Chapter 4 BWV 7 Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam
Our Lord, Christ, came to the Jordan
Chorus/fantasia–aria (bass)–recitative (tenor) –aria (tenor)–recit (bass)–aria (alto)–chorale.
The third cantata of the cycle for St John’s Day.
(It is suggested that this chapter is read in conjunction with chapters 1, 2, 3 and 5).
The opening movement to this cantata is, by any standards, a massively impressive musical statement, truly symphonic in scale, structure and the heroic grandeur of its ideas. Its proportions are partly determined by the chorale, a long one with nine phrases, including the repetition of the first two.
The text of the opening chorus tells us of Christ’s coming to the River Jordan to take baptism and thereby to wash us of our sins. The instrumental forces comprise the usual strings and continuo supported by two oboe d’amore and a solo violin.
This time the tenors take their turn to sing the elongated phrases of the chorale while the three other voices encompass it with a rich tapestry of contrapuntal textures. The freedom given to the sopranos by releasing them from the duty of carrying the chorale tune, allows them to soar above the rest of the choir in some truly striking phrases. Theirs is the spiritual line that seems to float above the magnificent but earthbound waves of the mighty river.
But all vocal parts declaim smooth flowing lines in clear contrast to the more forceful dotted rhythms that begin the movement and which the continuo line relentlessly pursues.
The listener would do well to pay particular attention to the opening four bars because they are the key to the entire movement. First is heard a powerful, sturdy theme in oboes and upper strings surging above a flowing five note figure (da–da–da–da–dah) in the basses. From bar 3 this motive appears in the upper strings acting as accompaniment for the solo violin’s persistent, rocking, wave-like idea. It seems reasonable to interpret both the bass and solo violin’s themes as representing the waters of the mighty river; each persists throughout the entire movement. And all is framed by the starkness of the unrelenting minor key. This is not a sunny beach scene; it is a panorama, which suggests might and power both of the river itself and also of Christ’s actions and their consequences for Mankind.
Thus the depiction of the mighty Jordan acts as a powerful metaphor for the religious message of the redemptive power of baptism—-Christ came to the river, was baptized and founded a way of washing us from our sins and defeating Death through his own blood and wounds.
The character of the opening dotted rhythm theme is commanding and authoritative but it is not only a reflection of the might of the Jordan. Bach must surely have also been struck by the later references to Christ’s drowning of ‘bitter’ death with his own blood. Such images are not necessarily explicit in the music but they may well have contributed to the feeling of dramatic awe and powerful majesty that Bach created.
One aspect of this movement worthy of consideration is its synthesis of musical styles which Bach, the ‘learned musician’ had, by now, made his trademark. The dotted rhythms could suggest a French overture (of the type which begins all four orchestral suites and C 20). But there is nothing frivolous or courtly about this movement; in fact the choral writing may well bring to mind the more austere mood of the traditional German motet. But embedded within this fabric is a style and structural principle from a third tradition; that of the Italianate concerto structure with alternating tutti and solo violin sections.
What other composer, at this time, could bring together such a range of stylistic knowledge, techniques and formal principles to form such an original and fully integrated movement?
Bach faced two structural problems, surmounted with such apparent ease that only close analysis reveals the potential difficulties. The archaic chorale begins in Em and ends in the dominant key Bm. As was traditional at the time, Bach’s large-scale movements begin and end in the same key, almost without fail. This was one of the significant unifying factors developed as the major/minor system achieved dominance over the modes. Here the ritornello structural principle provided the solution. At the end of the final choral phrase Bach extends the last tenor note (bars 114-117) to allow the harmony to return to Em which the concluding orchestral ritornello fully re-establishes.
However, while still in the process of establishing this principle of tonic key coherence within movements, one is reminded of the fact that it is quite impossible to second-guess Bach. He creates principles and precedents; and, whenever he feels it appropriate, he breaks them. When we come to examine C 68 (chapter 49) we will find that the final chorus, almost uniquely, begins in one key and ends in another.
The second problem is a perennial one connected with the chorale fantasias. Since they were built around the phrases of the chorale, and because the short melody often contained little contrast of key, the challenge Bach set himself was how to keep such massive movements interesting with so little tonal variety. If we look at some of his long instrumental movements where he was not inhibited by this problem, we see that the entire skeletonal structures were derived from the interchanges between related keys. For example, Brandenburg 6/3 has the key structure Bb, F, Bb, Gm, Dm, Bb, F, Bb. The double violin concerto’s first movement is Dm, Am, Gm, Dm. This latter is more conservative, but the music still moves purposefully on its journey from one key to another, enabling certain ideas and episodes to be repeated and recycled at different pitches.
By contrast, the chorale/fantasias have a limited and predetermined tonal structure. This one manages to spend a moment in the dominant (Bm) but nowhere else; and at no time is it possible to employ any redeeming light from a major key. This suits the stark nature of the prevailing mood, of course. But it does not provide musical variety which Bach’s ever-active imagination ensures comes through inventive and constantly regenerative textures aligned to highly striking harmonies and rhythmic ideas.
This need to provide balance may, of course have been a factor in Bach’s choice of a strongly major mood for the next movement, an aria for bass and continuo, without obligato instrument. The opening ‘cello theme brings together two motives suggesting different images. The first, drawn directly from the opening line of text is ‘listen and hear’, a simple call to attention. Then as early as bar 2 we hear the downward rushes of rapid notes which thenceforth dominate the movement. This five-note figure represents the pouring of the baptismal waters and is rhythmically the same as the bass figure (described above) from the opening chorus. It is extremely pervasive in that, in a relatively short movement it comes around 140 times, always on the ‘cello and never adopted by the voice.
But the most interesting feature is that the direction of this little rush of notes is always downwards. Bach’s usual practice in dealing with an oft-repeated figure of this kind is to stretch its potential by inverting it; see, for numerous examples, the two and three part inventions. The unremittingness of the downward direction strengthens the conviction that this is a representation of the action of pouring. The textual theme is that water must be present for baptismal purposes; and it must be water prepared through the word of God. Water alone is not enough. God’s Spirit and Words are also an essential part of the process of purifying sinners.
The secco tenor recitative has little of significant note. It has the ring of the story teller telling us of God’s clear statements and informing us of his Son’s sacrifice and example which we, of course, should heed and follow. Note though, the subtle change that Bach brings about as God actually speaks of His Son (from bar 6). The melodic line, closely associated with the chorale shape, takes on a quality of peace and strength and, given the fact that He talks of His Son, might there not also be a subtle suggestion of parental pride?
The tenor aria is one of Bach’s most ebullient. This is a rollicking jig, an infectious dance which brings together both Father and Son, to later unite them with the Holy Spirit appearing in the form of a dove; thus is the Trinity formed. Bach’s preoccupation with numbers is clearly apparent in the compositional thinking; the figure 3 dominates the movement. It is in 3/4 time. The main theme is constructed of groups of three notes (triplets). The voice enters on three stark crotchets and there are three vocal sections. The close writing of the two violins represents the entwined nature of the partnership between Father and Son, the instruments at first imitating each other a bar apart but (from bar 7) just one crotchet apart. Thus are they symbolically drawn ever more closely together.
The text adds little more to that of the previous recitative, the Father’s voice and Son’s sacrifice again taking centre stage. But the mood is entirely different, now suggestive of the elation associated with the salvation that Man may enjoy. If the minor mode of the first movement left us with a feeling of grandeur, desolation and awe, this minor emits an energy which uplifts us with the certainty of God’s love. Its gigue-like theme and mood it is highly reminiscent of the last movement of the Am violin concerto.
The bass recitative is, at first, accompanied by the strings with a few spasmodic chords but, as if to support Christ’s admonition to go forth and preach, the strings become a little more active (from bar 6) representing the action of ‘going forth’. This text is a rallying cry to missionary zeal—-Jesus instructed His disciples to go forth and spread the message so that those who believe and become baptized shall be blest.
It is seldom that one comes across a movement in the cantatas that immediately reminds you of another. True, one frequently finds borrowings, rewritings and parodies, usually from the secular works. Bach was a great recycler and it seems that, although he clearly drew little distinction between secular and religious musical styles, nevertheless most of the borrowings went one way, from the former to the latter. Putting it another way, his normal practice seems to have been to deify the secular rather than secularise the holy. The re-use of existing works was initially because during he was so pushed for time that he was forced to borrow from his by then extensive secular repertoire simply in order to meet his own strict deadlines. (Discussion of this point may be found in several of the chapters from volume 1 dealing with the first Leipzig cycle)
But the fertility of his imagination meant that, parodies aside, he virtually never repeated himself within the cantata canon and when he did, it is worth noting. In this case there are marked similarities between the alto aria of C 7 and the tenor aria of C 2 performed the week before. This cannot have been a coincidence. Were the works to be more widely spread, it might be assumed that Bach had repeated himself unintentionally, but this is simply not credible in these circumstances. This is a repetition so rare in the canon as to be virtually unique.
Both arias used the theme with minor adaptations. It is, perhaps, most clearly identified through its rhythm: de/da de-de da da dah dah dah . The similarity is so strong that one immediately wonders ‘Where have I heard that before?’
It would appear that in this instance Bach is working across the weekly divides of the cantata performances and positively reinforcing an earlier theme. The tenor aria from C 2 is about God’s word transmuted through the cross as is silver through fire. This alto aria emphasises (as, indeed does the whole of C 7) the transforming of the individual through the act of baptism. The images of development through metamorphosis are virtually identical; it is simply another way of expressing and conveying the same concept of transformation. It is as if Bach, the great teacher, was saying, ‘remember what we learnt in last week’s lesson? Here we have the same idea, but presented within a slightly different context’.
And does this not throw a little more light on Bach’s intentions when he had written, some years earlier, of his ambition to provide a body of ‘well regulated church music?’
And, we might ask, ‘well regulated’ for whom? If members of the congregation missed the subtlety of the allusions it would surely not have escaped God’s notice?
Bach’s point, as ever, is made with subtlety. The alto aria lacks the expected instrumental opening although in every other respect it is a ritornello movement. The reused theme does not come at the beginning. Rather, it creeps up on us, on strings and oboes, from bar 4. Furthermore, the resurrected theme is articulated by the strings rather than the voice. In fact it is not until the words ‘Glaub und Taufe macht sie rein’—-baptism and faith will cleanse our sins—-that the voice emerges with a triumphant declamation of this theme (bars 36-8).
The metamorphosis is now complete, symbolically represented by the melodic union of voice and instruments.
The final chorale is simply but sturdily harmonized with strings and oboes doubling. It returns to the specific image of water, representing the blood of Christ, pouring over us in order to heal and cleanse. It allows a few moments of reflection on the baptismal process which Bach has described so graphically over the preceding twenty-five minutes. The melody is archaic and modal but Bach gives it a contemporary harmonization. However he makes to attempt to disguise the key change as he did in the fantasia; it now begins in Em and ends in Bm.
We will return to this chorale, differently harmonized and a semitone higher, in C176, the last cantata of this cycle (chapter 50).