Chapter 21 BWV 45 Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist.
Mankind, you have been told that which is Good!
Chorus–recit (tenor)–aria (tenor)
Aria (bass)–-aria (alto)–recit (alto)–chorale.
For the eighth Sunday after Trinity.
This is the third of three extant cantatas for this day, the others being C 136 (vol 1, chapter 10) from the first cycle and 178 (vol 2 chapter 9) from the second. They are very different works but have some common features. All begin with an extended chorus and end with a (different) chorale, encompassing a mixture of arias and recitatives. Only C 136 contains a duet (for tenor and bass) and it also reveals some features which recur in later works e.g. the faster middle section in a different time signature (alto aria) and the (bass) recitative melting into a few bars of mellifluous arioso. The theme of that work is mortal sin and the power of the Lord′s blood to disperse it. The opening chorus boasts a solo horn part of great effectiveness.
C 178 deflects attention towards the enemies who may lead us into sin rather than concentrating upon the nature of sin itself. The opening fantasia is a tornado of energy and excitement depicting those dangerous ones who rage around us. The chorale, or parts of it, is incorporated in most of the movements, the fifth of which is an early example of Bach′s experimentation with the setting of long tracts of text by using combined forms, in this case harmonised chorale and recitative.
C 45 is the only one in two parts and its opening chorus is the longest and most broadly conceived of the three works. Even the ritornello, which is not repeated at the end, is almost forty bars long! The scoring is for a pair of flutes and oboes added to the strings and continuo. The movement structure, two recitatives forming the second and penultimate movements enclosing a central group of arias, was one that Bach apparently found satisfactory at this time. It is shared by Cs 39, 102 and 187.
The opening chorus has a confident, rhetorical character markedly different from those of Cs 136 and 178. The text is that of a stern and serious sermon—Man, you have been told what the Lord requires, namely to abide by His word, to engender Love and to humble yourselves before Him. The poet seems imperious and dogmatic but Bach′s setting comes across in a somewhat lighter vein. Perhaps it is just his way of ensuring that his transmission of the message is congenial and available to all.
But effortlessly as this great movement appears to flow, the immense compositional skill in its making is effectively disguised as the shape of the forest diverts attention from individual leaves. For a better understanding of Bach′s consummate technique a degree of technical analysis is unavoidable.
Three basic building blocks (motives) are unveiled in the opening four bars. The first (A) is the simplest, just two minim notes (the second an interval of a third lower than the first) heard on first flute, oboe and violins. The next (B) is also immediately stated on second flute, oboe and violins, a five note motive beginning with two crotchets which are, in fact an inversion of A. Finally we have a thrice-stated figure, upwardly striving towards the tonic note in bars 2-4 (C).
A B C
Ideas A and B are both directly derived from the first phrase of the chorale melody and C (loosely) from phrases 5 and 6. From such small acorns do great oaks grow. The listener, having identified them, should not have much trouble in tracing them through the ritornello despite the accompanying swathes of quavers. It is, however, when the choir enters that a familiarity with these three motives becomes particularly beneficial.
The first three choral blocks deal only with the words—-Es ist dir gesagt—-you have been told. The first (from bar 37) uses B imitatively, stated in the order bass, soprano, alto and tenor, then reinforced by the full choir. This is immediately followed by a repetition of the same process but this time the order of entries is bass, tenor, alto and soprano (from bar 43). Finally (from bar 49) the order of entry, with the same motive, is tenor, bass, soprano and alto.
Bach now moves on to the second line of text—-[you have been told] Man, that which is good and what the Lord demands of you. Motive B now combines with motive C to form a theme which is given a full fugal exposition (from bar 54) in the order sopranos, altos, tenors and basses.
This takes us to the centre of the movement and a short slab of the instrumental ritornello ends in a cadence in B major (bars 106-7).
If the non-musically trained enthusiast is a little lost in the plethora of detail at this point, it does not really matter. What now stands out clearly and allows the listener to navigate him/herself back into the structure of the movement is the return of motive A, the two-note figure from the very beginning. This is articulated twice (and again latterly) on the word—-nämlich—–namely (from bar 107) This rhetorical device enables Bach to move on to the setting of the main message, God′s three decrees i.e. abide by His word, engender Love and humble yourself before Him.
The music of the latter part of the chorus is recognisable as a slightly reconstructed version of the first half, the blocks built from motive B and the fugal exposition all appearing much as before. It sweeps to its triumphant conclusion with the dogmatic insistency of motive C left ringing in our ears.
God himself may not be delivering the message personally; He will do that in the second aria. But it could hardly come across more forcefully or agreeably had He announced it Himself.
The short secco recitative for tenor simply tells us—-He informs us of His will and of what pleases Him—-His word is the touchstone against which our actions may be properly measured. The harmony takes us from the major of the chorus to the minor of the next aria.
The tenor aria is in the extreme key, for the period, of C#m, itself a clue to its character. It completes part 1 of the cantata in a somewhat downbeat mood. We have not yet reached a point of certainty and optimism; there remains room for doubt and vacillation. And yet the 3/8 time signature creates the impression of a dance, albeit sombre or even macabre in character.
The text is essentially an individual assertion of an awareness of what God requires of us—I know God′s justice and what He demands of me—the soul must follow this in order to save itself—-otherwise it must suffer scorn and suffering. But both the minor modes (there is very little of the major in this movement) and the general melodic shapings are suggestive of continuing doubt—-whilst I know what is required of me, might I yet be incapable of fulfilling my obligations? This exquisite balance between the certainty of knowing and the natural reservations of personal confidence is beautifully captured.
Perhaps it is the fear of pain and scorn—-Qual und Hohn—-that dampens the spirit; note the powerful depiction of these words in bars 96-9. The aria ends with an emphasis on these thoughts, underlined by long melismas on drohet—-threatening. The natural dichotomy in the human condition of knowing what is right, and yet not knowing whether one is capable of following the path of conscience, has seldom been more effectively portrayed.
One final note of detail. The very first two notes of the melody of this aria are a minor version of the two minims (theme A) from the opening chorus. The first three bars of the continuo line are constructed from an ornamented version of theme B. Both relate also to the chorale melody; a fine example of Bach′s macro-planning across the movements.
If part 1 ended with a degree of uncertainty, part 2 immediately dispels any doubts or misgivings. God himself now speaks for the first time and His message is formidable-for the many who claim to have done much in My name I will say I do not know you—go away from Me! Clearly, to merely claim to have done things in the Lord′s name is not enough and, in case any misunderstandings remain, the alto will shortly expand upon this theme. Lip service to the Lord′s commands will not ensure salvation.
But against the voice of the Lord, the busy semi-quaver strings suggest power and resolution as well as evoking a number of textual images: the casting away of the ungodly, gathering hordes wishing to explain themselves to their God, His fury at their behaviour. The restless energy hardly abates throughout the movement and the long melismas stressing weichet—-withdraw or go—-and alle—all—emphasise both the Lord′s injunction and its universality. This is a movement of force and authority and it is significant that there is no final statement of the ritornello theme; God′s command ′go from Me all you who indulge in evil deeds′ is left ringing in our ears.
The nub of the matter is left, as is so often the case, to the penultimate aria and that for alto with flute obbligato, is no exception. Just in case the message has not been fully comprehended, here it is fully spelt out—-whoever truly acknowledges God does so from the heart—-if your love is simply a form of insincere expression, you will inevitably burn for ever. God, in the previous aria, had informed us in no uncertain terms what was unacceptable to Him. Here we are reassured, if we had not already deduced it for ourselves, that the sincere acknowledgement of God within our hearts is what He really seeks. Those who cannot offer this will burn in the fires of hell.
Both ideas intertwine and interlace in what, despite the dark key of F#m, is essentially a reassuring, perhaps almost jolly movement.
Jolly yes, because we have now achieved a position of certainty about our obligations and our ability to fulfil them. Minor key, perhaps, because despite this personal achievement, God’s requirements remain a profoundly serious issue, involving the salvation of our souls and the threats of dire consequences should we fail.
In a sense this movement might be viewed as the companion piece to the tenor aria. Both are somewhat enigmatic, expressing a delicate balance of positive and negative viewpoints. But both are pieces of depth and charm to which we may be repeatedly drawn, taking a little more from them on each subsequent hearing.
The final recitative takes us back to E major, the key of the opening chorus and closing chorale. This choice is both structural and symbolic. It is the ultimate assertion of one′s ability to do the will of the Lord, albeit with His assistance—-I shall be judged through my heart and mouth and His work shall be seen to be accomplished in me. One might, perhaps, have expected a somewhat richer accompaniment to this unadorned secco recitative; flutes, strings and oboes were all available to add sustained chords or touches of colour.
But Bach calls upon none of them. Perhaps the simplest forms of expression are the most effective when conveying the most profound aspects of faith.
The closing chorale is one of the best known in the Lutheran canon. It was also used for the later wedding cantata 197. Here the second verse has been chosen and its aptness is obvious—-grant me that I do what I must, and as You command—-also that I do it well and quickly. There is an honest, rustic quality about this melody, which makes it particularly appropriate for the summing up of the vacillating states of the soul throughout this cantata.
This work has not always been allotted its true value by critics. It is, however, particularly elegantly structured, moving from injunction to personal doubt, from further injunction to a final position of faith and certainty. Bach′s music follows these nuances perfectly, delicately balancing the subtle distinctions of uncertainty and conviction.
It remains a masterpiece even if it has not always been acknowledged as such.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.