Chapter 35 BWV 65 Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen
All from Sheba shall come.
Chorus–chorale–recit (bass)– aria (bass)–recit (tenor)–aria (tenor)–chorale.
The thirty-fourth cantata of the cycle for Epiphany.
Bach incorporated three chorales in three of the previous four cantatas. In C 65 he reverts to a more established structure with one exception. He begins with an imposing chorus and ends with a plain chorale, sandwiching a pair of linked recitative-arias between them but he also inserts an additional chorale as the second movement. Is he still experimenting with the cantata structure, the place of the chorale within it and searching for some, as yet unattained ideal format?
Epiphany was an important day in the church calendar but only three cantatas survive written for this day, C 65, C 123 from the second cycle and C 248/6, the last part of the Christmas Oratorio (vol 2, chapter 33 and vol 3, chapter 48). It seems inconceivable that Bach could not have composed more for this event. All three works begin with a chorus of stature and that for C 123, although incontrovertibly the most subtle of the three, is also the only one to lack brass instruments. C 248/6 has the usual trio of trumpets with drums and C 65 has two horns along with the expected oboes, strings and continuo. The oboes da caccia are those of lowest register and they play an important role throughout the cantata. A pair of horns is usually a sign of festivity or celebration, immediately apparent in this instance as they enter with a striking fanfare-like call above a single continuo chord.
It is hard to overemphasise the dramatic effect that just a pair of horns can have when they are written for in the right register and given melodic material precisely suited to their character. Not only does Bach achieve this in the opening bar; he also gives us a musical glimpse of the sense of gathering described in the text—-They will all come from Sheba bearing gold, incense and countless praises of the Lord.
This sense of ′coming together′ is manifest within the whole musical structuring of this theme, the horn calls answered by the full orchestra and immediately followed by imitations between brass, woodwind and strings. It is a theme of lavish textural delights, well befitting the assembling of the multitudes at the birth of the Saviour.
The notion of congregation is further exemplified by the choral entries coming quickly one upon the other, firstly B, T, A and S (bar 9) and latterly in the reverse order S, A, T and B (bar 14). Similar sound images are evoked by the fugal entries, again in the order B, T, A and S (from bar 19). Even the fugue subject is designed to epitomise the images of crowded busy-ness as its initial quavers quickly transform into semi-quavers.
Fugal technique is, of course, ideal for the expression of notions of crowds, gathering and amassing and Bach makes the most of it until the original horn fanfare calls us back to the beginning (from bar 45) and the chorus ends with a truncated version of its opening section.
The chorale which follows is in the minor mode but it is not typically reflective. It is a sturdy melody in triple time and Bach sets it extremely plainly with a minimum of passing notes in the harmony, all of which implies a quick tempo and a cheerful character. The text of the chosen verse simply gives us a modicum of detail about some of the most important visitors—-The Kings of Sheba came with gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The secco bass recitative is mainly narrative, telling us a little more of the story of the visitors and their gifts but it also personalises the event—-I too must visit You and show my gratitude but I can only bring the small gift of my heart, having nothing more noble to offer. This, indeed, encapsulates the core of the cantata; gifts of worldly value are of no consequence if one does not offer both heart and soul. The melodic line is wrought principally to conjure the joy of the occasion but a particularly subtle touch may be found at the setting of the mention of the stable in Bethlehem (bars 11-12). The unexpected harmonies momentarily suggest the lowliness of that birthplace.
One could be forgiven for supposing that it was the bass aria that led Bach to choose the lowest oboes throughout this cantata, so well do they suit this movement. The text is unequivocal—-Gold is too lowly, dispense with facile gifts torn from the earth—-Jesus would have your heart offered now at this time of New Year. The two oboe da caccia, in constant close imitation of each other, convey a sense of baseness or lowliness whilst the two long melismas on Gaben—-gifts—-emphasise the centrality of the concept; the aria, indeed the whole cantata is about gifts certainly, but they must be appropriate ones.
A repeat of the ritornello theme in the higher key of G major leads us to the second and more positive part of the message, although it begins with further condemnation of the unsuitable gifts (bars 25-6). But there is no middle section as such, nor any proper reprise of the first one although the oboes make occasional references to it (bars 30-31). The aria is composed so as to carry the message in a linear fashion from the initial declaration of unsuitability to a final understanding of what is expected.
This too is a secco recitative and it expresses a simple metaphor suitable for the understanding of everyone—-do not dismiss my heart for it contains the fruit of Your spirit, the gold of faith, the incense of prayer and the myrrh of patience—-as I give to You, give Yourself to me that I, in aspiring to heaven, may become the wealthiest man on earth. As always, it is neither possible nor sensible to attempt to interpret every note of a melodic line but a few pointers to the detail of Bach′s thinking may be illuminative. The movement begins with a plea —-do not despise—-at which point the melodic line descends over the interval of a ninth. In the second bar it rises to reveal my soul′s Light. The word Herz—-heart—-is given prominence at the beginning of the third bar to be immediately followed by a darker stress upon Demut—-humility. Thus does the shape of the line follow and colour every nuance of the words.
The danger is that in looking at the detailed organisation of the melody thus, one might think of it as being simply mechanistic. The miracle is that Bach disguises the technique so well, and so often. His melodic lines are never machine-like or robotic; they are always living, evolving expressions of emotion whatever the detail of the adherence to the text.
In noting that the final aria is for tenor, one observes that there are no solos for the higher voices in this work, a somewhat surprising fact considering its theme and fundamental optimism. There may have been practical reasons for this but that is unlikely. This is another of those little puzzles about which we might speculate but are never likely to solve.
A curious combination of instruments accompanies the voice, two horns, two flutes (or recorders), two oboe da caccia with strings and continuo. Nor is this the only unusual feature of the movement. It has a particularly long ritornello theme (32 bars) which contains an almost unprecedented variety of instrumental colouring. Its three beats to the bar and extraordinarily symmetrical phrases (for Bach) bespeak a dance which is surely both the dance of and the dance for God. Furthermore, little figures are thrown around from group to group suggesting the universality of celebration as we give ourselves wholly to Him—-Take me and my heart, all that I am and whatever I do or say is Yours—-I offer it all to Your service and to no other. The tenor introduces himself by taking up the ritornello theme but before long he erupts into joyous melismas on the word alles—-all, everything (that I give to You). The bargain has been struck and the joy is unconfined; or almost.
There is, in this aria, one exquisite example of Bach′s extreme sensitivity to the underlying themes of his texts. There is joy in Christ′s birth, in visiting Him, in proffering Him the supreme gift of one′s heart and in contemplating the salvation that all this will ensure. But there remains the fact that His birth is lowly and His death painful. There is, therefore, just the slightest shadow cast over these happy events and Bach allows it to show near the end of the ritornello (bar 29 and again at 145). Triumphant C major fleetingly becomes Cm for those listening closely enough to detect the message.
First violins from bar 28.
The closing chorale will be familiar to many Bach lovers as it would have been to his congregations. It is used in Part 1 of the Saint Matthew Passion and it was to appear again at the end of C 103, a second cycle cantata with a commanding opening chorus though not, one should note, a fantasia. Bach would also recall this hymn in a month′s time for C 144 (chapter 41) and further comments may be found in the essay on that work. The harmonisations differ only in detail, although a strong contrast in character is detectable due to the different instruments doubling the vocal parts. The verse chosen to end C 65 is a simple prayer—-I come consoled, guide me until my end so that my soul shall benefit and Your honour may be exalted.
The structure of this chorale melody is highly sophisticated, a skillful mixture of two and three-bar phrases. That, in itself, would have interested Bach. The effect, for some, may even be to suggest the amalgamation of two coexisting entities, the corporeal and the divine.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.