CHAPTER 76 BWV 34a O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe
Oh fire eternal, Oh spring of Love.
Chorus–recit (bass)–aria /recit (tenor/alto)–chorus.
Aria (alto)–recit (sop)–chorus.
A wedding cantata (incomplete).
The history of this work is as complicated as any of the several secular cantatas for which Bach reused the music, sometimes on several occasions. Dürr, as always the fount of knowledge when it comes to the dating of works, suggests that it originated in the first half of 1726 (p 744). Some of its movements certainly resurfaced for the late religious cantata C 34, which may have been compiled in the last three or four years of Bach’s life. This is particularly fortunate, since C 34a has survived incomplete, the score and several of the instrumental parts having been lost.
One can, therefore, only gain a full picture of this work by drawing upon its later counterpart C 34 (vol 3, chapter 51). It will be noted that the two works enjoyed different structures, C 34a being in the two parts intended for performing before and after the wedding ceremony.
The three common movements which can be easily extracted from C 34 and performed as part of a reconstruction of C 34a are the two choruses that frame the later work, and the alto aria. They are discussed only minimally in this essay; further detailed comments may be found in volume 3. The music is virtually unchanged in each case, and alterations to the verse texts are mostly of minor significance.
Clearly it was the image of the eternal fires that inspired Bach in the opening chorus, the virtually continuous violin semiquavers suggesting equally the flames of Divinity and those of carnal passion. The ideas which lie at the root of this cantata are the rewards of earthly love and passion as justified by the will of the Lord. Throughout the text are carefully placed lines which make the point without labouring it e.g.
—-let sparks of the most noble passion descend upon the united couple (first movement)
—-why choose the human heart as the dwelling place of love enfolding? (second movement)
—-earthly pleasure may be fulfilled as you desire it (third movement)
—-God, called Love from endless times, bestows upon you this reward (sixth movement).
This cantata was, therefore, conceived as an ardent piece celebrating the enjoyment of earthly passions albeit within God’s laws and the framework of Christian marriage. (A more detailed analysis of the opening chorus may be found in vol 3, chapter 51).
A short, secco bass recitative, needing no reconstruction for performance, follows. Quasi-philosophical in tone, it asks two questions which the remainder of the text seeks to answer—-why is it that the power of love creates such a powerful kingdom in these souls on earth?—-and —-why choose the human heart as its domain? It ends on an imperfect cadence in Bm, the key of the following movement. Thus both musically and textually a question has been put which seeks a response.
Unfortunately, the fine third movement cannot be performed without some reconstruction and guesswork. Clearly the opening continuo line requires upper string parts to carry the musical momentum along; true, it begins like many openings of continuo arias which is what, indeed, it initially suggests. But by bar five the impetus is lacking and the ear demands more; indeed the commanding opening bars of the tenor line would fit very well on violins above the bass in bars 1 and 2, a useful clue in any reconstruction exercise.
It is possible, of course, that Bach intended the harpsichord to ‘fill in’ the harmonies in the aria sections (a view reinforced by the fact that minimal violin and viola parts survive for the later recitative insertions). But it would require an imaginative and experienced musician to make it work. Of course, that person may have been Bach himself!
The structure of the movement is unusual, a series of eight alternating sections of aria and recitative. The former are sung by the bass and supported by the muscular continuo theme with which the movement begins. He is the reassuring voice of the pastor, informing us that those who fear God and their progeny shall be blessed. The latter are sung by a tenor, supported by simple three-part harmony (violins and continuo) and he looks for such assurances as—-from whence do the souls seek blessing?
The fourth and final recitative section ends with the enjoinders—-with united voice we cry—-and what we cry out is:—-. The appeal is for Peace upon Israel, the opening words of the immediately ensuing chorus.
This movement was used to conclude C 34 but in the wedding cantata it ends part 1 only. Once again, the missing wind and timpani parts can be retrieved from the later version, structural peculiarities of which are described in chapter 51.
The alto aria is the third and final movement that may be retrieved in full from the C 34. The chosen sheep, beloved of Jacob, become souls selected by God in the later version but the essential theme, happiness in the great rewards of God’s blessings, remains the same. So, indeed, does the music with its haunting sound of flutes doubling the muted violins an octave higher. Whether heard in the context of the secular or religious cantata, this is an aria that no Bach lover would wish to be without!
The allusion to sheep is made in order to introduce the biblical reference to Jacob’s love of Rachel. This particular example has, however, a sting in the tail as biblical scholars will be aware. In the end Jacob did not get what he wanted or expected! One can only suspect a moment of cynical and slightly scurrilous humour on the part of the lyricist (albeit disguised for the cognoscenti) towards the divinely bestowed gift of marriage extolled in the rest of the cantata! This was an age of hidden meanings concealed within canons and other musical puzzles. It should not surprise us to find something similar within the texts.
The last recitative is for soprano and, like the first, needs no reconstruction. It is a summation of the cantata’s theme—-this is the most noble of rewards to give man pleasure—-let the God of eternal Love fill your house with blessing. There is a reference to Obed Edom who guarded the God’s Arc of Covenance and, as with the mention of Jacob, there may be secondary meanings implied. Certainly, the piety with which he tended the Arc is a metaphor illuminating the notion of the devotion given to God’s love which we have secured within our hearts.
But Edom was also a Gittite, one of those who formed David’s bodyguard and a ‘guest’ in Israel. Consequently, this metaphor may have a number of different layers of meaning to which the biblical scholar would be attuned, further evidence suggesting that the groom might have been a man of the church. Could there even be a concealed challenge to orthodoxy, if not quite amounting to heresy, in the notion that even those who are not of the faith may cherish and enjoy the bestowal of God’s gift of Love?
But if the essence of this cantata is essentially religious, would it not have been traditional, and indeed politic to end with a chorale? Neither this work nor its non-secular adaptation does so; Bach chooses to conclude both with choruses. Unfortunately, that for C 34a has parts missing and requires reconstruction, an important point of debate being what to do with the choir.
Only the soprano and bass parts survive, but rather oddly they seem, for the most part, complete in themselves i.e. they create satisfactory two-part harmony. This raises the question of whether Bach intended the altos to double the sopranos and the tenors the basses occasionally, where the ranges are stretched, an octave apart. There is no precedence for such an arrangement; but then there is also very little for the four-octave passages in which the voices join to intone the prayer—-the Lord bless and keep you (from bar 31)—-may the Lord’s face shine with grace upon you (from bar 45)—-may the Lord lift his countenance upon you and grant you peace (from bar 61) and the final ‘amens’ (from bar 89). The rest of the text is built around these pillars of avowal and substantiates further the notion that the groom was a clergyman—-the Lord looks with mercy upon the man whose office promotes the sanctuary.
It is a commanding chorus with a number of musical points that relate directly to the third movement. Where the notion of dialogue was there implied by the alternation of aria and recitative, here it is achieved by the juxtaposition of choral harmony and octave declamations. The continuo bass lines of the two movements also have much in common; both are built around a skirl of four semiquavers and a striding quaver figuration. Interestingly, in the third movement the semi-quaver pattern is almost always descending as the premises of faith are yet to be explained and accepted. In the last movement they are predominantly rising, a possible indication of regained optimistic faith and enlightenment.
It would be a pity if this work, albeit in a modified and reconstructed form, were not to find a place in the secular cantata repertoire. Despite sharing three of the most significant movements with C 34, C 34a has its own purpose, character, structure and appeal. Much intelligent guesswork is required, but it is well within the grasp of a good Bach scholar/composer.
This is a work of much subtlety and charm and it is to be regretted that it comes to us with so many gaps and questions.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.