Chapter 58 BWV 9 Es ist das Heil uns kommen her
Salvation has now come to us.
Chorus/fantasia--recit (bass)--aria (tenor)--recit (bass)--duet (sop/alto)--recit (bass)--chorale.
For the sixth Sunday after Trinity.
This cantata is believed to have been composed around 1732 and follows the format of the chorale fantasias of the second cycle. Indeed, when one notices that it was meant for the sixth Sunday after Trinity the obvious inference is that Bach, almost a decade after the initial completion of that cycle, was still 'filling in the gaps'. He composed no cantata for this day in 1724 because he was fulfilling an engagement in Cöthen with his wife at the time (Boyd p 162).
It seems incredible that Bach was still attempting to complete a full annual cycle of chorale fantasias so many years later and, if that was his intention, he clearly did not see it as a priority. A further point of contextual interest is that he used the same chorale as a basis for this and C 117 (chapter 52) composed several years earlier. That too was a cantata commencing with a chorale fantasia but with the important difference that the four-part setting appeared in the middle of the work. It ended, most unusually, with a reprise of the opening fantasia, set to different words.
The overall structure of C 9 reflects Bach's preoccupation with matters of symmetry, a recitative separating each of the main movements (fantasia, two arias and chorale). The theme of the work is a common one, that of salvation which, we are told, can be achieved; but through God’s laws alone----His laws have been established and must be obeyed if we are not already yet so immersed in sin as to have disregarded them.
The orchestra has a particularly ‘chamber music’ feel about it. Flute and oboe join strings and continuo for the outer movements and both instruments are employed, along with a solo violin, as obbligati in the arias.
The three bass recitatives.
It is not unusual in itself for there to be three recitatives particularly, as in this case, when they are placed so as to balance the macro-structure of the overall work. But it is most uncommon for all three recitatives to be declaimed by the one voice. Consequently, we will begin our perusal of the work with an examination of these movements which do appear to have a number of features in common.
All three speak of God’s Laws; their bestowal, their fulfillment (or lack of it) and our attitudes towards them. All have an aura of pontification and sermonizing about them and all are sung by the bass, traditionally the voice of God and/or authority.
Even a cursory glance at the text leads us to expect a little hectoring or lecturing. The voice of God, Christ, the pastor or possibly even the echoes of our own parents and teachers can all resound in the declamations of the bass voice. And from this standpoint we will not be disappointed with the first recitative----God gave us the laws, we transgressed them and the soul was thus compromised----we had not the strength to resist.
We are given our lecture and we must accept it. The following tenor aria will graphically portray the depths to which we could sink if we were to ignore the warnings. And this observation in itself helps us to understand a little more of Bach’s planning of his cantatas; the arias frequently reflect or expound upon the recitatives they follow, adding, on occasion, some particularly graphic examples.
The second recitative offers us hope, a clear case of the stick first and the carrot to follow! We are now preached to about Christ's sacrifice, offered in order that we might be saved. The simple recitative melts, on the final line into a moment of tender arioso as, with true faith, we embrace the arms of Jesus.
Bach stresses the importance, and possibly also the relief of Christians, simply and effectively by the move into an enlightening major key, a tender vocal phrase and the eventual semi-quaver continuo line. All embrace the singer, empathizing with the sentiment and prepare us for the following, flowing aria.
The third recitative is again simple and direct, the text reinforcing the positive message of faith and redemption in God's own time. True, we are reminded that we have a conscience, and it is only right that it is troubled by our sinful past. But essentially we can rise above our transgressions and rely on God's grace and benefice.
A further point of interest is that the second two recitatives begin in the minor and end in the major. Very possibly this symbolizes the progression from ignorance and sin to the joy of true faith, as decreed by God's laws, the only pathway (or journey) to genuine fulfillment.
The three recitatives were clearly planned as a cognate group and encapsulate the fundamental Lutheran creed. The two intervening arias and final chorale reflect upon, and extend their statements.
Returning to the opening fantasia, its instrumentation is relatively unusual, one each of flute and oboe d'amore, strings and continuo. One cannot help but conjecture if, right from the early stages of planning, Bach already had this combination in mind for the exquisite duet where they appear to be the perfect grouping. The distinctive, salon-like character of the fantasia is partially determined by this decision.
The lightness of the ensemble ensures that the two wind instruments are clearly audible, and throughout the fantasia they each have a predominant solo role with the minimum of doubling duties. The opening ritornello features them both but with less imitative writing than we might have expected.
Flute and oboe, opening bars.
The upper strings, for once, have a subordinate role, largely articulating the chords on the two weaker beats of the bar. They are thus unobtrusive and undemanding but they still make an occasional civilized contribution to the musical discussion without drawing undue attention to themselves. All these features combine in a particularly subtle piece of orchestration from a composer clearly at the height of his powers.
The sopranos declaim the chorale melody and the textual theme is simple and direct----our good works help us not at all, for Jesus recognizes only our faith. The two wind instruments dominate from the beginning through to the complete reprise of the ritornello at the end, with barely a breathing space between!
As is so often the case in these fantasias, the writing for the three lower voices is complex and illuminative of the text. For the first four phrases there is little variety; they enter imitatively, always in the order A, T, B. Each voice takes a quaver idea borrowed from the flute in bar 3, soon to melt into flowing semi-quavers also accessed from the ritornello material.
But the remaining three phrases are set differently, not only from the first four but also from each other. In the fifth (from bar 85) the tenor and alto parts move in parallel, supported by the basses, underlining the important message that true Faith looks to Jesus. There are no complex contrapuntal devices and no semi-quaver lines to complicate the texture; the composer takes pains to ensure that the words are articulated as clearly as possible.
Which, indeed, is also the purpose of the setting of the sixth phrase (from bar 99)----[Christ] who has done enough for us all. The basses imitate the altos, but turning their simple quaver idea upside down, following which all three voices support the sopranos with a series of staccato, largely homophonic chords. The musical symbolism is clear: everyone is involved in this process and all should speak clearly with one voice.
The final line of text (from bar 114) gets fully to the nub of the matter by reminding us that Christ was the intermediary between God’s law and our sin. The voices enter imitatively returning to the A, T, B order of the initial phrases, now melting smoothly into an encompassing cocoon of loving support around the sopranos. Note the emphasis given through the repetitions of the word Mittler----mediator, intermediary.
Every nuance of this text is reflected within the details of the music, and yet it flows as naturally as an unimpeded spring, courtly, civilized and refined throughout.
The tenor aria is a miniature masterpiece. Not only is it most compelling musically but it also pours forth images strongly reinforcing the fundamental theme----we were sucked into this chasm of sin, threatened with death and nowhere is there to be found a helping hand. In a sense this is the ultimate nightmare, the uncontrolled descent into hell, torture, purgatory, madness. Whatever terrors may await us, this is the consequence for those who disregard God’s Laws.
But as always with Bach, the outcome is more complex. And to a great extent his reaction to the entire verse is reflected in the construction of the ritornello
The opening violins clearly suggest the falling into the chasm of death. Their theme, somewhat reminiscent of the last movement of the Am violin concerto, descends spasmodically, over nearly two octaves. But then the direction changes and it begins to work its way back.
Not once, but three times it reaches upwards, a symbol surely of man's resilience, eternal struggle and attempts to triumph over sin, sorrow and tribulation. But then the direction once more starts to sink down to the cadence and the first vocal entry.
The text tells us that we are too deeply enmeshed in the chasms of sin; yet man has spirit and tries to resist but he cannot succeed through his efforts alone. That is the point of this cantata----the essential helping hand will only be extended once God’s laws are obeyed.
The anguished and angular vocal lines convey a mixture of the sense of struggle, pain and isolation inevitably emanating from abandonment in the chasms of sin. Chromatic harmony, awkward upward leaps and complex contrapuntal interplay between the three lines (tenor, violins and continuo), all paint a picture of effort and striving but, nevertheless, of ultimate potential failure. The symbolism is entrenched within the musical contours and the consequent power of the expression is unmistakable. This music is operatic and dramatic; precisely what Bach had been warned would not be acceptable at Leipzig when he took up his post as Cantor!
It seems that the conventional operatic da capo aria was not the most appropriate vehicle for this expression of angst. Bach turns to the flexibility of the Italianate ritornello for the structural skeleton of this intense aria; a veritable concerto for voice and strings.
Nestling charmingly between the second and third bass recitative is the duet for soprano and alto. It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast between it and the tenor aria. The two woodwind instruments return and with them the polite, gracious, almost chivalrous disposition of the fantasia. And this surely reveals Bach’s essential approach to the text. Good deeds are not enough, we have been told that already. True faith, to be found within the heart itself, is all that is required; nothing else is sufficient to warrant God’s attention.
And it is the simplicity and purity of this faith within the human heart that Bach now expresses. It was certainly implied within the stately quasi-minuet of the opening fantasia but here it is musically quite explicit. And, as if to compensate for the lack of imitative writing in the fantasia, Bach now really immerses himself in the technique.
The long ritornello is in two parts, beginning with oboe following flute in cannon.
A dozen bars later their roles are reversed, oboe now leading flute, also in strict canon. The voices enter similarly, alto leading soprano and after only eight bars they are joined by the woodwinds creating a luxuriant texture of five individual parts, yet retaining absolute clarity throughout.
The movement continues in this way, and is best viewed as a construction built around the two complementary pairs----alto and soprano on the one hand, oboe and flute on the other, supported by a relatively simple continuo line, which does little more than provide essential harmonic support. All entries are canonic and Bach presents us either with the woodwind pair or the vocal duet or a translucent combination of both. This entwining of voices and instruments is almost certainly symbolic of the close relationship between God and Man that proper adherence to faith ensures.
However, the middle section (from bar 100) is different. It is, perhaps, slightly refreshing to find a bona fide middle section because at this stage of his career Bach is quite likely to dispense with the formalities of the conventional da capo structure. But here he retains it in all its glory and takes pains to differentiate it from the A sections that surround it.
This is done partly through the expected employment of related minor keys but also through the instrumental layout. Here the woodwinds cease to operate separately but double the voices: oboe/alto and flute/soprano. Apart from a few minor accommodations for word setting, this continues until the welcome reprise of the first section.
The closing chorale is reassuring----even though it might appear that God is unwilling, be not afraid----He is most with you when He does not reveal Himself. There are two excellent details of word painting, one more subtle than the other. At the end of the first line----although he may appear unwilling----Bach wrenches the music from the home key of E to the unrelated one of D. It seems almost as if the hymn tune appears temporarily ‘unwilling’ to continue as it had begun. And in the final bar, on the very last word----grauen----to shudder, Bach evinces a tremor from the harmony that none could miss.
Close attention to the tiniest detail is apparent until the very last bar.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.