Chapter 11 BWV 32 Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen
Dear Jesus, my foremost wish.
Aria (sop)–recit (bass)–aria (bass)–recit (sop/bass)–duet (sop/bass)–chorale.
For the first Sunday after Epiphany.
The first question which springs to mind is why was no new cantata written for Epiphany in 1726? Bach composed them for the first two Leipzig cycles (Cs 65 and 123) but not, apparently, for the third. Has it been lost? Did he use a cantata by another composer as he was to do on several occasions later in this cycle? This would seem on the face of it to be highly unlikely. Epiphany, celebrated on January 6th, was a most significant date in the Lutheran church year signifying, as it did the revelation of Jesus through the Magi and it would seem odd for Bach to use a work by someone else. He certainly retained the responsibility of providing new works for the Christmas and New Year season as well as for the less important Sundays following Epiphany. Furthermore, Epiphany fell on a Sunday in 1726, a fact that might signify that music intended for its celebration would assume particular significance.
We have no answers to these questions. Perhaps Bach resurrected one of the earlier cantatas although again this was not his normal practice for significant events. As it is, we can only do what he may have done himself, which is to look back over the earlier works for the day of Epiphany and thence proceed to C 32, newly composed for the following week’s services.
In comparing this work with others also written for this first day, C 154 (cycle 1) and 124 (cycle 2) we might begin by noting that it is yet another of the third cycle cantatas which employs the choir only for the chorale. This decision was almost certainly related more to textual than to practical matters on this occasion. The work is principally concerned with just Jesus and the Soul and consequently it is a personal rather than a public declaration of faith and description of the spiritual journey.
C 154 uses the chorus only for its two chorales and it opens with a highly dramatic and deeply moving tenor aria of despair at the loss of Jesus. C 124 is a chorale cantata, the opening fantasia of which, a civilised minuet, could not be more strikingly contrasting. However, an echo of the tragic nature of 154 may be heard in the third movement, another tenor aria depicting the terror of death. An equivalent soul-searing event from C 32 may be found in the first movement, a soprano aria accompanied by strings with the most moving oboe obligato.
What binds these three arias together (and consequently the cantatas themselves) is the theme of losing, or being separated from Jesus. In the tenor aria from 154 this is a terrifying, awesome prospect. In that from 124 the thought of the desolation of death without His presence is similarly appalling. The opening soprano aria from
C 32 is truly bitter-sweet, the loneliness of separation is described but the ultimate embracing of Him and His protection is never really in doubt as the later duet confirms.
The two voices, bass and soprano, are employed in the three arias and two recitatives. The bass represents Christ and the soprano the Soul. This classifies it as one of the four dialogue cantatas of the cycle, the earlier C 57 and the later Cs 49 and 58. Further contextual comments on these works may be found in chapter 35 and in vol 1, chapter 68, C 152.
C 57 (vol 3, chapter 7) was composed for the second day after Christmas and comparisons are informative. Certainly both works coming so close together in the cycle would seem to indicate Bach’s knowledge of, and presumably increasing interest in, contemporary styles of Italian opera at this time.
Both cantatas commence with an aria which is considerably less than joyful but while C 57 begins with the voice of Jesus, C 32 commences with the Soul—-where shall I find You?—-will I feel that You are apart from me?—let me embrace my true Shield. There is a clear implication of that sense of uncertainty and a lack of confidence which we also detected in the earlier work.
But this is not the cry of desolation that we find in the first aria from C 154. The soprano aria beginning C 32 encapsulates two main ideas, one of struggle in order to achieve the desire of finding and uniting with Jesus, the other a sense of utter contentment as one embraces Christ, a sanctuary and refuge against all cares.
The strings play a supporting accompaniment role, a three-note arpeggio figure gently stroking the two main melodic lines. The oboe obligato is simply ravishing and within the eight bars of the ritornello two different ideas can clearly be heard. Firstly there is the sense of striving, effort and stretching upwards, thence the garlands of demi-semi-quavers suggestive of the all-encompassing protection emanating from the Haven of the Saviour.
This Soul seems to find its true place in the latter part of this first aria whereas the Soul from C 57 was more tentative, appearing to need much more persuasion. Expressively this movement falls into two sections, the first (to bar 35) more concerned with the effort and striving towards the seat of salvation, and the second with the contentment acquired from this achievement (as expressed in the last two lines of the text). It is significant that the soprano line only takes up the wreathes of demi-semi-quavers in this latter section whilst the oboe has made use of them throughout.
Christ’s response is also different in the two cantatas. In the earlier aria he was coaxing and encouraging. In his first short secco recitative in C 32 he is direct and almost brusque—-why have you sought me out?—-are you not aware that I am tasked to be about the business of My Father?
But in His first aria He softens his initial approach, at least to a degree—-here in My Father’s house distressed Souls may find and unite with Me; and so, indeed, may you. The libretto has something of the attitude of a jaded parent or teacher: ‘I have told you this before and you really should be well aware of it by now!’ There is, in fact, almost a suggestion of irritability about the violin obligato ritornello theme. It begins calmly enough but before long, triplets are interspersed with groups of even semi-quavers and occasional petulant double-stopped chords add a further degree of tension. It is interesting to note that the vocal line never takes up the triplet flow but confines itself to the more even rhythms of the violin’s opening four bars.
Of course it may also be that the violin line is intended to be suggestive of the distressed spirit in search of refuge, the vocal line conveying the strength and tranquillity of Christ’s portrayal of His peaceful dwelling. Additionally, one cannot miss the minor-mode colourings in the melody and harmony on each occasion when the words ‘betrbter Geist’—-troubled spirit—-are sung. Bach’s music is always so rich in meaning and imagery that several related ideas may be communicated simultaneously. It is often too simplistic to allot just the one possible interpretation to a particular musical event. The complexity and richness of meaning, like that embodied within the greatest poetry, attracts out attention and ensures our return.
But howsoever we interpret the musical metaphors of this long da capo movement, there can be little doubt of the effectiveness of Christ’s words. The following recitative brings both characters together, although it is significant that at this point the one always follows the other. They never sing at the same time; for that we must wait until the final duet. Dialogue is taking place but true union has not yet been achieved.
The Soul begins by assuring the Lord that she will join Him in her search for protection and Christ responds that His home may only be entered when earthly irrelevancies are discarded. Both utterances are accompanied by sustained string chords and the minor-mode harmonies subtly suggest that these circumstances have not yet been fully achieved.
The Soul replies by praising the Lord’s dwelling place and affirming the joining of body and soul with the living God (from bar 8). Broken recitative has become mellifluous arioso and the string accompaniment changes to a gentle caressing of the soprano melody as if to encourage its movement along the proper pathway to heaven. The sustained chords later return, taking us positively into the major key of G as Jesus, followed by the Soul, separately confirm their convictions of the peace to be found in the Dwelling of the Lord.
The stage has now been fully set for a complete union of Christ and Soul. The journey towards this point has been less demanding than in C 57 where, we are reminded, there was no duet. There the initial uncertainties of the more tremulous Soul were only fully allayed with the closing chorale. In C 32, the Soul has been less concerned with the act of death and consequently less apprehensive; the journey has been shorter and less tortuous and Bach marks this with a duet of mutual adoration.
The oboe returns but its role is mainly supportive, a simplified version of the first violin line doing little more than emphasising key melodic notes. It is the violins that provide the main obligato line, a melody that that sweeps the listener along. This is, like the earlier bass solo, a conventional da capo aria, it being somewhat unusual to find two of them in the same cantata at this stage of Bach’s career.
The ritornello theme is completely infectious. The main melodic substance of the entire movement is heard immediately, a semi-quaver figure on the first violins, the four kernel notes of which are re-enforced by the oboe. Brief discussion of this idea leads us to the first main cadence (bars 4-5) after which we hear two bars of rapid upwards swirls on the violins. The return of the initial idea completes the ritornello, itself a ternary-form structure in microcosm.
It is very likely that Bach thought of the instruments as representing the two main protagonists of this little dramatic scene. If so, we might think of the swirling confident strings as depicting the enveloping personality of Christ and the loyally supportive, less complex but harmonically conjoined oboe part as that of the Soul.
The two voices are to be found in four choral blocks (omitting, for the moment the da capo) the third and fourth of which comprise the traditional middle section. We will examine each block in turn.
The voices enter imitatively, soprano leading bass, with their version of the first violin motive. They do no more than rejoice in the fact that sorrows and sufferings have now disappeared. Four bars of the ritornello follow. The second vocal block (bass now leading, from bar 22) is extended but uses the same text. It is followed by a restatement of the full ritornello theme, leading to the middle section.
Here (from bar 47) the voices entwine together in counterpoint but have their own lines of text; Christ offers to embrace the Soul eternally and the Soul reflects the consequent joy and the banishment of sorrows. True union has been accomplished.
If we represent ritornello blocks as ‘A’ and the vocal blocks as ‘B’ the movement structure may be approximately described thus
A—B—A (shortened)—B (lengthened)—A FIRST SECTION
B—A (shortened)—B— MIDDLE SECTION
A—B—A (shortened)—B (lengthened)—A DA CAPO OF FIRST SECTION.
One should notice the little touches of minor-mode colouring on mention of the word ‘Schmerz’—-sorrow or suffering—-much as in the earlier bass aria. But these tribulations have now been banished. Consequently they are here shaded with a much lighter touch, evoking only echoes from the times now past if not entirely forgotten.
The chorale is a typically sturdy Seventeenth Lutheran melody here expressing the universal wish to be allowed into heaven, just as the journey of the Soul has demonstrated. It has just the one surprise. Following several balanced symmetrical two-bar phrases the penultimate one catches us unawares with its unexpected extension to three bars. In order to make its point even more powerfully, Bach harmonises the last note with a C chord (1V of the key) instead of the more predictable G (chord 1 of the key). The text of this line is ‘Wiederum umfang und liebe’—-in return [for Your blessings] I will love and embrace You.
Our obligations to the Saviour form a most significant part of the message of this cantata and they are spelt out right at the end, words and music uniting so as to underline its significance.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010.