Chapter 72 BWV 202 Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten
Away, sorrowful shadows.
A wedding cantata for solo soprano.
Dürr (pp 893-4) notes the problems of dating this work which may have been composed at almost any time in the fifteen years prior to 1730. Certainly, some of the internal evidence which has been offered to indicate that it is a very early work is doubtful, one example being the marked difference in tempo of the middle section of the opening da capo movement. Bach adopts this practice, particularly on later occasions throughout the canon, notable examples being C 123/3 from the second cycle and C 151/1 from 1725. In both cases the middle section moves to a markedly faster tempo. Bach’s experimentations of this type continued throughout his career.
This work and the Coffee Cantata (C 211) are probably the best known and loved of all Bach’s secular cantatas. We must be grateful that C 202 has survived intact, since it is likely that a number of wedding cantatas have been fully or partially lost. Thus whilst Cs 202, 210, 197, 196 and 195 can be examined in some detail, others have disappeared, survived in fragments or may be partially reconstructed only through paraphrased movements (e.g. Cs 34a, 120a).
However, it may well be that some wedding cantatas survive through having been recycled for use in the Leipzig churches. Bach composed a number of works which could be conceived as ‘multi-purpose,’ two excellent examples of which are C 117 (vol 2, chapter 52) and C 137 (vol 3, chapter 3). Both begin with a chorale/fantasia which gives rise to the theory that they were later additions intended to fill gaps in the second cycle but this would not necessarily preclude their initial, or even later, use for appropriate secular events.
The text of C 202 concerns itself with renewal, an appropriate theme for weddings. It begins with a picture of the gloom of winter being transformed into the joys of spring, the time for love and commitment. The sixth movement makes specific reference to the coming together of two souls in health and good fortune, an experience which Bach seems to have enjoyed within his own two happy marriages.
The cantata ends with the courtliest of movements, a gavotte, which has connotations of the dance as well as suggesting the happy ultimate journey to heaven, a circumstance which the composer often associates with this particular suite movement in the religious cantatas. In 2010, and again in 2013, the author was privileged to hear excellent performances of this work in the church in which Bach was first married. It was impossible not to entertain the thought (even hope?) that this work may have been composed for, and performed at, the ceremony of Bach’s second marriage to Anna Magdalena in December 1721. The personal and domestic characteristics of this cantata suggest that it may have had a particular significance for the composer.
The opening bars of the first aria are quite magical, the solo oboe seeming to emerge mysteriously and unexpectedly in the third bar out of the rising string sequences. It is mysterious because it seems, at first, to have no relationship to the established motives with which its first sustained note contrasts markedly. It is unexpected since it materialises mid phrase and above a mildly dissonant chord (an inverted dominant 7th) which is not the tonic of the key of G. The voice, when it enters, seemingly appears to follow the oboe theme but it soon gives marked emphasis to the image of the gloomy shadows—-betrübte Schatten—-either through a series of short emphatic melismas or by the use of minor notes within a major mode context. In less than ten bars Bach manages to introduce the three notes which differentiate G minor from G major, b flat, e flat and f natural.
Bach thus uses a number of the techniques of the composer’s craft to present, musically, a picture of gloomy winter winds and shadows and the natural wish for them to be dispelled as spring emerges to establish a warmer and more cheerful ambience. (The astute reader will notice the similarity between the unexpected oboe entry in this movement and its similar arrival in the second movement of the Easter oratorio C 249 (Vol 3, chapter 49).
Bach’s attention to the seemingly most insignificant of details may also be found in the writing for the strings. Their melodic shapes are consistently rising except on four occasions. Following the word Ruh—-the command for frost and gales to rest—-they descend, a most subtle pictorial suggestion of abatement (see bars 9, 13 and 16). The first section of this da capo movement also ends with the descending pattern, the elements brought to rest in preparation for the emergent, more joyous season (bar 18).
The quickened tempo announces Nature’s bringing forth the spring flowers, a source of delight for all. The continuo line becomes a steady, confident, marching tread and the rhythmic interaction between first and second violins subtly suggests the sounds and actions of the hunt.
The two long melismas on träget—-suggest and emphasise the bringing forth of welcome blossom.
All this will occur in nature’s time but it has not happened yet. The reprise of the opening section reminds us that we still have the joys of spring to look forward to; as yet, we have simply imagined them.
The following eight movements should be viewed, performed and experienced as four linked recitatives and arias. Bach has taken care that each of the former ends in the key of the ensuing aria, a clear indication that it is to follow without break. It is not the same principle as the prelude and fugue, but the analogy may be helpful.
All four recitatives are secco, succinct and to the point; none of them ranging over as much as a dozen bars! The first is six bars long, major mode throughout and establishes the concept of renewal of the world, a metaphor for the rejuvenation brought about by the happy state of marriage. The continuo line becomes active only at the end, as we are told of the day freeing itself from frost rising, briefly, almost as if to suggest the awakening of a hibernating mammal.
The next aria is the only one accompanied by continuo alone, but Bach does not allow the reduction of forces to diminish the energy. Far from it, for the rolling, and at times seemingly unstoppable semi-quavers produce an effect of great momentum. They depict the motion of hooves of Phoebus’ galloping horses as he expresses his satisfaction with the new world in lover’s terms.
Apart from a sojourn through related minor keys for the sake of musical variety, the middle section does not differ markedly from those that enclose it, the bass semi-quavers continuing to dominate and enliven.
The second recitative is the first movement to begin by establishing a minor mode, here Am leading to Em, the key of the twinned aria. Phoebus, representing the sun, has already endorsed the natural metamorphosis, now it is the turn of Cupid, the God of love.
So many of Bach’s pre-Leipzig recitatives proceed to an arioso melody set over a moving bass line, a feature of this cantata which, although scarcely definitive, might point to it being an early work. Here the simple but affecting vocal line is underpinned by the quaver movement adapted from the middle section of the opening aria. It assures us that, where Cupid reigns, loving hearts blossom like the flowers that surround them.
The following aria stands firmly at the centre of the cantata and is the only one to be set in a minor key. This, and the gently sinuous violin obbligato melody combine to produce a pensive, contemplative effect, welcome in delivering musical contrast and variety to the overall work, but remaining entirely appropriate to the text. There is, indeed, a mellow quality about the verse which suggests the soothing wafting of fields by the gentle breezes, and Cupid stealthily stalking the lovers whose hearts he would wish to see entwined. This is not a da capo aria because the verse is not structured in a way that allows for that obvious musical division; it is a concise ritornello movement with never a note wasted.
Two features may strike the listener. The first is the persistent movement of the solo violin, streams of semiquavers which, whilst reminiscent of the continuous movement of the second aria’s continuo quavers, lack their drive and sense of relentlessness.
Here they represent the gentler movement of meadow flowers or cornfields swaying in the breezes.
The second point is the almost relentless minor-mode characteristic of the movement; every main cadence is in Em or a related minor key. The effect is oddly nostalgic, perhaps a deliberate reminder to the middle-aged of young love in adolescent years.
The following recitative, at eleven bars, is the longest of the four and it follows a similar pattern, ending with an arioso section above a forceful quaver bass line. It is not simply tradition or habit which leads Bach to do this, of course. As always, it is the demands of the text which here informs, perhaps even lectures, us on the rewards and benefits of marital union—-it produces good fortune, happiness and blessings.
Positive though this cantata is from beginning to end, it is perhaps this short movement which expresses the optimistic qualities of human union most affirmatively. The stream of bass quavers (again!), the melodically expansive and ascending vocal line and the sweeping melisma on segen—-blessings—-all combine to drive home the message: marriage is a happy state and a blessed union.
One feels that Bach would have been wholly in agreement with these sentiments; they are expressed vigorously and openly, not through clichéd musical figurations which the rather anodyne text might have elicited from a lesser composer.
The twinned aria, introducing the oboe as the obbligato instrument, is easily the longest in the cantata. The da capo form returns and the rhythm is that of a fast dance which some might register as a slightly frenetic minuet.
The text is particularly sensual conveying delicate, but evident, suggestions of sexual pleasure—-to cultivate love and physical embrace is to surpass the transitory pleasures of Flora’s gift of flowers—-the waves gush in human passion, victorious on lips and breast. The first and reprised sections deal with the first of these two ideas, the middle section with the second.
The three-part counterpoint is rich throughout, and the rolling inevitability of fate, seasons, the elements and human passions are as forcefully suggested in this aria as in those which preceded it.
The final recitative is a simple prayer—-may the bond of pure love not be threatened by unpredictable change—-may no unexpected blows or thunderbolts threaten the couple’s fervour and devotion. As if to warn us further and more graphically, the continuo line transforms itself from an unobtrusive accompaniment into a brief but telling burst of unanticipated foreboding. Spread over more than two octaves and encapsulating just the final three bars, it makes its point dramatically and tersely.
But it is a warning only, a brief shot across the bows which need not disturb the ultimate serenity of the occasion.
The closing aria is also a prayer—-may you remain content and enjoy a thousand days of comfort and security so that your loving union bears fruit. It is in the form of a gavotte, the most courtly and serene of suite dances. Indeed, thirty-two of its forty-eight bars are taken up by the opening instrumental passage and its repetition, in full, at the end. This is a clear indication of the importance and emphasis of the dance element, the setting of the words requiring a mere sixteen bars!
The oboe begins (and ends) doubling the first violins, though retaining a degree of independence after the voice enters. Oboe and upper strings play with a simple quaver figure, employed as an accompaniment to the soprano line, a musical representation, perhaps, of perfect union. The movement is a fine example of art which is bared to its very essentials; there is no overstatement, unnecessary complexity or virtuoso element here. The message is simple and concise and Bach pares the music almost to the bone.
An early or middle period work? Does it matter? We know from an examination of some of Bach’s very first religious cantatas just how deeply expressive and profound his art could be in his earliest professional years. We should simply enjoy this most attractive of works and be grateful that it has survived. (Comparisons between it and the longer, but less well known, C 210 may be found in chapter 73).
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.