Chapter 49 BWV 68 Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt
God so loved the world.
Chorus/fantasia–aria (sop)–recit (bass)–aria (bass)–chorus.
The fifty-first cantata of the cycle for the second day of Pentacost.
It really is impossible to second-guess the astonishing mind of Johann Sebastian Bach. Just as you seem to detect a pattern in his thinking or compositional planning, he surprises you. Following C 1, which heralded the 1725 Easter celebrations, he appeared to terminate his plan of commencing with a chorale fantasia (see chapters 1 and 41). But after six works (Cs 6–87) he revived the practice in C 128 (chapter 46). And in C 68, a couple of weeks later, he produces a second fantasia, perhaps tempting us to assume that he was still intending to return to the original strategy.
But we would be wrong in this assumption. This cantata is an anomaly because it is the only one in the cycle that does not conclude with a four-part setting of the chorale. Furthermore, the last movement has, as we shall see, certain other characteristics that make it unique.
Thus does C 68 stand both within and outside the structural format of the second cycle; there is no equivalent work in the canon.
Two general points need to be made before we look at the individual movements. The first is the marked contrast in mood between the outer framing choruses and the inner two arias. Bach is perfectly capable of transforming a mood suddenly, often in the final aria or duet when he wishes our attention to focus upon an opposing attitude or argument. Put in simplistic terms, this might mean the holding out of hope where none had appeared to exist, or a reminder that sin and the devil are still around us, even when we appear to be fully enjoying God’s blessing. In this cantata the unequivocal assertions of faith and the joy that it brings are framed by stern warnings—-to achieve a state of grace we must trust in God—-if we do not, we are already judged guilty and condemned.
This is a stark message, mitigated only by the extrovert elation of those who have been fortunate enough to achieve a state of grace through their faith-driven convictions.
The second general issue is the recurring one of Bach′s arrangements of movements from earlier works. In this case the two arias in C 68 originated in the Hunt cantata, C 208, written in 1713 (Dürr p 361: see vol 1, chapter 88). This secular work, composed while Bach was still in his twenties, was one of the most substantial of his early compositions in this form, lasting for well over thirty minutes. It is interesting to note that two of the best known of all his cantata movements originated there; that which was to become the soprano aria in C 68 and the ever popular ′Sheep may Safely Graze’.
C 4 aside, re-use of earlier movements is a rare event in this cycle. We saw that C 74, unusually, incorporated two from cycle 1 and parts of C 175 hark back to Cöthen; at this stage of his career Bach’s practice was generally to look back to his pre-Leipzig years. The ‘borrowing’ for C 68 demonstrates again that, although Bach was prolific in re-using secular music for religious purposes, he seems to have made little or no distinction between secular and ecclesiastical compositional styles.
[Incidentally, some listeners may be surprised to find their recordings of C 208 beginning with the first movement of Brandenburg 1. Various commentators have suggested that it may have originated there as an introductory sinfonia (Wolff, notes for Ton Koopman’s complete cantata recordings, box 3, p 22)].
The opening movement of C 68 is set in the brooding key of D minor. Listeners may recall that this was the key of the opening choruses of Cs 46 and 109 from the first cycle and that of the chorale/fantasia from C 101, a bleak and despairing depiction of a war-torn landscape. Here the mood is less severe, the 12/8 time signature imparting a somewhat ponderous, heavy, almost dance-like lilt.
First violins and oboe.
The text has an archly didactic air, instructing the congregation about that which God has done for us and what we are committed to do in return—-He loved the world so much that He sacrificed His Son—-he who believes should live with Him forever. The chorale, which is used nowhere else in the cantata, was by Gottfried Vopelius (Dürr p 361) and its eight phrases are declaimed by the sopranos, doubled by a horn. The form is that of a straightforward ritornello/chorale fantasia.
However, Bach′s treatment of this chorale melody is unique in the cycle. He embellishes it to a degree whereby ′it hardly seems like a chorale any more′ (ibid p 361).The lower voices are frequently used homophonically or with uncomplicated imitative entries. The mood throughout is elusive and enigmatic.
Schweitzer describes the rhythm of the opening theme as expressing a ‘feeling of joyous serenity’ and ‘the idea of the eternal, compassionate love of God’ (vol 2, p 337). His view may have been influenced by the quirky, encompassing little runs on the first oboe and violins. On the other hand, the orchestration (three oboes doubling the strings) is dour and it is difficult to escape fully a feeling of cheerless, almost grim Protestantism.
Bach can, of course, write happy music if he wants to; but this movement has serious intent with perhaps only hints of the ecstasy about to be celebrated. It hovers slightly tentatively between Dm and F major, modes of darkness and light. The penultimate line of text—-das den betrübt—-explains that there is nothing that can depress him whom God loves, an essentially optimistic assertion. Bach’s cadence on F (bars 44-45) the major mode, appropriately expresses this upbeat notion.
But the progressions that lead to this point are chromatic and tortuous. Yes, Schweitzer’s faith in the ‘compassionate love of God’ is conveyed in broad tonal terms. But the horror of the alternatives, or possibly the ordeals of the journey, are underlined by the threatening harmony.
There is no recitative following the chorus, ensuring the marked contrast in mood which occurs when the first aria bursts upon us—-my heart ever faithful sings—-Jesus is here! A particularly effervescent piccolo cello sets the tone in the four-bar ritornello and much of the movement can be perceived as a duet between it and the soprano. Even the excursion through Dm (beginning around bar 23) cannot cloud the excitement or moderate the sheer pleasure of being alive.
Bach has not, in this case, simply taken over an earlier movement, making minimal adjustments to accommodate the new text. The vocal line from C 208 has been completely re-written above the original cello part and a continuo line added below it. A consequence of this happy reworking is that there are now no pedestrian or earthbound moments in what has become an infectious paean of bliss!
(Scholars may find it instructive to compare the vocal melodies from the two movements and note the mature musical improvements which characterize the latter).
The reworking contains one oddity in that when the soprano finishes, the movement is only two thirds complete. Bach adds a solo oboe and violin and these, combined with the continuo and cello, form a quartet which expounds a second exposition of the main theme. It is almost as if, knowing that he was on to a good thing, the composer simply did not want to let go of it!
However, the dogged student may discover that this second exposition of the theme also existed in a previous version listed as BWV 1040. It may have been intended to form a part of C 208, but almost certainly as a separate movement rather than merged with the aria as in C 68.
Thus the proportions of this aria have become extremely odd and one is tempted to seek the reason. Might it be that the oboe, violin and cello have come together to represent the Holy Trinity expressing, in a purist sense, the beautific vision of which the soprano has just sung?
The one recitative in the cantata continues the theme of joy in being part of Christ′s mission as arbiter between man and God. When the singer states, in the third line of text, that he has not been forgotten by Jesus, Bach contrives to make both vocal and continuo lines allude to the opening notes of the first movement’s ritornello (bar 4).
The recitative begins in D minor but ends in G major, thus pointing us towards the next movement.
This aria demonstrates yet another facet of Bach’s art as an arranger. In fact the word ‘arranger’ is frequently misleading when used in this context because it carries the implication of a different presentation of an existing score (particularly with regard to instrumentation) but with minimum interference with the structure. The re-workings of all the violin concerti for keyboard, for example, strictly maintain the original musical formats and are appropriately called ‘arrangements’.
In this cantata however, Bach does not arrange; he re-constitutes.
We have seen how he completely rewrote the soprano aria. In that for bass it appears, at first, that he intends to make only minimal alterations to accommodate a different text. The oboes and continuo set off with their masculine, fanfare-like statement and for a few bars the vocal line follows closely that of C 208. But then it changes. Bach subtly re-writes much of the rest of the movement, retaining the basic rhythmic structures from the opening bars, but moving into subtly different musical territory. Why?
It is impossible to over-estimate Bach’s sensitivity to text. The original stanza for this aria was a very conventional affair, comparing a prince in his country to the soul in the body. The uplifting fanfare mood is clearly appropriate for the lauding of a nobleman, but there is little of the specific contrast of ideas and emotions which Bach later looked for in his libretti and, it would seem, may not have satisfied him in the texts provided by Mariane von Ziegler. But here he seems to have got what he sought.
The verse for this aria begins with an affirmation of faith and the personal contentment it provides—-I am happy to believe that You have been born for my benefit. The wind fanfare figuration from the original aria is perfectly suited to express this positive and uplifting thought. But the text latterly goes on to describe how Satan may still arm himself and shatter the earth! The imagery is strong and violent. The conventional expressions of eulogy to the aristocracy are no longer sufficient. Bach sees that the text requires a tougher, more sinewy treatment and this is why he takes the trouble to rewrite much of the remainder of the aria, even extending it by ten bars. (It is basically in ternary form, the rewritten section returning from bar 62).
Students may observe that the singer′s first declamatory motive bears the same shape as that with which Christ asserts Himself as the good and true Shepherd in the opening aria of C 85, although there in the minor mode (chapter 44).
Bach concludes with a movement that is unique in the cycle. If readers turn back to C 135 (chapter 5) they will find discussion of his experiments in tonal practices; there the fantasia begins and ends on the dominant chord of the key. But in C 68 Bach goes one step further, clearly beginning in one key (Am) and ending in another (Dm). And by using this chorus to replace the expected chorale, he completes this cantata like no other.
The austere nature of the chorus is intensified by the heavy doubling of the four vocal lines. There is no independent instrumental writing, the oboes and strings, reinforced by trumpet and trombones, providing support for the choir in the traditional motet style. But clearly Bach wanted this peculiar timbre for artistic as well as for pragmatic reasons. The music is uncompromising, serious and rigorous, almost to the point of dogmatism.
Which, indeed, is a characteristic of the text—-those who trust in God will not be judged guilty, but those who do not are already deemed to be so. The allusion to the Day of Judgment accounts for the stern, obdurate expression. Bach’s own stubborn nature was well suited to the traditional portrayal of this important event; see, for example, the equally powerful opening aria from C 168 which begins the third cycle (vol 3, chapter 2).
And it is also as well to remember that complex counterpoint, particularly in the form of the fugue, was Bach’s most natural medium, one that he returned to so often for movements of stature and strength. The four-bar opening subject is announced by the basses and taken up by the tenors.
It is interesting to note the mirrored order of entries:
exposition 1: B, T, A, S
exposition 2: S, A, T, B.
This has clear symbolic significance with the rising entries representing the aspiring innocents and those falling suggestive of the guilty descending towards Hell.
In a sense, the expected end of the movement comes with the cadence in A minor over bars 48/49. But this is where Bach plays his final trick. The tierce de picardie chord (A major) becomes the dominant of the key of Dm and it is in this key where the final eight bars settle. It is the key of the opening movement and it consequently completes Bach’s over-arching tonal strategy.
But his intention would have been as much symbolic as structural. The final eight bars proclaim the name of the one born Son of God. He resides in a different and higher place than we mortal humans and the raised pitch proclaims this in purely musical terms. The cantata thus ends as it began, re-asserting the greatness and elevated stature of the Saviour—-it is essential that we trust in Him for our own salvation.
But Bach’s symbolism makes quite clear that He is not one of us. He exists in an elevated dimension and Bach encapsulates this important message by the placing of the final bars in a higher key.
Might this be why, and most unusually, there was no place for the traditional closing chorale?
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.