Chapter 5 BWV 135 Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder
O Lord, in Your anger.
Chorus/fantasia–recit (tenor)–aria (tenor)–recit (alto)–aria (bass)-chorale.
In his notes for Ton Koopman’s complete recordings of the cantatas (vol 2, p 11) Christoph Wolff remarks that Bach seems to have consciously striven for the maximum of variety within small groups of cantatas composed close to each other. He cites, as examples, two sets of four works: Cs 78, 99, 8, and 114 and 91,121, 26 and 116.
The first four works of the cycle, Cs 20, 2, 7 and 135 also form a related grouping, perhaps less bound together by their similarities than by the overt distinctiveness of their chorale fantasias. That of C 135 is like none of the previous three. Here there are no echoes of the pretensions of the C 20 French Overture and no connections to the barren motet style of C 2 or the Italianate concerto rhapsody of C 7. This movement is an extraordinary filigree of vocal and instrumental counterpoint, framing the articulation of the Passion Chorale melody, itself doubtless familiar to devotees of the St Matthew Passion and the Christmas Oratorio. (Bach also made use of it on several other occasions e.g. Cs 161 and 159).
Even more extraordinarily, this work was presented just one day after C7 (Wolff p 275-6: see chapter 4). How was it possible for Bach to produce these vast musical edifices at such speed? It beggars belief that, on top of his other duties he composed and rehearsed Cs 7 and 135 in less than one week! This gives weight to the view that he may have been planning this cycle and even beginning to compose some of the cantatas whilst still completing his first year at Leipzig. The fact that he was reusing so many of his earlier works at that time may have enabled him to devote his attention to the forward planning of his most coherent body of ′well regulated’ music.
Readers who come anew to this cantata can do no better than begin by listening to the chorale. Whilst likely to be known to most Bach lovers, nevertheless it may be that not everyone is familiar with Bach’s various harmonisations of it. Its ambiguous tonality clearly intrigued him; it can be harmonized entirely in the major mode (see the St Matthew Passion, no 23) or begin in the major and end in the minor. It can begin on the tonic chord of the key and end on the dominant as, indeed, it does in the four-part harmonisation at the end of this cantata. However, and this must surely be a stroke of innovation so far ahead of its time that it was not caught up with by other composers until the end of the Nineteenth Century, the chorale/fantasia both begins and ends on the dominant, the unfinished chord of the key!
This is originality of quite breath-taking proportion and demonstrates the extent to which Bach was pushing back the boundaries of tonal practice. This is not a composer working within clearly delineated conventions; it is an artist who is developing a ‘second practice’ in much the way that Monteverdi had done a century earlier. (A further example of Bach′s deviation from tonal norms will later be seen in the concluding movement of C 68 (chapter 49) which begins in one key and ends in another!)
Having familiarized (or, more probably, re-familiarised) ourselves with the chorale melody, let us examine the first movement. It is, as we have now come to expect, a complex chorus with the phrases of the chorale sung in long notes by one of the four voices; this time it is the turn of the basses (the only other cantata of the cycle to place the chorale in the lowest part is C 3, chapter 35).
Here we have unfolding before us another huge movement with the feeling of a tone poem or free-form fantasia. But this is illusory. This chorus is as tightly constructed as any that come before or after it; arguably as focused and economical as that beginning C 2 but in different ways and for different purposes. The overall structure is that of the Italian ritornello in which the orchestra declaims the opening statement and separates the various phrases of the chorale. There is however, no final orchestral passage, choir and instruments ending together. As we shall continue to note, the limited tonal range of the chorale sets Bach challenges for his large scale structural planning, although he does manage cadences in related keys of C major (bars 84-5) and Em (117-8). The extended orchestral passages also provide hints of other linked keys and further tonal variety.
The opening bars reveal a little of what is to come, rather like a conjuror allowing us to glimpse only what he wants us to see whilst yet suggesting more. The scoring is light and almost tentative. This is not the dominating opening which characterizes the first three cantatas of the cycle; indeed, the gentle feeling of these bars sets a mood of almost improvisatory reflection which continues throughout the movement, despite its concentrated organic development.
The text may well contain references to anger, punishment and the torment of hell—-Do not, Lord, rebuke the poor sinner who seeks forgiveness and a release from Hell′s torments. But as always, Bach sees beyond the superficial images to the core of the matter. This work is about repentance of the individual and the ultimate joy of redemption. It is, thus, deeply personal and quietly introspective and Bach catches the mood precisely.
Most phrases of the chorale are pre-empted in the middle and upper strings before reaching the basses. In and around the familiar melody is a filigree of notes on the two oboes and the strings, utilizing the oft-repeated quaver motive. This is a diminution of the first five notes of the chorale and is presented to us in the very opening bar and, subsequently, in most successive bars. The continuing mood is of individual penitence and the seeking of God’s mercy.
This is an excellent chorus from which to develop the discussion alluded to in chapter 3 i.e. how Bach writes for the three voices not carrying the chorale melody. Bach’s sensitivity to individual lines of text is such that he frequently colours them with changes of texture (homophonic and contrapuntal), direction and rhythmic and melodic means in the ′supporting′ voices.
Traditionally the first two chorale phrases are repeated to accommodate the words. In the fantasias Bach sometimes maintains the same musical setting for the repeats but elsewhere he changes it, as in this case where the basic material is similar but the order of entries is different. For example, against the first two phrases of the chorale the upper voices enter in the balanced order T, A, S—S, A,T (beginning bars 14 and 26). For the third and fourth phrases the order is precisely reversed: S, A, T—-T, A, S (bars 46 and 58). One cannot know precisely why Bach did this. Perhaps he is balancing the might and anger of the Lord against the fear and weakness of the sinner.
The fifth phrase (from bar 79) is preceded by the upper voices entering in imitation with a new idea and ending (bars 83-5) with a touch of minor-mode harmony, deftly colouring the plea for forgiveness. The sixth (from bar 93) is largely homophonic (chordal) and the last two phrases see the return of the initial idea but with the upper voices entering in yet another order A, S, T—-S, T, A. (bars 109 and 126).
The precise symbolism is not always easy to determine and nor is it essential to understand it. The listener cannot, however, fail to be engaged by the detailed nature of the formal balance, the variety of invention and the nuanced musical representations of textual images.
The tenor recitative continues the theme of seeking forgiveness and relief from misery. The sinner declares his sickness and need for healing and bemoans the fact that his torment lasts so long. The mode is appropriately minor throughout and there are some notable and obvious moments of word painting. One cannot ignore the rushes of notes on the word schnellen—-the pouring down the cheeks of the tears of misery (bar 9) or the anguish of Schrecken—the renting of the soul (bar 11).
The movement ends with a plaintive line from the original chorale text—-my Lord, why are You so long in coming?
Doubt has been expressed by Schweitzer (vol 2, p376) and Boyd (p 4) about whether the tenor aria was originally written for this cantata or might have had its genesis in another work. Schweitzer periodically has problems with Bach’s poor ‘declamation’, a notable example being the tenor aria from C 38 (chapter 22). But here, as in that later work, there is an abundance of internal evidence to suggest that this text and music properly belong together. There are falling sevenths on the word tod—-death (a touch of minor harmony underlining the soul’s peril) and the silences on the word stille—-silence. Both indicate that if Bach did not originally compose this aria to this text, his reconstruction must have been radical and done with a full sensitivity to its imagery.
This is the only movement of the cantata to be solidly based in the major mode. The text asks Christ for comfort and succour in order to avoid the perils of hell. The tenor voice is surrounded by threads from the two inter-weaving oboes and the mood is quietly assured. The music, if not the text, implies faith in the Saviour and expresses a composed, if not entirely committed, confidence.
As so often in these cantatas, one movement may be viewed as the keystone to the entire work. This aria is a fervent prayer seeking the comfort and alleviation that Jesus will surely bring in times of spiritual turmoil; herein lies its significance at the core of this cantata of hope.
The mood of serenity continues for just a moment as the alto recitative begins on a calm F major chord—-my sighing wearies me. But the minor harmonies quickly return along with some chromatic twists in the melody signifying moaning, weeping and torment—-I lie in misery, aged by my fear and anguish. Note how the weariness of the opening line is accented by the hint of carrying a perpetual burden, suggested by the repeated bass quavers (bars 1-2).
The fundamental Bachian message is one of good news; but contemporary Lutheranism is always ready to remind us that the journey will be tortuous! This cantata conveys both messages.
The final aria, for bass, is the most lively and vigorous movement of the entire work; it simply abounds with energy. The minor key returns and consequently the mood is not one of unabandoned celebration and rejoicing but rather a re-assertion of the confidence and buoyancy which had underpinned the more reflective tenor aria. Here it is assertive and positive, forceful and dynamic, the final casting off of enemies and heretics—-depart instigators of sin, my enemies now fall upon their own weapons—-and yet Jesus comforts me.
Commentators have explained the energetic writing as a depiction of the evildoers hastening or being cast away (Schweitzer p 87). This is doubtless the case, but one should not miss the intimations of infinite and boundless Divine energy and the personal confidence it engenders within the comforted Christian. Both ideas lie at the heart of this musical message. Indeed, the idea of our enemies being cast out with their own arrows turned against them must have been an attractive one to Bach, considering his on-going battles with authorities. His emotional commitment to this idea may well explain the energy and fury underlying his response to the text!
A little more focused description of the construction of the opening theme should not put off non-musicians since everything is ultimately transparent and accessible. The movement form is that of the Italian ritornello/concerto with a vigorous violin melody beginning and closing it. In between we hear fragmented versions of this striding theme in related keys (bars 38-46 and 59-64).
The opening theme begins with a forceful two-bar phrase, repeated twice at lower pitches, at which point it soars upwards and becomes increasingly dispersive in nature. This seems, surely, to be a musical representation of the hand of God smiting His enemies followed by their scattering.
In Bach’s Obituary, written by CPE Bach and Agricola and published in 1754 mention is made of his distinctive melodies which are described as ‘strange’ and ‘like no others’. This is a good example; scrupulously shaped and crafted, ranging over nearly three octaves and carried forward through jagged shapes whilst radiating an unprecedented vigour; yet all the time reflecting the imagery of the text.
The bass enters on an extended run of quavers on the word weicht—-away—-an imperious instruction to the evildoers to disperse. But the expression of the singer’s line alters subtly as the textual meanings change; the words—-Jesus comforts me—-has a softer, less aggressive feel as does the phrase—-after lamentations (He) brings back the joyousness of the shining sun (from bar 46). The lifts on the word scheinen—shining—-provide further fleeting examples of musical pictures.
Thus, in the short space of three minutes Bach combines the contrasting moods of comfort and joy with more violent images of fleeing miscreants, wounding themselves with arrows of their own making. This is what he does so superbly, fusing disparate ideas and images into a fully unified and totally convincing art-piece.
The chorale is, perhaps, not only one of the best known but also one of the most moving within the repertoire. It offers praise and glory to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost but this is not the extrovert, D major, fanfare-driven glorification we find so often in Bach’s music. This is the quiet, reflective and personal glory which good Lutherans, as redeemed individuals, are constrained to offer up.
The cantata began on an implied E major chord with pleas for mercy and salvation. It ends on the same chord, now complete and unambiguous, by honouring the Divine Entities that made them possible. The circle has been completed.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017