Chapter 9 BWV 178 Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält
Where the Lord God does not stand with us.
What a cracking opening chorus! Yet again a portentous, minor-key statement designed to capture immediate attention and succeeding wonderfully in so doing. There is nothing ambiguous about this bustling, energetic, monolithic movement. In fact the entire cantata is enthused with rhythmic and melodic drive, both conveying the vigorous Lutheran opposition to ‘false prophets’, hypocrites and other attackers of the faith.
The chorus begins with dotted rhythms that, if the tempo were to be slower, might suggest another French Overture. But Bach merely teases us. Of course they form a part of the music’s relentless drive, although much of the energy comes from the continuous streams of semi-quavers in which all the participants, particularly strings and oboes but later, to some degree the singers, have a share. What exciting music this is to listen to, let alone perform! This is but one of several occasions on which Bach uses the key of Am to convey a feeling of restless excitement e.g. later similar choruses in this volume may be found in Cs 33, 26 and 111.
The text outlines a hypothetical situation whereby the Lord might choose not to shield and protect us in the ways we desire. The consequence of this would be a raging of enemies around us. This is the precise source of the driving rhythm and complex texture; there is an almost frenzied representation of the hordes of enemies surrounding and threatening to extinguish us.
The form is again that of an Italianate concerto, the complex ritornello beginning and ending the movement as well as separating the chorale phrases. The chorale cantus firmus is taken by the sopranos, reinforced by the horn. After the experimentation of the first four cantatas of the cycle, Bach seems to have found that, although this scoring deprives him of the possibility of climactic, soaring soprano lines, it emerges as the most practical vocal layout.
He manages to create tonal variety by modulating to related keys more widely than the chorale melodies often permit e.g. C major, Em and G major. The consequent structure is akin to that of outer movements from the earlier Brandenburg, violin or keyboard concerti and the unremitting forward momentum is a breathtaking.
A point worth noticing once again is the writing for the lower three voices. To accompany the first phrase of the chorale they provide a generally chordal, rather bare harmonization, possibly representing the immutable stance of the Lord. But as with the dotted rhythms at the beginning, Bach is playing with us. If we are led to expect another imposing, stark homophonic treatment of the chorale as to be found in C 7, we are very much mistaken. The second phrase, introducing the notion of the raging enemies, is accompanied by a much more complex texture. The basses enter first, imitated by tenors and altos and the vocal texture grows into a swirling texture of semi-quavers imitating those of the orchestra. The vocal counterpoint is similar, but varied in detail, for most of the successive phrases.
From bar 26.
The long and extended final notes of each chorale phrase form another interesting characteristic of this movement. Sometimes all four parts sustain a bare octave (phrases 1 and 3, bars 18-19 and 49-50) allowing the orchestra to continue unimpeded with semi-quavers and chordal progressions. Concluding the remaining phrases, the lower voices join in the fun, stressing key words under extended notes sustained by the sopranos. The variety of the vocal contrapuntal writing is astonishing.
Bach’s interest in combining recitative phrases with the chorale melody has been noted in chapters 3 and 7. Though primarily a unifying device, it might also have been a way of ensuring that the congregation did not lose contact with the chorale melody (or its message) on the various excursions through which the cantata led them. It was certainly a way of breaking up long tracts of text (sometimes over thirty lines). Unsuitable for setting as an aria or chorus, the only other solution was to set them as extended recitatives.
But it is the nature of recitative to be fragmented and sparse and thus lack variety of texture or timbre. So Bach’s solution seems to have been to splice in phrases of recitative, arioso, instrumental ritornello and/or chorale, often (but not always) changing the tempo, thus generally aiming for the greatest possible range of musical contrast.
The second movement has the alto(s) singing a bare and unadorned version of the chorale melody, interspersed with four interpolations of recitative. At first the chorale is presented two phrases at a time, latterly one. The lines of text are not, however, divided in any arbitrary manner. The chorale text is somewhat more reassuring than that of the opening chorus—-we should not fear that which humans have contrived because God stands above them and will divert their attacks. The recitative sections provide instances and examples—-God frees us from our enemys′ snares and repels the wickedness and evil emanating from the serpent’s guile.
The chorale phrases are made easily recognizable by the underpinning of a treading quaver bass line. This is formed through an extremely economical development of a simple four-note quaver motive in the continuo, its shape derived directly from the chorale tune.
It is instructive to compare the third movement (bass aria) with its counterpart, a tenor aria from C 81 (vol 1, chapter 39). Both are depictions of the savage, foaming ocean’s waters battering the faithful Christian’s craft. Both have extremely demanding vocal parts, based (perhaps surprisingly) in major keys and each makes use of tempestuous string writing to represent the rage of the driven sea.
The earlier aria, however, used the images of storms and tempests as a metaphor for the true believer’s monumental and ultimately successful struggle towards the haven of the shore which represents safety and security. This movement, for bass, has a different focus. The image of the storm at sea is less a metaphor of the struggle to achieve faith and more a depiction of the encroaching enemies who aim to divert us from it. The rage of our enemies is like the waves of the sea threatening to wreck the vulnerable ship of faith!
Both arias stretch the singers′ technique to ultimate limits and this, in itself, communicates stress and effort. But the aria from C 178 is slightly less frenetic and the constantly repeated notes in the strings portray a sense of persistent inevitability. The almost suicidal vocal runs and melismas continue the idea, introduced in the opening chorus, of the enemy hordes.
They also suggest the sense of effort the good Christian requires in order to resist both temptation and the lures of surging foes.
The fourth movement is yet another version of the chorale. Those who are familiar with the canon will be reminded of the earlier Cs 93 and, C 4 both of which make relentless use of the chorale melody as a unifying device in every movement. Students may wish to compare the three works and examine the many different ways in which Bach builds sections of, or complete (and often highly contrasting) movements from the one given melody. Some approaches are more complex than others but even when the fundamental concept is simple (as in this case) the detail, frequently, is not.
The text decries the persecution we suffer from our enemies who falsely call themselves Christians and mask themselves under God′s very cloak. The tenors (whether one or more is unknown) sing the chorale complete and unadorned. But the accompaniment (oboes and continuo, the latter quite possibly a solo bassoon) is a gem of contrapuntal detail and motivic development.
The chorale melody stands out, framed against a background which has its own unity and integrity but which, nevertheless, imbues the hymn with a subtly individual personality. This is a less frenetic picturing of the surrounding enemies. Here they are more passive, more cunning perhaps, hiding and hovering in wait to ambush us. The intensely concentrated accompaniment is a deft tapestry developed from the opening six-note motive, itself suggesting echoes of the chorale.
Oboes d’amore above continuo.
This movement has a strange and intangible sense of loss, distance and detachment; impossible to describe adequately in words, of course, which is what makes its musical character so elusive.
C 178 is one of a group of cantatas composed at much the same time, all exploiting the expressive possibilities of the ′hybrid′ recitative structure described above e.g. Cs 93 and 94, 101 and 113. Examples of these hybrids, however, may be found in about half of the second cycle works.
Here the fifth movement introduces further experimental elements in that whilst in the second and fourth movements the chorale was presented as a single melodic line, it is now fully harmonized, in four parts, much as we would expect at the end. Furthermore, the inserted recitative lines appear not in a relatively free rhythmic context but instead maintain a sustained and precise tempo, evidenced by the unrelenting continuo/accompaniment figure driving all sections.
Extending his palette of timbres, Bach makes use of alto, tenor and bass voices for the recitative interpolations (why no soprano, one wonders?) instead of confining them to a single voice.
The chorale text tells of those who, with their jaws gaping, would wish to devour us—-but, alas, in vain because God will provide protection. The recitative sections either provide examples e.g.—-the jaws are like those of gaping lions with the teeth of killers—-or further elucidation of the central message—-e.g. God will destroy false prophets and their heresies with the flames of His anger. The accompaniment is formed from a persistent four-note arpeggio figure, rising in the bass. It is possible that Bach intended this motive to depict the lions snapping at, but not devouring us with their hungry jaws.
Thus Bach weaves, from a number of sources, a highly original movement that leads perfectly into the astonishing, and quite unique, tenor aria.
The opening ritornello presents a preview of what is to come. The rhythm is pointed and disjointed, the phrases extended and unsymmetrical; there are no predictable, regular melodic sections here. This fragmentation and the broken rhythms result in an utterance of the type which, doubtlessly, CPE Bach and Agricola had in mind when in Bach’s obituary they referred to his melodies as ‘strange and like no other’s’. Strange they may have seemed at the time but to listeners today they convey immense dramatic power.
The key word is taumelnde—-reeling or staggering—-be quiet, staggering reason and do not say that the pious are lost—-they are, indeed, saved by the power of the Cross. Clearly, the opening bars depict an inebriated lurching about but it is still combined with an authoritative voice: ‘Be silent’ is a clear and imperious command.
It is not a melody in the conventional sense. The tenor seems to pick notes out of the air; rhythmically, one can never be quite certain upon which beat the next note will fall. Listen to these bars and then try to sing them yourself. If you get the rhythm right first time, you have an exceptionally good ear. More likely the exercise will bring about an enhanced respect for Bach’s singers who would have been expected to learn and perform such bizarrely convoluted lines in a matter of days! This is the precursor to the pointillism of the Twentieth Century, a technique of seemingly picking notes from the air, later employed by Webern, Berio, Nono and others.
Once again Bach was far ahead of the game. The consequence is an aria of great power and strength and yet the image of a confused and mistaken logic, the antithesis of God′s Grace, remains.
There are several explicit examples of word painting, one notably being the sustained high f on the word Kreuz—-Cross (bars 35-6). But remarkable is the change of mood (from bar 43) for the words —-Denn denen, die auf Jesum Hoffen—-those putting faith in Jesus (for whom the doorway to salvation remains ever open). Here Bach temporarily abandons the established rhythmic characteristics of the first section in order to convey a semi-tranquil, less hectic mood. Minor becomes major, the phrases are more symmetrical and the unpredictable rhythmic outbursts are replaced by an even, flowing melodic line. Bach was not one of those Baroque composers who held rigidly to the theory of ′affect′ i.e. one movement sustaining fundamentally the same mood throughout. Whilst retaining full control over matters of structural unity, he was able to convey very different ideas and contrasting emotions within the one uniquely original movement. His various experiments with combined chorale, recitative, aria and ritornello principles further illustrate this point.
The disjointedness returns to conclude the movement in a loose ternary form (ABA). The feeling of comfort which the Cross and the Lord provide may now be reaffirmed in the verses of the closing chorale.
This beautiful melody is simply harmonized and it comes almost as a relief after the explosive power of the tenor aria. It is sung twice in order to accommodate two stanzas. The first reminds us, yet again, of the enemies around us and the second muses upon the light of the Lord, shining forever and leading us to redemptive faith.
We have come on a long and emotionally demanding journey through this cantata. But our strenuous battles with the surrounding foes are finally rewarded with a few moments of that reflective peace and tranquillity which true faith bestows.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.