Chapter 45 BWV 23 Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn
You, God and son of David.
The forty-fourth cantata of the cycle for the Estomihi.
The circumstances surrounding the composition of this work as part of Bach’s audition for the Leipzig appointment are broadly outlined in the previous chapter. Suffice it to say that the work was largely composed in Cöthen but transposed and the final chorale added after Bach’s arrival in Leipzig (Dürr p 142). Cs 22 and 23 should, by rights, be viewed as parts of the same conception, one to be performed before and the other after the sermon, a practice which Bach maintained for the first few cantatas following his appointment but subsequently largely abandoned.
Although it is comprised of a mere four movements, the range of structural innovation contained within them is, as we will discover, quite astonishing. Bach draws upon and brings together ritornello and concerto principles but he reconstitutes them in ways that seem to create entirely original musical designs. As always, the only purpose of such structural development and experimentation is to create an ever widening range of musical character and expression.
There is one mystery about the work which stems from Dürr’s observation that the chorale was added after the completion of the first three movements. If this was the case, what do we make of the fact that Bach incorporated the chorale melody into the recitative? Did he always have the intention of adding the final arrangement, thereby justifying its inclusion in the earlier movement? Or did he elect to combine the chorale with the recitative and later see the former's possibilities as a conclusion? On the face of it this seems improbable since the likelihood of his always planning to end with some sort of chorale arrangement is strong. But clearly we cannot here draw the sorts of inferences about the simultaneous layering of textural ideas such as we can with C 2 from the second cycle (vol 2, chapter 3). And whatever the circumstances of the composition of these movements, it cannot be denied that the words of the chorale form a prayer ideally suited to the entreaties of the blind man, as poignantly expressed in the recitative.
Indeed, this whole cantata is based around the parable of the blind man, linking it definitively with C 22 since both texts are from the same source Luke 18.42. On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was accosted by a sightless beggar who sought pity. Jesus restores his vision with the words ‘your faith has been your salvation’. This cantata is, then, concerned with faith and the rewards that may be obtained from it, principally those of succour, comfort and redemption. In a sense, it may be summarised as ‘I have faith, therefore I pray that You will reward and have mercy upon me’. In another sense, it proceeds from the miscomprehension of the disciples as described in C 22 and transforms it into a productive relationship between Soul and Christ.
But despite the optimism of the theme, this cantata has an ongoing and underlying sense of sadness and poignancy, since the torments of Christ on the cross underpin the entire doctrine. It is interesting that the text only tells part of the biblical story, concentrating upon the pleas of the blind beggar rather than the restoration of his sight. Presumably Bach and his lyricist assumed that the parable would have been so well known that it didn’t need spelling out. The crux of the work does not, therefore, focus upon Christ’s powers or miracles. It centres on the supplications of the poor and needy who, in recognising Him, pray for His support. The fact that Jesus restores his sight with the words ‘your faith has saved you’ forms no part of this text.
C 23 begins with a movement which is even more intense than that of C 22. It is a sinewy and somewhat enigmatic quintet for soprano and alto, two obbligato oboes and continuo. The words of the text address Christ directly and are those of the beggar, but set for the soprano and alto, two allegorical figures presumably extending the condition of the blind man metaphorically to that of all humanity ----You, Son of David, who has seen my pain, have mercy upon me----grant me, with that hand that has dispersed so much evil, help and solace. Bach’s setting may be seen as evoking the forlorn abandonment of both the blind beggar as well as that of mankind. There is an infinite sadness and poignancy about this movement of a kind that perhaps only music can create.
Main theme, oboes.
The sinewy oboes in the lower part of the register set the tone immediately. This is a portrayal, surely, of the fundamental human condition whereby we are all essentially alone. No one, except Christ, can really feel our pain; no one can really know what it is like to be inside our minds or bodies. This sense of alienation has, perhaps, never been better expressed.
The structure of the movement is conventional, an adapted ternary form where the middle section commences at bar 33 (note the rich five-part contrapuntal texture at this point) and an adapted A section returns from bar 42. Imposed upon this is an Italianate ritornello, the oboe theme beginning and ending the movement as well as separating the vocal sections. It is, however, not the macro structure but the detail that is worthy of deeper scrutiny, for therein lies the key to the movement’s intensity.
For example, mark the three-note motive in the soprano over the bar-line of bars 9 and 10.
This drooping figure is often used by baroque composers to express sorrow, weeping and sadness. It will be found on countless occasions throughout the cantatas, and a good example of its consistent development, unencumbered by words, is in the second movement of Brandenburg 2.
Bach simply uses this motive to plant the seed at this point. Subsequently it will be developed, not as a passing cliché but in the context of highly expressive chromatic harmony, as a dramatic and emotional depiction of misery and the need for mercy and support (bars 21-3 and 51-3).
This is a concentrated movement of depth and profundity, perhaps as relevant to the social fragmentation of the twenty-first century as it was in the eighteenth. One wonders what the Leipzig parishioners and authorities thought of it as they assessed Bach’s capabilities for the post for which he was applying.
There are a number of similarities between the tenor recitative in this cantata and that for bass from C 22. Both establish major modes and both use sustained string chords with which to support the singer. But Bach has added another element to the former movement; the three phrases of the concise closing chorale are declaimed by the top line, violin 1 and oboe.
The intention would appear to be to remind the congregation of the Passion that Christ is approaching. The recitative itself is sung with the tenor expressing the blind beggar’s words; it is only with hindsight that we know that the most momentous event in Christian history has yet to unfold. The chorale reminds a contemporary audience, almost subliminally, that Christ bears the world’s sins and that it is to Him we should pray for mercy.
The tenor line is deeply moving and of the kind found within the Passions, a reminder of the fact that Bach was always a consummate writer of expressive melody. It is a direct plea----Saviour, healer of the sick, do not to pass me by but let me partake of Your powers----I see You here where others shun me and I shall compose myself and not leave without Your blessing. The universal nature of such an entreaty hardly needs stressing although Bach’s setting also makes it feel personal. The images of the sick (bar 5), the reference to the blindness (bar 10) and the effort of composing oneself (bar 12) are all pictured either in the harmony or the melodic shapes. The unexpected a natural in the continuo line (bar 13) alerts one to the significance attached to the requested blessing----without it I will not go!
The following chorus is supported by the full instrumental contingent, oboes strings and continuo. Its major-mode and dance-like character lift the mood and although it is still a plea for sight, strength and support, we now feel it is not to be in vain; we do not find a preoccupation with the condition of human alienation in this movement.
The text avers----all eyes, and mine particularly, fall upon You, Lord----grant them strength and light----do not let them languish in darkness and allow them to focus upon You until, through death, You close them. The mood of the main theme is guardedly optimistic; it rises then falters, but it persists and is heard several times in the course of the movement.
The form is that of a free rondo in which the full chorus reiterates the opening statement, separated by four extended episodes in which the tenor and bass present the remainder of the text.
The mood of this chorus is, in every sense, guarded: dance-like but not toe-tapping, major but not ebulliently so, employing the full chorus but restrained throughout. Perhaps entreaties to Christ before the actuality of his Passion and sacrifice may lack the strength and optimism of those made after the event.
One should not, however, miss the significance of the melodic shape of bars 2-3. The four notes d flat, c, e flat and d natural form Bach's signature. When transposed down a third they spell out B, A, C, H. It is akin to a painter signing his name in the corner of the canvas. Would Bach's prospective employers have noticed?
The final chorale setting is like no other in the canon and the questions it raises are not answered by the suggestion that Bach added it as an afterthought. Certainly he would have wanted to impress and, no doubt, leave the final movement of this second audition piece ringing in the ears of the listeners. Whatever his motivation, it is undeniable that this is a difficult piece to ignore.
It is, in fact, three settings of the same verse of the brief chorale (three phrases only)----Jesus Thou Lamb of God who bears the world’s sins, have mercy upon us. It is certainly intended to bring the focus of the cantata away from Mankind and back to the Passion of Jesus Himself. It is still, of course, a prayer, but the first lines remind us that He bears the sins of the world and this takes us right into the central issue of the crucifixion and all its implications; agony and honour for Jesus, salvation and hope for Mankind. The setting of the same verse three times is almost certainly symbolic of the Holy Trinity. The fact that each is set quite distinctly may be Bach’s way of leading us through the narrative, but we can only guess at this.
The four-bar introduction to the first stanza features the oboes and is reminiscent of the opening duet. Might this be a harking back to the notions of human alienation? The chorale itself is set plainly but with hints, particularly in the two inner parts, of the complexities to come. The oboes persist with their figures of throbbing, perhaps even an intimation of the catching of the breath?
The opening bars are heavy with the sombre tone of Gm and although the obvious key for the third phrase to end in is Cm, Bach contrives to make it traverse to the major key of F (bar 14). In fact each of the three chorale harmonisations ends in the major and the movement as a whole concludes on an enigmatic (and ultimately unresolved) chord of C (dominant of F). Despite the distress of the opening bars, it seems that there is an underlying message of hope almost unconsciously concealed in the harmonic structure. It is reinforced by the increased complexity of the writing, both rhythmically and melodically as the music progresses.
Without resorting to a fully detailed examination of the movement, perhaps the best way for the listener to navigate it is as follows: there are three verses, each of three phrases making nine in all and rounded off by a coda of concluding ‘amens’. Mark the way in which each verse is introduced, throbbing oboes for stanza 1 and 2 a more linear, imitative, two-part counterpoint above the continuo for the third; and lastly, positive syncopations heralding the final ‘amens.’ Note what the strings and oboes do in the space between the phrases, and finally, focus upon the progressive complexity of the lower vocal parts. In this way one becomes increasingly sensitive to the way in which the character of the music changes, slowly but convincingly, never weighted down by the escalating richness of detail, intricacy and invention.
It seems almost inconceivable that Bach did not plan all along to end the cantata thus. This concluding movement uniquely encapsulates the aspects of alienation, pleading, pain, sacrifice, triumph and ultimate deliverance that lie at the heart of the Christian message.
This is a cantata which repays subsequent re-hearings. The listener will never fail to gain something new from it on each occasion.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012.