Chapter 47 BWV 183 &175, each commencing with a recitative.
The forty-ninth and fifty-second cantatas of the cycle.
At first glance it may seem that the only thing these two cantatas have in common is that, lacking an opening fantasia they both begin with a recitative, the only two of the cycle to so do.
But they are more similar than a cursory examination reveals. Neither has a substantial chorus of any kind, the choir only appearing in the closing chorale. Both have symmetrical structures in that grouped pairs of recitatives and arias precede the chorale, two pairs in the case of C 183 and three for C 175. Both have texts written by Mariane von Ziegler, use all four solo voices and employ experimental instrumental combinations. Whether or not the commencing with a recitative focused Bach’s attention on this last issue or not, it cannot be denied that there is an unusual degree of experimentation with the instrumental support in both works.
Finally, they form part of a group of five cantatas which ends the second cycle, all of which were performed, and presumably also composed, within an incredibly short period of around three weeks in May 1725.
Speculations have been made about why Bach changed his pattern of composition after C 1 and what he felt about it. These two works may be indicative of the fact that he valued the opportunity of ‘slipping the leash’ thus attaining a greater degree of artistic freedom. As well as the broader instrumental writing, we find Bach exploring somewhat more liberating and progressive structures, especially in C 175.
It seems, therefore, appropriate to present these cantatas together.
BWV 183 Sie werden euch in den Bann tun
They will proscribe you!
Recit (bass)–aria (tenor)–recit (alto)–aria (sop)–chorale.
The forty-ninth cantata of the cycle for Exaudi.
This, like C 176 which closes the cycle, is one of the shortest of the fifty-three cantatas, typically lasting under fifteen minutes in performance. A glance at the schedule of works Bach provided for the churches at this time (Wolff pp 277/278) shows that no fewer than eight were performed in a month from late April to the last week of May (Cs 108, 87, 128, 183, 74, 68, 175 and 176). This prodigious output indicated that, even though it has been suggested that Bach may have been losing some interest in the cantata repertoire, his production line did not flag. However it is not surprising, given the circumstances, that some were on the brief side.
Nevertheless, it is incredible how much highly original and experimental music still continued to flow from his pen.
Perhaps as if to compensate for the brevity of C 183, Bach set out to make a particular effort to colour his recitatives. The opening one, for bass, is short but arresting both musically and textually—-you will be cast out and it will come about that he who dispatches you will think that he is doing the work of the Lord!
When first approaching this work one wonders what Bach would have done with this text if he had chosen to set it as a tempestuous chorus, perhaps in the mould of that which begins C 176. Time constraints aside, would that have not been the obvious choice?
Such questions will not trouble the listener familiar with the entire cannon. Bach had set these words as a part of C 44 just a year previously, towards the end of his first cycle (vol 1, chapter 56). There he, or his lyricist, had divided the quotation so that the first phrase was set as a powerful duet for tenor and bass (with two oboes and continuo) and the rest as a vigorous ′crowd′ chorus. Bach seldom repeated himself, and one assumes that he deliberately set himself the challenge of seeing just how differently he might represent precisely the same words. Would the Leipzig congregations have noticed? And would Bach have cared if they did?
And despite the diminished scale of this new setting, the effect is still startling. Over a pedal note of a, held until the final cadence, the bass vocalist authoritatively delivers his warning, uniquely accompanied by chords sustained by an almost unique combination of instruments, four oboes; two d′amore and two da caccia. This produces a sepulchral sound which is both unique and haunting in quality; one imagines the Leipzig congregations sitting up and paying attention if for no other reason than that this was not the beginning they could have anticipated!
It lasts but half a minute and we are into the most substantial movement of the cantata; the tenor aria is longer than the other four movements combined. In a sense we have here a rebuttal of the opening admonition—-I do not fear Death, Jesus will protect me and I am happy to leave God to deal with those who might take His name in vain. The feeling one gets from the text is one of confidence; the mood of the music, however, is not quite what we might have expected.
Firstly we note that the four available oboes are not drawn into service. The tenor is supported by continuo and a piccolo cello, occasionally doubling each other but the latter more frequently enveloping the singer just as Christ′s ′protecting arm′ shields and shelters us. The timbre is consequently dark and shaded, bordering on the somber and this decision alone gives us a good clue as to Bach’s thinking.
Secondly, the key is minor; further it is Em, a key often associated with the crucifixion. It is not specifically mentioned, but Death is, and there are further implications of Christ’s powers of protection which, we know, emanated from His sacrifice on the cross. The mood is infinitely reflective and quietly resigned.
This may seem to be a more cheerless piece than the text suggests; but it is not. This is Bach at his most humane and most profound, music to touch the soul with a personal and softly declaimed expression of trust and belief which cannot be adequately described in words.
There is, in the convolutions of the vocal line, a suggestion of pain-induced shuddering for whilst ‘I do not shrink from death or adversity’, the existence of neither is denied and Bach does not resist the temptation to respond to the proffered images. However, the energetic melisma upon folge—-follow—-(bars 31-32) is indicative of Bach’s slant on this verse—-whatever happens, I shall unswervingly follow Christ. It is this quiet certainty and serene adherence to faith and obedience that the music beautifully conveys, despite, or one might say inevitably allied with, the inevitable human apprehensions of death.
The oboes are recalled for the alto recitative; the strings sustain the harmonies whilst the oboes flicker imitatively amongst them. The theme is one of preparedness—-I am ready to give all to my Saviour whose spirit shall support me. The little oboe flashes may represent short gasps of breath as the individual calls upon the last reserves of strength.
Set against this, the string chords suggest the solidarity and steadfastness of the Saviour. The movement begins and ends on a major chord and the general feeling, whilst suggestive of endeavour, is neither gloomy nor pessimistic.
But the ending is quite surprising. Bach wrenches us suddenly from one key to another on the very last line of text as it states—-despite all, I may still have to undergo more than I can bear. This is an unexpected twisting of the meaning, for until now we have been concerned only with our preparedness; there has been no suggestion that we may not cope. But this thought is now dropped into the text without warning, and Bach portrays it forcefully. Yes, he takes us to C major, the key of the final aria, but he does it with an unexpected jolt that surprises us and emphasizes, almost physically, the complete change of direction.
This example demonstrates the absolute need to follow the text. A sensitive listener might be temporarily shocked at the apparent crudity of this moment. An understanding of the words places it within its proper context.
The second and final aria provides us with a change of character and expression. It asks of the Holy Spirit—–direct my pathways and care for and protect me in my frailty. The music bounces along, surging with Bachian optimism. The rhythm is that of the stately minuet, but a minuet of confidence and vigour; there is nothing diffident about this music.
The instrumental ritornello, repeated in full at the end, is given plenty of space with which to establish the mood. It is a complete mini binary-form movement in itself, almost thirty bars long.
Of particular note is the continuing surging of the demanding oboe da caccia obbligato. It swells and flows in and around the vocal line, suggestive of the Holy Spirit encompassing and enveloping all that it encounters. It is a matter of speculation as to why Bach chose the lowest of the oboes for this task. He may have had particularly good performers of course (the line is doubled by two players) and he always sought to get the best from his musicians. But insight into the canon demonstrates his practice of choosing instruments because they offered precisely the right timbre, not simply because they were available. Perhaps the darker sounds are there to remind us of the fundamental human weaknesses that we must continually strive to overcome. Or does the instrument represent the Holy Spirit, sometimes represented as the ‘lowest’ in status of the Trinity?
And thoughts of our human frailty are certainly not absent from this ebullient movement. The middle section reminds us that, however hard we try, our puny strength might still fail us; this is when we have to place our trust in the Spirit. There is a strong sense of pleading, suggested by the contours of the vocal lines, but the Holy Spirit continues to surge around, providing us with the confidence of knowing that we are on the right path and offering due support as we traverse it. Nevertheless, we must accept that we can never, by ourselves, entirely overcome our inherent human weaknesses.
This aria is an excellent example of Bach conveying meaning through musical proportion. In general, the middle sections of da capo movements are shorter than, or of equal length to the outer sections, particularly when the ritornello is extensive. In this aria the A section comprises 26 bars, 52 when the da capo is taken into account. The B section comprises just over 80 bars, more than half as long again! The emphasis is, therefore, clearly upon the latter lines of text—-I cannot help myself but I know that You will care for me.
The chorale is a good, strong tune with a sense of Germanic sturdiness. Addressed again to the Holy Spirit, it exhorts it as the One who teaches us to pray; prayers which will inevitably rise to heaven, essaying help from the one Divinity who is willing and able to provide it.
One would like to imagine the burgers of Leipzig actively playing out this theme and raising their voices to the church roofs. But we do not know whether Bach′s congregation joined in with the chorales or not. They may have remained seated, merely listening and musing upon their own thoughts.
Bach later used this hymn to conclude two works in the space of two days, for the Christmas and New Year celebrations of 1725-6 (Cs 28 and 16). But he seems not to have used it as the basis of an opening chorus. We can also only surmise what a tempestuous A minor chorale/fantasia he might have made from it had he found the time or opportunity!
BWV 175 Er rufet seinen Schafen mit Namen
He calls His sheep by name.
Recit (tenor)–aria (alto)–recit (tenor)–aria (tenor)–recit (alto/bass)–aria (bass)–chorale.
The fifty-second cantata of the cycle for Pentecost.
C 175 was performed a little over a week after C 183 and is a slightly more substantial work, containing an additional recitative and aria. Again, there is an extraordinary range of instrumental colour put to use in all movements.
The opening tenor recitative is short and sweet. Three recorders envelop the voice as he gives us the simple biblical quotation of Jesus calling his flock by name and leading them without. Sheep-equals-fields-equals the whole pastorale scenario which recorders traditionally invoke.
The recorder players having (just about) warmed up, they are given a more substantial role in the alto aria. The continuing pastoral allusions justify their further use, and the 12/8 time signature was obviously chosen for the same reasons. But the choice of a somewhat leaden E minor key may, at first sight, seem more surprising.
The text continues the idea of ‘leading out’ but also stresses the individual longing, even craving, to reach the Elysian pastures. Von Ziegler’s rather personal approach to her texts causes her to stress this feeling as a constant yearning, continuing throughout both day and night. It is this that has led Bach to colour the mood with the minor mode and more, to endow the ritornello melody with a series of drooping, wilting and sighing motives.
The music is not actually heartrending but equally, it does not suggest a fully settled spirit. Significantly, it never once cadences in a major key.
An appreciation of Bach’s approach to this particular text will also explain certain structural elements. For example, there is no clearly defined middle section. Certainly, the yearning and sighing becomes a little more intense in both the instrumental and vocal lines, but there is no obvious change of mood or direction, simply rather more of the same. Equally, there is no automatic da capo; the first section is heard again but shortened and rewritten. A sense of craving permeates the entire movement and so there is no need to reprise the whole first section for additional emphasis, even though the structure of the text would have allowed it.
Although some critics deduce that Bach did not particularly like von Ziegler’s texts, it may be that some of her passion was infectious. There are, for example, few more passionate choruses than that which opens C 103, the first of her texts set by Bach. This short tenor recitative is both ardent and deeply felt. The initial cries—-where are you?—-Where do you hide?—-are genuinely distressing and are immediately followed by the mournful sighing of—-Ich sehne mich—-I pine away (bar 4). But in the final two bars the mood changes.
The last line of text declaims—-Come now, the dawn of this long awaited day. In order to convey this, Bach contrives another of his end-of-recitative U turns. Minor becomes major and we skip rapidly into C, the key of the following tenor aria. For now the new day dawns and the tenor sees the true Shepherd coming. His voice, overflowing with love and humility is immediately recognized but it does not entirely dissipate the natural anger vented at those who still doubt. The range of expression and meaning, conveyed almost entirely by melodic means and within a mere six bars, is remarkable.
Bach’s admired piccolo cello is once more introduced as the obbligato for the tenor aria, again supported only by the continuo. It bustles along happily in what is essentially a bourree suite movement, pressed into cantata service.
Cello supported by continuo.
Once Jesus has appeared, the yearnings and reservations have gone; this music is positive and encompassing, almost to the point of being jolly. The emphasis on the ‘true Saviour’ towards the end leaves no room for doubt.
The structure of the movement is of particular interest. Like that of the alto aria, it has obvious elements of ritornello and suggestions of ternary (da capo) form. But once again there is no clear-cut middle section nor is there a traditional recapitulation. Even the cello is only permitted a mere four bars of the ritornello theme with which to complete the movement. It does seem as if Bach, although clearly drawing upon established forms, is feeling his way towards more integrated through composed structures. It may even be that von Ziegler’s imaginative texts were instrumental in guiding him gently in this direction, despite his possible reservations.
But there is one other point to be taken into consideration. This aria was not originally composed for this cantata; it is an arrangement of a movement from the much earlier birthday cantata C 173a (vol 1, chapter 89). That version was in the key of A major, for bass voice, thirty bars shorter with a bassoon doubling the obbligato line. The reworking of it to fit a longer text had, in itself, structural implications. This might also lead us to suppose that the alto aria may also have been a reworking of a lost work since it manifests similar signs of dislocation
Whatever the circumstances, it is the case that Bach only resorted to the recycling of earlier works in the later cantatas of this cycle and certainly not before the recalling of C 4. This, and movements for C 74 and C 68, form the main examples. These late borrowings may be taken as further evidence of the fact that Bach might have been tired, losing interest in the genre, trying to keep up with impossible deadlines or finding difficulties in working with a new collaborator; or, indeed, a combination of all four reasons!
The following recitative is divided between the alto (playing the role of narrator) and bass (the authoritative voice of the pastor). It is, somewhat unusually and apart from the doubling of the choir in the chorale, the only one of the seven movements to require the whole string band.
The minimally accompanied alto sets the scene and declaims—-they did not understand what He had said. The bass gives us a little lecture—-we are like deaf men and reason is blind. The strings encompass the lower voice at first with sustained chords but on the words—-Foolishness! Listen when Jesus speaks, it is for your salvation—–the strings become more agitated and propel us towards the major key of the last aria.
We have been told and we should heed. There is no ambiguity in this message. But even were there to be, the trumpets and rising scales of the final aria would dispel it.
One often expects trumpets to herald a chorus of some kind but what we get is an aria, this time for bass. Bach almost never used a pair of trumpets, usually preferring one or three. C 59 is another rare example but there the two brass instruments are under-pinned by the timpani and in any case, when reworked for C 74, Bach added a third trumpet. This may explain why conductors have been known to add timpani parts to C 175/6 although they are not notated in the score.
The text exhorts us to open our ears and listen to Christ’s message—-death is slain, the blessings of life are profuse and all we need do in return is to obey. The role of the two trumpets is twofold. Firstly they are there to proclaim the power and majesty of Jesus. But Bach also uses them in a more micro fashion as a conventional call to attention. In the opening vocal phrases they strongly punctuate the word Ohren—-ears—-which we are strongly advised to make use of!
And whilst picking up on details, we might also note the subtle touch of minor harmonies used to colour the words Tod erlegt—-death has slain (the devil). It is only one bar long but forceful enough to make the point (bar 20).
Structurally, Bach returns to the pattern of the traditional da capo aria with an exact repeat of the first section, trumpets having remained silent in the middle section. It may be that two arias with relatively unconventional formats were enough within the one work. It is equally likely, however, that the answer lies in the construction of the stanzas.
In the alto aria the joint images of leading out and yearning continue throughout the entire movement. Similarly, there is a single logic to the tenor aria, that of recognizing and appreciating the approaching form of Jesus. The stanza for the bass aria, however, clearly has two sections, the first being the call to listen and the second a recognition of the blessings poured upon all dutiful Christians.
Thus it makes perfect sense, both musically and textually, to set them as two conjoined sections, repeating the first for additional emphasis i.e. conventional ABA (ternary) form; such is Bach’s sensitivity to mood, meaning and imagery and their reflection in the fundamental musical structures.
By means of such close observation and analysis, we can begin to discover something of the thought processes underlying his unpredictable, enigmatic and intuitively inventive approach in some pieces and his assured use of established, traditional and conventional means in others. This perfect marriage of words and music makes it seem unlikely that this aria was borrowed from a previous work although Dürr cites it as a possibility (p 370).
The closing chorale is one of the longest (nearly thirty bars) and most beautiful in the repertoire. Its mixture of phrase lengths and Bach’s transparent harmonization makes it particularly memorable. Its message is more complex than that often found in these final reflective movements—-I shall persist in following You, but I shall continue to require Your assistance—-Your word shines like the light of the morning star—-in following You I will ignore the words of the deceivers. The three recorders support the harmonies an octave above everyone else, a mystical and unworldly effect perhaps suggestive of the morning star.
It is a graceful and sincere conclusion to a remarkable cantata.
But even at this late stage Bach has one more tiny surprise. The first syllable of the word hören—-in the context of I shall not hear [false doctrines]—-is harmonized with a strong chromatic diminished chord.
Bach, in his role of teacher/preacher is making a point right up until the end. The closing musical message is a final reminder that we should close our ears to any potentially poisonous persuasions of doubt, scepticism or heresy.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.