Chapter 61 BWV 14 Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit
Were God not to be with us now.
This is a cantata of some significance in the context of Bach′s canon of chorale/fantasias. Due to the early Easter of 1725, there was no Fourth Sunday after Epiphany and some commentators suggest that this was another example of Bach′s attempting to ′fill the gaps′ where works were missing in the second cycle. In terms of its overall architecture, this cantata fits the general pattern perfectly, although both technically and stylistically it has gone far beyond them.
The date of composition, 1735, is reasonably certain (Dürr p 218). This was almost a full decade after the completion of the second cycle. Furthermore, it was certainly one of the last and perhaps, with the possible exception of C 80, the very last chorale/fantasia that Bach composed.
Stylistically it remains something of an enigma, having features which look both backward and forward in time. It can be usefully compared with its approximate contemporary C 80 (chapter 60) because they are, in many ways, complementary works. One is relentlessly minor, the other insistently major. Both begin with huge fantasias constructed on the principle of the motet, displaying awesome contrapuntal virtuosity. Both relegate the chorale cantus firmus to instruments.
The commonly recurring theme of C 14 is the need of God′s protection against our enemies. It contains a number of tempting images of anger and rage, foaming torrents of water, wild waves and snapping jaws. It is orchestrated, reasonably modestly, for two oboes, horn, strings and continuo.
The most cursory glance at the score reveals the lack of an expected orchestral ritornello. One of the more traditional aspects of this massive movement is its evocation of the old German motet, Schweitzer suggesting it to be in the style of Pachelbel (vol 2, p 329). The sopranos are not accorded their usual privilege of articulating the chorale melody in long notes. This function is allotted to the oboes and horn, thus freeing the singers so that they may play a full part in the general choral texture, the reasons for which will become clear.
Whilst the motet structure, style and orchestration are essentially backward looking, the harmony is daringly modern. It is the sort of writhing, chromatic counterpoint that we find in the great works of the following decade e.g. the Art of Fugue and the Musical Offering. All three are dominated by the minor mode and intense, severe harmonies that depict arid and barren landscapes although, almost paradoxically, not without great passion.
The seeds of this language may be found in the first bar of the C 14 chorale where, unusually, the melody rises chromatically from a b flat to a b natural.
It is true that dark, forbidding motet-like fantasias may be found in the second cycle (see Cs 2 and C 38, chapters 3 and 22). But those movements both retain the chorale in one of the vocal lines and neither has the relentless, almost brutal chromaticism of C 14. This fantasia is a pivotal point between the fully accessible works of the Cöthen, Weimar and early Leipzig years and the more demanding and intellectually challenging pieces from Bach′s final decade.
The text of the fantasia portrays mankind in the most abject way—-we, wretched and despised, alarmed and apprehensive—-or, at least, that is what we would be, had it not been for God′s presence. Humility, misery and the desolation of those cast down are all depicted in this music. It is neither happy nor invigorating painting, as it does, a graphic picture of those who feel themselves rejected and neglected.
The sheer intensity and concentration of this fantasia make it a movement not instantly accessible to everyone. It may help to hear it a few times, concentrating principally upon the chorale entries, of which there are seven, each played by horn doubling oboe. From there one might focus upon the sections which precede each of these phrases. Again, one may wish to return to the opening movements of Cs 2 and 38 to remind oneself of Bach’s earlier use of conventional motet format. The traditional procedure was to have the voices not carrying the cantus firmus melody to precede, herald and introduce each chorale phrase with an imitative discussion of it.
This is precisely what Bach does, but with an added complication. He has noticed that, with a little tweaking, each of the seven phrases will work in canon, but with the following part inverted or upside down. This is most clearly heard from the very first bar where the rising tenor line is immediately followed by the bass′s falling version of the same theme.
Six bars later the upper voices do the same thing: altos leading (with the original tenor theme) and sopranos following.
This takes us to the first full phrase of the chorale melody played by horn and oboes (bar 13).
Repeated listening to the first twenty bars thus equips us to follow the architecture of the music through to the end because the principle has been clearly established i.e. each chorale phrase is introduced by canonic pairs of voices, the following part being an inversion of that which leads. Each of these discussions leads naturally into the horn and oboe phrases of the chorale.
It now becomes clear why Bach did not allot the chorale to any of the vocal lines. For one thing, the instrumental statements give it a tone quality and cutting edge that allows it to stand out from the richness of the choral texture. But more importantly, the four vocal lines remain free to be employed throughout in canonic pairs. Thus what seems at first to be an impenetrable tapestry of intense chromatic counterpoint resolves itself into a clearly transparent, if emotionally intense, texture.
For the listeners who do not read scores fluently but who wish to follow Bach′s strategy through the entire movement, the order of the canonic choral entries is given below.
Preceding chorale phrase 1 tenor—bass, alto—sop
Preceding chorale phrase 2 tenor—bass, alto—sop
Preceding chorale phrase 3 alto—tenor, bass—sop
Preceding chorale phrase 4 sop—alto, bass—tenor
Preceding chorale phrase 5 alto—bass, sop—tenor
Preceding chorale phrase 6 bass—alto, sop—tenor
Preceding chorale phrase 7 sop—alto, bass—tenor
The movement ends with repetition of the last line of text—-[the enemies] who set upon us. Bach sets these words as a musical dialogue making much use of the final chorale phrase.
The contrast between the first two movements is extreme. Ironically, the second could have been as demoralizing as the first had Bach concentrated upon the principal image of the stanza, that of fundamental weakness—-we are not strong enough to resist our enemies. Clearly it is the balance of the overall composition that leads Bach to concentrate upon the other proffered image—-if the Almighty had not defended us, our enemies would have threatened our lives. Two long and gloomy movements, with little variety of mood, might not have produced a satisfactory aesthetic equilibrium, so Bach prefers to concentrate upon the more positive and extrovert imagery of God′s protective shield.
The soprano aria is the only movement of the five in the major mode. The horn steps forward from its less complex role in the fantasia and embarks upon a rallying fanfare call that develops into a solo of great virtuosity.
Strings and continuo support it, but it is the sound of the brass instrument which dominates the proceedings. (Listeners may be surprised to find that the horn has been replaced by a trumpet on their recordings. There is some doubt about just which of them Bach intended, although the use of the horn in the fantasia weighs the evidence in favour of its usage).
The soprano soloist immediately emulates the fanfare. The structure is ritornello combined with moderated ternary form. As so often in these later cantatas, Bach seems to have retained the exact da capo reprise mainly when textual implications of tradition and convention suggest it (see C 140, chapter 55). More often the A section is omitted or, as here, revised.
There are a number of subtle points of underlined imagery; the touches of minor modes colouring the references to Tyrannei—-tyranny—-are particularly obvious in the middle section (bars 54 and 55).
The central keystone to the work is, somewhat unusually, a recitative. Perhaps its significant position is the reason why Bach takes the trouble to underline several of the more graphic images. Even so, there is still a fundamental modesty about the word painting in that it is all done through the continuo line; the available upper strings and oboes are not called upon.
The tenor, traditional voice of narrative, reminds us that but for God′s interventions, our enemies would have destroyed us long ago—-we would have been swamped under an irresistible torrent of raging waters. Rapid cello scales underline a number of images including God′s strength, our potential demise, the enemies′ rage and revenge eroding us, and the waves of surging water.
This recitative thus continues the portrayal of those events that might have been, leading us neatly to the theme of the final aria, a celebration of our freedom through God′s powerful protection.
This bass aria is a muscular, minor-mode assertion of strength and triumph. Like that for soprano, it would have slotted well into the general style of the second cycle. Also, another characteristic of many of those works finds Bach using the penultimate movement to punch home the main message.
Two oboes and continuo are all that are required to give the singer a powerful buttress. The ritornello exudes strength from the very opening notes. The second oboe takes up the theme of the first and they entwine their way towards the first vocal entry.
It is possible to postulate various textual images that Bach may have embedded within these twelve bars; God and Man joining together to united purpose, the one following the lead of the other; semi-quaver figures extending upwards (from bar 5) as if in effort or supplication. The second oboe, significantly, sounds below the first until the cadence where it emerges triumphantly above it.
This motive, conveying the words Gott bei dei-[nem]—-God and His family [whom He protects]—-resounds throughout the first section. Our ultimate victory is celebrated of course, but it is God′s protection of his people which is the more significant. This is what the verse tells us and the vigorous, powerful music underlines it.
The return of the ritornello before the middle section sees the roles of the two oboes reversed, perhaps another suggestion that God and Man have come together as One, if not as complete equals.
The middle section (from bar 41) describes the lashing of furious waves against us. For this Bach uses a figure comprising octave leaps, repeated notes and a descending scale. This is heard four times, doubtless suggesting both God′s sense of command and the cascading torrents of water.
Bass, bars 41-43.
Most interestingly, a virtually identical figure was used for the fugue subject of the fantasia of C 97 written a few months earlier (chapter 59). In that setting there was no mention of floods, however the fundamental theme is very similar i.e. the Almighty′s counselling and subsequent protection. Was this an accidental self-borrowing or an intimate and personal communication between Bach and his God?
There is no exact da capo but Bach rewrites the A section using the same words. The movement begins and ends with the strapping ritornello flanking the repeated assertions of God′s powerful protections of his flock. Do not leave it without noting that brief moment of gentle and loving setting of the words—-stehn uns deine Hände bei—-your hands assisting us (bars 56-8).
The closing chorale obviously reminds us of the fantasia that was based upon it, although its mood is more assertive and positive if not overtly triumphant—-praise the God who has not permitted our souls to be trapped like birds in a snare. The rising first phrase is set against a falling bass, the contrary motion possibly suggesting ′escape from entrapment′ and echoing the inverted canons of the fantasia. The continuo is characterized throughout with a marching rhythm evoking a sense of affirmative action.
We have seen a little of events that might have been and the scenario is not an attractive one. But we have been saved from this appalling fate and our duty now is to thank God for so doing. We might also spare a thought to thank Bach for the extraordinary and unique canon of chorale/fantasias he produced in his middle years.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.