Chapter 8 BWV 107 Was willst du dich betrüben?
Why so much grief?
The perceptive cantata listener will notice the unusual movement structure; nowhere else in this cycle does Bach present four consecutive arias. Even in C 4, which uses no recitatives, the flow of arias is interrupted by a central chorus. We can only speculate as to why Bach chose this particular configuration for this work.
Whereas in the previous cantata (C 93) Bach made the chorale melody an explicit part of every movement, here he applies similar thinking to the text stanzas; every movement sets an unaltered verse of the chosen chorale without interpolations. His more typical approach is to set the first verse as the opening chorus and the last as a concluding four-part harmonization. For other movements, chorale verses may be used unaltered but more often the stanzas would be paraphrased, rewritten or have additional lines or a completely new text inserted. This would obviously give the composer a maximum of flexibility in the choosing of the various formats of which there were six available options i.e. aria, duet, trio, chorus, recitative secco and hybrid recitative.
(NB a list of the nine cantatas which Bach set in this manner may be found at the end of the essay on C 97: vol 2 chapter 59).
It would seem that Bach’s unknown librettist for the first two thirds of this cycle had a clear notion as to what sort of verse formed a suitable text for a recitative, aria or chorus. If this were so, then obviously it would make for a productive working relationship with a composer like Bach.
But, for a moment, let us speculate about Bach’s own creative processes. We know that he must have worked extremely quickly and seldom repeated himself. We know that he was stimulated by emotional, intellectual and physical images. But further, it seems that his fertile imagination worked best not when given totally free reign but when it had restrictions placed upon it, either from external or self-imposed conditions. His various, often abstruse and sometimes virtually impenetrable fixations with number combinations, complex metaphors and the bringing together of apparently contradictory images under the one structural umbrella, all offer good evidence of this. So does the very premise of this cycle, especially when we consider the tonal and structural restraints that the chorales imposed upon the opening fantasias.
Dürr (p 446) speculates that in this case the librettist may have supplied no text or that what he did offer was unsuitable to Bach. But it is equally likely that Bach imposed the restriction upon himself; it is not unusual to find him imposing his own limitations, almost as if he could not function without them. In C 93 it was the decision to incorporate the chorale melody explicitly into each movement, a gesture neither artistically nor musically essential, as other works in the cycle demonstrate. Here it is the adhering to the precise, unaltered verses which constrains him. This decision would have had clear implications for both the individual movement settings and the overall structure.
Dürr′s hypothesis that there may have been a problem with the librettist seems unlikely as the text had to be written, probably approved and certainly printed, some time before the cantata was due to be performed. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this was an experimental artistic decision which produced the type of restriction upon which Bach thrived.
One fact remains clear. This is the seventh cantata of this cycle and in every one Bach actively sought out or set himself stringent, self imposed structural constraints. In each case he triumphed over them magnificently, responding anew to the diverse challenges which stimulated his artistic imagination.
The decision to write four successive arias (following the single recitative, for bass) would have been a direct consequence of the resolution to set each verse unaltered. As they stand, these stanzas would not appear to be an ideal length for setting, either as arias or recitatives. Although not a practice he turned to often, Bach did, however, apply address the problem of adopting unchanged verses in the later chorale cantatas C 117 and C 137 (see part 2, chapter 52 and vol 3, chapter 3). The former is a setting of nine verses, three of which are recitatives!
Certainly the block of four arias requires contrast and this Bach partially achieves by the variety of voices (bass, tenor, soprano and tenor again—why no alto one wonders?). There is also contrast of mode: major, minor, minor, major. And finally there is an abundance of instrumental colouring.
The instrumental forces are relatively large, incorporating a pair each of flutes and oboes d′amore, one horn, strings and continuo (which probably included a bassoon). Above the continuo the first aria uses full strings, the second continuo only, the third two oboes and the last flute doubling oboe and strings. There is, therefore, a wealth of colour available from what might seem by later historical practices, quite modest forces.
Additionally, the final chorale is turned into a suite-like gigue and given an orchestral setting of a ritornello nature, a rare event and the first if its kind in this cycle.
The opening fantasia is set in B minor, the key of the closing chorale but the gigue-like rhythms of the chorale have been converted into a more staid common time, four beats in the bar. The text asks why one should be sad when, by trusting one’s Saviour; all will ultimately be well. Consequently there is a bringing together of different, almost conflicting emotions, a situation which Bach relished and frequently portrayed with unique insight. Here is the suggestion of sorrow; but alongside it lie the more confident assertions of trust and hope.
The movement begins with a wistful, almost doleful sound of rising flutes and oboes in the middle register. Their stepwise ascending scale, taken from the opening notes of the chorale, is imitated by the continuo.
Like the blossoming of a bud into full flower, these simple and unimposing ideas begin to transform themselves into a contrapuntal tapestry of more complex semi-quaver figures, flutes and oboes doubling the strings here, independently sounding there. Even before the voices enter, the wistful opening sounds have been converted into a mood of greater affirmation and positivity.
The form is ritornello, the instrumental section beginning and ending the movement and separating the choral entries. The soprano carries the cantus firmus throughout, doubled by a single horn and supported, with a minimum of complexity, by the other three voices. The vocal bass part is a slightly adapted version of the continuo line and there is less imitative writing than we might expect, the main contrapuntal interest residing in the instrumental textures.
The choir seems to represent the grieving soul alluded to in the opening lines. This soul is set amidst, and musically surrounded by, the complex instrumental tapestries, perhaps depicting the endlessly dynamic blessings and benefices of the Lord, eternally encompassing us all.
The second movement, the single recitative, is for bass voice accompanied by two oboes d’amore and continuo. It contains no striking imagery but simply states that God abandons no-one and it is joy to be united with Him. Two extended vocal melismas may be heard on the words Freuden—-joy—-and retten—-to save or rescue.
Two oboes d’ amore accompany lightly with a reiterated four-note figure but they encompass the vocal line more sustainedly in the final bars. Here Bach presents a positive arioso line in counterpoint against a partially canonic continuo (see a similar process in the two recitatives from C 99, chapter 15). The music encapsulates the close relationship between a rescuing God and the trusting soul, fears now abated. Sustained oboe chords enfold the entwined entities in a cloak of security.
All four arias are short and concentrated, none lasting more than three minutes. None are in da capo form, possibly another consequence of the decision to set the hymn verses unaltered; all make use of succinct versions of the ritornello principle. Their very conciseness brings to mind similar movements from the Magnificat which Bach had performed in its original E flat version as part of the celebrations for his first Christmas at Leipzig.
The first, for bass, calls upon us to exercise our courage so as to do the right thing, thereby fulfilling the word of the Lord—-you may trust your life in Him—-all things unfold according to His counsel. Not much in the way of overt, stimulating imagery here! The bass voice was traditionally used by Bach and his contemporaries to articulate the words of God or Jesus and Cs 85, 87 and 108, later in this cycle, begin with Divine words expressed in the first person. Here He does not speak directly, although his authority is asserted.
One cannot help speculating that Bach might have had to fish around somewhat in order to tease out images from which to develop the musical ideas, because any that are embedded within the stanza are tenuous. As a consequence, it is impossible to interpret Bach’s compositional approach here with anything approaching certainty. The rapid scale passages on the violins (which Bach himself marked ‘vivace’) may indicate positivity and conviction or, perhaps, the all-encompassing benefice of the Lord, or even the massing of the ′children of Men′. The somewhat ponderous semi-quaver idea in the continuo line conveys, from the very beginning, a degree of rooted solidity and, perhaps, a hint of the certainty of God’s decrees.
But all this remains a matter of conjecture; it is often tempting to read too much into this music. But that Bach’s general practice was to comb his texts for suitable images with which to stimulate his musical imagination is irrefutable.
The aria for tenor is more explicit and less problematic. The bass line is serpentine and twisted. It starts–and pauses–only to restart and pause a second time, a challenge for the continuo player. Should s/he fill in the rests or leave them open? The text is about the fiend emerging from hell in order to urge his hosts upon us and the continuo melody (simultaneously performing the function of obbligato) conveys an impression of scurrying malevolence.
It is interesting to note Bach’s tendency to depict the devil in terms of muted, bustling malice. Compare, for example, this setting with that of the tenor aria in part 2 of C 76 from the first cycle. That text declaims ‘hate me well, you hellish fiends’ and the approach is very similar; no independent obbligato instrument and a busy, almost fussy, scampering, bass line. The devil may be evil, influential in our lives and he is certainly unpleasant. Nevertheless he is not grandiose, heroic or all-powerful, and Bach takes pains to get this message across musically to his congregations. Compared with the Lord, this malevolent creature lacks both stature and distinction.
The tenor’s melodic line twists and turns, not only to convey the general sense of infuriating devilry but also to paint certain images; note the raging melisma on toben—-fury (bars 30-34) and the high f on the first mention of the word Satan (bars 14-15).
The soprano aria retains the slightly darker minor key feel although the quacking of the two oboes negates it to some extent. As in that for bass, striking imagery is absent. The text simply underlines the immutable nature of God’s bidding—-that which He wills shall be done and no man can prevent it.
The lack of obvious textural images may have driven Bach to look more to the chorale melody for inspiration; both the opening melodies of oboes and singer are embellished versions of its first phrase.
And, as a musical underlining of the general moral, the last soprano phrase directly quotes the end of the chorale melody—-God’s will shall prevail.
The final aria returns to the brightness and uplift of the major key and in this, and other ways, it creates a marked sense of contrast with the previous two minor movements. The instrumental melodies of these last two arias could not be more different. The oboe lines accompanying the soprano were rhythmically complex and, at times almost convoluted, possibly conveying something of the confusion in which those who oppose God’s will must inevitably lanquish. By contrast, here the single flute and violin obbligato line (they double each other throughout) is optimistic, rhythmically foursquare and, at times, almost peasant-like.
This music lies at the root of Bach’s faith; cheerful, positive and affirmative despite the tragedies that life heaps upon us. The buoyancy of the two upper lines is fully supported by the pizzicato bass; this music literally bounces along. The text is almost in the form of a contract—-everything of me is derived from the Lord and in return I give Him my all—-that is His will.
One wonders if, given the option, Bach might have preferred to have ended the cantata with this aria and its prevailing mood of optimism. But the structure he had pre-determined and as long as he adhered to it, he had no choice but to end with the expected chorale. And this is what he does but with one striking modification which is quite exceptional, at least at this stage of the cycle. Vocally it is a very simple, homophonic, four-part setting; but Bach turns it into a mini concerto movement! In this he is aided by the wider than normal tonal range of the chorale melody, a feature which he must have viewed as equally positive in the construction of the fantasia.
Clearly wishing to end on as positive and joyous a note as possible, and perhaps inspired by the notion of the Holy Trinity, Bach sets his arrangement in 6/8 compound rhythm—notes in groups of threes. But he goes even further and produces a complete binary-form gigue! Three (that number again) contrapuntal lines (strings reinforced by wind) dance above the bass and continue through and around the chorale statements.
This lifts what is essentially a rather dour tune (but no less so than the text, a conventional one of praise and magnification of the glory of Father, Son and Holy Spirit) into an exultant dance of elation. Truly, Bach and the Dance of God!
Thus does the master contrive to surprise and uplift his congregation in the final bars.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.