Chapter 32 Bwv 64

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Chapter 32 BWV 64 Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget

See what love the Father has shown us.

Chorus–chorale–recit (alto)–chorale–aria (sop)–recit (bass)–aria (alto)–chorale.

The thirty-first cantata of the cycle for the third day of Christmas.

Mentioned has been made in these essays about Bach′s practice of adopting a structural idea and developing it in a group of adjacent cantatas. At this time he appears to be experimenting with constructing them around a group of chorales presented in plain four-part harmonisations. C 40 was built around three of them as are C 64 and 153 (chapter 34) and this trio of works was performed within a week over the Christmas and New Year period of 1723/4. Additionally, a number of cantatas of this period incorporate two chorales.

The tripartite structure of C 40 was noted in the previous essay and Bach seems to have experimented with something similar in C 153. But there is no obvious pattern of movement grouping in C 64 where the chorales appear as the second, fourth and eighth movements. Bach also seems to have been careful in the selection of the modes of the hymn melodies, using three minor ones for C 40, two major and one minor for C 64 and two minor and one major for C 153.

Three chorales.

As with C 40, let us begin our examination by looking at the chorales. The first one was later to act as the basis of the energetic chorale/fantasia which opens C 91 in the second cycle (vol 2, chapter 28). In a plain four-part harmonisation it closes that cantata and makes use of the same celebratory verse as in C 64. The harmonisation used for this earlier work is less ornate and the vocal lines are doubled by strings, cornet and trombones producing a more sombre effect than is achieved with C 91′s horns and oboes.

The second chorale is also reused by Bach as the basis of a second cycle cantata, C 94 (vol 2, chapter 10). In this case the earlier version is the more flamboyant, boasting a muscular quaver bass line which might well have grown out of the scales of the preceding recitative. The verse used is that of the fantasia of the later work, a rhetorical question asking why one should enquire after the world and its treasures when we can have Jesus.

All the chorales in this cantata would have been familiar to the congregation, the closing one possibly the best known of all. Bach used it to end C 81 from later in this cycle (chapter 39) and C 87 from the second (vol 2, chapter 44). Although he appears never to have used it to construct a fantasia, it formed the basis of his choral motet Jesu, meine Freude. The verse which closes C 64 is a song of farewell to the earth and all its temptations.

If we view the three chorales as the backbone of the cantata, we discover that the first one is a paean of gratitude for what God has done for us, the second a questioning of worldly values and the third a positive leave-taking and departure from all things corporeal. Thus there is a consequent progression, of a kind, about which, following the opening chorus, Bach interposes two arias and two recitatives.

Opening chorus.

This chorus marks a return to the traditional German motet style in which the four voices are doubled by strings and brass, with no individual instrumental parts. But if the structural format is conventional and conformist, the harmonic language and rhetorical declamations are not. The text has just the one line—-see what love the Father has shown that we may be called His sons. The structure is that of a choral fugue, voices initially entering in the order S, A, T, B.

The fugue theme is directly derived from the initial two ideas expressed in the text which begins with a call to attention—-see, behold, take note! The first two notes of the theme reinforce this command and Bach buttresses them by having all voices unite in the opening bar. The second part of the theme (from bar 5) is a flow of quavers, presumably representing the streams of God′s goodness although Bach may also have had in mind the representation of God′s numerous children. It doesn′t really matter which. The important point is that here, as in the later soprano aria, various meanings of the text are fully embedded within the structure of the melody.
               Tutti.                                         Sopranos.

The movement is developed from a skillful and richly textured interaction between the rhetoric call to listen and the flowing of benefice. This is punctuated by interjections of the full theme in all voices, sometimes in canon and, although it is not essential for the casual listener to note them all, a rough guide is set out below. The movement is busy, urgent, commanding and affectionate, a veritable compendium of associated emotions.

After the exposition of the main theme in the four voices, it re-appears thus:

Alto bar 30,   S bar 36,   T bar 47,   B bar 53,   A bar 58,   B and T in canon bars 69-70,   S and A in canon bars 75-76,   B bar 82,   A bar 93 (final incomplete statement).

The chorale that follows is the least ornate of the three and offers a moment of peaceful reflection before more declamatory movements. It muses upon God′s love and goodness and, in return, offers gratitude from all Christendom and pauses, finally, on a beautifully extended Kyrieleis.

Alto recitative.

The alto recitative addresses the world at large—-Go world, I wish for nothing from you—-heaven is now mine and your offerings are borrowed, transient and do little for us. The emphatic vocal phrases are punctuated by a series of rapid scales in the continuo, partly emphasising the theatrical nature of the delivery of the message but more importantly indicating the heaven to which we aspire. (It is significant that scales of identical length and structure also permeate the later soprano aria although with a different imagic purpose).

Of these ten semiquaver passages all but three ascend, the remainder directing our attention to those things which are physically and metaphysically on a lower level i.e. the spurious gifts the world has to offer. The recitative ends with the words—-therefore I can say with confidence—- thus leading us directly into the second chorale. Scalic passages continue in the bass, now heard as slower quavers but equally insistent in the rejection of earthly temptations. The rising harmonic sequence with which the central phrases are harmonised suggests the raising of one′s eyes and aspirations towards the throne of Christ.

Soprano aria.

The soprano aria holds an almost central position and shares with that for alto the honour of being one of the two longest movements in the cantata. It is in the form of a gavotte, one of the more formal and stately of the Baroque suite movements, in this case somewhat moderated by the minor mode. The text is a simple comparison of the ephemeral and the permanent—-all that the world offers dissipates like smoke—-Jesus gives me what my soul craves and it lasts forever. It is a da capo ritornello movement in which the first and third sections deal with the former contention, the middle section the latter.

The construction of the ritornello theme affords insights into Bach′s compositional approach. The opening phrase (or head motive) consists of two short ideas each one bar long. They are formed precisely from the rhythm (in German, of course) of the opening words—-all that the world—-contains within itself.

This is immediately followed by a rising and falling of violin scales, a clear representation of the image that follows—- (they) shall fade and dissipate like smoke.

Underneath we have a slightly ominous figure in the continuo about which we cannot be quite so precise although its general meaning seems clear. Bach may have thought of it specifically as the tempting devil (think how many times Satan is suggested by serpentine bass lines) or, perhaps, more generally of the world′s mores. But it certainly has a quality of slightly menacing rootedness underpinning the vacuous dispersal of earth′s offerings.

The relationship between textual images and statements and the musical structures Bach derives from them is sometimes obscure. Here it is  explicit.

The violin scales of dissipating wealth and pleasure continue throughout the first section, almost always underpinned by the threatening continuo. A repeat of the complete ritornello theme leads us to the middle section—-Jesus provides that which remains in me forever. There is less of the busy string figuration now, merely a few wisps to keep them in mind as the emphasis alters to focus upon His warmth and its eternal nature. The former is suggested by a greater concentration, at least initially, upon major modes and an encompassing string texture. The latter is depicted by the singer′s insistence upon sustained notes of increasing duration marked by an adamant repeating of crotchet c#s just before the da capo (bars 86-70).

We cannot escape the image of the ephemeral world however; the complete reprise of the first section does not allow it.

Bass recitative.

The second of the two secco recitatives affirms the certainty of faith—-we are God′s children and nothing can deprive us of the knowledge of Christ′s becoming a man to show us the way—-my remaining concern is that I must remain longer here on earth. Apart from some pointing of key words like death, sin and the world, once the impediments to our salvation, the movement is unremarkable.

Alto aria.

The final aria is for alto with oboe d′amore obbligato. It is, like that for soprano, a conventional da capo movement with the text divided accordingly—-I want nothing from this world whilst I inherit heaven—-I can now forsake everything for I know that I can never die. It may seem slightly surprising that Bach chose the darker tones of the tenor oboe but the answer is probably to be found within the general context of his settings of texts referring to death and the relinquishing of this world. Although the creed teaches, and rarely allows us to forget, that death is but a pathway to greater things and that nothing on this earth is worthy of possession (the essential theme of this and a number of other works), Bach seldom allows us to swallow this without some intimations of regret. Death and bereavement are painful and the world has its pleasures which many would be sorry to abandon. The dark oboe sounds are an indication that degrees of sadness, nostalgia and regret may still persist despite the euphoria at the thought of salvation and eternal life hereafter.

The natural wrench that humans have between the two worlds is, perhaps, also subtly intimated in the melodic construction. Listen to the first few bars of the oboe theme. You can easily count a slow 1-2-3 to its rhythm and yet it is set against a clear 6/8 rhythm in the continuo.

Nor do the two themes (obbligato and continuo) begin together. There is a subtle rivalry between the two rhythmic structures only resolved when they coincide at cadence points. This is the sort of musical magic the effect of which is entirely subliminal. We feel that something may be happening without knowing how or even why.

One cannot miss the repeated emphasis of the word—-nichts—-none-the-less. That moment of desiring nothing from the world but the inheritance of heaven is most effectively conveyed by a moment of complete rest followed by an unaccompanied solo line (bars 29-30). The middle section becomes slightly more agitated as the world is cast aside but there is also a significant emphasis upon ewig—-the longed for eternity which compensates for everything.

Closing chorale.

This chorale has a Teutonic stolidity which Bach′s arrangement virtually converts into pugnacity. The text is an almost aggressive farewell to mortal existence, sin and pride as we trudge away from the world and its temptations and limitations. Bach′s bass line constantly repeats a three-note figure (two quavers followed by a crotchet) which appears seventeen times in nineteen bars! None of his other harmonisations of this hymn exploit this figure to the same degree, indicating that he created a version for this cantata, particularly suited to the dogmatic and assertive text.

One final observation. This is the three note figure, referred to in a number of essays, which Schweitzer isolated as a ‘figure of joy’. If anything, Bach uses it here as a symbol of doggedness. One cannot be too doctrinaire about the significance that Bach attributes to certain motives or musical shapes. As always in great music, context is everything.


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