Chapter 57 BWV 100 Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan
Whatsoever God does is well done.
This cantata should be of considerable interest to students and scholars because it draws together movements composed almost a decade apart. The opening chorus dates from September 1724 when it was written as a chorale fantasia for C 99 (chapter 15) a work of the same name. Bach’s use of the chorale dates back even further to 1723 where it formed the closing movements of both parts of C 75, the first cantata he presented in Leipzig, thus beginning his first great cycle in that city.
The middle arias were composed in the early 1730s (Wolff p 280) although neither an exact date nor a particular occasion can be given (Dürr, p 792, suggests 1734). The general consensus seems that it may have been intended as a wedding cantata.
Was it, as indeed so much of Bach′s cantata repertoire seems to have been, composed under considerable pressure of deadlines? Might this explain the use of the earlier movements? The answer may well be no, however, since Bach found the time to make various changes of detail to both, some of them seemingly inessential, even for their adapted purpose. Nevertheless, this work remains one of the very few chorale cantatas known to borrow or adapt movements from earlier compositions and the changes may well indicate the cantor’s notions of improvements to the music.
A fourth cantata which uses this chorale melody is C 98 from the third cycle (chapter 31). Written for the twenty-first Sunday after Trinity, that work also begins with a chorale fantasia but does not end with the usual four-part choral version. It cannot be seen as a later addition to the second cycle as Bach had already composed a fantasia/cantata for that day (C 38, chapter 22).
Another cantata with which C 100 may be usefully cross referenced is C 192 (chapter 53) because both works belong to that very select group containing two fantasias built upon the same chorale melody. Similarly, neither contains a recitative although C 192, almost uniquely, has only three movements.
C 100 uses verses directly from the chorale text without additional lines or paraphrases, which may explain the lack of recitatives.The theme of the work is that of a God who does everything well and properly, allied to the commitment that we must abide by His Word. The text of the opening movement is shared by those of Cs 98 and 99 and the last movements of Cs 75 and 99. This provides an excellent opportunity of studying Bach′s different approaches to the setting of the same verses at various stages of his composing career.
Opening and closing choruses (fantasias).
In examining the work in more detail, we will first inspect the paraphrased outer movements. Further comments on the character, word setting, structure and possible origins of the opening fantasia may be found in the essay on C 99 (chapter 15).
The most obvious difference between these two fantasias is the later addition of two horns and timpani, strongly suggestive of a festive celebration. There is no doubt that this alters the character of the movement; the original has more of an intimate chamber music feel while the latter version, though remaining essentially the same music, is more celebratory and jovial.
Bach′s usual practice when paraphrasing earlier movements is to retain precisely the structure and harmonic progression of the original whilst altering details of orchestration, texture and figuration. This is what he does here. However, he makes some surprising alterations in the latter part of the movement and it is difficult to see why he considered them necessary, unless it was because he felt he was improving upon earlier work. Even boredom may have been a factor and, as he added the additional wind parts, he may not have been able to resist tinkering here and there with other details.
And details they are. The dotted notes in the bass (phrase 4) or the enlivening of the tenors′ rhythm (phrase 7) will only be noticed by someone studying the minutia of the score. The addition of extra chords on the words er and der (phrases 5 and 6) are scarcely more significant. But this does indicate clearly that whilst Bach generally seemed satisfied with the macro structure of the movements he recycled, he was not averse to ′improving′ details.
But the last movement reveals quite a different approach. The original version from C 75 was scored for two oboes, strings and continuo. The addition of the horns in C 100 stimulated Bach to make more radical changes in the musical structuring. He sees the possibility of the second horn making an imitative entry half way through the first bar with the upper strings and woodwind entering with the same idea in bar two. This rethinking suits the horns perfectly and the added ′busy-ness′ of the entries is suggestive of God′s abundance of bountiful gifts, alluded to in the text.
But it takes an extra bar to fit this in, so the original structure of bars 1 and 2 (and similarly bars 11 and 12) has been changed and elongated. The instrumental section between the fourth and fifth bars is similarly lengthened in order to allow the horns a little more latitude in their semi-quaver passages and the coda becomes eight bars long instead of the previous four.
So the C 100 version is slightly larger in concept and scale than the C 75 model, a rethinking which suits entirely the new instrumentation, the festive character and the overall structure. The choral interventions remain almost entirely unchanged. Students may like to compare this movement with a similar expansion of a different chorale into an extrovert blaze of glory concluding C 129 (vol 3, chapter 16).
And whilst dealing with matters of detail, one might notice the one note of the chorale, the fifth, which is different in the opening and closing movements, probably indicating its diverse origins (i.e. from Cs 75 and 99).
The arias, composed about a decade after the choral movements, all enjoy light instrumentation: continuo only, flute obbligato, strings and finally, oboe d′amore. We hear the duet first and that is slightly unusual. In the second cycle, three quarters of the duets come in the latter part of the cantatas, over half of them just before the closing chorale. Only once (C 78) does it immediately follow the fantasia. There seems no obvious reason why Bach should place this particular duet so early in this work.
It is scored for alto and tenor and the text talks of God leading us on an ′upright′ path. This may refer to the actual journey to heaven or the metaphorical journey towards a more elevated moral state; or both. The important thing is that Bach appears to have seized upon this image for the construction of his repeating bass line. Initially it climbs nine notes up the D major scale before descending, thence climbing again towards the cadence.
The complete four-bar melody is stated fourteen times (indicating the numerology of B A C H?) occurring in all except one of those keys related to the home key or tonic e.g. A, Bm, F#m, G. It has, therefore, the feel of a continuously repeated ground bass and the casual listener would be forgiven for interpreting it as such.
But Bach is never predictable. When he reaches the point where that which we would deem to be a middle section is established, he detaches the rising scale figure from the rest of its theme, repeating it several times, each sequence one note above the last (from bar 33).
The sense of moving upwards is thus inextricably built into the very fabric of the continuo line. Perhaps the reason that Bach eschewed an obbligato instrument in this movement is because he did not want attention to be deflected from the inexorable direction of this bass melody and its metaphoric meaning.
But even that is not sufficient. From their first entry the singers imitate each other using the interval of a rising fourth, building ever-upwards in layers. The predominate rising directions of all musical forces are intense and unremitting.
The tonal structure of this cantata is precisely planned. The soprano aria is the first of only two movements in the minor, flanked on either side by major movements. Bach′s use of the flute in the second cycle marked him out as having access to an extraordinary player and it seems that some years later this musician, or perhaps another of equal ability, could be called upon. The obbligato part for this soprano aria would not have been easy, especially on the baroque wooden transverse flutes.
The text invokes the simile of God as a physician who would not pour out poisonous medicine for us. It is, therefore, a statement of faith and trust in the Lord and Bach is duly careful to stress this with the melismas and long notes emphasising Gott ist getreu —-God is true. Yet the inspiration for the musical motives and textures seems to have arisen from the action of pouring forth the poison, even though it is made perfectly clear that this is precisely not what a good God would do. The flute begins with an innocuous enough melody and it is two bars before the pouring of the noxious potions becomes musically explicit.
The minor mode suggests something ominous as the poison is dispensed and dispersed.
But the alto ignores it. The vocal line is solidly at peace with God and the toxic medicine is no more than a fantasy swilling about it. The singer is at one with the Lord and the true faith: that is what is truly important.
Whatever doubts the diffident or faithless may continue to have, must be dispelled and this is the object of this aria, accompanied by strings. The choice of the bass, the voice of authority, was not fortuitous. We are told in no uncertain manner that God is our Light, He can do us no harm and we must surrender ourselves to Him at all times.
Consequently, we have a textual message which is unequivocally positive and this is precisely what the music conveys. The major mode, confident leaps on the first violins and accompanying runs on the seconds all bespeak self-assurance and unswerving faith.
As usual, Bach reinforces the message with lengthy melismas of key words e.g. Leben —-life (bars 34-8), ergeben—-the act of surrendering oneself (to the Lord, bars 70-4)) and treulich—-faithful, loyal (117-123). The fidelity of the Lord′s intentions and the joy we feel in surrendering to them are the central messages of both text and music. There is no equivocation, no ambiguity.
The formal structure of the aria reveals itself to be yet another example of Bach′s tinkering with the conventional da capo form. There is a clear A section which is initially largely repeated (from bar 53). The B section emerges around bar 85 with the expected tonal shading of related minor keys. But there is no proper reprise of the A section, only the final statement of the ritornello theme.
The fourth and final aria is something of an enigma. It is for alto with oboe d′amore and continuo and it returns us to the minor mode. The time is 12/8 but this is neither pastoral nor gigue-like. Nor does it have the intensity of the opening chorus of the St Matthew Passion which employs the same time and key signatures.
The central imagic word of the text seems to have been ′bitter′ and this links the aria with the earlier other one, also in minor-mode, that for soprano. There it was established that God would not dispense poisonous medicine and we needed to have faith in that essential truth. But here we are informed that what God bestows upon us may initially seem unpalatable to us because of our delusions.
Thus both arias touch upon the bile, which might, on the surface, appear to be the Lord′s endowment. But in reality He bequeaths us no such thing.
The artistic dilemma for Bach is obvious. Both stanzas make clear that God will be true to us if we have faith in Him, yet both also suggest the toxicity that we, in our ignorance might interpret as his legacy. These movements cannot feel tragic because that is not the essential message which, as the bass made clear, is one of positivity. But yet there is the lurking suggestion of the poisonous clouds; an erroneous interpretation of God′s purpose that presents its own potential dangers. How does one express these complex ideas in musical terms?
Perhaps no instrument is better than the oboe at conveying intimations of the darker emotions. Despite the long melisma on Schmerzen—-our sorrows—-towards the end, it is actually the banishment of our tribulations that the aria is principally concerned with. There is the poignant sigh expressed in the first bar of the oboe′s melody;
but thereafter the melodic line is principally flowing and predominantly rising. The sadness exists and the music recognizes it. But suspicion of the Lord is of our own making and His comforts will eventually flow over us and banish negative thoughts.
Once again there is no formal da capo repeat as Bach gives priority to the expressing of the textual ideas before that of traditional formal templates.
The final festive version of the chorale dispels all these doubts and allows the Lord′s blessings to encompass us. Any misgivings expressed in the third and fifth movements are now put firmly in their proper place, sandwiched between the overt expressions of acclamation.
We may, as the last lines of text suggest, have to go on a difficult journey through death and sorrows. But we will finally reach the point where all the goodness of His bounty reigns as He encloses us within His protective arms.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017.