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Chapter 37 BWV 92 Ich hab in Gottes Herz und Sinn
I have, to God’s heart and mind (surrendered myself).
Chorus/fantasia–recit/chorale (bass)–aria (tenor)–chorale (alto)–recit (tenor)–aria (bass)–recit/chorale (SATB)–aria (sop)–chorale.
The thirty-sixth cantata of the cycle for Septuagesimae.
This is one of the longest cantatas of the cycle, comprising nine movements and taking at least half an hour to perform. Written for the third Sunday before Lent, it sets three complete verses from the chorale (and selected lines from several others). The original hymn is by Gerhardt (Boyd, p 231).
There are a greater total number of lines of text to set than in almost any other cantata in the canon so it becomes a matter of particular interest to see how Bach deals with them.
The narrative is built around a theme commonly occurring in eighteenth century Lutheranism, essentially an encouragement to put one’s love and trust in God no matter what privations we undergo. It makes allusions to the Good Shepherd who will surely protect and lead us to salvation and there are a number of images depicting aspects of these themes.
The chorale contains eight phrases, the second, fourth and last of which are three bars long, thus somewhat ameliorating the predictability of what might otherwise be a rather pedestrian melody. Its words, as it closes the cantata, must have had a particular resonance for Bach—-when I die, I shall follow and honour my Shepherd. Students will notice that Bach used the same chorale, with different words and slightly altered harmonization, to end Cs 111 and 103 and further discussion of it may be found in chapter 36. There are similarities of text touching upon the return to God’s benefice after the agonies of separation. However Bach does not use the melody as a chorale fantasia in C 103 (chapter 45), perhaps because he had already done so twice in this cycle.
The minor key of the chorale establishes that of the fantasia although Bach alters the rhythm from 4/4 to 6/8, a time signature with implications of both the gigue and pastorale. The orchestra is modest, with two oboes d’amore, strings and continuo. There are no brass instruments of celebration here and the choice of the lower, more somber oboes is a further clue to Bach’s approach to the text.
The haunting wind instruments generally declaim their own parts, independent of the violins. The message conveyed is simple, almost naïve—-I have surrendered to God’s will and I must accept whatever tribulations He imposes upon me.
The ritornello has an enigmatic quality in stark contrast to that of the previous week, cantata C 111. There the opening theme is strongly rhythmic and assertive, unleashing a torrent of furious semi-quavers. That of C 92 has shimmering, translucent beauty, apparent from the very beginning. Oboes first state the poignant six-note motive, immediately echoed by the strings, but thereafter the feeling is one of forever striving upwards.
There is no extrovert jubilation here, rather a sense of passive acceptance, allied to a continuous reaching aloft towards the rewards of God’s favour. This is exquisitely subtle music, neither celebratory nor tragic but, nevertheless, conveying an inner peace and acceptance, fully reflective upon the human condition as maintained by unquestioned faith. Events on earth may be harsh and wretched and they continue to influence and touch us; but we are ultimately assured of God′s favour.
The form is that of the Italian ritornello and the use of material extremely economic. The opening oboe motive provides the ideas for the lower voices’ imitative entries under the sopranos’ declamation of the chorale melody. Bach takes great pains to ensure that the message of each line of text is clear; as the sopranos hold their last, long notes, all three lower voices repeat the words before the orchestra, never fully relinquishing its sense of movement and striving, takes over. Ritornello statements both separate and conjoin the chorale phrases.
Particularly notable are the swathes of vocal semi-quavers but they are very different in character from those of C 111. Here they are suggestive of the ′Throne of Heaven′ and the subtle majesty of the One who punishes and rewards us as He decrees. The student may find few more constructive exercises than comparing these two movements, both based upon the same chorale, yet so different in disposition and their reflections of the texts.
Indeed, one even wonders if Bach was instrumental in choosing to set the same chorale in consecutive weeks. In this cycle particularly, he appears to be demonstrating the myriads of ways in which a chorale can be used to generate musical ideas and structures. The composition of two such contrasting choruses as those for 111 and 92 based upon the same melody stands as a perfect model for student to learn from and emulate. We do not know to what extent Bach made use of his cantatas in his teaching sessions. But might this have been his secondary purpose in this particular case?
The second movement is a setting of almost three-dozen lines of text, one of the longest in the canon. Once again, it is difficult not to muse upon the origin of such a libretto. Were the additional lines inserted between the chorale phrases principally for the purpose of introducing images suitable for musical illustration? Did Bach request or initiate such an approach? Was he, or was he not, appreciative of the opportunities and challenges his librettist afforded him?
When examining C 101 (chapter 11) we observed that Schweitzer did not welcome such efforts to achieve variety in the setting of overlong verses (vol 2, p 366). He draws particular attention to these ‘tasteless recitatives’ which he describes as ‘a serious drawback’. It seems as if, despite his general enlightenment, Schweitzer feels that in accepting a text offering obvious and, perhaps even blatant images of action, Bach is diminishing both his art and the traditional standing of the chorale. It is strange that someone so perceptive about the integration of musical motive and image in the arias and choruses could be so short-sighted when it came to the recitatives.
Bach usually makes the chorale melody very clear even when it is embellished. Here the continuo consistently accompanies the chorale with a theme constructed from Schweitzer’s three-note ‘joy motive, also predominant in the fantasia.
As is often the case in these hybrids, the chorale carries the basic message—-my Father loves me unfailingly and casts me into choppy waters only to test my faith and firm my spirit. The recitative sections expand upon it semi-colloquially with references to fearful thunder, the collapsing of mountains and the swirling of great rivers, images which Bach paints through rushing and grumbling continuo notes (see bars 7-8 and 17-23). This graphic and dramatic musical imagery, not always so explicit in the recitatives of this cycle, was probably intended as another way of sustaining the congregation’s interest in the setting of long swathes of text. But the essential point of the verse is that the soul now emerges with enhanced strength and conviction. Its final phrase melodically delineates the action of ′being raised′ by His hand—-erhöhen.
It is not necessary to go through the movement explaining every line. Once the listener recognizes the accompanied chorale entries, even though the phrases are sometimes embellished and even divided, it is not difficult to follow the structural logic. Some recordings will use the bass section of the choir to sing the chorale phrases and a soloist for the recitatives, further clarifying the layout.
The tenor aria is one of Bach’s most operatic, resembling even the dramatic power of Verdi, a century and a half later. The first violins have a raging theme characterized by large leaps and rapid skirls of very fast notes. The accompaniment is one of continuous semi-quavers; but they are divided between upper and lower strings, thus accentuating the intensity and fragmentation.
The tenor enters with a telling phrase, which lasts hardly more than one bar but it spans almost his entire range—-See, see it splits, fractures and falls, that which God’s mighty arm releases.
This we may view as the negative side of this cantata theme, portraying what happens when God withdraws his support. It may seem disastrous but this is precisely why we need to listen, learn and take appropriate avoidance action!
Whilst the dramatic power never really diminishes there is, latterly, a slight change of focus. The tenor line becomes less disjunctive and fragmented as he stresses—-the strength of God’s power and glory (from bar 19). The string tumult never fully abates, however, and it returns forcefully, as does the tenor, picturing Satan’s raging (from bar 35). The long melisma of aggressive dotted rhythms on krachen—-to make noise, to rage—-underlines the mood of conflict and tension (36-40).
This is not a movement one can ignore, nor quickly forget! The student should compare it with the bass aria from C 139, chapter 24 (in which the oboe d’ amore has a broadly similar theme), the first movement of C 168 from the third cycle and the tenor aria from C 109 from the first.
The tenor aria owes nothing to the chorale melody which, however, returns in the fourth movement to be sung by the alto almost without embellishment. The fact that this text offers little in the way of overt imagery may explain why Bach chose not to set it as an aria. It has a serious undertone to which the repeated chorale is entirely suited—-God knows all things, places, actions and emotions and whatever He does is good, even when it appears to be sorrowful.
The two oboes d’ amore imitate each other above a continuo line which has occasional echoes of its counterpart from the second movement. The three parts intertwine above, below and around the voice, suggestive of a world in which all is connected, inter-related and properly in its place.
But the key is F#m and the natural sounds of the oboes are muted and subdued. Bach’s awareness of, and sensitivity to suffering and sorrow is never far from the surface. As in the following movement, this music suggests emotions that words simply cannot describe.
But just in case the message is elusive, there is one moment of marked explicitness. This comes immediately after the final line—-however sad it seems—-where the falling chromatic scale which Bach frequently associates with suffering at the cross is heard in the oboe parts (bars 48-9). It comes just the once, clearly a point of imagery and emphasis, rather than of musical structure.
The tenor recitative also offers little of the explicit imagery that was apparent in the second movement and it is set simply and formally. It also adds nothing of great significance to the thesis, simply reminding us that the good Christian should, like Christ, have no fear of sorrows; in fact he should actively embrace them! We must be patient in the certain knowledge that God is merely testing us.
But conventional though this recitative may be, Bach leaves a little sting in the tail. The final words Geduld, Geduld—-be patient, forebear—-are set to a drooping figure of such intensity as to bring into question the preceding arguments. Here, in a couple of short bars, Bach conveys the pain and suffering which the long forbearance of continuing sorrow, and particularly bereavement, brings to individual humans.
And, of course, few knew that better than he!
The bass aria is the first of only two in the major, the other being that for soprano (no 8). Explicit imagery returns to the libretto with mention of the raging winds and the tumult of the cross. The continuo provides the rushing of the currents in what is a straightforward ritornello da capo aria; amazing just how much energy and forward impetus can be achieved with just two contrapuntal lines.
Students may compare this with the similar representations of winds and waves in the tenor aria from C 81 (vol 1, chapter 39) and that for bass from C 178 (chapter 9), and whilst so doing give further thought to the miracle of how little Bach repeated himself even when depicting identical images.
The metaphor of the raging winds suggests the tumult of the crucifixion, the ultimate symbol of the pain Christ bore, as an example to us in our quest for salvation.
Some listeners may consider this to be the least inventive of this cantata′s movements. Certainly, apart from the restless energy in both voice and continuo parts, there is little else that captures the imagination or impinges itself strongly upon the memory. One gets the impression that Bach may well have ‘knocked out’ such an aria in a couple of hours.
But in moving towards the more positive and joyous aspects of this particular Sunday’s theme, it clearly serves a structural purpose in preparing us for the charming and optimistic soprano aria. Had this come without preparation, it might have created too sudden a change of direction in the context of a thematically organic work. Now it seems perfectly placed and the less abrupt collisions of mood are entirely fitting.
All of which calls into question why Bach retained the intervening recitative/chorale. The cantata was, surely, lengthy enough without it. The text is extremely long and offers little in the way of imagery. It is, however, structurally significant as it marks the turning point of the cantata whereby the soul, tested and consequently strengthened, now devotes itself entirely to the Lord—-I come to You, for in taking me I am benefitted and Your honour is exalted.
Although it is relatively uncommon for Bach to introduce four-part chorale writing into recitatives, he does it particularly when drama is called for. Examples may be found in the bass recitative in C 41 (chapter 31) where the choir announces the trampling of the devil underfoot and also C 3 (chapter 35). In C 92 his reason is less for dramatic effect and more so as to deal with a lengthy slab of text; there is no real drama in this movement.
The choir takes upon itself the persona of the reassured soul and each chorale phrase is interrupted by a section of recitative which expands, colloquially, upon it. Bass, tenor, alto and soprano each take their turn and the pitch rises with each interpolation, carrying us to the mood, as well as to the key, of the final aria.
Even today we do not know if the congregations joined in with the singing of the cantata chorales. But if they did, is it possible that this movement suggests a hint of a Teutonic joke played upon those not following their orders of service with due attention? Here the choir enters in four parts, without introduction, just as it does at the end. Might some members of the congregation have been caught unawares and begun to join in? Could this have raised a wry smile to the lips of the Cantor?
The soprano aria might be considered the jewel in the crown of this work—-I shall be true to my Shepherd whatever my sorrows, and ultimately reap my just rewards. It is essentially a duet between voice and oboe d’amore, their close imitations suggesting the entwinement of the soul with God—-I am loyal to Him who stands by me in times of suffering—–accept me into Your fold. This is music of resigned bliss, the avowal of an unquestioned faith, all doubt dispersed.
The 3/8 rhythm has the character of a gentle minuet, stroked by the pizzicato strings; life’s tribulations are now no more than a fading memory. This is the expression of Bach’s positive affirmation, the very core of his thinking. How often Bach conveys powerful, positive feelings in these penultimate movements.
The chorale returns us to the theme of death which, despite the dread it generates in humans, we now know is merely an essential episode on the journey to join the Shepherd. It is an expression of the final commitment to follow the designated path to join and honour Him forever.
Students may want to examine in detail the two different harmonisations Bach provided of this chorale and question his intentions. Did he wish to disguise the nature of the chorale appearing, as it did, in services in consecutive weeks? Did he feel that the alterations in the harmony and part writing suited the chorale of C 92 better to the fantasia it inspired, one of greatly contrasting disposition to that of C 111? Or did the technical act of transposing it a tone higher in order to suit the key of the later work in itself inspire a different approach? Or, as we see throughout Bach’s career, did he simply seek to make improvements to any composition in the course of revisiting it because that was his nature?
After enjoying this cantata readers may wish to return to C 8 (chapter 16) and re-familiarise themselves with another of Bach’s most intimate and profound ruminations on the theme of death.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.