Chapter 22 BWV 162 Ach, ich sehe, itzt, da ich zur Hochzeit gehe
Ah, I see as I proceed to the marriage.
Aria (bass)–recit (tenor)–aria (sop)–recit (alto)–duet (alto/tenor)–chorale.
The twenty-first cantata of the cycle for the twentieth Sunday after Trinity.
After an intense period of producing new and original works, Bach returns to his earlier practice of resurrecting an earlier composition. The first version of this cantata was probably performed at Weimar in 1716 (Dürr p 587) with a text by Salomo Franck. When reused at Leipzig some transposition of parts was required and Bach added a trumpet to the outer movements; the Bärenreiter Urtext edition of the cantata scores contains both versions.
However, the work has not survived completely intact as we shall see below.
The return to earlier cantatas may well explain Bach’s avoidance of an opening chorus, beginning, as he does, with a sturdy bass aria. The singer is supported by strings and continuo, the slide trumpet adding little of additional musical interest. The narrative is based around the notion of a wedding although the principal initial concern is with the unease and misgivings that the participants may experience rather than with traditional expressions of rejoicing and fulfillment.
The text of the opening movement gives the immediate impression of being almost conversational—-Ah, I see both joy and despair as I approach this marriage. But this is an illusion. It very quickly becomes apparent that the soul is overwhelmed by the confusion of opposing emotions—-there is total upheaval in the mingling of heaven, hell, life and death—-The final line is a passionate plea—-Help me, Lord, to survive.
The aria is in uncomplicated ritornello form, the initial eight bar theme repeated in the middle and at the end. It is formed in close canon, firstly between first and second violins and secondly (from the end of bar 4) second violins leading viola. The melody is, therefore, heard four times in three lines over eight bars, the intention perhaps being to create a sense of perplexity to the listener i.e. where is the theme now and in which part? Ironically, any sense of ‘artistic confusion’ is conveyed through the tightest of technical control over the material.
The final two points of detail to note relate to the initial motive and the continuo line. The former is a five-note ‘head motive’ which is designed to carry the exclamatory phrase ‘Ah I see’ when the voice first enters and frequently thereafter. The continuo forms a treading quaver bass line which is unremitting, perhaps suggestive of the not entirely enthusiastic trudging of the ‘guest-spirit’ towards the wedding ceremony.
The bass stresses Wehe—-the pain of the situation—-on two occasions (bars 12 and 17) and the central ritornello, now in the dark key of F#m, takes us to the second section where the emphasis is clearly upon the intermingling of disparate elements and the consequent confusion of the spirit. The final plea—-Jesus help me to survive—-is stated three times for additional emphasis (from bar 43).
The tenor recitative has a long text although Bach makes no attempt to introduce elements of chorale or ritornello, another indication that it is an early work. It firstly identifies the problem of status difference between bride and groom and relates this to Christ and Soul—-heaven is His throne, the earth a mere footstool and yet He kisses it and prepares a sumptuous banquet—-blest are those led to Him through faith—-cursed are they who spurn His feast. The melodic line elucidates the text persuasively with due emphasis on key moments e.g. the Son of God’s acceptance of Mankind (bars 11-12), the allusion to Heaven as His throne (bar 13) and the final condemnation of those who rebuff Him.
When approaching the soprano aria we discover that an obbligato part, very possibly for oboe or solo violin, has not survived. There are a number of bars in which there is minimum activity where a third melodic part is clearly essential in order to maintain the music’s natural flow. This could be supplied by the continuo player (organ/harpsichord) as is often the case, but in this aria there are clues that strongly suggest the presence of a second melodic instrument. For example, the soprano’s first phrase would fit very well above the continuo in bar 1. It is common practice for Bach to pre-empt the solo singer’s opening line in the ritornello theme. Likewise, transposed up a third and beginning on G, it would fit well in the tenth bar, echoing the initial vocal statement. There are so many places where this theme fits effortlessly into the contrapuntal texture making it highly unlikely that Bach would have devised his counterpoint in such a way, trusting only in the ability of the keyboard player (unless it was himself) to recognise and realise the possibilities. The movement will work with a little creative input from the organist but the better solution is a fully realised part.
The poet calls upon Jesus to invigorate the weak and wretched soul—-for it hungers to unite with Him and seeks His powers of refreshment. The time signature is 12/8 and the key Em, both characteristics of the first chorus of the St Matthew Passion. In fact there is very little of major mode in this movement, signifying the continued lowly and disheartened state of the spirit. The second section (from bar 26) makes specific point of the burdensome nature of existence, the melodic shapings again reminiscent of the Passion movement. The continuo line, for the only time in the movement, breaks into little upward flurries beneath the final vocal phrase, a hint perhaps, of the invigoration of the soul and the promised unification with the Lord.
Promised it may be but it still has to be petitioned from a position of earthbound meekness and humility. Furthermore, the ever insistent Lutheran theme continues to be stressed, that of an unavoidable misery which inevitably accompanies separation from the Lord. This aria encapsulates that notion precisely but not from a position of total hopelessness. We may doubt, but if we regain our true faith there is hope; and the fulfillment of this expectation will arrive in the later duet.
Meanwhile we are presented with another long secco recitative, this time for alto. The metaphor is now drawn from wedding clothing, i.e. faith, appropriate for the impending event. There is the instructive example of the improperly attired guest rejected by the Lord, a terrible warning to the rest of us! The essence of this movement is the plea for the garment of Salvation with the Stains of Christ’s blood upon it—–it is those droplets which enable us to become pure and consequently worthy to welcome Him.
The narrative unfolds with operatic drama as the vocal line becomes initially pleading, thence passionate (the fear of His horror falling on us, bar 3), imbued with a sense of humility and unworthiness (after the central cadence), obsessive at the mention of His blood (bars 16-17) and finally peaceful and unstressed with the declamation of purity (from bar 19).
Such a description does not, of course, cover every musical nuance. But it helps to chart and pinpoint the range of expressiveness which is wrought from the skillful manipulation of melodic shape, concentrated over a few bars.
The appeals have been heard and responded to and the duet confirms the shift from doubt to certainty—-I rejoice in my God who, moved by love has clothed me with righteousness—-I know that, at the end of this life He will adorn me with Heaven’s robes of honour. There is no confusion now, the message is perfectly clear. This then, is a moment of relief and rejoicing.
We know that Bach can rejoice without the need to emblazon his message with trumpets and drums. Nevertheless this does appear to be a minimal set of forces for a triumphant and pivotal point in the structure of the cantata, two voices supported only by the continuo. Is something missing? Possibly, so although the self-sufficient structure of this bass line suggests it much less than in the previous aria. Furthermore, although the movement begins with a plodding, almost pedantic gait, the sequences arriving in the fifth bar quicken the pulse and enliven the mood. Has Bach deliberately constructed the ritornello theme about the notion of earthly pedestrianism latterly evolving into a state of ultimate joy and contentment?
In fact this may be an expression of the elation of the redeemed but it is much more a representation of personal fulfillment. It is the satisfaction of rejoicing in the Lord, in the (by now) certain knowledge of what He has done for us. Note the numerous melismas on erfreut—-pleased or delighted—- stressing this very point.
The writing for the pair of voices is of two main types. Firstly we encounter imitative writing in which one part leads and the other follows (see bars 13-34). Immediately following this is a passage in which they move together in parallel. The voices alternate between these two modes throughout the aria, possibly a musical reminder of the two opposite spectra that form the basis of this cantata’s text; doubt and certainty. Or perhaps they also suggest the coming together of Man and God to form one perfectly united entity. But whatever symbolism may have been intended, the essential message is clear and consistent, the one single tremor being a cool gust of air at the reference to the end of this life (from bar 122). It remains for but a brief moment, leading us into the final phrases where once again we are in complete harmony reminded, as we are, of the gift of heaven’s pure robe of honour.
The closing chorale is a simple dignified expression of personal fulfillment—-I have seen this great glory for myself and I shall now be adorned in the apparel of Heaven—-I stand before His throne, witnessing joy without end. The harmony is diatonic and basic and the four vocal lines are fluid, uncomplicated and uniform in musical interest, perhaps themselves a metaphor of the equality of those bound together by the embraces of true faith. The accentuation of the final major thirds by the tenor affirms the symbol of hope.
This cantata has made a very clear voyage from doubt and terror to faith and certainty, the robes, feast and occasion of the wedding creating a metaphor which all would recognise.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.