Chapter 8 BWV 147 Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben
Heart and mouth, action and life.
Chorus--recit (tenor)--aria (alto)--recit (bass)--aria (sop)--chorale.
Aria (tenor)--recit (alto)--aria (bass)--chorale.
The seventh cantata of the cycle for the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin.
In his sixth and seventh weeks Bach reverted to the two-part structure established at the beginning of the cycle. He commences both Cs 147 and186 with an ebullient chorus and in each case uses the same instrumentally enhanced versions of the chorales to draw each part to a close. Both cantatas were adaptations of earlier works composed at Weimar in 1716 (Dürr p 443 and 673) and Dürr explains clearly how it came to be that these works were suitable for later performances at Leipzig. The calling upon and adapting of cantatas written seven years previously might indicate that Bach had not yet formed a view as to what constituted his ideal cantata format. On the other hand it might simply been a matter of creating some breathing space as he settled into his new and highly demanding position.
A grand chorus closed C 21, three trumpets, timpani and bassoon adding to the usual complement of strings and oboes. Since then the congregation had heard little in the way of massive choral statements and, although it dispenses with two trumpets and timpani, the first movement of C 147 is a chorus of similarly exhilarating, flamboyant energy. It begins with a trumpet clarion call, initially only supported by the continuo and immediately echoed by first violins.
This sets in motion an ebullient ritornello which feels longer than its eight bars, partly because of the time signature (eight bars in 6/4 is the equivalent of sixteen bars in 3/4) and partly because the rolling semi-quavers and absence of obvious phrase boundaries sweep our imaginations along so that time divisions become irrelevant.
The text (Salomo Franck) is readily split into three sections----
a) Heart, mouth, action and life itself must bear witness of Christ.
b) This must be done without fear or hypocrisy.
c) He is God and Saviour both.
The first and the third ideas are similar enough to be conveyed by virtually identical music, the second is different. It is on this basis that Bach constructs the movement.
The first of these assertions is set to a massive fugato (from bar 9)the voices entering S, A, T and B and expanding into a contrasting episode from bar 18. The second introduces, albeit briefly, the notions of fear and hypocrisy which we must avoid, interpolated into the flowing musical stream just twice, and almost in passing, from bars 23 and 34. Sung by the choir, accompanied only by the continuo and suggestive of a reflective closing chorale harmonisation, they are mere caveats not intended to interrupt the main thrust which is the witnessing of Christ. Between and following these contrasting assertions we hear the proclaiming of the true God and Saviour. The final third of the movement (from bar 43) is a reworking of the first 23 bars with two important differences; the order of entries of the fugal theme is now B, T, A and S (bottom to top) and the instrumental ritornello follows (rather than precedes) the vocal section, rounding off the movement as it began.
Fugue subject (sops bar 9 and basses bar 43).
If this seems unnecessarily complicated for some listeners, it is sufficient to note only that inserted within this rousing chorus are two quieter contrasting chorale-like placings of images of fear and hypocrisy, both of which good Christians are urged to dispense with.
The tenor, the traditional narrator, has the first recitative which is essentially a mini-sermon, moderated by the soft words of the Virgin to which it relates. This is Her story of the miracles of Christ----He has freed man from Satan and sin----if you set your voice in opposition to this, judgement against you shall be severe. This recitative, accompanied throughout by strings and continuo, is a mini-textbook demonstrating the various ways in which melodic shaping, textural variety and harmonic shading can be used to express meaning and colour the emotion.
It begins with warm, encompassing major chords and a rhythmically measured melodic line suggesting trust and devotion, all entirely appropriate for the Virgin’s thoughts. The feeling intensifies (bars 7-8) as reference is made to the miracles He has performed for Her; a more marked melodic line and a striking cadence in a minor key are emphasised by the upper strings. Similarly in bars 10-11, harmonic and string movement underline a strident vocal declamation of the mention of Satan and sin. And the harshness of judgement is clearly communicated in the penultimate line with the contrary movement; voice and chromatic bass lines are set against reinforcing quavers in the upper strings.
It is often the recitatives which people come to last in the cantatas, preferring the more immediate appeal of the aria and choruses. However, a few minutes close observance of the subtleties of this particular movement will equip listeners to note and enjoy the immense range and ingenious use of expressive techniques that Bach calls upon. This is a topic to which we shall return, particularly when considering ‘hybrid’ recitatives from the great second cycle.
The first aria is for the alto, traditional voice of the spiritual, here paired with an obbligato oboe d ‘amore. The darker, richer sounds of both voice and instrument lend a quality of seriousness and assurance to a text which offers little in the way of overt imagery----be not ashamed to acknowledge your Saviour since he who denies Him on earth shall himself be denied when He comes in glory. A marked feature of the aria is the line of quaver melody with which the oboe encompasses the voice. No doubt Bach derived this from an image in the text but it is too indefinite to identify with clarity. Is it Christ’s clouds of glory? Or a metaphysical suggestion of the act of shrinking----scheut----away from His calling? We cannot, of course be sure. Nevertheless, the use of the image of ‘shrinking away’ is an interesting one and was very probably the starting point of Bach’s musical invention. Dürr (p 675) makes the perceptive observation that the melodic structure of parts of the aria is formed from an alternation of a one-bar figure (formed from three crotchets) with another of two bars (the same shape but using notes of double length). The first emerges from bars 1-2 and the second from bars 2-3.
Bar 1.....................................bars 2-3.............................
Is the latter idea stretched? Or more significantly is the other shrunken or diminished? Composers under pressure to create new ideas may well seize upon such abstruse notions in order to stimulate their ‘creative juices’.
This charming aria further demonstrates Bach’s continual adaptation of da capo forms. We detect a B section emerging from bar 51 but all we have of a clear reprise is the closing restatement of the original ritornello.
The secco recitative for bass sets aside the upper strings but heavily involves the continuo instruments; bassoon, cello, bass, harpsichord or, more likely, any combination that the director wishes to choose. If the arias appear to lack explicit imagery in this cantata, the same cannot be said of the recitatives. The hurling aside of the stubborn by God’s arm (bar 4), His arm exalting (bar 6) and the planet quaking before it (bars 7-8) are all pictured by easily discernable bursts of energy in the lower line.
But His saving of the sufferers, those favoured ones who will discover congeniality and grace, is communicated through a tender arioso underpinned by a firm and unswerving quaver bass. Nevertheless, the recitative format returns to end the movement with God’s invitation and call to receive Him in full faith.
It is a mini-operatic scene and an imaginative adaptation of the A-B-A musical format; a further example of Bach’s immensely wide repertoire of inspired and inventive recitative formats.
Where the darker sounds held sway in the first aria, brighter tones dominate in that for soprano and solo violin. Again the text lacks striking imagery----prepare the way to You, Jesus and look upon the faithful soul with eyes of grace. What significance the violin has is difficult to divine.
Might it even have been a representation of some well known symbol like the twinkling morning star asdepicted in the fantasia of C 1?. Or is it simply an image of Christ’s bright and ever-inviting gaze beaming down upon the faithful? Or might it be an expression of a naive, childlike elation at the thought of His advent? Whatever the genesis, this is a charming aria, full of grace and refinement. The violin figuration is often reminiscent of that of the sixth prelude from Book 1 of the Well Tempered Clavier; and in the same key. Coincidence or an intended reference? The long held note on bereite----the willingness and preparation to approach the Lord (bars 20-21) makes its point clearly as does the soprano’s final e flat on Augen----eyes. Students will relish the powerfully expressive use of the Neapolitan chord repeated throughout this aria.
Every so often one alights upon a movement which is so popular and universally loved that there is virtually nothing new that can be said about it. Known as Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, the chorale setting which concludes both parts of this cantata is one such piece. What church choir has not sung it? What classical piano student has not wrestled with a simple keyboard arrangement? It is, in fact an uncomplicated mini chorale/fantasia in which the choir sings simply harmonised lines of the chorale (reinforced by the trumpet) whilst strings and oboe weave around it a seemingly endless melodic strand of universal attraction. The text affirms the love of the Lord and His solace in times of sickness and sadness. The constant stream of three quavers heard three times in each bar (9/8) is almost certainly symbolic of the Holy Trinity, although it is not directly mentioned in the text.
The tenor aria which opens the second and shorter part of the cantata is decidedly unusual. In essence it is a petition for help----so that I might call and confess to You, in any of life’s circumstance----only then will my heart burn with Your love. The voice is supported by an enhanced continuo line, the essential quaver movement of which is played by the cello, bass and bassoon. However, this is ornamented by a series of rolling triplets played on the organ with the left hand while the right hand fills in the harmonies as is usual continuo practice.
Bach was hesitant about elevating the organ’s role to that of soloist, perhaps because of an innate Leipzig conservatism. This is the first occasion on which his congregations were to hear the instrument presented in this way, although more numerous, and certainly more flamboyant examples may be noted after the second cycle. Whether that denoted a change in fashion or an instance of Bach’s pugnaciousness in not caring what the parishioners thought, is a matter for engaging speculation.
The ritornello begins with a bald, rhetorical four-note statement which precisely echoes the rhythm of the tenor’s opening (and closing) entreaty----help Jesus, help! Do the unremitting streams of triplets suggest the heart burning with divine love as expressed in the last line of text? Or are they a metaphorical suggestion of the complex and conflicting circumstances in which we may turn to Him for succour? Perhaps both! But it is significant that the tenor only takes up the triplets once, on the word brenne----burning (bar 51-3). An earlier lengthy and significant melisma occurs on the word Heiland----redeemer----from bar 35.
Structurally, the aria is another of those which seems to suggest a ternary form that doesn’t eventuate. Section 1 is concerned with the basic entreaty; section 2 (from bar 21) with the contrasting circumstances of life. We detect well-being and joy, sorrow and pain (note the subtle melodic writing which seems to suggest emotions at variance with one another). Section 2 simply seems to evolve into the wish to acquire a heart afire with love. The final plea for help overlaps neatly with the first bars of the reprise of the ritornello giving it added urgency and insistence. This is a highly ingenious aria, one which the student would do well to study in detail.
The alto recitative is the first example in this cycle of Bach’s bringing woodwind instruments into recitatives, a practice which he had obviously employed in earlier works. Perhaps Leipzig’s conservatism was such that he hesitated before expanding the range of colour that they offered him? Two oboes da caccia, the ‘bass’ members of the family, present little wisps of melody, generally played together at intervals of 3rds or 6ths.
What do they represent? The caresses of the hidden, but all-powerful hand of God? The divine Spirit which suffuses John and binds him, with love, to the Saviour? Both are described in the text, which goes on to make the chronicles of past ages relevant to contemporary devotees----God strengthens you and inspires you with the Spirit’s power.
One cannot miss the little burst of staccato on the wind instruments representing John’s leaping and jumping (bar 11) or the charming little codetta, a miniature trio of the two oboes and continuo. The boundaries between concepts of traditional recitative and aria are becoming blurred as Bach continues to push at the frontiers of conventional practice.
In our journey through the cantatas we will come across many examples when the penultimate movement takes on particular significance. Sometimes it is summative, at others it puts a different view or states a position at variance with the cantata’s principal premise. Here it is the former----I will sing of Christ’s miracles and His love shall surmount the weakness of my flesh with His divine fire. A rousing proclamation of faith and devotion deserves an inspiring vehicle and Bach assembles the full instrumental forces not heard since the opening chorus: oboes, strings and continuo with a dominant trumpet solo combine to support the solo bass.
In fact the eleven-bar ritornello, repeated in full at the end, accounts for over one third of the movement: we may sing of Christ’s miracles but it now seems to be equally important to herald them with pomp and fanfare! Once more Bach veers away from the expected A-B-A structure, the second section clearly contrasted by means of its sojourn through minor keys (from bar 20). It conveys us through images of that weakness of flesh that is conquered through the power of Holy Fire, to the closing trumpet’s flourish advocating and emphasising the miracles of Christ.
Of course we should not simply proclaim Christ’s miracles; we must also offer Him our lips; the long melisma on Opfer----to present as a sacrifice----making this abundantly clear. Similarly the melisma on Feuer----the Holy flames----suggests the divine process by which our voices may be strengthened and then heard. The very essence of meaning of a verse of text often resides in the two or three words that Bach chooses to accentuate, particularly through the use of long or repeated notes and/or melismas.
Even before it became universally famous, it seems that Bach was well aware that his setting of this chorale could stand a second hearing in the same service. The music is unchanged; the text, however now concentrates upon an expression of the tender warmth and affection the committed Christian feels for the Saviour----He is my strength, my Sun, my Treasure. The last lines affirm----I shall not let Him go from my heart or sight.
Fitting then, that this sentiment was set in such a way as to create a piece of art that so many millions of people have subsequently wished to hold close to their hearts!
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012.