"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

April 13, 2013

Bach Cantatas (49): Trinity XVI

The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity introduces the story of the raising of the dead from Luke, which in Bach's time was understood symbolically to represent man's resurrection to eternal life - and, in order to be soon resurrected, the wish to die and be free from the "sinful world." Not coincidentally, all cantatas for this day are permeated with the sounds of tolling bells.
    There are four cantatas for this Sunday.

    Readings:
    Ephesians 3:13–21, "Paul praying for the strengthening of faith in the congregation of Ephesus."
    Luke 7:11–17, "Raising of the young man from Nain."

    References:
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    Cantatas:
    • Komm, du süße Todesstunde, BWV 161, 6 October 1715

      Aria (alto, recorders, strings): Komm, du süße Todesstunde
      Recitativo (tenor): Welt, deine Lust ist Last
      Aria (tenor, strings): Mein Verlangen ist, den Heiland zu umfangen
      Recitativo (alto, recorders, strings): Der Schluß ist schon gemacht
      Aria (choir, recorders, strings): Wenn es meines Gottes Wille
      Chorale (recorders): Der Leib zwar in der Erden


      ("Come, o sweet hour of death") Often called the best cantata Bach wrote in his period in Weimar. The text is by Salomo Franck. In line with the readings for this Sunday, the cantata is steeped in the longing for death, typical of Lutheranism. In the opening aria death is metaphorically represented as honey in the mouth of the lion, the sweetness behind terror - an allusion to the story of Samson's marriage in which the carcass of a lion provides food for Samson and his parents (Judg. 14). This sweetness is given voice by the recorders, quiet instruments often used in works with texts about death. During the aria, the organ now and then intones the passion chorale ("Herzlich tut mich verlangen," by Hassler) to remind listeners that Jesus has gone on the same journey. This plea for death is far from modern sensibilities, but it should not be understood as a morbid "death wish, " because it is based on the ideology of the afterlife, making it possible to pass from life to death to afterlife in Heaven. The next two movements make further clear that the believer's desire is not for death itself, but for the glory of being with Christ. The following tenor recitative portrays the world as a place of deception: its pleasure ("Lust") turns into trouble ("Last"); its sugar is poison, its roses bring forth thorns. The agony eventually turns into a beautiful arioso "I desire to pasture soon with Christ. I desire to depart from this world." The "longing" of the tenor aria is hypnotically symbolized by the magical and even ecstatic strings, which literally "sigh" on the word "desire" ("Verlangen"). The alto recitative is accompanied by all instruments, mimicking sleep (in a downward movement) - almost becoming a lullaby - , the waking up (a fast movement upwards), and at the end of the aria, funeral bells in the recorders and pizzicato of the strings to symbolize the passage through death to eternal life. The fifth movement is a cheerful, childlike song set for four part chorus - note the gorgeously warbling recorders. The emphasis is on heavenly joy, the body is regarded as a weight ("Last") which is gladly discarded and the spirit as a guest which only temporarily was housed in the body and now is free to live eternally in heaven. In the closing chorale - a version of the passion chorale - these same recorders float hauntingly above the chorus, as if to give expression to the idea of the new, transfigured Self.  This indeed was material that gave Bach inspiration.

    • Christus, der ist mein Leben, BWV 95, 12 September 1723

      Chorale e recitativo (tenor): Christus, der ist mein Leben / Mit Freuden, ja mit Herzenslust / Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin
      Recitativo (soprano): Nun, falsche Welt
      Chorale (soprano): Valet will ich dir geben
      Recitativo (tenor): Ach könnte mir doch bald so wohl geschehn.
      Aria (tenor): Ach, schlage doch bald, selge Stunde
      Recitativo (bass): Denn ich weiß dies
      Chorale: Weil du vom Tod erstanden bist


      ("Christ, he is my life") A sort of experimental cantata that contains four chorales, each with their associated melody, ingeniously sewn together. The theme is again death as welcome release from the travails of this life. The first two chorales are incorporated in the first chorus, beginning - after an instrumental introduction - with a setting of the chorale “ Christus, der ist mein Leben” (1609, by Melchior Vulpius) for two oboes d'amore, strings and chorus. The choral melody is sustained in the soprano line and the whole seems like a small concerto. Note the slowdown in tempo on the line "Sterben ist mein Gewinn" ("Death is my reward"). This semi-concerto is suddenly broken up by a declamatory recitative, which leads into the next chorale "Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin" (1524, a paraphrase of the "Nunc dimittis" by Luther), a sturdy hymn that finishes this superbly constructed movement, full of modulations. A simple soprano recitative bids farewell to the transient pleasures of this world, leading directly into the third choral "Valet will ich dir geben" (1613, by Valerius Herberger), again for soprano accompanied by two playful oboes d'amore. Here the music has a certain dance-like quality. The next two movements are for tenor, voicing man's longing for death on earth and eternal life instead. A tenor recitative leads into the only aria in the cantata, also for tenor and dominated by the accompanying oboes. It is a piece of outstanding beauty, in which the pictorial imagery of the tolling funeral bells plays a prominent role. As is usual, these bells are heard in the pizzicato in the strings. The high tenor line is urgent and declamatory and also addresses these bells, urging them to strike quickly "the very last bell-stroke." A bass recitative underlines faith in eternal life, after which the cantata ends with a further chorale setting, "Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist," (1560, by Nikolaus Herman), enriched by a soaring additional violin part to symbolize the risen Christ.

    • Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben? BWV 8, 24 September 1724

      Chorus: "Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?"
      Aria: "Was willst du dich, mein Geist, entsetzen"
      Recitative: "Zwar fühlt mein schwaches Herz"
      Aria: "Doch weichet, ihr tollen, vergeblichen Sorgen!"
      Recitative: "Behalte nur, o Welt, das Meine!"
      Chorale: "Herrscher über Tod und Leben" 


      ("Dearest God, when will I die?") Based on a new chorale by Casper Neumann (1697), a sort of "popular" music of Bach's time, which is paraphrased in an impressionistic way. The opening chorus with its plucked strings for the sounding of the death knell is a surprisingly warm and affectionate piece of music, with twittering birds in the flute. It has been aptly described as a "church-yard full of flowers in the springtime." The alto, tenor, and bass voices sing in free counterpoint, while the sopranos answer with the chorale in long notes. The theme is a common one in the cantatas: when shall we take leave of the sufferings of mortal life and achieve eternal life in heaven? The bells continue tolling in the tenor aria where the oboe d'amore has a beautiful line. The mood is of a mildly melancholy and yearning. After a recitative by the alto, which for a moment reminds us of the terror of death, the transition to heaven is achieved in an almost "jolly" bass aria, again with flute accompaniment. It almost seems a movement from a lost flute concerto, a wonderful, optimistic piece in the tempo of a gigue. After another recitative, by piping soprano, the cantata closes with a chorale setting, which prolongs the friendly atmosphere of this entire cantata.

    • Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende? BWV 27, 6 October 1726

      Chorale e recitativo (soprano, alto, tenor): Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende?
      Recitativo (tenor): Mein Leben hat kein ander Ziel
      Aria (alto): Willkommen! will ich sagen
      Recitativo (soprano): Ach, wer doch schon im Himmel wär
      Aria (bass): Gute Nacht, du Weltgetümmel
      Chorale: Welt, ade! ich bin dein müde


      ("Who knows how near is my end?") An late cantata in almost experimental vein. The cantata opens with a melancholic, limping chorale sung block style by the chorus but interspersed with recitative. After a tenor recitative, the alto sings a compelling aria with sparkling accompaniment by English horn and organ ("Welcome! I will say, when Death steps to my bed"). This movement may have been adapted from a lost concerto (for viola da gamba?). The soprano recitative that follows is operatic in character with the strings illustrating the wings to fly to heaven. The bass aria is accompanied by strings and continuo and alternates between a lyrical sighing line tinged with regret (to the words "Gute Nacht") and an agitated militaristic string figure (to the words "du Weltgetümmel"), illustrating the conflict between heaven and the chaotic world. The chorale, a five-part setting ("Welt, ade! ich bin dein müde"), is the only chorale harmonization in all the cantatas not by Bach: he takes over a 1682 harmonization by Johannes Rosenmüller, with a slightly archaic harmony, and that proves to be a perfect close to this cantata.