Chapter 13 BWV 33 Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ
To you alone, Lord Jesus.
Chorus/fantasia–recit (bass)–aria (alto)–recit (tenor)–duet (tenor & bass)–chorale.
The theme is the constantly recurring one of sin and redemption, here related to the parable of the Good Samaritan. More specifically, it is the confession of the sinner, unable to keep to the laws ordained by the Lord. It leads to a plea for God’s redemptive love and the chorale is a hymn of praise for the Holy Trinity, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. From such conventional, oft repeated and somewhat archaic dogma does Bach weave a work of extraordinary depth, power and beauty.
Instead of beginning with the chorale or opening chorus, let us vary our approach and concentrate first upon the aria and the duet. It will be seen that Bach does not use the soprano voice in these or, indeed, either of the two recitatives. Of course we cannot be certain whether there was a practical problem of availability but that is highly unlikely. Bach must have had more than one singer capable of taking on solo roles and, furthermore, at least one competent soprano must have been present for the opening and closing movements. The reason, as with C 20 the first work of this cycle which similarly avoided the employment of a solo soprano, is much more likely to be one of aesthetics. Bach presumably selected the lower voices (all solos are taken by the bass and tenor with the exception of the crucial alto aria) because he felt that the darker vocal colourings were more appropriate. It is also worth recalling that the alto voice was, at the time, associated with notions of spirituality and this was highly likely to have had a bearing on Bach’s choice of soloist.
At first glance the employment of the lower registers might seem surprising, particularly bearing in mind the extrovert energy of the opening chorus. But if we have noticed little else, at least we have learnt that Bach never adopted simplistic or clichéd solutions. His vision was always far-reaching and all-encompassing. As a consequence, answers to these sorts of questions are usually to be found by viewing works as a whole rather than by pinpointing specific moments.
The alto aria, standing as it does almost centrally in the cantata, is a supreme example of Bach’s ability to weave an elongated musical tapestry from seemingly the least rewarding of materials. It can last the best part of ten minutes in performance, a very long time, even in the Baroque age of experimentation with extended movements. The text describes the faltering and fearful paces towards Jesus, a stepping image that Bach seldom ignores. It continues to describe the weight of sin which, nevertheless, the word of Jesus expiates.
We immediately recognise the continuous treading image depicted in the pizzicato bass. Above it the yearning violin and vocal lines express the sadness of sin and the expiation of it. Thus we are touched by a group of contrasting images all within the one, albeit extensive, movement; just the sort of challenge Bach responds to in the most imaginative of ways.
This aria has a somewhat care-worn feeling of inevitability. Its form is the familiar da capo/ritornello, a combination of ternary and ritornello principles. Bach omits the oboes, probably for the same reasons of colour for which he excluded the soprano. The solemn mood is reinforced by the muted first violins and the pizzicato of the other strings. The melodic sequences repeat themselves continually in a downward direction (see bars 1-3 where the initial motive is repeated three times successively on a lower note of the scale. This process becomes a significant feature of the aria).
The movement is in a major key signifying, perhaps, that Bach did not intend a sense of total dejection; sad, worn and weary, yes, but never tragic. In fact it is the only major mode movement in the whole cantata, although all three notes which distinguish minor from major ( in this case b flat, a flat and e flat) are used to colour the melody (and consequently the harmony), even within the first four bars.
(Further discussion of Bach’s use of minor-mode notes to colour major key movements may be found in chapter 16, dealing with C 8).
Thus do the minor colourings, the melodic shapes, the instrumentation and the harmonic progressions all combine to cast shadows over any misconstrued suggestions of elation or exultation.
The duet effects a complete contrast of mood. The minor key returns, a playful, almost exultant dance with no feeling of dejection about it—-Oh God of love, encompass my soul and assist me. The instrumental accompaniment to the two voices is laid out in the form of a trio sonata, two oboes and continuo with a persistent rhythmic message. The addition of the two voices enriches the contrapuntal texture at times to five melodic lines, although the dance-like characteristic is never threatened.
Bach aficionados will note the similarity of the opening theme to that of the trio in Brandenburg 1/4, doubtless unintentional and a rare example of Bach almost repeating himself, if only for a few bars.
Furthermore, Dürr (p 316) remarks ′we might almost believe that Bach allowed himself to be inspired by the soprano aria from the previous year′s cantata BWV 77/3′ (also composed for the thirteenth Sunday after Trinity.) In several chapters in these volumes the reader may find further examples of Bach apparently seeking stimulation by looking over scores previously written for the same days of the church year.
At this point in the second cycle, one finds Bach experimenting with specific compositional approaches within cognate groups of cantatas; we have already observed him trying out various ways of combining recitative, arioso, and chorale. He also seems to have become very interested in the expressive possibilities of the duet. In Cs 101 and 113 he produced exquisite duos and one of the most delicate is to be heard in C 78, and yet another in C 99. In these latter examples he used the higher voices of soprano and alto. In C 33 however, and in keeping with the somewhat somber tone of the work, it is the turn of the lower tenor and bass, albeit lightened by the imitative cackling of the oboes.
The vocal writing is of particular interest because it demonstrates yet again how Bach takes a textual idea and reflects it within the very fabric of his musical structure and textures. The verse begins with the individual solicitation—-light (infuse) my soul. It then moves to consideration of the neighbour whom one should cherish, a passing hint of the Gospel of the day, the Good Samaritan. Thus does the text move from emphasis on the individual to that of the group or community. Bach takes this as his fundamental cue for the musical construction of the duet.
All but one of the vocal sections begin with the two voices moving together in parallel thirds or sixths, seemingly acting as one. But as the phrases develop they become increasingly complex, taking up the semi-quaver movement and canonic entries of the oboes. Thus we perceive the moving of focus from the individual to the wider community reflected in the configuration of the vocal lines and their increasingly intricate relationships.
This is the musical representation of ideas and images at its most subtle and delicate level, an example of truly great art. Did Bach expect his congregation to be perspicacious enough to have noticed it? Or was it simply intended for God?
The one section near the end which begins with canonic imitation between the voices is concerned with the bustling enemies who disturb our faith—-Stören Feinde meine Ruh. (from bar 100). This is a common theme in Lutheran theology and may have inspired the busy semi-quavers of the opening chorus, such as were previously heard in the chorale/fantasia from C 178. The vocal lines twist and turn, finally dissolving into a series of expressive pleas on the last words—-send me aid!
Bass and tenor recitatives.
When turning to the recitatives we find that, apart from the three bars of arioso in that for bass, Bach’s preoccupation with the hybrid experiments in recent cantatas temporarily ceases. He returns to the traditional pattern of a fluid and expressive melody supported by a slow-moving continuo line and the harmonic structure supplied by the organ.
The first, for bass voice, holds few surprises and displays nothing in the way of structural experimentation. The two most obvious points of word painting are firstly, the bleak enharmonic change of harmony on the word übergross—-a description of the enormity of our sin (bars 7-8)—-and secondly, the closing arioso melting into the melisma on the word erfreuen—-the joy or ecstasy which accompanies God’s forgiveness. These last bars of melody are supported and enlivened by a more active continuo line built from Schweitzer’s ‘joy motive’.
Two contrasting emotions are thus highlighted and emphasised a few bars apart, one by harmonic and the other by melodic means.
The second recitative, for tenor, asks God not to reject the sinner, despite the offences against His laws. There is little to set it apart from any number of equally workmanlike Bachian recitatives. It does the job dutifully but without displaying any particular uniqueness. The barest touch of word painting is easily missed, a tiny run in the continuo punctuating the word halten (bars 5-6)—-the continuing struggle required in order to obey even the simplest of God′s laws.
We are left to consider the last and first movements where, as with all the chorale cantatas, the one generates the structure, scale and character of the other.
This is a long chorale comprising, when the repeated first section is taken into consideration, nine phrases. What distinguishes it, and probably attracted Bach’s interest, are the unequal phrase lengths, the initial three-bar units thence moving to two. Bach must have recognized a number of exciting potentialities made more complex and intricate through his decision to turn the 4/4 rhythm into the 3/4 time signature of the opening chorus; a movement which, nevertheless, presents us with something of an enigma.
The text of the fantasia begins with a lamentation of ‘alone-ness’ on this earth. Christ is our only comforter and it is in Him that we should place our trust. There is a theme of alienation and isolation here and the unwary might be led to expect a chorus of the type which opens C 101; a portrait of infinite sadness and exclusion amongst the trials and tribulations of this sin-begotten world.
We may be surprised to discover that this is not Bach’s approach! Partly arising from his unfailing optimism and natural tendency to accentuate the positive and partly because of his ability constantly to wrong-foot us in our preconceptions, this is far from our expectation. It is a movement of outstanding, almost breathless energy and force. The strings and oboes unleash a torrent of semi-quavers in a ritornello structure that pushes on regardless, through and around the choral entries. There is nothing isolationist or exclusive about this music; it sweeps us along with its infectious vigour and affirmative optimism. (We find, and may wish to compare, similar ebullient fantasias in the same key of Am in Cs 178, 26 and 111).
Schweitzer (vol 2, p 371) suggests that the uninterrupted semi-quavers are expressing a ‘sunny confidence’ and the accompanying quavers ‘steadfast faith’. This would confirm the view that Bach is more attracted to the positive values of redemption through trust and faith than the negative ones of isolation. But it doesn’t quite explain the extraordinarily buoyant setting of what is still a relatively subdued text—-my hope is placed only in you, Lord—-from the beginning there was nothing decreed and no one else to alleviate my anguish.
It may be that the rushing scales are intended to suggest the complexities of the world around us, of which we should be eternally vigilant. They could be a representation of the encroaching enemies, a recurring theme and one mentioned explicitly in the duet (we found a similar picture of the antagonistic hordes painted in C 178 (chapter 9) first performed a month previously). Could it be that Bach had in mind the raging chaos of the cosmos where ′nothing was ordained from the inception′, where Man feels himself to be alone and in a state of perpetual confusion?
We cannot be sure. But we cannot fail to recognise Bach’s uncanny ability to appropriate an image expressed in, or perhaps merely implied by words, and to embed it within the fabric of his musical thinking (as in the duet, discussed above). The problem is that sometimes Bach’s thinking is so complex and abstruse that it is difficult to tease it out.
Whatever the imagic foundation of the movement, the musical basis is clear. The opening oboe and violin scales are extensions of the first chorale phrase, in close four-part imitations. The inverted answer in the bass is the sort of idea, which Bach often uses to convey a sense of scattering or dispersal (again an intimation of chaos?) although here it serves principally to carry the momentum forward. The form is that of the Italianate ritornello/concerto.
The cantus firmus is, as usual, taken by the sopranos which, on three occasions enter alone, subsequently to be supported by imitative entries on the lower three voices (bars 20, 67 and 98). For the remaining six entries, all the voices enter together en bloc.
Perhaps even in this way Bach is making a subtle point about the contrast of the concepts individual and group. The lower voices do little to compete or become entangled with the surging energy of the incessant instrumental semi-quavers.
The final chorale is simply harmonized in the key of Am, where we began our journey. It gives honour to the Holy Trinity and is a restrained affirmation of its goodness and protection, which will endue for eternity.
Thus we take leave of this cantata with the sounds of the infinite continuing to ring in our ears.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.