Chapter 97 BWV 206 Schleicht, spielende Wellen, und murmelt gelinde!
Glide, sparkling waves and murmur softly!
Chorus–recit (bass)–aria (bass)–recit/arioso (tenor)–aria (tenor)–recit (alto)–aria (alto)–recit (sop)–aria (sop)–recit (bass/tenor/alto/sop)–chorus.
A cantata of homage.
Just as the years 1723-6 are now seen to be of immense significance as to the quantity and quality of Bach’s religious cantatas, the middle years of the 1730s proved equally momentous for the creation of a set of fine secular works.
Not that the output of religious music stopped completely. Although Bach had become less interested in providing a new religious cantata each week, this was the period of the Christmas Oratorio and the revisions of the Magnificat and the Easter and Ascension Oratorios. Indeed, the first of these works, and possibly the others, drew heavily upon movements from secular cantatas which were clearly of such musical quality that they deserved more than the occasional performance for some elevated, and now largely forgotten, dignitaries.
Dürr lists C 206 as having been composed for the king’s birthday celebrations of 1734 but Bach replaced it with C 215 when it became known that the birthday and the royal visit to Leipzig would not coincide (p 847). It was held over for the birthday of 1736 and also revived in 1740.
This work gives the impression of it having been carefully planned, probably suffering less under the stringent pressures of time than other pieces. The text is unique, the lyricist abandoning mythical or allegorical figures and choosing the four main rivers of the realm to act as spokespeople. Thus emerges a defined structure in which each river (or voice) has a linked recitative and aria (eight movements in all) framed by two excellent choruses, the second of which is preceded by a culminatory recitative involving all four voices.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around each river claiming their monarch. Unsurprisingly, it is the Pleisse, river of Leipzig, which emerges triumphant.
Having established the general architecture of the work, it is not essential to follow the movements through in chronological order. Let us, then, depart from this general practice and examine them in their units. Discussion of the fine opening chorus will be delayed to the end of the chapter.
Bearing in mind that four of the five recitatives are secco and all but one, the fourth, leads directly to the key of the following aria (three of which are da capo), we may begin with the second and third movements, a linked pairing for the bass, voice of the river Vistula.
This river has been a spectator to, and participant in, a history of military conflict and comparisons are made with a river of hell itself. Indeed, the images of corpses, maimed bodies and of rusting, discarded weapons dominate the first part of the movement. Bach represents these principally through disjointed chromatic chords, beginning in A major and migrating through F#m, G, D and back to F#m in only a dozen bars.
The mood then alters as the question is put—-who brings me the good fortune (of present peace), the answer being—-Augustus, the delight of his subjects who drink my waters and sing—-(whereupon the music proceeds directly into the aria).
The rush to get to the key of the aria is a little forced and lacking in Bach’s usual finesse, but this is soon forgotten as the listener is swept along with the energy of the ritornello theme.
This movement allows the singer very little respite. There is a full statement of the string ritornello at the beginning and end of the A section but otherwise, once the vocal line gets under way, it is relentless. The text calls for the closing of the Temple of Janus, a symbol of peace since it was only opened at times of war. The movement begins with four stark chords, a positive calling to action for the slamming shut of the Temple gates.
This motive dominates the movement, a version of it even beginning the contrasting middle section. Here we are assured that it is the goodness of the Lord that attracts our obedience.
The second pair of movements is sung by the tenor representing the Elbe. He is prepared to lend, but not give away, his king who should be honoured and admired, borrowed but not appropriated. The recitative melds into an elegant arioso which begins as a canon between voice and continuo—-I’d sooner have my waters disappear in obscure lands than lose my Augustus forever.
A flowing bass line represents the moving waters against the measured tenor’s quavers, suggestive of steadfast loyalty.
Bach was clearly aware of the artistic problem that the text presented. He had four arias about rivers and presumably felt obliged to represent the constant movement of the ebb and flow of moving waters. Yet musical contrast and variety is obviously essential and the question was how to maintain the illusion of fluid activity whilst avoiding a sequence of similar sounding movements. Bach had, of course, represented mighty rivers elsewhere, of which the chorale/fantasia of C 7, a picture of the mighty Jordan, is a perfect example (vol 2, chapter 4).
One of Bach’s techniques in this cantata is to vary the instrumentation, each aria deriving a major part of its character through the contrasting timbre. The first was for strings this, the second, for continuo and solo violin obbligato. Latterly he employs two oboes d’amore and, most unusually, three flutes. Tempi and time signatures also vary as, of course, does the nature of the musical ideas and their development. Additionally, there are two arias in major modes and two in the minor. Thus, even though he employs the same ternary structural pattern throughout, the result is an extraordinary degree of light and shade.
The tenor aria is more graceful and less dominant than that for bass, created principally by the violin weaving a pattern of arabesques around and above the voice. The sense of perpetual flow is achieved through the continuous semi-quavers of the ritornello theme, a wavelike motion of melodic rising and falling.
The text declares that the crest of every wave cries out ‘August’ as the waters swell to echo his name throughout the land. With great skill, Bach contrives to keep the semi-quaver movement going, shared between voice and violin above an unrelenting quaver continuo line. The former doubtless suggests the constant flow of the river and the latter, the inexorable qualities of a historic watercourse.
The octave leaps proclaiming August’s name (bars 48-9) are unmissable as are the extended melismas in section B emphasizing the swelling water’s ‘hundred-fold resonating of his name.’
The alto pairing introduces the River Danube which has a historic perspective referring back to the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V and, even before that, to the first century Roman Emperor Tragan. Both, it is stated, have associations with the River which has a consequent claim upon Augustus.
It is difficult to see what a composer, even one of Bach’s boundless imagination and inventiveness, can do with a verse centred upon such historic pedantry. He sets it formally and with dignity, ending on a literal (and musical) question—-who does not know of the things that have prospered on my shores?
The following aria is the most contrapuntally dense of the four. Apart from when the voice gives way to the ritornello theme, the texture is rich and concentrated, the four lines, two oboes d’amore, voice and continuo all having equal roles. The text speaks of the king as an offshoot of the noble Habsburgs, the flame of his virtue known and admired along the course of the river. The B section is devoted to the image of the Laurel which is likened to the king’s fruitful marriage.
It is difficult to judge precisely what images Bach seized upon for the generation of his musical ideas. The dark key of F#m is not usually associated with joy and celebration; here it contributes a degree of appropriate gravitas. Certainly, the almost incessant flow of semiquavers continues the theme of the flowing river, especially when the direction is predominantly downward (see bars 16-43).
But at times the direction is reversed, for example, at the mention of the Laurel’s branches (bars 52). Bach’s principle objective seems to have been to create an aria of character, contrasting with those around it, yet continuing the theme of flowing waters. The musical figurations could also be adapted to mark certain key words.
It is a muscular aria with a sense of resolve, staid but not severe and appropriate to the images of historic significance which the lyric evokes.
The soprano delivers the final pair of movements and it may be significant that Bach chose the order of arias to rise from the lowest to the highest voices i.e. bass, tenor, alto and, triumphantly, soprano. The River Pleisse is essentially conciliatory but adamant in her conclusion—-great Rivers, your dispute is justified and the argument is one of weight; but we know only of joy at the presence of our hero—-and so, whilst continuing to honour the royal pair, you should yield them to us and resign yourselves patiently in their absence.
It does not seem a particularly forceful argument but it appears to do the trick. Clearly the present time of celebration is not the moment for dispute; concord, rather than dramatic conviction, is the order of the day.
The soprano’s aria salutes this friendly treaty in kind as the ‘gentle choir of flutes’ is called upon both in text and in music—-listen for they delight both heart and ear—-our accord creates this very harmony which may go on to achieve even more—-note and unite with them.
The feeling is that of a brisk gavotte, although strictly speaking, it is not one. Bach writes for the flute trio with great variety; beginning in three parts and thence doubling the vocal line, there are latterly sections with sustained chords and even (most unusually) unison passages (see bar 38).
This is the only aria not constructed as a da capo, although it is in ternary form. A middle section exploiting related minor keys begins at bar 67 and a revised version of A remains in the home key for a reprise of the instrumental ritornello theme. The constant variety of the writing for the five lines assures interest throughout.
The final recitative allows the first three rivers to declare their obedience and allegiance although not, one feels, without a trace of regret. This is to be interpreted as a compliment to the king—-those who cannot always enjoy his presence are bound to be disappointed.
The soprano has the last word—-how is it that so many altars are built along your banks?—-we see the long desired light that gave us, and the world, Augustus—-let us sing. The light is symbolised by sustained upper string chords, a musical halo of almost divine luminosity, and the only moment of the cantata where recitative is accompanied by more than just the continuo line! There is, it appears, nothing to do now than to sing of this event.
The full instrumental resources are recalled for the final chorus although the trumpet and drum parts are minimal, doing little more than supplying moments of emphasis; they have the appearance of parts latterly added to an existing score. The 12/8 time conveys the feeling of a rather ponderous gigue not wholly unlike, but less commanding than that which closes the Third Orchestral Suite.
Bach seems to have created something of a template for a number of the closing choruses of these cantatas of homage; one need only to look back over the two preceding chapters to confirm this. The strategy was to create a block, usually of sixteen bars, of alternating instrumental and choral sections in symmetrical two or four-bar phrases. The block is repeated, in this case twice, around contrasting insertions. The first of these is an eight-bar section based upon the relative minor key (from bar 17). The second is very different, a duet for soprano and alto voices, set just against the upper strings in unison. It would be difficult to find an equivalent moment in any other of the composer’s concluding choruses; even when he adopts an apparently rigid template, Bach finds ways of producing something new!
Thus we have a movement which is essentially a vast, indeed one might say even lumbering, rondo:- A, B, A, C, A. The repeated A sections request divine providence to continue to protect the king. Both contrasting sections, in very different ways and reminding us of the river theme, invite him to enjoy as much pleasure in his life as there is water in the channels.
It only remains to examine the opening chorus, a piece of music well worth waiting for. This is Bach at his most inventive, something we frequently discover when his texts are at their most challenging. He seems to delight in being presented, within the same stanza, with contrasting ideas or images that require accommodation or resolution through ingenious musical means. Here, the dissimilar images are of waves which murmur softly, on the one hand, and waters that rush by and burst the banks, on the other.
The metaphor is somewhat complex; the joy that stirs our emotions is akin to the flowing waters which, though confined by the banks, may yet overflow and burst through them. The underlying notion is of constrained and civilized emotion which, if stimulated in the right manner (and here we assume that it is the benefice of the king that acts as the expressive catalyst), may erupt through, and beyond, its social and physical restraints.
Bach builds both ideas into the bipartite ritornello theme; eight bars of serenity and eight bars of commotion. He begins with a technique used in the ‘rage’ aria of C 215; the oboes and violins play the same melody but the latter repeats each note in semi-quavers.
Violins below oboe.
In the faster tempo of the ‘rage’ aria, the effect was one of war-like aggression; in this slower tempo, it evokes the gentler lapping of the waves. We are prepared for the deluge by a carefully placed diminished chord (bar 7) which heralds the trumpet entry and cascading strings (bars 8 and 13-14).
Violins (oboes doubling) below trumpet.
The scene is set for the development of these divergent ideas within a movement of some scale, innovation and intensity.
The voices follow the same pattern, which they extend to the next ritornello statement (from bar 48). Though based upon the established material, this is a thoroughly imaginative reworking of it, culminating in the trumpet taking over the main theme. The second vocal block (from bar 64) makes a feature of the rhythmic contrast between the flowing imitative semiquavers (from bar 65) and the more measured quaver patterns a few bars later.
For those who want to encompass the broad picture without the detail, the following might be helpful:
B first vocal block
A1 reworked ritornello
B1 second vocal block
A2 reworked ritornello.
And this is only the first section!
The middle part is generally more lightly orchestrated, trumpets and drums being silent throughout. The big surprise is the quicker tempo emerging from the 9th bar. The music now becomes a delirious dance of joy, still in triple time, but too fast for a stately minuet. Rushes of scales may still be heard on strings, woodwind and continuo, a reminder of the deluges as the rivers burst their banks.
But it is the feeling of elation we are left with, an uninhibited joy that transcends the boundaries of polite society.
The reader is reminded that we have taken this movement out of context; it will have been heard at the beginning of the cantata. But one would not be surprised if s’he were to return to the first track to revisit it after hearing the whole cantata through.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.