Chapter 9 BWV 186 Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht
Worry not, O soul.
Chorus–recit (bass)–aria (bass)–recit (tenor)–aria (tenor)–chorale.
Recit (bass)–aria (sop)–recit (alto)–duet (sop/alt)–chorale.
The eighth cantata of the cycle for the seventh Sunday after Trinity.
C 186 is the last bipartite cantata which Bach presented before reverting to works of more manageable proportions. There would not be another for nearly six months when C 70, composed for the 26th Sunday after Trinity, brought the ecclesiastical year to a close. Thereafter there would be only one more, C 20 from the second cycle, in the following two years.
As with a number of the earlier compositions of the cycle, C 186 was largely composed in Weimar, several years before its Leipzig appearance (Dürr p 443). It follows closely a movement structure that appears to have interested Bach at the time, an opening chorus and the same expanded version of the chorale closing each part. In between, sit four recitatives (for all voices except soprano) and four arias for which all voices are required. The soprano, however, has both a solo aria and a part in the duet, largely compensating for the lack of a recitative. Unlike the first three cantatas of the cycle, there is no sinfonia.
One might note that there are a number of stratagems which Bach tried out early in his appointment at Leipzig and then abandoned until much later. They include the use of the organ as a solo instrument, the solo and two-part cantatas and the inclusion of sinfonias.
The opening movement is reminiscent of other densely contrapuntal Gm choruses, such as those which open the St John Passion and the Gm Mass. Here three oboes double the upper string parts, a device which lends further impact to the contrapuntal lines but, perhaps more importantly, imparts a quality of doleful gravity. The natural brightness of the violin timbre is moderated, not necessarily to the point where the effect becomes gloomy or despondent, but certainly so as to convey a sense of sombre dignity.
The nine-bar introduction cannot be called a ritornello in the conventional sense since it is neither repeated at the end nor, with one two-bar exception (27-8), does it form any episodes separating choral entries. The main theme is heard initially on first violin (and oboe), imitated by the second violins and in fragmented form by the violas. It is not heard in the continuo line at any time throughout the movement; nothing interrupts its remorseless quaver plodding. The flowing semi-quavers of the main melody suggest a mood of dignified melancholy; but certainly not one of hopelessness. God′s visage may be hidden, and that may sadden us, but it is not imperceptible and that gives us hope. Perhaps we may even detect a trace of His light in the upward flicker on the third beat of the main theme.
As is so often the case in these carefully crafted choruses, the text determines the movement′s basic structure—-do not fret, soul, for God′s bright light is but concealed within a servant′s form. This injunction comes at the beginning, middle and end encasing two choral references to God′s light. The fundamental pattern is:
Orchestral introduction——-bars 1-9
Fret not——————–bars 9-22
God′s hidden light————bars 22-29
Fret not——————–bars 29-39
God′s hidden light————bars 39-44
Fret not ——————–bars 44-end.
God′s concealed light is musically revealed by plain homophonic writing, unaccompanied by the wind and upper strings (from bars 22 and 39). The picture that emerges from this intellectually taut movement is a tone poem of subdued expectation and emergent hope.
The bass recitative is a miniature sermon delivered defiantly with the minimum of accompaniment. It is addressed principally to the needy; although the point is firmly made that wealth and excess, those barbs of Satan, do not protect a person from the privations of those things which are most important—-when hunger and poverty bear upon you, think of Jesus and your salvation—-it is pointless to simply moan: Lord, for how long do you abandon me? This movement, along with the other recitatives, was not part of the originally conceived cantata (Dürr p 443) but musically they sit well amongst the arias. Bach′s dramatic melodic emphasis of such words as poverty, hunger and sighing can hardly be missed and the final pathetic pleading of the line—-Ah Lord, how long will you forget me?—- is emotionally highly charged and, perhaps, even slightly ironic. It is an appeal that the committed Christian, with enduring faith, should not be making. But it is still set to the most sumptuous arioso line stroked by an encouraging, quietly throbbing quaver bass.
The first of the four arias is the least richly orchestrated, just the two contrapuntal lines for bass voice and continuo. Addressed directly to the Lord it asks—-If You are to help me, do it quickly—-for I am full of doubt—- do not ignore my pleading. It then appears to change direction and turns to address the soul—-doubt not but follow your guide, Jacob′s light. The opening theme has a somewhat tentative, uncertain quality which permeates the writing throughout.
It does appear that at this moment the images of scepticism and hesitancy are those which particularly appealed to Bach′s imagination.
The structure is clearly that of a ritornello movement with four distinct vocal blocks imposed upon the continuous bass line. The first carries a plea for immediate assistance, the second a heart full of doubt, the third the reassurance offered to the soul and the last is a reference to the Scriptures. In each case the vocal line is contrived so as to underline these themes.
This is particularly apparent in the second ′verse′ where the, at times, seemingly directionless wandering melodic line presents us with a musical representation of ′doubt and uncertainty′, encaptured within the melisma. The third ′verse′ seems more assertive, the melisma now focusing upon the misleading logic that ensnares our thinking. The final statement emphasises the image of seeing or catching sight of the guiding light, in this case Jacob′s lamp. Again, it contains one key melisma emphasising the glimpsing of the Scriptures.
It is an apparently guileless aria but packed with meaning, imagery and lucid narrative.
The tenor recitative is Bach at his most dramatically and musically eloquent. It asks—-why should a Christian care so much for his body, a robe that is only on loan? The assertion ′the soul′s salvation is in Jesus′ provokes the most tender of phrases (bars 9-10) not to be outdone by the affectionate moment which follows—-Oh, blessed one (He who sees His teaching in the Scriptures). The last two lines of text provoke the by now almost inevitable arioso, sometimes only a bar or two long but in this case almost as long as the recitative it succeeds—-when tribulation eats away the heart, taste and behold Jesus′ friendship. The ‘devouring of the heart’ is graphic (bars 20-21) as is the final flowing of Christ′s affection. The quaver continuo line is scrupulously developed from one three-note motive, a model of concision and intensity.
One notes, with humility, Bach’s supreme skill in moving from one emotional state to one quite different within a short space of time. Here he establishes the graphic imagery of sorrow eating away the heart, thence moving to portray, and permit us to dwell upon, the balm of Christ’s friendship. This is achieved seamlessly within a dozen bars, a perfect example, albeit in miniature, of the composer’s art.
The tenor aria reverts to the minor-mode shadings which dominated the opening chorus—-my Saviour reveals Himself through His deeds of mercy and the instruction of feeble souls and bodies, to the ultimate benefit of both. The initial melodic phrase, oboe and violin, literally ′grows′ upwards, revealing itself as the text suggests but quickly dissipating into a showering of rapid notes suggestive of Christ′s innumerable good works.
It is significant that the tenor never adopts this second idea into his vocal line: it is as if he plays the role of the human soul allowing Christ′s benefices to cascade down and around him. The first vocal statement (bars 6-17) has the minimum of support from the obbligato strings and oboe, the singer revealing himself as does the Saviour of whom he sings. It is only when he speaks of Christ′s instruction and nourishing of soul and body that the cascades envelop the vocal line (from bar 22). From that moment it may be assumed that human soul and divine benefices may never be separated.
The satisfaction and nourishment received, even by the weakest of souls, is also encapsulated through the long, sustained notes on both voice and obbligato lines (bars 32-5)
Like the recitatives, the chorale was added by Bach for the Leipzig performance (Dürr p 443). The musical ideas lying at the root of the setting that ends part 1 are directly derived from the text—-He may appear unwilling but when He is predominantly with you, He is at His most unrevealed i.e. when He is absent (or that is what we may perceive) He is closest to us. The divergent aspects of this image are translated into antiphonal gestures in the music, not only between the oboes and flutes but also between the sopranos (carrying the chorale) and the other voices. Further significance may attach to the fact that the oboes and strings have predominately different directions, the one rising the other falling.
Finally, although they begin their phrases separately, they end them together in perfect harmony. The apparent paradox is, indeed, an illusion; God may well be unseen but He is always present within the soul. This movement is in fact a small-scale fantasia, a precursor of what we are to discover within the second Leipzig cycle.
Bach heralded the second half of Cs 75 and 76 with an instrumental sinfonia but with his third offering, C 21, he substituted a recitative. Here he does the same, the bass voice giving us a lecture on the state of the world—-it is a wilderness where heaven and earth transmute into metal and iron, where some lose their spiritual nourishment and withdraw from the world—-only then does the Saviour′s word find place in their hearts and His heart must break as he offers His compassion to the multitudes. The text of this verse is not particularly coherent and shows some signs of being thrown together hurriedly for the Leipzig performance. But if the meaning is somewhat obscure, the imagery is not, and Bach does not shirk it.
The upper strings provide the support of sustained chords and the main nuances of expression come through the shaping of the melodic lines. Noticeable are the emphases given to such words as ′wilderness′ and ′iron′ coming, as they do, on unexpected notes at the ends of phrases (bars 2 and 3). The line becomes softer and flowing at the mention of Christ′s word and His gifts (from bar 5) and the images of a ′dearth on earth and the withdrawal from the world′ are given similar weight (bars 9 and 11). The mention of His breaking heart and consequent blessing is conveyed, in the final bars, with a flowing arioso melody, stroking quaver bass, and a fluttering figure of reassuring blessing on the upper strings.
The soprano solo is one of the most enduring movements from this cantata. Violins 1 and 2 unite to provide a powerful obbligato line over a continuo bass, initially of broken semiquaver figurations. The text embraces the idea of the Lord′s compassion for the poor, extending His mercy to them and, most importantly the greatest treasure of all, the Word of Life.
The musical imagery appears to be of two kinds. The initial obbligato melody is ponderous and heavy and the continuo interjections combine with it to suggest an earthbound plodding which we might well associate in our minds with the poor and needy.
Is this a suggestion of the mercy which He disseminates ′here and there?′ The vocal line has a distinct quality of imprecation, perhaps assuming the voice of the disadvantaged, imploring the Grace of the Lord.
Two minor mysteries remain. Bach makes very little of what one might assume to be the most significant line of this text, the gift of the Word of Life. Yes, he repeats it at the end but with little emphasis. As a man who worked hard all his life and achieved everything through his own efforts could it be that he had only a minimal sympathy for the needy who, perhaps, may have exerted little effort to raise themselves from their own squalor? Might there be a hint of innate conservatism in the nature of the now successful, middle class, professional composer?
And the second mystery surrounds the surprising interrupted cadence heard just before the voice enters and again at the end. Bach would have had a reason for its inclusion; readers may offer their own suggestions.
The last of the four added recitatives is for alto and continuo only—-the soul will remain uplifted in times of trouble—-if the path through the valley of sorrow becomes too difficult, salvation lies in the word of Christ, a light shining through the wilderness—-the word assures us that He will open heaven′s gates and crown the faithful. The shining light of His salvation is set to a central arioso intervention above a quaver bass line (from bar 7). The blessings flow, briefly but conspicuously in the semi-quavers of the last two bars, highlighting and caressing the image of the crowning of the faithful.
Soprano and alto duet.
It seems slightly odd that the verse of reconciliation and receiving the crown should be set in a minor key. In fact, the duet for soprano and alto appears to give forth a number of mixed messages. Minor modes, combined with oboes doubling violins, produce a sombre and serious timbre; on the other hand the rhythm suggests a gigue-like dance, albeit a rather ponderous one. The text counsels us that no suffering should divide us from Jesus and the faithful soul will receive its due crown only when it is free of the chains our body puts upon us. Perhaps this is the key to Bach′s approach: salvation and eternal bliss await us but we are not at that place yet; at this moment we still languish in the sufferings of earthly existence and can imagine, but not partake of, the joy of the Dance of God.
Much of the vocal writing is not typically Bachian; instead of contrapuntal independence the two lines frequently move in parallel thirds and sixths. Presumably this is to suggest the unity of faith and when the parts diverge they do so to make a point. From bar 102 the alto imitates the soprano but by inverting its phrase. This temporary liberation of the two voices symbolises the freeing of the soul from the body’s fetters. The suspensions of the following bars depict the pain of the fetter-bound bodies. The longer period of imitation from bar 120 points to the receiving of the crown through the bestowing of Divine mercy.
The marked octave figuration with which the viola supports the upper parts from bar one is later heard in unison, played by all upper instruments (firstly from bar 31). It is a distinctive sound, played out against the conjunct movement of the voices a reminder, no doubt, of the buffeting and hardships we still are required to endure.
The closing chorale repeats the earlier music but calls upon a different verse—-Hope waits upon God′s word—-He knows the time that is best and we Trust Him for He does not deceive us. The setting, perhaps, owes less to the textual imagery than when it closed part 1. But it is a guardedly joyful and therefore appropriate affirmation of future redemption, expressed whilst we still await it here on earth.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.