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July 15, 2012

Bach Cantatas (39): Trinity VI

The sixth Sunday after Trinity treats two themes: the Lutheran belief that salvation from sin is only possible by God's grace; and a passage from the Sermon on the Mount about better justice than the justice of merely observing laws and rules.

Readings:
Romans 6:3–11, "By Christ's death we are dead for sin"
Matthew 5:20–26, Sermon on the Mount: "better justice"

References:
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Cantatas:
  • Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, BWV 170, 28 July 1726

    Aria: Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust
    Recitativo: Die Welt, das Sündenhaus
    Aria: Wie jammern mich doch die verkehrten Herzen
    Recitativo: Wer sollte sich demnach wohl hier zu leben wünschen
    Aria: Mir ekelt mehr zu leben


    ("Delightful rest, beloved pleasure of the soul") Alto cantata with organ obbligato. The theme is "sin" and the necessity to renounce it in order to reach salvation. Interestingly, the cantata begins by depicting that "sinless" state of inner peace, then addresses the necessity to renounce sin, and finally concludes with the believer's desire to die and thereby be free from all sin. The opening aria is indeed one of the most beautiful and soothing arias Bach ever wrote, a rocking lullaby which brings a "delightful rest" to the soul. The recitative and second aria are in contrast rather desolate, with tortured chromatisms in the music to depict the "perverted heart set against God." The aria also lacks a continuo, which is probably symbolic for the lack of direction in the lives of those who ignore the word of God. After another recitative, the final aria turns away from the world and looks towards Heaven - it is more upbeat, even buoyant,  although the text asks for death as the only possible release from sin ("It sickens me to live longer"). (****)

  • Es ist das Heil uns kommen her, BWV 9, c 1732–1735

    Coro: Es ist das Heil uns kommen her
    Recitativo (bass): Gott gab uns ein Gesetz
    Aria (tenor): Wir waren schon zu tief gesunken
    Recitativo (bass): Doch mußte das Gesetz erfüllet werden
    Aria (soprano, alto): Herr, du siehst statt guter Werke
    Recitativo (bass): Wenn wir die Sünd aus dem Gesetz erkennen
    Chorale: Ob sichs anließ, als wollt er nicht


    ("It is our salvation come here to us") Chorale cantata about core Lutheran doctrine that only faith and God's grace will bring salvation, and not good deeds. The cantata starts with a chorale fantasia about exactly that theme, the cantus firmus sung by the soprano in unadorned long notes, and with an "unusual sound" quality caused by the combination of flute and oboe d'amore in the accompaniment. All three recitatives (secco) are sung by the bass as the Vox Christi, in fact a sort of sermons about the Law of God. The tenor aria is an evocation of spiritual resignation - it depicts the "sinking" of "we were already too deeply sunk" in downward motifs. The duet for soprano and alto is set in intricate canonic counterpoint. In Bach's time, canons were a metaphor for the Law, and also - as they can continue indefinitely - a bridge to the next world. In the closing chorale the lower voices sing in unusual polyphony. (**)

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