Chapter 34 Bwv 153

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Chapter 34 BWV 153 Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind—-

See, dear Lord, how my enemies—-.

Chorale–recit (alto)–arioso (bass)–recit (tenor)–chorale–aria (tenor)–recit (bass)–aria (alto)–chorale.

The thirty-third cantata of the cycle for the Sunday after New Year.

This is the third cantata that Bach produced over the Christmas and New Year period containing three chorales, the others being C 40 and 64. It is, however, the only one to place them at the beginning, end and exact centre of the work. There are no additional choruses, something which may be explained by the sheer quantity of music that the Christmas/New Year season demanded.

The cantata′s theme is a perennial one at this time of the year, contrasting the misery of a life which is spearheaded by the attacks of our enemies with the longed-for peace of heaven. Embedded within this are the reiterated prayers for God′s protection and guidance. Once again the chorales form the backbone of the work.

Three chorales.

  Chorale 1, first movement: See God, how my cunning enemies manipulate me, such that I may be lost without Your assistance.

  Chorale 2, fifth movement: Even against the unity of all devils, God will not retreat—-whatsoever He has resolved shall be accomplished according to His purpose.

  Chorale 3, last movement: I shall follow You while I live but prepare me for it—-help me to lead a pure life so that I may forever be with You.

The sequence of thought is clear and the direction of the cantata assured.

It is a matter of fact that several of the chorales that Bach used in cantatas at this time he later returned to in order to form the basis of chorale/fantasias in the second cycle. That is true of all three in this work; the first formed the basis of C 2, the second that of C 135. The third, transcribed into 4/4 time, forms the basis of C 3 where it repeats one of the three verses that closed C 153 (see vol 2, chapters 3, 5 and 35).

Finally, we might note that the first two chorales are in the minor mode as is most of the first part of the cantata. The transition from fear and trepidation to a sense of purpose and assurance is reflected in the major modes of the final three movements.

Nowhere else does Bach construct the opening of a cantata thus: chorale, secco recitative, arioso, secco recitative, chorale. Although clearly planned in advance, the composition of these five movements may have only engaged him for a single evening. It is not until the tenor aria that we come across a substantial movement of exceptional passion and originality.

But perhaps we should approach the cantata in its proper sequence.

The tonal ambivalence of the opening chorale would have interested Bach; is it in E or A minor? It begins and ends on chords of E major but most of the cadences revolve around A. Bach′s harmonisation, which he varied only in details for the closing movement of C 2, suggests an ongoing and indefinable presence equally suited to the verses in both cantatas, dealing as they do, with intimations of the godless and perverting ones. There is a sense of unrest, disquiet and lack of firm foundation implied within the harmonic ambiguities.

Alto recitative.

The alto recitative is a more specific entreaty—-God help me—-I live amongst lions and dragons that wish to devour me. Tonally it moves quickly away from the opening keys to the more remote F# and B minor, creating a sense of urgency and a moment of stress upon the word Drachen—-dragon.

Bass arioso.

In the short arioso the bass becomes the voice of God, reassuring but nevertheless supported by a ritornello theme that is slightly rhythmically disquietening with its immediate dotted rhythm and numerous rests.

The words are entirely comforting—-fear not, I am your God and I will strengthen you with my hand of righteousness. The ritornello theme is initially taken up by the singer and is repeated several times with minimum variation, a symbol of the certainty of God′s will and purpose. Any sense of unrest in its rhythmic structure is there, presumably, to remind us that despite a reassuring divine presence, the enemies have not disappeared. This is a constant strategy in Bach′s religious music, to remind us, often by means of the most subtle of musical inferences, that mortal sin, sorrow, enemies and challenges still abound amidst the promises and assurances of salvation and eternal bliss. The good Christian must  constantly be on his guard!

Tenor recitative.

The voice of the suffering soul in the first recitative was that of the alto. Now, presumably in order to suggest the universality of human doubts and fears, the tenor takes on the role. This second recitative, secco as indeed they all are in this cantata, accepts the Lord′s words of comfort but they are insufficient to allay continuing fears—-my torment grows as my enemies increase—-their bows are bent their shafts aimed and I shall die at their hands. The imagery is pictured graphically: particularly noticeable is the activity of the bows and arrows with rapid and rising scales (bars 10-11) and the convoluted vocal line and treading bass suggesting the act of perishing (bars 12-14).

The final entreaty—-the world is a cesspit of torment, help me and save my soul—-is invested with the sort of tortuous vocal line that only Bach can produce, the continuo again suggestive of the throes of death.

Second chorale.

The second chorale is a statement of affirmation of God′s powers, resolve and purpose, its very familiarity to contemporary congregations itself a form of reassurance. But, as with that which preceded it, the ending is harmonically ambiguous and symbolically layered.

Tenor aria.

The tenor delivers a spectacular example of the ′rage′ aria so popular in contemporary opera—-storms, whirlwinds, torrents and flames may do their worst whilst enemies disturb my rest—-it matters not, however, because God is my haven and redeemer. The raging of the first violins and the disjointed dotted rhythms of the supporting strings can hardly be missed. But adding to the sense of mayhem is the introduction of the ′devil′s interval′ (the tritone a-d#) marked by the first violin′s two sustained notes on the main beats of the opening bar.

Similarly, the insistence of the (unusual) unison string passages approaching main cadences add to the driving force of the movement, particularly when later reinforced by the tenor.

If the dotted rhythms of the bass arioso suggested a slight degree of unease, here they become explicitly explosive. The tenor′s entry is bold and aggressive refuting any disruption, natural or otherwise, of God′s plan. Engulfing torrents are depicted with raging melismas (bars 8-9 and 12-13) as are the flames of misfortune (bar 18) but to no avail. Vicious and threatening they may be but they do not now disturb the soul′s repose, graphically depicted by the long sustained rest and the moment where everything pauses (bars 23-4).

But the longest and most frenetic of all melismas marks the name of the Redeemer (final vocal bars). For this declamation, and in a moment of ingenious musical irony, the tenor joins the unison strings that had previously pictured the negative floods and rages. The name of the Redeemer is clearly even more aggressively powerful than the ranting of the enemies and elements.

Bass recitative.

The last three movements are set in major modes, properly reflecting the soul′s journey from panic-ridden anxiety to peaceful contemplation. But, of course, things are seldom entirely clear-cut with Bach, and the bass recitative and alto aria are each coloured with the reminders of affliction, both contemporary and historical. The mood of the recitative moves from exhortation—-fear not heart, and endure your miseries for God will restore you—-to the biblical references to Christ′s agonies and Herod′s murderous rages. It concludes with an arioso duet with the continuo line, affirming the essential Christian truth—-He will bestow the kingdom of heaven on all who suffer on earth.

Thus the movement takes on a three-part structure moving from encouragement to acceptance through reminders of abiding misfortune. Bach′s melodic line is, as usual, totally flexible, accommodating opposing emotional states and moving seamlessly from the one to the other.

Alto aria.

The final aria is for alto and strings and it begins almost as a rustic dance, a beguiling minuet with foursquare phrases and simple rhythms. Only the moving quaver bass suggests that it might be a little more than a song of innocent acceptance.

The text simply affirms that our lives of sorrow will cease in heaven and the childlike dance quality of the aria is accentuated by the unusually long ritornello episode, twice the length of the original statement (bars 25-48).

Touches of minor harmony continue to remind us of those moments of suffering but even they are abandoned when the tempo changes to allegro and the singer presents a vocal dance of joy uplifted by the first violins. There is no proper reprise of the first section and we are left with the point of least ambiguity in this work—-there can be nothing but bliss when Jesus exchanges suffering for rapture. This is the declaration of total assurance and conviction to which the cantata has been making its way.

Third chorale.

The closing chorale is also in triple time, allowing the feeling of the dance to persist; this is not a work destined to end with moments of introspection or soul searching. It is unremittingly major and, most unusually, declaims three verses of text. Each stanza stresses an entreaty—-help me to bear my cross—-help me to conquer flesh and blood—-keep my heart pure that I may reside with Thee.

The subtlety of Bach′s chorale harmonisations becomes instantly apparent. There is none of the tonal ambiguity or uncertainty we sometimes discover in this last statement; we still may need to plead for divine reassurance but we are now certain that it will be forthcoming. It is this simple faith that ultimately vanquishes all fears.


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