Chapter 57 BWV 172 Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten!
Resound songs, and ring out strings!
Chorus–recit (bass)–aria (bass)–aria (tenor)–duet/chorale (sop/alto)–chorale.
The fifty-seventh cantata of the cycle for Whitsunday.
This is another early work which Dürr suggests might have been the third that Bach composed at Weimar (p 347). It is the second-to-last work of this cycle to commence with a festive chorus, and one that has a particularly ′secular′ sound about it. The last spectacular opening chorus of the cycle is the French Overture which heads C 194, the first of two cantatas presented for Bach′s first Leipzig celebration of Trinity Sunday (It will be recalled that he took up his formal duties on the first Sunday after Trinity, the day from which his cycles 1 and 2 both begin).
It has been suggested that Bach may have intended C 172 and C 59 to have been performed on the same day, one before and the other after the sermon. It is also possible that the latter work was composed for a different service; we simply do not know the circumstances and can only surmise. However, the use of the same hymn tune in the fifth movement of C 172 and the third of C 59 and the setting of the same text as the second movement of the former and first of the latter, might suggest that they were not conceived for the same service.
The orchestra consists of strings and continuo (with a bassoon, only in a doubling role but adding ′bite′ to the bass line), three trumpets and drums. A flute and oboe double the first violins in at least one performance but seem to have been unavailable for others where the oboe obbligato from the duet was allocated to the organ. Nevertheless, the absence of woodwind is well compensated for by the trio of trumpets in the first and third movements.
The first verse is another of those which provides an opportunity for Bach to create an explicit musical portrait of the textual description. It calls for a resounding of songs and strings in this, the happiest of hours, and Bach provides an immediate example, although initially we might have expected that the call had been for resonating trumpets! The choral writing is uncluttered, with a minimum of contrapuntal complexity and the maximum of chordal articulation suggesting the massed, joyous cries of the multitude. Sparse but fastidious placing of string and brass chords support the choir with delicate flashes of colour, keeping the momentum ever moving. These interventions have particular musical significance when the choir has sustained four-part chords accentuating these ‘most blessed times’.
It is a da capo movement and the middle section, from bar 76, informs us—-God prepares our souls like temples. The voices enter in imitation, beginning with the basses and working upwards, the emphasis placed firmly upon the metaphor of ‘building’ the temples.
The word bereiten—-to prepare or make ready—- is articulated in two passages of complicated interconnecting melismas in all four parts (from bars 97 and 111). Each of the two main vocal blocks begins with imitation involving all four voices, firstly from bottom to top (B, T, A, S) and secondly from top to bottom. This would have appealed to Bach′s sense of balance and order; furthermore it may have been designed to suggest the universality of the message being conveyed. The rhythmic dexterities of the strings, continuo and choir (the trumpets are silent in this section, presumably preparing for their joyous return) give the distinct impression that the cleansing of the soul may be a complex and intricate process!
The return of the opening section leaves the listener with the glow of the original resounding song of celebration and the instrumental ritornello, heard for the fourth time, draws the movement to a close.
The bass recitative is the voice of Christ—-he who loves Me and keeps My Word shall be loved by My Father—-we will come to Him and make our home with Him. The congregations were regularly reminded that God′s salvation is available only through the sacrifice of His Son and here they are prompted yet again. In fact, they are hardly able to forget it on this particular Whitsunday since this same text is also set as the duet of C 59 if, indeed, it was actually performed after the sermon.
The initial bars of melody are warm and quietly authoritative, but at the mention of dwelling with Him the movement takes on a very different character. The bass line becomes enlivened with little leaps of delight and the Christ′s flowing melody becomes all-encompassing.
Beginning in a dignified minor mode, this movement transports us to the cordiality of the major modes of both the opening chorus and the following aria. The singer′s last note is a bottom d (c in the transposed version) several notes lower than a bass′s accepted range. Not every singer can manage it and may consequently be forced to take the octave above. But when achieved it is an arresting sound, confirming the rock-like certainty of the promise that we shall eventually reside with God.
The bass is still featured in the following aria, but now he is the voice of humanity, praying for God to enter our hearts. He is supported by an imposing group of trumpets, drums and continuo and the immediate impression is one of potency. The motivic figuration is that of the fanfare, itself an expression of grandeur and flourish.
Opening fanfare (tutti trumpets) followed by first trumpet solo (bar 3).
The three trumpets doubtless symbolise the Trinity to whom the entreaty is addressed—–Holy Trinity, God of Honour, come into our humble hearts—-trivial though our pleas might be, heed them and reside with us. The first trumpet part rapidly becomes a rolling torrent of demi-semi-quavers; does this represent God? Or His blessings and benefice? Perhaps his divine powers ranging above and beyond us all? We don′t know precisely what Bach had in mind and it doesn′t matter because the music conveys a message more powerful than that which words can articulate. We can be fairly certain that Bach was thinking of a particular image as a stimulus to his creative musical imagination but it is not necessary, or indeed possible, to divine it accurately.
Structurally, there is the hint of a contrasting middle section from bar 20. The text is that of the repeated entreaty that He might come to us and heed our request. Its significance is emphasised by the melisma on komm—-come—-and the unexpected colouring of the Gm mode. But no full section eventuates and the bass signs off with a repetition of the original call to God and the Trinity. The rolling divine trumpet melody rises majestically above all else to complete the movement.
The upper strings combine, joined by the flute an octave above (when available) to create the highly significant obbligato line of the tenor aria. The central image is that of God′s Spirit which breathed over the Creation and has persisted ever since. Whilst interpretation of Bach′s musical images can never be an exact science and will always remain, to some degree subjective, in this case one can suggest with some confidence that the vocal line represents the Soul and the string counterpoint God′s Enabling Spirit. The initial scale, falling over nearly two octaves thence rising and gently undulating, surges above, beneath and through the tenor line, encompassing it at virtually every turn. Would you define it as a melody in the conventional sense or is it another example of those referred to in the obituary as one of those ′that were strange and like no others?′ However we choose to categorise it, it cannot be denied that it is both arresting and deeply expressive as, indeed, the Divine Spirit should be.
The sense of the enduring Spirit passing through everyone and everything is captured in the melisma on—-durchwehet—-from bar 33 (note the dogged attachments to just two notes) and it clearly retains its primeval power (bars 69-73). The conventional da capo form allows us to hear the welcome 16-bar ritornello theme four times, although Bach does produce one structural oddity. The middle section is clearly divided into two parts, the first (bars 56-76) proclaiming the existence of the never fading Spirit and the second (bars 82-99) a rallying call to the faithful—-rise up and prepare yourselves as the Comforter approaches. But although the music′s character changes quite perceptibly at this point with stark vocal crotchets and the concentration upon major modes, the flowing obbligato persists, a further confirmation of its ongoing role as the eternal Divine Spirit.
A third consecutive aria without intervening recitatives is a characteristic of the lyricist Salomo Franck and, when faced with such a text it is usual for Bach to seek musical variety through a number of means. In this cantata the first aria is for bass, trumpets and drums and set in a major key. The second is for tenor and strings and in the minor. The third, returning to the major, is a duet for the remaining voices (alto and soprano) supported by a highly active continuo line and an oboe (or organ) obbligato melody. Voices, textures, modes and instrumentations are all varied in such a way as to differentiate each movement′s particular character whilst achieving the most effective means of framing the ideas and images derived from the individual verses. There is an abundance of careful planning and attention to detail which, although this may have seemed less surprising when Bach was not under as much pressure of time at Weimar, never deserted him, even when he was most hard pressed.
Having said that, some listeners may find this duet somewhat less inspiring than others in the canon. It is a clever piece but, perhaps, one in which inspiration and attractiveness become overwhelmed by intricate contrapuntal detail. The listener must judge for him/herself and may well come to a different conclusion.
The movement is built from four basic components, the first a three-bar continuo ritornello theme. Despite its brevity, it has three distinct musical characteristics: a bold yet rhythmically uncertain figure of stops and starts, a stream of descending semi-quavers and a couple of skirls leading us directly into the cadence. The motives are later detached and employed independently in the course of the movement.
The second component is the oboe/organ obbligato which is based upon the hymn tune Komm, Heiliger Geist, a call to God and the Holy Spirit. (Lovers of the double motet Der Geist hilft unsrer Scwachheit auf will recognise it, there presented in a more conventional four-part arrangement). Here it is melodically embellished and rhythmically distorted to a degree which might make it unrecognisable for many listeners. Nevertheless, it forms the second important component.
Finally, the soprano and alto assume the roles of Soul and Holy Spirit respectively in a typical ′dialogue′ aria of the period. The Soul asks to be permitted to wait no longer since—-the welcome breeze of heaven already blows through the garden of the heart. The Holy Spirit promises refreshment and the kiss of grace, both warmly welcomed by the Soul, and the aria ends in their perfect unity. The writing for the soprano voice is quite high, conveying impressions of guileless innocence and breathless excitement.
The movement raises a number of questions which the more engaged listener might wish to address. Do the components of the oddly shaped ritornello theme represent images within the text? The metaphor of a gentle breeze? The Grace of the Holy Spirit? The impatience of waiting? And why introduce a chorale melody, albeit a most appropriate one, if it is so disguised as to be virtually unrecognisable? Is Bach addressing a deeper metaphor here, that of the long awaited and unseen grace of the Holy Spirit?
Or might Bach be playing a subtle game by initially disguising a chorale melody which will be more conventionally treated, and consequently immediately identifiable, in C 59 later in the service? This would not be the only occasion on which Bach works with explicit symbols for God which may be subliminal messages for Man.
The closing chorale does not present us with similar enigmas. Bach used the melody elsewhere, most notably in Cs 1 and 49, each time presented differently. It is particularly well chosen, not only as the selected verse confirms the cantata′s theme but because the melody fits this particular stanza like a glove. The pleading quality of—-take me kindly—-is encapsulated by the consecutive minims and the following phrase, orbiting around two notes, is suggestive of the encircling and protecting Divine arms. The last phrase, a complete octave descending from the upper to the lower keynote, seems perfectly chosen for the final, satisfactory avowal—-I come, invited, through Your Word.
The first lines of this verse focus upon God′s joyful light, friendly and inviting, through which Christ may refresh us all. It may well have been this image which suggested to Bach the adding of an additional melodic line played by the flute doubling violin. It is rhythmically quite complex, starting modestly enough but quickly evolving into a series of suspensions and semi-quaver groups. It has an indefinably ethereal quality about it.
Perhaps its implied message is that nothing coming directly from God is simple or fully fathomable by Man. We simply need to note, enjoy, praise and ultimately believe.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.