Chapter 51 BWV 158 Der Friede sei mit dir
Peace be unto you
Recit (bass)–aria/chorale (bass/sop)–recit (bass)–chorale
For Easter Tuesday.
This is another of those problematic works which is almost certainly incomplete and about which little is known. Drr, quoting Spitta suggests that the second and third movements may have originally been part of a cantata for the Purification and that the outer movements were added subsequently when it was performed as a part of Easter celebrations. Whether other movements may have been lost is unknown.
The various purposes to which these two arias and recitatives may have been put mean that there is little point in making contextural comparisons with other cantatas for Easter Tuesday. In any case the history and, indeed the very authenticity of C 145 is doubtful and C 134 from the first cycle was itself a parody of a secular cantata, much altered for subsequent performances (Drr p 289-290).
Thus it seems that there is no complete extant cantata which is known to have been composed especially for this day. Nevertheless we should be grateful for whatever has survived if only, in the case of C 158, for the superb bass aria.
Like three of the later cantatas from the second cycle C 158 begins with a recitative. Unfortunately nothing can be inferred from this as it may well have originally been preceded by an aria or chorus; or, indeed both. It is a hybrid movement of the type that Bach was often want to use in the second cycle, in this case a combination of arioso and recitative. Its peaceful confidence and persuasive tranquillity mark it out as probable late rather than early Bach.
The simple crux of this opening movement is the phrase of benediction ‘Der Friede sei mit dir’—-Peace be with you. It occurs three times in the text, at the beginning, middle and end. The phrase is articulated in this context so as to reassure the Christian—-it is the case that our debt of sin must be judged but the Lamb’s Blood will, nevertheless overcome that one who seeks to trap the soul [Satan]—-you need not be distressed.
Bach begins with the reassuring arioso phrase—-Peace be with you—- underpinned by rising, quietly confident quavers in the continuo. This simple statement is heard again in bars 7 and 8 after which allusions to the snares of Satan take us through the darker key of F#m. The movement concludes with six bars of soothing arioso built around two extended statements of the original phrase. It ends, as it began, in the soothing major mode.
The aria is without doubt an example of the mature Bach at the top of his form; Drr calls it ‘a master-work of Bach’s art’ (p 290). Scored for bass, continuo and violin obligato it also includes an interpolation of a complete chorale, although not that which ends the cantata. It is sung by the soprano doubled by the oboe. The chorale is completely unadorned and because the soprano’s contribution, whilst significant, is a relatively negligible part of the overall musical fabric, this movement should not be thought of as a true duet; the bass voice and the encompassing violin dominate throughout. Drr (ibid p 290) makes the plausible supposition that the chorale melody may have originally been scored just for an instrument, almost certainly the oboe, with text added a later stage. Consequently, and despite the soprano’s brief entrance, this work is best viewed as one of the solo cantatas of which Bach produced a number for all voices following the second cycle.
There is very little distinction between the text of the chorale and that for tenor. Both begin with an adieu to the world of which we have become weary. The chorale then contrasts the peace and salvation of eternity with the combat and hostility on earth, the former obviously seen to be superior. The bass expresses similar sentiments with perhaps a little more emphasis upon the personal—-I will savour that place of dwelling, shining with the light of that Heavenly Crown.
The beautiful and complex ritornello reflects each of these ideas in turn. It begins with a melody of calm mature acceptance tinged, perhaps, with the lightest sense of nostalgia associated with departure or separation. The earthly battles are alluded to in a passing moment of chromaticism (bars 6-7) following which the rapid violin skirls allow us to bask in the Light of the Crown. The ascendance to heaven is clearly audible in the climbing violin counterpoint set against the bass’s first entry, a theme developed from a figure initially introduced by the ritornello (bar 9)
These eighteen bars give us a textbook illustration of Bach’s compositional methods. He takes from the text images that strike him as being most significant and then invents motives which musically suggest them. He may begin to expand them in a limited way before the voice enters (e.g. the radiance of the Crown) or he may simply place them in our consciousness preparatory to later development. A simplified version of the opening violin melody here becomes the bass’s introductory statement and the principal motives (particularly those suggesting the ascent to heaven and the glow of the Crown) are extended as counterpoints against the voice at appropriate moments.
The result is a highly original movement of boundless imagination, text and music firmly united. The poetic message is clearly conveyed both explicitly via the words and emotively through the intangible suggestions of musical symbolism and feeling.
Structurally Bach is constrained by the tonality of the chorale but he still manages to weld it into a familiar ritornello/da capo shape. The violin solo opens and completes the movement as well as providing short interludes. There is a clearly discernable A section followed by a B section (from bar 49) taking us, as expected into contrasting minor keys. The A section is not properly reprised but developed anew, a frequent practice of Bach’s in the later cantatas.
The keys for these four movements were carefully chosen even though they may not have been conceived together as a cognate group. The first two are major, principally D and G. The second two are minor, making particular use of the key of the crucifixion, Em. The third movement is another hybrid, the first eight bars a simple secco recitative and the succeeding ten an affectionate arioso.
The initial lines of text from a simple prayer—-Lord command my thinking and allow me, like Simeon, to come to You. The arioso simply luxuriates through the contemplation of dwelling in that place adorned with the Crown of Heaven. It will be noted that the text set as the arioso is identical to that of the last two lines sung by the bass in the preceding aria. However there the musical emphasis was upon the delight of residing within the light and resplendence of the heavenly Crown. In the arioso our eyes are fixated more upon the vision of the Crown itself. The fact that the securing of this ‘Crown’ is the ultimate realisation of our principal earthly ambition is marked musically by the two melismas on ‘Kronen’ and the use of the highest notes of the singer’s range in bar 15.
The closing chorale confirms the work as an Easter cantata. Most readers will be familiar with its use in every movement of C 4, an early work frequently resurrected by Bach but most notably to terminate his sequence of chorale/fantasia cantatas in the second cycle. The verse used to complete C 158 is also set as the sixth movement of C 4, an aria for bass and strings. A four-part version ends both cantatas but the harmonisations are different, particularly in the closing bars. Whether this was a response to the different texts or because Bach had second thoughts is not clear. It is possible that the mention of the murderer (even though he cannot harm us) in the penultimate phrase of C 158 wrought from Bach an additional moment of drama in the harmony.
The chorale pays tribute to the true Easter Lamb who has ensured that nothing, not even the assassin can harm us. The language is stark and explicit—-the blood of the Lamb—-high on the Cross—-its ‘burning love’ marking the way to our salvation. There is something particularly suitable about this chorale for the expression of such sentiments; note the carefully crafted melodic rising and falling and the effort of stretching upwards in bar 11.
Perhaps most significantly, Bach did not transpose this re-harmonisation as he was often want to do. He retained the original key of Em which he had employed for every movement of C 4 many years previously. There can be little doubt that Bach continued to associate this key strongly with the crucifixion.