Chapter 69 BWV 161 Komm, du süsse Todesstunde
Come sweet hour of death.
Aria/chorale (alto)–recit (tenor)–aria (tenor)–recit (alto)–chorus–chorale.
NB This is the seventh of a group of eight cantatas (150, 131, 143, 54, 132, 152, 161 and 158,) all known or believed to be early works. None of them were reused in the later great Leipzig cycles. The music is of variable quality, although there are some superb movements here waiting to be discovered and enjoyed. Above all, these cantatas are invaluable in helping to trace Bach’s development as a composer. BWV 161 was probably the last of these cantatas to be composed (1716) and some may consider it inappropriate to list it as an ‘early work’. However, it is dealt with here because it appears, like the others, not to have been reused in later years.
The sixteenth Sunday of Trinity.
Like C 152, this cantata stands out as one of the most charming, perfect and original works of Bach′s early output. These compositions are highly dissimilar in character and temperament; one cannot imagine movements being exchanged between them. Referring back to the introductory chapter of these volumes (see the drop-down About the Project on the homepage) Bach, like Beethoven, was capable of producing a huge number of works in the same genre, every one of which retains the composer′s powerful, creative personality whilst remaining quite distinctive, even unique, in character. C 161 has less of the skittishness of the first and last movements of C 152 but it retains its own sense of matchless, solemn inevitability.
The nature and disposition of both works is partially defined by the instrumentation, a group of chamber instruments in C 152 and two recorders added to the string ensemble of C 161. The movement structure could not, however, be more different, the former starting with a sinfonia but lacking a chorus and chorale, both of which are to be found in the latter. Additionally, C 152 uses just the two voices while C 161 requires all four.
The significance of the Easter hymn in this work should prompt us to look at C 135 (vol 2, chapter 5), the fourth of the impressive second cycle chorale/fantasia cantatas. There it is sung by the basses as the cantus firmus of the opening chorus and, in a plain four-part setting, it closes the cantata. Here it is also to be discovered in the first and final movements, with echoes appearing elsewhere. Once again, these two cantatas, even with such overt connections, could not be more different in character.
Another comparison may be made with the later chorale/fantasia work, C 8 (vol 2, chapter 16). Both cantatas are concerned with fundamental themes about death but whilst C 161 is an expression of the longing for it, the later cantata is principally concerned, not without a degree of apprehension, with the question of when it might strike us. There are also, as we shall see, some similarities of orchestration.
The first movement of C 161 is an alto aria supported by a pair of recorders and continuo with the organ having an unusual double role. It acts foremost as a continuo instrument, doubling the bass line and ′filling in′ the harmonies. But it also plays all eight phrases of the chorale melody in turn throughout the aria. In a sense, this might be thought of as an embryonic fantasia although it is not a chorus and the chorale notes are not lengthened. Nevertheless, it is a pointer towards that which is yet to come.
The text is a plea for the longed-for moment of death to arrive, requesting that it be as sweet as when the spirit fed on honey from the lion′s mouth—-do not delay my last night when I shall kiss my Saviour. The somewhat abstruse images of lion and honey raise an interesting point; it is a biblical reference to the bees within the lion killed by Sampson. If so, would members of the congregation have recognised it? Would attention have been drawn to it in the sermon? Mention has frequently been made throughout these essays of musical images that may have been too obscure to be noticed by anyone but God. Was there a similar game played by lyricists, the inclusion of enigmatic references planted for the benefit of the intelligentsia, and little being lost if they went largely unrecognised? The ′puzzle-canon′ games of the eighteenth century stem from a similar culture of setting problems of an enigmatic nature for the enlightened to recognise and solve.
But whatever the nature of the veiled imagery, the fundamental mood of this opening aria reveals itself as one of peaceful acceptance and patient longing. The recorders, later and less effectively replaced by Bach with flutes, suggest a picture of pastoral serenity, perhaps even the Elysian Fields. The only touch of tension comes just before the voice enters (bar 8) when the three melodic lines produce a moment of foreboding. Bach′s use of the notes which suggest a minor mode within a major context (here particularly the e flat, although an a and b flat may also be heard in the continuo scale) is discussed fully elsewhere; see, again, the essay on C 8.
The commitment to the chorale melody determines the structure and scale of the entire movement. It would have been familiar to Bach′s congregations and its purpose here may have been to remind people of the Saviour′s death, by contrast a much more painful and distressing one than that which good Christians would hope to experience. Its phrases are introduced with great subtleness, sometimes when they are least expected so that their effect is almost subliminal; there is nothing sermon-like or pontificating about the inclusion of the hymn tune here. Latterly Bach required a soprano to sing it using a verse which made the meaning more explicit—-surrounded as I am by misery, I wish to leave this wicked world—-Jesus, come soon!
But one cannot but feel that on this occasion, first thoughts were better. The celestial timbre of the recorders and the inferences that may be drawn from the un-texted chorale are understated and thus more stimulating of the imagination. (See also comments on C 158/2, chapter 70).
The next movement is typical of Bach′s early recitatives, vivid, operatic and colourful, melding, towards the end, into flowing arioso. The tenor rejects the world and its poisonous sweetness and thorns of roses—-death itself is the dawn of our pathway to Divine bliss—-I long to leave this world. Imagery abounds e.g. the mention of poison (bar 3), the light of joy (bar 4), the torment of death (bars 7-8) and the dawn of pale death (bars 8-9). The last lines of longing to depart and sup with Christ are accompanied by an active semi-quaver continuo line which may be interpreted in a number of ways; the sins of this world from which one is eager to escape? The writhing of the serpent? The passing through the grave?
The text of the tenor′s aria differs in detail, but not in substance, from that for alto. It expresses again the craving for death, the keen desire to embrace the Saviour and the pure soul gleaming like the wings of angels. Bach differentiates the two movements in a number of ways. The first is major, supported by recorders, and structurally through-composed around the chorale melody. The second is minor, accompanied by strings, with a da capo shape.
The ritornello theme opens with a sighing figure suggesting peaceful resignation, thence contrasting this with flowing quavers, always descending as if pointing the way to an open and welcoming grave.
The emphasis upon verlangen—-the powerful desire or entreaty [to die]—-comes to a head with the melisma (from bar 37) forming the essence of this part of the aria.
In the middle section the soloist concerns himself with images of crushing death and earthly ashes, set against the reiterated sighing figure on the upper strings. But the principal image we are left with is created by the most extended of melismas from bar 79—-prangen—-the resplendence [of the angel′s glory} to which we aspire.
The central section ends unusually. Instead of the expected cadence with a moment of reflection followed by the da capo, its last bar transpires also to be the first bar of the reprise, a masterly disguise of the seams of musical architecture.
Rather unexpectedly, the full instrumental forces are called upon to support the alto in the following recitative. It is a movement of striking originality and forceful dramatic effect. The text is definitive, allowing for no contradiction—-the decision is made, goodnight world!—-my only comfort is that I shall die in His arms and the grave will cover me until he wakes me—-close in death and strike my last hour! To the modern listener it has disturbing implications of suicide but that is not the intention; rather it is an expression of positive acceptance of that which humans are more naturally programmed to eschew. The chorus will later affirm that the timing of death is entirely a matter of God′s will.
Musically, the recitative is a text book of examples demonstrating the art of painting pictures in music. It begins with the portrayal of peaceful slumber, the strings and recorders adding encouraging chords. Note the effect of the wind instruments, not doubling but extending the harmonies above the strings. The ‘ultimate sleep’ is depicted by a sustained, low vocal note (bars 8-10) against reassuring wisps of wind and continuo quavers. Jesus’s act of wakening us is accompanied by a short burst of activity on all instruments (bar 18).
But most telling of all is the depiction of the funeral bells. Six bars before the end the strings become pizzicato, an effect Bach only calls upon occasionally, and they buttress high, repeated notes on the first recorder. Bach later used these techniques for similar effect in C 8 and C 95 . Since all three cantatas were composed for this sixteenth day of Trinity, can there be better evidence that Bach looked over works he had already written for the same church days when composing anew?
The chorus takes the repeated-note semi-quaver figuration from the opening aria and pitches it against a rising quaver motive on strings; both will be used as the basis of the choral material.
Recorders above violins.
The text declares—-if it is God′s will, let the earth receive my body today and allow the spirit to dress in immortal apparel—-my final word is, Jesus come and take me! In the context of these resigned and submissive sentiments, some might find the recorder bursts of rapid notes (from bar 5 and repeated throughout the movement) a trifle disturbing. The basic lilting rhythm is that of the dance, which should not surprise us. When portraying the journey to heaven Bach frequently borrows a refined suite movement, most often the gavotte or, in this case, the minuet. The voyage is welcome and civilised but at the same time it generates a burst of ecstasy at the release of the wearisome and restraining earthly bonds.
Furthermore, it has already been intimated that it will be accompanied by the light of the angels and the closing chorale describes it as ′shining like the sun′. The soul is bursting its bonds and attaining a condition of blissful eternity; seen in this way, the bursts of almost frenetic energy make liturgical and dramatic sense.
The choir is more restrained as, perhaps, the purified soul should be; its simple rising quaver phrases are dignified and committed. There is no clearly defined middle section because there is nothing else that needs saying.
The closing chorale, presumably familiar to everyone, is somewhat disguised by the nature of its arrangement. It is presented, as expected, in four parts with the strings doubling, but its whole character is changed by the recorder obbligato melody.
In fact it serves to remind us that, welcoming though the grave might be, the body is, nonetheless, consumed by worms and the notion and process of death both retain the capacity to perturb us. Or did Bach intend this extraordinary melody to depict the sins of earth which, we are assured, we have the capacity to transcend through faith? The theme of the text is quite explicit—-though the body will decay, the spirit shall be transfigured and shine like the sun —-it shall live in heavenly bliss and death can do it no harm.
One notes the confidence of this religious assertion. The music, however, may be suggesting a slightly different meaning. Bach seems to have enjoyed life on many levels, spiritual, intellectual and physical. Was he quite as convinced as others of the definitive truth of this message?
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.