Chapter 67 BWV 132 Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn!
Prepare the paths and byways!
Aria (sop)--recit (tenor)--aria (bass)--recit (alto)--aria (alto)--chorale.
For the fourth Sunday of Advent (for John the Baptist).
The significance of this work lies in the precision of its dating; it is marked 1715 in Bach’s own hand (Dürr p 88). Unlike some of the earlier extant cantatas, it moves away from the sectional structures which had been a feature, particularly of the choruses. In fact, there is no chorus in C 132 but, this aside, its overall shape is more recognisable in the form that we have come to associate with Bach’s cantatas, alternating arias and recitatives leading to a final chorale. (The chorale is, as we shall note below, missing from the transmitted score but there is little doubt that one was intended).
The theme of the work is a call to the faithful to prepare for the coming of the Messiah with all the implications of this momentous event e.g. the establishment of true faith (which may have temporarily waned) open confession of transgressions and a recalling of the great gifts He has bestowed upon us, the most significant being salvation. There is a moment of personal introspection and the cantata ends with a prayer that we be awakened and chastened, turning our thoughts only to Him. The instrumental forces are, as with most of these early works, quite modest, strings, one oboe and continuo which includes a doubling bassoon.
The soprano aria is a rallying call----prepare the paths and routes for the Highest to approach! The metaphor is simple; just as a physical way must be made ready, so should the soul in anticipation of His coming. That is the essence of this cantata and without doubt both processes, physical and spiritual are expected to be joyful ones. One would not necessarily assume this from a reading of the text alone, but the music adds that additional dimension. This is a happy event and one that should be appropriately celebrated.
The mode is major, the time 6/8, the consequent effect being one of a natural and unreserved pastoral dance. The ritornello theme establishes this within the first eight bars, which, if the point has not been fully grasped by everyone, is repeated in a slightly extended form.
Oboe and violin scale passages take over from the initial rustic rhythms, suggestive of a wholly uninhibited flow of blessing. The oboe moves easily between doubling and solo roles, a technique which, when applied in as masterly a fashion as this, creates the impression of there being much more variety of tone colouring than there actually is. The happy ritornello theme is heard unchanged four times within the da capo structure, accounting for more than a half of the movement. This is a typical proportion that we discover in several of Bach’s arias when joyous merry-making has become a principal preoccupation.
One should note the literally breath-taking melismas which stress the significance of the pathways we are preparing, and possibly even strewing, with physical or spiritual flowers!
The lyricist, Salamo Franck, has given Bach no distinctive images upon which to construct the music of the traditionally contrasting middle section. Bach passes through related minor keys and emphasises the notions of life and existence with two more melismas----lebens. But perhaps the most charming and effective moments are the three occasions in section B when the ensemble gives way completely allowing the singer to announce, unimpeded----the Messiah draws near.
The A section is reprised in full, an affirmative gesture and a not insignificant observation, as we shall discover from the structural analyses of later arias.
The tenor secco recitative falls into four sections: recit--arioso--recit--arioso. There can be no clearer example of Bach’s fidelity to the meaning, rather than the structural proportions, of the text. The first section (7 lines of the verse) is a stern reminder of our duty, probably akin to the sermons with which the congregations were familiar----if you would call yourself the child and brother of God and Christ, you must acknowledge the Saviour and willingly bear witness to this! The first arioso passage is more conciliatory----this is the crown and glory of the Christian. But the second recitative section unites the preacher and those preached to; we are, of course, all in the same boat----prepare my heart, and remove the obstacles that impede His coming. The final section is the most dynamic and optimistic of all----roll back those heavy stones of sin, receive your Saviour and be united with Him. The continuo line clearly depicts the physical action of rolling back the stones as it unites completely with the Christian voice and its emphasis upon the significance of faith.
The bass aria is something of an oddity. We might have expected the voice of authority to have been heard in the previous movement but Bach has taken care to share the solo roles between all four voices in this cantata. The text is unequivocal, a call for those listening to look inwards, examine their consciences and test their readiness for the coming event----Who are you? Are you true or false? The second half of this stanza is quite condemnatory----The law will tell you that you are poisoned and hypocritical, a child in the clutches of Satan! This would seem to be the perfect verse to be set as a da capo aria, the first part questioning, the second accusatory with, as the reprise, a return to the slightly less aggressive call to examine our consciences. But Bach does not set it this way!
There is little that is paternal or affectionate about his interpretation. The continuo figure dominates the entire movement and is rhythmically disrupting, importunate and demanding in character.
Even when the solo cello dominates, the effect is no less relentless and the wide 7th intervals in the vocal line are similarly aggressive. It is powerful music with a strong message to impart. The low register of the voice is surrounded, and at times encompassed, by the cello and the continuo figurations are as if immured within a morass of sin. It would seem that there is no point in pulling punches, people must be told what they need to do whether they like it or not! This is potent, uncompromising music about a matter of dogma upon which it is not possible to compromise.
And this is presumably why Bach does not reprise the first lines of text. He wishes the listeners to be left with the stark realisation of what is expected of them with no softening or dilution of the message.
And it seems to work. We have been instructed to look deeply within ourselves and in the following alto recitative Bach portrays the act of introspection itself---I freely confess that, although I have paid lip service, I have still turned away from You----when cleansed through baptismal waters, I promised to remain constant but I was not----God have mercy upon me and help me to renew my pledge through faith the Covenant of Grace. The vocal line is unforced and duly penitent, completely enclosed within a comforting texture of sustained string chords. It is, surely, no coincidence that the alto is also given the solo role in the following aria. There is a clear narrative in this cantata and the soul who has justly repented and, presumably once more found grace, is the one who must share this experience with the rest of the world.
Bach seldom neglects opportunities of creating musical images of cleansing water when mention is made of the act of baptism. This is the starting point of his invention of the violin obbligato melody in the next movement, a fluid and flowing series of images of that important process along the pathway to salvation. The mode is minor and the mood serious but contented. It is a trio in which the three component parts have clear and distinct roles: the voice that of the soul, the violin the cleansing liquid, both urged forward by the steady, continuo quaver tread. The text invites Christians to consider the Saviour’s gift of the baptismal water, purifying us from sin and giving us new clothes of true Christian finery. There is no need for a da capo reprise of music or text; the experience has to be communicated simply, directly and without artifice. We need only to be left with the sound of cleansing water as the ritornello theme completes the movement.
As stated above, the original chorale has been lost but it is generally believed to be that from C164 with which we would expect to hear the cantata end today. One cannot know what changes Bach may have made in order for it to fit neatly into the present work, apart from a transposition into A major, the key of the opening aria. In fact, the marching quaver bass line in the final three phrases seems entirely appropriate to images of the Divine progress along the prepared pathways, so perhaps Bach did not feel impelled to make any major alterations. The text is a prayer to enlighten us so that our thoughts may be fully directed towards Him.
Today, in a world obsessed with the moral implications of assisted suicide and mercy killing, listeners may find something to occupy their minds in the somewhat bizarre phrase----weaken the old man that the new may live, here on earth.
But perhaps this is best taken in the eighteenth century Lutheran context of the grave being no more than a longed-for staging post on the journey to celestial happiness! Especially, one suspects, for the old and infirm!
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012.