Chapter 30 Bwv 49

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Chapter 30 BWV 49 Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen

I go, desirously, in search of you.

Sinfonia–aria (bass)–recit/arioso (sop/bass)–aria (sop)–recit (sop/bass)–aria/chorale (sop/bass).

For the twentieth Sunday after Trinity.

The three extant cantatas written for this day all begin quite differently. C 162 (vol 1, chapter 22), an early work dating from 1716 (Dürr p 587) and reused in the first Leipzig cycle, commences with a dignified and imposing bass aria. C 180 (vol 2, chapter 21), along with the majority of the second cycle works, begins with a chorale fantasia. C 49 continues the practice that Bach was establishing within the third cycle, of replacing the opening chorus with a sinfonia of large, sometimes immense, proportions. These sinfonias are increasingly to be found in solo cantatas or those which only call upon the choir for the closing chorale; or, as in this case, a cantata for two voices and no choral movements at all. Even the conventional final four-part chorale harmonisation is omitted.

The earlier two cantatas have a sense of spaciousness about them, a quality which sets them apart from C 49, a work which exudes a greater degree of personal intensity. All three are constructed around the notion of the wedding feast but, as we have come to expect, each has its own perspective. C 162 concerns itself with the appropriateness of the individual to attend the feast and the terrifying concern that he, or she, may be excluded. C 180 describes the process of leaving the ′caverns of sin′ so that one may be welcomed at, and enjoy the benefits of, admission to that glorious event.

C 49 takes the form of a dialogue between Christ and the Soul, thus declaring itself to be a part of an established tradition stretching back well before Bach′s time. His own interest in the genre may be noted from the fact that this is the third of four cantatas of dialogue between Christ and the Soul in this cycle. Cs 57 (chapter 7) and 32 (chapter 11) portray different perspectives of the evolving union between the two entities and both may be usefully compared with C 49 (a fourth and later dialogue cantata, C 58, is discussed in chapter 35).

Comparisons of the different structures of the three initial works are illuminative. Cs 57 and 32 end with the expected chorale; C 49 does not. C 57 brings the two voices together in a recitative, C 32 in an aria. C 49 combines them firstly within a recitative/arioso, secondly within a secco recitative and finally in the closing aria which, additionally, includes the (missing?) chorale. C 57 commences with the voice of Christ blessing those who resist temptation, thus gaining the ultimate crown. C 32 begins with a troubled and  personal aria, the Soul asking where Jesus may be found and embraced. C 49 commands attention with a long and, at times intense, instrumental sinfonia.

Suggestions have been made elsewhere that Bach looked back over scores of cantatas written for the same day when embarking upon a new composition. In this case it would not be unreasonable to suppose that he also reviewed the two other works of the same genre. After all, Cs 57 and 32 had been composed less than one year previously within, or shortly after, the busy Christmas period of 1725. Might it be that Bach, who clearly preferred not to repeat himself during his first years at Leipzig, may have glanced back to ensure that, whilst the general theme might be retained and re-explored, the details, structure and perspective would be different?


It is fascinating to speculate as to why Bach chose this specific movement to begin this work. We know that he was increasingly employing sinfonias in solo or duet cantatas, probably to maintain a level of drive and energy which might otherwise be lacking. But why this particular work? True, he had rearranged the first two movements of the harpsichord concerto in E (BWV 1053) for C 169, a solo alto cantata for the eighteenth Sunday after Trinity, so the score was obviously to hand. It also required virtually no reconstruction, the organ taking over the harpsichord part and one oboe added doubling, and consequently playing from, an existing first violin part. But it is difficult to believe that Bach ever reused a movement simply because it was ′convenient′. He would also have declared it to be exactly the right piece for the new context.

With that thought in mind, one might consider how Bach may have related this concerto finale to the written text. At the beginning it has a joyous dance-like quality which might well seem suited to wedding celebrations. The rising chromatic scales in the middle section could suggest the sense of loss when Soul and Christ are not as one, or it might be the effort of seeking and striving towards union. Indeed, the emotional intensity of the first aria correlates fully with this section of the sinfonia. The da capo structure ensures, however, the return of the happy  wedding dance, its disposition not unlike that of the cantata’s closing duet.

Thus there are strong musical reasons that indicate the appropriateness of this particular sinfonia.

Bass aria.

The stark potency of the bass aria takes the listener by surprise. It is in the dark and, for the period, extreme key of C#m. In fact, no movement is in a key of less than three sharps, a possible reminder because of the shape of the symbol, to the musicians if not to the congregation, of Christ′s agonies upon the cross. The obbligato line is played on the organ, a practice Bach had, by now, established with his solo alto cantatas.

And what a tortuous line this is! The ritornello theme begins with a restless upward striving, gaining a little respite after the central cadence (bars 11/12) only to resume its mounting exertions just before the voice enters.

This is a song of the Bridegroom seeking his Bride, a metaphor for Christ seeking the Soul. But this is not a happy, playful seeking out of one′s partner. This is a serious matter, suggesting that if the sought-out Soul cannot be found, it will be damned forever. The words do not say this explicitly, but the music suggests it strongly.

In fact the initial vocal line is measured and serene and has little of the organ′s turmoil about it. Christ seeks the Soul with patience and dignity, but the mayhem of this world in which the two may be eternally separated may not be lightly set aside.

The writing for the bass changes throughout this complex movement. At first He seeks His fair Dove with a deep yearning that a flowing melodic line clearly communicates.

Later He appears to become more distracted as His eyes can no longer light upon the Soul. Christ cares and He continues to search; He, better perhaps than anyone, is aware of the terrible consequences should He not succeed in His quest.

Soprano/bass recitative/arioso.

The warm, major chord that heralds the next movement catches us momentarily off-guard us after the intensity of Christ’s aria. We discover another of Bach′s ritornello/arioso recitatives which he had perfected in the second cycle. It is particularly suitable for the presentation of dialogue and it suggests the influence of Italian opera.

Christ is now soothing and gentle even though the Bride is not yet prepared for the feast. Nevertheless the first time we, and presumably Jesus, hear her is when she declaims, with passion—-Jesus speaks of me and it is wonderful to hear His voice.

Bach now slides naturally into an arioso which, with the exception of the Soul′s next, and last, solo line—-I fall at your feet—-continues for  the remainder of the movement.

Interestingly, Christ′s first arioso line is a major version of the rising scale with which He introduced Himself in the first aria.

Now is it accompanied lightly by gentle harmonies played by the upper strings.

The remainder of the movement is a simple love duet (arioso) in which Bride and Bridegroom embrace and prepare to clothe themselves for the wedding.

It has taken less time for complete union to take place in this work than in the previous two dialogue cantatas. C 49 now becomes a celebration of the event rather than a cautious probing towards it. Consequently, festive major keys now predominate.

Soprano aria.

The first soprano aria is accompanied by oboe d′ amore and piccolo cello giving it a unique, and therefore quite distinctive, colouring. The two obbligato lines entwine around each other like two lovers; it is quite conceivable that Bach had the cello in mind to represent the Bridegroom, the oboe the Bride. Their union is represented musically in canonic terms as the former leads the latter.

The melodic structure of the opening theme is worth noting since there are strong echoes of motives from the earlier bass aria; in particular we recognise the striving upwards towards a single higher note (first heard here in bar three, previously in bar 17 of the bass aria).

Opening ritornello theme.

But in the soprano aria the mode has become major and much of the scalic motion is falling Thus, although the character of the two movements is different, the bringing together of the striving motive in both melodic lines is a clear symbol of union having been sought and subsequently achieved.

The cantata began with a passionate searching for the Soul. The search has now been successfully completed, and the process of eternal unification begun. The Soul exalts in its new-found glory along with the knowledge that it is now spiritually ‘clothed’ and prepared to pass through into heaven itself.

The movement structure is one which clearly appealed to Bach at this time, a long ritornello stated at the beginning, middle and end with two main vocal segments, the second of which combines elements of both a middle section and recapitulation.

Soprano/bass recitative.

The penultimate movement is a secco recitative for both voices, although they never sing together; it is conceived as a true dialogue, the one speaking after the other. It is little more than a personal statement by the Soul, warmed by Christ′s gracious response:

     S   My faith envelopes me
J   I will henceforth devote myself to you.
     S   I am blessed–the majesty of heaven itself sends its servant to call Me and I am here; let Me in.
J   Be faithful until death and You shall have the Crown of Life.

It should not be necessary to take the listener through Bach′s perfectly wrought phrases which musically express these thoughts. The passion of the Soul and the benefice of the Saviour are plainly heard through the expressiveness of the melodic lines.

Soprano/bass aria/chorale.

The final movement returns us to E major, the key of the sinfonia, and it begs the question, which came first? Did Bach choose the concerto movement initially and use its key and ideas as springboards for the remainder of the work? Or did he select it after the main bulk of the composition had been completed noting, with satisfaction, that he did not even need to transpose it from the original key? Whatever the process, the character of the final duet accords well with that of the sinfonia, creating a strong feeling of unity that binds the entire work together.

A duet was, perhaps, an inevitable choice to close the work reinforcing, yet again, the coming together of the Soul with the Saviour. For some composers all that would be required is a jolly dance-like romp such as the gavotte he himself used to conclude the early wedding cantata C 202. But this is a different, more experienced and more mature Bach. The richness of the layering he now brings to bear is of a different order.

The shape of this duet is initially determined by the nine phrases of the chorale, sounding as ten as Bach extends the two ′amens′ into individual phrases. This melody is sung throughout by the soprano (Soul) and the text is a simple expression of delight at the prospect of rising to Paradise. The bass and organ obbligato melodies weave continuously around this childlike expression of faith. Christ′s text is a clear commitment of enduring love for and support of the Soul on its journey to His house. These individual statements of faith are subsumed within a movement bubbling with the character of a joyous, rustic dance. The chorale melody was presumably admired by Bach who used it in Cs 1, 172 and a version of C 36, differently presented in each case.

The pastoral, ′voice of the people′ character of this dance is instantly communicated through a ritornello melody constructed of almost naively obvious four-bar phrases. The organ plays the obbligato theme throughout, supported by the strings which do little more than articulate the essential harmonies. The organ melody is a tripping, nimble theme which might, at first sight, seem at odds with the more staid chorale melody.

But they work together, not least because of the bass′s melodic line which acts as the glue uniting them. In fact the first notes of the three main melodic lines derive from a common shape or motive, as Dürr makes clear (p 596).

The first three chorale phrases are repeated at which point Bach, although constrained by the tune′s limited tonal range, contrives the feeling of a middle section (from bar 111). The final statement of the ritornello at the end appears, at first sight, to be missing but this is an illusion. It is present but, unusually, is combined with the vocal melody. Thus Bach ensures that it is Christ who has the last word.

Much has been written of Bach′s eclecticism and ability to weld different formal principles into new and unique musical shapes. This seemingly unpretentious movement, when scrutinised in some detail, offers a perfect example of the art which conceals art.

And yet all that many composers and congregations might have wished for was a simple happy ending; perhaps no more than an appropriate chorale.  God, perhaps deserved, and received, a little more!


Copyright: J Mincham 2010.   Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.