Chapter 47 BWV 31 Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret.
The heavens laugh and the world rejoices.
Sonata/sinfonia--chorus--recit (bass)--aria (bass)--recit (tenor)--aria (tenor)--recit (sop)--aria/chorale (sop)--chorale.
The forty-sixth cantata of the cycle for Easter Sunday.
NB: note that the essay on C 4, the forty-seventh cantata, is to be found in volume 2.
Bach’s first Easter at Leipzig has arrived and a centrepiece of the celebrations is the initial version of the Saint John Passion, performed on Good Friday. We can suppose that Bach would have intended the cantata for the Easter Sunday service to be rather special and it comes as something of a surprise to find out that he reverted to an earlier work rather than composing anew. Indeed, this had been his practice for much of the Christmas (1723) music. The mystery deepens when we discover that all four Easter cantatas for 1724 (Cs 31, 4, 66 and 134) were revivals or remodellings of earlier works. Why should this be so?
Certainly some of these cantatas were radically revised, in some cases perhaps requiring almost as much effort as the production of a new work. This, and the fact that in the busy periods of Christmas and Easter in the second cycle Bach would seem to have little difficulty in producing a regular succession of superb large-scale works, tends to render the arguments of ‘work overload’ invalid. The answer must lie elsewhere.
It is well known that certain traditional comics have been wary of using new material in case it doesn’t work. Bach was, of course, the most experimental of composers and he also seemed to have a firm (and soundly based!) opinion of his own abilities; from the little evidence we have it appeared that he was not a man who lacked personal confidence. But, bearing in mind that the Christmas and Easter events generate the two most significant celebratory occasions of the church year, he would certainly have wished to present his best possible music for these occasions. Might there be a germ of truth in the theory that he preferred to perform compositions that he knew from experience had worked well? He would have had insight into how both players and audiences received them and, furthermore, he could revise, arrange, re-orchestrate and edit them so that they were completely at home in the various acoustics and different audiences of the Leipzig churches. His need to experiment and innovate was such that the regular production of ‘stock’ works in the manner of Vivaldi would have been distasteful to him. Nevertheless, tried and trusted pieces, revised for the new circumstances and conditions might have been viewed as a safer bet than new works which may have seemed somewhat odd to an essentially conservative audience.
Bach must have been fully aware that he had not been the first choice of candidates for the position of Cantor. His first Leipzig cycle demonstrates throughout a balance between excitingly innovative composition and the reworking, often in groups at particular key periods of the church year, of well tested pieces. Dürr (p 268) dates the original composition of C 31 as April 1715 with a revival at Weimar. It is believed that Bach performed it on several occasions at Leipzig and various alterations were made to the instrumentation to suit varying circumstances.
The version in which it is generally performed today uses one of Bach’s largest orchestrations; three trumpets with timpani, four oboes and bassoon, continuo and strings with two viola lines (betraying an early genesis), an independent cello part and, almost uniquely in the cantata canon, a five part chorus employing two soprano lines.
There can be no greater contrast than that between the sinfonia for this cantata and that of the previous week, C 182. The latter was graceful, formal, delicate and charming as befits the welcoming of a compassionate and caring Saviour. The former is loud, extrovert and joyous, entirely appropriate for the celebration of Christ’s rising. It begins with a bold unison theme in C major ascending in pitch as a representation of Christ rising from the tomb. It has a distinct fanfare quality associated with the heralding of King or Prince and it is worth noting that, most unusually for Bach, the entire melody is based around the single chord of C.
Bach’s approach is usually to create a sequence of chords, the one progressing to the next thus creating an inexorable sense of forward movement. Here the impetus is created entirely through the strength of the rhythms, the melodic direction and the large instrumental forces.
The second theme (from bar 7) conveys an impression of throngs and multitudes, very possibly those who gather together in order to celebrate this iconic Christian event. Here the harmonies proceed as we normally expect from Bach, two or more chords to the bar. The principal melodic material is created from streams of semi-quavers, shared by every section of the orchestra. The trumpets attempt to continue the assertion of motives from their original theme of pageantry and resurrection (bars 10-18) but eventually capitulate and join the textures of ‘thronging.’ The original seven-bar melody does return, however, to complete the movement. It can hardly be called a ‘ritornello’ in the Italian concerto sense because virtually no independent use is made of it in the substantive part of the movement.
The chorus is an equally impressive affair, employing, most unusually in the cantatas, five vocal lines supported by the full complement of instruments. Bach’s reason for making use of a solo cello now becomes clear. When it is used to give additional weight to the bass vocal line, it can do so without committing the entire continuo which remains free to maintain its independence and primary function of providing the harmonic basis for everything else. The text is essentially a paean of joy celebrating Christ’s resurrection----the heavens laugh and the earth rejoices as the Creator lives----The Highest triumphs, free from death, and immune to the grave’s putrefaction. The chorus is ebullient and energetic, but somewhat wayward in structure, a strong indication of its being an early work.
There are five sections, determined as always by the text.
1: bars 1-21. Laughing and rejoicing. A progressive build-up of texture, the two soprano lines thence joined by altos, basses and tenors until eventually the full five-part vocal texture is achieved.
2: bars 22-43. The Creator lives and triumphs. Bach follows exactly the same pattern of increasing the complexity of the texture as in section 1.
3: bars 43-51. The grave as a place of rest---adagio. A rich, five-part choral texture with instruments doubling, motet style.
4: bars 51-63. He cannot decay (final line of text). A fugal-like series of imitative entries, in the order S1, S2, A, T, B
5: bars 63-end. Instrumental coda. Trumpet and violin (the merging of Christ and Soul?) dance together, reverting to the main theme from sections 1 and 2, other instruments interjecting.
There is no other chorus in the canon structured precisely in this way and, despite the suggestions made above that Bach may not have wished to present himself as too modern or innovative at this important festive time, nevertheless it is manifestly clear that he is perfectly happy to stretch and distort established structural conventions if it suits the needs of the text.
Much the same might be said of the following bass recitative. Like the two others in this cantata it is secco with no accompaniment other than the continuo, although clearly a number of ‘colouring’ instruments were available. Bach, however, contrives to create from the two melodic lines he allows himself a complex and emotive operatic scena. There are almost a dozen different tempi within a mere thirty bars and a vigorous bass line (Bach probably had his solo cellist in mind when he conceived it) underpinning alternating recitative and arioso writing.
All this combines to produce a movement which, although unlikely to last for more than a couple of minutes in performance, provides a wealth of vivid expression.
The text develops the theme of the previous stanza----Be glad for this long awaited day----He who died for our sins is now snatched from distress----if our Lord lives, then so do we, for He holds the keys to Hell and Death----His cloak was once sprinkled with blood, but now He is robed in glory.
It should not be necessary to describe the structure bar by bar; the emotional nuances are obvious even to the listener who lacks a grounding in German. Nevertheless, one might point out the celebratory duet (voice and continuo from the third bar) which marks the occasion and the similar semi-quaver scales at the mention of His being snatched from death. The last phrase is an arioso contrasting the image of the blood-covered cloak with the ultimate finery of apparel.
The movement ends in Em, surely not a coincidence since it is the key that Bach so often associates with the crucifixion.
The symmetrical structure of the cantata should be noted; between the two choral movements there are three pairs of linked recitative/arias, for bass, tenor and soprano. The text of the bass aria that follows his recitative continues the theme of communal praise and rejoicing through a series of rhetorical questions----Warrior, Prince Son of God, is it the cross that has raised You to the Highest throne?----have Your chains and wounds now been transformed into jewels and radiance? The cello provides the obbligato bass-cum-continuo line, dominated by a pervading dotted rhythm. It is very possible that Bach intended this as an allusion to the carrying and stumbling under the weight of the cross.
The aria is very short, less than three dozen bars, and built upon the ritornello principle. The structure of the text does not really provide for a distinct middle section, although there is the briefest of recapitulations (words and music) from bar 24. The three melismas give an insight into the significance Bach attached to the text, two on Lebens----a strong image of the Prince of life itself (from bars 6 and 25), and the obviously rising scales for Höhsten-----reminding us of the act of ascension to the Holy throne, an image of significance for both Man and Christ (bar 11).
The tenor begins his pair of movements with a secco recitative which shifts the focus away from addressing Christ Himself towards that of the Christian soul----rise up from your deathly preoccupations Oh devoted ones, this blooming vine bears no dead fruit----the Christian departs rapidly from the grave, leaving behind its headstone and his sins in order to live with Christ. The rising opening phrase is one of exhortation as well as encapsulating, once again, the sense of ascending. Much the same technique may be found in bar 13 where the fleeing from the grave is pictured in the singer’s rising scales. But for the most part this is an oration of insistence and encouragement, direct and unencumbered by flashy, painted images.
The aria retains the rhythmic energy previously heard in that for bass but the dotted rhythms are replaced with even semi-quavers, now presented as an obbligato in the first violins. The tenor is supported by a particularly rich string texture, two lines each of violins and violas with the continuo, including the solo cello. The text continues to direct itself to listening Christians, enlarging upon the advice delivered in the previous recitative----Adam decays within us in order that the New Man be saved and recreated in the image of God----Rise up in spirit, abandon those caves of sin and thus become one with Christ. The aria is concise and to the point, allowing scope perhaps, for the most personal of the three, that for soprano, to be more expansive and thus impress itself most strongly upon the listener’s imagination.
Yet again the melodic direction is predominantly rising, this time with a greater sense of dogged insistency, perhaps suggesting that a degree of effort and determination is required to ascend above our earthly sinful environment.
But this is surely mitigated by the beguiling charm of the tenor line. Certainly the touches of minor modes (bars 22-4) cast a brief shadow at the mention of the caverns of sin, but this is fleeting. The aria, symmetrically constructed around the three statements of the enchanting ritornello theme, seems almost to be over too soon.
It is now the turn of the soprano and the focus of the text changes for the second time. Initially Christ was addressed, then the Christian community. Now the poet speaks in the first person; it is now we who are expressing our innermost thoughts and the final three movements encapsulate the personal nature of commitment. The text begins with a simple metaphor----as the head takes the limb with it, so shall I be joined to Jesus----I shall suffer if I must in order to rise to later glory with Him. The continuo line underpins the final bars with a discreet but sturdy quaver figuration, possibly to reinforce the soul’s determination. The music also emerges from the minor mode in which it began, to the warm major of C, that of the first two movements as well as the aria and chorale to follow.
We should note just how little of this gloriously positive cantata is set in minor modes. The first recitative ends in Em (for symbolic reasons) and the last begins in the same key. The sinfonia, chorus, three arias and the closing chorale are all major. Furthermore, Bach’s ability to invest major modes with a degree of profound expressivity is seldom more apparent than in this final aria.
It is the longest movement of the cantata, a trio for voice, oboe d'amore obbligato and continuo, with the upper strings combining to present, fantasia-like, the seven phrases of the chorale melody which will close the work. The long oboe ritornello has a calming, lullaby-like character which continues almost unabated throughout. Its main characteristics are a complete lack of rhythmic variety and a tendency to grow and expand.
The text is a plea for the final hour to come so that we may behold the holy light and become as the angels. The mood is peaceful and resigned but not without a sense of personal and restrainedly joyous commitment.
It is interesting to speculate upon Bach’s purpose in introducing the chorale at this point. The combined violins and violas intone the melody on their lower strings, imbuing it with a sense of gravitas and solemnity. Its entries are unpredictable, tending not to coincide with the phrases of the upper two melodies and in this sense makes its impact seem partly subliminal. The words of the verse to be used for the final movement fully reinforce those of the soprano’s in this; Bach may have assumed that the congregation would have had them in mind, thus creating a deeper, more profound and intertwined texture of meaning.
The cantata closes with this same melody, traditionally set in four parts with instruments doubling. The text is not now a prayer but a statement of fact, conviction and intention----I will journey to Jesus, sleep and rest in peace----I shall not waken for He will unlock Heaven’s door and the gateway to eternal life. The trumpet and violin combine with an additional obbligato melody soaring above all else.
Perhaps it represents the Divine Light or the Throne to which we now may feel we are confident of ultimately ascending.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.