Chapter 64 BWV 131 Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir
From the depths I cry to You, Lord.
Chorus 1--aria/chorale (bass/sop)--chorus 2--aria/chorale (alto/tenor)--chorus 3.
Those who seek to explain the inherent weaknesses of a work such as C 143 (chapter 65) simply because it was written in the early years, would do well to examine this cantata closely. Here there is no issue of authenticity, it having been established that it derives from the time of Bach’s early appointment as organist at Mühlhausen when he was 22 years old (Dürr p 777). It, and its likely contemporary C 106 (Actus Tragicus, chapter 79), are perfect examples of Bach’s earliest significant music, vividly colourful, highly expressive, technically adept and stylistically innovative. By comparison, the weaker movements of C 143 simply do not stand up to the 'Bachian test!'
C 131is thought not, in fact, to have been composed for the regular church services; it was commissioned, but precisely for what purpose is not known. It is a deeply religious work, however, and it sits apart from those composed for such events as council elections, weddings and university events. It is also highly original in that Bach appears to be striving towards a text-driven, through-composed structure. It has no recitatives and just the one aria, Bach’s intention clearly being to explore the expressive and structural possibilities of the integration of components from aria and chorus.
Chorus 1, 97 bars.
The opening movement is expansive and highly expressive. It begins with a 24 bar introduction which might well be thought of as a sinfonia, similar to those of Cs 150 and 4 (see the previous chapter for contextual comment). However, there is no break between it and the chorus, the voices of which enter with the same material. The third section of this movement is a vivace chorus which leads into the second movement proper without break. Although we will, for the sake of convenience, consider these as two separate movements that is not how they would be received by the audience. They would hear an uninterrupted flow of music comprising: adagio, introduction-adagio, chorus-vivace, chorus-andante, aria/chorale. All in all, this is likely to take up the best part of 10 minutes, an excellent example of Bach’s seeking forms of seamless musical expression, largely unimpeded by structural convention.
Returning to the opening bars, it is quite amazing the expressivity that Bach evokes from a mere five simple notes, first announced by the violins and echoed, slightly altered, by the oboe. (It should be recalled that the first notes of Bach’s music which the Leipzig congregations heard following his appointment (C 75, chapter 2) arose from a similar concept, a snippet of solo oboe arising out of string chords).
Violin, then oboe, above continuo.
The text begins with the pitiable line----out of the depths I call to You, Lord----and the shapes of the short musical phrases clearly suggest the sounds of weakened, clamouring voices. C 38 (vol 2, chapter 22), a chorale cantata from the second cycle, begins with the same line, there expressed by means of a motet/fantasia of timeless gravity. The similarity of the texts might even suggest that C 131 could also have been composed for the same day, the twenty-first Sunday after Trinity.
Bach continues to develop his expressive opening motive on the voices as they introduce themselves in a variety of combinations. In the sixteen bars from bar 24 they enter thus: in pairs, thence alto followed by soprano, tutti, tenor, alto/bass, soprano, tutti. The diversity of the choral writing, particularly with such seemingly minimal and undemanding material, lies at the heart of the powerful emotion Bach is able to communicate. The writing seems very simple; in fact it is highly sophisticated.
A change of mood and tempo announces the new line of text----Lord, hear my voice and let Your ears attend to my declared entreaty! And clearly Bach does not view this as a mealy-mouthed, timorous plea to the Almighty. This is an appeal amounting almost to a demand, not so much ‘hear me please’ but ‘take note of my request!’ The music is rhythmic and insistent, constantly veering between communal and individual expressions of supplication. In the first tutti entries (bar 57 and 59), the soprano plea is set to a rising scale, glancing, perhaps, towards the Divine Throne.
Thence (bar 63) they adopt a repeated-note motive which is even more persistent and adamant.
Altos then sopranos, followed by tenors and basses in quick succession all join in, culminating in the broken melisma on Flehens----(from bar 88 and again at 92). The sense of urgency is sustained in the short coda with the flickering of a tiny three-note motive between oboe and strings, leading us directly into the second movement.
Bass/soprano, aria/chorale (65 bars)
This is a piece of exceptional construction. At its most basic it is a bass aria enfolding the soprano’s intoning of a chorale melody, both lines enclosed by an oboe obbligato melody above and continuo below. The soprano sings the seven phrases of the hymn melody (which also concludes Cs 48 (vol 1, chapter 21) and 113 (vol 2, chapter 12), though with different verses and slightly variant harmonisations). The movement, however, divides itself neatly in two sections, the first of which encompasses the first four chorale phrases (up to bar 35) and the second, the latter three.
In the first section the chorale text is a prayer for mercy since Christ Himself has already atoned for us through His sacrifice. Running throughout these phrases like a continuous thread of tapestry is the bass voice of caution----If thou, Lord, do mark our failings, who will stand and face You? In the latter part of the aria the chorale states----[do this] that I may not despair or die in sin. The bass’s thread now confirms that Divine forgiveness is, indeed, a reason to be wary ----for You have clemency and thus will be feared.
The movement is therefore balanced most subtly, the fear of Divine judgement set against faith in celestial mercy. The oboe obbligato theme is also designed to highlight these two approaches, at first making much use of the three-note motive from the end of the previous movement but latterly transformed into semi-quaver streams, perhaps a symbol of Christ’s eternal flowing forgiveness. The ingenious structure of the movement may be more clearly represented thus:
-------Oboe three-note motive---------------------
SECTION 1 Sop Chorale, four phrases: plea for mercy
Continuous bass thread: who will stand and confess?
-------Oboe flowing semi-quavers---------------------
SECTION 2 Sop Chorale, three phrases: plea for purity
Continuous bass thread: Divine clemency is powerful and feared.
And supporting the entire movement is a solid, marching, quaver bass line which, perhaps, symbolises Divine compassion, a force much sought after yet still so powerful that it still alarms puny humans.
Chorus 2 (42 bars).
The third movement is another chorus. It begins with a forceful introduction, half a dozen strongly chordal bars announcing positively----I await the Lord. Mention was made above of the echoes of the beginning of C 75 and, oddly enough and perhaps quite coincidentally, the alto and tenor phrases (bars 2 and 4) replicate a very similar pattern to that of the oboe interjections from the opening chorus of that work.
The chorus proper is a fugue based upon the text----my Soul awaits and my hope lies in His word. The main subject is introduced by the basses followed by tenors, altos and sopranos.
The long notes are contrived so as to form a series of drawn out, falling suspensions clashing with the main harmony and creating a sense of endless longing throughout the remainder of the movement. The desire to be united with the Lord is a heartfelt one and, as is pointed out in many of the texts which Bach set over the years, may take longer to achieve than one would hope. But even though it may well be a prolonged process, Bach ensures that we understand that, though waiting might become onerous, it is not a time to be wretched. The oboe twinkles above from the beginning making much use of the three-note motive established in earlier movements.
It is joined by the first violins, and even, in the last bars, the second violins and violas. Their interaction creates a flow of uninterrupted semi-quavers, a symbol of the steadfast resolution of the Lord, unwavering in His commitment to us.
The final three bars return to the adagio tempo of the beginning, emitting one last hushed and reverent declaration of the faith we have in His Word.
Alto/tenor, aria/chorale (82 bars).
If we separate the initial movements of this cantata (see above) the following aria becomes easily the longest of the work. It makes use of the same chorale melody heard previously, this time sung by the altos above the continuo but now with a tenor thread running throughout, uniting both texture and sections. The length of the movement is again dictated by the decision to use the full chorale, the text of which declares----in my mind I have lamented that I am an anguished sinner----my conscience gnaws me and I would gladly be cleansed of my sins with Your blood. The tenor’s pervasive thought is simple----my Soul continues to wait for the Lord from one day to the next.
In terms of narrative, this adds nothing to that which we were told in the preceding chorus. But to simply note this and leave the matter there would be to miss the point. The waiting for the Lord, it seems, may be much longer than we had wished for, or even thought possible. The minor mode imparts a somewhat gloomy quality to the melodic writing and the low, alto chorale sounds melancholic and unworldly. The time signature of 12/8 is often associated with the pastorale or the gigue but here it has more the characteristic of onward plodding, weary repetitive steps along a seemingly endless pathway.
The fluidity of invention which Bach demonstrates in the tenor and continuo lines in order to sustain interest over a full six minutes is quite remarkable.
Chorus 3 (42 bars).
As with the earlier choruses, that which completes the cantata begins with an introduction, this time the three-fold declaration of the word Israel. The text is essentially summatory----Israel, hope in the Lord, for in Him lies forgiveness and redemption----He will redeem Israel from all its wickedness. The structure is episodic, the various elements dictated fully by the sense of the text and resolving itself into five sections:
1) Introduction, adagio –Israel!
2) Allegro—hope in the Lord.
3) Adagio—with the Lord is mercy.
4) Allegro—and much redemption wherein He shall redeem Israel from her sins.
5) Coda, adagio--from her sins.
The sections are aurally quite clear and each merges smoothly into the next.
By far the most substantial part is the second allegro which accounts for a good three fifths of the movement. It is built around a powerful fugue subject, first introduced by the sopranos from bar 27, against a rising chromatic counter-subject in the bass.
This latter theme dominates throughout, despite the abounding of invention in all parts. Did Bach intend it to represent the burgeoning sins of Israel forgiven, yes, but certainly not forgotten?
We leave this buoyant and colourful chorus noting just two further points. The first is the return, near the end, of sustained notes creating suspensions within the harmony (first heard in the sopranos from bar 61). Cast the mind back to the fugue subject of the previous movement and the periods of waiting for the Lord’s redemption. That desired moment may now have arrived but the memory of it remains buried within the contrapuntal textures and in the recesses of the listener’s mind.
The second point is the final archaic Phrygian cadence. Bach was not forced to use it here, as he is elsewhere on occasions through the requirements of an ancient, modal chorale melody. Here he does it through choice, perhaps a historic reminder of the ancient days of Israel.
Dürr says of this work ‘viewed as a whole, the cantata possesses all the merits and weaknesses of an early work’ (p 779). One wonders what he had in mind as the ‘weaknesses’. Is it the lack of recitatives or da capo arias, both structures which Bach was to make much use of in later works, ever extending and developing their formats? Or is it the episodic nature of a number of the movements? The non use of certain forms or techniques can surely not be counted as a flaw, particularly when Bach makes successful use of the structures he chose. Beside which, there are also late cantatas in which he chose to eschew recitatives and da capo forms.
As to the episodic structures, they were derived from the texts so successfully, enlivened by a wealth of imaginative instrumental and vocal writing as well as being invigorated by a masterly development of basic materials, that once again criticisms of what he might have done fall by the wayside. With one or two exceptions the early cantatas of Bach’s are masterpieces of vividly colourful, highly expressive musical creation. They should not be compared, in terms of quality, invention or structure, with the later works; and certainly not to their detriment. They are simply different; and we should be grateful for that.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012.