"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 5, 2012

Bach Cantatas (42): Trinity IX

The ninth Sunday after Trinity treats the theme that since mankind cannot survive before God's judgement, one should forswear earthly pleasures, and turn away from the transient world to God.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

1 Corinthians 10:6–13, Warning of false gods, consolation in temptation
Luke 16:1–9, Parable of the Unjust Steward


  • Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht mit deinem Knecht, BWV 105, 25 July 1723

    1. Coro: Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht
    2. Recitative (alto): Mein Gott, verwirf ich nicht
    3. Aria (soprano, oboe and strings, without continuo): Wie zittern und wanken, der Sünder Gedanken
    4. Recitative (bass, strings): Wohl aber dem, der seinen Bürgen weiß
    5. Aria (tenor, corno, strings): Kann ich nur Jesum mir zum Freunde machen
    6. Chorale: Nun, ich weiß, du wirst mir stillen

    ("Lord, do not pass judgment on Your servant") A meditation on faith and redemption. The opening lines of the cantata, by an unknown librettist, come from Psalm 143. This is a mighty chorus that starts with a mournful and harmonically complex prelude, followed by a striding and energetic fugue. Next the alto recitative represents the faithful who beg God not to cast them away. The soprano aria with sentences as "an anxious conscience is torn apart by its own torment" creates a world shaking with fear and doubt. Trembling strings (without bass instruments, to emphasize insecurity) form the basis for the pleading duet between soprano and oboe. The bass arioso as Vox Christi introduces stability and the tenor aria even features a confident trumpet "If I can only make Jesus my friend, then Mammon is worth nothing to me." There is a clear change of mood to optimism here. The final chorale reintroduces the trembling strings from the soprano aria, but with each succeeding stanza the tremolos become less rapid, as if to symbolize the calming of man after conciliation with God. The musical and textual unity of this cantata has been overall praised. (****)

  • Was frag ich nach der Welt, BWV 94, 6 August 1724

    Chorus: Was frag ich nach der Welt
    Aria (bass): Die Welt ist wie ein Rauch und Schatten
    Chorale e recitativo (tenor, oboes): Die Welt sucht Ehr und Ruhm
    Aria (alto): Betörte Welt, betörte Welt!
    Chorale e recitativo (bass): Die Welt bekümmert sich
    Aria (tenor): Die Welt kann ihre Lust und Freud
    Aria (soprano): Es halt es mit der blinden Welt
    Chorale: Was frag ich nach der Welt!

    ("What need I of this world") Chorale cantata based on the chorale in eight stanzas of the poet Balthasar Kindermann (1664) on a melody by Ahasverus Fritsch. The words of the cantata are only generally connected to the readings, in the theme of turning away from the transient world. The opening chorus is dominated by the concertante flauto traverso - it is almost a flute concerto! But for such a long (30 min) cantata it is also remarkably short, the weight of the piece falls on the arias and especially the chorale recitatives. The dazzling flute music represents "life's treasures" and Bach probably makes it short because "worldliness" is immediately rejected. The sparely accompanied bass aria compares the world to "haze and shadow;" tumbling motives illustrate vanishing and falling, in contrast to long held notes that speak of stability. In the third movement the tenor sings the chorale in rich ornamentation, accompanied by two oboes. Leipzig was a wealthy merchant town and the subjects of Bach's criticism were probably proudly sitting in the church benches: "A proud man builds the most opulent palaces, he seeks the highest post of honor, he dresses himself with the best in purple, gold, in silver, silk and velvet." The flute returns in the alto aria that calls the world deluded: "Even your riches, goods and money are trickery and counterfeit." The delusion is symbolized by using "wrong notes." After another chorale recitative, now for bass, in which the conclusion is reached " If my Jesus honors me: what should I ask of the world!," we have two more arias optimistically describing this new state of being free from worldly concerns. One is for tenor with an attractive string accompaniment and the other for soprano with a delicious oboe d'amore line. They are both set in dance rhythms (Pastorale and Bourrée). The cantata is concluded by the last two stanzas of the chorale, emphasizing "What need I of this world?" (***)

  • Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort, BWV 168, 29 July 1725

    1. Aria (bass): Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort
    2. Recitativo (tenor): Es ist nur fremdes Gut
    3. Aria (tenor): Kapital und Interessen
    4. Recitativo (bass): Jedoch, erschrocknes Herz, leb und verzage nicht
    5. Aria (soprano, alto): Herz, zerreiß des Mammons Kette
    6. Chorale: Stärk mich mit deinem Freudengeist

    ("Settle account! Word of thunder") Inspired by the reading about the unjust steward and based on a text by Salomo Franck, who as the director of the mint in Weimar frequently uses money metaphors - for example in the tempestuous opening aria where the bass (Vox Christi) like an irate bank manager demands us to "settle our accounts" - the "words of thunder" are literally shouted by the bass over the rumbling of the strings. And in the long and didactic recitative by tenor life is depicted as a loan that needs repayment on judgement day. The ensuing tenor aria is accompanied by two oboes d'amore playing in unisono. "Capital and interest, my debts great and small must one day be accounted for." A turning point is reached in the bass recitative of movement 4, referring to the death of Jesus which "crossed out the debt". Next there is an interesting soprano-alto duet in which the bass line represents the "chains of Mammon." The cantata is concluded by a grave and quiet setting of the eighth stanza of Bartholomäus Ringwaldt's chorale "Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut" (1588). (**)
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