Chapter 49 BWV 249 Kommt, eilet und laufet
Come Hasten and run: The Easter Oratorio.
Sinfonia 1--sinfonia 2--duet (tenor/bass)--recit (alto, sop, tenor, bass)--aria (sop)--recit (alto/tenor/bass)--aria tenor)--recit (sop/alto)--aria (alto)--recit (bass)--chorus.
For Easter Sunday.
Somewhat surprisingly, only three works Cs 31, 4 and 249 remain extant for this important day of the church year. The first two were performed, presumably one before and one after the sermon, as part of the first Leipzig cycle (Wolff p 272). Despite being one of Bach’s earliest cantatas, C 4 was also recalled for the second cycle, along with a performance of the first version of Easter Oratorio (ibid p 277). (It was, incidentally, at this point that Bach interrupted his run of forty consecutive chorale cantatas). In the following year Bach performed a group of works by a relative Johann Ludwig Bach and if any cantatas for this day were composed thereafter they have not survived.
C 31 (vol 1, chapter 47), an early Weimar composition, is a work of considerable proportions boasting an impressive opening sinfonia followed by an equally exciting chorus. C 4 (vol 2, chapter 42), despite its two choruses (in addition to the four-part chorale) has more the feeling of a chamber work and is dominated by the hymn tune which, always in the same key, forms the basis of every movement. C 249, consisting of eleven movements, is of a similar scale to that of the Ascension Oratorio and this raises an interesting point. Both these works emerged from, or were revised in, the mid 1730s. The Christmas Oratorio and Eine feste Burg, for the Reformation Festival, materialised in its current forms at much the same time.
It appears that around this period Bach was preoccupied with amassing large-scale works for the marking of significant religious events. He had already composed commanding Passions and, taken together, this all formed a very substantial bulk of impressive and imposing music for significant events.
Dürr is strongly of the opinion that C 249 is not a cantata and shouldn't be categorised with them. Certainly Bach did not call it a cantata; but that is true of most of the works in the canon. The fact that he was continuing to revise it in his last decade suggests that he might have performed it on several occasions. It, therefore, would have been a staple part of his ecclesiastical repertoire and, despite some obvious differences, there is no harm in reviewing it here as part of the cantata canon.
Two of its unusual characteristics are immediately obvious; it does not contain a single chorale and it begins with two sinfonias. Both are rare but not unique; Cs 54 and 170, for example, have no chorales and C 35 has two sinfonias, admittedly not consecutively. Nevertheless, such examples go to show the range of Bach's structural options.
Another puzzle arises with the two opening sinfonias. For many years they were thought to be the first and second movements from a lost concerto, possibly for violin. Nowadays the theory has less support, based upon analyses of the internal structures. Readers may make up their own minds as to the probability of the supposition.
What is known is that the cantata was based upon a secular work (C 249a) and it was twice latterly revised by Bach, around 1738 and 1743. This accounts for the fact that listeners may hear different recorded versions. For example, the third movement, originally a duet, was later expanded for four-part choir. Similarly, and some may feel somewhat regrettably, Bach replaced the solo oboe in the second sinfonia with a flute.
Nor does the oratorio rely upon the device of a tenor narrator which plays such an important role in the Passions and in C11. Here the story is told in the tradition of a medieval mystery play, through the mouths of well known biblical characters. This, and the absence of chorales, is what sets it apart from the other cantatas.
Whatever its genesis, the opening sinfonia of C 249 makes an impressive beginning to a work composed for this important event of the church year. It is scored for a festive trio of trumpets, drums, oboes, strings and continuo, and it commences with a long (40 bar) tutti ritornello theme.
This in itself marks a significant departure from Bach's usual concerto practice. He does, at times, begin with an extensive tutti (see the first movement of the double violin concerto and the last movements of the violin concerto in Am and Brandenburg 4) but all of these are fugal expositions. Perhaps the nearest non-fugal movement in scale is the twenty-bar ritornello of the keyboard concerto in Fm.
The solo violin line which emerges at bar 40 continues in uninterrupted semiquavers for over thirty bars, a wonderful, self generating melody. It leads to a reprised segment of the tutti theme but not in the expected new key; it remains, presumably because of the limited trumpet range, rooted in the tonic key of D. Thence follows an extended trio for two oboes and bassoon, a sound highly reminiscent of the first movement of the first Orchestral Suit. Subsequent alternations of tutti and episodic material are not difficult to follow.
It is understandable that this movement was thought for many years to be derived from a lost concerto, but several of the characteristics described above mark it out as being structurally divergent.
Similarly with the slow movement. The expressive oboe solo, supported by a persistent dotted note rhythm on strings and continuo, is very much in the Italian mould. However, the entry of the oboe in the fifth bar, whilst a stunningly effective moment dramatically, is not characteristic of the concerto principle which would normally allow the tutti ritornello theme to come to a cadence before the soloist’s entry. Bach did make use of slow concerto movements as introductory sinfonias, that for oboe and strings from C 156 being the best known example (vol 3, chapter 40). But that from the oratorio would seem to have more in common with the sinfonia from C 12 (vol 1, chapter 52).
No criticism can be made of the quality of this searingly expressive music in its cantata/oratorio setting. But it is dangerous to argue for a concerto precedent.
Tenor bass aria.
The third movement is best performed in the version inherited from the secular original, a duet for tenor and bass. Bach’s later addition of two more vocal lines enabled it to be sung by a full chorus, a technique he was well practised in, as a number of works testify e.g. Cs 173 and 184 (from cycle 1, chapters 59 and 60) and C 74 (from cycle 2, chapter 48). In most of these cases though, there are obvious signs of the arrangements having been done under pressure; added lines are minimal and the middle sections of some movements, including that from 249, remain in the original two parts. Like that of the opening sinfonia, the ritornello theme is expansive and strongly orchestrated and the form, like that of two of the three arias, is a strict da capo.
The text initially calls for all who are fleet of foot to run to the cave where Jesus is hidden and it is appropriately set to rolling semi-quavers which, in the secular version, depicted the ‘flying away’ of our worries. The crux of the middle section calls for laughter and merriment to attend the Risen Lord, and is marked by long double melismas on both voices.
This may be compared with another of Bach’s depiction of laughter in his adaption of the fourth Orchestral Suite overture, in C 110 (vol 3, chapter 6).
The four recitatives.
The oratorio now assumes a well established pattern of alternating recitatives and arias, constructed so as to achieve the maximum of variety. The first of the former is for four voices and continuo, expressing communal and universal grief with the added realisation that what might have been done would only have been in vain. The second is for three voices (omitting the soprano), gathering around the uncovered tomb and discarded sweat cloth, where they learn of His rising. The third is for soprano and alto only, an expression of the desire burning within the heart to see the Saviour. The ardent emotion, expressed exquisitely in the arioso duet, is urged on by a nervously imploring, persistent figure in the continuo line.
The last recitative is for continuo and just the one voice, the bass, here representative of Christ’s disciples or possibly Mankind as a whole----we rejoice that He lives in our hearts----the pain of losing Him may be forgotten as we now celebrate with jubilant anthems. Bach’s gradual reduction in the singers required for the recitatives cannot have been accidental. On the one hand, it may have been to highlight the shifting of the focus from grief-stricken miscomprehension to joyful revelation becoming a personal and private process i.e. the belief, insight and understanding that is a central part of the Christian faith is ultimately an internalised matter which may be expressed communally but felt only individually. On the other, it is the authoritative bass voice that proclaims to the world the revelation of Christ living within our hearts.
There are complex threads here and different possible interpretations which Bach presents to his ‘thinking’ congregations. The significance of the basic message for each individual Christian is, however, obvious.
There is nothing enigmatic about either the text or the music of the concluding chorus----praise and gratitude to the Lord, hell and Satan are vanquished----rejoice and be heard in heaven as it opens its portals to welcome the Lion of Judah (Jesus). The rhythm is that of a ponderous gavotte, a suite form frequently used by Bach when passage to heaven is implied or depicted.
Trumpets above oboes.
The rolling triplets and dotted notes are reminiscent of the Sanctus from the Bm Mass and this may not have been coincidental; the original version of this movement was composed around the time that C 249 was first assembled. In the oratorio, though, Bach retains the traditional four-part chorus, an indication that the work would normally have been presented as a part of the regular church services where an expanded chorus was virtually never used. By doing so, however, he denies himself the luxury of the rolling three-part chords which determine much of the character of the Santus.
For the coda Bach increases the tempo, changes from four to three beats in the bar and has the voices enter imitatively from the lowest to the highest. A blaze of D major triumph, using the full resources of instruments and voices, ends the work with the proclamation and musical picturing of Christ’s triumphant entry into heaven.
It remains only to consider the three arias. Like the recitatives they are all distinctive in that three of the four available voices are used and the instrumental settings are all different. They are reflective of events in the way that we often find of the chorales in the cantata canon; but they also contribute to the narrative.
The first aria is for soprano, continuo (with strings marked pizzicato) and flute obbligato. It is a gloriously expansive song of lament for what seems to have been lost, although the text retains glimpses of hope----Soul, use not myrrh but laurel leaves to calm your longing. These references may be somewhat obscure to a modern audience. Myrrh is, of course well known as one of the gifts offered to the Baby Jesus but here it is probable that the reference is to its use on the process of embalming. Laurel leaves had connotations of success and achievement even in biblical times. Thus the imagery is convoluted, with intimations of Christ’s birth, death, resurrection and an underlying, but as yet unrevealed, sense of his great achievement for Mankind. The soul is not pacified at this stage, however.
The melodic suggestions of weeping and the long descending phrases of triplets leave us in little doubt of the continuing sense of pain and alienation.
The tenor is accompanied by a quartet comprising two flutes and two violins and in a sense it forms a turning point in the narrative. Here the agony of death is accepted as nothing more than slumber, Christ’s own cloth serving to wipe away tears and refresh the grieving soul. The gently undulating rhythms evoke the feeling of a lullaby rocking one to sleep.
The types of musical motive which Bach uses to portray the sweetness of death are not unique. In C 161----come sweet moment of death----a very similar figuration may be found, again on two flutes.
Opening motive of C 249/7 followed by that from C 161 (transposed).
There can be no doubt of the distinctiveness of either aria yet they are bound together by parallel themes and similar musical materials. The sustained low notes on Schlummer----the slumber (of death) are strangely compelling.
The third and final aria is designed, like the concluding chorus, to lift the spirits and rouse the soul----tell me quickly where I might find the Jesus I love----come and embrace me for I am but an orphaned waif without You. The mode is major and the mood exultant. The oboe d’amore quickly detatches itself from the first violins to provide the main ritornello melody one, perhaps, of purposeful searching. Much of the movement is based around an interplay between oboe, voice and first violins symbols, perhaps, of the about-to-be conjoined Christ and Soul.
The text suggests that the latter may still be searching for contentment and divine reconciliation but the music seems to confirm, as do the two final movements, that it has already taken place.
Perhaps the Oratorio for Easter has not achieved the popularity of that composed for Christmas. They are, of course, very different compositions. But the range of invention, careful structuring and sheer variety of C 249 all combine to make it a work that should not be overlooked. Both its proportions and attractive nature make it ideal for concert performance; conductors please take note!
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.