Chapter 8 BWV 151 Süsser Trost mein Jesus kömmt
Sweet solace, my Jesus approaches.
Aria (sop)--recit (bass)--aria (alto)--recit (tenor)--chorale.
For the third day of Christmas.
It would appear that Bach intended the musical celebrations for the Christmas of 1725 to be of a very different character from those of the previous two seasons. C 110 (for Christmas Day) was suitably ebullient but not all newly composed, its opening movement having been a resurrected French Overture originally conceived as a secular instrumental piece. C 57 was much more muted than its predecessors (Cs 40 and 121) particularly in the opening movements. C 151 is similarly subdued by comparison with its counterparts C 64 from the first cycle and C 133 from the second.
C 64 includes three chorales amongst its eight movements and opens with an impressive fugal motet. C 133 announces itself with an ebullient chorale/fantasia in D major. By contrast C 151 has no choruses, although it does conclude with the conventional chorale. It opens, however, with a shimmering soprano aria of translucent beauty.
Admittedly Bach had composed three cantatas employing trumpets and drums in order to emblazon the Christian message as an appropriate celebration of the actual birthday of Christ. But in 1725 he seems to have taken a more restrained and less extrovert approach to the music for the services of the following days than he had done in previous years.
The lack of a large-scale chorus in both Cs 57 and 151 has been considered, by some, a practical matter. Observers have commented upon the fact that Bach may have overestimated the abilities of his musicians when he first took up the position of Cantor at Leipzig and needed to accommodate as he learnt from experience. In 1723 he had performed the Magnificat in Eb as well as C 63 on Christmas Day which must surely have stretched his young singers. The seasonal celebrations of 1725 still retained a difficult chorus in C 110, followed by a motet in C 28 and two choruses in C 16! The young choristers were not lacking in new and challenging music required to be learned, almost certainly at short notice!
So perhaps it is not surprising to see Bach making less use of the choir on the second and third days of Christmas on this occasion. Signs of his accommodation may also be found in the very simple harmonisation of the chorale set in the opening fantasia of C 133 (1724) demanding hardly more technical skill than that required by the traditional closing chorales. Practical constraints must have influenced a number of important compositional decisions.
Yet despite these limitations, or indeed perhaps even because of them, the opening aria of C 151 seems to take us into a new world, establishing a very different character for this post-Christmas Day music. The text is more intimate and personal than that for either C 64 or 133, dealing with the comfort the individual may find in Christ’s presence, allied to the humiliation He suffered on the cross on our behalves.
The movement immediately conveys a mood of iridescent transparency. The soprano is accompanied by strings, flute and continuo while an oboe d’amore doubles the first violin line, principally for reasons of colour. It is, we shall discover, a da capo aria but not a conventional one. True, the first section is reprised unchanged but the middle section is so dissimilar that it almost seems to have come from a different piece.
However, there is no doubt that this degree of contrast has a distinct purpose. The first section declaims----it is sweet solace that Jesus is now born and comes to us. We are then exhorted to rejoice in heart and spirit since God has called us to Heaven. Yet again we find Bach portraying the personal and the public aspects of faith and commitment. Often these contrasts are set against each other in different movements within the same work; here they appear within a single aria.
The opening bars suggest tranquillity and spaciousness. The calm and peaceful pastorale environment is encapsulated by the 12/8 rhythm and the very slow changes of the harmony. Above this, the flute weaves a complex arabesque, perhaps intended to convey the encompassing love and warmth of Jesus. Everything is light and peaceful, suggestive of the concord and confidence that the Love of the Lord brings to lowly humans.
And, of course, having personally experienced this sweet solace, one should proclaim it to the world. Just as we think the aria might have ended, the time changes to 4/4, the tempo and harmonies become faster and the continuo line begins an inexorable march of quavers. Above this the singer twice declaims----Herz und Seele-----heart and spirit---employing a rhetorical motive that becomes absorbed into the string accompaniment. But the word freuet----rejoice----generates a burst of vocal triplets that takes away the breath, quite literally.
herz und Seele Herz und Seele
The flute accepts the invitation to adopt the flowing triplets, extending them into longer phrases of mellifluous melody played off against the vocal line. Only twice (bars 41 and 52) do the flute and singer perform these runs together, a clear symbol of the Joy of Heaven having been accepted and proclaimed by all people on earth.
But the individual’s mood of celestial bliss takes ultimate precedence over missionary zeal, confirmed by the reprise of the first section.
The overall disposition of this cantata is such that the higher voices prevail in both arias. The lower voices are allotted only the two uncomplicated secco recitatives. The first, for bass, continues to expound upon the theme of rejoicing now that pain has been left behind, but it also introduces a new idea, to be more fully explored in the alto aria. It is the notion that in sending His Son to become a Man on earth and provide salvation for the world, God ensured that Jesus would become even more lowly and humble than we humans. The two particular points of note are the rising scale at the beginning commanding----Erfreue----rejoice----and the tortuous final phrase on ãrmer werden----becoming yet more lowly.
The tonality of the recitative is important, moving from the major of the first movement to the minor of the third. But the symbolic implications of progressing (or retrogressing) from the state of celebration to a recognition of the humility of Christ’s state are more significant.
The alto aria is the centrepiece of the cantata. Aggressively minor and strongly rhythmic throughout, it explores the irony of Christ’s poverty and deprivation that, nevertheless, shall ultimately provide our comfort and salvation. The oboe d’amore, continuing the subsidiary role it has been allotted throughout the cantata, doubles the violins to strengthen the powerful obbligato line.
The text places the antithesis starkly----I find strength in Christ’s humility, prosperity in His paucity, but I am blessed because of the salvation emanating from His Hand. It is possible that Bach intended that this distinction be musically represented by the one note of the main theme that stands out of the melody’s natural contours (the d in bar 3, later repeated in the vocal line).
We know from the obituary that Bach’s themes were considered at the time to be ‘strange and like no other’s’ and this is a case in point. But Bach had a sensitivity to every nuance of the text and he illustrated points within the musical lines, rhythms and textures that others would pass over. This note, so obviously standing outside the shape of an otherwise cognate melody, is surely a case in point. We cannot be sure exactly what it means although it is reasonable to assume that it meant something to Bach.
The ritornello begins with an urgently flowing quaver idea that provides much of the material for the singer’s accompaniment. It almost certainly represents the wreathes of Christ’s blessings referred to at the end of the verse. If so, why should the one outstanding note not suggest His hand, raised up so as to shower them upon us? It may be noted that this note, leaping upwards by the disjunct interval of a 7th, is later used for the articulation of two significant words Trost----consolation (bars 11, 80 and 88) and Hand----[Christ’s empowering] hand----(bars 46-7). Furthermore the interval of a 7th is itself inverted for the words----in Jesu Demut----in Christ’s humility (bars 33-4). The stretching of the last of these words on the long low note of e is a piece of unambiguous word painting about which there is no need for speculation. Similarly significant is the only extended melisma in the entire movement on the word winden----the act of entwining wreathes of blessing (bars 63-6).
And even more embedded within the texture of the music is another reference to the points of antithesis, Christ’s lowness and humility on the one hand and our fulfilled hopes and raised status on the other. The five-note figure which first appears in bar 5 is later inverted (from bar 19) and both forms of this motive are used continually throughout the movement.
The figure as it appears in bar 5 then inverted in bar 19.
The turning of an idea upside down is a perfect way of musically expressing contrast and points of disparity.
This is one of those driving arias which a listener is bound to respond to positively even if s/he knows nothing of the text that generated it. But a study of the creative process is, in itself, fascinating as we uncover the extraordinary concentration of musical ideas that carry their own physical and metaphorical suggestions. This is a movement which contrasts strongly with the opening and closing sections of this cantata. There is an earthy muscularity about it as it conveys, as perhaps only great music can, the idea of permanent strength and confidence arising out of temporary meekness and humility.
The second and final recitative is for tenor. It is short, lacks any form of embellishment and is addressed to Christ directly----You, precious Son of God have brought the light of salvation to us through Your own abasement----and our hearts embrace You. The tonality is the reverse of that of the bass aria; it takes us from the minor of the alto aria to the major of the finale chorale. Symbolically, it leads us away from lowliness towards those higher rewards that salvation provides.
The choir is only heard in the plain, direct chorale and its very simplicity may be taken as a further example of Bach’s lessening the demands on his musicians at this busy time of celebration. Bach, the consummate pragmatist, knew when to bow to practical constraints but he never allowed imposed restrictions to curb his ever-active imagination. The resources he chose, or had imposed upon him for the performance of this work, may have been small but the creative ingenuity that grew from this situation resulted in a work of totally original proportion and compass. It is a mark of great artists that limitations inspire rather than restrict their inventiveness.
One would imagine that the students of a school supervised by Cantor Bach, a great music reader himself, would have been capable of performing such an undemanding piece as this on sight and without rehearsal. The text speaks equally simply of the opening of the door to Paradise, to the honour and glory of God.
God and His Son have been honoured throughout this cantata, but the celebration of their magnificence has been rather muted. To a degree, it has been overshadowed by two allied emotions; an empathy with the degradation and suffering of the Saviour who became Man, and the ecstasy of which we may partake, flowing from His act of sacrifice.
Once again Bach has found new and inventive ways of expressing a familiar and traditional message.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012.