Chapter 20 BWV 5 Wo soll ich fliehen hin?
Where might I flee?
The key to unlocking the imagery of this cantata is the redeeming power of the Holy Blood of Christ. This is aligned to the somewhat contradictory messages that inform us that, whilst it is so powerful that one small drop can work wonders (bass recitative) we sinners nevertheless require it to be poured over us in abundant streams (tenor aria).
Perhaps the underlying message is that our mortal sins are so great that, in order to achieve redemption we require vast quantities of even so powerful a remedy!
This would seem, on the face of it, rather pessimistic. But whilst the closing chorale and the opening chorus are set in minor keys, both arias are relentlessly and almost aggressively major, conveying moods of brightness, joyousness and uncompromising optimism. The message is never really in doubt; redemption is available to us all. No matter what our condition on earth may be, knowledge of this simple truth is, in itself, a matter for rejoicing.
The opening chorus is scored for the usual four-part choir with strings, two oboes and continuo. Keen eared listeners might, particularly on more recent recordings, also detect the sound of the slide trumpet doubling the sopranos. Here it has a subordinate role but it will later burst into a most florid obbligato support in the bass aria.
As suggested above, the text of the first movement is not optimistic. It asks the question (but offers no answers), where can those of us on earth, burdened as we are with sin and fear, flee to escape and seek rescue? There are no structural surprises in the music; Bach follows his usual practice of giving the chorale tune, in long notes, to the sopranos whilst the rest of the choir weaves a complex, imitative counterpoint around it.
Much of the alto, tenor and bass material is derived from the motives introduced in the opening ritornello, the first bar of which (later inverted) is itself, a version of the initial chorale phrase.
Oboes doubling violins above continuo.
Of note is the final choral phrase (beginning bar 54) where the words Mein Angst—my fear—- are given particular rhythmic and melodic emphasis in all lines. The very complexity of the texture of both vocal and instrumental parts conveys a sense of being ‘burdened‘.
But despite the imitative counterpoint in the lower voices, much of the consuming musical interest comes from the instrumental writing. The oboes, violins and violas weave a rich tapestry of melodies and figures above the continuo, sometimes doubling each other, at other times forming as many as five individual lines. But the texture is never cluttered; the writing is intricate but always translucent.
There are a number of images suggested by the instrumental contours. The repeated-note idea (a characteristic of the chorale) implies the burden of sin and the impossibility of escaping from it. Repeated notes often convey ideas of earthbound heaviness, mortality or the bearing of load or affliction, all of which are suggested in this chorus. But this is lightened by the motive Schweitzer identified as Bach’s principal figure of joy, da–da–dah. This is a symbol of hope; all is not lost because redemption, the principal theme of this work, is available for everyone to attain. Here we glimpse a little of Bach the pedagogue: keep listening and you will discover how even you, a mortal sinner, may achieve that to which you aspire!
The listener will also detect the descending scales suggestive of pouring or flowing. This image is not fully explicit at this point but it is one that Bach will emphasise vigorously in the tenor aria. Here he is merely planting the seeds for the subsequent blooms.
The bass recitative is interesting because of what Bach avoids doing. The text contains overt baroque images of drops of blood, wounds like an open sea, steering and cleansing. It is not unlikely that the younger Bach might have seized upon these images and represented them in graphic musical terms, but here he resists the temptation. The overall work and the illustration of the main thesis is now his primary concern. Ideas, moral strictures and, above all, the Christian solutions to mankind’s inherent problems of sin, alienation and human misery are conveyed, not piecemeal but in a progressive and holistic narrative.
One imagines that this must have been how Bach perceived his own complementary dual roles as teacher and musical pastor when producing a lasting canon of ecclesiastical music. And we should attempt to receive the work as he doubtless conceived it, an organic and evolving whole rather than a series of individual images, no matter how individually dramatic some of them may be.
But it is to the two arias that we must turn in order to penetrate the heart of this work.
The text calls for streams of holy blood to pour over the sinner and wash away the burdens of sin. This is a powerful image and it may seem surprising at first sight that Bach chooses the somewhat muted tone of the viola as the unstoppable obbligato instrument. It provides us with a constant stream of infectious semi-quavers, also to be discovered in the vocal melody e.g. on the word wäschet—-washing. The unrelenting tumbling energy of this movement has been aptly described by John Eliot Gardener as ′a sort of baroque washing machine‘ (BBC 3 Bach Week, Dec 2005)
First four bars of viola ritornello theme.
Tenor melisma on ‘wäshet’ from bar 77.
Consequently the imagery, whilst reinforcing the basic theme of the cantata, is of a constant pouring of a stream of blood from a divine spring never needing replenishment. It is always there to wash away our burdensome sins. The viola line is a mixture of vigorous arpeggios and descending scales depicting both the act of pouring and an uplifting of the heart at the release from sin. One notes how seldom Bach used the solo viola in the cantatas (twice only: Boyd p 532) and it is tempting to speculate that on these rare occasions he might have enjoyed playing it himself. It is well documented that he liked to play the viola ‘on the middle of the harmony’.
Of course Bach uses this sort of highly idiomatic string writing elsewhere, more often for violin than for viola. Look, for example, at the violin solos in the opening chorus of C 7 Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam (chapter 4). See also the bass aria of that work and another musical image of pouring, it being no coincidence that that text is also concerned with the washing away of sins.
Furthermore, Bach’s uncanny ability to adapt a given musical idea or technique to particular purpose becomes further apparent if we compare both these movements with the bass aria ‘All my prayer is to bring him back’ from the St Matthew Passion. There the obbligato violin writing is similar, representing the upsetting of the coins in the temple. But the accompanying scales are predominantly ascending and, although the idea of a ‘pouring out’ of the coins is implicit, the melodic shapes suggest the more physically vigorous and extrovert image of hurling them aside.
But to return to the tenor aria and the decision to use the viola instead of the more obvious, brighter sounding violin. And why the flat key (Eb major) instead of a sharp one, more comfortable for string players? It is reasonable to suppose that, although Bach’s religious optimism causes him to set this text in such an extrovert and joyous manner, there remains a serious caveat underpinning the basic premise? Burdensome sin and human error do not disappear; they are ever-present and we must be eternally vigilant. Perhaps the muted sounds of viola and the employment of a flat key prevent us from taking the message too lightly. One should be joyful indeed—but not frivolous.
Bach seemed to retain a relentless optimism throughout much of his life. He was orphaned at ten, widowed at thirty-six and half of his children predeceased him. His outlook on life, undoubtedly supported by his faith, must have been essentially positive to have sustained him through all that grief. But optimism is one thing and frivolity, particularly about serious religious and philosophical issues, is another. One aspect of his greatness is his ability to convey opposing or disparate emotions simultaneously and one of the most intriguing aspects of Bach analysis is the exploration of the means whereby he achieved it.
As if further to remind us that this is not a flippant matter, the alto recitative returns to a minor key with an obviously recognisable rendition of the chorale melody. Again the text has images which Bach declines; the principal theme is one of consolation within the cloak of protection that Christ’s blood bestows on us. But the image which may have presented itself most strongly to Bach appears in the second and third lines of text—-let my sins be buried in His tomb.
The oboe gives a haunting version of the complete chorale melody set not in its original key but in one chosen to bring out the eeriness of the instrument’s melancholic timbre. It has the effect of a distant lament resounding from the very grave itself. The alto weaves a typical recitative melody around it, but it is the haunting sound of the oboe chorale that remains in our consciousness. Bach clearly still relishes his experiments of inserting the chorale melody, sometimes quite unexpectedly, into the recitative texture!
But neither has the almost pugnacious optimism been discarded; it returns in the following bass aria. This is an aggressive challenge to Satan and his malevolent hordes—-Be quiet, host of hell; I only need show you a drop of this blood to silence you! There is a subtle message contained within the overall structure of the cantata which the more attentive listener may perceive. A mere drop of the holy blood is all that is required to hold the devil at bay; but once the burden of sin has been acquired, endless streams of it are needed in order to render us pure, redeemed and free of Satan′s wiles
A clear case of prevention being better than cure!
This is not a request; it is a command! How the meek can change when washed with the blood of Christ! And above the assertive vocal line the trumpet now peels out Gloria-like streams of triplet scales. The image of pouring remains but it is now transformed into the transcendent glory of confidence and optimism. There is no depiction here of the unpleasant, almost buffoon-like Satan that we find in the tenor arias of Cs 76 or 107. This is the expression of almost naked triumphalism echoing the earlier bass aria from C 130.
An obvious example of word painting comes with the unexpected chord and flat note on the word verzagt—to be disheartened or fearful (bar 20). The confidence of the assertion—-Es ist in Gott gewagt—-God give me the audacity to act thus—-is conveyed by the bold and assertive setting of these words just before the da capo (bars 67-9).
Soprano recitative and chorale.
The third and final (soprano) recitative is an expressive articulation of the redemptive power of the Blood—-each drop is so powerful that it can free the whole world of sin—-may it provide me with a route to heaven. Again it raises the contradiction referred to above while leading us neatly back to the key of the closing chorale. Here is a re-assertion of the plea for the guidance we all require in order that we may become a part of His Body—-lead my heart and mind away from all things that might separate me from You.
The various chorale texts by Johann Heerman (1584-1642) were written well before Bach was born. In the unlikely event that this particular hymn not been familiar to members of the Leipzig congregation before the cantata began they should, by now, know it well. Its final statement provides a moment of serious contemplation on the basic thesis of the text before the delivery of the sermon. The plain musical setting buttresses the simple plea to eschew all things separating Man from his God.
In the sermon that followed, the pastor would doubtless have reiterated and reinforced the contentions that underpin this splendid work.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.