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Chapter 52 BWV 30 Freue dich, erlöste Schar
Rejoice, redeemed masses.
Chorus–recit (bass)–aria (bass)–recit (alto)–aria (alto)–chorale.
Recit (bass)–aria (bass)–recit (sop)–aria (sop)–recit (tenor)–chorus.
(Brief notes on C 30a, thought to be the template for C 30, are included below).
For St. John’s Day.
There are three extant cantatas for the Feast of John the Baptist of which C 30 was the last to be written. Originally believed to have been composed as a secular cantata and archived as C 30a it was, Dürr suggests, adapted for liturgical use with newly composed recitatives and possibly first performed in 1738 (p 691-2). Details of the structure and libretto of the initial work may be found in Dürr (pp 880-883); see also below.
C 167 (vol 1 chapter 7) is the earliest of this trio of works and certainly the slightest. It is noteworthy, however, for being one of the first new cantatas that Bach composed after he had taken up his position at Leipzig and also for the ravishing duet with oboe da caccia obbligato. C 7 is the third cantata of the second cycle (vol 2 chapter 4), the opening fantasia standing out not only for its power and emotional intensity, but also because it is unique in having the chorale (an interestingly archaic melody) sung by the tenors. C 167 incorporated a mere five movements, C 7 seven. By comparison C 30 has twelve, very near the upper limit for a Bach cantata.
C 30a was an obsequious work written in the fawning traditions of the time to pay homage to a nobleman taking over his estate (Dürr p 883). In C 30 the conventional expressions of praise are directed, instead, towards the Almighty. It has been noted previously in these pages that Bach, like most ′jobbing′ composers of the time, found little in which to differentiate between the homage paid to earthly and divine rulers. In the longer term, one obviously would have been more important than the other, although presumably it might have been impolitic and tactless to say so. But the general public required much the same sort of support and protection from both mortal and divine sovereigns and that made life a little easier for a composer of Bach′s insight when adapting the music conceived for one to the service of the other.
C 30a hardly warrants an individual essay of its own since all of the major movements occur either in C 30 (nos 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9) or in C 210 (no 11) and discussions of them may be found here or in chapter 73 of vol 1. It includes, however, six additional recitatives for all four voices, the first and last of which combine them, uniquely in the secular cantata canon, in four-part harmony. All are secco except for the final one which uses the upper strings to underline mention of flashes of lightening and fire. The odd mixture of allegorical figures (Fate, Fortune and Time) with a personalised river (the Elster) would seem to indicate a rapid cobbling together of ideas for the almost non-existent plot.
As mentioned above, Dürr suggests that the secular version came first; he dates C 30a from 1727 and C30 the following year (pp 883 and 692). This would be the normal progression of events since Bach’s practice was, in almost every known example, to sanctify secular music rather than the reverse.
Without definitive primary information, the hastily conceived plot of C 30a and the minimum of musical alterations in the paraphrasing of the substantive movements might lead some to suppose that the more convincing religious work may have been the original model. However, in this essay it is assumed that the secular cantata preceded that for services.
The main impression one gains from this cantata is one of vitality and energy and the chorus, employed in the outer movements, establishes it from the outset. This is another of Bach′s dynamic major-key choruses that seems hardly to pause for breath from the opening to the final bars. In the original secular cantata it had been a song of praise for the mansion home of a nobleman. In the paraphrased version it is a call for the throng to rejoice in appreciation of its world of prosperity and good fortune. The new text is slightly altered for the reprise at the end but the fundamental message remains steadfastly the same.
The syncopated opening rhythm of the chorus is identical to that of the later alto aria, which may indicate an intentional connection, or it may be coincidental.
What is distinctive about it, however, is its structure. On the surface it is a conventional da capo but the A section is repeated in full as a part of the middle section as well as at the end, giving something of the feel of a rondo i.e. A–B (comprising b+A+b2)–A. At the beginning Bach reverses the normal expectation of an instrumental ritornello section preceding the choral entry by commencing with the main theme, announced jointly by the choir and orchestra, thence followed by the same eight bars on instruments alone. This creates an immediate impression of joyful exuberance. A pair of flutes and oboes join strings and continuo alternating between doubling and solo roles, the latter most apparent in the later B section where there is a delightful playing of wind against the upper strings (from bar 97).
The phrasing throughout is unusually four-square, the symmetrical phrase lengths creating a strong impression of rustic dance.
Apart from the central chorale, the remainder of the cantata is built around paired recitatives and arias for three of the four voices in the order bass, alto, bass, soprano. The tenor has a recitative but not an aria. There was a pairing for him in the original secular model so a possible reason for this change is the lack of immediate availability of a suitable soloist when the paraphrased version was first performed. Of the cantata′s five recitatives four are secco and may well have been assembled under the pressures of a tight deadline.
The first bass recitative outlines a scenario of respite which we may now enjoy and which our ancestors had greatly desired—-come, let us rejoice with a song of praise in God′s honour. The two little bursts of continuo semi-quavers underpin the comment on the removal of the law′s burden and the call to celebrate.
However, their connection with the text is, at best, tenuous.
In his paired aria the bass is supported by the full string ensemble and, as in the later alto solo, much is made of triplet figurations, another possible example of Bach′s connecting mechanisms. Equally significant is the fact that both themes are built about the same rising motive, d, g, a, and b (e, a, b and c# in the higher key for the alto).
The bass aria is in modified ternary form, the middle section beginning at bar 73 and the reprise, after a moment of quiet reflection on the Way of the Lord, from bar 121. The text praises God, who has, unsurprisingly, kept His promise, and declares the birth of His servant, chosen to prepare His Way. It is amazing, in a paraphrased movement such as this, how many key words Bach manages to emphasise in extended melismas—-Name—-His name,—–gelobet—-praise, —–Weg—-His chosen Way—-being the most arresting. Of course, this is another indication that this version of the cantata could have been the original, as suggested above.
The alto proclaims the coming of the herald to announce the arrival of the King—-be ready and hasten with quick steps to follow him who shows the Way, whereby we shall all surely behold the blessed pastures. Again the recitative is direct, uncluttered and workmanlike although there are one or two touches of word painting. The phrase—-he calls, do not delay—-is appropriately rhetorical (bar 3) and the rushing of footsteps to follow is equally evident (bar 4).
The alto aria is something of an oddity. The ritornello theme (strings and flute) is a complete binary form movement in itself with its two balanced, repeated sections. Its initial rhythmic structure is reminiscent, and the aural equivalent, of an Escher lithograph or one of those visual puzzles in which you initially see say, a vase which, after a little blinking, appears to become two faces. Although the emphasis is upon the first note, it can easily sound like an upbeat to that which follows it, so that the brain follows that particular patterning until the arrival of the triplets throws it into confusion! It is a neat little musical trick and the mind can move from one to the other perception of the structure, just as in the visual examples.
As written, followed by how it might sound.
Another quaint characteristic of this theme is the blues-like approach to the final cadence. Bach flattens the third note of the scale (c# to c natural) creating an extraordinarily modern sound, an echo perhaps, of the sinful sleep from which we are exhorted to arise.
The text follows on directly from that of the recitative, enjoining all sinful children of Adam to awaken at the Saviour′s call, for the time of Grace is upon us. The triplets, again bearing in mind that this text may not be the original, are entirely appropriate in conveying the pictures of gathering sheep and rapid steps. The touch of darkness in the ritornello theme (not, incidentally, to be found in the aria proper) and the constant feeling of activity both suggest a close and harmonious relationship between Bach and his lyricist.
Although somewhat disguised, the movement is actually a gavotte, a suite structure which Bach frequently used when movement of souls towards God or Heaven is being depicted. The flute, as with the woodwind choir in the opening chorus, alternates between doubling (either violins or voice) and indulging in delicious interplay with the strings. Bach′s relatively rare use of pizzicato effects lightens the string texture throughout.
Part 1 ends with the cantata′s only chorale—-a voice is heard from the wilderness—-raise valleys and flatten mountains in order to prepare a path for the Lord. It is a sturdy hymn tune, not well known but selected here because of the appropriateness of the chosen verse. One cannot avoid the assumption that Bach would have found its mixture of two and three-bar phrases appealing.
The bass soloist is given plenty to do in this work and he opens part 2 with another pairing. His recitative is the only one accompanied by additional instruments, in this case two oboes. The text is a statement of commitment, musically reflected in the opening oboe figure sounded over a short pedal bass—-as You upheld Your covenant made with our ancestors, so will I strive to serve You in holy piety. There is a sense of purpose and endeavour about this little movement, made all the stronger by the repetition of the oboe motive, the last note of which is significant.
The drop in pitch for that crotchet is an important feature of the music′s articulation, an emphatic pause or even a full stop which marks the assertion of decisive intention. The recitative ends on a chord of F# major, the dominant of the aria which follows.
It was asserted above that this is a work of vigour and dynamism, a feature that we discover is as apparent in the arias as in the reprised chorus. The second bass aria begins with an aggressive ′scotch snap′, a brief skirl throwing the rhythm towards weaker notes of the bar. This proceeds to a slightly gentler, more caressing figure (bar 5) itself giving way to an interchange between oboe d′amore and violins (from bar 8).
The bass makes much use of the rhythmic scotch snap (from bar 1) almost spitting out his detestation of all things offensive to God. The middle section (from bar 97) is textually more gentle and musically more flowing, an affirmation to love, with all one′s heart, the One who has been so gracious to us.
The strings and oboe, however, maintain the high levels of compulsion and commitment that make this such an arresting movement and the B section ends in the minor mode with a shortened version of the ritornello. Consequently, the reprise of section 1 begins with the initial vocal entry instead of going back to the beginning of the movement.
A string of surprisingly forceful arias characterises this cantata and, while each is quite definitive in its own character, there is limited scope for strong contrasts. Consequently, much of the variety of mood and expression is provided by the less vigorous recitatives. That for soprano has the absolute minimum of harmonic movement as it continues the theme of the consistent and committed individual soul amidst the inconstancy of flawed Mankind. It reaffirms the pledge to remain steadfast and to praise God, the slow-moving continuo line and negligible harmonic progression ensuring that the expressivity resides completely within the contours of the soprano′s melody.
The soprano aria poses a fascinating conundrum. If one glances back to the previous cantata for John the Baptist C 7 (vol 2) one cannot help but be struck by the similarities between it and the tenor aria from that work. They are both in 9/8 time, in minor modes and the shapes of their first bars are virtually identical.
C 30/10 followed by C 7/4 (transposed).
This could be explained by Bach′s having looked over cantatas written for the same day, a practice for which there is much internal evidence offered in these essays. But C 30 was only latterly adapted for St John′s Day. The original verse for this aria, whilst taking note of ′time the destroyer′ calls for the sparing of the nobleman′s home. The text from C 7 is about Father, Spirit and Son bringing us the gift of baptism through Christ′s own blood. The stanza from C 30 is more benign, a plea for time to pass quickly so as to bring us to the heavenly pastures, something for which we should be truly grateful and thankful. There does appear to be something of a mismatch between the vehemence of the music of the soprano aria and the text it illuminates. That is the danger of paraphrase, much as Bach usually avoids the more obvious traps.
Yet none of this explains the similarities between the C 30 and C 7 arias. Is there more to the background of the former work that we know nothing of? Or is this just one of those occasional coincidences that may well be inevitable with as busy and productive a composer as Bach? Or did Bach, almost certainly pressed for time, use the earlier aria as a semi-template for the later one?
However, if we can put aside a slight concern about the mismatch of words and music, there is much to enjoy in this aria. Its powerful, gigue-like rhythms bring to mind the last movement of the Am violin concerto and the grinding, ascending chromatic figurations in the bass line have great dramatic power (bars 5-6). The vocal writing is strong and declamatory, scarcely abating even in the middle section. This is an operatic pronouncement of great passion which, if taken at face value, suggests (although Bach often avoids this elsewhere) the single-minded, driving ambition to propel oneself towards the grave and its aftermath.
But for reasons given, and particularly when we view Bach′s depictions of death as a whole, we need to treat this particular setting with a degree of healthy scepticism and simply enjoy the invigorating music.
The tenor has his one moment of glory in the final recitative—-be patient, that day which shall free you from this world cannot be far away—-you, and all other redeemed souls shall be liberated and no further torments will distress you. We cannot, is seems, return to a state of blissful optimism without being reminded of just how unbearable these torments have been and the tenor′s last bars are designed specifically to prompt us. Elongated phrases and weird chromatic harmonies combine to paint the picture of the tormented soul.
But the return of the opening chorus dispels such thoughts—-rejoice in Zion′s meadows where the splendour of your contentment will endure forever. We have heard this before and now we hear it again. We must, by now, surely believe it to be true!
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.