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Chapter 2 BWV168 Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort!
Make Reckoning! Oh thunderous word!
Aria (bass)–recit (tenor)–aria (tenor)–recit (bass)–duet (sop/alto)–chorale.
The first cantata of the cycle for the ninth Sunday after Trinity.
In the introduction to this volume it was stated that Bach provided an impressive beginning for his first two Leipzig cycles. Cs 75 and 76 were written before he took up his appointment and were clearly intended to open his account in his new post at the end of May 1723. Similarly, one year later, C 20 was a work of considerable proportion and originality, creating the format of chorale-fantasia cantatas that he committed himself to, without interruption, for the following eight months.
But we do not have any Bach cantatas for the period of Trinity to the eighth Sunday after Trinity in 1725. As it stands, C 168 might appear to be the first cantata of the third cycle, but it clearly wasn’t a large scale work appropriate for either Trinity or the first Sunday following it, bearing in mind that the latter marked the commencement of the 1723 and 1724 cycles. C 168 does not begin with a chorus; in fact apart from the closing chorale, there is nothing for the chorus to do. And there are a number of other mysteries about this comparatively minor enigmatic work.
But however we might view the overall cantata, the opening bass aria is one of those energetic, rhythmically driving, infectious movements quite impossible to ignore. Some may feel that the rest of the work does not measure up to this exhilarating beginning and, indeed, there are a number of clues indicating that it may have been written under considerable pressure of time. The lack of a large chorus is one and the scoring is extremely light throughout, strings and continuo in the first movement, two oboes d′amore in the tenor aria (but playing in unison, not individual parts) and continuo only for the duet.
Furthermore, in addition to his weekly performance and composition duties for the church, Bach may well have been distracted at this time by the need to produce an important secular work required less than five weeks after C 168. C 205, written for Friedrich Müller of the Leipzig University, is a large-scale piece of fifteen movements, lasting almost forty-five minutes. Not even the most impressive of the second cycle fantasia cantatas were of this proportion. And in between the performances of Cs 168 and 205, Bach also provided new works for the twelfth and thirteenth Sundays after Trinity: Cs 137 and 164.
But the mystery remains that no cantata of Bach′s survives from the eight weeks separating C 176 (the last of the second cycle) and C 168. Are they missing? Did Bach use the works of other composers as he was to do later in 1726? If that were so, the case for a work hastily composed without any particular justification is weakened.
One further intriguing possibility exists. Might Bach have just heard of the death of his friend and erstwhile collaborator Salomo Franck and wished to provide a tribute to him by setting one of his texts for the following Sunday? (He would, incidentally, again turn to libretti of Franck′s later in this cycle e.g. Cs 164 and 72).
However, the lack of the by now well-established da capo structures and the fact that the libretto is known to have been written a decade previously, are factors that might suggest an earlier date of composition. The entire cantata is shrouded in mystery and it remains, apart from the opening aria, the least imposing of the three extant works composed for this day.
C 105 from the first cycle showed Bach at his most inventive. The splendid opening bipartite chorus is complemented by a soprano aria which is a veritable textbook of composition techniques, demonstrating what may be achieved technically and expressively through the manipulation of a simple four-note motive. C 94 opens with a chorale fantasia much enhanced by the splendid flute player whose services Bach was able to draw upon in the second cycle. It is slightly surprising, however, to discover C 168, the only one of these three works to begin with an aria rather than a chorus, conveying such a degree of emotional intensity.
It may also be instructive to turn back to the three cantatas from the second cycle which also begin with an aria for bass (Cs 85, 108 and 87, vol 2, chapter 44). All are impressive and powerful movements but none contain the sheer driving energy, amounting almost to violence, of C 168. Of course, in the earlier works either God or Jesus speaks in the first person and a sense of constrained dignity is justly appropriate. In C 168 it is the voice of the teacher or pastor addressing his congregation about the awesome word and power of the Lord, and that is a different matter allowing, perhaps, for a more human, emotional and less constrained expression.
The main theme of C 168 is that of the Day of Judgement when God will require man to account for himself. The dotted rhythms and rolling triplets depict forcefully the images embedded in the text i.e. the splitting of the very rocks below the thunderous voice of judgement and the consequent freezing of the sinner′s blood at the terror of the occasion.
The initial musical idea is just one bar long, dotted notes hammered out in the upper strings above a seldom-absent rolling of continuo triplets. This idea is repeated twice, down one note of the scale on each occasion, after which the upper strings take up the triplets and propel us towards the end of the ritornello. Note the unusual unison writing for all string parts in order to mark forcefully this and later cadences.
The bass enters with a direct and unambiguous command—-Tue Rechnung—-give an account of yourself! As if to balance the initial ritornello statement, this order is also twice repeated, but now rising one note up the scale as if to accentuate both the importance and urgency of the directive. There is absolutely no room for doubt about what the Lord requires of us!
But when the upper strings return with their insistent dotted rhythms (bar 10) we find the composer at his most subtle. The text tells us of the voice of thunder that splits the very rocks and mountains. How does Bach suggest this in musical terms? Simply by ′splitting′ the first three phrases or writing the melodies ′out of sync′. On each occasion the strings enter first, the voice coming in slightly later and continuing for a beat after the string phrase has ended. The conjoined melodies neither begin nor end together. The very action of splitting or dividing the firmament is encapsulated in the lack of alignment of the musical lines.
Violins above voice.
Would the congregation have noticed? Unlikely as, until it is pointed out to them, many listeners would probably miss this ingenious device even today.
In the middle section (from bar 27) the raging upper strings are silent and the vocal melody acquires a slightly more mellifluous quality with which to inform us that all the things we now have—- possessions, corporal bodies and earthly lives—-must inevitably be surrendered to the Lord. The continuo line is permitted to persist in its subterranean rumblings.
But the upper strings are only resting and return once more to drive home the initial message.
The instrumental ritornello is reprised at the end maintaining its breathless, unison drive to the final cadence. The warnings have been given and blood appropriately curdled and all has been achieved with the minimum of resources. Bach does not need horns, trumpets and timpani in order to energise and terrify his congregations.
And this may also explain why he had no immediate need of the available pair of oboes d′amore now called upon to accompany the tenor recitative.
Their entry is a little surprising at this stage and at first they are asked to do little more than sustain the chords. But they do create a distant, eerie, sepulchral sound suggestive of the grave. The Day of Judgement follows our demise from this world and perhaps we need to be reminded of the natural order of events. It is possible that Bach was searching around in order to find a commanding image because there is little of this to be found in the first dozen or so lines of text? They have something of an accountant′s ring about them, outlining that which has been borrowed yet squandered in our earthly lives. Perhaps Bach thought that a suggestion of the finality and remoteness of the grave was the best he could offer in the circumstances.
However, the latter lines refer to the mountains falling upon us and the lightening emanating from His angry Visage. Here, at least, Bach is able to fashion some flickerings of movement from his pair of oboes, suggestive of these actions. The vocal line is both melodic and dramatic throughout, yet another example of Bach′s familiarity with contemporary operatic styles.
Note also the unexpected change in the oboes from a Dm to a D major chord (bar 16) heralding the change of emphasis from the squandering of our gifts to our entreaties to the Lord.
The tenor aria is set in the expressive key of F#m, although it must be said that it lacks the heart-rending quality of several movements from the second cycle also set in this key. Comparisons may be made with the alto aria from C 116 (vol 2, chapter 26) and that for tenor from C 123 (vol 2, chapter 33) both of which are more deeply moving, memorable pieces. Although not of the same order, 168/3 is still a pleasing ritornello aria, the two oboes combining to declare the obbligato line in unison.
The opening melody is reminiscent of some of the figuration in the slow movement of the harpsichord concert in A (e.g. bars 9-11) and, indeed, in the same key. It is set out in persistently balanced four-bar phrases, perhaps another indication of the pedestrian nature of the text.
Doubtless, much of the blame must lie with the librettist, once again stressing the accountancy rather than the spiritual aspects of the cantata′s theme. Debts and interest, principal and ultimate reckonings: these are the essential concerns of the opening lines. It is only latterly that mention of God′s book, with our transgressions written in ‘diamond and steel’, gives Bach some more forceful images to work with. But he seems only partially interested; these words stand out on long high notes but they are given little further emphasis.
Bach follows the same structural procedure of the bass aria in that he does not properly reprise the opening vocal section, although he repeats the instrumental ritornello intact.
The bass recitative sets a fairly long slab of text as, indeed did that for tenor. But nowhere here do we find Bach returning to his ′hybrid′ experiments alternating chorale/arioso with recitative phrases. This, allied to the fact that he makes so little of such imagery as is placed at his disposal, may be another indication of his composing this work under pressure. The text does, in fact, contain references to the terrified and despairing spirit and the Blood of the Lamb, but Bach sets an indifferent secco line without even calling upon the available oboes for colour or support. The mood is restrained and calm throughout, the accounting procedures remaining with us as the payment of debts and gifts to the poor are listed. One cannot feel that Bach was fully engaged by neither the given text, or his resultant music. This is the more surprising since textually this movement is the key-stone of the cantata; here fears are allayed and debts are disposed of through the Lamb’s blood and the love of Christ.
One tonal point of interest is the movement from minor (the basic mode of all movements) to major mode which might seem to prepare us for a somewhat more optimistic and passionate penultimate movement. But even the duet, somewhat surprisingly, remains rooted in the minor.
Yet again one does not find Bach as emotionally engaged to the extent we have observed in many of the superb duets composed for the second cycle. Nevertheless, this aria injects a much-needed element of passion into what has been, at least since the opening movement, a rather listless text. It is an exhortation to break free from Mammon′s bonds, to disperse goodness without and to build a secure abode in heaven for that time when all earthly goods have returned to dust. One imagines that, given the space and incentive, Bach might have conceived a magnificent three or four-section chorus from this stanza. But instead, he delivers a duet which is concise, almost to the point of terseness. There is no obbligato instrument and, despite the temporary lightening of mood at the mention of our secure place in Heaven, no real middle section.
The four-bar continuo melody is constructed in two symmetrical sections, the first consisting of rapid upward skirls, possibly suggestive of the scattering of ′those things which are good′. The second section has a heavier rootedness that may suggest that secure place awaiting us in heaven.
This melody is highly repetitious, having the effect of a ground bass but Bach allows himself a little more latitude. It gives the impression of stricture whilst remaining essentially free so that each of the two components may be extended as appropriate.
Only once does the continuo line break into flowing semi quavers, to be taken up by the vocalists. This is to support the words ewig bleibet—-that which eternally remains (in heaven)—-bar 36.
There are only three vocal blocks, the singers traditionally imitating each other in the order:
Block 1 alto, soprano
Block 2 ditto
Block 3 soprano, alto.
The concluding chorale is still minor in mode and is a simple prayer—-strengthen and heal me as I leave this life—-take me from this world when You are pleased so to do. It seems not to have provided musical shapes or motives for the preceding movements; in fact there is very little evidence here of the sorts of organic development found in many works of the second cycle, another possible indication of haste.
Bach could certainly turn out fine cantatas at very short notice; they did not all need to be experimental, grandiose or monumental works of art. Nevertheless, despite the somewhat less engaging of parts of this particular work, we should be grateful if only for the superb opening aria.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.