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Chapter 7 BWV 57 Selig ist der Mann
Blessed is the Man.
Aria (bass)–recit (sop) –aria (sop)–recit (bass/sop)–aria (bass)–recit (bass/sop)–aria (sop)–chorale.
For the second day of Christmas.
At first glance this might seem an odd work to perform as part of the Christmas celebrations. There are no ebullient choruses; in fact the choir makes its only appearance in the closing chorale. There are no festive trumpets and drums—or even horns—and the darker timbre of the oboes doubles the strings in the outer movements. Three of the four arias are in minor keys and two of these, the first and second, are particularly dark and gloomy.
Having said this, the quality of the music is of the highest order. Though it might be suggested that Bach began this cycle with some cantatas of slightly lesser quality and invention (e.g. Cs 168 and 164), there is no doubting the excellence of the festive C 79 or, indeed, C 137, the first chorale/fantasia cantata since the second cycle. Moving a stage further, we find Bach at his most personal and intense in C 57, profound, meaningful music such as we recall from the slow movement of the Dm keyboard concerto.
And, in passing, we might pause to notice the similarity of the motive that begins and underpins the slow movement of that piece and the soprano aria in this work!
Dürr (p 116) explains the lack of Christmas festivity and the absence of celebration of Christ′s death by noting that this day was also St Stephen′s day, which gave Bach′s librettist the opportunity to explore the notion of martyrdom. Nevertheless, students may care to look at comparisons between this with other cantatas composed for this second Day of Christmas.
C 40 (cycle 1) opens with an ebullient chorus, horns and oboes espousing the Son of God and his victory over Satan. The bass aria describing the crushing of the serpent′s head is a particularly dramatic operatic movement. C 121, from the second cycle, begins with a chorale/fantasia of some severity but later falls almost into burlesque with the bass aria portraying John′s ′leaping for joy′. At no time do these works approach the gravity of C 57, which, although a significant component of the Christmas celebrations, stands apart in both mood and style.
A further point to notice is the operatic use of specific ′characters′ or spirits. Listeners will have observed that the only solo parts in C 57 are for bass and soprano. Despite the four arias and three recitatives, there is nothing for alto or tenor. This is because the cantata is conceived as a dialogue between Jesus and the Soul, marked as such in the score by Bach himself (Dürr p 116). A proper understanding of the work only comes when it is approached within this context. Indeed, this is the first of four such cantatas in this cycle the later ones being Cs 32, 49 and 58. (Contextual comments may be found in chapters 11, 30 and 35 and in vol 1 chapter 68, C 152).
The first aria of C 57 for bass and strings (oboes, for the most part doubling), demonstrates Bach′s ability to extract the maximum of expressive effect from the lowliest of materials The quaver figure that appears in the first violins, immediately imitated by the rest of the strings resurfaces, sometimes inverted, in almost every bar.
This kind of focussed intensity is reminiscent of the fantasia from C 135 (vol 2 part 1, chapter 5). There Bach makes concentrated use of a very similar figure although the character of the music is more elegiac. Nevertheless, a comparative study of these two movements is illuminative of the composer′s economy, precision of technique and breadth of imagination.
The text of the bass aria is concerned with temptation and the resisting of it, an action which ultimately awards Life′s Crown. In one sense this is initially misleading because it gives the impression that the cantata concerns itself principally with the idea of sin, which it does not. It is more about tolerance of others and the acceptance of tribulation; proper attitudes will bring their due rewards. The aria is relentlessly minor-mode throughout, even the ritornello touches upon the keys of C and D minor, avoiding the related majors. The testing of the Soul and its ability to endure are serious, even grave matters!
Note the descending chromatic scale in the first violins just before the bass enters. This occurs three times in all (the number is significant) and its presence is certainly metaphorical since it plays no real part in the movement′s organic development. It reminds us, as in C 4 and the B minor Mass, of the momentous act of the Crucifixion.
Two details of word setting are worth noting. Bach sets the word bewähret—-to test or prove—-on a long note, moving upwards in pitch on each repetition, from b flat to c and finally to d (bars 51, 56 and 62). The testing process is arduous and must be striven for. And the even longer note and convoluted melisma on Krone—-the crown [of Life] asserts its undeniable significance in the affairs of Mankind (bars 92-99).
Thus has Jesus set out His stall and it is time for the Soul to respond. In the first recitative the Soul affirms the sweetness of such a comforting message, particularly when we live, like sheep, under attack from wolves. The imagery is graphic and explicit, especially the mention of the Soul twisting, wormlike, in its own blood. The shaping of the line conveys these images but in a restrained manner. There are no highly flamboyant melodic surges or grinding harmonic chromaticisms which might deflect us from the essential message, the comfort to be derived from Jesus.
If the first bass aria seemed solemn, that for soprano is positively bleak and grim. The string figuration is full of dissonances, a mixture of suspensions and accented passing notes. This movement has something of the quality of the bass aria from C 13, soon to be described within this cycle. But yet, despite the discord and continuing emphasis on minor modes, there are implications of hope, insinuated by the music if not overtly expressed in the words.
Violins supported by middle strings.
The desire for death is explicit—-if Jesus did not love me I would wish for death now. There is a middle section (from bar 69) but no lightening of the mood through major keys; understandable when the text talks of torments worse than those of Hell if one were to lose the love of Jesus. The initial section returns, considerably shortened (from bar 97) and the movement ends with an abbreviated and reconstituted version of the ritornello.
But one has to realise that this is not a picture of present desolation which may be found elsewhere in the canon. This is an imagining of the horrors which would ensue if one lacked the love and patronage of Christ. Perhaps this is why Bach set the text with less emphasis upon death and anguish than the images might have suggested.
Both characters have held the stage individually so now Bach brings them together in a short but trenchant piece of recitative dialogue—-with my whole heart I reach out to you, says Jesus. Your love will overthrow my enemies, replies the Soul in one of the shortest speeches of acceptance yet heard!
This movement is just a few seconds long but it is the turning point of the cantata. Furthermore, it leads us from minor modes to major, in particular Bb, the key of the next aria. This is a matter of practical planning, certainly, but even more important is the symbolism.
The ensuing bass aria must have come as a breath of fresh air to the Leipzig congregations who may have felt that they had a right to expect a more joyous expression of the Christmas spirit than they had so far received. It is major, optimistic and surging with life, all that has been lacking in the work so far! As with so many of Bach′s extrovert bass arias, the figuration evokes a fanfare from a trumpet and one almost regrets its absence. But perhaps that would have created just too much of a contrast with what has gone before and by now we know how the mature Bach′s concept of the overall balance of a work tends to take precedence over detail.
Christ is here reaching out to make contact with the Soul—-yes, I can vanquish your enemies—-fear not, distressed Soul, the sun will shine again through the clouds of woe. The spirit of the string ritornello is effervescently Handelian, reminiscent of some of his Concerti Grossi. Jesus is confident and assertive in his role as mentor but it is interesting to note how Bach adapts the string writing when He specifically comforts the distressed Soul. Twice the busy repeated-note figurations pause to be replaced with sustained chords, enveloping the Soul within a mantle of divine Love (bars 33 and 60).
The string accompaniment shows a rather un-Baroquian variety of figurations within this aria but their presence is always dictated by the text. Two bars after the commencement of the middle section (bar 80), reference is made to the angular motive from the soprano movement, a reminder of the Soul′s doubts and fears.
When Jesus speaks of the Kummerwolken—-the clouds of wretchedness—-the writing alters again, becoming a flowing, imitative texture representing their celestial movements (bar 92).
The first section returns in a formal da capo reprise, asserting the triumph of Christ′s confident offering over that of the Soul′s natural trepidation.
The third recitative reunites the two parties in further dialogue and here the tonal planning is of some interest. Jesus begins by repeating His offers of the peace and fulfillment which lie within His breast. The chords accompanying his statement are reassuringly major, warm and encompassing. The Soul responds by immediately plunging us into the minor—-would that I were prepared for You—-show me my resting place, my grave, for blessed are those there who would hope to hear the sounds of Angels. The Soul′s uncertainties have not been fully resolved and the movement remains in the minor mode throughout and into the next aria.
And it is there that we note the originality of Bach′s tonal planning and, indeed, his ability to break free from convention when the imagination demands it.
The final aria is for the Soul with continuo and violin obbligato. The violin melody is uncertain and vacillating, tumbling down and then appearing to hover around the same spot.
But when the voice enters the vocal line seems resolute and unwavering.
The uncertainties of life still surround us, but we take the strength and support we require from Christ himself and thus we are prepared for the ultimate journey. This is the message of this movement, the culmination of the cantata—-I end my life joyfully and long to depart in order to be with You.
The journey has been made from a starting point of fear and uncertainty. But Christ has reached out to the Soul, and in return, our true faith emboldens us to receive Him.
But Bach has yet one more surprise. In the final line the Soul asks—now that I have given myself to you what, in return, will You grant to me? We might have expected a traditional da capo or ritornello aria with a middle section commencing around bar 108. But what we get is totally surprising.
Bach ends the movement not in its proper key of Gm but in the related key of Bb major. The soprano swoops upwards on the last note and everything is designed musically to suggest the asking of a question. The aria ends; or in another sense it doesn′t because the chorale completes it for us. It answers the question and satisfies the musical imperative fully by closing in Bb major, the key suggested, but hardly established, at the end of the aria.
With the exception of recitatives, it is extremely seldom that Bach ends a movement, in a key other than that in which it began (tonic). One notable example from the second cycle was the closing chorus from C 68 where there are also clear symbolic or imagic reasons for this break from tradition.
In this cantata the final chorale becomes more than a tacked-on coda to the rest of the work. It answers the question posed by the Soul—-I shall fulfil all hopes for you—- I shall remain your friend, transporting you from your tortured body into Heaven itself. This is one of the most positive and affirmative of all Lutheran chorales. It completes the journey of the Soul from its starting point of uncertainty, doubt and sorrow to the promised everlasting life hereafter.
Bach′s presentation to his congregations of a two-handed operatic scene in the face of objections from his employers could be interpreted as arrogance or pugnaciousness. Or it is equally likely that he considered, understandably, that he was the better arbiter of taste in what constituted effective, appropriate and ′well regulated′ church music.
Or perhaps Bach, with his reputation as an organ expert, virtuoso performer, teacher and composer now so well established, felt himself to be so completely in command of his art that he had no need to be governed by the diktats and regulations of petty mortals.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.