Chapter 41 Bwv 159ll

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Chapter 41 BWV 159 Sehet! wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem

Behold! We depart to Jerusalem.

Arioso/recit (bass/alto)–aria/chorale (sop/alto)–recit (tenor)–aria (bass)–chorale.

For Estomihi: the Sunday before Lent.

This is the last of four extent cantatas for this day. Cs 23 and 22 (vol 1, chapters 44 & 45) were performed as part of the first Leipzig cycle although, for special reasons, they predated it (see below). C 127 (vol 2, chapter 40) is one of the second cycle chorale cantatas.

Looking over these four works, one cannot help but be struck by the enormous range of inventive originality that this particular day seems to have kindled in Bach. Perhaps, aware that his congregations would be deprived of music in the ensuing weeks, Bach made special efforts to produce cantatas of exceptional quality for the last Sunday before Lent.

He did, however, have special reasons for ensuring that Cs 22 and 23 were works of particular quality and significance. He presented them in February 1723 as the two audition pieces in support of his application for the position of cantor. Both were used again for this day in February 1724 although in the case of C 23 revised and transposed (Dürr p 242). These two cantatas display noticeable dramatic and operatic features causing one to muse that if the Leipzig authorities were not partial to such styles, why did they appoint Bach? They knew from these works just what he could already do as well as hinting at what he was further capable of.

It could be, of course, that those members of the appointing panel who disliked the intrusions of operatic music into the church services were, albeit a vocal group, nevertheless a minority.

C 127, the thirty-ninth of the forty consecutive chorale cantatas, begins with a fantasia of great luminosity, a beautiful study in the subtle shading of musical colours through the convergence of major and minor keys. However, C 159, like C 23, begins not with a chorus but with a duet, the opening movement of which puts the listener in mind of the four dialogue cantatas from the third cycle. Like them, it is a discourse between Christ and the Soul although with significant differences. Here the voices are bass and alto (rather than soprano) and there are further solo parts for the other two voices, tenor and soprano, in later movements. Consequently the ′dialogue′ aspects of this work pertain only to the opening duet, a movement of great dramatic force, indicating yet again Bach′s knowledge of, and interest in, operatic styles and their adaptation for the church.

The increased use of solo and dialogue cantatas from 1726 may also signify a growing tolerance of operatic music by the authorities and congregations of the great Leipzig churches.

Bass/alto arioso/recitative.

Bach′s experiments in merging different formal principles for dramatic or communicative purposes began early in his career and were honed to perfection in the hybrid recitative structures in the second cycle. Combinations of recitative, ritornello, arioso and chorale phrases abound there although not without attracting some criticism. Certainly Schweitzer was one who latterly misunderstood the structural ′impurities′ of these innovations and condemned them resoundingly. The powerful opening aria of C 159 places these condemnations on the periphery of criticism where they properly belong.

Christ and the Soul address each other in three blocks of dialogue (bars 1-6, 7-14, 14-34) each one longer and more developed than the previous one. Bach was at pains to differentiate the two characters musically; Christ′s words are set as an arioso above a repeated continuo figure quoted below. The Soul′s responses are set as recitative, accompanied by sustained string chords. The dialogue is, for the most part, banal and it is extraordinary the extent to which Bach infuses a superficial line such as ′we are going up′ with great emotional power.

The mismatch between the quality of the words and music is, as is not uncommon in this canon, quite striking. The assumption today must be that no matter how mundane the mode of the textual expression might have been, there was a genuine feeling of conviction at its root which struck a chord with Bach. Perhaps the poet, in this case no less than Bach′s favoured collaborator Picander, was aware that his verses did not need to be of great inherent poetic value so long as the message was clear and Cantor Bach was setting them. They collaborated together in both secular and religious cantatas for nearly two decades and each must have been acutely aware of the intentions, qualities and potentials of their partner.

In fact, Bach needs no more than one word in order to stimulate the highest of creative responses. The work begins with Christ uttering that single word—-Sehet!—see. Bach sets it twice, firstly as a four-note rhetorical gesture and secondly as a prolonged melisma. The supporting continuo is formed from a rising quaver figure of five notes attached to a falling 7th.

The notion of ′rising upward′ is thus allied to an image suggesting the challenge of the journey and both are encapsulated in the shape of this simple motive.

The Soul responds by enquiring—-behold my heart, where is Jesus going? His response is equally laconic—-we are going up! These words are intoned four times to a version of the original continuo figure, ascending the scale on each utterance.

The Soul′s second contribution is to bemoan the extreme difficulty of the journey and Christ responds, now with four repetitions—-to Jerusalem. In the middle of His arioso the continuo figure is suddenly inverted (bar 19) and the melodic direction of both lines is now downward. Perhaps this is a metaphoric signalling of the fact that the journey is itself a turning point for mankind. It may be that Christ sees it as the pinnacle of His own life and ambition. But whatever it is, the message does not appear to reach the Soul whose third and final recitative section is the longest and most dramatically tragic—-do not go—-the cross, scourges and a bloody death await—-given the choice it would be better to descend to hell!

As if to illustrate this action, the Soul′s final phrase descends to the note on which Christ uttered His first word at the beginning of the movement. Bach has given us a perfect little operatic scene, colourful, dramatic, passionate  and yet woven together with remorseless musical logic. The Soul′s awareness of, and sympathy for, the pain that Jesus must inevitably suffer is perfectly counterpointed against Christ′s own stoic acceptance of his fate.

How absurd some of these phrases sound when read off the page. But this surely reminds us of the extraordinary insight which Bach had, the ability to see beyond the trite and trivial and make imaginative silk from a pedestrian sow’s ear.

Whilst minor keys predominate in this first movement, each of the following four will be set in the major. The first is a duet in which the soprano intones the passion chorale above the busy contrapuntal lines of the alto and continuo.

Soprano/alto aria/chorale.

The Passion Chorale is most associated with the St Matthew Passion where is appears five times. Bach also used it in the Christmas Oratorio and in several cantatas, including the chorale/fantasia from C 135 in the second cycle where it was, unusually, intoned by the basses rather than the sopranos. Its earlier use in the pre-Leipzig C 161 was in a four-part setting to which Bach added a scintillating flute obbligato. One of the attractions of this melody is that its harmonisation can be perceived as being principally in major or minor mode, thus imbuing it with a larger than usual range of expressive possibilities (see vol 2, chapter 5 for further discussion of this point).

In this duet the tonal context is principally major, the Soul having accepted the inevitability of following and, indeed, giving succour to Jesus. The ritornello theme is played by the continuo line alone, its strings of quavers certainly conveying a sense of forward movement but there is also an almost playful skittishness about it.

Perhaps Bach aims to depict the followers as kindred spirits, playful children who follow their leader with complete devotion and child-like faith. The text of the chorale melody affirms devotion to the point of death and the alto weaves its more complex lines through and around its partner, asserting much the same message in different words.

Although the phrases of the chorale largely determine the outline of the movement, Bach has constructed a clearly defined ritornello shape, the initial theme occurring at the beginning, the end and between some of the chorale sections. It can also be detected underpinning the singers. An important characteristic is the rising and falling contour first heard in bar 2. Its repetition throughout creates moments of reflective wistfulness suggestive, perhaps, of the declared allegiance of the disciples.

Students may wish to compare this movement with C 10/5 (vol 2, chapter 6) a duet for alto and tenor which makes use of a very similar chromatic figure, also based around chorale phrases.

Tenor recitative.

A short tenor recitative stands central to the cantata. This is slightly surprising since the more commanding arias are placed on each side of it. However, we discover in it the message that is most central to the theme of the cantata—-I will now grieve over Jesus and comfort myself—-I will know no joy until I see, and am redeemed, by You in Your glory.

Perhaps Bach wanted to accentuate the simplicity of this individualised message through an unembellished vocal melody supported by the least complex of continuo bass lines. Tonally the movement moves from an unresolved beginning (is it in Bb major, F major or Gm?) to a certain and almost exultant Bb major.

Bass aria.

Although, strictly speaking not holding the central place in the work, the second aria is described by Dürr (p 252) as ′the true high point of the cantata′. In terms of pure musical expressivity it is difficult to argue with him. The simplicity of the words ′It is finished′ brings to mind Christ′s words on the cross and their heart-stopping setting in the St John Passion (BWV 245/30). Dürr however (p 252) explains their use here as referring to the completion of that which had been written by the prophets. The gentle searing beauty of this bass aria suggests that Bach must have had the reference to the words on the cross in mind and, indeed, Picander′s text seems to make this very connection because it continues—-the pain is over. The phrase—-Es ist vollbracht—-it is finished—-comes at the beginning, middle and end of the stanza and defines the structural pillars of the musical architecture.

This is one of those rare moments in music which seems to transcend conventional formal shapes, perfectly creating an impression of time standing still. The radiant sustained strings enclose first oboe, then voice with the luminescence of a shining star.

The oboe′s first phrase, a figure of six notes only, immediately answers itself with the inversion of the same motive. The hesitant rising figure of bar 3 gives but a hint of the hastening to come.

The first section portrays, with great beauty and dignity, the peace and contentment which inevitably follows the pain. A repeat of the complete ritornello in the higher key of F (bars 24-31) leads directly into the second section, again introduced with the simple statement ′it is finished′. But this quickly melts into a depiction of the hastening to give thanks to Jesus. The semi-quaver runs in the vocal line and the melismas on eilen—-to hasten—-paint the picture with great clarity (from bar 34). They in turn dissolve into gute nacht—- the good nights [to the world]—-to be followed by the final ′it is finished′ and the coda, a simple reprise of the oboe and string ritornello.

A ritornello movement with suggestions of ternary form? A ternary form movement with ritornello interjections? Does it matter? This is art which totally transcends the restrictions of conventional structural devices. The student will be eternally fascinated by the quest to discover how Bach did it. The committed listener may just elect to sit back and be overwhelmed by the music′s expressive power.


The concluding chorale brings to an end a cantata which has been characterised by its reflective and meditative qualities. There are no ebullient or highly spirited movements in this cantata, the second duet being the nearest one gets to a true allegro in the entire work. A stolid, almost rustic chorale is, therefore, fully appropriate to draw matters to a close. The eight two-bar phrases hold no surprises; they convey a simple inevitability whereby unquestioning faith triumphs over any restlessness of the imagination.

The stanza is addressed directly to Christ—-Your Passion is now my pleasure, Your wounds and ignominy are rooted in my heart—-all is in bloom as my place in heaven is assured through You. Just as Christ came to terms with His pain and disgrace, so do we accept Him and our own place in the all-encompassing Divine plan.

The message of this cantata is one of uncertainty and trepidation transmuting into rock-like faith in the Saviour through the significance of His sacrifice. Both sadness and joy may be experienced within this transformation.

For mere humans, it is a situation of conflicting complexities which Bach could depict like no other.


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