Chapter 42 BWV 181 Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister
Frivolous fickle ones.
Aria (bass)–recit (alto)–aria (tenor)–recit (sop)–chorus.
The forty-first cantata of the cycle for the Sexagesimae.
Sadly, this work is incomplete and brings with it several unanswered questions. That does not prevent us enjoying (particularly) the outer movements but it makes it difficult to deduce much about Bach′s views about the development of the cantata at this time.
For example, and for only the second time in the cycle (the first being C 199), there is no concluding chorale. It seems unlikely that one was not intended although it may be related to the theory that this work was intended to be paired with C 18, one to be played before and one after the sermon. That may well have been the case; Bach had done this previously with Cs 24 and 185 although then there was still a chorale concluding each part. The most convincing explanation is that it has been lost or detached from the score, a reasonable conclusion considering the generally incomplete transmission of the work.
For example, it is clearly apparent that an obbligato line is missing from the tenor aria. Dürr suggests that it might have been for violin (p 237) although Koopman has reconstructed and recorded the aria effectively using an oboe (Complete Cantatas vol 7). Bach added wind parts for later performances (Dürr p 236,) and Koopman has recorded both versions. It is also generally believed that some or all of the movements may have been paraphrased from a lost secular cantata. This is highly probable in the case of the chorus where there is little convergence between the textual imagery and the musical structure but it is unlikely to be the case with the opening aria. As to the tenor aria and the two recitatives, it is anyone′s guess.
In the context of the discussion about Bach′s experiments with cantata structure in the last chapter, it is worth noting that they continue in this and subsequent works. Here it would seem that Bach reverts to the aria as the appropriate first movement, presenting us with a fully developed chorus for the fifth.
Congruence between the imagery and the musical invention is very strong in the opening aria. It centres upon the flippant and superficial who deprive themselves of the power of the Divine Word—-both Belial and his progeny seek to prevent mankind from receiving its benefits. The reference to Belial implies evil and wicked intervention and is a pervasive one throughout literature; Milton, for example, notes his misdemeanours in a section of Paradise Lost.
If ever a theme fitted the description given in Bach′s Obituary that his melodies were ′strange and like no other′s′ it is that of the ritornello announcing the opening bass aria. It is a series of short trenchant phrases with moments of complete rest in each of the first five bars.
When the singer takes up the same idea, the moments of hiatus are filled with a flickering of upper, thence lower, strings. One can never quite predict the turns which this spiky, disjointed melody is likely to take. It is a perfect musical representation of the frivolous, fluttering beings of little substance or permanence who, we are told, by their very superficiality deprive themselves of the benefits to be gained from following the proclamations of God. Fluttering upper strings and descending continuo scales predominate about a vocal line which is powerful in its condemnation of such frivolities. Had Bach been writing a couple of hundred years later, the image which might well have emerged from this music is that of the 1920s American ‘flappers’ i.e frivolous, fun-loving, independent young women following their own desires and with little adherence to the conventions of the times!
Structurally, Bach entices us into thinking that with the emphasis on the brood of Belial (from bar 27) we are entering a contrasting section and indeed, subsequently we appear to begin a reprise of section A from bar 42. But in fact this is merely the beginning of a resetting of the whole text. It is a ritornello movement, the encompassing instrumental theme coming at the beginning and end as well as forming short intervening episodes. It also provides the musical material for the vocal line and its instrumental support throughout.
The alto recitative is long and packed with imagery. The first and final lines of text are set as recitative, the rest emerging as a central, and partially disrupted, arioso. The voice is accompanied only by the continuo, providing yet another example of the expressive potential of two conjoined lines of melody.
The first recitative section bemoans the state of perverse souls who, lacking in belief and understanding, blame Satan for their faults. Their essential lack of faith and inability to comprehend the damage for which they themselves are responsible is pictured forcefully, yet with compassion, in the last part of this section (bars 7-8). The arioso is a duet between voice and continuo exploiting a musical figure whose repeated notes suggest strength and hardness—-hearts of rock, in resisting their salvation are doomed—-Christ′s last words shattered the very rocks as angels moved the tombstone.
The final lines of recitative also allow for the softer image of flowing water, suggested by a fluid scale in the vocal line (bar 20). The movement ends on an entreaty which gets to the heart of the cantata′s theme, that of the perils of rejecting the Lord′s word—-would you, heart, be even harder?
It is inconceivable that Bach could have expected the organist to have filled in all the missing spaces above and between the existing continuo notes underpinning the tenor aria. Even without the missing obbligato part we can make some important observations i.e. the mode remains minor, there are three beats to the bar and the rhythm of the bass line vacillates between the nervous ′hiccoughs′ of the opening bars and later flowing quaver movement. The text compares those earthly desires to enrich oneself with a multitude of thorns that shall forever feed the fires of hellish torment. Which of these images might have inspired Bach when he approached the task of constructing the ritornello theme?
The first point to note is that the theme of the tenor′s entry does not fit with the opening continuo line. Bach often contrived that the ritornello theme began with the figure that was subsequently to be taken up by the singer; but not here. This would suggest a different melody but not necessarily one without connections to the vocal line. One clue might lie within the melisma in bars 117-121 which, with a minimum of manipulation would fit well in the opening bars. Given that images of the flames of hell and infinite thorns dominate the text, the conclusion that the violin/oboe obbligato would have been one of continuously moving semi-quavers becomes difficult to resist.
Bach sets the complete verse twice, separated by a few bars of ritornello. He gives stress to the same words in each section, an excellent indication of his view of the text. A shortened version of the original ritornello theme completes a movement which, at best, may be described as frustrating.
Ritornello theme bars 1-14.
The second recitative is secco, like the first, but this time it does not transform into arioso. The important thing to notice is that it begins and ends in the major mode, the first movement to do so. It informs us that in the circumstances so far described, the seed of Truth will not grow and the potency of the word shall wither—-we should prepare ourselves for the future time of fertility when we may reap from it the benefits and vigour of both this life and that hereafter.
The shape of the work as a whole is now clear, moving from the picturing and condemnation of the foolish and unthinking to a more positive assertion of optimism about those rewards which we might attain in both this life and the next.
We have been instructed to avoid the frivolous temptations of the world and to prepare ourselves appropriately through the Divine Word. It only remains for us to pray for the Lord′s assistance in so doing. We might expect such an entreaty to be made in the context of a contemplative chorale; but here Bach sets it as a commanding and ebullient chorus; but, as mentioned above, whether he intended this to be the concluding movement is far from certain. Did Bach intend to end with it, possibly as an experiment to see how effective it might be in completing, with some flamboyance, the first instalment of what may have been conceived as a two-part work? And even if a chorale had originally followed it, why place the chorus as the fifth and not the first movement?
One possible answer may lie within the sense of evolution implied within the text. The opening aria conveys the immediate impression of the frivolous ones ignoring the Word of God. The two final stanzas (as we have received them) imply a rejection of such behaviour. There is, therefore, a strong sense of progression from doubt and superficiality to faith and certainty, culminating in the positive acceptance of God′s word, allied to prayers for his help and forbearance. What better way to mark this culmination than through a triumphant and affirmative chorus?
But this is pure speculation; we can be certain of none of it.
As mentioned above, there are no obvious connections between the imagery of text and music in this chorus, giving rise to the strong suspicion that it is an adaptation of an earlier, now lost composition. It is a conventional da capo with trumpet (and later oboe and flute) added to the strings in the outer sections but limited to just the soprano, alto and continuo throughout the entire middle section. This may have been as Bach set the verse although there is nothing in the text to suggest it. Indeed, it is a further indication of the fact that it is a paraphrase such as we see in similar examples of the expansion of duets into choruses in Cs 173 and 184, later in this cycle, and the Easter Oratorio, C 249 in vol 3.
It is likely that this last movement of C 181 evolved similarly. There seems no reason for not using bass and tenor lines in the middle section unless it was because the composer was under pressures of time. The three parts are, in any case, quite complete in themselves. There are also signs that the outer sections may have commenced life as a duet; entries are often in pairs, initially S and A then T and B and this process continues until the return of the ritornello.
Additionally, one might make comparisons with C 74 (vol 2, chapter 48) one of the few second cycle cantatas to have relied upon the reworking of earlier movements. That opening chorus was adapted from a duet for soprano and bass from C 59 (vol 1, chapter 58). For the later work Bach added a third trumpet, drums and three oboes and he expanded the two vocal lines into four. Nevertheless, various characteristics of the first version remain in the second; the third trumpet part is minimal and there is clear evidence of the original two-part texture revealed in the vocal writing.
Returning to C 181, the middle section of the chorus confirms our faith in His willingness to help us—-only Your great hand can prepare a fruitful place within our hearts. Perhaps Bach felt that this was a more personal affirmation requiring neither brass, strings or full choir to make its point.
A cantata which, despite its chequered transmission, we are grateful to have. There is much about it to enjoy; one would not wish to be without the opening movement in particular. But it remains a frustrating piece with which we can never fully come to grips.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.