Chapter 15 BWV 99 Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan
Whatever God does is done well.
This cantata takes us into the second quarter of the cycle and it would be difficult to imagine a more joyful and ebullient beginning than the opening chorus. God does nothing without good purpose, it proclaims, and we would do well to remember this—-He upholds us even during the most difficult periods of our lives and we are wise to accept His rule and wisdom. One is tempted to speculate that Bach himself might have held to a philosophy of this kind, expressed here in the most cheerful and urbane manner.
Although this is the fourteenth cantata of the cycle, it is only the third with an opening fantasia set in a major key. Of the twenty-five cantatas from C 20 (the beginning of the cycle as determined by the date when Bach had begun his duties in Leipzig in May 1723) to C 116 (the twenty-fifth Sunday after Trinity and the end of the ecclesiastical year) only ten are in major keys. A quick glance at the chronological listing shows that most of these appear in this second quarter of this cycle.
We may note that Bach begins and ends the block of forty chorale cantatas with major key fantasias (Cs 20 and 1) but clearly he is seen to lean more towards the major modes only when the canon is well established. Of the last twelve works comprising the church year, eight are major (Cs 99, 8, 130, 96, 180, 115, 139, and 116) and only four are minor (Cs 114, 5, 38 and 26). This is a complete reversal of his initial tonal policy since of the first thirteen fantasias of the cycle (Cs 20-78) only two (Cs 20 and 94) are major. Clearly this imbues the first two quarters with rather different characters.
Nevertheless, it is illuminating to note the degree of expressive variety Bach achieves by using major modes, ranging from the quiet, personal introspection of C 8 to the spirited effervescence of Cs 94 and 99. Of these last two cantatas, the former would seem, in many ways, to have been a practice run for the latter.
In both works, Bach’s excellent flautist is the instrumental star. Here he makes his appearance as soloist in three movements (first, third and fifth) exhibiting a high degree of virtuosity. The opening chorus is a flute concerto in all but name and inevitably leads one to speculate whether it may have been adapted from a lost work, possibly one of the missing violin concerti. There is, however, apart from some internal structural detail, no external evidence to support this contention. The fact that Bach seems to have borrowed nothing from earlier works for the block of forty fantasia cantatas of this cycle would indicate that it was newly composed. Additionally, some critics have suggested links tying the opening string melody to the first chorale phrase and thus binding them as an entity, but it must be said that these are rather tenuous.
Not that any of this really matters. Whatever its ancestry, this fantasia is a splendidly joyous piece, lifting and engaging the human spirit.
Conjecture about the possible concerto legacy is fuelled particularly by the structure of the ritornello. It begins with a robust, almost conventional orchestral statement played by the strings and continuo (even temporarily setting aside the single oboe d′amore), ending with a perfect cadence in the tonic key of G, in the sixteenth bar. Here the solo flute enters and the string and oboe accompaniment is markedly light, another typically concerto-esque quality. It is only on the entry of the sopranos four bars later that the expected chorale/fantasia model is confirmed.
It may seem a strange idea but this movement would still work perfectly well if the vocal parts were entirely removed. The chordal progressions would continue to be supplied by the continuo organ or harpsichord and there would be no distortion of structure or inhibition of drive. The vocal parts seem almost like an after-thought and, indeed, the very simplicity of the writing for the voices could well indicate that they were a later addition to an existing piece.
God is the eternal, ever-present guide whom the radiant instrumental writing depicts; the choir may well represent the individual who stolidly observes and dutifully follows, always subservient and never dominating. A sense of isolation may also be implied by the way in which the chorale (soprano) phrases always enter alone, ahead of the other voices. Schweitzer’s three-note figure of joy, present from the very first bar, becomes ever more persistent as the movement progresses.
We are encouraged to rejoice, without inhibition, in the fact that God has reason and purpose for all his actions, part of which is his role as a true guide in difficult times.
There are two recitatives, both of which end with a short arioso section set in counterpoint above a moving continuo line. Otherwise, neither demonstrates the interest Bach exhibited in ′hybrid’ structures at this point in the cycle.
The first asserts the authority of God’s word as a symbol of divine guidance. The text reminds us of His power, which can turn disaster into good fortune, a process through which one state of mind, or circumstance, may be transmuted into another. Bach represents this by means of a form of musical alchemy in which he converts bare recitative chords into arioso-like two-part writing for the last phrase. The long melisma on the word wenden—-turning into—-underlines these thought processes.
The music transforms itself into something quite different as, indeed, do our adversities when touched by the word of God.
The later alto recitative presents us with the metaphor of God’s shining light; this will surely reveal His great design, alluded to in the first movement. Once again, the simple recitative structure transforms itself into two-part counterpoint in the final bars. Here the melisma is on the word erscheinet—-the very manifestation of the Divine Being Himself with suggestions of both shining upon and revelation.
Tonally the point is further enhanced by the harmonic progression from the initial B minor mode to that of a final radiant D major. The two recitatives have a similar structure e.g. they are almost identical in length, ending with four bars of arioso over a similar continuo line. This suggests that they were initially conceived as a pair and part of the same work.
One notes that, despite the effervescence of the opening chorus and the generally positive theme of this cantata, only the outer movements begin and end in major modes; between them the mood is more muted. The tenor aria is a fine example of Bach’s ability to conjure feelings of searing intensity. True, some people have found it ‘wearisomely long’ (Schweitzer, vol 2, p 243) but typically lasting between five and six minutes in performance it comes nowhere near the eight or nine minutes of some of Bach′s most extensive arias. As always, it depends to a large degree upon the performers; but there is always plenty which the keen listener can observe, admire and be moved by without becoming ‘wearied’.
The text explores the imagery of the ‘bitter cup of sorrow’. God is pictured as a combination of wise physician and miracle worker. He will never dispense medicine that is actually toxic to his flock, although we must accept that, at the time, we might not find it pleasant. These images are powerful and whilst at other times Bach may take a more optimistic view of such a text, here he concentrates principally upon the image of ‘bitter sorrow’.
There are almost certainly over-riding structural reasons for this. The aria is more or less at the centre of the work and its pensive sadness balances the major-key positivity of the outer movements. Additionally, we know that Bach (and, presumably, his librettist) has a tendency, sometimes almost an obsession, to portray two sides of a given subject. In this case the joy and affirmation of God’s ultimate purpose depicted in the fantasia is counterpointed against the bile of earthly wretchedness in the aria.
The ritornello/da capo form is crystal clear as is the opening flute theme stated over the continuo bass. This melody depicts an image from the first line of text, the ′shaking of the soul′ and, as early as bar three, Bach introduces the falling chromatic scale, a symbol of the bitterness of Christ’s blood spilt upon the cross.
The phrases are balanced, symmetrical four-bar structures suggesting a sense of the steadfastness of God, our physician. The continuo bass takes little part in the counterpoint other than to provide the foundation for the harmonic structure; it is the delicious interplay between flute and voice that captivates the ear.
Two long and convoluted melismas demand attention. The first (bars 88-92) is on einschenken—-the pouring out of the deadly draft, something we might not necessarily have expected from the Lord. The second (bars 107-115) is even more tortuous, carrying the word verborgan—-hidden—-a reference to the disguised benefits of God’s beneficence. Here the vocal line is composed of long notes and falling phrases set against the ever-upward striving of the flute. This disjunctive movement presumably represents the opposing aspects of the Lord’s medication; it will eventually do you good, but initially it tastes bad; a common human experience which the younger members of the congregation particularly were likely to recognize!
Immediately preceding the closing chorale is another of those duets which much occupied Bach’s attention at this time. Again, the continuo line performs its dutiful harmonic function without intruding into the contrapuntal dialogue of the upper voices. It still, however, represents the weary trudging of the cross′s bearer. There is just the one moment where the pattern is broken, the ascending semi-quaver scale underlining the central assertion —-what He chooses to do, is rightly done—-Ist es dennoch wohlgetan—-(bar 22).
Otherwise the texture of the movement formulates itself into two complimentary pairs, the one flute with oboe, the other soprano and alto. The text contrasts opposing types of individuals, those who bear their burdens without complaint, struggling with and surmounting the weaknesses of the flesh, and those who do not. These latter sinners can only look forward to a miserable future. This idea of dualism clearly caught Bach’s attention as the entire structure is one of imitation between the upper lines above the bass′s plodding steps representing the carrying of eternal burdens.
The first is five repeated quavers, accentuating the idea of plodding heavily laden and also echoing reiterated notes that have been clearly derived from the chorale′s middle phrases. Just before the oboe entry (first beat of bar 2) we hear the second motive, a two-note falling figure suggestive of the sighing of the weary and deluded sinner.
Two long melismas are shared by the singers and they only slightly ameliorate the cheerless trudging which dominates the movement. They stress (bars 18-21) the words streiten—-enduring (one’s frailty) and secondly ergötzet—-the ultimate fulfillment which the deluded ones will not be permitted to enjoy (between bars 36 and 47).
But the predominating mood of this movement is one of a wretched, enduring trek. A pervasive image for contemporary listeners is the dreadful one of columns of displaced refugees.
The chorale must have been a favourite of Bach’s. He used it several times with minimal alterations to the harmony. It was also called upon as a wedding hymn and it appears in C 144 from the first cycle, there stated in the middle of the work.
He also recycled the entire first movement of C 99 with the same words, for C 100, thought to have been initially prepared for a wedding in the 1730s (Dürr p 792). On that occasion Bach provided a particularly flamboyant arrangement for the closing movement, eschewing the simple four-part setting and adding ostentatious parts for woodwind and two horns (chapter 57).
But most interestingly, Bach also used it as the basis for the chorale fantasia which opens the ebullient C 98 from 1726 (vol 3, chapter 31). It is there transformed into triple time and the lower voices remain relatively uncomplicated, the main interest again residing in the orchestra. This offers us a rare opportunity of comparing different fantasias wrought from the same chorale. Another such pairing is C 128 (chapter 46) and C 112 (chapter 54).
The chorale closing C 99 could not be less pretentious. The text restates God’s sense of purpose and guiding spirit—-some of our pathways may be strewn with thorns but the essential message is one of faith and trust in a Lord who deals justly and fairly. Once the uninhibited joy of the recognition of this truth as expressed in the opening chorus has abated, and any lingering doubts have been resolved, a quiet sense of trusting, calm reflection prevails.
This chorale encapsulates these emotions precisely.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.