Chapter 92 BWV 207 Vereinigte Zwietracht der wechselnden Saiten
United dissonance of changing strings.
Chorus–recit (tenor)–aria (tenor)–recit (bass/sop)–duet (sop/bass)–sinfonia–recit (alto)–aria (alto)–recit (SATB)–chorus. (A march may also be played before and after the cantata proper: see text).
A cantata of homage.
NB see also C 207a, chapter 93.
It seems that when Leipzig university students liked and respected their teachers they were willing and happy to demonstrate it in the most appropriate of ways i.e. a commissioned cantata of appreciation. C 205 for Professor Müller had already elicited from Bach some of his finest aria writing in 1725 (see C 205, chapter 91). In the following year a Dr Kortte was similarly honoured with this cantata by Bach and an unknown librettist (Dürr p 861). The two works are similarly structured, two choruses enclosing a mixture of recitatives and choruses. Müller’s tribute however, resulted in a cantata of fifteen movements, Kortte’s only nine. Furthermore, the opening chorus of C 207 is not a new composition but an adaptation from a Brandenburg Concerto written some years previously.
Just what may be inferred from these facts is left to the reader!
The opening chorus raises a number of interesting questions. It was after the second Leipzig cycle that Bach turned his attention to some of his previously composed large-scale concerto movements which he felt would make effective sinfonias for a number of the cantatas. (C 42 was the only one of fifty-three second cycle cantatas to begin with an impressive instrumental movement showing all the signs of an adaptation from a concerto, although it must be admitted that if there was an original model, it has been lost). The obvious question is, what were the grounds upon which Bach chose particular movements for specific cantatas? Did he just think ,’that’s a good piece, it will do here?’ Or was it largely a matter of labour and time saving? Or did he have in his mind some quite specific selection criteria?
The conclusion frequently arrived at in several of the relevant essays in volume 3 relates to the last of these questions i.e. when composing a new cantata, Bach appeared to have a very clear picture in his mind of the sort of sinfonia he considered best suited to it. The choice of the third movement of Brandenburg 1 with which to begin Cs 207 and 207a may throw some light on the dilemma.
Admittedly, this is the transformation of an instrumental movement into a chorus not a sinfonia. It could, presumably, have remained much as originally composed had Bach wished to begin with an imposing orchestral piece. But clearly an imposing chorus was required and so he set about transforming a monumental concerto grosso movement into one.
For this he replaced the two horns with trumpets and drums, thereby requiring transposition into the more trumpet-friendly key of D major. This decision alone would have required the re-copying of all performing parts. He retained the three oboes, strings and continuo but added two flutes (although for the most part their role was one of doubling). The most radical part of the reconstruction was the transforming of the solo piccolo violin into the texture of a four-part choir.
All of this can hardly have saved time, since the labour involved must have been roughly commensurate with that of composing a completely new movement. One is left with the conclusion that Bach was of the opinion that this was precisely the right piece for this event, although what his specific criteria might have been, we can only speculate.
There are, indeed, a few losses. One misses the delightfully convoluted violin solo at times where it has had to be radically simplified for vocal use (from bar 53 and elsewhere). On the other hand the overall sound, quite possibly having been conceived for an outdoor performance, is imposing. Bach retains the essential structure, even managing to make creative use of the two adagio bars and the pause just before the recapitulation (bar 88-89). The line of text, upon which one is here given a moment to reflect, lies at the core of this work—-the rewards for virtue and industry.
The stanza begins, however, with a reference to the ‘united discord of changing strings’. Is it possible that Bach had in mind the rhythmic dislocations of the string parts preceding the main cadences? (See bars 12-17 and elsewhere). This striking feature has the violins playing in each bar three groups of four notes (suggesting 3/4 time) against the basic rhythm of two groups of three (6/8). What could better musically represent the first line of text? Might the choice of this piece relate solely to these few, but highly arresting bars?
The poet moves on to the mention of drums (also added in this score) in what is essentially a call to gather about and salute a man of virtue and honour.
A final point of interest demonstrates Bach’s extreme attention to detail. The stanza begins with a line that requires a rhythmic upbeat, as we discover when the basses enter in bar 16. Seeking consistency, Bach has attached an upbeat to the main ritornello theme, heard at the beginning and several times throughout. Oddly enough, just this one additional note with which the movement now commences is enough to throw the listener who, even when knowing the Brandenburgs well, is quite likely to say initially, ‘I know this piece: but what is it?’
(One notes that some scholars argue that a lost chorus preceded the instrumental version of this movement but this is unproven).
The majority of lines of text for this cantata are given over to recitative so it is unsurprising that Bach set three of the four with continuo only. The four voices are generally considered to have allegorical rather than mythical roles, soprano Fortune, alto Gratitude, tenor Diligence and bass Honour (Dürr p 861). This matters little to the general listener who needs, perhaps, only to be aware that the general theme of the work is akin to a morality tale, or perhaps, a Victorian sermon! It comes as no surprise that the tenor, Diligence, presents the first discourse on a subject upon which Bach would surely have approved, the benefits of hard work in youth.
This recitative is notable for its extremely wide tonal range. It may have been partly for reasons of variety and the sustaining of interest; Bach touches upon keys as widely unrelated as C major and F#m! However, the sense of the text is never forgotten; note the coldness of the harmony with a Neapolitan chord within an implied Dm context depicting the shame and anxiety of the old and infirm, a consequence of abandoning learning in youth (bars 12-14).
The tenor now delivers the first aria and its sheer energy and pace fully embody his defence of determination and effort. The message is simple—-do not withhold—-Fortune and Honour observe your progress even though your path may be difficult—-they will reward you. Certainly, only a dullard could fail to be invigorated by the momentum that is generated. Much emphasis is given to the choosing of the right path in life and we are permitted a moment of pause for reflection upon this towards the end.
But above all, this aria gives the impression of perseverance. It is not easy to sing and the stops and starts in the rhythms of the ritornello melody suggest effort and the overcoming of obstacles. It is an aria designed to inspire through example.
Honour and Fortune, soprano and bass, take turns in offering encouragement in the second secco recitative. Honour promises crowns of roses for the indefatigable and Fortune more tangible rewards and the ‘fruits of abundance’. This is a plain, workman-like movement with almost nothing in the way of word painting.
Perhaps feeling that he should insert some sort of musical image for the students to light upon, there is a brief skirmish of notes on the mention of the ‘ever industrious hand’ (bar 22) but there is little else to capture the imagination beyond the general promises of future reward and recognition.
The bass and soprano duet is textually no more than an extension of the promises made in the recitative—-laurels and fruits await the diligent—-life-bearing rivers will gush from the sweat of his brow! It is simply but scrupulously constructed, a neat combination of ritornello and ternary forms. The initial theme makes use of a rising sequence (bar 4 repeats the previous bar a note higher, with an even higher raising of the pitch in bar 5) possibly suggesting some effort or endeavour.
The A section is constructed around two vocal blocks in which the bass leads the first (commencing with the first two bars of the ritornello theme) and the soprano follows. The process is reversed for the second block (from bar 23) where the soprano is permitted the embellished writing enjoyed initially by the bass. Honour has two significant melismas on decken—-the laying out (of the laurel adornment) and steigt—-the rising (to the stars) and Fortune mirrors them with the emphasis upon schmecken—-tasting (blessed fruits) and also, to underline its special significance, on ‘steigt’.
The middle section begins with a repeat of the ritornello theme (from bar 39) and it is curious in that the bass and soprano now do not sing together. Perhaps this is to ensure that the words of the discourses are clearly heard or it may be an acknowledgment of the fact that the gaining of good fortune and good reputation are two different things, albeit that they are both attainable through the application of effort. Both characters employ the metaphor of beaded sweat on the brow, in the one case begetting pearls, in the other rivers of blessings.
The A section returns from bar 66 and slides smoothly into the next movement.
This also has been derived from the first Brandenburg Concerto. There it featured as a trio for two horns and oboe, one of the group of concluding dances. Here the trumpets have replaced the horns (necessitating, again, a transposition of key) and string chords have been added to the second half of each of the binary sections. Although the clucking oboe remains instantly recognizable, the general effect is rather more aggressive and insistent than in the Brandenburg model.
It is now the turn of Gratitude, the alto, to deliver her recitative which follows the direct, unadorned approach of those that preceded it. It begins boldly enough in G major, but latterly becomes subtly darker with minor-mode harmonies taking us through the keys of Dm and A. Perhaps this is intended to suggest the brooding resentment of those dissatisfied by their own lack of achievement and their envy of others.
This is the point of Gratitude’s contribution, allied to a now direct mention of the professor being honoured—-a beloved teacher, unlocking the temples of learning and justice at which Envy can only marvel. As in the other recitatives there is just the one moment of word painting when the glow of candles and the flames within our hearts is momentarily pictured through a semi-quaver scale (bar 21).
There follows an aria for alto accompanied by two flutes and the upper strings combining to deliver a persistent dotted rhythm which, having virtually no intrinsic melodic interest, is surely intended to create a specific image. Strings aside, this is really a quartet comprising two flutes, voice and continuo. If the first aria had been the most riveting, this is possibly the most interesting.
The text is packed full of images—-carve this counsel into the longest lasting marble—-even so, time corrodes stone, so let your actions reflect your teacher’s achievements—-recognising the fruit from its root endows it with permanence.
The opening flute theme, taken up by the voice, has a strange quality of quietly carrying on; it encapsulates a sense of modest persistence. The dotted string interjections, on the other hand, are more angry and discontented. Perhaps they represent the physical action of the sculptor chiselling away at the stone. At the same time, they might also suggest its ultimate decay.
The strings never join in the quartet, always standing outside it and seemingly commenting upon it. This fact alone, unusual in Bach’s music where the main material is more commonly shared in all parts, points to symbolic purpose.
Flutes above dotted upper strings.
It is a conventional da capo movement with the comments on the carving of the testimony confined to section A. Section B reminds us how material decay contrasts with the permanency of of a deserved reputation.. Once again, clues as to the emphasis Bach wished to bring to the text may be found in the significant melismas—-härtsten—-hardest (three times in section A) and unvergänglich—-everlasting.
Significance may reside also in the fact that of the two melismas carrying this last word, the second is the longer and more florid. Perhaps, as in the case of Bach himself, reputation becomes increasingly enhanced with the passing of time.
The fourth and last recitative brings all four allegorical figures together. In keeping with the cantata’s principal theme, it is the tenor, Diligence, who sets the scene—-come idle ones and see how the zealous Kortte has progressed, achieving his goals early in life and teacher, even, of the mighty Monarch. Honour (bass) takes up the eulogy mentioning the professor’s promotion, the ceremony for which this cantata was probably written. Good Fortune (soprano) and Gratitude (alto) add their plaudits.
At three dozen lines, this is one of the longer single stretches of verse that Bach set. He maintains a steady, convincing melodic line driven along by a series of chords played by oboes, brass and continuo. They point the cadences and a few significant words but seem to have been added more in an attempt to provide some variety of sound and additional momentum.
If the march mentioned below was not played at the end, the chorus would have concluded the cantata. The four voices maintain their allegorical roles, obviously singing as soloists in the middle section. The initial structuring is odd in that Bach begins with a tutti statement of the main sixteen-bar theme including the chorus. This is followed by the instrumental version (omitting trumpets and drums) which we would normally expect at the beginning.
A second tutti segment is then followed by the same material played instrumentally, as before. This highly symmetrical structuring takes us to bar sixty-four and the beginning of the middle section. The careful listener will not miss the little dabs of colour from the flutes when everything else momentarily pauses (first heard in bar 4, but an ongoing feature of the movement).
Bass, soprano, tenor and alto enter in turn beneath a delightful rippling in the flutes, now expanding their roles from the opening section. Kortte, who had been encouraged to flourish and live long from the beginning, is now reminded by each of the allegorical figures of the gifts he has earned. The first section then returns to deliver further honour and blessings. One assumes that Bach would have added ripieno singers to augment the sound in the outer sections, leaving the soloists to sustain their characters between them.
The score provides a march played by the massed band. It is not known whether it was intended to be performed before or after the cantata proper; or, indeed at both times. In fact, it is possible that it was only added for the later performance of this work in 1735 (see C 207a, chapter 93). It certainly has the atmosphere of a procession or march of honour and was probably used for that purpose, although we can only guess at precisely what the scenario might have been. It is quite short, under two minutes, so the procession, if that is what it accompanied, cannot have been a lengthy affair. One assumes that the orchestra stayed in the same place; the brevity of the movement would have permitted it, and besides, drums and bass instruments would not have been easily portable.
It has something of the quality of the Handelian outdoor music, particularly that for the Royal Fireworks. Although rhythmically very repetitive, (the dah-di-di-dah motive is seldom absent) Bach maintains interest through varied orchestration and imaginative phrasing; the final section almost assumes the character of a ponderous gavotte.
But it is, in essence, a march, pounding and heavy and not too long. It fits perfectly both at the beginning and end of a too seldom performed cantata. But one would not lament if the director took the view that this march belonged only to C 207a and omitted it entirely from performances of C 207.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017.