Chapter 50 BWV 176 Es ist ein trotzig und verzagt Ding
The human spirit may be both defiant and disheartened
Chorus–recit (alto)–aria (sop)–recit/arioso (bass)–aria (alto)–chorale.
The fifty-third cantata of the cycle for Trinity Sunday.
Perhaps it does not come as a surprise that even the final cantata of the cycle brings with it a number of puzzles and problems; Bach keeps us guessing until the very end!
It is the last of nine, or possibly ten, libretti written by Mariane von Ziegler. It furthermore marks the end of Bach’s most intense period of cantata composition from May 1723 to May 1725 encompassing the complete first and second cycles. This burst of uninterrupted creativity produced 114 church cantatas in two years, allowing for the repetition of C 4 in each cycle (Wolff, pp 270-278). And even though a number of earlier works were pressed into service, particularly in the first year, it is still an extraordinary body of imaginative, inventive and highly original work.
Any views about what Bach might have felt at the time of the composition of C 176 must, of course, be speculative. It may be that he was not sorry to sever the relationship with von Ziegler; he appears never to have worked with her again and his alterations of her texts indicate some degrees of dissatisfaction. His focused creative efforts over the previous two years had been simply gargantuan and it is possible that he was looking forward to spending more time on the composition of repertoire outside of the immediate weekly service requirements. He had, by now, fully proved himself in Leipzig, having been responsible for an astonishing range of ecclesiastical composition and performance; and here we should also note the inclusion of the Saint John Passion, Easter Oratorio and Magnificat in his church music repertoire.
Bearing all this in mind, what impact may these circumstances have had on the composition of C 176? For a start, it is one of the shortest in the repertoire, typically lasting not more than ten minutes in performance. It has no chorale fantasia, no hybrid chorale/recitatives and both arias are under three minutes long. Was Bach impatient to get this final work out of the way and proceed to other projects? We shall never know although, once again, we have to note that even though the scale of this work is much diminished, both the quality and intensity remain extremely high.
The structure is unsurprising, two paired recitatives and arias separating an opening chorus and closing chorale. There is no solo role for the tenor.
We have seen that of the last thirteen cantatas of the cycle, only four begin with a large-scale chorus not based upon the phrases of a chorale; C 6, a delicately wrought tone poem, C 74, a more declamatory piece arranged from an earlier duet and Cs 103 and 176, both of which are energetic, almost belligerent, minor-mode fugues. Of the latter two, C 103 is much larger in scale, a monumental piece consisting of two dynamic sections separated by a recitative. C 176 is a more concentrated chorale fugue with independent instrumental accompaniment, but no introduction or ritornello.
It seems as if Bach, liberated from the self-imposed constraints of the chorale fantasia, became intent upon exploring as many forms of cantata and individual movement shapes and structures as possible in the final dozen works of this cycle.
It is always dangerous to attempt to deduce great composers’ moods or emotional states from their music. It is well known that composers in dire stress could produce joyous music and vice versa. This is because they were professionals, often composing several hours a day and used to fulfilling commissions with varying requirements at very short notice. Even so, it is difficult not to conclude that Bach ended his two years of immense cantata production with less enthusiasm than when he had begun it. The small scale of this work is one possible indication. Even more illuminative is the character of the first chorus which is terse, laconic and bordering upon the aggressive. With no introduction, choir and orchestra leap straight into the fugal exposition. It is almost as if Bach is saying, let’s get on with it and get it over with!
But if any antagonism suggested by the music is indicative of Bach’s frame of mind at this time, it is certain that neither his attention to detail nor his creative personality were in any way diminished.
This movement has generated much discussion and some of this may be due to problems of translation. There is just the one line of text—-Es ist ein trotzig und verzagt Ding. Three examples will suffice to show the range of emphasis and meaning which different translators provide:
* Dürr, English translation by Richard Jones (p 374) —-There is something perverse and desperate about all human hearts.
* James Chater’s translation for Ton Koopman’s recording (box 15) —–There is a daring and shy thing about the human spirit.
* Boyd (p 163)—the heart is deceitful above all things —-and he further isolates the key words ‘trotzig’ and ‘verzagt’ as implying ‘spiteful’ and ‘despairing’.
Further images of defiance and failure (in the sense of being disheartened) may also be attributed to these words. So perhaps it is best simply to turn to the music and try to ascertain from its structure and spirit just what Bach made of this enigmatic text.
Some strong impressions immediately become apparent. Firstly this music is, if it is anything at all, pugnaciously defiant. There is nothing apologetic about the powerful fugue subject, its energetic and independent accompaniment or its concise development.
A second impression derives from the long, semi-quaver melismas on aller—-all (humans) indicating Bach’s emphasis of the universality of the message. There are two complete fugal expositions in which the voices enter from the lowest to the highest (beginning bars 1 and 20), paralleling imagery suggestive of the upward striving human spirit. The ideas of struggling and endeavour are also embedded within the rising scale of the fugue subject, taking us from the solidarity and rooted-ness of a tonic C minor chord, to a high, somewhat enigmatic, tonally dissonant but powerfully expressive d flat.
Thus, in the course of this short piece we discover a combination of defiance, continual striving upwards, a brief suggestion of uncertainty and indecision and an ultimate emphasis on the universality of the human condition. The music, in this case, seems to convey the messages more richly, concisely and precisely than the words!
The reference to the first movement of the fifth Brandenburg Concerto in the strings has often been commented upon. Readers will reach their own conclusions as to whether this is accidental, symbolic or simply another of Bach’s communications with the Lord. Or, might it have been a private joke with his family or those of his students who were familiar with his general repertoire?
The alto recitative is included principally for the purposes of narrative. It tells of Nicodemus coming to see Christ by night rather than by day. It refers to the image of the sun standing still (Joshua) but Bach does not make anything of it.
The soprano aria may remind the listener of that for alto found in the later cantata C 30 from 1738. Both are gavotte dances with extended ritornello themes in binary form. Both develop from sturdy crotchet and quaver rhythms into streams of triplet quavers. The texts are not entirely dissimilar; that for the later aria tells of the Saviour calling the sinners to waken and proceed to Grace whilst this one describes the bright light, which only God can generate, attracting all towards him. It is extraordinary how similar texts set years apart may still reveal strong points of convergence in Bach’s approach, although it must be admitted that the salient characteristics of the gavotte dance seem more immediately apparent in this earlier work
Schweitzer (vol 2, p 47) describes Spitta’s horror at this music which, he felt, was charming but had nothing to do with the text. Ironically, Spitta’s approach to the text appears to be very similar to that of Bach’s. He has picked up on one image, that of the meek and timid person standing in awe of the Lord’s wonders, and he feels that the music does not convey this adequately. Bach has picked up on other more positive ones, focussing upon the brilliant light, God’s wonders and the universal movement towards His throne. (Schweitzer might also have mentioned the constant use in this aria of the three-note figure of joy, which he himself makes much of elsewhere).
On more than one occasion Bach has made use of the gavotte as a civilized and stately expression of movement towards the Divine (see the tenor aria in C 130, chapter 17). Furthermore, there are plenty of examples where he concentrates primarily upon one or two particular ideas taken from the text at the expense of others. It would seem that he and Spitta simply focused upon different images.
Schweitzer, with remarkable insight for the period, provides the ultimate answer. When discussing the problems of interpretation of Bach’s musical language (vol 2, pp 51/2) he states that there is only one way of avoiding the sort of trap Spitta stumbled into—-‘a comparative study of all the cantatas. They explain each other. No one can conduct one cantata properly unless he knows them all’.
Indeed, one of the aims of these volumes is to provide such cross-references across the canon as might be considered illuminative when focus is brought to bear upon any one work.
The bass recitative transforms itself seamlessly into a most beautiful arioso. The simple recitative lines declaim—–it should be no wonder that I seek the Master by night, because by day I am afraid of my own weakness.
The arioso is accompanied by continuo only, with a playful little semi-quaver figure shared between the two melodic lines. The music is an expression of the flesh that is weak, yet nevertheless strives to achieve God’s grace. It has a quiet air of humility, combined with a sense of gentle assertiveness of the true faith—-all who believe in You shall not be abandoned
Like the first aria, that for alto also suggests another courtly suite movement form, this time the minuet. The obbligato melody was originally scored for oboes, but later Bach altered this and retained just the oboe da caccia (Boyd 164). The rhythm might be courtly, but the melody is almost mocking in tone, employing two chromatic notes in the first three bars; d flat (again!) and a natural.
The text is essentially a rousing and optimistic attempt to rally the timid—-have courage and hear the word of Jesus for this ensures our admittance to Heaven.
The final lines are an offering of praise to the Holy Trinity, a possible reason for the selection of the 3/4 time signature. Long, flowing melismas on the words Loben and Preisen—–both words of eulogy—-emphasise a spirit of glorification whilst suggesting the rolling contours of emphatic ‘Amens’.
The chorale is long (eighteen bars and nine phrases) and modal; that is to say harmonically archaic and ambiguous. Neither of these reasons would have deterred Bach from composing a fantasia based upon it; these were the types of challenge that he relished, particularly earlier in the cycle. The text exhorts us to hasten to Heaven and sing the praises of God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
The modal characteristic of the chorale is such that it seems to begin in F minor and end in C minor with intervening cadences in both keys. This is an example of Bach’s forcing a melody into a tonal mould where it does not historically belong but, as we have come to expect, his superb technique and good taste make it work. And, as well as the probable pressures of time, perhaps the real reason that Bach does not use it as the basis of a fantasia in this cantata is because he had already done so, for C 7, the third work of this cycle (chapter 4). It is instructive to compare the different harmonisations concluding each of these cantatas.
It is, though, slightly ironic that he should conclude such a modern, progressive and inventive cycle of works with a fundamentally archaic melody. Perhaps it is a subtle reminder of the fact that as an artist, he remains fully and comprehensively, a man of all ages.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.