Chapter 103 BWV 201 Geschwinde, ihr wirbelnden Winde
Hurry, whirling winds: The contest between Phoebus and Pan.
Chorus–recit (bass/sop)–aria (sop)–recit (alto/bass)–aria (bass)–recit (sop/bass)–aria (bass)–recit (alto/tenor)–aria (tenor)–recit (bass/tenor)–aria (tenor)–recit (sop/alto/tenor/bass)–aria (alto)–recit (sop)–chorus.
A musical drama for Zimmermann’s coffee garden.
In 1737 Bach suffered a strongly worded attack upon his ‘outdated’ compositional style by the composer and critic Johann Adolph Scheibe, through the publication Criticus Musicus. Over the next decade these criticisms were restated by Scheibe and others and, even though Bach had his supporters, they must have been galling to him. (Documents relating to these events are to be found in the New Bach Reader, pp 337 and 348). The nub of the censure was clearly related to the lighter, less contrapuntal and more overtly melodic, emerging galante style, compared with which Bach’s music was considered (by some) to be too complex and overly ornamented. In short, Bach’s music suffered from an ‘excess of art’.
It would be tempting to claim that Bach composed the Contest between Phoebus and Pan, C 201, as a direct response to, or refutation of, these comments, but it seems not to have been the case. This cantata, with a text by Picander, was probably first performed in Zimmermann’s coffee garden towards the end of the 1720s, nearly a decade earlier.
Nevertheless, it might be claimed that Bach was foresighted and prescient about the artistic problems of changing styles and it seems certain that this work was revived in the 1730s and 40s as a direct result of the ongoing debate. Certainly the criticisms seem to have little affected Bach’s views on the nature of counterpoint lying at the heart of true musical expression; the 1740s was a decade of some of his most intense contrapuntal writing, not the least examples of which were the Art of Fugue and the Musical Offering.
But as we can see from the Peasant’s Cantata (C 212, chapter 98) and other pieces, Bach was quite capable of producing light ‘galant’ music when he deemed it appropriate.
The text of C 201 is based upon the Greek myth, translated through the Latin poet Ovid, and ultimately adapted to contemporary purpose. The essence of Picander’s and Bach’s creation is the friction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art and who should judge it; not quite, it must be acknowledged, the crux of Scheibe’s criticisms, but sufficiently related as to make it relevant. Certainly, the notion of uninformed opinion is strongly lampooned, thus making the piece a formidable refutation of views expressed by people who are deemed ill-equipped to offer them.
Brief comments of comparison of the opening choruses of Cs 201 and 205 may be found in the essay on the latter work (chapter 91). Both are triple time da capo movements depicting raging winds and scored for large orchestras which include flutes, oboes, trumpets and drums. But there the similarities end. The relentless surging of potentially dangerous tempests in C 205 is achieved through streams of semi-quavers and the more benign zephyrs of C 201 through triplets and this, in itself, bestows upon them very different characters.
Opening theme, strings.
All six characters involved in the plot, two each of basses and tenors and one soprano and alto, sing in consort in five-part counterpoint (the basses sing in unison). They implore the winds to retreat into their caves, with echoes pleasing to all.
There are two principle images embedded within the music, the first being the depiction of the winds through the interplay of the triplet motives. These are shared between strings, flutes and continuo in the first instance and latterly oboes and first trumpet. The choral writing is almost entirely homophonic, not entirely surprising when one considers the complexity of the instrumental parts. This is turned to great advantage in the middle section where the overlapping echo effects between voices and combined wind and strings effectively depict the second of the textual images—-pleasing reverberations.
This movement shows Bach at his most commanding and inventive, a joyous musical portrait of pleasant, but persistent, zephyrs and lively characters.
The chorus acts as an overture to the main event and the plot begins to unfold in the first recitative, principally between the two protagonists, Phoebus and Pan. They alternate in their espousal of their own musical gifts and their criticisms of the other’s. The movement ends with the censorious Momus making a remark that may well have been sarcastic—-do listen to Pan, the great master singer. (Readers might detect echoes of Momus in Wagner’s later creation, Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger!)
Picander gave Bach many opportunities to exploit images such as the pipes, chorus of nymphs and dancing deer but he declines them all. It seems that his main preoccupation in the recitatives of this work is to establish the characters and to ensure that the words are heard, rather than overlaying them with a veneer of musical pictures. In this way Bach is demonstrating a mature sense of contemporary operatic technique and drama for which he is not always given credit.
It is all wind, he exclaims; perhaps the better phrase is ‘hot air’—-you are poor yet you show off and you believe everything you see—-even fools you believe to be wise men! Yet again, a historical creation springs to mind of whom Bach cannot have had any knowledge, the pompous Polonius, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet!
If for no other reason than to help to bring these people to life for modern audiences, such comparisons serve to show the range of characters that Picander and Bach were capable of assembling. These are not superficial cardboard cut-outs but real characters, whose attributes we can readily recognize.
Mercury, messenger of the Gods, enters with the next recitative and, as an alto, one wonders if Bach ever heard the part sung by a castrato. There is no evidence of this and they were never employed in the Leipzig churches, but they were known in Germany in the operatic centres and may possibly have been involved in some of the secular dramatic works.
Mercury suggests a competition to judge the better musician, but even on this point they cannot agree. Phoebus wants Tmolus whilst Pan prefers Midas, both mythical kings of some reputation.
We arrive now at the heart of the work, the two competitive performances. Phoebus (bass) goes first and clearly this is his, and Bach’s, expression of ‘high art’. The text of his air has little meaning beyond the fact that it is a love song to Hyacinthus, a murdered lover of Apollo who turned his blood into a river and immortalized him in the heavens. It is the music which makes this movement so commanding.
Bach, of course, seldom fell below a very high standard in his compositions, a few rare examples possibly being the final choruses of some of the homage cantatas. But this aria shows every sign of all the stops being pulled out. Of course, the point of the cantata is not who performs best, but which art is superior and, above all, who judges it.
This movement is long (just over 250 bars and typically lasting almost ten minutes) and it demonstrates a variety of sophisticated techniques, only some of which can be outlined here. The ritornello theme begins with the most subtle of echo effects between flute/oboe d’amore and violin.
Violins below wind.
A complete miniature binary-form movement in itself, it cadences in D major (bars 11-12) after which an elegant countersubject on violins is added to the texture. The bass line introduces a stylish idea consisting of alternating motives in groups of three and four notes (bar 17).
This, like much of the rest of the ritornello theme provides material for later development (see bars 117-119). When the voice enters, delicate wisps of the theme are thrown from instrument to instrument, above and around it. The texture is constantly varied, sometimes as rich as six or seven parts. The melismas at the end of the middle section are complex and convoluted; that on Sonne—-the sun (of my soul) is almost a dozen bars long, encapsulating both that body’s fluid, dynamic, life-giving forces (bars 147-9) and its rooted, celestial constancy (bars 144-6).
The message is that this music displays technical competence, imaginative invention and appropriate artistic expression and all of this should be clear to those who have ears to perceive it; that is an important part of the cantata’s theme.
A brief moment of recitative separates the two competition pieces as Momus reminds Pan that it is now his turn to clear his throat. Pan, also a bass voice, responds with typical conceit—-I will do my best—-and be better than Phoebus.
There can hardly be a greater contrast between the two arias although Bach, being Bach, does not, of course, write substandard music. But he does produce an aria that is less inventive and more repetitive, although clearly jolly enough to be instantly attractive. The fact that he re-used this aria in the later Peasant Cantata (chapter 98) is significant, since it supports the contention that he viewed it as something rustic and countrified, pleasant, but undemanding, a ‘lower’ form of art than Phoebus’s offering.
Indeed, even the two lyrics support this point. Phoebus chose to sing of a God of classical antiquity, a subject that implies knowledge, learning and culture. Pan simply sings—-dancing and leaping stimulates the heart—-if the song is laboured, then it is no fun!
So too are the frequent octaves in the vocal line depicting dancing and leaping, and the repeated notes and melismas portraying the shaking heart (bars 41-2 and 55-6). The middle section of what is a da capo aria bears little relation to the music that surrounds it, with its different tempo and time signature; here the chromatic wailings of the violin obbligato lines are exaggerated almost to the point of becoming mock heroic. The aria is energetic and engaging but it lacks subtlety on a number of levels.
Mention has been made in many of these essays of Bach’s tendency to paint musical pictures less vividly as he matured. In this aria we discover such images at their most obvious, allowing us insight into the attitudes of the fully developed composer, in his ripened mid forties, as he makes this very point through this lampooning of ‘low art’. His latter inclination to eschew the self-evident is indicated by his giving less emphasis to such images, particularly in the recitatives of this and other mature works. What he did do increasingly, however, was to fashion the very fabric and structure of his themes from textural images, many examples of which are pinpointed and described in volume 3.
In the following recitative Mercury calls upon the arbiters to give their judgments and, to no-one’s surprise, Tmolus has no hesitation in selecting Phoebus—-Pan sings only for the forest. The last few bars of melody take on a mellifluous quality, suggestive of the praised tones of Phoebus’s beautiful flute.
We arrive now at the second main theme of the cantata, as each referee performs an aria delivering his verdict. Who is the critic and who can properly adjudicate? How adept should the critic be of the art form about which he pontificates? This is the issue which Picander and Bach address in the two arias for tenor Tmolus (no 9) and Midas (no 11).
The differences between them are as illuminative as those of Phoebus and Pan; interestingly, both of the ‘high art’ arias are in minor keys, the ‘low’ ones in major. Mention has been made elsewhere of Bach’s frequent use of the former, probably more so than any other composer, and often for moments of serious intent.
Tmolus’s aria praises Phoebus, whose melody was ‘born of charm itself’. He is supported by continuo and oboe d’amore obbligato. The aria is eloquent and fastidious, flowing and intense, although it lacks a little of the rich texture and range of invention of that of Phoebus. Sustained notes convey the sense of charm that the music exudes, even though it is confined within the shadows of F# minor.
The text of the middle section (from bar 33) is highly revealing—-he who understands your art will be quite amazed! This is the clue to the cantata’s principle sub-theme; only those who truly understand, can appreciate or make judgments.
Pan now demands a judgment from his advocate, Midas, who is unequivocal in his praise—-Pan, your song energized me and I memorized it exactly—-I can teach it even to the tree—-Phoebus is too florid but you are natural and instinctive. Do not miss Picander’s thrust at precisely what Scheibe was later to pinpoint in his advocacy of simpler expression; if the music is so naive that it can be learnt without effort and taught even to trees, of what real value is it? It is a sentiment with which we can be confident that Bach would have agreed!
Midas delivers his verdict, in an aria which has been much written about. Like that of Pan’s, it is energetic and full of life; additionally it lacks subtlety, for which it compensates in sheer vitality. It is not ‘bad’ music; it has a rustic characteristic of the sheer joy of life, but it is not ‘high art’.
The telling moments arrive in the middle section when Midas, having announced that Phoebus has lost, states—-to my ears, Pan’s singing is incomparable. At the mention of ‘ears’ Bach introduces the explicit sound of the braying of an ass (from bars 110, 137 and 143). The allusion is twofold, firstly that this is what Midas must possess in order to make such a judgment and secondly, it is an oblique criticism of this ‘vulgar’ song for including such blatant imagery.
The following recitative (no 12) is a mini-operatic scene in which everyone turns upon Midas—-are you mad?—-I knew you were incompetent. As Midas bemoans his persecution, Phoebus awards him the ass’s ears. The dialogue is delivered quickly, in a series of brief phrases over a sparse continuo line.
The final aria is delivered by the alto Mercury and, if the audience has missed the moral of the piece, now it is thrust home—-over-enthusiasm without intelligence will be awarded the jester’s coxcomb (or fool’s cap)—-he who takes the wheel with no knowledge of navigation will sink and drown. Two flutes are employed as obbligato instruments and they bubble their way through the aria, possibly depicting the movement of the ocean.
Interestingly, the motive heard so frequently in Pan’s aria (see bars 5-8) is used (augmented and inverted) as a part of the second flute and continuo figurations (see bars 8-11 and elsewhere), a reminder, perhaps, of Pan’s easily assimilated offering, presented again for those who have ears to detect it.
Tenor aria (Pan). Alto aria (Mercury).
This aria appears to demonstrate that it is possible to compose a piece of vitality and energy which is not ‘low art;’ for one thing, no-one would suggest that it could be memorized at a single hearing. Moreover, the word painting is subtle and understated; for example the touches of minor modes at the mention of the hapless sailor’s fate (from bar 92). And if the billowing flute semi-quavers appear to some to be a little obvious, perhaps Bach intended them to have a double purpose suggesting, as well as the constant movements of the sea, the prattling of fools.
It remains, however, a positive and assertive aria, delivering the cantata’s moral with confidence.
The humiliation of poor Midas is still not complete. In the final recitative Momus treats him with condescension and disdain—-run along and lie down, but console yourself with the thought that there are many like you, stupid and lacking good judgment—-now, Phoebus, continue with your song—-nothing can be more beautiful.
These final words of encouragement lead us from the depths of F#m, the temporary tonal home of those without judgment, to the brightness of D major and the closing ensemble. Upper string chords sustain the harmonies throughout in what turns out to be the only one of the seven recitatives to be given such support.
The last movement has features in common with a number of Bach’s closing choruses of secular cantatas from the late 1720s and through the following decade. It is a da capo structure which makes use of the full instrumental resources, although the trumpets and drums are silent in the middle section and do little more than offer rhythmic emphases elsewhere; possibly they were a late addition to the score.
The A section is almost stubbornly proportioned, eight instrumental bars, repeated with chorus added, followed by a further sixteen bars similarly structured. The text is now a one of general rejoicing—-enliven the heart—-strike up, beautiful strings with art and charm. In the context of what has gone before, the words Kunst and Anmut—–skill and charm (or gracefulness) are highly significant. Good music requires both technique and imagination; just one of these qualities is not enough.
The middle section is much more skillfully conceived. It begins with two rhetorical statements from the singers—-let them scorn you—-let them mock you. The writing becomes more fluid as the final couplet unfolds—–nevertheless, the Gods themselves are devoted to your sweet music. Whether this is directed to Phoebus (who in any case is a member of the ensemble), Bach’s friends and students, or the general public, is left for us to determine; possibly everyone! Accompanying all this are two almost continuously bubbling flutes, presumably reminding us of Phoebus’s musical skills.
If one were asked the impossible, to choose two works as a testament to Bach the man and Bach the musician, we could not, perhaps, do better than select this cantata and C 204 discussed in the previous chapter. One seems to allow us to sense something of his character, the other of his professional attitude towards his art.
Or is this simply a delusion?
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.