Chapter 20 BWV 187 Es wartet alles auf dich
Now do all men look upon You.
Chorusrecit (bass)aria (alto)
Aria (bass)aria (sop)recit (sop)–chorale.
For the seventh Sunday after Trinity.
One supposes that Bach’s experiment in introducing a solo alto cantata to his Leipzig congregations was not badly received because in just under three months he composed two more Cs 35 and 169. But immediately following C 170 he returned to the practice of writing large-scale two-part works boasting particularly massive choruses (Cs 187, 45 and 102)
C 187, the first of these, is more widely known as the Mass in G minor BWV 235 for which the opening chorus and all arias were reused. However it is of interest to place the original form of this work within the context of the two other extant cantatas written for this day.
The earliest of them was C 186 a massive composition written in Bach’s Weimar years but revised for reuse in the first Leipzig cycle. It is also in two parts comprising eleven movements and arias for all voices. C 107 (vol 2, chapter 8) was a chorale cantata built upon the unaltered verses of the chorale text and somewhat oddly structured: one recitative followed by four consecutive arias. C 187, like C 186, is in two parts commencing with the longest and most focussed of the opening choruses. Of the three works it has good claim to be considered the most memorable.
The chorus is scored lightly, just the two oboes with strings and continuo. But there is a wealth of ideas comprising the ritornello which manages to be quite lengthy (nearly 30 bars) and musically concise at the same time. The first theme (violins) is built from a rising interval of a fourth followed by a falling scale. The second (bar 2) is played by the oboes in thirds, a chattering around a single note of Bb. It is possible that the general shape of this idea was derived from the first chorale phrase, which circles around a central note of G. The oboes immediately take up the string figure and throw it about imitatively (bars 3-5). These two ideas form the basic material of not only the ritornello but, indeed, the entire movement.
How might they relate to the text?—–all men look to You for nourishment—–when You open Your hand and proffer it, they gather it in and are satisfied. Our study of Bach’s compositional methods has taught us that he would certainly have represented these two images in the structure of the music although precisely which is which is not immediately apparent. The most likely explanation is that the rising fourth and descending scale suggests God opening His hand in order to proffer nourishment and the busy semi-quavers represent the human hordes coming together and gathering that which they have been given.
The vocal writing is of the highest quality, a number of the various entries dominated by the interval of the rising fourth (bars 28-30, 42, 113). Immediately after a repetition of a slab of the ritornello (bars 49-66) comes the first of three fugal expositions on the theme of God giving, and all men gathering. Even the shape of the fugal theme encapsulates these actions, the first motive powerful and imperious built upon an octave leap and a single note, the second a version of the semi-quaver chatterings of the gathering crowds (from bar 66). The universality of the concept is encapsulated by the mirroring of the three fugal expositions, the first (bars 66-77) entering from the lowest to the highest voices and the second and third (bars 83-95 and 95-105) from sopranos back down to the basses.
The chorus ends with a celebration of the fulfilment which all men gain from God’s benefice. Reference is made in these final thirteen bars to all of the melodic material outlined above.
The first recitative is an uncomplicated secco movement which is as much notable for what it lacks as for what it contains. The bass describes imperiously the hordes of birds and animals that inhabit the sea, air and mountains and he further reminds us that all the gold on earth could not buy them a single meal—only God can provide such essentials. The text almost overflows with graphic images yet Bach chooses not to paint them. It may be that there are so many that he feels that any attempt to do them justice would only result in musical chaos. It is also the case however, as has been pointed out in previous essays that Bach, at the height of his powers frequently declines the temptation of the picturing moment in favour of establishing the coherence of the structure as a whole.
Perhaps just one example of explicit representation of the text may be found in the last line which ends as a question (would all of earth’s gold purchase them a single meal?) and musically on a point of non-resolution.
The following aria is sung by the alto and it completes Part 1 of the cantata—-You, Lord, crown the year with Your benefice—-oil and blessing drip in Your footprints. The ritornello (strings only with oboe doubling the first violins for colour) begins with an apparently simple statement of six notes which, somewhat unusually and probably for emphasis, is immediately repeated, unaltered. The word ‘apparently’ is significant because although rhythmically and harmonically uncomplicated, the phrasing is unsymmetrical, each statement being three bars long. This is very typical of Bach, the complexities of structure often disguised but nevertheless adding to the richness of the musical statements; a true art concealing itself.
The opening theme is all the more marked because it is followed by conventional two and four-bar phrases, rising and growing (bars 7-10) and then falling. The latter is a clear representation of the trickling down of God’s blessed balm. The alto is later to have its own version of this image in its skirls of rapid notes (from bar 82).
Interestingly, the voice enters with its own theme before taking up the original ritornello theme. It to be heard just twice, the second time beginning the reprise of the first section (from bar 123). Closer examination reveals that this is an embellished version of the first phrase of the closing chorale. The concept of God establishing and having control of the earth and all its denizens is thus depicted, almost subliminally, through this subtle reference.
Mention has been made in a number of these essays of Bach’s differentiations between the representation of personal and communal religious expression. In C 16 we noted the contrast of the expression of sentiments expressed in the tenor aria with those of the earlier choruses. In C 151 the first aria combines both approaches within what is, structurally at least, a conventional da capo movement.
In C 187 we may discover that the two parts of the overall cantata differentiate in a similar way. Drr (p 451) has noted the change from third to first person in the last three movements, a clear sign of the change of emphasis. It seems that Bach is constantly seeking different structural approaches for the depiction of contrasting individual and collective forms of faith, belief and prayer.
But first the scene is set with the bass voice of the Pastor proclaiming that we have no need of anxiety about our basic needs—our heavenly Father is fully aware of our requirements. Despite the chamber quality of the instrumentation (violins combining to provide the obligato theme above the continuo) this is a powerful and muscular movement. It is also highly focussed, being developed from the opening two bar violin theme which manifests itself continually in all three melodic lines. The only respite from it comes with the ‘codetta’ quaver idea, which ends the ritornello; and indeed the movement. Fragments of it are heard in the violin part throughout but it is never taken up by the voice or continuo.
Thus we have a miniature masterpiece, a movement of great concentration, a textbook in compositional technique, all coming together to deliver a statement of unquestionable authority. One possibly abstruse piece of word painting may be suggested by the vocal line which, from the beginning, is a simplified version of the main ritornello theme. Is Bach intimating that, as implied in the text, life is simpler than it appears when we have come to acknowledge that the Heavenly Father knows and controls all things?
The dotted notes at the beginning of the soprano aria have about them an echo of the stately French Overture. In fact, there is a suggestion of solid middle-class confidence about this figuration appropriate to the feeling of security that the good Christian enjoys under the Lord’s protection. The oboe provides the obligato and enfolds the voice in swathes of notes suggestive of God’s all enveloping sustenance—-God’s knows and encompasses all living things. The point is more subtly made when the voice enters and soprano and oboe briefly echo each other with the dotted rhythmic idea; all is in its place and all things fit together perfectly under God’s proper regulation.
The first section of the aria moves to the key of Gm, that of the bass aria and opening chorus, and we are momentarily led to expect a conventional middle section. However, there is a sudden change to triple time and the tempo increases as we move into a civilised but partially abandoned dance—away all cares—He watches over and provides for me daily through His Paternal Love. God’s blessings and benefice, previously warm and enveloping, now shower down upon us, clearly represented by the predominately falling oboe figures. This is a dance of abundance; God has ensured that we have everything we require and this is surely a cause for extrovert celebration.
Yes, but only to a degree. The opening ritornello returns as if to herald a da capo repeat of the sort we found in the first aria of C 151. But it returns alone; there is no reprise of the opening vocal section. The music simply reminds us of the dignity of God’s promise and the authority by which He abides by it. The point does not require over-stressing through a repetition of the text.
On occasions Bach makes a point of contrasting his first and last recitatives. There are a number of examples when the first is a simple secco vocal line accompanied by the continuo only, while the second employs sustained string chords. One wonders if he looked for texts that might have particularly suggested this strategy.
This soprano recitative has rather more significance than some others, a number of which perform little more than a narrative function. The essence of this whole cantata is to be found within the first line of text—if I can embrace Him with a childlike trust—. It is, indeed this quality of wide-eyed child-like innocence, which the music of this cantata, particularly the arias, evokes. Complete, unquestioning trust in the Lord’s governance and all that He can do for us lies at the very root of this work. The sustained string chords support the singer, as does a life jacket in water. Significantly the movement emerges into the major mode, not the minor of the closing chorale, thus symbolising the warmth and joy of simple faith. There is just the one moment of tension at the mention of our troubles and worries (bar 8) but appropriately, this is quickly dispensed with; after all, the text states clearly that they shall have no place within a true heart. The strings emerge from their sustained harmonies just once at the end in order to reinforce the central mantra—-I know that He has removed my troubles and governs my faith and condition.
The emphasis is, of course, upon the knowing, believing and trusting in the fundamental Christian message.
The closing chorale returns us to the minor key of the opening movement but its character is strong and persuasive rather than sad or tragic—-God has established the world and its products and they will ultimately nourish us. We, in our turn, shall follow His commandments and thank and praise Him.
It’s difficult to imagine a clearer message that that!