Chapter 30 BWV 133 Ich freue mich in dir
I find my delight in thee.
Forming part of the Christmas celebrations for 1724, this cantata is a work of great compactness and unity which, nevertheless, poses some problems. Why, for example, did Bach not employ a trio of trumpets in his opening chorus, a typically Bachian D major expression of joy and exultation? He had employed horns in C 91, the Christmas Day cantata, so it is just conceivable that they were not available.
However, few composers given a brace of trumpets and timpani to augment the orchestra could express exultation better than Bach; he frequently showed himself at his most ebullient with texts that allowed him this extravagance. So it must be assumed that he had good reasons for softening the tone of his expression in this particular fantasia.
In fact he moderates the celebratory tone of this work even further by using the darker sounds of the oboe d’amore in three of its movements, the opening chorus, the alto aria and the final chorale. True, he does double the chorale in the opening fantasia with a cornet but he gives the instrument no individual or ceremonial role; its function is rather more traditional and practical.
Bach′s cantatas for this third day of Christmas are all very different and there seems to be little that unites them musically. C 248/3 is the only one to begin (and end) with a chorus supported by an orchestra which includes trumpets and drums. C 64 commences with a vigorous vocal motet and C 151 a translucent soprano aria. In terms of its vigour and vitality the fantasia for C 133 lies somewhere in the middle. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, the cantatas composed for this third day were traditionally thought to be more moderate, and possibly reflective, than those for Christmas Day itself.
It seems that Bach, with the experience of a man who had by now composed well over one hundred cantatas, more than half of them during his eighteen months in Leipzig, could well eschew expressions of the obvious and self-evident. Part of the explanation for his rapid, secure and confident development as an artist arose from his growing awareness of the many ways in which the various subtle shades and levels of human emotions might be powerfully expressed, with the maximum of nuance, through established musical forms. It was simply no longer necessary to underline the obvious as he was sometimes wont to do in his earliest years. It almost seems as if every text, no matter what its inherent literary quality, had the potential to stimulate in him a distinctive emotional response with a particular, often unique emphasis; here a little darker, there a trifle more intense. In this way, every chorus and aria becomes a new and inimitable challenge leading him to create a repertoire with an unsurpassed range of invention through which he virtually never repeated himself.
This text, from the opening words, stresses the personal and individual response of joyousness that a Christian may find in the sound of Jesus and the word of God. There is, of course, a sense of communal joy expressed in the opening chorus too; but it does not need to be emblazoned from the skies; hence the lack of ceremonial trumpets.
Bach’s apparent under-use of the choir in this work may very well be due to practical considerations. With five cantatas to be learnt and performed in the week of Christmas and New Year (Cs 91, 121, 133, 122 and 41) the choir must have been under considerable pressure. Consequently, here there is no complex counterpoint to be mastered. As always, there is the final four-part chorale but this would not present difficulties for a regularly performing choir. The opening chorus, with an Italianate concerto feel, gives the bulk of the work to the instrumentalists. The vocalists need do little more than sing the chorale phrases, in four parts, with some long gaps in between. Furthermore, the important chorale tune in the soprano part is reinforced by the cornet.
Three points of detail are worth listening for. Firstly there is the ‘joy’ figure of two semiquavers and a quaver (oboes and middle strings, bars 1-3). Noted by Schweitzer, and recurring hundreds of times in mass, passion and cantata movements, this tiny motive is not limited to vocal music of course; the first movement of Brandenburg 3 consists of little else. The mystery remains how Bach managed to make use of this typical, hackneyed baroque figure so often and yet appear to repeat himself so seldom. Of course context is all. Stated on its own, it would appear to have minimum potential. How wrong we would be to make that judgment!
The second point is the use of the three crotchet chords in bar 1. They come like hammer blows, repeated in both this and later movements. A secular example of the use of this figure comes in the first bar of the opening movement of the violin concerto in E major where it is similarly used as a building block alongside cascades of continuous semi-quavers. But in C 133 this powerful three-note motive becomes a recurring unifying principle of the work as a whole, as we shall discover in subsequent movements.
Repeated note and joy motives on strings below oboes.
The third point relates to the choral phrases. There are eight of them and the first five and the seventh are uncomplicated and unadorned utterances of the choral melody. Traditionally sung by the sopranos, it is reinforced by largely chordal four-part harmony in the other parts, none of which adopt the relentless swirls of semi-quavers in the strings and oboes. But the sixth and last phrases are different. Each is extended, for four additional bars. Since our study of Bach’s work teaches us that he did nothing without good reason, we need to ask why he did this and, as usual, the answer lies within the text.
The sixth phrase alludes to the pleasant sound arising from the joy we feel at the coming of the Christ Child. Clearly it is the words ‘pleasing sound’ which stimulates Bach to extend the phrase with a series of slightly broken rhythms giving the effect of laughter, the image being too good to dispense with in a mere couple of bars. Bach feels the need to hold on to the idea and spend an additional moment depicting the physical expression of joy. However, his painting of the individual image is an integral part of the architecture of the movement, not made at the expense of the music′s shape overall flow.
The last phrase is extended for quite different reasons and by totally dissimilar means. The text here merely mentions the mighty Son of God and again this is too important an idea to overlook; it needs a little more time for the appropriate stressing of God’s importance and significance. For the first time the singers take up the whirling semi-quavers which the instrumentalists have, hitherto, had to themselves. The tenors and altos join in imitation of the basses (bar 94) underlining the ongoing power and force of the Almighty. This is an idea that needs emphasising in a way that could not have been achieved by the earlier short, simply harmonized phrase of the chorale melody. It has to be extended in order to convey the full sense of majesty.
Returning to the three-note crotchet motive from the opening bars, Bach uses it to suggest the personal elements of joy, the underlying theme of this cantata—-we find pleasure—-or joyousness—-in You (Jesus). There is a rooted certainty expressed by this simple musical idea and it is no surprise to find it again in the opening bars of the alto aria.
Here the three crotchets are again heard right at the beginning of the movement. But this time they move from a single pitch to form the three notes of a rising major triad, a musical sign of pleasure, elation and uplift.
Bach uses it to set the admonition—-take hope—-and the movement is an exhortation to the faithful to embrace good spirits from the Lord’s presence. The text again stresses the personal blessedness of coming face to face with God and preserving one′s immortal soul.
Incidentally, this use of the figure on a rising triad brings us even more in mind of the first movement of the E major violin concerto. Furthermore, students may like to consider this aria along with that for bass from C 68 which has a very similar opening.
This motive gives some contrast to the long phrases of rolling semi-quavers and keeps us rooted in that significant moment of realization of God’s presence. The structure is ritornello/ternary although not da capo. Bach rewrites the first section from bar 69, shortening and condensing it considerably.
The tenor recitative informs us that although some may try to hide before the face of God, the true spirit does not take fright. Two sections are marked ′adagio′, the first referring to the God who lodges amongst us and the second to the coming of the Child Jesus. Each contains abstruse and virtually unrecognizable references to the chorale melody, underlining points of text and providing a degree of organic coherence
A comparison is made which, one imagines, would have struck a chord with Bach’s congregations i.e. the contrast between Adam’s fear when hiding from God and the contentment we feel when we take God unto ourselves. The mood of the recitative moves convincingly from Adam′s discomfort to the fulfilment that the Christian may find in the arms of the Christ Child. The progression from the dark key of F#m to the bright D major reinforces this.
This aria is accompanied by strings and continuo. The text is concerned with the sweet sound of Jesus′ name and the effect this has upon a receptive soul. There are two uses, both in the soprano line, of the three-note crotchet motive (bars 27 and 47). The words set, on both occasions are—-my Jesus is born—-and the repeated use of this leit motive reinforces the expression of a personal, individual acceptance of Christ rather than a communal, extrovert outpouring of emotion. The main theme alludes to the Handelian idea from the previous aria but the most obvious element of word painting is the violin solo underpinning the phrase—-the word rings beautifully in my ears (from bar 17).
However, it is the structure of the movement which is most noteworthy. Just as you expect it to end on a final cadence in B minor, the time, tempo, mood and texture all change. Is it a new movement, or is it an extension of the established aria? At first hearing we would be forgiven for not knowing but with hindsight we find that this is a highly contrasted middle section because eventually we are treated to the reprise. It turns out to be a da capo aria, but not a conventional one. What is going on?
One will frequently be told that baroque movements, by tradition, tend to keep to the same mood or ‘affect’ throughout. This was too constricting for Bach who found many ways of getting around the problem and, as so often is the case, the clue lies in the text. When that soul who is unable to comprehend the name of Jesus is described as having a ′heart of stone′, the whole character of the music changes. The focus is now fully upon the soprano line, the bass and continuo are dropped and the first violins have a wispy, remote theme which accentuates the allusions to coldness.
This is another world where there is a clear division between those who hear and respond to the word of God and those who do not. But this is the whole point; the contrast must be made as a pedagogical moral, all the more effective if it can be encapsulated within a short period of time. The thesis and the message drive the structure of the aria but the musical imperatives still reign; the artistic success of the reconciliation of such extremes is part of Bach’s unique genius.
(A similar example of the maximum contrast between the two sections of a da capo aria may be found in the opening aria of C 151, also composed for this day, vol 3, chapter 8).
The bass recitative moves tonally in a similar way to that for tenor but with less sense of dramatic contrast. The journey is from fear to fulfilment, again through minor to major—-at death we shall not die if we call the name of Jesus. The repeated quavers in the continuo gently remind us of the journey to be made.
The emergence into the major key not only prepares us for the chorale but also symbolizes the warmth that true faith generates within us.
The final chorale provides both a point of summation and a moment of contemplation and it reveals the source of the three-crotchet rhythm which dominates most of the phrases. We seem to have undertaken a journey, but it has been largely illusory. We began and ended with an appropriate sense of joyousness and along the way we glimpsed odd moments that may have given us cause to pause and consider.
But we look on these as a contemporary audience might look upon scenes within a film. It is not unpleasant to feel slightly alarmed and concerned and whatever emotions Bach′s congregations experienced were from a position of fundamental security within the walls of the church.
It is the credo of the cantata that the true faith of the Christian keeps us secure and safe from the horrors of Satan and earthly temptations. But it does no harm for us to be reminded of their existence–and their consequences!
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.