Chapter 75 BWV 197 Gott ist unsre Zuversicht
God is our certainty.
Chorus–recit (bass)–aria (alto)–recit (bass)–chorale.
Aria (bass)–recit (sop)–aria (sop)–recit (bass)–chorale.
A wedding cantata.
NB This essay should be read in conjunction with that on C 197a which contains some additional comments and historical context (vol 3, chapter 38).
This ten movement work is the first, and largest, of the three wedding cantatas constructed in two parts. It also contains two chorales. Furthermore the instrumentation, like that of C 195 (see previous chapter), is of a kind usually reserved for large festive occasions such as Christmas or Easter: three trumpets and drums, oboes, strings, bassoon, choir and continuo. Only flutes seem to be missing!
There is little specific mention of the bridal couple, although the cantata’s proportions and orchestration would indicate that they were people of considerable importance. Once again the text takes a different line from Cs 202 and 210 in that the focus here is upon God’s benevolence and wisdom in guiding the couple through life from infancy to death and beyond. It lacks the themes of renewal which may be found elsewhere; here the emphasis is fully upon the journey through life and God’s guidance along the true path. It has, therefore, rather more in common with a number of the religious cantatas than with many of a secular nature.
This is clearly true of the chorales that end the two parts, designed to be performed before and after the wedding ceremony. This structure puts us immediately in mind of a number of the bipartite works from the first Leipzig cycle which are similarly designed e.g. Cs 75, 76, 21 and 147. Whether the wedding guests would have joined in the singing of the chorales is not known.
Dürr dates this as a relatively late work from around 1736/7 although clearly Bach made use of existing movements, principally from the Christmas Day cantata which may have been composed for the celebrations of 1728. What strikes the listener immediately is the range of inventive processes he brought to bear on the many massive opening choruses he composed in the years 1724-36.
Some, like that which begins C 195, are simply bipartite. More often Bach is inclined to take a traditional format, such as the ternary da capo, but to impose different constraints and patterns upon it. Increasingly, he dispensed with the concerto-like recurring ritornello so that the opening instrumental theme came to adopt the dual roles of establishing the mood and character and providing the essential musical material. Where the ritornello theme does return, it is increasingly heard with vocal parts grafted on.
The text of this impressive chorus is in two parts which allow for a traditional da capo structure—-God is our assurance and we place our trust in His hands—-and—-when He guides and governs our hearts, there is endless blessing. The A section of this ternary movement begins with a twenty-five bar theme, organised in two clear parts (A1 and A2), each ending in a minim-lead cadence (bars 12-13 and 24-25). The violins (latterly reinforced by oboes) have a busy quaver ‘moto-perpetuo’ type theme which continues through much of the movement; but it is ultimately the first trumpet that dominates.
Opening trumpet and violin themes.
A fifth (redundant) entry of the subject in the sopranos (from bar 48) takes us to the trumpet entry (bar 58) which heralds the return of the first twelve bars of the introduction (A1).
Had the choir been rested at this point, we might have expected a traditional ritornello structure, choir and orchestra alternating in a conventional Italian-concerto format. But Bach keeps the chorus going, taking the opportunity to allow it to punch out the essential premise in a series of semi-breves—-we place our faith in His hands! Following another short episode in which choir, strings and oboes predominate, the second half of the original introductory theme (A2) is now reprised, introduced by the trumpet theme in bar 90. Again this section is fully supported by the choir, taking us to the cadence which ends the first part of the da capo structure (bar 102).
It may be more easily understood thus:
Section A: instrumental theme in two parts, A1 and A2 (bars 1-13, 13-25)
Section B: chorale fugato, voices entering A, S, B, T and S (bars 25-58)
Section C: first half of theme (A1) reprised, trumpet leading with choir added (bars 58-70)
Section D: choral episode (bars 70-90)
Section E: second half of theme (A2) with choir added (bars 90-102).
We have now arrived at the middle section, a more personal and thoughtful consideration of God’s governance and leadership in which the choir is predominantly homophonic, minor modes take precedence and the ‘heavenly’ trumpets are largely silent. Those who know Bach’s music may recognise the harmonic progression and imitative movement which derives directly, whether by accident or design we cannot know, from the fugue in Bm from the first book of the Well Tempered Clavier.
This chorus is a masterpiece of eclectic design taking, as it does, the most common of musical forms and endowing them with an inventiveness and originality derived from a thorough knowledge of all possible structural principles.
The secco bass recitative follows closely the textual account. The opening lines—-God provides well and keeps the best house—-are set to a melody of almost childlike naivety and simplicity. Thence we are reminded that His guidance is sometimes unfathomable and may not always turn out as expected. Here the melodic line dips and delves into an almost atonal sequence of minor keys, suggestive of perplexity and mystification.
But we are finally reassured that the good fortune of those who love Him are grafted onto His very hands, and an almost jaunty bass line underpins the regained optimism, seeming not to want to let go of it! In less than a dozen and a half bars Bach has depicted three very contrasting states of mind whilst retaining perfect musical cohesion.
The first aria is for alto and Bach views the text in two contrasting sections—-put all sorrowful cares to rest in child-like trust—-and —-God’s eyes, like a guiding star, keep watch and protect us. The outer sections, of what is basically a ternary movement, convey the sense of peace and tranquillity but the middle section is strikingly different; the tempo is quickened, the time changes from a peaceful three-in-the-bar to a forceful four, and rolling semiquavers, particularly in the vocal and oboe lines, convey a sense of energy and momentum. God’s brief is, apparently, not simply to watch over us. His is an active and dynamic role to which Bach’s music vividly draws our attention. The tranquillity of trust and faith returns, but this is only possible because of God’s active protection.
There are a number of aspects of this aria which mark it out to be from Bach’s most mature period. Although a combined ABA-ritornello structure, it is clearly not a conventional da capo. The first section is rewritten and shortened by about a dozen bars in the reprise. The opening instrumental theme is twenty-four bars long and never returns fully. The main melody is carried by the oboe d’amore, accompanied by gently throbbing strings. But it turns out that the first violins are actually doubling the melody but investing it with an additional sense of resolve with repeated quavers. (so much for the consecutive lines that students are told to avoid!)
This is a movement in which the mature Bach knows just what is required in terms of structural coherence and instrumental timbre, whereby he is prepared to stretch and adapt convention without inhibition. It is a perfect example of the mature artist taking what he needs of established practice and bending it to his will.
Although this is not to say that he avoids explicit word painting; far from it. But what there is, is embedded so perfectly within the substance of Bach’s artistic creation that it matters little whether it is overtly recognised, although it remains for those who care to seek it out. For example, Bach takes the singer almost to the bottom of the vocal range for words like Schlummer—-rest or sleep (bar 30). The fading away of cares and sorrows is expressed through sustained notes, again in the lower registers (bars 34-6 and 51-40). Above all, the notion of sadness is encapsulated in a descending chromatic line, first heard in the oboe’s ritornello theme (bars 20-24) and later by the alto (from bars 47 and 129).
The twenty-four bar opening theme serves four main functions, a perfect example of Bach’s drawing together of various strands into one musical entity. It creates the mood and character, it provides all the essential material and its latterly reprised segments form the structural backbone of the movement. But perhaps above all, it encapsulates all the sensations referred to in the lyrics within one concise tone poem: peace and rest, the lulling away of troublesome thoughts, cares and sorrow and child-like faith. It is said that a picture may say more than a thousand words; indeed the same may be said of such a piece of music.
The middle section embodies the penetrating and ever-watchful protective gaze of the Lord. The musical interest resides principally in the ever-fluid vocal and oboe lines set above a determined quaver continuo. The melismas on wachen—-guard or watch over—-machen and alles—-in the sense of taking care of all things—-Leitstern—-the guiding star—-all demonstrate unambiguously the emphases that Bach gives to this text.
The bass takes on the Pastor’s role in the ensuing recitative, supported by strings and continuo. The opening lines are imperious and commanding and brook no argument—-follow God and His will, the correct path which, though taking us through danger, leads us to Israel and His holy altar. The upper strings strike aggressive chords to punctuate the message, but in the last four bars they provide sustained harmonies as the tone softens.
Having endured whatever privations God’s path leads us through, we become conjoined within the glow of His tested love.
The chorale ending part 1 is notable for its combination of 3, 2 and 4 bar phrases which endow it with a somewhat ethereal quality. Strings and oboes d’amore double the four vocal lines, much as we would expect in any religious cantata. The text relates strongly to the marriage union—-let us enjoy the flames of Your love so that we may live in peace and of one mind. The verse ends with a conventional Kyrie Eleison—-Lord have mercy on us.
Bach’s harmonisation of the last phrase is notable. He approaches the final cadence through a chromatic chord of some expressive power; the c natural in the key of A major is unexpected and momentarily interrupts the benign mood of peace and union. Is Bach reminding us briefly of the dangers we need to pass through to reach this point, specifically referred to in the preceding recitative?
If the listener felt that the alto aria, with its low writing for voice and instruments and compacted lines produced an unusually rich and sumptuous soundscape, s/he may be surprised by the bass aria which even eclipses it! Scored for the unusual combination of first and second muted violins (no violas) oboe, bassoon and continuo, it has a lavishness of sound which is almost unparalleled. Bach liked to experiment with rich textures in low registers as the last Brandenburg Concerto and the Quoniam from the Bm Mass (horn and bassoons) demonstrate, and it is often not just the peculiar choice of instruments that creates the original timbre, but also the way they are used.
The original version of this aria is to be found in the earlier Christmas cantata, the score of which has not survived intact. What we do know is that the original text was addressed directly to the Baby Jesus—arise, beautiful Treasure from Your crib and come to my lips and heart. In the wedding version the address is to the now married couple—-Oh charming pair, the Lord shall bless and guide you ever more. It is very probable that Bach tinkered with the orchestration and may have added the oboe part latterly in order to lighten the texture a little. Certainly, its role in the first half of the aria is minimal.
Bach only occasionally uses the bassoon as a solo instrument in the cantatas, but he always seems to draw from it a different character. Here it alternates between the initial figuration, the rhythmic marking of a single note of g (falling octaves predominating) and the rapid skirls of bars 3-4.
Was Bach thinking of encapsulating aspects of the characters of the bridal pair in these contrasting motives? (An afterthought certainly, but possibly one that induced him to include this movement in the wedding cantata). Or might the bassoon depict one personality, the strings another? We have no way of knowing but such speculation is not without purpose. At the very least, it heightens our sensitivity to the contrasting expressive characters of the various melodic lines.
But the movement is, of course, the sum of its total parts and the overall effect is one of undramatic opulence and plushness, a rich and quietly lavish picture of a luxuriant union. The form is Bach’s frequently used combination of ternary and ritornello.
Having paused to admire the happy couple in all their finery, the last four movements expand the simple idea of God’s guidance through a happy and successful life. The soprano recitative is secco and in two clear sections. The first, presented simply and directly, reaffirms God’s everlasting friendship and support. The second is a rapturous arioso, spreading one line of text over fifteen bars and urged on by the familiar insistency of the quaver bass line—-rejoice, for your great fortune cannot be estimated—-it will continue forever.
The third and final aria is also taken from the earlier Christmas Day cantata. There it was for bass, continuo and oboe d’amore obbligato. In transcribing it for soprano, Bach transposed it up from D to G major, replaced the oboe with a solo violin and added rather minimal accompaniment parts on two oboes d’amore.
None of the three arias in this wedding version of the cantata are written only for voice and continuo and there may be a reason for this. The richness of the work has been commented upon above and it is possible that Bach thought it appropriate for his wealthy patrons that all the arias were handsomely scored. That would account for their innate luxuriousness of sound and the additions to this movement.
Whereas both the preceding arias were more contemplative, this is much more of a dance—-delight, pleasure, wealth and salvation shall increase and strengthen—-eyes and spirit shall be equally content. (For further comments on this movement and the comparative settings the reader should turn again to vol 3, chapter 38).
The final recitative is for bass supported by continuo, sustaining oboes and interjecting upper strings. It simply assures us that God’s goodness is endless and provides more than any heart could wish for. It prepares us for the chorale, both in mood and by leading us to its dominant chord.
After the baroque richness of some of the earlier movements, the unsophisticated closing chorale comes like a breath of fresh air. It is short, incredibly simply harmonised and the only movement to be set almost wholly in a minor mode. It is contemplative in mood and summative in context—-gladly journey, in faith, on God’s path and earn His blessing—he who places faith in Him shall not be forsaken.
It is an appropriate moment for reflection upon faith, the union of marriage, the importance of trust in God’s blessings and the happiness of the wedding couple. One hopes that the guests did join enthusiastically with the singing!
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017.