Chapter 18 BWV 114 Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost
Beloved Christians, take comfort.
This impressively invigorating chorale/fantasia deserves close scrutiny for a number of reasons. Firstly, it marks a return to the minor modes after three consecutive opening choruses in major keys, Cs 99, 8 and 130. Secondly, aficionados will not miss the marked similarities between the theme of this fantasia and that of C115, yet to burst upon the Leipzig congregations (chapter 23). Thirdly, the choral writing displays an inventiveness and imagination, not so say complexity, that warrants detailed inspection.
In essence this is a rallying cry to the faithful—-seid getrost—-take comfort, or possibly, courage—-do not despair because the Lord is testing us—-we all deserve to be punished and the Lord exempts no-one. Minor mode it certainly is, as if to remind us of the nature of our inevitable afflictions and their consequences; we are still to be punished and consequently there cannot be unabated elation. But it is also an effective rallying call demanding energy and vitality and Bach certainly brings these qualities to the attention of his congregations.
The orchestra is much as expected, strings and oboes predominating with the horn reinforcing the chorale melody. In the first two bars of the ritornello, oboes and violins announce three of the four motives from which the entire movement will be wrought. Firstly comes a striding crotchet figure on the upper instruments. This resolves itself immediately into the second idea, a quaver turn about the tonic note of g (bar 2).
The contrapuntal combination of these extrovert rhythmic figures, all of which convey echoes of the chorale melody, sets the tone of the entire movement. As we might expect the ritornello, complete or in its shortened version, begins and ends the movement as well as separating each of the seven chorale phrases.
As a preparation for a deeper understanding and appreciation of this powerful movement, non-music readers might be advised to listen to the opening theme several times, isolating and becoming familiar with the four musical ideas extrapolated above so as to make them instantly recognizable throughout the progress of Bach’s musical logic.
All perceptive listeners will have their own suggestions as to what specific connections these motives have with the textual images. They will reach different conclusions. They may hear the trembling of the troubled Christians who are being exhorted or the magisterial tones of the encouraging Saviour. It might be the joy of the knowledge of redemption coloured by an awareness of the unavoidable punishments we must undergo on our journey. It doesn’t matter; Bach will doubtless have had images of this kind in his mind and we may, or may not, accurately second-guess him.
But what we can be sure of is that this is a movement of exhortation and energy, of spirit and resolve. What the individual motives represent matters less than the totality of the musical impetus and the powerful resolution it expresses.
As usual, the first two phrases of the chorale are repeated. Often Bach retains the same harmonization but in this fantasia he employs his lower voices differently on the second occasion. Thorough familiarisation with the motives from the ritornello will equip the listener to hear more precisely what the lower voices are doing and this is important since it illuminates Bach’s view of the text.
The first line—-Christians take courage!—-is underpinned by the lower voices emphatically declaiming the second (turning) motive. The next—-do not despair—-has them entering in imitation (in the order A, T, B) with the strongly marked first motive (the striding crotchets). The third phrase—-the Lord is testing us—- begins like the first but resolves into a series of imitations of the quaver idea, possibly hinting at a suggestion of guile and cunning. Fourthly—-let us proclaim it from our hearts—-the voices are interjecting and exhorting as one might expect from an excited throng.
And so on until the end, with every phrase having a different choral setting so as to give the subtlest of emphasis to the shadings of meaning. This is ‘high art’ which, once pointed out, can be detected and enjoyed by the focused listener, although obviously if one is able to follow a score, even with limited music reading skills, the patterns become all the more transparent and lucid.
Finally, note how the lower voices swirl around the sopranos’ long last notes almost as if the multitudes are massing about, confessing and accepting (with fortitude) their punishments as an overture to redemption.
We pause, a little breathless at this point but whilst we might require a moment to recover, Bach denies this to his tenor and flautist. This first aria is quite exceptional; Bach weaves a mere five lines of text into around eight minutes of extraordinarily music. This is formally a conventional da capo aria; except that it turns out to be not quite as conformist as we might expect. The first and last sections are expressions of great poignancy; the centerpiece is a cross between a pastorale and a gigue.
Bach begins with a long, ritornello flute solo. This is pure melody, reminding us that he has no need to write complex counterpoint for great expressive effect. One melodic line, at least when wrought with this intensity, is sufficient to move the listener deeply. The flute has two principle gestures, one a reiterated falling suspension suggestive of sighing and weeping, the other a clouded swathe of rapid notes which seem to envelop the soul. The harmonic support is minimal, often providing no more than one chord in each bar.
Flute and continuo.
The singer asks—-where, in this place of tears and wretchedness, will my soul find sanctuary?—-and, of course, it is this simple question which inspires some of Bach’s most searing expression. Now two melodies of poignancy interact with each other intensifying, if one had thought it were possible, the initial distress of the flute theme. Bach has admitted us to a world of great beauty but one that seems, at least at this stage, to have very little hope.
But just as we feel we might be sinking into a pit of total despair, everything changes (bar 55). The time signature becomes that of gigue (12/8), the tempo becomes much faster and hope is re-ignited—-I will, though lacking strength, turn to the arms of Jesus. The guiding hand of the Saviour shows us our true course and the contrast between the two sections of music could hardly be greater.
The misery returns with the da capo repeat of the first section. Is this simply a conventional gesture? Or is Bach trying to tell us that sadness has not been permanently dispensed with? The soul, presumably, will always seek, and be in need of, refuge.
The bass recitative reminds the sinner of the necessity of bearing his burden and preparing his soul if redemption is to be ultimately attainable. There are various images, such as that of the draught of the sinful, the forbidden fruit and ultimately, death and the grave. All of these Bach declines to paint vividly. This is a workman-like recitative which conveys the text elegantly but with little of imagic interest.
One might, however, note the long descending first phrase which exhorts the sinner to bear his burden with equanimity, and the setting of the word erniedrigt—-to humiliate or put down (bars 13 and 14). Here the little chromatic twist of the melody is supported by a bass line, both of which adopt a momentary arioso-like quality.
Bach does not incorporate sections of the chorale into this recitative, perhaps because it is to become the main attraction in the following movement.
The message is stark—-fruit will not come from seed that hasn′t germinated in the earth. Similarly our redemption comes only when our bodies have been returned to dust. The starkness of the unembellished chorale line is highlighted by the absence of an obbligato instrument.
In a sense this is not an aria but a clear and direct statement of dogma, the centrepiece of the cantata, based entirely upon the chorale. The serpentine bass has countless little rests and twists and it turns in rhythmically unpredictable ways, possibly to remind us of the worms inevitably reducing our corporal bodies to dust. This is a slightly bizarre movement which, for all its brevity, continues to echo in the mind.
Schweitzer is particularly damning of the text of the alto aria: ‘We are appalled at the triteness of such words’. He continues, ‘When, however, we hear them with the music, they express most eloquently the blissful joy of the redeemed soul’ He furthermore writes of Bach’s ‘transforming the text into a poem of death and transfiguration’ (vol 2, p 37) and here he does touch upon a chord. This aria is a beautifully wrought statement of the quietly unostentatious confidence that emanates from a coming to terms, as Bach himself must surely have done, with the actuality of death.
Theme and continuo.
To twenty-first century ears the words may seem no more trite than many other eighteenth century Lutheran texts set by Bach and his contemporaries. They speak of removing the fear of death which, when supervised by the Lord, is merely a part of the process by which we are transformed into a state of purity and redemption.
Had Bach been overly scrupulous about the quality or substance of his texts he might have composed less music and this would have been a tragedy for the rest of us! Nevertheless, Schweitzer comes nearer to the truth when he conjectures that the composer may have been indifferent to the text and its banalities ′because he is conscious of how little remains of the words when he has poured his own poetic power upon them′ (ibid p 37). This is a profound observation, also reminding us that we cannot be certain just how much influence Bach had in the determining of the substance of his committee-vetted verses. Additionally it is a reminder that great music does not necessarily rely upon great text.
But we can be very certain, perhaps never more than in the present century, of the success of his transformations of repetitious and tendentious tracts into art forms, reflecting some of the most complex aspects of the human condition.
Mention has been made elsewhere of Bach’s habit of making one of the latter arias stand out as ‘different’ from the rest of the work. It may be dissimilar in terms of its tempo, tonality or instrumentation thereby reflecting musically a contrasting point of view, a contemplation of the reverse side of the argument. This, for example, is the only movement in the cantata set in a major key, a tonal backdrop to the quiet assertion—-I fear You no more, oh Death.
But although major mode and a quietly trickling oboe melody bespeak personal confidence, we are constantly reminded that the grave is not far away. The line—-death must necessarily be endured—-is constantly declaimed in the most remote of minor keys and, in the middle section of this da capo aria, even though it appears positive with its suggestions of an emerging transformation into a state of grace, the mood remains dark and slightly threatening.
This is not an easy movement to interpret and Schweitzer’s description of it as a ‘poem of death and transfiguration’ is insightful. But, as with great poetry, the meanings of Bach’s music are layered and complex. Each individual listener will find, and be touched by his or her own shades of emotional significance that might be discovered within this enigmatic movement.
Think only of your soul and return your body to God, He who protects you in earth and in heaven—-this is the substance of the final tenor recitative. There is little here of special interest except, perhaps, for the rising chromatic line in the bass just before the end. Bach frequently uses a falling chromatic line to represent images of the cross. Here there may well be an echo of that event, but the fact that the scale is ascending might imply a persistence of that confidence and assurance which was demanded in the opening chorus.
Whether sleeping or awake, we are part of the Lord, who will continue to protect us from danger in general and Satan in particular. So states the final chorale, simply harmonized and reflecting upon our sanctuary and security in the arms of Christ′s baptism. The rising bass scale underpinning the fifth phrase suggests hope and a continuing ′reaching up′ towards heaven, even as we sing of that Death which Adam brought to us all.
Is the final message just a trifle smug? Amongst the reiterated calls for humility, one finds the occasional note of superiority expressed in these verses. But if the congregation had fully understood all the complex, textured messages conveyed by Bach’s great setting, it might have found little justification for self-satisfied righteousness.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.