Chapter 80 BWV 157 Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn
I cannot release You until You bless me.
Duet (tenor/bass)–aria (tenor)–recit (tenor)–aria/recit (bass)–chorale.
A funeral cantata.
There is little that can be said of certainty about C 157 in its existing form as a funeral work. Dürr (pp 766-7) dates it from 1726 and this fits well with both the maturity of its style and the structural originality of the penultimate movement. The work does not survive in its original version, having been transmitted only as a later re-working for the Feast of the Purification. Readers who wish to consult the analysis of individual movements should turn to vol 3, chapter 46, where they are discussed in some detail within the context of the later version. Comments on the same movements in this essay are, therefore, contextual and minimal.
It is also possible that the five movements of the surviving version for the Purification had formed only the first section of a two-part cantata (Dürr p 766). However, we do not know which movements of the funeral cantata may have been dropped or reworked by Bach for the later version. It was often his practice to compose recitatives anew in order to accommodate texts more closely attuned to the themes of the paraphrased compositions. C 157 has only the one free standing recitative (for tenor strings and continuo) if we set aside, for the moment, the insertions in the bass aria.
Certainly, much of both the music and text of the Purification version seems equally suitable for a modest funeral. It is an intimate chamber work, thoughtful and pensive in tone; only the closing chorale requires four singers and the instrumental demands, a flute and oboe d’amore joining strings and continuo, are relatively slight. The opening duet for bass and tenor is scored with the greatest of delicacy for three solo instruments (flute, oboe d’amore and violin).
Opening bars, flute, oboe and violin.
The words, clearly addressed to Jesus, offer little in the way of imagery for the composer to latch on to—-I will not release You until You bless me.
The gentle but resolute contrapuntal ’embracing together’ of the two vocal and three upper obbligato lines may have been intended as a musical metaphor of such an action.
The structure and imagery reflected in the musical architecture of the tenor aria is more fully described in chapter 46 of vol 3. Bach’s practice of deriving textual elements and transforming them into musical shapes is clearly apparent in the building of the long ritornello melody. The text expands upon the notion of ‘not letting go’ of Jesus and the personal comfort which steadfast faith brings to the spirit.
There is, in fact, nothing in the text or music of these first two movements that would indicate that they might have been unsuitable for a funeral and it is tempting to suggest that Bach took them from the one context to the other without modification.
We are, perhaps, on slightly less certain ground with the recitative if only because it is a recitative. It holds the central position in the cantata so it is reasonable to assume it to have particular significance. The minor modes of the first two movements now give way to major which predominates for the remainder of the cantata. It is quite possible that this may have been intended as a subtle musical metaphor signifying the progression from the sadness, uncertainty and fear of alienation which death suggests, to the assurance of everlasting bliss in the happy home of divine heaven.
The text is pivotal in that it moves from mention of worldly suffering and the falsity of this world to the happy union with Jesus. The upper strings form a halo of rich harmonies encompassing and caressing the vocal line.
Furthermore, as explained in chapter 46, there are echoes of motives from the opening duet in the string parts, not enough to be conclusive but perhaps sufficient to suggest that the two movements were conceived as an entity. If this is the case, it would seem probable that Bach decided not to compose a new recitative, since the existing one was appropriate both in structure and theme for the different events it served.
Whilst some may feel that the fourth movement is too radical in structure to be appropriate in a work destined to be part of a conventional funeral ceremony, one might cast one’s mind back to C 106 and the innovation it displayed. It is fundamentally a bass ritornello aria with insertions of recitative sections. The aria is buoyant and powerful, obbligato flute and violin supporting the bass’s confident assertion of holding and never relinquishing Jesus. The recitative sections reinforce the sweetness of lying in the coffin, confident in the rest and sleep of joy. There are moments of transitory darkness at the mention of death and the coffin but they do not interrupt the essential message, which remains positive.
The uniting of Christ and Soul in all eternity removes the fear of death, an appropriate thought with which to reassure the bereaved and, indeed, to lead us to the closing chorale.
Is there any clue to be found in the choice and presentation of this particular chorale? Bach had used it previously to end Cs 70 and 154 from the first cycle; indeed, in the latter of these works he had set the very same verse. That work began with a tenor aria of great intensity, a musical portrait of the despair that permeates the soul when Jesus is perceived as lost. It ends with the chorale set in a manner very like that of the one closing C 157, in the same key with a reinforced soprano line above marching bass quavers, driving forward to that concluding and definitive statement—I will not leave my Jesus.
The theme of C 70 is less about the pain of alienation and more about the need to watch and pray for the inevitable coming of the Lord. As in the other two works it ends with a resolution, rejoicing as Christ appears to summon us to exult with the angels. Bach sets the chorale amidst three added upper-string parts, surely a musical depiction of the bliss and harmony of paradise.
Thus, all three cantatas are based upon the theme of separation from Christ and the eventual, and inevitable (subject to Man’s appropriate responses) reunion with him. Whether the separation comes about through the wickedness of mankind, individual despair or our natural uncertainties about death and its consequences, is almost irrelevant. The basic premise is that separation, real or perceived, brings misery whilst unification provides eternal joy.
There is little doubt that all five of the movements of the funeral cantata were appropriate to, and could well have provided, the basis of the later Purification cantata without amendment or paraphrase. But it is impossible to second guess Bach’s complex and inventive mind; we can never be absolutely certain of what he may have been tempted to rewrite! (Readers are reminded again of the more detailed discussions of the music in chapter 46 of vol 3.)
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017.