Chapter 46 BWV 157 Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn
I cannot release You until You bless me.
Duet (tenor/bass)--aria (tenor)--recit (tenor)--aria/recit (bass)--chorale.
For the Purification.
The contextual placing of this work creates some problems. It was originally performed as a funeral cantata in 1727 although even then quite possibly as a paraphrase from earlier sources (Dürr p 766-7). It was latterly revived for the celebration of the Purification, an unproblematic decision because of the concurrence of texts (ibid p767).
Its complex history means that comparisons with other cantatas written particularly for this day are not especially helpful, although readers may find some contextual comments in chapters 36 of this volume (C 82) and 38 of volume 2 (C 125). However, the scoring for just the tenor and bass distinguishes this cantata as one particularly suitable for this occasion since, as noted in the essay on C 125, use of the lower voices appears to have been Bach’s general practice for the Purification.
C 157 is an intimate chamber work with no commanding chorus. It requires just two solo voices with one each of oboe and flute joining strings and continuo. It is possible that the lightness of the scoring is due to a lack of resources when the work was initially conceived, although it is also the case that Bach displays a tendency to return to the chamber cantata format of his youth at this time, interspersing them with larger designs. The very transparency of the three arias would lead one to suppose that the adding of additional parts and the consequent thickening of the textures would have not been an easy or productive enterprise even if Bach had considered it.
In the second cycle, duets tended to come in the latter part of the cantata structures, but later Bach was apt to introduce them earlier, even as in C 157 as opening movements. The text is but one line----I cannot release You until You have blest me.
The consequent dearth of images and ideas in the verse would seem, on the face of it, to be a limitation. But any concentrated study of Bach’s music demonstrates that the greater the limitation, the more wide-ranging was his imaginative response. In this case there is a plethora of subtle detail of scoring to notice, clearly designed to establish and sustain the predominant mood and to maintain musical interest throughout.
Whilst the instrumentation (solo flute, oboe, violin and continuo) may seem relatively flimsy, it offers a surprisingly wide range of potentially contrasting colouring and textural variety. With two singers, six independent contrapuntal lines become available.
The eight-bar ritornello denotes the movement’s structure, appearing complete at the beginning, middle (from bar 17) and end. Noticeable however, is the way in which Bach reworks the scoring for the second statement. With minor adjustments, principally for reasons of range, the flute and oboe exchange their melodies leaving that for the violin unaltered. The motive with which the flute, oboe and violin imitate each other in the first two bars becomes an important part of the instrumental accompaniment throughout.
Bach’s attitude towards the allegorical connotations of the main musical motives must inevitably be conjectural. However, it is not unreasonable to consider the stolid, crotchet/quaver continuo line representing the act of holding on or containing and the lighter woodwind motive depicting the sought-after blessings of the Saviour. The canonic writing for the vocalists is indicative of a ‘bonding together’ and appears most obviously in three blocks, bass and tenor taking turns to lead (from bars 9, 25 and 32).
The effortless passing to and fro of the original motive bespeaks a lightness which, at times consolidates into a rich and full six-part texture (from bars 28 and 34). Elsewhere, the upper instruments provide little splashes of colour as, with the minimum of counterpoint, they simply articulate the basic chords (from bar 41).
Dürr describes this movement as articulating ‘the beseeching gesture of prayer’ (p 768). Its quiet, personal and contained optimism mark it as a movement of distinction.
For the following tenor aria with oboe d’amore obbligato, Bach, at least, has the advantage of a complete stanza to set. Furthermore it contains three relatively precise images----I hold Jesus firmly----I will not let him go----my faith is set (or fixed) upon His visage.
The thirty-two bar ritornello begins modestly enough, just continuo and oboe, the latter sounding hauntingly evocative in its lowest register, appearing to wish not to 'let go' of the sustained notes of c#.
It even contrives to move from the shadows of F#m to the warmer climes of A major in the first eight bars, a suggestion of hope, warmth and security. But before long, a pattern emerges of sustained notes emerging into a flurry of semi-quavers. There are five of these held notes: a (bar 13), b (bar 17), g (bar 21), d (bar 23)and g# (bar 25), each moving a little further away from its predecessor. The effect is one of seeking to locate something that one might first grasp and then hold on to. The g is the most obscure note and the g# is the last and highest; and it is from this point that the oboe line erupts into a flurry of demi-semi-quavers.
The searching has not, apparently, been in vain. The Christian has sought after and discovered the rock and face of the Saviour and this is a matter for jubilation. The images from the text are thus deeply embedded within the musical structure.
The long ritornello suggests a movement of considerable proportion, which is what Bach gives us; it runs to over 200 bars. It is constructed on an identical principle to that of the duet: ritornello---vocal section---ritornello---extended vocal section---ritornello. Thus it can be seen that the three instrumental sections comprise very nearly half of the movement. There is no distinct middle section and no proper reprise.
Nevertheless, Bach echoes two important themes as he draws the threads of the movement together; the initial oboe melody (from bar 164) and the first tenor entry (from bar 176.)
Otherwise, the vocal line concerns itself principally with the pattern of sustained notes emerging into something more freely flowing. It concentrates principally upon the images of holding, firmness, not letting go and fixing (upon the Saviour’s face). The bliss associated with the last of these images is fully confirmed in the rapid skirls of notes exchanged between voice and oboe (bars 155-159). This is the climax of the movement, the expression of universal ecstasy when this moment may be achieved, retained and, indeed, savoured.
The lack of major modes is particularly noticeable in this aria. Its message may be essentially optimistic but there is a dour sense of determination implied by the relentless minor keys.
The following recitative breaks this modal pattern and major reigns from this point to the end of the cantata.
The tenor recitative separates the two most substantial movements and holds the central position in the work. Perhaps this is why it is lushly accompanied by the upper strings, making their only appearance in this work apart from the doubling of the lines of the closing chorale. The text is principally a confirmation of trust in Jesus at all times, even in moments of trouble and strife (musically pictured in bar two) and when fears come upon us as we rest (bar 5).
Immediately following this second image the strings offer one of the motives from the ritornello of the duet (bar 6), a musical moment of reassurance as the much looked-for blessing is momentarily echoed. A further brief reference to the singers’ rising fourths may also be found in the second violin line of bar 12.
Would Bach have expected his human congregation to have noticed? Certainly, these details serve to remind the modern listener, armed with a score, of Bach’s integrated approach to cantata architecture.
It would be fascinating to know just who came up with the idea of combining elements of aria and recitative in the penultimate movement. It could have been the librettist but this is unlikely since it would have required him to venture into the field of formal musical structuring, the domain surely, of the composer. It seems more likely that Bach was presented with two stanzas, the first six lines long and suitable for setting as an aria. The second was longer (ten lines) and both its proportions and subject matter suggest a recitative. Besides, had this plan been followed, the macro structure of the cantata would have been perfectly logical and traditional with alternating arias and recitatives for tenor and bass between the opening duet and the closing chorale i.e.
Duet (tenor/bass)--aria (tenor)--recit (tenor)--aria (bass)--recit (bass?)--chorale.
It seems very probable that it was Bach who took the decision that the recitative should be absorbed within the aria structure. The text of the latter is a further affirmation of the intention to hold dearly to Jesus, enter heaven and receive His blessing. The former is an acceptance of, even a yearning for, ‘sweet death,’ the doorway through which we pass en route to eternal salvation. Bach clearly saw these as parts of the same process and probably savoured the dramatic potential of musically counterpointing both ideas, the positively ebullient and the peacefully accepting, within the one musical framework.
The aria utilises a solo violin and flute above the continuo. The opening ritornello, with busily imitative obbligato instruments passing through A major and Em, suggests a movement of some significance and, indeed, for some time we are deceived into thinking that a positively joyful aria is all we are going to get. The initial bass motto motive----Ja, ja, ich halte----yes, yes I hold [Jesus]----is forcefully rhetorical and seems to be embarking upon a formal da capo pattern.
The expected B section begins at bar 42 and the A section appears to reprise from bar 66, but half a dozen bars later the forward movement ceases and the music melts into the first of the three recitative sections----how sweet it is to lie, with Jesus, within my coffin.
Elements of the aria return on three occasions, separating the recitative sections and completing the movement as it began. Explicit word painting gives emphasis to such words as ‘coffin’ and ‘death’ but these are transitory shadows. The overall mood is one of bliss in the embrace of Jesus, enfolding an unquestioning acceptance of the journey through death (an essential part of the process).
This movement, strikingly original in structure yet perfectly convincing in musical and artistic terms, is an excellent example of Bach’s continuing ability to innovate with musical forms.
The chorale verse does no more than to replicate the well covered themes of the cantata----I will not release Jesus who leads me eternally to the Stream of Life----blessed be He who remains with me. The melody is sturdy and almost peasant-like, moving in stepwise motion from note to note. Its saving feature, perhaps, is the extension of two of its phrases (the second and fourth) from two to three bars. It is underpinned by a muscular quaver continuo line which might remind the listener of the solidarity of the union between Christ and Soul.
Indeed it might. But one should note the earlier harmonisations of this melody, for Cs 70 and 154 both from the first cycle. That which closes C 70 uses a different verse with a similar theme of ‘holding on’ to Jesus but with an additional image of desiring His Light. Harmonised in the lower and softer key of C, this arrangement boasts three added string parts which both encompass the chorale melody and shine above it as a musical representation of Heaven’s light. The bass line is active but somewhat less so at the strongly marked cadences.
C 154, sharing the same text as 157, is also raised to the key of D and extends the quaver bass to the very cadence points. C 157 retains this activity but increases its the intensity with a more exotic harmonisation, especially of the last two phrases.
Thus Bach’s response to the final lines of text is an amalgam of what has gone before with a later, possibly more mature response. He could well have simply adopted the version previously provided for C 145. But, despite his punishing schedules, his restless imagination continues to lead him towards newer, and possibly better, solutions to the artistic challenges that continually confronted him.
Bach was never a man to take expedient short-cuts!
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012.