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Chapter 3 BWV 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein
Oh God, Look down from Heaven.
Chorus/fantasia–recit (tenor)–aria (alto)–recit (bass)–aria (tenor)–chorale.
The second cantata of the cycle for the second Sunday after Trinity.
(It is suggested that this chapter is read in conjunction with chapters 1, 2, 4 and 5 in order to give a full picture of Bach’s approach to this cycle).
This cantata is a full ten minutes shorter than that which preceded it, C 20. Its theme is the barrenness of life on earth when separated from the word, trust and love of God in the midst of false prophets.
Noteworthy is Bach’s return to the older Germanic motet form for the first movement. It contrasts strongly with both C 76 (volume 1 chapter 3, written for this day one year earlier) and with C 20 which had begun with a choral French Overture. If there was any danger that conservative elements at Leipzig might have considered that cantata too frivolous a form for serious religious purposes, C 2 may have acted as a defence against criticism by reasserting traditional values.
But any resurgence of the ‘traditional’ is to be short lived. C 7, the third work of the cycle, will begin with an almost symphonic representation of the waters of the river Jordan, constructed around a ′modern′ Italianate ritornello concerto structure. C 135 follows with a wholly original, delicate tone poem.
Thus it would appear that, in making these wide ranging stylistic and structural choices for these four works performed in just over a fortnight, Bach is pre-empting his critics. He is, in effect, saying to his congregations and authorities, ′you will be hearing music of all styles and nations; operatic, modern, traditional, experimental’. All that matters is that the music is good and fit for purpose; or indeed, ‘well regulated’ as he himself had described it some years before. If this is what he meant, is a statement of supreme confidence, even arrogance; but we may consider ourselves fortunate that his judgments were so sound! The fact that these four cantatas were all performed so closely together would, in itself, have highlighted the range and variety of styles, structures and modes of expression that Bach intended to present in the great Leipzig churches. In this respect, his ambition seems limitless.
We will depart from the usual procedure of examining the movements in chronological order and group them as follows: chorale and fantasia, the two recitatives and lastly the two arias.
Although the chorale is the final movement, considering it first is a recommended approach for serious students. Bach himself must have begun with the chorale and its text and a thorough knowledge of the melody can only enhance one’s understanding and appreciation of the remainder of the work.
The chorale chosen, presumably by Bach, has a direct connection with Martin Luther since it is his adaption of psalm 12 (Dürr p 403). This may have influenced Bach in his decision to compose an opening chorus of an archaic nature as opposed to those that abut it i.e. the more contemporary C 20 (French Overture) and C 7 (Italianate concerto).
Bach used this one in at least three harmonized versions, notably C 153, (see chapter 34 from the first cycle) where it forms the opening movement. That harmonization, a tone higher, is more straightforward and centred solidly in the key of A minor. The harmonization for this cantata is very different.
The first phrase is unchanged. But the Ab chord which begins the second phrase—-Für Diesem arg′n Geschlechte—-the evil generations—-is very strange and seemingly unrelated to the chords which precede and follow it. The harmony is thus coloured in such a way as to suggest something which does not fit in; possibly the ′evil ones′ eternally condemned to remain outside of the normal God-fearing community. Consequently, the chord does not lie naturally within the harmonic progression.
Likewise, the last line has a tonal dissonance as the chords pass through the key of C minor to come finally to rest on a chord of D major. This is the dominant or “unfinished” chord of the chorale’s key, G minor and it is not uncommon for Bach to end a harmonisation thus, particularly of an archaic melody (see, for example, C 135). But here, by means of the somewhat abstruse harmony, he makes a particular point; the idea is of the heretics and the godless around us, but not actually with us. They separate us and themselves from God’s truth and this is painted in tonal terms right up to the last chord.
It is always interesting to observe how Bach re-harmonises a chorale for a new cantata. Once the constraints of practical resources and lack of time are set aside (sometimes requiring the rehashing of an earlier movement, or indeed a whole work), it becomes clear that Bach never does anything without good reason. If the chorale is re-harmonised, it is not necessarily because he has had second thoughts or thinks he can improve on the earlier version, although on occasions, this is certainly the case; Bach’s revisions of his own works frequently indicate improvements on the originals But as frequently it stems from his extraordinary sensitivity to a changed text which stimulates his imagination anew. He finds other ways, tonal, dissonant, rhythmic or textual which he can employ to reinforce the religious message, the poetic images or both.
Why else that almost bizarre Ab chord?
Furthermore, throughout this cycle the chorale is almost always the last part of the cantata the congregation hears and Bach surely would have sought sounds which lingered in the mind, creating the opportunity for moments of genuine reflection.
This chorale provides material for much, though not all of the remainder of the work. The opening chorus, as we shall see is a typically dense, motet-like movement from which the chorale tune is never fully absent. But the two arias show little evidence of thematic connections. In fact Schweitzer (p 376) suggests that the tenor aria may well have come from another work but there is no evidence of this. However, there is no doubt about the recitatives, particularly the first one. It begins with an overlapping imitation (one could hardly call it a canon) between the tenor and the continuo lines of the chorale’s first phrase, the fifth phrase appearing a little later.
This, in retrospect, proves to be extremely significant. Bach makes much use of the recitative in this cycle, avoiding it only in one work, C 4, which had been composed some years earlier. Moreover, he discovers many ways of varying the basic format, combining it with arioso, ritornello and chorale insertions, and throughout these volumes such movements will be referred to as ′hybrid recitatives′. Sometimes this is principally done to avoid possible tedium in the setting of many lines of text (occasionally over thirty of them!). But technical necessity is usually underpinned by an aesthetic rationale.
The opening chorale fantasia is scored for chorus doubled by strings, two oboes and a quartet of trombones. There is no independent instrumental writing in the upper parts although the continuo bass line assumes a degree of autonomy. Doubling may well have been, in part, a practical matter. Bach’s choruses had to be mastered very quickly. Furthermore, the music was much more demanding than that which the choristers were used to before Bach took up his Leipzig post. Virtuoso melodic lines, complex rhythms, endless phrases (which might seem to have no resting places) and rich and obscure chromatic harmony were all part of the challenges to the young voices of the choir. How comforting it must have been to have stood near a trombone covering a difficult part which the young vocalist might have only received a couple of days before!
But whilst the doubling is essentially traditional, one must not forget Bach’s exceptional ear for tonal colour. Who, by just looking at the score, would have thought that the doubling of low flutes, strings and oboes at the beginning of the Saint Matthew Passion would have worked so well? But it produces exactly the right doleful, haunting sound. On paper it looks wrong; in performance it sounds right. This is often true of the chorales; the addition of a flute, members of the oboe family, or an obbligato violin or horn can make all the difference to the colour and character of the chorale melody.
It is also worth comparing this chorale and chorus to the equivalent movements from C 38 (chapter 22), the latter also fashioned as an archaic motet.
This fantasia of C 2 is somewhat reminiscent of the second Kyrie of the B minor Mass. Both impress with the highly chromatic harmony which Bach loved to employ in minor keys and both end with a heavenly soaring of the sopranos. The cantata text is a plea to God to pity we sinners parted, as we are, from the true faith. Unusually, the long chorale phrases are sung by the altos (see also C 96) entering at bars 15, 38, 65, 88, 118, 139 and 154. A description of the compositional strategy in the opening bars will give the listener a guide to the process and the student a template for the analysis of the remainder of the movement.
It is always instructive to note the ways in which Bach uses the three voices which do not carry the chorale melody, a point to which we will return on many occasions throughout the study of these works.
Chorale phrase 1 is introduced immediately by tenors, followed by basses then sopranos. Finally (bar 15) the altos take it up with lengthened notes. This is the first statement of the opening chorale phrase proper (cantus firmus). The second phrase is introduced in much the same way, the order of the voices being the same: T, B, S and lastly altos with the augmented version (from bar 38). But here Bach increases the intensity of expression in two ways. Firstly the entries overlap; the basses come in with their statement before the tenors have completed theirs, and the sopranos enter on the basses’ third note (bar 30).
But Bach has also racked up the tension with his use of highly chromatic harmony (see, for example, the odd harmonic movement of b to b flat in the alto declaration of the second and fourth phrases).
This should not come entirely as a surprise since the bass line suggested it as early as bars 3 and 4 and the tenors five bars later. This is very typical of Bach’s musical thinking; an element which is later to become highly significant, either structurally or in order to point the imagery, is often introduced humbly and without fanfare at an early stage. We may not notice it consciously; but it lodges, somehow, within our brains and we are emotionally prepared for the event as it later unfolds.
The chromatic harmony induces a harsh and arid quality to this movement which, to the modern ear, may well invoke the cold, lifeless scene of a waterless and barren planet surface. It is reminiscent of the language of some of the later works such as the Musical Offering or the Art of Fugue. Nevertheless it is, in this instance, not totally uncompromising although Bach’s immediate message is that when we live in an environment where God’s word is absent, life may be bare and sterile.
He combines all musical elements such as harmony, orchestration, contrapuntal techniques to reinforce this image. Even so, there is always a degree of hope and this will become more explicit in later movements; but not in the tenor recitative. The language there is harsh and savage—-they teach falsely, they infect the church, stinking and decomposing like the graves of the dead!
The first line of the tenor recitative text bemoans the teaching of false doctrine in this life.
However, in the closing chorale the text set to this same line calls to mind God′s ability to purify such wickedness. In the opening fantasia the equivalent phrase expresses an entreaty for God to look down upon us (with pity). Thus this nine-note melodic phrase is used to carry or suggest three lines of text expressing three ideas. Virtually subliminal references to God′s encompassing presence looking down on us (fantasia) and His capacity to purify us (closing chorale) are musically invoked as a context to the notion of corrupting heresies (recitative). These heresies surround us but God still looks upon us with pity and has the power to heal us.
All three ideas are perfectly conjoined in a rich tapestry of meaning within this one phrase, its significance emphasized by the close ′canon′ with which the tenor overlaps the continuo line.
The fifth chorale phrase is treated similarly (bars 7-8).
The second recitative, for bass and strings, demonstrates a different hybrid approach using the principle, well established in the first cycle and before, of merging recitative textures into arioso. At the beginning, sadness and sorrow are depicted by the chromatic notes of the vocal melody (d flat, c flat, a natural and g flat)
followed by an oddly disjunctive continuo line (bars 4-5).
But from bar eight everything changes. An arioso materialises from the recitative proclaiming God′s declaration to help and support the poor and oppressed. The melodic directions are predominantly rising and there is a light, imitative touch between voice and strings. God has listened and He acts; there is now hope where before there was only despair. The arioso ends in the minor mode in preparation for the final two movements.
The first recitative has presented us with a set of circumstances the second a spiritual transition. In the first, Bach′s preoccupation has been with cohesion, in the second, evolution. The dramatic and narrative possibilities of the hybrid ′recitative now become apparent as Bach paints a journey from desolation to deliverance. The recitative here assumes a role which establishes its significance as equal to that of the chorus and aria in the structure of the Bachian cantata.
(The next cantata in which Bach makes significant use of ′hybrid′ recitative is C 93 in chapter 7 where these issues are further discussed).
The general mood of the alto aria, with florid violin obbligato is, at first sight, surprisingly benign, particularly when the text provides tempting images of ‘destroying’, ‘driving out of heresies’ and ‘false dogma’. One might, perhaps, have expected a movement of rhythmic relentlessness as, for example, that which opens C 168. But Bach forgoes this because he is taking the wider view.
The opening movement was designed to convey the desolation of life without God’s word but this fundamentally negative outlook does not sit entirely comfortably with Bach’s essentially positive Lutheranism. Warnings must be given and heeded; but Bach’s religion is basically optimistic, living one’s life by the virtues of a close relationship with God and singing His praises. The overall mood of the cantata is not to be one of unredeemed pessimism; hence this aria.
Bach, as we know, was an excellent and sought after teacher. Frequently this is reflected in the cantatas which have strong moral and instructional elements. Bach knows that it is poor psychology to emphasise only gloom and doom; too much stick with too little carrot is unsound pedagogical practice!
The alto aria, the only one to be set in the major mode, is extremely tightly organized from a motive of four notes; two semi-quavers followed by two quavers.
Schweitzer (vol 2, p 109) described Bach’s “joy” motives as being either a succession of rapid notes, or a repeated skipping rhythm of two semi-quavers and a quaver—da-da–dah. Whilst it may be that the busy violin triplets here suggest the undisciplined ramblings of the heretics who speak against the Lord, this is a tenuous and speculative explanation. Equally, it may be that they suggest the joy of striking out the cancers of the heresies around us. But whatever Bach may have had in mind, it is the substance and the very heart of the message which principally concerns him here, rather than the portrayal of individual images. This music is not only about the desolation of religious alienation. It embraces and proclaims the certainty and joy which all may attain when ‘false words’ are banished and the truth laid bare. We need to celebrate the driving away of those heresies which carry the potential of perversion.
Nevertheless there is one moment which binds this aria irrevocably to the chorale. On the last line of text—-Trotz dem, der uns will meistern—-a cry of defiance from the ungodly to the Lord—-the alto declaims its complete final phrase (from bar 56).
One may hereby catch a glimpse of the immense subtlety of Bach′s mind through this insertion of a segment of the chorale into the aria. The former decries the exaltation of the Godless and wicked amongst God′s people, the latter asserts their deliberate act of rebellion against His governance, the one contention reinforcing the other. What more evidence is needed to demonstrate how Bach viewed each cantata as an organic ′whole?′
The tenor aria returns us to the darker minor mode. The text is a simple moral, which reminds the Christian of the need to be patient in suffering since the ultimate prize must come through the forbearance of affliction. The principal poetic image is that of fire as a metaphor for purification; it cleanses silver just as Christ′s suffering on the cross establishes God′s word, thus providing a model of forbearance for us all. (Bach will re-visit such images in the next cantata, C 7 albeit within the context of baptism). The minor keys remind us of the barrenness of the first movement and the rhythms are smooth, flowing and conjunct in all contrapuntal lines.
A quiet and composed acceptance of circumstances is now the principal message. There is an emphasis throughout upon a flowing melodic contour in all parts, a remote echo of both the shape and rhythm of the first phrases of the chorale.
But the convoluted tenor line in the middle section (bars 32-36) clearly conveys the warning that whilst patience in adversity may be an essential part of the good Christian’s credo, it is not going to be an easy path!
It is, however, worth noting the further use of Schweitzer’s ‘joy’ motive. In the alto aria it was in the context of a major key and linked to the even more joyous triplets. In this movement the key is minor and the adjoining motive is one of even, flowing quavers. There is still joy here but it is a restrained and possibly postponed emotion. It only comes through after the acceptance of adversity.
Nevertheless, the contrasted use of the same musical motive across the movements is indicative of Bach’s organized and organic planning of the complete work. Little wonder that he strove to produce a canon of church music composed only by himself!
This was only the second cantata of the second cycle. Nevertheless it demonstrates the tightly structured and organic approach to the composition of church music of excellence to which Bach had always aspired. We shall come across numerous examples of this highly organized approach to his musical composition in our journey through the following fifty-one cantatas of this cycle.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.