Chapter 81 BWV 198 Lass Fürstin, lass noch einen Strahl
Allow Princess, just one more ray.
Chorus–recit (sop)–aria (sop)–recit (alto)–aria (alto)–recit (tenor)–chorus.
Aria (tenor)–recit/arioso (bass)–chorus.
A funeral ode.
The circumstances surrounding the composition of this work are outlined in the New Bach Reader (pp 135-7) in the context of a document which Bach refused to sign. More importantly, these pages also record the relevant dates and details of the composition, including a short contemporary account of the performance on October 17th 1727. The performing parts have not survived but the score is dated as having been completed on the 15th of that month, seeming to allow only two days for the preparation of parts and rehearsals.
It is not known exactly when Bach received the commission for this mourning ode on the death of the consort of Augustus the Strong, the Electoress Christiane Eberhardine. However, we know that she died on September 6th and that the student von Kirchlach had to apply for, and receive, the permission of the King and the university authorities for the performance to be sanctioned. Furthermore, the substantial text (by Gottsched) had to be written, all of which could not have left Bach more than a few days for the actual process of composition. This was, however, by no means unusual, being the sort of time scale to which he had become used in the preparation of the weekly cantatas for the first and second Leipzig cycles.
It has been suggested elsewhere in these essays that Bach may have organized the boys of St Thomas’s school to use their lessons to rehearse sections of the church cantatas as they were completed. If that was the case, they may have only required one substantial rehearsal in order to bring the work together on the Saturday before the Sunday service. Perhaps also in commissions like C 198 Bach ‘farmed out’ the rehearsals of some of the choruses and arias before the two-day period which followed the completion of the composition. If not, it must be assumed that his singers and instrumentalists were exceptionally good music readers, able to absorb new and demanding music from handwritten parts virtually at sight.
One more general point needs to be made about C 198. Although listed as a funeral cantata in these essays, it was not actually created to be performed at the funeral of the Electoress but as an ode of celebration of her life and death at Leipzig University. Nevertheless, its placement in this group allows it to be conveniently compared with other cantatas specifically related to the demise of individuals.
The text was presented to Bach in nine verses of eight lines which the composer clearly considered required adaptation for use in existing musical forms i.e. chorus, aria and recitative. Dürr (p 865) sets the original structure against Bach’s revised version. It would seem that Bach originally conceived the work as a set of four paired recitatives and arias for soprano, alto, tenor and bass encompassed by three choruses which, like massive columns, would begin and end part 1 and conclude part 2. There is, however, no aria for bass, the likelihood being that Bach simply ran out of time. Indeed, the scoring of the work is sumptuous, requiring pairs of flutes, oboes d’amore, viola da gamba and (unusually) lutes with strings and continuo.
The existing contemporary account (ibid p 136) also mentions harpsichord, organ and recorders although the last is probably a mis-recognition of the oboes.
The opening chorus begins with a strong dotted rhythm which would seem to herald a French Overture. However, no central fugal section eventuates and the rather portentous opening four/five-note motive dominates the movement, thrown around between the instruments but only seldom heard on the voices, the writing for which is more flowing and elegant.
Initial interplay of strings and wind.
In fact, the subtle tensions between the instrumental (dotted) and vocal (even) lines form one of the delights of this chorus.
There are, indeed, many others. The false cadences (first heard over bars 7-8 and 9-10) imply a catching of the breath entirely appropriate to the expression of mourning. The interplay of the four main upper groups of instruments (flutes, oboes, strings and gambas) weaves a tapestry of great complexity around the singers and the convoluted interactions between flutes and gambas in the longest of the instrumental episodes (bars 37-43) is a delight. Mention should also be made of the way in which, from the wind entry in bar 1, the opening string motive gains an extra note, producing an effect of it being lent upon, a technique which Bach calls on both in this and later movements (see glossary: appoggiatura).
As is so often the case, the text is conventional in a way that the music is not—-Princess allow one last ray to shine forth from the firmament of Salem (Jerusalem) and see the cascades of tears that fall upon your monument. Indeed, it is the image of the tears that seems to have largely inspired Bach’s musical invention in both the instrumental and vocal writing and the interactions between them.
Note that, as in the concluding chorus, the commanding ritornello theme is not repeated at the end; the impact is all the greater as the full instrumental and vocal forces surge jointly towards the final cadence.
The first of the recitative/aria pairs is now presented and there is every reason to believe that the one flows without break into the other. It is interesting to note that Bach seldom used the large instrumental forces we frequently find in secular works to accompany his religious recitatives. The obvious reason for this is that many of the former works were conceived for outdoor performances where a bigger soundscape would be appropriate. It is also possible that, within the church services he may have been paying a degree of lip service to the instructions he had been given about avoiding operatic styles, something which would not have applied in the dramatic secular works of homage and celebration.
We will discover the full extent to which Bach feels free to use his resources in the fourth movement; here he only calls upon the strings but he ensures that they remain active.
It is worth noting the angular melodic lines given to the soprano in the expression of grief, lamentation and personal pain which the princess’s death occasions. This contrasts strongly with the conjunct and avuncular shaping in some of the more benign recitatives from, for example, some of the wedding cantatas. On the page they do not look particularly dissimilar but in the hands of sensitive singers and directors, the differences in expressive character can be enormous.
Bach begins the recitative with the upper strings using the appoggiatura from the first movement, but by the third bar they move together in a sort of harmonic ‘slow trill’ which suggests the act of weeping. Another feature which separates this movement from many recitatives is the continuously throbbing continuo bass line, again a suggestion of pain, sorrow and lamenting.
This is the first of four recitatives, each of which has its own individual sound and character.
The soprano aria is constructed around an odd conceit which Bach’s lyricists presented to him from time to time, the calling of certain instruments to fall silent because they are unable to express adequately the emotions evoked by the verse. This may be seen in the later wedding cantata C 210/6 (chapter 72) where the flutes are bidden to be silent as they ‘grate upon the ear of envy’. Bach meets this challenge not by the obvious means of omitting flutes; indeed, in that work he introduced one for the first time, seemingly perversely, in this particular point, somewhat hesitatingly at first, but rapidly resolving into streams of triplets.
In C 198 the strings are commanded to be silent because, lovely as they are, they cannot convey the nation’s misery at the loss of its mother. Bach solves the problem in much the same way; the upper strings begin with a repeated four-note motive after which the violins assume the obbligato role, a mixture of triplets and even semi-quavers; but not renouncing the appoggiaturas from previous movements!
It is as if Bach is making a statement of the kind that says, this is nonsense! Our instruments can convey precisely the emotion of the lyrics, perhaps even more effectively. He pays lip service to the verse, only through the hesitant initial entry of strings (and flute in the later work).
Did he recall this moment in C 198 when he came to compose C 210, probably a decade later?
The soprano melody is announced with the effecting appoggiaturas and these, reinforced by the later convoluted melismas on Schmerzenswort—-the painful word—- strongly convey the feeling of national sorrow. It is achieved through the skillful interaction of strings and voice, even though the lyricist may have us believe that it could only be adequately expressed by the latter!
The alto recitative is more richly orchestrated than many of Bach’s choruses: all instruments listed above are called upon. The text mentions the tolling of the bells, the sadness and terror it creates in us and the wish that it might call all of Europe to witness our grief. The funeral bells are represented by repeated notes in the flutes, a technique Bach had used previously in the moving fantasia to C 8, Oh Lord when shall I die? (vol 2, chapter 16). Each pair of instruments has its own function, the sustained dissonances of the oboes suggesting the echoes of the sepulchre, upper strings and lutes providing an Alberti-like figuration of unease or anxiety whilst the striding quavers of the gambas drive the emotion forward. All this rhythmic activity, combined with the rapid changes in the harmony, produces a movement of great dramatic power. It is just eleven bars long and yet, in order to achieve the effects Bach sought, approximately 1200 notes have been written! This requires no further comment!
The fifth movement is the first to be set in the major mode; so far the lamenting and sorrow has found voice principally in minor modes; and appropriately so. But now the time has come to move away from the theme of national mourning and to address the positive aspects of character of the deceased–how contentedly she died and how bravely she struggled as the arm of death defeated her.
In many ways this aria might be seen as the most subtle in a cantata which literally teems with delicate and ingenious moments. Certainly we are honouring the princess’s positive qualities but the sadness of death in general, and hers in particular, is not to be forgotten.
Bach achieves this in a number of ways. The sighing appoggiaturas from the previous movements are well in evidence. The ritornello theme plunges into tortuous minor harmonies as early as the fifth bar as, indeed, does the voice in due course. There are byzantine melismas on starb—-death—-throughout the aria.
But most of all, the soundscape which Bach has chosen is rich and sonorous, yet dark and almost sinister. He may have chosen the two gambas for this reason; did his mind harken back to the Actus Tragicus which also had made effective use of the bleak tonal qualities of these instruments? Furthermore, the lutes doubling the continuo have several opportunities of extemporizing around the sustained notes of the voice and upper instruments, another tone quality which, combined with the gambas, creates an impression of traditional mourning.
This is a movement which demonstrates Bach’s great gift for conveying dissimilar, even contrasting messages simultaneously, in this case the recognition and honouring of great personal qualities and the apprehensions and sorrows of bereavement.
If Bach’s original concept of this work had been built around four paired recitatives and arias, it is slightly odd that those for tenor are separated by the chorus concluding part 1. Whatever the reason may have been, the tenor recitative turns out to be completely different in character from the two that preceded it, a duet between the oboes and continuo, encompassing a vocal line that describes the princess’s courage in the face of impending demise; it is quite possible that the flickerings of wind and continuo instruments are meant to suggest her last breaths.
Oboes above voice and continuo.
The movement begins in the major as established, but it moves us to the remote key of F#m, partly to create that sense of balance between spirit and circumstance so beautifully captured in the preceding aria. It also provides the note of the first tenor entry of the following chorus.
Blatant word painting was not always a feature of Bach’s mature work, but it is impossible not to be moved by the flattened Neapolitan chord on Tode—-death (bar 5).
Bach draws the first part of the cantata to close with a sturdy fugue in which the instruments largely double the voices, though not without a degree of embellishment. The character is one of Teutonic sturdiness, an affirmation of the strength, nobility and integrity associated with one who did not, as did her husband Augustus, relinquish her faith for political gain. There are two fugal expositions of the same theme, separated by an episode in which the gambas unite to form the bass line underpinning the flutes (from bar 29). This charming interlude is highly reminiscent of some of the episodes from the last movement of the fourth Brandenburg Concerto.
The order of fugal entries is:
Exposition 1 (from bar 1) T, A , S and B taking us to D major and
Exposition 2 (from bar 45) A, S, T and B which returns us to the home key of Bm.
It is possible that the brevity and concentration of this movement was related to the time available for composition and rehearsal.
The tenor aria is solidly minor-mode as, indeed, is the remainder of the cantata. The princess is now seen holding a worthy position as a star in the firmament; set far above us, her head framed with a diadem of brilliant suns, she has become immortal. This image reminds us of the text of the opening chorus when the request was made for one more of her beams to alight upon us, even if it were only to appreciate our act of mourning! Certainly the poet appears to have made an effort to unify his text with the reiteration of this image, but it seems that Bach did not feel the need to make much of it.
The instrumentation is, however, quite odd and is likely to have had symbolic intention. The flute takes the main obbligato role supported, echoed and sometimes conjoined with the oboe. Beneath them the continuo is rhythmically enlivened by the lutes’ and gambas’ expansion of the bass line which they achieve without creating an independent contrapuntal melody.
Flute melody above lutes and continuo.
These two principal elements are ‘glued’ together with modest violin chords.
It is possible that Bach viewed the woodwind instruments as the embodiment of the new heavenly star with the other instruments representing the mundane qualities of the world below. Perhaps the steadfastness of the oboe line suggests that of the ennobled princess and the flute the twinkling of the heavenly bodies surrounding her. The notion of the princess established forever as a symbol in the heavens is captured by the long notes and melismas on Ewigkeit—-eternity—-and umsponnen—-the encompassing of her transfigured visage.
The length of text does not suggest a da capo form and the structure is built about the ritornello principle with almost endlessly inventive vocal writing. The aria is a gem, simple yet complex, steady but flickering, a perfect musical embodiment of the images within the text.
As suggested above, it may have been Bach’s intention to set the sixteen lines of the next movement as a paired recitative and aria. Instead, he divided the text into three parts, setting them as follows:
Part 1: secco recitative. A somewhat declamatory affirmation of her worthiness to have been adorned, as she now is, in death.
Part 2: arioso above a fluid quaver bass line (from bar 10)—-throughout all parts of the nation, you are lauded in cities and countryside alike.
Part 3: recitative supported by four-part harmony delivered by flutes and oboes—-but the towns who know you well (in particular where she had lived in her years of retirement) are weak, listless and mourning, having lost their truest beauty.
The character of the three sections is boldly differentiated, perhaps the most dramatic moment being the chilling entry of the woodwind instruments a few bars before the end.
The cantata ends not with a bang but with a simple chorus of grace and refinement. Cast in simple binary form and lacking contrapuntal complexity, the 12/8 time signature might imply either a gigue or a pastorale. Depending upon the tempo chosen it is probably neither, lying somewhere between the two and declaring a sense of proper and restrained dignity. The text declaims the deceased as an immortal figure whose memory will persist as long as the universe lasts—- poets should write of her virtue and we should read of it.
The long ritornello theme, repeated at the end, is a masterpiece of melodic construction. It begins with two one-bar phrases incorporating the suggesting of the ‘catch of breath’ referred to above. It then unfolds in three two-bar phrases, culminating in one of four bars.
First three phrases.
This structural augmentation would doubtless have had some meaning for Bach but we cannot be sure precisely what it might have been. It may have suggested the escalation of the princess’s virtue, reputation or ennoblement; or perhaps the advancement of her standing throughout the country. Only two points are significant: firstly that Bach almost certainly took such an image as the starting point of his structural thinking and secondly, that the listener may interpret the process and its inherent sense of intensification howsoever s/he feels is appropriate.
Bach made use of this chorus elsewhere. It is, however, best heard in its original setting of homage to the popular Electoress.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.