Chapter 50 BWV 67 Halt im Gedächtnis Jesum Christ
Remember Jesus Christ
Chorus--aria (tenor)--recit (alto)--chorale--recit (alto)--aria/chorus (bass/SATB)--chorale.
The fiftieth cantata of the cycle for the first Sunday after Easter.
For this, the fiftieth cantata to be performed at Leipzig in less than eleven months, Bach again produces an entirely new work. This is also true of the next cantata C 104. If, indeed, he had been involved in the composition of these works around the time of the Easter festivities, it is unsurprising that he drew largely upon existing works for that event. Both these new works follow a similar pattern, beginning with a large scale chorus and ending with a plain chorale setting. The main differences in overall shape are the insertion of an additional chorale in this work and the use of paired recitatives and arias in the next.
During this first year Bach seems to have trodden a fine line between new and established repertoire. We have seen that he tended to rely upon existing compositions for the most important events. But it does appear that he could only go so long without flexing his creative muscles and responding to new challenges. When he did so, he often came up with solutions that were breathtakingly innovative. As we shall see, that was the case with C 67.
The opening chorus has just the one line of text containing two ideas----remember Jesus Christ-----Who was raised from the dead. It is scored for a large and unusual instrumental combination, solo horn and flute, two oboes, continuo and strings. It is constructed, in a most original manner, around the first line of the chorale O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig, O innocent Lamb of God. Announced immediately by the horn with an extended first note, it is heard continually throughout the movement, a sort of leit
motif constantly reminding us of the chaste Saviour.
The main characteristics of the forceful opening instrumental theme are the use of this phrase and the rolling quavers on oboes and horns. The first becomes the basis of the initial two choral entries, cogent admonitions to keep Christ in our minds. The second, presumably representing the act of rising from the dead, is seldom wholly absent from the upper string and wind parts. The chorus constantly counterpoints homophonic choral sections of rhetorical grandeur against the unceasing activity of the great Christian event. The texture lightens temporarily from bar 33 where the tenors introduce a theme which tempts us to think that a formal fugal exposition is in process.
But it is not to be. The three upper voices simply throw it around amongst themselves against the original chorale phrase (heard in the altos from bar 34, sopranos from bar 42 and basses from bar 50). The entrance of the horn and upper instruments (bar 55) marks the return of the complete instrumental exposition, this time with added choral parts.
This heralds a reworking of the material to date recalling the two chordal choral passages (now beginning in bars 76 and 86) and leading to a modified development of the imitative theme (first heard in the tenors from bar 33). The second half of the movement sees the most skilful reconstitution of the original material as it passes through related minor keys for added tonal variety.
If this seems overly complex, think of it this way: an instrumental introduction leads to two choral entries, fundamentally chordal in texture, and thence to an imitative theme on voices with continuo only. The introduction is then repeated from bar 55 (but now also with choir) and the first half of the movement is then reworked until the end. Put in these terms, the macro structure is simple: instrumental introduction, section A (when choir enters) followed by section A reworked. The detail is, of course, rather more complex!
Note that Bach ends the movement by combining the choir with the initial sixteen-bar instrumental melody (marked by the horn entry from bar 114). The final call to remember the risen Christ is most effectively made by the fully combined choral and instrumental forces.
There is often an element of doubt, uncertainty or disbelief in the cantata texts, partially because the opportunities of resolving such feelings provide for some sort of drama or narrative, no matter how tenuous it might be. The tenor aria establishes this immediately after the glorious opening. In a sense one wonders what misgiving there could possibly be after a chorus of such affirmation, but reservations there must be if only to provide the musical and textual framework for the rest of the piece. The tenor acknowledges immediately----my Jesus has risen----but he then proceeds to express a personal apprehension----what is it that still makes me afraid?----I know of the Saviour’s victory but my heart still feels the battle. One might interpret this as the ‘heart versus head’ contradiction; knowing and feeling are not the same thing.
It is a splendid aria which demonstrates Bach’s growing mature ability to ally and integrate the musical material fully with the textual ideas. The opening phrase is bold, sweeping and confident but the 5th and 8th bars are rhythmically disrupted with a sense of quivering apprehension.
Opening theme followed by the approach to the cadence.TT
When taken over by the tenor, these dislocated rhythms have the effect of that catching of the throat associated with a state of nervous tension. Subtly, and without any interruption of the main musical flow or the movement’s integrity, Bach manages to create a theatrical representation of the physical manifestations of tenseness and unease.
The aria is a perfect example of Bach’s fascination with, and genius in, conveying opposite or contrasting images and emotions within the same movement. It is extrovert and confident on the one hand but with a sense of anxiety and hesitation on the other. It is, in short, great art.
Alto recitative/chorale/alto recitative.
At the centre of this cantata lies a simple chorale flanked by two plain secco recitatives and the sense of the text demands that they are perceived as an entity. The first, for alto, seems surprisingly benign when one considers the rather colourful text----Jesus, do they call You the poisoner of Death and Hell only for them still to plague me?----You have placed a song of praise on our tongues and we have sung it. There is no picture painting of these images; Bach sets the words as a simple but sincere expression of doubt and reservation. The music moves to F#, the key of the chorale which transpires to be, indeed, the song of praise alluded to. Ostensibly the key is F# minor, but Bach’s use of the major chord at the beginning and end, allied to the cadences in three related major keys (B, E and A) lighten the mood of what might otherwise have seemed an extremely doleful melody.
But it is still a much muted one. The key, simple setting and metrical phrases convey nothing of the scintillating opening chorus, or even the dichotomised aria. The text simply announces the advent of the glorious day when Christ triumphs, all His enemies are captives and, as a consequence, we really cannot rejoice sufficiently. The sentiment is bold, but the music is benign, though beautiful. It is, perhaps, little wonder that our tenor still has some doubts.
The turning point comes in the following alto recitative----though still troubled by the remaining terrible enemy, I see that Your victory has been for me, for faith tells us that You will fulfil Your word through us. A nurtured faith and trust are clearly beginning to take hold. Again, the recitative is simple, direct and lacking in any excessive gestures.
The essential point is that some Christians need actively to seek the support of the Lord in order that they sustain their faith. The next movement, for solo bass and chorus, brings the various threads together in the ultimate prayer for Divine assistance.
This is a movement of striking originality, particularly considering that it was composed nearly three hundred years ago. It is comprised of seven distinct sections incorporating several tempi and time signature changes. Time signatures of four and three beats to the bar alternate throughout as Christ, in the guise of a solo bass, carries His message of peace to the waverers (S, A and T) and heeds their responses.
On each occasion his repeated line----Peace be with you----is supported by a choir of flute, two oboes d’amore and continuo.
They accompany with a gentle, rocking, almost cradle-like rhythm creating a perfect atmosphere of peaceful contemplation. The remaining voices respond to His calming words against a veritable string tumult; if the song for the Lord (movement 4) had been lacking in vitality, His words now engender an excitement in the faithful which is barely containable. Persistent, almost aggressive quaver figurations dominate these sections with the first violins contributing bursts of rapid, always ascending scales.
The musical contrasts between the ultimately serene environment of Christ and that of an excitingly responsive Mankind are extreme: timbre, tempo, solo and tutti and rhythmic structures all delineate the different sections along with, of course, the markedly disparate dispositions of mood. The skill with which Bach moves seamlessly from each section to the next is disguised but consummate; the true art that conceals itself.
The three Christian responses to Christ’s words are significant. The first simply recognises the help that He gives them in the battle against Satan. The second acclaims His summons and restoration of our souls and bodies. The third is the final and definitive prayer seeking salvation----help us, Lord, to pass through death to Your great and glorious Kingdom.
The movement begins with the animation of the Christians; it ends with Christ's words of peace ringing in our ears. This not only leads smoothly into the chorale; it is also fully appropriate in the context of the cantata’s overall theme.
An underlying premise of this fine cantata is that we can never reach a position where the Lord’s help and support is taken for granted. It needs to be sought, and always within a context of praising and thanking Him. Even the closing chorale (also used in two movements of C 143 in this volume) acknowledges this----Lord Prince of Peace, You are a powerful helper in life and death and therefore we petition, in Your name, Your Father.
The opening chorus’s magnificence focuses and stimulates both mind and sentiment. But, as the remainder of the work makes clear, that is not enough. It is only a beginning.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012.