Chapter 46 BWV 128 Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein
On Christ’s lonely ascent to Heaven.
Chorus/fantasia–recit (tenor)–aria/recit (bass)–duet (alto/tenor)–chorale.
The forty-eighth cantata of the cycle for Ascension Day.
Cs 128 and 68 (chapter 49) were performed within a fortnight of each other in May 1725 and share the distinction of being the only two cantatas of the last quarter of the cycle to begin with a chorale/fantasia. However, neither work precisely follows the format of the first forty. Nevertheless, and doubtless because of the inclusion of the fantasias, Bach retained these two works as a part of his second cycle whilst later transferring the others with texts by von Ziegler to the third (Dürr p 329).
It has been argued elsewhere that after C 4 Bach may have welcomed the freedom of producing a series of works without the constrictions imposed by the chorale, and that it may always have been his intention to proceed thus from the time of the Easter celebrations.
The lack of self-imposed constraints may manifest themselves in a number of different ways. It allows for much more freedom in the choice of structural design and tonal planning of opening choruses (which one could, and Bach did on occasions, dispense with altogether). And even if he chose to retain the fantasia, he was perfectly free to adapt the overall movement design in other ways. For example, C 68 is the only one of the series not to end with a four-part harmonization of a chorale, it having been replaced with a somewhat enigmatic fugue. C 128 is alone in using one chorale for the fantasia and another to conclude. These may seem relatively insignificant points, but they are indicative of Bach’s continuing practice of changing, adapting and deliberately moving away from the format established with the ‘first forty’.
C 128 was composed for Ascension Day, a highly significant event in Christian history. As befits its importance, the instrumental forces are relatively large and impressive; two horns, oboes of every kind, strings and continuo and latterly one trumpet. In fact, one finds here a greater variety of orchestral forces than Bach has been known to employ even for some festive celebrations for the days of Christmas!
The chorale upon which the fantasia is based was clearly one that Bach liked and was very familiar with. In the key of A major it closes C 104 from the first cycle and Bach was also to use it in a later work, C 112 of 1731, returning it to the key of G. There he employs it exactly as in the first forty works of the second cycle; it not only closes the cantata but a choral/fantasia based upon it forms the opening movement.
Thus we have a unique point of comparison, two fantasias based on the same chorale, in the same key but written six years apart.
Detailed study of them is revealing about Bach’s compositional development. The later work uses the lower voices more economically with fewer semi-quaver figurations. However, constant imitative entries are a characteristic of both movements, as is an attractively busy pair of horns. There is, however, no obvious reason for choosing a different chorale to close C 128.
A glance at the overall movement layout indicates that the recitative which might have been expected between the aria and duet does not eventuate as a separate movement but is incorporated into the bass aria. This is another example of the kind of imaginative structural experimentation which became increasingly common as Bach′s experience and expertise in musical forms and cantata production developed.
The main textual themes revolve around the joy of Christ’s ascent in order to take his proper place in Heaven and the implications for us, of this momentous event. As usual, Bach underlines some of the fundamental aspects of the Lutheran concept of the human situation.
This festive event ensures that we are bound to begin with a chorus of some sort. An elegiac tone poem of the type that began C 6 would clearly not have been appropriate and a fugue (Cs 103 and 176) might conceivably have been too dense for such a celebratory occasion. So Bach fell back on his trusted chorale fantasia and obviously took pains to choose the right hymn tune. One imagines it would have had to have been major with strongly triumphant melody, but simple and flexible enough to allow for a variety of celebratory and festive musical invention to support and encompass it.
The text is a statement of allegiance to Christ—-I will overcome my doubts and fears and follow Him to heaven, the place to which He leads us all. The horns dominate from the beginning, the trumpet being held in reserve for the bass aria, although it may well have been used to double the sopranos singing the chorale. The ritornello is ebullient and full of appropriate rising figures, echoing the shapes of the chorale phrases. The horns have an infectious melody of semi-quavers and the entire feeling is one of jubilation and joyful ascent.
Initial horn theme
The lower voices enter imitatively to support each of the soprano’s chorale phrases. They also repeat the words of each line emphatically under the final long notes. One tiny point of detail is that their imitative entries, based upon material taken directly from the ritornello or the chorale melody, all use motives with an upward direction, except for the final seventh phrase. Here each voice enters, in the order B, T, A on a four-note descending motive. The reason for this is not immediately obvious; it is very possible that it was intended to suggest Jesus ‘coming down to earth’ in order to collect his flock. Rather more enigmatically, it might be insinuating that the appropriate time to approach the pathway toward heaven is not at this immediate moment but later when our descent into the grave naturally provides the means. It could be an even more abstruse symbol, drawing a directional line between the Lord above in heaven and the rest of us below on earth, bridged by Jesus. Bach’s mind is complex and not always easy to read but we may be certain that this change of direction was not without purpose.
(Another of the many examples of Bach’s altering the disposition of the lower voices in order to emphasise a single idea may be found in the fifth phrase of the fantasia from C 111, chapter 36).
Joyous ascension, however, is the main order of the day and this probably accounts for Bach’s getting the tenor recitative out of the way as quickly as possible—-call me, I am ready to depart from this world of fear and pain. Even the powerful images evoked by the words Angst und Pein—-fear and pain—-are given no particular stress. The emphasis is firmly upon the affirmative changes that we shall undergo when we ultimately come face to face with God.
Bach seems impatient to get straight onto the buoyant and authoritative bass aria. It is based upon a lengthy stanza, far too long for a conventional aria and Dürr (p 330) states that Bach himself inserted additional lines. The original intention was, apparently, to have had a second recitative separating the two arias and, indeed, that would have been the normal practice. But it seems that Bach’s intention was to keep the momentum going for as long as possible. True, we shall encounter a transformation of mood in the more reflective duet, but that will come at that moment when we expect changes of direction, in the last substantial movement before the chorale.
Bach solves his problem unconventionally by inserting a segment of recitative into an aria which otherwise turns out to be as cheerful as the fantasia.
The initial text is unambiguous—-strike up a cheerful sound and announce to all—-Jesus has taken His proper place and one day I shall join Him! Celebration is led by a solo trumpet, perhaps not used in the fantasia so as not to overshadow the festive horns; Bach very seldom deploys these instruments together. Trumpet and strings proclaim the ′cheerful sounds′ with a mixture of fanfare and ‘joy’ motives. The principal melodic direction remains ascending, particularly when the bass enters.
At this stage the aria has all the appearances of developing into an orthodox ritornello da capo.
But no conventional middle section eventuates. When the text makes mention of the place where the redeemer lives, Bach moves into the dark key of F#m and the aria becomes a recitative! It may be that the sheer variety of ideas expressed in the following lines made them, in Bach’s eyes, unsuitable for setting as an aria—-I will come where He lives—-if only I could build such a shelter, but I cannot—-He dwelt upon a hill—-but hush and do not attempt to fathom His might and power.
It is possible that it was the complexities of ideas within passages such as this which made Bach suspicious, and possibly dissatisfied, with von Ziegler’s texts. Perhaps he felt that she had little real understanding of the balance of images and ideas that made a text suitable for aria, chorus or recitative. Sometimes there are just too many thoughts expressed within a few words and, as Bach knew better than anyone, music often requires time in order to make its greatest impact, particularly when it expresses complex emotions and ideas.
This example serves to evidence the point. There are too many notions and images to enable a coherent setting through the medium of aria or chorus; recitative was the only solution. But the opening lines of exhortation had clearly demanded a powerful setting which a conventional recitative texture might be less likely to achieve.
So Bach chooses an innovative compromise solution. The first six lines are set as an aria, the second eight as a recitative and, almost as an afterthought, the instrumental ritornello is reprised as if to say ‘so there; that’s how it’s done!’ Furthermore, Bach may have had in mind the yearning and aspirations of miserable earthly souls, looking towards the Seat of the Redeemer and fervently wishing they could be with Him.
Perhaps the finely wrought F#m recitative best encapsulates these moments.
The duet which follows is the only movement set in the minor mode. Those who read widely will discover a rather tepid response to it, claiming that it lacks the vitality and sustained interest of the rest of the work. This, of course, is partially a matter of taste, but a judgment about its quality can only be made by viewing it within its overall context and noting what this reveals of Bach’s macro-planning.
It is certainly the longest movement in this cantata and that fact alone gives it significance. It lacks the evocative, haunting quality of some of the oboe obbligato arias Bach has given us, but that is not what he is seeking here. This is not the expression of a moment of doubt that we may reasonably have expected, although Bach might well have concentrated upon the notion of scepticism as a portrayal of the reverse side of the certainty and optimism already dealt with. Rather, this is an representation of the awe and wonder we feel as we contemplate His might and power. The music is more subdued than that which preceded it, but it is neither tragic, nor fearful. It expresses a perfectly proper Lutheran sense of the greatness and unfathomable attributes of the Lord.
When listened to in this context, it conveys a flawlessly judged feeling of our place in the cosmos, neither despairing nor wretched, but properly humble and accepting of those things which are greater than ourselves.
The text informs us that no mortal being can understand His greatness although, even from our poor vantage point on Earth, we can still glimpse Christ at God’s right hand. Bach makes much of the central line—-my mouth falls silent (when I attempt to fathom His might), and the setting of the words verstummt und schweigt—-silent and still—-is extraordinarily expressive (from bar 33). There is also much musical interest in the entwining of the four contrapuntal lines, oboe da caccia, alto, tenor and continuo.
This aria has, perhaps, been too lightly dismissed and it deserves re-assessment.
The closing chorale is especially rousing, its festive character emphasized by the addition of two separate horn parts (compare this with the closing chorale of C 1, chapter 41 where the second horn is given a similarly obbligato role). The text speaks of our coming to God’s right hand and ends with a confident prayer that we may be taken into that place for all eternity.
Despite the use of a different chorale to conclude, this is a cantata which ends much as it began. It does not presume to make a journey as we find in some other works. The essential message is clear and unambiguous and only the sense of wonder portrayed in the duet and a touch of yearning in the bass recitative give reason for pause. Otherwise our duties, objectives and final journey are all outlined with the greatest clarity.
But the final mystery remains, why select a different chorale to close? Did Bach want to make use of the available horns in order to celebrate the joy of sitting at God’s right hand and felt that this chorale was more suitable for encapsulating their festive melodic lines?
Or possibly, with a trace of that pugnacity of character he seems to have had, might he simply have decided that, if he was unable to complete the cycle exactly as he had planned, he would ensure that none of these last cantatas would precisely follow the pattern of the first forty?
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.