Chapter 61 BWV 194 Höchsterwünschtes Freudenfest
Greatly desired feast of joy.
Chorus–recit (bass)–aria (bass)–recit (sop)–aria (sop)–chorale.
Recit (tenor)–aria (tenor)–recit (bass/sop)–duet (sop/bass)–recit (bass)–chorale.
The sixty-first cantata of the cycle for Trinity Sunday.
This is the first proper two-part cantata which Bach presented after C 70, composed for the 25th Sunday after Trinity (chapter 28). The ecclesiastical year began on the first Sunday in Advent and Trinity, which followed Pentecost, marking the beginning of the numbering of Sundays through to the end of the church year. The details may not mean much to the average Bach lover although two points should be born in mind. Firstly, Trinity Sunday was one of the significant events of the church calendar and secondly, Bach took up his Leipzig appointment just too late to celebrate it in 1723. His cycles of cantatas thus began on the first Sunday after Trinity.
Why was Trinity so important? In point of fact it celebrates a belief central to dogma rather than a particular religious event. The Holy Trinity, God, the Son and the Holy Ghost form a fundamental but essentially enigmatic focus in Christian theology because they represent an unexplainable contradiction; they are all individual entities yet at the same time considered to be fully united as one. It is probably wise not to delve too deeply into this ambiguity and these essays do not claim any authority in matters of Christian dogma. But we do need to note the particular significance of this day for Bach and his celebration of it in his music.
With one possible exception (C 176, a concise and concentrated work that ends the second cycle: vol 2, chapter 50), cantatas for this day are imposing and of some considerable proportion. C 129 (vol 3, chapter 16), for example, is one of the late chorale/fantasias with lavishly orchestrated first and last movements. (Some critics believe that it was composed to replace C 176 which, despite its high quality, was short and lacked an imposing chorale/fantasia).
Returning to the Trinity Sunday of 1724, it is thought that Bach may have presented two cantatas, C 194 and C 165, one before and one after the sermon. But we cannot be certain about this. C 194 is a two-part work with the assumption being that the sections were performed around the sermon. This being the case, when would C 165 have been heard? Did Bach plan to celebrate this important day with one of the largest musical presentations of the year? Or was one work intended for the service in St Thomas Church and the other for St Nicolas? And why would Bach have elected to present eighteen movements just one week before he launched his second cycle with a group of cantatas requiring the most rigorous and intellectually demanding of inputs? Even Dürr places a discrete question mark after the statement that C 165 was revived for Trinity in 1724 (p 372).
Certainly, both these cantatas were re-runs of existing ones, C 194 written originally at Cöthen and recast for an organ consecration shortly after Bach′s appointment at Leipzig, and C 165 from Weimar (Dürr pp 719 and 372-3).
C 194 opens with a chorus based upon the structure of the French Overture. Bach used this form only half a dozen times in the cantatas so some might find it surprising to see it cropping up on consecutive Sundays at the end of the first and the beginning of the second cycles. Did he have a specific reason for this? However, he used the format quite differently in each case as a comparative reading of this essay and that for C 20 will show. (Readers should turn to vol 2, chapter 2 for further comments on the nature and background of the French Overture).
In C 20, the choir is fully integrated into this part of the movement, in C 194 it serves as an instrumental introduction to the chorus proper. The three oboes are set as a group above the upper strings, the former carrying the angular main theme and the latter emitting bursts of insistent semiquavers. In the reprise this is reversed, creating an effect which is both unexpected and enchanting.
The choir enters at the beginning of the fugal middle section which is marked by a change from 4 to 3 time and a much quicker tempo. Bach presents us with a quadruple fugal exposition from bar 32 (S, A, B, T), bar 44 (A, T, S, B), bar 72 (B, A, T, S) and bar 84 (T, B, A, S), four masterly fugatos each with a different order of entries. It is a communal celebration of the long awaited festival of joy about which the poet reminds us.
Beginning of fugue.
The middle section of the middle section (!) is a bass solo supported by continuo and with some particularly delicate writing for two oboes (from bar 100) where the text declares—-the Lord allows us to celebrate within the House of Sacredness. After confirming all of this collectively (from bar 112) the choir draws this section to a close with two more expositions of the original fugue subject; from bar 136 (S, A, B, T) and, with some modification of the theme, from bar 148 (A, T, S, B). The opening instrumental section returns with the adapted instrumentation but the choir has the last word with a forceful chordal articulation of the opening words over the final three bars.
It is a movement of great power, originality and inventiveness and might tempt one into thinking, what more could be done with a choral setting of a French Overture? That is the point at which the inquisitive reader should turn to C 20!
The bass recitative is the first of six continuo-only movements to be found in this work which, as a group, comprise half of the cantata. Set high in the register, it asks that God, the eternal and immortal Being, turn to us as we dedicate ourselves to Him. It is workmanlike and conveys the narrative without embellishment. Even the invitation to portray the Throne of Grace, the genuine light of joy is declined.
The bass aria remains in the major, a feature of this happy work in which, of the twelve movements, there are only two in the minor mode, a recitative and an aria. The voice is supported by strings and one oboe moving between doubling and solo roles. The 12/8 rhythm implies, when taken at a steady tempo, a pastoral movement and when faster, a dance-like gigue. This movement seems to fall somewhere between the two; it has the calm, composed air of the former but also a sense of the physical gaiety of the latter.
The text reminds us that wherever God′s light has glowed, darkness can never exist and, whatever His dwelling-place, night may never conceal it. A few short oboe runs (from bar 14) may be intended to suggest the glimmering of God′s light although if so, it seems to be a rather delicate glow, running counter to the implications within the text. Otherwise, much of the picture painting resides in simple vocal techniques, long sustained notes suggesting the ′inertness′ of night and melismas depicting God′s light in His illuminated dwelling.
The fourth movement is another secco recitative, the only one in a minor mode. At first there may seem to be no obvious reason for this apart from the tonal variety which is generally essential over the course of an extended work. But in all probability it represents the gloom of the as yet unlit soul, encompassed with vanity and waiting to be purified in readiness for His entrance. The movement ends with a prayer for the Eye of Divinity to fall upon us that we may lay our offerings before His Throne. Yet again the recitative is direct and uncluttered with imagery, the one musical emphasis being the modest melisma on Fruede—-joy—-in bar 15. Though beginning in the minor Bach ends in Eb major, the key of the next movement; the metaphor of moving from darkness to light is thus tonally encapsulated.
The soprano aria is an energetic gavotte, one of the established suite movements frequently chosen by Bach when conveying images of moving towards or into heaven. This is certainly within the subtext of the verse, although the more obvious picture is that of God′s fire piercing, preserving and purging us in readiness for that journey. The ritornello melody is extraordinarily fecund, its driving quavers insistently urging the listener along and the little bursts of semiquavers possibly representing the Divine flickering of flames.
The image of the invading light/fire is made all the stronger by the succession of five resolute and persistent melismas on ringt—-penetration—-clearly the central focus of the text for Bach. The illuminative power of God′s light has been established both physically and metaphorically, as has the darkness of those places as yet untouched by it. The act of the light piercing the clouds and purging our souls is now the main focus of attention; in a civilised manner we may make our way to heaven and salvation, but first we must become enlightened. This is the first da capo movement of the cantata and the image of penetration described above will be heard a full ten times in the outer sections.
The contrasting middle section provides tonal contrast and some wonderfully effective violin flickering, the unrelenting gavotte theme still well to the fore, either on voice or strings.
The first half of this commanding and essentially optimistic cantata ends with two verses of a chorale plainly harmonised in four parts, strings and oboes reinforcing the voices. It is a simple prayer to be governed mercifully, so that when our time on earth is done we might become one of the chosen ones. The hymn is rather ordinary and rhythmically bare but it has a redeeming feature; the last two phrases are each three bars long. This extends the entreaties, with which each verse ends, and conveys a subtle sense of yearning and desire.
The cantata began with a celebration of this day. At the point of intermission it reminds us of the humility we should demonstrate when approaching the Trinity.
The tenor recitative is the first of three, all secco, in part 2. It has the same character as those which precede it, the one slight surprise being the modest outpouring of joy in bar 2. It is essentially a call to the faithful to hasten to praise Him and allow our purified hearts to be raised and proffered. Its character throughout is positive and optimistic, something of a clarion call to the faithful, and it ends with a homily—-the world can give you nothing, only with God can we be truly content. This movement is clearly paired with the next, an aria for tenor and continuo.
This is the second movement, and the only aria, to be set in a minor mode. Rocking, dotted rhythms pervade throughout, a possible subliminal reference to Christ′s staggering beneath the weight of the cross, although it is not specifically mentioned.
The poet informs us that only the presence of the Most Esteemed can be the source of our happiness—-begone pretentious world, we prosper only in Him. The minor modes and unrelenting rhythms certainly do not create an image of the ecstasy within God′s presence and one is tempted to explain them through the need for musical variety within an extended work. That is clearly part of the answer, but it is also probable that Bach sees these musical elements as representations of the world immured in sin and misery awaiting Divine attendance. The world of pomp and pretension is ever around us and its corrosive influence cannot be ignored, yet our joy may still shine through it. One should note that in just under 20 bars (from 13-31) the word Freuden—-joy—-is sung seven times, frequently carried by strongly marked melismas.
The middle section of this da capo movement balances the calls for the world to depart, with the affectionate affirmations of the human happiness that may be discovered within the Divine mantle, a masterpiece of subtle melodic colourings and shadings.
The following recitative is of the dialogue type in which one voice takes on the role of a superior or senior figure reassuring, or answering the questions of, one less certain. There are several such cantatas amongst the later works, very often conversations between a tremulous and uncertain soul and Christ Himself. Rather oddly, Bach has placed the bass voice, usually the figure of authority, in the questioning role with the soprano the more authoritative of the two; perhaps Bach had in mind the comforting voice of the Virgin Mary? The pattern is simple and predictable, the bass putting such questions as—-can man really aspire to heaven?—-with the response—-faith draws God unto him. The movement ends with the two voices in harmony, a musical metaphor of the mutual acceptance of, and joy in, God′s rewards, something which nothing of corporeal life can diminish.
Despite its conventional and rather hackneyed text, this recitative turns out to be the most interesting of the five. Note the subtlety with which the bass′s questions are set so as to sound interrogatory while the responses of the soprano are more definite and authoritative. Bach′s manipulation of the melodic line so as to be aesthetically expressive and convey syntactical meaning whilst still following the contours and connotations of speech, is masterly.
As with the previous movements for tenor, Bach again gives us a paired recitative/aria, the bass and soprano now supported by two oboes and continuo. With reservations now allayed, it is possible to join in a mutual celebration of God′s House and its benefits for us all. This is easily the longest movement of the cantata (typically twice that of the opening chorus) a fact that, in itself, says something about the significant theme of affirmation.
The text makes two particular points—-it is good for us all that God has His House [in our hearts]—-and —-God is good to us and we pour out our hearts to Him before his Throne and Abode. Both oboes and voices move from simple homophonic movements in thirds or sixths to flowing lines enlivened by skittish semi-quaver skips. Does the first suggest the simple assurance of God′s House and our faith in it? Does the second represent the pouring out of hearts and feelings before His throne? Or is it God′s pure light? We cannot know, of course, but the interplay of these basic musical shapes, sometimes within a rich five-part contrapuntal texture, produces an effect of warmth and conviction, certain faith and the Christian′s responding delight within it.
The bass seems to have regained his voice of authority in the fifth and final recitative as he calls for the congregation to prepare and arm themselves with both gifts and Spirit so that He might be pleased. It is simply another way of depicting the state of the Divine Spirit residing within us, our duties towards it and God′s pleasure at our appropriate responses. The extrovert melisma in the second bar on—-heilige—-holy, sanctified—-underscores the image. Otherwise, the melodic line is positive and declamatory.
It is difficult to imagine a more effective way of ending this long and luminous cantata, indeed Bach’s first significant Leipzig cycle, than with a reflective major-mode chorale. Set with the utmost simplicity, it is an undemanding and summative prayer—-say yes to my actions and make everything turn out for the best—-bless me and let my heart be Your refuge whilst Your words sustain me on my journey to heaven.
After the variety and complexity of the bulk of this cantata, the minimalism of this final musical statement is reassuring, comforting and aesthetically appropriate.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.