Chapter 59 Bwv 173

Download in Microsoft Word format

Chapter 59 BWV 173 Erhöhtes Fleisch und Blut

Uplifted flesh and blood.

Recit (tenor)–aria (tenor)–aria (alto)–duet (sop/bass)–recit (sop/tenor)–chorus.

The fifty-ninth cantata of the cycle for Whit Monday.

Two versions of this cantata reveal something of its history about which, as always, Dürr provides valuable information (pp 358 and 816). It emerged originally as a birthday cantata for Prince Leopold and it exists in that form as C 173a. It was recalled for Bach′s first cantata cycle and again in the late 1720s, the form in which it is performed today. Bach dropped two of the movements from the original template but made few other changes. Further comments, particularly on the ′missing′ movements, may be found later in this volume in the section dealing with secular works.

The reader′s attention is drawn once more to the fact that a new text would have been set for its ecclesiastical presentation and consequently one has to be careful about making deductions about the congruencies of words and music. Nevertheless, as noted elsewhere in these essays, Bach seldom took less than considerable pains to ensure the fitness of his music for new words. Thus, there are some connections, even though the re-written texts cannot have inspired the musical ideas.

Tenor recitative.

One such happy concurrence is apparent in the opening movement, a recitative, although the text on the page gives more the impression of an aria. Originally it was a paean of praise to the prince ending with the words—-most Illustrious Leopold. The last line of the paraphrased verse is—-exalted flesh and blood. The words illustrious and exalted both imply a joyous elevation or ′raising up′, images which can be represented by the same musical processes. Hence the burst of ascending demi-semi-quavers in the penultimate bar which, if they were good enough for the prince,must  similarly suffice for the representation of Christ′s body and blood. Indeed, many would think it even more appropriate.

In both versions the vocalist is accompanied by strings and continuo, mostly with sustained chords but concluding with a group of emphatic quavers.

Tenor aria.

The second movement is an aria for tenor, singing an octave below the original soprano but with the key untransposed. The ritornello theme, played by strings with flutes doubling the first violins, begins with a couple of jaunty dotted motives. These soon evolve into a series of flowing triplets depicting the light of the suns which, augmented with voice and strings, proclaim the prince′s fame.

Both texts have mention of voice and strings, in fact the third line of the stanza is retained unaltered, the lyricist very possibly given the cue by Bach himself. But the flowing now becomes that of the sanctified soul, tasting the Lord′s goodness and spreading the devotion of God. Allusion to the musical forces is quite specific and good internal evidence that Bach worked closely with his lyricists, sharing their ideas. The notion of something flowing is slightly less precise but, if referring to the unfolding of God′s love, it is as surely worthy of a stream of triplets as was the portrayal of the fame of a mere mortal prince!

In any case the interplay between voice and first violins (with flute) is charming throughout and the continuo line has its full share of both dotted note and triplet figurations. This is a perfect example of the ′chamber′ aria, a piece that can be effectively performed with fewer than a dozen musicians. The interaction of voice and violins when the call is made to ′praise, sing and tune your strings′ (both versions from bar 26) is delicate and fastidious.

There is little that needs to be changed in the vocal line to accommodate the new words and the string parts are unaltered. Bach would, one imagines, have been able to prepare this new version for performance almost in a matter of minutes.

Alto aria.

The third movement is another aria, originally for bass and now for alto. Once more a complete line is retained—-mouth, heart, ear and eye cannot rest in this good fortune—-thus again ensuring maximum congruence of words and music. Originally the senses and spirit were called upon to extol Leopold′s merits and good fortune; now it is a joyful reaction to God′s benefice, and for the second time one dares to venture the opinion that the later setting is the more appropriate. The aria, the only movement apart from the second recitative to be set in the minor mode, is concise (only 29 bars long) and muscular. It is dominated by persistently importunate semi-quaver interjections for which the first and second violins combine. Originally these figures were probably intended to act as catalysts evoking enthusiastic responses from the proletariat on behalf of the royal figurehead; in the later version they suggest the joy of responding to God′s great ambitions for us.

Whatever the responses that are required from us and on whomsoever′s behalf they are proffered, there is a brief moment of quiet reflection in the adagio bar shortly before the end. God′s wishes for us are majestic and our responses should be appropriately and energetically positive. But pauses for reflection upon the joy of that which He provides for us are also appropriate.

Soprano/bass aria.

The next movement, a duet, is the first in which the original voices, soprano and bass, are retained from the earlier version. There are three distinct verses and in both cantatas the bass takes the first, the soprano the second, thence combining to form a duet in the third. They are supported by strings, two flutes and continuo and the movement′s structure is unique amongst the cantatas.

For one thing, it is in variation form which Bach used extremely rarely in vocal compositions; it commences with a 49 bar theme which is then twice adorned. For another, each of the three statements is in a different key, G then D then A, all of them major. This causes it to end at a pitch higher than that at which it began, a masked musical metaphor of exaltation. Indeed, the rising harmonic sequence (first heard from bar 5) is itself suggestive of the raising of voices in order to extol elevated eminence.

The parallels between the notions expressed in the two versions are not only designed to sit comfortably with the music in both secular and ecclesiastical settings, but they also reveal the Eighteenth Century attitudes towards patronage; very similar things are required , or at least requested, from earthly and Divine leadership. In the first verse both Leopold and God are extolled for their love of, and endowments to, their subjects; in each case they—-flow like brimming streams. In the second verse Leopold provides physical, and God spiritual sustenance. The duet in which the voices eschew imitative devices and move mainly in parallel harmony, is a pledge to unite in doing our duty whilst happily displaying our gratitude.

It is set as a minuet, an appropriately civilised and courtly form of musical gentility.

It is very probable that Bach had in mind to encapsulate the notion of ′exalting′ and acclaiming the elevated both through the raising of pitches and the enriching of both the instrumentation and general musical texture. In the first verse the soprano is supported by just the strings and continuo. Independent flutes join in for the second, producing a delicate filigree of interplay between them and the upper strings. In the final stanza both voices are surrounded by a continuous, flowing semi-quaver counter-subject on the first violins, either a representation of the uninhibited joy of the contented and cared-for masses or the light of heaven, referred to in both cantatas.

It is a peculiar movement which, unless well performed can threaten to become overly repetitious. But it has a lilting charm and undoubtedly works well for both sets of lyrics.

Soprano/tenor recitative.

The second recitative was originally for soprano and bass but Bach altered it, for no obvious reason, for soprano and tenor thus requiring a little tinkering about with the latter part. The stanzas for the two cantatas are virtually identical, addressed to the illustrious one and proffering our hearts, burning with such devotion that they would soar to heaven. Bach sets the first lines very much as in the preceding duet; the two voices moving together as a clear symbol of Mankind speaking with one voice. But when he comes to the last line—-our loving sighs will soar up to Heaven itself—-the vocal texture becomes imitative, forming a tapestry of semi-quaver scales which eventually take the soprano up to a top b natural! The sense of soaring is also taken up by the continuo bass-line which completes the movement with a scale passage rising almost two octaves. The word painting is bold and explicit and unlikely to be missed by audience or congregation.

One draws the obvious conclusion that, in the relatively marginal adaptation of his model, Bach must have invested the minimum amount of time, hardly surprising when he was in the midst of presenting the last six cantatas of the cycle within a mere ten days! One imagines that with a well briefed lyricist, Bach could have affected the required changes in a matter of moments.


The final movement requires a little more intervention to adapt it from the original duet for bass and soprano into a chorus. But even here the task of converting two into four-part writing is relatively undemanding. The textures are largely chordal, with the absolute minimum of contrapuntal complexities. A dozen bars are unexpanded vocally, remaining for just the one or two voices. There are long passages of instrumental ritornello which do not need any alteration. All this leaves only three dozen bars to be reconstituted, a negligible task, particularly when set against some of the massive choruses that Bach had paraphrased over the years.

The new text again takes the original verse as its model; humble thanks and prayers for the prince to live happily and continue to bless his people now become an entreaty to God for the blessings of the Holy Spirit to enliven us. For the second time the rhythmic structure is that of a minuet, perhaps a little faster than before but still retaining that aura of elegance and stylish sophistication, albeit more in keeping with the court than the church.
    First two phrases.

The ritornello theme is constructed in balanced four-bar phrases and is heard in full twice, but not at the end. A tribute to Leopold would have surely concluded most appropriately with the singers articulating the blessing laid upon his crown. That to God does so similarly, with the assurance that our voices will pierce the clouds in order to be heard.

What we do not know is whether Bach chose a repertoire chorale to end church performances of this work. On the one hand, he seldom offered cantatas without including at least one hymn tune, often as a conclusion. On the other,  he was not opposed to the appropriate completion of a cantata with a rousing chorus, set to a text that, as in this case, approximated a chorale verse. Furthermore this was the only choral work of this cantata.

But perhaps Bach, who clearly did not have unlimited time to spend on the preparation of this work, was prepared to surprise his congregations and, possibly, leave them expecting a little more! Whatever his intentions, there is no doubt that this cantata is an excellent example of how lyricist (who may even have been Bach himself) and composer must have worked closely together to produce an effective paraphrased version of a pre-composed work in the shortest possible time!


Copyright: J Mincham 2010.   Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.