"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

December 13, 2015

Bach Cantatas (54): Trinity XXI

The Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity. The cantatas for this day in the Lutheran Church Year are based on the opposition of faith and doubt, as told in the Gospel account of the healing of the nobleman’s son: Jesus' spoken assurance to a royal official leads to the healing of the official's son, and this in its turn becomes the occasion for him and his family to start believing. One could also say that the readings for this day are concerned with the steadfastness of faith against all odds.

There are four Bach cantatas for this Sunday.

Readings:
Ephesians 6:10–17, "take unto you the whole armor of God"
John 4:46–54, healing the nobleman's son

References:
BCWBDECNLSGJNLVHWPText


Cantatas:
  • Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben, BWV 109, 17 October 1723
    Chorus: Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben
    Recitative (tenor): Des Herren Hand ist ja noch nicht verkürzt
    Aria (tenor, strings): Wie zweifelhaftig ist mein Hoffen
    Recitative (alto): O fasse dich, du zweifelhafter Mut
    Aria (alto, oboes): Der Heiland kennet ja die Seinen
    Chorale: Wer hofft in Gott und dem vertraut

    ("I believe, dear Lord, help my unbelief") This cantata is built on the contrast between belief and unbelief. In the opening chorus this is manifested in the juxtaposition of smaller and larger groups of instruments in the manner of a concerto grosso. Also the vocal parts appear either as a solo or duet, expressing belief in an upward melody derived from the ritornello theme, or with doubt expressed in a downward movement. In the recitative and aria for tenor the struggle between faith and doubt is dramatized at the individual level. In the recitative Bach reinforces the contrast between faith and doubt by using two opposing voices both sung by the tenor, but one marked forte, the other piano, and alternating phrase by phrase. It ends on an intense final question and upward motion, "Ach Herr, wie lange?" In the tenor aria the agitated mood of doubt is graphically depicted by jagged melodic contours, unstable harmonies and persistent dotted rhythmic figures. However, in the ensuing recitative and aria for alto the mood is turned around by pointing at the sure fulfillment of God's promises and his aid in overcoming doubts. The alto aria is a genial piece with a memorable accompaniment of two obbligato oboes, projecting a kind of abundance. Instead of the usual four-part chorale, the cantata concludes with an elaborate setting of the famous Lutheran hymn, strophe 7 of Lazarus Spengler's Durch Adam's Fall (1524).


  • Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, BWV 38, 29 October 1724
    Coro (Chorale): Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir
    Recitative (alto): In Jesu Gnade wird allein
    Aria (tenor): Ich höre mitten in den Leiden
    Recitative (soprano): Ach! Dass mein Glaube noch so schwach (chorale theme)
    Aria (Terzetto; soprano): Wenn meine Trübsal als mit Ketten
    Chorale: Ob bei uns ist der Sünden viel

    ("Out of deep distress I cry to you") The subject of this cantata is the Lutheran notion that humanity is sinful, as Martin Luther writes, "We are all in deep and great misery, but we do not feel our condition. Crying is nothing but a strong and earnest longing for God's grace, which does not arise in a person unless he sees in what depth he is lying." The basis of the cantata is a penitential choral by Luther from 1524, a paraphrase of Psalm 130, music which was also played at his funeral. (Lutheran hymns were the focus of Bach's second annual cycle in Leipzig). The hymn is very well suited to fugal treatment and that is what Bach does: the first movement is a magnificent fugal setting of the severe and austere choral with the full orchestra doubling the chorus. After an anguished secco recitative for alto, follows a melancholy aria for tenor, accompanied by piquant oboes. Unusual is that Bach not only uses the chorale tune in the outer movements, but also as motivic material in recitative and aria. Another secco recitative (with instrumental chorale), this time by the soprano, brings us to a nervous and flighty trio for soprano, alto and tenor, a combination rare in Bach's cantatas. It is constructed along the same lines as the opening movement. The cantata ends with a harmonization of Luther's chorale, with all instruments, including four trombones, enforcing the vocal lines.


  • Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, BWV 98, 10 November 1726
    Chorus: Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan
    Recitative (tenor): Ach Gott! wenn wirst du mich einmal
    Aria (soprano): Hört, ihr Augen, auf zu weinen
    Recitative (alto): Gott hat ein Herz, das des Erbarmens Überfluß
    Aria (bass): Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht

    ("What God does is done well") While the previous two cantatas for this Sunday both started from doubt and distress, the present short chorale cantata concentrates on trust in God. It is one of three cantatas Bach wrote under this title. The opening chorus is a mostly homophonic elaboration of the chorale melody, accompanied by orchestral phrases that seem detached from the chorus lines, and which are dominated by the first violin as an obbligato instrument. The movement is written in a fluid and lyrical style based by Bach on contemporary Italian practice. The two recitatives are both secco. The beautiful soprano aria which expresses reassurance is accompanied by an obbligato oboe, with which the vocalist engages in appealing counterpoint. The first two measures of its theme are derived from the chorale tune and the harmonic language is very chromatic. In the bass aria which is full of confidence a new chorale tune is used as the basis. It again has a great string accompaniment weaving lines and phrases around the song melody. Unfortunately, the final chorale that undoubtedly closed this cantata has been lost in the mists of time.


  • Ich habe meine Zuversicht, BWV 188, 17 October 1728
    Sinfonia
    Aria (tenor): Ich habe meine Zuversicht
    Recitative (bass): Gott meint es gut mit jedermann
    Aria (alto): Unerforschlich ist die Weise
    Recitative (soprano): Die Macht der Welt verlieret sich
    Chorale: Auf meinen lieben Gott

    ("I have placed my confidence") This is one of the only few surviving cantatas from Bach's fourth annual cycle (the Picander cycle, so called after the text writer), and even in this case the score was "cut to pieces and sold to private individuals" in the 1800s. The work as it now exists is a careful reconstruction. The message of the cantata is God’s consistency in our human failure. The work starts with an attractive sinfonia, for which the third movement of the keyboard concerto BWV 1052, adapted for organ, is recycled. The long tenor aria is based around a lovely pastoral melody. Similarities with the Polonaise from the French Suite in E major and the Sarabande from the English Suite in e minor have been noted. It opens with a string ritornello doubled by oboe; the two parts move into counterpoint after the tenor enters. After a secco recitative for bass (which concludes with a pastoral arioso) follows a dark and dramatic alto aria with cello and interesting organ obbligato. This is the heart of the cantata. After a short soprano recitative, the cantata is closed by a four-part setting of the chorale tune.