Chapter 91 BWV 205 Zerreisset, zersprenget, zertrümmert die Gruft
Destroy, smash and shatter the vault.
Chorus–recit (bass)–aria (bass)–recit (tenor)–aria (tenor)–recit (bass)–aria (alto)–recit (alto/sop)–aria (sop)–recit (sop/bass)–aria (bass)–recit/trio (sop/alto/tenor)–duet (alto/tenor)–recit (sop)–chorus.
A cantata of homage.
How many university professors could claim, or would wish to be as popular as August Müller, the man for whose birthday this work was performed in 1725? (Dürr p 854). His spectacular academic career suggests that his reputation was due to the fact that he was a highly respected and esteemed teacher, and not just that he gave good marks to his pupils!
Even by the standards of a number of the other secular cantatas, this is a work conceived on a very large scale, seven recitatives, six arias and two choruses, totalling fifteen movements in all. Lasting for almost three quarters of an hour, it enjoys an orchestration of almost unparalleled proportions, three trumpets, two horns and drums, flutes, oboes, strings and continuo, all combining with the choir in the outer movements and even supporting the singer in the first recitative. Furthermore, this range of instruments, presumably played mostly by the university students, provided Bach with a vast choice of colours for the arias. It is extremely rare to find a cantata in which Bach brought trumpets and horns together in the same movements.
Dürr makes the interesting and compelling suggestion that the work may have been performed as a student tribute outside Müller’s house. Whilst the forces employed in some of the larger movements would seem entirely suitable for an alfresco presentation, it should be borne in mind that the majority of the recitatives were accompanied only by the continuo and consequently more intimate. The bass line, however, might well have been doubled by several instruments, bassoons and lutes joining cellos and basses.
As so often is the case with baroque works of homage the plot, making use of characters from Greek mythology, is slight in the extreme and should not be taken too seriously; it is, after all, just a peg upon which to hang the musical tribute. In a nutshell, Pallas Athene, Goddess of Wisdom, is concerned that Aeolus, God of Winds, may unleash havoc upon her feast of celebration and it seems for a while (shock, horror!) that he might!
But he doesn’t; and all ends in a joyful and fully predictable tribute to the eminent Professor Müller.
Readers may like to compare the opening chorus of this work with that of the Contest of Phoebus and Pan, C 201, if only to remind themselves how little Bach repeats himself even with similar texts. But whereas in that work the potentially hazardous winds are being urged to return to their cavern, here it is the winds themselves that are clamouring to be free so as to wreak havoc upon the world—-destroy this cave that confines our rage—-darken the sun and rend the oceans and lands so that even heaven grieves. As a piece of hyperbole it can be lightly dismissed; but the music may be taken more seriously.
This cantata is packed with word painting at every level. Though seemingly less inclined to emphasise the more obvious gestures in his religious music at this stage of his career, Bach was still happy to depict them vividly in the secular works. It may even have been that, with a tribute brought about and performed by a number of vigorous and enthusiastic young men, he felt it incumbent upon him to give them something to chew upon. They surely would have picked up the many various allusions that occur throughout the work and may have even made a game out of it!
Not that the two opening movements require much subtlety of thought to recognize the sound pictures. Blatant they may be, but they abound with musical interest. Bach depicts the raging winds by introducing the flutes, then oboes followed by strings with a succession of vigorous rising scales, surely suggestive of gathering storms. By the third bar they are moving in contrary motion and by bar 6 everyone, with the exception of the choir, is participating.
Flutes above oboes.
By bar 16 the flutes and oboes are bouncing off each other in opposite directions and the level of detail is so complex that it is almost impossible to follow everything that is happening without a score. One small point that listeners might latch onto, however, is the recurring falling two-note figure first heard on trumpets, then strings, then horns in the opening bar. But it is the riot of scale patterns, urged on by this little seminal figure that provides the engine of momentum, driving the music continuously forward.
The voices, raging against their confinement, are introduced in the same manner as the instruments, but note the moments of welcome variety created by the contrasting setting of the word zereisset—-dismantle, tear apart (from bars 40 and 59).
The middle section of what is a massive da capo movement begins at bar 84. The choir now seems to call with a more united voice—-rend the air, darken the sun. The scales continue unabated in the strings and woodwind but there is a brief moment of pathos before the reprise of the first section. The sustained chord on the dominant of the dark key of F#m on ‘betrübt’ suggests the very act of the grieving heavens (bars 106-9).
If this chorus was not enough to rouse the professor from his house, the following movement may well have done the trick; there can be few so sumptuously scored recitatives in the baroque repertoire! Bach continues to call upon the full instrumental resources, demonstrating just what a commanding sound trumpets and horns can contribute, even with isolated chords. The singer is Aeolus, God of the winds and he promises, as summer ends, to unleash his tempests to run riot, uprooting trees and tearing mountaintops. The reader does not need to be talked through the obvious instrumental interventions that continue with almost manic scale passages, now urged on by insistent repeated notes in other parts.
The ending is calmer, however. The stars are depicted with their light fading and the final rush of scales, on flutes only, suggests a less turbulent darkness of night.
But Aesolus is undeterred and in the following aria he describes and, indeed, demonstrates how he will simply laugh at the quaking cliffs and reigning chaos. The ritornello theme (strings with an oboe doubling the violins) is of the opera buffo type, the figuration suggesting the sound of laughing, to be made more explicit when the bass voice enters.
And when the quaking cliffs and splintering rooftops are mentioned (from bar 35) Bach uses, in rapid succession, three types of string figuration to depict the chaos. Firstly (35-8) we hear a spiky semi-quaver idea on the upper strings then (39-42) a disjunctive splintering between first and second violins and finally (42-3) a return to the turbulent scale passages of the earlier movements. The degree of invention Bach is able to call upon for such a short section of music (repeated, albeit in adapted form, from bar 60) is humbling.
Bar 35 followed by bar 39, thence bar 42.
Zephyrus, God of the West Wind but in this context portrayed as a more gentle breeze, has the following short recitative which Bach supports only with continuo. Zephyrus pleads with Aeolus to pity him and delay the terrors of the winter storms. Clearly, this movement has a structural function in that it prepares us for the following aria, the first wholly minor movement whose contemplative pastoral qualities would have been instantly recognized by patrons of contemporary Italian opera.
To the modern ear the text is almost absurdly exaggerated—-I depart with sorrow from my beloved cooling shades—-pity my shame, writhe you parentless branches and regard my miserable departure. It is impossible to guess how seriously an audience of eighteenth century students would have taken these bizarre sentiments; what we can be sure of, however, is that Bach took sufficient interest in them to compose what many might feel is the best music of the cantata!
This tenor aria is supported by a viola d’amore and viola da gamba, two instruments which combine to created quite unique quality of sound, a rich sonority without luxuriance, conveying nostalgic sadness and quiet yearning, but lacking the more tragic undertones. It is so packed with delightful moments that space only allows mention of a few of them. Notable is the tenor’s entry; a falling octave followed by a long note depicting, with admirable economy and the maximum of expressivity, the ‘cooling shades’ of the text.
An unexpected b flat in bar 23 accentuates the pain of departure, the action of which may be heard in the ‘falling away to silence’ of the voice and instruments (bars 28-30 and later from bar 105).
Although essentially a ritornello movement, it creates the impression of a middle section (from bar 57) two notable features of which are the deeply moving falling 7ths (ah, words fail me—-from bar 68) and the rush of notes on Freude—-my delight (in the cooling shades: from bar 85). A reprise of the A section begins in bar 90 where many of the original musical pleasures are revisited.
The final instrumental bars are masterly. Conventional practice would have been to repeat all or part of the original ritornello theme. Bach uses its material but so as to create a true coda. These few bars actually say ‘farewell’ to the ear and mind in the manner that classical composers were to exploit later in the century.
Perhaps this recitative gives us a clue as to how the text of this aria might have been received by the student audience. Aeolus returns and says—-you almost succeed in moving me! Is he serious? Or is he being sarcastic? Does he actually mean that no-one could really be stirred by such nonsense? Not he, apparently, because he immediately turns his attention to Pallas and Pomona (Goddess of plenty and fruit in particular) and asks them what they want. As before, this short secco recitative’s main function is to prepare for Pomona’s aria.
This is also set in a minor key, the last substantial movement of the cantata to be so. Structurally, these two arias create an important contrasting middle section of the work where quiet tenderness, minor harmonies and beautifully spacious, expressive melodies contrast with much that comes before and after them. In one sense, our criticism of the qualities of the poetry of individual stanzas misses the point. Bach took the longer view and carefully and scrupulously considered the overall proportions and balance of the piece as both a piece of music and drama.
Pomona’s minor key aria, with the tender oboe d’amore providing the obbligato, is scarcely less emotive than that for Zephyrus. The ritornello melody is pensive and it begins to rise, perhaps in recognition of the Goddess’s expanding and maturing fruit. But the essence of the lyric is that the leaves are drooping in order to avert the misery of their winter fate and it is this image which the latter part of the melody, now more convoluted, expresses (from bar 6).
This picture becomes the centre-piece of the movement as first oboe, alone and in parallel with the voice, suggests the drooping and dropping of the leaves (from bar 35). This aria is much more concise than that which preceded it but no less compelling or packed with images for the cognoscenti to discover.
The following recitative furthers the slight plot with Pomona pleading for Aeolus to hear her entreaties. The mode is minor and she pauses on a question that is clearly heard both in the text and music. Pallas suggests that she tries where her colleague has failed and the two join for the final line—-Oh great fortune, should he decide to act more favourably. Bach has now moved from minor to major, partially in preparation for the following aria (which is in the same key) and partly to suggest optimism about the clearly inevitable outcome!
Pallas’s aria provides another example of the sense of balance which Bach brought to this work. After two minor-mode arias, this one is in the relatively foreign major key of E, in the pastoral rhythm of 12/8 and, whilst equally expressive, of a markedly different character. In a sense, it is the key to the whole work since it is here that Pallas pleads a case that attracts the attention of the guardian of the winds.
It is a mixture of pleading and compliment, perhaps an attempt by the poet to encapsulate the sense of ‘feminine wiles!’ with an almost sexual implication—-Great King Aeolus, allow Zephyrus’s musky kisses to play about my peaks. The violin obbligato melody, so beautifully conceived for the instrument, appears to suggest just that i.e. the gentle caressing of the peaks by soothing restful breezes. The rise and fall of the melody is almost hypnotic as at times the violin seems to be reaching up towards the mountain peaks.
Elsewhere, sustained notes in both voice and obbligato lines suggest their welcome coolness. The middle section becomes a little more assertive as Pallas calls to the ‘Great King’ (from bar 22) and the movement ends with a full reprise of the ritornello melody.
But not before the soprano has provided her own codetta, a clear musical feeling of drawing the movement to a close. It is equally effective, but achieved through quite different means than those noted at the end of Zephyrus’s aria.
The next recitative is carefully constructed around a text that would hardly find universal favour today. Pallas begins by imploring Aeolus not to disrupt her banquet. His response is —-why should I give way in this inopportune manner to a mere woman? Pallas, ignoring the insult, introduces Müller’s name for the first time comparing him, with an apparent confusion of Greek mythology and Roman history, with Augustus! Despite this Aeolus, a God perhaps but apparently no scholar, is rapidly and, one might suggest not entirely convincingly, persuaded. He gives way and turns to avert his charges.
Note how the flutes are introduced at the mention of Müller’s name as if to surround him with a haze of celestial acclaim.
The most forthright of the cantata’s arias is that which follows. Trumpets, drums, horns bass and continuo sound as Aeolus casts away his charges with the admonition that if they must blow at all then it must be gently! It is not clear if Bach intended the solid brass phalanx to depict the might of the God or the, as yet untamed, tempests. Perhaps the trumpets represent the former and the horns, often using their lower registers, the latter. But whatever the symbolic intentions may have been, this remains a rollicking and rumbustious movement, lifting the spirits and enlivening the soul.
Indeed, it could have been an effective ending to the cantata but for the fact that the story has not quite concluded; we need to be told of the success of the occasion and the honour it has brought to the popular professor. In a way this is a pity because, with four movements yet to go, this work, which has so far provided us with some of Bach’s very best music, now tends to fade away into something of an anti-climax. This trio is a hybrid movement i.e. arioso/recitative/arioso, whose short sections display little of the stunning originality or character of the three trios to be found, for example, in the second Leipzig cycle.
Zephyrus, Pomona and Pallas unite to express their joy at the fulfilment of their wishes and then, through individual lines of recitative, each states how they are now to act as they wish. They unite for the closing arioso section, looking forward to the now assured festivities.
The duet in which Pomona and Zephyrus combine to announce what they can bring to the feast could have been omitted with no detriment to the work as a whole. It is a pleasant enough piece but it lacks the sheer quality of the earlier arias. It is interesting to note the presence of an excellent (obbligato) flautist however. We know from the scores that Bach enjoyed the talents of a virtuosic player, especially during his second year at Leipzig. Could this have been the same man? Might this indicate that he was a student of the university who was noticed by Bach and brought into the church performances with a number of particularly demanding solos especially composed for him? His single, unaccompanied high g at the end of this aria is an unexpected moment of cheeky bravado.
The last recitative is to enable Pallas to issue her invitations to the feast. The final four bars encapsulate, in both vocal and continuo lines, the images of rising up and hastening to the peaks whilst simultaneously ‘cleaving the air’ with joyful wishes.
What a pity that the final chorus is such a disappointment. Rhythmically unusually pedestrian, it calls for long life and happiness to attend Augustus Müller as he sows the seeds of wisdom that will ever adorn the land. The sentiments are noble and appropriate but the music is, as least by Bach’s own standards, tired and repetitive. The opening two chords, latterly taken up by the choir, pronounce the ‘vivat’ which is tied to a jog-trot rhythm of crotchet/quavers. This principal three-bar idea is repeated incessantly and predictably throughout the movement. A middle section (from bar 79) engages interest with a modicum of tonal contrast as it traverses through F#m but it is too short and over too quickly.
Nevertheless, an orchestra and choir of this size must have made an inspiring sound outside the professor’s house. This movement is loud, insistent and happy. Perhaps that is all that is called for after a work that has provided us with a number of endearing delights.
For this reason, and despite the logistical problems, this cantata deserves to be more frequently played and more widely known than it is.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.