Chapter 10 BWV 94 Was frag ich nach der Welt?
Why enquire of this world?
What do I care for this world since my only joy is in the Lord Jesus? This is the crux of the opening chorus and, indeed, the entire cantata. Bach’s positive Lutheranism revels in the joy in the Lord and the miracle of redemption, aspects of his religion which he always seems happy to emphasise.
Not that he is averse, when the occasion calls, to expressing the depths, sins, cares and sorrows of this world. We shall find this in the opening chorus of the very next cantata of the cycle, C 101. But for the moment we can participate in an overt depiction of joy, expressed through the ebullient use of the major mode.
Of the first thirteen chorale fantasias of the cycle only two, C 20 and C 94, are set in a major keys; further consideration of Bach’s uses of major/minor modes for these choruses may be found in chapter 15. Choices were obviously dependent upon the modes of the chorales although it is tempting to think that, particularly at this stage of the cycle, Bach may have deliberately chosen minor chorales when given the option. Decisions were also linked to textual themes but it may also have been that Bach felt that a particular gravitas was needed if these choruses were to be recognised as examples of the ‘well regulated’ church music he aspired to.
He could, of course, turn minor and major modes to almost any expressive purpose he desired. Nevertheless, just as major keys are ideal for exultant jubilation, minor ones are particularly well suited for conveying thoughtfulness and serious intent.
But whatever the reasons for his choices, there is no doubting the exultant quality of this opening ritornello. The jovial, major-mode jubilation of the flute and strings is clearly meant to uplift our spirits and it does so, immediately and unambiguously.
Bach scholars have noted the composer’s writing of virtuosic flute parts in this cycle and have speculated that he was fortunate enough to have come across an exceptional player at this important stage of his own creative career. This must, indeed, have been the case. But it is still worth noting that Bach never uses virtuosity simply for its own sake. Sparkling, flickering and effervescent flute melodies always have their roots in some aspects of the texts.
Here the wafts of triplets with the flute and violins dancing with each other have a double purpose. Certainly they suggest the bliss that is to be found in the protective arms of Jesus. But it is equally possible that they picture the ephemeral drifts of smoke explicitly referred to in the bass aria. It is not unknown for Bach to take an image or metaphor from one stanza and portray it in a different movement. He viewed his cantatas as a whole, each indispensable movement linked to the others, thus forming an integrated and unified totality.
The observant listener will note that this chorale is structurally rather stilted and predictable, a succession of two bar phrases. Bach is often willing to make quite radical alterations to the chorale’s structure when it suits his purpose, frequently even altering time signatures—–though not modes. But here he is content to retain the short musical proclamations and insert them, seemingly randomly, into the swirling concerto texture which both accompanies and separates them, unstoppably swirling along with its infectiousness. These short segments of chorale melody may also explain the minimum usage of the three lower voices which here play little more than a supporting role.
Rolling triplets are frequently found in movements expressing great joy. Here the text asks the rhetorical question, what do I want of the world’s treasures when Jesus is the world to me?—-You are my pleasure and my peace. The cheerful writing certainly suggests pleasure and jubilation and Bach would have had in mind the joy of the redeeming power of Jesus rather than that of the worldly pleasures of wealth and fame. The keen listener will notice the apposition of groups of four semiquavers with the triplets, possibly itself a subtle musical polarisation of the earthbound and divine pleasures.
The analytical student will notice that while the chorale phrases limit Bach to the tonic and dominant keys (D and A majors) Bach manages to touch lightly upon three minor keys (B, E and F#) in the ritornello sections. The fleeting minor modes in no way moderate the music’s uplifting message, merely offering touches of colour in the harmony.
The bass aria uses only the continuo, simultaneously fulfilling the dual functions of harmonic foundation and obbligato instrument. Most listeners will be aware that such written scores contain only two lines of music, with the harmonies filled in by organ or harpsichord and, considering Bach’s deadlines, this would have been a very practical way of composing, requiring a minimum of notes. One supposes that Bach must have been able to produce a movement such as this in a couple of hours!
This text focuses upon the impermanence of the world and the steadfastness of Jesus. The allusion is to the ephemeral nature of smoke and shadow acting as a metaphor for the transient world of mortality. Bach uses a similar idea in the soprano aria from C 64 (vol 1, chapter 32) which has a very similar text with the rising and dissipating puff of smoke clearly portrayed in violin swirls.
But we know that Bach almost never repeats himself and even the same allusion is given quite different musical treatment. This time it is the rootedness of the Christian confidence in Christ rather than the fleeting smoke and shadow upon which Bach chooses to concentrate. The opening continuo bars swoop down to low notes symbolizing images of strength and permanence.
Note too how the shaping of his line alters when the text moves from notions of worldly intransigence to assertions of Christ’s trust (from bar 24).
The third and fifth stanzas create problems of setting due to their length: the first has over thirty lines of text! Clearly there are too many words for a chorus or aria, so recitative is the obvious answer and Bach’s solution in both of these movements is to intersperse recitative with the chorale melody. We have already seen some of Bach’s experiments in dealing with this problem (e.g. in Cs 2, 93 and 178). Here again he is concerned with aspects of musical unity, but equally with the practical matter of sustaining the interest of the congregation through cascades of text.
Thus emerges an alternation of chorale phrases (embellished so as to give the impression of an arioso) and recitative. These are combined with a recurring instrumental ritornello (two oboes and continuo) creating a sense of a mini-concerto.
Bach’s innovative use of combining existing forms results in the unification of four elements: chorale, arioso, recitative, above the ritornello/concerto structural principles.
The division of the thirty lines of text into five embellished (but easily recognizable) chorale phrases and four sections of recitative is thoughtfully done. Unfortunately we have no way of knowing whether this was principally the work of Bach or his librettist. The words of the chorale melody reiterate the theme of the first two movements—-honour and fame, valued in this world, soon erode away whilst Jesus remains in our hearts. The recitatives elaborate with specific illustrations of wealth, impermanence and arrogance.
Thus, the first of these sections (bars 18-28) regales us with numerous examples of how the proud man exalts himself through position, palaces, fine clothing and widespread fame. The ritornello begins and ends the movement as well as accompanying the chorale phrases with a dancing minuet of oboes and continuo.
Phrases 1 and 2 bars 8-17
Phrases 3 and 4 bars 32-41
Phrases 5 and 6 bars 56-63
Phrase 7 bars 72-75
Phrase 8 bars 88-91
One wonders to what extent the bourgeois congregation might have recognized themselves associated with this condemnation of wealth and possessions.
Even at this early stage of the cantata the lessons of human mortality and morality have been driven home with a great deal of repetition. But there is still more to come! The text of the following alto aria presents Bach with the opportunity of delving into that tragedy and pain which becomes inevitable, we are informed, when one is misled by the temptations of Mammon.
And Bach pulls no punches. The alto aria reaches depths of despair not yet touched upon in this work.
One may wonder why Bach chose it since the lower, more doleful sounds of one of the oboe family might seem the more obvious choice. Probably because he had access to the services of an exceptional flautist, Bach seems to have made as much use of him as possible. Certainly the writing would indicate that this anonymous musician must have been as comfortably at home playing these tragically expressive lines as he was with the ebullience of the opening chorus.
The text declaims—-Oh false, false world, all affluence and gold are but sham and deception. The flute weaves seductively around the vocal line as if to seduce the unwary. Apart from its obvious translucent beauty, this aria is notable for the six bars of allegro which burst upon us, unexpectedly, from bar 27. Here the text presents the stark option—-You choose Mammon if you want to—-I choose Jesus—-and the alto’s words are highlighted with flurries of sparkling, rapid notes on the flute. A wake-up call to those congregation members who might be losing a little concentration? Or an affirmation declaiming the joy of making the right decision? Or, indeed, both?
Whatever the reason the aria ends, as it began, with a lamentation for the deluded.
The fifth movement is based upon similar principles to the third but lacks the instrumental ritornello, the bass voice accompanied only by continuo. All eight phrases of the chorale are sung again, reasserting the moral of the day. Each statement is accompanied by a writhing and tortuous chromatic bass line (bars 1, 5, 14, 17 and 25) which suggests the very worms gnawing at the decomposing bodies in the grave; the world is, indeed distressed.
The recitative sections take on a more hectoring tone—-shame on you world—-God gave you so much and yet you will not permit yourselves to suffer for Jesus!
Firstly he makes slight changes to its rhythm whilst retaining much of the original shape (listen to the opening phrase in which the first chorale line is clearly recognizable—-yet not quite as we expect it). Secondly, he generates the weird chromatic bass line and, at times, some quite bizarre harmonies. It is like those distorting mirrors one used to find in circuses; you recognize what you see but it is caricatured in unexpected ways.
Thus does Bach disfigure his chorale so as to represent the troubled world and its distorted sense of values.
The tenor returns, this time for an aria accompanied by the full string band. A major key in 12/8 time is often the sign of a pastorale (e.g. the Christmas Oratorio C 248/2 vol 3, chapter 48) or a gigue. This aria has some characteristics of each. The mood is surprisingly upbeat when one considers the text; the basic notions are of the false vanity of Man, forever digging, like a mole in the dirt, whilst disregarding and ignoring heaven.
But apart from the opening chorus there has been little else of the joyousness of Christian redemption in this cantata and, perhaps for this reason, as well as for overall musical balance, Bach now chooses to present a more optimistic scenario. The low grumbling string triplets possibly convey the action of scrabbling around in the dust and grime but this is nothing that we need worry about—just so long as we remain true believers!
Bach indulges in his love of odd phrase lengths which immediately removes any prospect of a predictable, four-square delivery. The vocal melismas (half-heartedly echoed on violins) are an expression of the world’s illusions of vanity stretching ever upwards, but to no permanent or enduring purpose.
A sombre if not actually tragic mood pervades the final aria, sung by the soprano. It is in F#m, a key in which Bach often writes some of his most expressive music; it frequently conveys a mood of reflective contemplation. The text is of a kind that Bach frequently found stimulating, expressing, as it does, two different if not entirely opposing emotions. Firstly, it describes the repugnant world of the sinner who cares not for his soul. Secondly, it marks the richness and blessings to be gained from a penitent love of Christ.
What is particularly striking is the shape of the melody. The oboe d’amore obbligato presents us with a theme which is ever striving to find its way upwards, initially as a continually stretching line, thence followed by a couple of abortive leaps. The intention seems clear; that there is, or should be, an ever-present endeavour to strive towards the higher world of Christ and thus escape worldly enticements.
But there is also a quiet sense of resignation and acceptance about this music. It is right to attempt to extend our reach, and the fulfillment this effort brings us is in direct contrast to the licentious pleasures of the corrupting world of flesh; it has a more sustained, permanent and personal satisfaction. Struggle is essential; and an awareness and understanding of this truth brings its own satisfaction.
Somehow Bach manages to suggest all this in a complex and beautifully wrought expression of deep emotion. Note also the subtle change of mood in the alto line when it comes to the words—-Ich will nur meinen Jesum lieben—-I only wish to Love Jesus (from bar 19 and 30), and the melisma suggesting the decline of the world—-Erden—-the earth (bars 14-16).
The concluding chorale is presented, as we expect, in uncomplicated four-part harmony and sung through twice to accommodate the two verses. It is not clear precisely why it was thought necessary to do this since the second verse adds no more to the discourse of the previous seven movements; it may well have been a matter of length and overall balance. The joint themes remain, the impermanence and hollowness of mortal life contrasted with the fulfilling eternity with Jesus.
We are used to having the moral of the week constantly reiterated (and let us not forget that Bach’s congregation would still need to sit through a lengthy sermon and the remainder of the service) but the text of this cantata seems almost excessive in its constant repetition. It is Bach’s endless imagination and the sustained quality of the music which raises what some may consider persistent hectoring to the level of high art.
Perhaps this is why many non-German speaking music lovers prefer to hear these cantatas in the original language; they are then not distracted by the restatements of a somewhat dated message. But Bach transcends this paltry limitation. Each movement of this insightful work illuminates a slightly different side of the human condition, ecstasy, shame, despair, loyalty, steadfastness, and this is why we keep returning to it. The texts may be simplistic and repetitive but the music is profound. This is the nature of true genius.
One final thought. Might one be permitted to wonder whether any of Bach’s congregation noticed the subtle irony of a seemingly unending and repetitive Sunday service concerning itself with the impermanence and transitory nature of the world in which we live?
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.