Chapter 56 BWV 177 Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ.
I call Thee, Lord Jesus Christ.
By the time he came to compose this impressive work, Bach had written about fifty chorale fantasias. He would have been almost uniquely experienced in the process of analyzing a chorale, noting its musical potential and textual suggestions and forging wholly original and often quite massive works from these modest starting points.
The forty-two fantasias from the second cycle demonstrate the range of imagination, technical skill and sheer inventiveness he brought to this task on a weekly basis. The later twelve additions to this canon show no signs of falling back on cliché or established formulae. It seems as if every time Bach approached the problems inherent within this structure, he came to them anew, with a fresh mind and a determination to create yet another unique piece of art.
C 177 is no exception, boasting a fantasia of great intensity and mammoth proportions as well as three arias, each of which, as we shall see, stirs the soul and displays highly original thinking.
The chorale was originally written by Johann Agricola (Dürr p 423) not Bach′s pupil who later collaborated with Bach′s son CPE Bach to write the famous Obituary, but a man with a somewhat chequered career, once having been a friend of Luther himself. For this work, his text was unchanged with no added lines or paraphrasing. This probably accounts for the slightly unusual structure: three arias between the fantasia and chorale and, somewhat surprisingly at this stage of Bach′s career, no recitatives. (NB a list of the nine cantatas which Bach set in this manner may be found at the end of the essay on C 97: vol 2 chapter 59).
The date of this composition is clearly fixed for July 1732 (Dürr ibid) making it one of the last three or four chorale/fantasia cantatas that Bach composed. It is as well to remember this date because certain stylistic aspects of the work might seem to link it with his last decade. The first movement, and to a lesser extent the first aria, has a quality of desolate remoteness which, to a degree, appears to connect them emotionally and technically with such works as the Art of Fugue and the Musical Offering; all of which only goes to show the dangers of relying upon internal evidence alone. We know that this piece was written fully eighteen years before Bach died and any perceived stylistic links with those last great works do no more than indicate the stages of development that his harmonic and general compositional thinking were making, a decade into his Leipzig years.
There may well be an intentional connection with the earlier second cycle however. Because of a quirk of the calendar no cantata was required for the fourth Sunday after Trinity in 1724 and Dürr has suggested that Bach intended this one to fill that gap (ibid).
The fantasia is scored for two oboes and a solo violin concertino with the usual strings, and continuo. The two features immediately attracting attention are the rising interval (a fifth) on the oboe and the rapid turn of notes on the violin.
Oboe above violin.
Both will dominate the musical development of this immense movement, nearly 300 bars long and likely to last between seven and eight minutes in performance. For the majority of the vocal entries (there are nine chorale phrases) the lower voices will enter in imitation using the oboe′s rising fifth. The effect of this is one of continual supplication—-I call upon You, Lord Jesus to grant me mercy—-let me not despair, but live by the goodness of Your word.
These entreaties form the crux of the entire cantata.
Furthermore, the opening eight-bar statement of the ritornello in the minor mode is immediately lifted to, and repeated in, the major (Bb) as if to symbolize that act of appeal to the One who is believed to sit above, and in judgment upon us.
The unembellished chorale phrases are intoned, as expected, by the sopranos doubled by the oboes. In many of the cycle 2 fantasias, the doubling was by the horn which lent support without being intrusive. Perhaps none was available for this performance. Nevertheless, the oboes give a sharp edge to the singers ensuring that, even if every detail of the harmony and counterpoint is not clearly audible, the chorale most certainly is!
The movement is, apart from the few ritornello bars mentioned above, almost relentlessly minor. It need not have been so. Over half of the chorale phrases could have been harmonized in major modes as, indeed, two of them are in the closing chorale. Even the seemingly obvious cadence in F major (phrase 7) is studiously ignored as Bach guides us, instead, through D minor. One supposes that Bach wished to depict the seriousness of the requests allied to the lowliness of mankind. Certainly, the avoidance of subsequent major keys makes the symbolic significance of that Bb major shift in the ritornello all the greater.
The ritornello, repeated in full at the end, also dominates long sections between the choral entries. In fact, over half of this chorale fantasia is actually instrumental thus, in part, accounting for its massive proportions.
The Divine entreaty is so powerful that in coming to the words of the sixth phrase—-that which You would give me—-the lower voices surge on to connect it with the seventh—-to live for You (bars 194-200). And just in case the point has not been fully taken, all voices, including the sopranos, repeat the final line after the chorale has ended—-the abidance of Your word (from bar 247). This chorus is packed with many original examples of such detail, repaying close scrutiny.
Before leaving the fantasia, there is a final point of interest relating to the use of instruments. The delicate writing for the solo violin balances the texture well when it is heard as a part of the instrumental group as in the opening bars. But when the choir is singing it is not always as easily detected. This supports the notion that Bach′s choirs were much smaller than was once believed. The contentions of such eminent conductors and musicologists as Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrot that there may have been only one singer, or at the most two, to each part might well find favour from this example.
The three arias.
The three arias that follow are for alto and continuo (relatively unusual), soprano with oboe da caccia, and tenor supported by the violin concertino from the fantasia and, rather curiously, the bassoon. In C 168 (vol 3, chapter 2) we see how Bach reduces the instrumental forces for each subsequent movement, here he increases them. This probably had symbolic significance for Bach but if so, it remains enigmatic. It is possible that by this means Bach may have intended to suggest a contrast between the personal entreaties of the individual and the communal pleas of all mankind.
Another interesting point to ponder is the way in which Bach relates to the different verses. For example, if we compare the texts of the alto and tenor arias they seem to have a minimum of contrast and variety. Both are appeals for that which only God can provide, the grace and consistency ultimately delivering us from death. And yet the second movement is a bizarre writhing of despondency and the fourth is virtually a rustic dance. Why should two such similar verses be treated in such diverse ways?
There is a temptation to conclude that Bach′s imperatives here were musical rather than scriptural. The work as a whole needed balance and variety and this would have to be achieved largely through the arias because the first and last movements were structurally ′fixed′–or at least to a degree. We have come to expect Bach to often set the final aria so as to express the more positive elements of the cantata′s theme and, this being the case, balance would be needed from the remaining ones. Certainly there is a sense of overall symmetry of mode in this work: minor–minor–major–major–minor.
But further, in order to achieve a sense of emotional proportion, Bach appears to have planned to emphasise the negative human aspects of potential alienation from God in the second verse and the positive divine aspects of God′s constancy in the fourth. Each movement concentrates upon one main perspective, each of which is ultimately embedded within the cantata′s main theme.
The opening continuo theme is serpentine and strange. It begins with a five-note motive sounding four times with intervening rests. Then follows (bar 3) a figure that really encapsulates the action of painfully striving upwards. Uncertainty, hesitation, striving and seeking out; all of these acts and emotions are encapsulated within these few bars, the scene being set with fine focus and economy.
The vocal line, initially derived directly from the chorale melody, is more mellifluous and the extended and convoluted melisma on geben—-to grant or bestow—-underlines the message. The first vocal block, bars 5-18, is 14 bars long (that number indicating B-A-C-H- in his numeral code) and, after a restatement of the ritornello theme, it is repeated. A middle section appears to assert itself (from bar 39), marked by a more flowing continuo line but it never really eventuates and nor does a da capo. We are reminded that Bach frequently experimented with truncated, elongated or distorted ABA movements, particularly after the second cycle.
The final vocal section does not conform to a musical set form, simply because Bach allows himself to be wholly guided by a text which accentuates the need for reliance on the Lord rather than on earthly accomplishments. The melodic line accentuates notions of ′trust′ (bars 42-3 and 55-6), ′building on′ (46-7), ′all deeds′ (48-9) and finally ′regret′ (at such actions, bars 51-3). This is an extremely clear example of Bach eschewing formal convention in order to represent the very heart of the text.
The true centre-piece of the cantata however, is the third movement, a soprano aria, the first in a major key and the second longest after the fantasia. It is an excellent example of Bach′s ability to create extended, seamless and apparently endless melodies that appear to ignore traditional formal conventions.
The one word that sums up this aria is warmth. Is it the warmth of the genuine Christian forgiving his enemies and nourishing his soul in the establishment of a new life? Or perhaps it is the warmth of the Divine Love which guides and defends us. The oboe da caccia′s flowing semi-quavers seem all-encompassing to the extent that even the continuo line is impelled to take them up. The one moment of subtle disruption to all this comes just before the final vocal cadence on the word abkehren—-withdrawing or turning away. All parts pause for a moment as if momentarily turning away from the Word of the Lord (bar 95).
It is but an instant, after which the all-enveloping sense of geniality and affection returns to complete the movement.
As an aside, one might recall that Bach himself noted that his music was more demanding than that to which his performers had been accustomed. Occasional bars in this aria have quite different, and seemingly incompatible, rhythms in all three lines (e.g. bars 33, 49).
The difficulties of achieving good ensemble would seem to negate the arguments put by some that these works were not rehearsed but performed at sight! We know little of Bach′s rehearsal practices but it seems unthinkable that, however short or rushed they may have been, some careful ensemble preparation must have taken place.
It is a rare and particularly happy event to find Bach using the bassoon as a solo instrument. It was commonly called upon to strengthen the continuo line, possibly even when not specifically mentioned in the score. It makes solo entrances in the first Brandenburg Concerto and three of the Orchestral Suites. But its appearance in the cantatas is rare.
However, if we go back to Bach′s Weimar years we do find a virtuosic obbligato use of it in the duet in C 155 from 1716 (vol 1, chapter 37). It is a mystery why he called upon it so seldom in the intervening years. Was it simply not accepted as a solo instrument in church music in the way that the trombone was not considered a symphonic instrument until Beethoven proved otherwise?
But here in the tenor aria it is an equal partner to the violin concertino, the pairing of which produces a sense of infectious rustic jollity. The words of the chorale text may have changed very little but the music, and consequently the message, has. There seems to be an underlying assumption, at least by Bach if not by Agricola, that God′s grace, which has been sought throughout the entire work, now is freely given and accepted. We seem to have reached a point where there is no fear of death, and troubles and sorrows are things of the past. The obvious response must be to rejoice.
True, the text does not put it quite like that; but Bach′s music does!
The only moment of doubt comes at the end of what we would call the middle section if there had been a da capo—-which there isn′t. The final lines of text remind us of God′s grace which will ultimately deliver us from death. Listening to the rest of the movement, we could be forgiven for thinking that Grace has already been bestowed and death overcome.
But perhaps it is because this movement takes such a positively one-sided view of things that Bach feels compelled to remind us that death is still around us. It does not simply disappear and if the Grace of the Lord is withheld through our inability to seek it out, the inevitability of a redemptionless death remains to ensnare us. Minor harmonies, on the flat side of the key, colour the melodies and everything pauses, hanging in the air on the word sterben—-to die (bars 83-88).
But lest we fret too much, the soprano returns to carry us cheerfully forward to the final statement of the ritornello. So that′s all right, then!
The three arias, then, make an esoteric journey from uncertainty and doubt to warmth and acceptance and finally to rejoicing and jubilation. Only the closing chorale remains.
Typically in four parts with all instruments doubling, the chorale melody is slightly ornamented and, unlike the fantasia, two of its phrases cadence in major keys (Bb and F). This is noteworthy, considering the journey upon which the cantata has taken us. The realization that those things which the Lord can bestow upon us will lighten our condition, is all-important. Consequently, those moments of light shine through even the subtlest of details of the chorale harmonization.
A comparison with the only other extant cantatas written for this day (Cs 185 and 24) demonstrates how Bach′s thinking about forms and presentation had developed over a period of nearly two decades. Essays on these works (composed, respectively in 1715 and 1723) may be found in vol 1, chapters 5 and 6.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.