Chapter 68 BWV 152 Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn

Tread the pathway of faith.

Sinfonia--aria (bass)--recit (bass)--aria (sop)--recit (bass)--duet (sop/bass).

For the Sunday after Christmas.

Quite possibly qualifying as the most ingenuously charming of Bach’s early cantatas C 152, dating from 1714, has qualities of lightness and grace that draw the listener immediately to it. It is a chamber cantata of the truest type, requiring only eight musicians and even then the full group is only needed in the outer movements. Bach dispenses with the usual string orchestra and calls upon four principal soloists, flute, oboe, viola d’amore and viola da gamba. Two singers and two continuo instruments complete the ensemble.

The viola d’amore was related to the viol family but had no frets on the fingerboard. The gamba, much like a cello, is familiar to all who know the last Brandenburg Concerto. Viols were in the process of being ‘taken over’ by the more flexible and brighter instruments of the (fretless) violin group and it is interesting that Bach chose a deliberately archaic sound for this cantata.

He also selected a traditional format, that of dialogue between Jesus (bass) and the Soul (soprano). In fact, this is the earliest of this type that he composed although the original, and largely lost version of C 21, expanded and reused as the third cantata of the first Leipzig cycle, may possibly have pre-dated it. However, most of these works were composed later e.g.

Cycle 3 (vol 3, chapters 7, 11, 30 and 35) contains four dialogue cantatas, Cs 57, 32, 49 and 58. Cycle 4, as set out by Wolff (p 284) contains one, C 145 (vol 3, chapter 42). C 140 (vol 2, chapter 55) is one of the late chorale/fantasias which, uniquely, contains some dialogue elements.

Bach generally uses the bass and soprano voices to represent Christ and the Soul, but there are exceptions. A comparative study of these works demonstrates the immense variety Bach is capable of achieving whilst retaining a fundamentally conventional and limiting format.


C 152, like the later C 49, begins with an instrumental sinfonia but they are of very different types. That for the later work is a concerto movement arranged from the harpsichord concerto in E (BWV 1035). That for C 152 is for a quartet of instruments above a continuo bass line and in two sections. It begins with a short four-bar adagio, a conversation between flute, oboe and viola that produces three highly embellished melodic lines. In a manner which Haydn was to make his own some years later, Bach contrives to create a strong sense of contrast between the serious and reflective introduction and the jaunty fugue which follows it.

Above a quaver bass line the oboe announces the fugue subject, followed by the flute, viola and gamba/continuo. The skipping quality of the main melody may have been suggested to Bach by the later references to ‘stumbling upon a stone’. The fugal working out is much as expected, episodes separating a number of statements of the subject from bars 43, 53, 64, 74, 93, 100, 118 and 136.

Bass aria.

Christ, as usual depicted by the bass, takes the first aria with support from an oboe obbligato and continuo. The text for this movement, and indeed the whole cantata, is based around the metaphor of the stone which has been laid as a trap for the unwary to stumble against. The lyricist has extended this image further, transcribing the image of the stone that snares into that of a rock of foundation. This transformation is articulated clearly in the first recitative which consequently proves to be the ‘cornerstone’ of the cantata.

The first stanza declares----tread the pathway of faith and do not stumble upon the stone which God has placed for the unwary. The ritornello theme has three main components, a falling quaver scale (bar 1), a rising semiquaver scale (bar 2) and a highlighting of salient notes (bars 5 and 6). Listeners may make their own deductions about the various images that these shapes might suggest e.g. firm placement and solidity, a constant treading (along the pathway of faith), an ultimate stumbling.

Whatever the imagery may have been, it is clear that these are the musical building blocks of the entire movement, passed back and forth between voice and oboe above a predominantly quaver continuo line of dour, purposeful gait. Most striking is the interaction of the upper two lines at the injunction----Men, do not stumble against it (bars 40-41). This is a ritornello movement which combines considerable charm with a strong sense of resolution, even doggedness.

Bass recitative.

The bass now continues the narrative in the explanatory, keystone recitative. Bach is clearly sensitive to its significance and has given much attention to the detail. Note, for example, the drop of over an octave on the word ‘fall’, followed immediately by higher notes on ‘resurrection’ (bars 2 and 3). The act of stumbling is depicted in the falling semi-quavers (bar 7) and the notion of ‘collision’ by the rising scales in voice and continuo (bars 8 and 9).

   Opening bars followed by 'stumbling' and 'collision' figures.

The first part of the text is a warning about the menacing stone although the point is clearly made that the object itself is not at fault; the defects lie within those who allow themselves to trip upon it.

In the latter part of the verse the mood changes entirely----the true Christian foundation of belief is erected upon the cornerstone of faith and redemption. We have moved on to the extent that what had been thought of as a potential danger or impediment has become, with the right attitude, the basis of conviction. On the one hand this is an involved metaphysical deliberation, on the other an uncomplicated symbol of doctrine. There is, it seems, something in this text for the common man and the philosopher. Bach’s music is designed to appeal to both.

He sets the latter part of the verse as an arioso, a habit that has almost become a cliché in many of the early cantatas. Voice and bass line unite through a motive that is both tender but adamant, a musical symbol of the uniting of Soul, Spirit and Faith. The closing line, the discovery of salvation and redemption, is sung in clear, marked crotchets making it a message impossible to miss or misinterpret. The movement which had begun in the minor mode of the previous aria ends, symbolically, in the more positive and peaceful major.

Soprano aria.

It is now the time for the Soul to emerge and play its part in the drama and we quickly discover that this is the Soul of conviction. In some of the later dialogue cantatas the Soul is a tremulous being, a fearful bride who looks for understanding and encouragement. Not so here. This is a prayer for continuing support, of course, but it comes from a fundamental position of commitment----grant me, oh treasured stone, that I continue to build my faith upon You as the basis of my eternal bliss. Flute and oboe join voice and continuo to make a quartet of luminous beauty.

The stone, now far from being a stumbling block, has become a symbol of enduring strength and support. This is musically represented by the sustained opening flute note, later to be taken up by the soprano on the word stein----stone. Around and beyond it Bach has contrived a tapestry of warmly positive figures, enveloping the voice in a haze of Divine endearment. The little catches in the rhythms (bars 5-8) may evoke memories of tentative stumbling, but for the most part the picture is one of blissful enlightenment.

The wish not to wound oneself (against the stone) produces a short section (from bar 24) coloured by minor modes and evoking the stumbling figure first heard in the ritornello theme. But it is short-lived and a brief reference to the earlier lines of text and original musical material leads us to a reprise of the ritornello theme with which to close.

Bass recitative.

The second of the two secco recitatives is again for the bass and it takes the form of a homily reminding us of the central focus of Christian belief----though the realisation that God’s Son clothed Himself in flesh and blood to suffer as a human may appear to be a stumbling block of knowledge, earthly wisdom is mere folly before the will of God----reason cannot penetrate His decrees----it is no more than a blind leader of the spiritually blind. The soul surely knows this already but apparently it does no harm to be reminded of it. The moments of particular emotional passion come at the mention of His sufferings (bars 5-7) and the folly of reason (bars 9-10). But perhaps the most masterly moment comes in the final bars, where the disjunctive bass line and unexpected harmonies clearly suggest the waywardness of the blind led by the blind.

Nevertheless, Bach contrives to end, for the second time, clearly and firmly in the major mode.

Soprano/bass aria.

Christ and Soul unite in the final movement which is the only one where a form of discourse is represented. The soul asks two questions----how may I embrace You?----and----how to I recognise eternal life?----followed by two pleas----teach me to reject the earth----and----draw me on to follow You. Each is answered in turn by Christ, His emphasis being upon self-denial and trust in faith. Bach’s setting is a model of clarity, embracing a contrapuntal texture of considerable complexity.

Leaving to one side for a moment the opening ritornello theme, the main bulk of the movement falls into four sections, each based around one of the verse couplets. The soprano begins each of these and is answered by the bass, whereupon they unite in musical canon (see bars 16, 30, 48 and 62 for the starting points of each segment). Thus we discover a pattern of question/statement, response and unity/accord clearly presented in musical terms. On each occasion further reiteration of the dialogue follows the mini-canons simply in order to give additional emphasis through repetition.

But perhaps the most unexpected feature of this original movement is the unique use of the ritornello theme. It is clearly a dance, perhaps tending more towards the ponderous than to the abandoned, but even so having something of the quality of the hornpipe. Played by flute, oboe and viola doubling, it has an ethereal, somewhat unearthly timbre. Conventionally, we would expect segments of it to appear as episodes separating the vocal blocks but this does not happen. In fact, once the singers begin, they continue until the reprise of the concluding ritornello statement.

What Bach does is to divide the ritornello into its natural phrases and impose them, in turn, above the singers in each of their four sections. Thus, with the exception of the two-bar codetta, we are presented with this melody accompanying the voices, complete though segmented. Putting it another way, we hear it intact at the beginning and at the end as well as supplementing the dialogue where it is heard in sections. Bach must have planned the movement on two premises, the one being the four  linear blocks of dialogue and the other the imposition of the phrases of the ritornello theme upon them.
  First two bars of ritornello theme (see again wind, bars 23-4 where  it is imposed above the first vocal block) followed by the second two bars (see again bars 37-8, above the second vocal block).

Anyone foolishly claiming that Bach was not a structural innovator should look carefully at this movement.

Was there a closing chorale? Possibly so but probably not. C 152 would not be alone in dispensing with one, besides which the probable lack of resources at Weimar might well have been a factor. As it is, there are only the two voices used in this cantata; for a four part setting two others would have to have been brought in just for the closing movement. Bach could, of course, have had one or both of the singers singing the chorale but, for whatever reason, that was not his usual practice elsewhere.

In any case, this appealing cantata ends well with the dance duet ringing in our ears. It is a remarkably innovative and attractive work for a young composer to present and one hopes that it was fully appreciated by his Weimer audiences.

One also wonders why Bach chose not to re-use it as a part of his first Leipzig cycle. Perhaps it was too much of a miniature for the big churches and Bach may not have wanted to alter its perfect chamber proportions with the addition of other, and essentially redundant, voices and instruments.


Copyright: J Mincham 2010.   Revised 2012.
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