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8.557621 - BACH, J.S.: Alto Cantatas, Vol. 1

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Sacred Cantatas for Alto

Bach’s cantatas make up the greatest body of his work, if imperfectly preserved and only later successful in the eyes of posterity. A total of some two hundred cantatas have so far between confirmed, sacred as well as secular functional music (seemingly only three fifths of all his compositions in this genre), written by Bach in over four decades.

The church cantatas are not only associated with the particular readings for each Sunday and feast day in the established church calendar, but also have particular relevance to a leading principle of Lutheran theology, the living proclamation of the Gospel. This, then, is all to do with the word of God, that it is followed and that it raises souls up and refreshes them so that they do not become weary. For Luther, characteristically looking to the simple and the young, that is the true purpose. To this end he writes in 1526 that one must read, sing, preach, write and write poetry, and ‘if it were helpful and necessary I would let it sound out with all the bells and play out with all the organs and let everything that can sound, sound out’. Hence music had its direct legitimation in the Protestant rite and indeed in close relationship with the central sermon. It was then predetermined as an effective functional art, to drive the word of God into hearts, as Luther demanded, and it did this over the centuries in changing forms as ‘florid music’ together with the obligatory congregational singing. Motet forms, sacred concertos, the Protestant song tradition and the influence of opera came together in text and music in some complexity, until about 1700 the definitive form of what was possible was reached (Konrad Küster). Here Bach entered with unparalleled command and created a universe of overwhelming artistic diversity.

This openness in the sense of a continuing independence of musical ‘church devotions’ together with formal traditions, as was generally perceived by contemporaries and explored with varying degrees of enthusiasm for experiment, is reflected also in Bach’s work indications. Given that he generally designated his church pieces according to the plain annual church calendar, he preferred to call them ‘concerto’. The term ‘cantata’ appears only seldom and is found most, not inadvertently, in the titles of his solo cantatas, for example BWV 54, 56, 82 and 170. Although Bach here too anticipates in masterly fashion each form, the use of only a single voice part in alternating aria and recitative, the integration of concertante elements as well as the omission or mere indication of the congregational chorus with the final chorale, relates these to the Italian chamber cantata, to which the title ‘Cantata’ was then given.

The works here included mark various stages in Bach’s writing of cantatas. While BWV 54 comes from the composer’s period at Weimar, BWV 170 and 169, as parts of the so-called third Leipzig cycle, belong to a later period. They have a virtuoso element in the treatment of the organ as a solo instrument, which is a characteristic of Bach’s later years, like the unusual form of the aria Bekennen will ich seinen Namen, BWV 200, setting verse by an unknown poet. The texts of BWV 54 and 170 are taken from the cantata collection of the Darmstadt court librarian Georg Christian Lehms’s Gottgefälliges Kirchen-Opffer (Church Offering Pleasing to God) of 1711. The writer of the text of BWV 169 is unknown. The cantata fragment Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde, BWV 53, was formerly attributed to Bach (namely by Forkel), but as a result of more recent research is now thought to be the work of the Leipzig organist Melchior Hoffmann and has therefore not been included in the Neue Bach Gesamtausgabe.

Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, BWV 170, (Happy rest, beloved pleasure of the soul) was written in 1726 for the sixth Sunday after Trinity. Here Bach for the first time uses the organ as an obbligato instrument in a cantata, freeing it from the continuo group and entrusting it with an independent (soloistic) function. The central aria is as regards its musical meaning especially obvious: ‘Wie jammern mich doch die verkehrten Herzen’ (‘How yet I pity hearts perverted’) writes Lehms, and plays therewith on a central message of the text of the Sermon on the Mount (St Matthew 5, 20-26), the petty righteousness of the scribes and pharisees in contrast with the Christian command for reconciliation. Bach underlines this sad forsaking by God of the unbeliever by witholding in the music the bass foundation, which, in sacred baroque music, and particularly in Bach’s compositions, is the symbol of firm faith. Violins and violas in unison form the comparatively thin basis of the quartet movement filled out by the solo alto and the organ part on two manuals. A secco recitative, clear and scored with strings, comes between the opening and closing arias, which serve one another also as rhetorical antecedent and consequent.

It cannot be said for certain for which Sunday Bach composed the cantata Widerstehe doch der Sünde, BWV 54, (Yet resist sin), since Lehms’s text from the first allows a variable application with its clear denunciation, exposure and rejection of sin. As most probable terminal dates to be considered, however, are the seventh Sunday after Trinity or Oculi Sunday [the third Sunday in Lent], on which there are readings on the theme of sin from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Romans 6, 19-23) and his Epistle to the Ephesians (Ephesians 5, 1-9). With two arias framing a recitative the work represents the simplest type of the form. Only violins and violas with the continuo accompany the vocal part and form in the first aria, through the division of the violas, a five-part texture, while the second aria is an impressive fugato four-part movement in free da capo form, the immediate imaginative power of which is unequalled. Like a dragon the ‘Devil’ waltzes in close chains of semiquavers with the alto part. The contrite theme, at first descending in semitones (‘Wer - Sün -de - tut: E flat, D, D flat, C) always presses on, until the place where sin is abandoned, seemingly after resistance, ‘with true devotion’, and the Devil protests far below in the bass. In this way, specifically through the total spiritual penetration of the material, Bach has here, in all the movements, far exceeded the seemingly limited possibilities of a small-scale composition.

With the composition of the cantata Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, BWV 169, (God alone shall have my heart), for the eighteenth Sunday after Trinity, generously scored for three oboes, strings, obbligato organ and basso continuo, Bach, in 1726, fell back again on a lost instrumental concerto written earlier. Both the introductory Sinfonia and the second aria represent new versions of this original material that later was used again for the Harpsichord Concerto in E major, BWV 1053. A simple chorale on the melody of Luther’s Nun bitten wir den heiligen Geist (Now we pray the Holy Ghost) forms the conclusion.

In Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde, BWV 53, (Strike then, desired hour), at the beginning of the aria, which is only part of a larger mourning cantata, the orchestral ritornello states, in heavily breathing 3/2 metre, slowed by pauses, the material of the text setting, based on a descending E major triad, and then makes room over the dominant pedal for a violin rocking motion, which later forms the second section of the simple da capo form; a rocking motion that could be taken also as symbolic expression for the tolling of the bells. Yet ‘two little bells’ are here the chief attraction of an otherwise rather unpretentious composition with two violins, one viola and basso continuo. Threefold repetition of the first two lines of the text with constant shortening of the note values in the first part and the sometimes very high tessitura of the vocal part in the second part of the aria duly show the urgency of the desire for death to its best advantage.

In face of the unusual formal structure of the aria Bekennen will ich seinen Namen, BWV 200, (I will acknowledge his name), it is the more regrettable that we have here only a fragment of a late Bach cantata, written about 1740 for the Feast of the Purification. In contrast to the complete surviving cantatas on a similar subject here it is not Simeon’s desire for death that stands in the foreground but the acknowledgement of the Lord by all people. Two obbligato violins accompany the solo alto through a concise movement, in neither concerto nor da capo form, but a four-part movement in bar-form with homophonic and imitative passages.

Peter Reichelt
English version by Keith Anderson

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