Chapter 58 BWV 59 Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten

He who loves me keeps my word.


Duet (sop/bass)--recit (sop)--chorale--aria (bass).

The fifty-eighth cantata of the cycle for Whitsunday.


Dürr (pp 350-351) outlines the uncertain provenance of this work which, though conveniently placed within this first cycle, might not properly reside there. Of particular interest is his quotation of Schering’s theory that it may have been composed for a university rather than a church service. If so, this might explain the reuse of two of its movements exactly a year later in C 74, the third to last cantata of the second cycle. This essay should be read in conjunction with that on C 74 (vol 2, chapter 48) to provide a broad picture of the relationship between these works in as much as their history is presently known, in addition to what can be derived from a comparative study of the scores.

In rearranging the opening movement of C 59 for C 74 Bach made a great many alterations but these did not include the text----a man who loves Me keeps my Words and my Father will love Him----We shall come to him and make our home with him. Bach had also set the same verse as a recitative in C 172, possibly performed on this same Whitsunday (see previous chapter). In one sense it would appear to be more appropriately scored for solo bass since it obviously voices the words of Christ Himself. The student would do well to make a comparative analysis of all three settings.

Soprano/bass aria.

Bach’s expansion of the duet into the chorus for C 74 is illuminating. It demonstrates his customary confidence in his large scale structures; they are very seldom altered in subsequent paraphrases. In this case the rethinking resides more in the usage of the instruments than the vocal parts because a large proportion of the latter remains essentially in two parts. But to the ensemble he adds a third trumpet (clearly an afterthought, as indicated by its minimal role) and a trio of oboes. It is, in fact, extremely rare for Bach to use a pair of trumpets; one, three or four being the norm, so one may presume that there might have been a problem of availability for the original performance. Certainly the adding of the ‘missing instrument’ allows Bach to spell out chords boldly in three-part harmony. One structural oddity of this piece is that Bach does not follow the expected practice of repeating the instrumental ritornello, unaltered, at the end. Here he extends it by four bars, at the same time giving the trumpets an expanded role. It may be that he wished to underline the positivity of the final thought expressed in the text----We will make our home with Him.

The oboe choir provides him with even greater possibilities. The original principal theme, played in bars 1 and 2 by the strings can, in the revised version, be given effective antiphonal treatment (upper strings imitated immediately by oboes) and Bach makes a continual feature of this during the movement. The echoing of the initial musical motive was a feature of the original vocal parts and its incorporation into the instrumental textures provides the movement with a much greater sense of integration and concord. There can be little doubt that the second thoughts are, in this case, markedly superior.

Soprano recitative.

The soprano recitative of C 59 is buttressed by sustained four-part string chords until the arioso of the last five bars. It is an extraordinarily complex melody designed to correspond with the nuances of the text at every turn. It begins with the gravitas of the minor mode, musing on the form of glory  that Jesus promises. It then decries the worth of Man, a form of dust, succumbing to a vanity which leads to inevitable misery. Here the whole tenor of the melodic line changes (from bar 8) to convey the horror of such contemplations. The mood becomes more positive once again when it is remembered that God’s reaction to our significance is to dwell within our very souls, since His love can do anything.

The movement ends with a tender arioso, in which the bass line takes an equal part, a metaphor of conjoined Man and God, the text reminding us that each of us should love Him.

It is under two dozen bars long but within that condensed time scale Bach contrives four quite diverse humours, each moving seamlessly, one into another.

Chorale.

The chorale tune which comprises the third movement is a very impressive piece of melodic construction. It is not known who composed it and it probably pre-dated Bach by three hundred years or more. It has been arranged by a number of composers other than Bach and Martin Luther added verses to it. Mention has been made of Bach’s other uses of the melody in the previous chapter.

What immediately strikes one is the variety of phrase lengths, something which surely would have appealed to Bach. As a consequence, the melody flows well with a quiet and unforced sense of dignity. The text is a solemn prayer requesting God and the Holy Spirit to enkindle hearts and minds with the Divine Light of Radiance----in that He has assembled people from all nations and tribes, they can now sing their praises to Him---Alleluia! Bach supports the vocal lines with the strings, occasionally departing from them in order to enrich the harmonies. It is a lush tapestry of traditional renaissance glorification of God, brought to bear within a conventional Eighteenth Century Lutheran service, a straddling of the centuries.

One rather hopes that it might have been repeated to conclude this cantata although the likelihood is that another hymn would have been pressed into service. One is still entitled to wonder, though, why Bach chose to disguise its natural beauty so much in the previous cantata!

Bass aria.

The last movement that we have, though not necessarily that of the original conception, is an aria for bass with continuo and violin obbligato. In C 74 this was transposed a fourth higher for soprano and oboe da caccia and adapted to a new text. Bach has made few other changes although from bar 23 he intensifies the vocal line in the revised version. It is not quite clear why he does this; it may be to colour the word ‘doubt’ even though the text declares a complete lack of reservation about the Father’s hearing of our pleas. But it is yet another reminder of the fact that however much of his music Bach took ‘off the peg’ to re-use, he never did so without giving careful thought to its appropriateness within its new contexts.

The text of the earlier version makes a simple comparison between the splendours of the world and that of God, very much to the detriment of the former! It ends with an unsophisticated statement extolling our blessedness both in earth and heaven as He inhabits our hearts. The key to this aria is its simplicity; it is a simple and sincere statement of faith. These qualities are reflected in the construction of the ritornello theme, a perfectly balanced binary form structure in miniature. It has four two-bar phrases of equal balance, a ‘natural’ and unsophisticated feel and a complete lack of complexity or guile. The vocal line is equally ingenuous, its one moment of joyful trilling coming when mention is made of our God-given state of blessedness (bars 26-8). Once again Bach has made the expression of religious conviction a very personal and individual thing. It needs no blazing trumpets or intricate musical devices to communicate such feelings.

It is impossible to believe that Bach would have intended the work to end at this point and different directors may produce diverse solutions. But since we have three of the four movements effectively presented elsewhere in the canon, there may be a case for putting C 59 to one side, or at least not performing it at the expense of other more neglected, interesting and complete works. Nevertheless, it remains a piece of significance and curiosity for the serious student.

LINK: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV59.htm

Copyright: J Mincham 2010.   Revised 2012.
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