24/185 pairing and C 70. Thus their use, while more common after the second cycle, is relatively rare in his first Leipzig year.
C 18, like C 185 from the earlier pairing, is also an early work. It originated in Weimer in 1713 but was transposed and rescored for its Leipzig presentation (Dürr p 233). It contains only the one (brief) aria and a disproportionate amount of recitative, a form which Bach was at this time finding particularly amenable to both his melodic gifts and his penchant for painting musical imagery.
The longest movement of the cantata is the third but the most substantial is the first, the sinfonia. Its idiosyncratic scoring for four violas and a continuo (two recorders were added for the Leipzig performance) calls to mind the sixth Brandenburg Concerto. Bach is known to have had a liking for the viola and it is almost certain that he would have led the original ensemble from the first viola desk.
It would appear that Bach had the first recitative in mind when composing the opening theme of the sinfonia. The metaphor is one of descending snow and rain falling from heaven to nourish the earth and its seed. Bach’s musical depiction of this comes in two contrasting five-bar phrases of markedly different character.
The first is a theme announced in octaves in all parts. This is a technique found commonly in Italian concerto form, the orchestra announcing the principal melodic material prior to the entrance of the soloist(s). Bach applied the technique sparingly but provided several examples, including the opening of the triple keyboard concerto in Dm as well as the first two movements of the single harpsichord concerto in the same key. (These latter movements were to be recalled for C 146 (vol 3, chapter 14) the first as an introductory sinfonia and the second with added choral parts).
In C 18 the concerto-like arrival of ‘solo’ material arrives in the fifth bar.
The initial idea is one of pounding crotchets, thence quavers.
One peculiarity is the adherence of the quaver figuration to a single chord, the dominant of the key. This is unusual for Bach, who normally prefers a solid progression of chords, each moving to the next with a sense of clear purpose and direction. The effect here is one of relentlessness and it may be that Bach had in mind torrents of rain cascading down from heaven.
The second idea is constructed around sustained notes creating a series of rising suspensions, a clear musical image of growth and fertility.
There seems little doubt that Bach saw this movement not simply as a prelude to the narrative but an intrinsic part of it. On the other hand, it may be that he had simply extracted images from the text with which to stimulate his musical invention. There is no doubt that the added recorders, even though they only double the violas, enhance the images of fruitfulness and fecundity.
The crotchet theme turns out to be a ground bass which is stated ten times throughout the movement, mostly in the tonic key of Am but moving, for the sake of variety, to related keys of Dm and C major. The entire movement is a juxtapositioning of the two themes described above within a movement structure that combines the principle of repetition (ground bass) with a harmonically progressive (ritornello/concerto) form.
The bass recitative which follows gives little warning of the innovation yet to come; it does, however, provide an excellent example of Bach’s youthful partiality to fleeting musical images. Following the metaphors of the productive waters from heaven, a comparison is made with the words that emanate from our mouths----like the rain they should not return barren but should achieve that which is intended and proper in the wider world. The shape of the vocal melody in bar 2 suggests the falling rain and two bars later the descending semi-quaver scale depicts it overtly. The bringing forth of bud and seed is underlined by a moment of purposeful continuo (bars 5-7) and the sense of prospering finds active support in the last bars which also include momentary allusions to the melodic material of the sinfonia. This is a recitative wrought with great care and attention to every detail of the text.
Luther’s fervent desire to have the Word of God heard and understood by everyone led to his producing a German form of the Liturgy (1528/9) and Bach makes occasional use of it. One line of it may be found in C 41/5 from the second cycle, a rare interpolation of the full choir into a recitative structure. It is interesting to note that in that later example, the one phrase of the liturgy----let Satan be trampled beneath our feet----is marked by heavy and emphatic quaver movement in the bass line. The more expansive use of the litany in C 18/3 is marked by similar underpinning. This may have a particular symbolic purpose; it certainly serves to accentuate the importance of this prayer for protection.
Bach appears to have been given an unprecedented thirty-eight lines of text and the only established contemporary musical structure which could deal with this effectively is the recitative. Any aria or chorus would become instantly incoherent in attempting to accommodate so many words and ideas. Whether it was Bach or his librettist who came up with the essential architecture of the movement is unknown but is seems inconceivable that Bach would have not had some input. The concept was to divide the liturgy into four sections each of which was to be preceded by an extended recitative:
A recit (tenor) + liturgy -- bars 1-19
B recit (bass) + liturgy -- bars 20-38.
C recit (tenor) + liturgy -- bars 39-59
D recit (bass) + liturgy -- bars 60-88.
The first bars of each section of the liturgy are sung at a markedly faster tempo, firstly by the sopranos and followed by the full choir. Its text is an entreaty for God to hear us, to add force to His word and to protect us from Satan, Turks and the Pope. It ends with the plea to bring back those who have wandered astray and, above all to hear us. The lines of the liturgy are made evident by the pounding quaver bass which supports each statement and the recitative sections are encompassed by a halo of rich string chords, except when the violas are used rhythmically to emphasise a particular point.
For some this general outline of the shape of the movement will be sufficient for them to follow its logic. Others may wish to penetrate Bach’s planning processes more deeply. Indeed there is a wealth of subtlety within this innovative movement, the unravelling of which brings its own pleasures.
The first recitative (section A) is a promise to open the heart to Jesus and permit His seed to grow within us. It is also an entreaty to help us to allow it to prosper. The student will note the subtle rhythmic urging of the violin as God is called upon for support.
Section B devotes itself to a depiction of Satan’s deviousness, ending with an arioso whose flowing lines in all parts suggest the happiness which he might deprive us of and, indeed, the sorrow with which it would be replaced.
Section C is devoted to those who, through misery or persecution, fall away from the Word. The highly convoluted and hair-raisingly virtuosic melisma on Verfolgung----persecution----generates a continuo line of angry semi-quavers which persists even beneath the declamation of the liturgy. Bach’s representation of the devil or the fiends of hell is often of this type, busy malevolent and bustling about in the lower registers.
Section D focuses upon those deluded by such worldly temptations as Mammon and lasciviousness. Once again it transforms itself into an arioso, this time above the treading bass we have come to associate with the liturgy. Public and private condemnations of those lost souls who mistake earth for heaven thus converge musically.
This is a remarkably intense movement and it is not surprising that for the aria to follow it Bach sought to place an emphasis upon more moderate images.
The single aria of the cantata is for soprano with an unusual obbligato, originally just for the four violas but, in the later version, doubled by recorders sounding an octave above. The text affirms God’s word as the only true treasure of the soul----Satan’s and the world’s traps and snares may bewitch the foolish and gullible but we must sweep them away. Bach, interestingly, seems to have been attracted more by the images of snares and traps and doing away with them than by the more positive concept of the soul’s treasure. Doubtless, this carried with it possibilities of drama but of a much lesser intensity than that which had infused the preceding movement.
The busy ritornello theme is charming and, particularly as shaded by the darker viola tones, suggests the myriad of deceptions around us, albeit kept at a distance.
Flute, doubled 8ve below by violas.
There is, indeed, a lightly playful character about this theme although it has its moments of persistence as the emphasis upon the dominant chord (bars 7-8) and thence upon the tonic note (bars 9-10) testify. But these snares will only become dangerous if we allow them to do so; and clearly the message is that we will not!
The second image upon which Bach places emphasis is that of the command for all impediments to His word to depart, be they our enemies, Satan’s wiles or the temptations of the world. This is accomplished in splendidly rhetorical ascending scales first heard in bar 24. In fact, all parts have busy lines at this point suggesting a scattering of the scorned and unwanted ones.
The ritornello, having supplied all the oblbigato material (but a minimum of episodes) returns to complete the movement.
The basic theme of this work has been about the value of God’s word to us, both as individuals and as members of the world at large. The subtext concerns the way that we interpret and make use of His word and help to ensure its purity through protecting it from the snares of Satan and our enemies. The closing chorale is couched in terms of the individual----I beg You Lord, do not take Your Holy Word from my mouth for when I place my trust in You, my guilt and sin shall not shame me----he who accepts Your Word will never die. In its original form with the voices doubled by the violas and continuo, and very solidly minor-mode, it must have sounded somewhat dirge-like; the added recorders doubling an octave above the sopranos lighten it considerably.
But after all, it is a serious prayer and a moment for genuine introspection rather than gaiety; and indeed, if C 181 had genuinely lacked a chorale, this is the only one to be presented on this Sunday. The last phrase of this essentially symmetrical melody is extended to three bars, allowing an additional moment for calm contemplation upon His word, its consequences for us and, perhaps, even our own sinfulness.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.