"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 18, 2012

Bach Cantatas (44): Trinity XI

The eleventh Sunday after Trinity treats the theme of hypocrisy and "falseness of heart" and rejects pomposity and self-righteousness.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

1 Corinthians 15:1–10, on the gospel of Christ and Paul's duty as an apostle
Luke 18:9–14, parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector


  • Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut, BWV 199, 12 August 1714

    Recitative: "Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut"
    Soprano aria: "Stumme Seufzer, stille Klagen"
    recitative: "Doch Gott muss mir genädig sein"
    Aria: "Tief gebückt und voller Reue"
    Recitative: "Auf diese Schmerzensreu"
    Chorale: "Ich, dein betrübtes Kind"
    Recitative: "Ich lege mich in diese Wunden"
    Aria: "Wie freudig ist mein Herz"

    ("My heart swims in blood") Solo cantata for soprano, a lament about existential pain and suffering. The introductory recitative ("My heart swims in blood, since the offspring of my sins in the holy eyes of God make me a monster") sets the mood, after which an intensely grieving oboe leads into a beautiful aria. The subject is still the same: "Mute sighs, silent cries, you may tell my sorrows, for my mouth is shut." Well, that is what music is for. The next recitative introduces a note of hope, and in the ensuing aria God's forgiveness is implored. There is a rich string sound in the orchestra perhaps signifying a note of optimism. After a short recitative follows a chorale setting with obbligato viola in lively figuration. The last recitative introduces a different mood, with a long coloratura on "fröhlich" (joyful), after which the final aria brings the long awaited sunshine. It is the only fast movement of the cantata, a cheerful gigue. (****)

  • Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei, BWV 179, 8 August 1723

    Chorus: Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei
    Recitativo (tenor): Das heutge Christentum ist leider schlecht bestellt
    Aria (tenor, oboes, violin): Falscher Heuchler Ebenbild
    Recitativo (bass): Wer so von innen wie von außen ist
    Aria (soprano, oboes): Liebster Gott, erbarme dich
    Chorale: Ich armer Mensch, ich armer Sünder

    ("See to it, that your fear of God be not hypocrisy") The text of this sombre cantata stays close to the readings for this day, stressing that one should not serve God with a false heart (like the Pharisee in the parable), but pray humbly. The cantata starts with a strictly fugal chorus, almost like a motet, in which the chromatically descending melody symbolizes the "false heart." In the first recitative and agitated tenor aria, hypocrites are castigated in a heavy Lutheran way. After more warnings ("though you are no thief or adulterer, do not imagine that you are angelically pure"), the bass recitative gives the positive example of the tax collector from the parable. The next soprano aria accompanied by two supplicating oboes da caccia constitutes a deeply felt prayer for mercy. There is grandeur in "my sins afflict me" and contrition via an inexorable downward motion in "I drown in deep mire." This is the most direct piece of music of the cantata. Then follows the closure in the form of an effective chorale. Bach would reuse the opening chorus and arias in some of his masses. (***)

  • Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut, BWV 113, 20 August 1724

    Chorale: Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut
    Chorale (alto): Erbarm dich mein in solcher Last,
    Aria (bass): Fürwahr, wenn mir das kömmet ein
    Recitativo e chorale (bass) Jedoch dein heilsam Wort, das macht
    Aria (tenor): Jesus nimmt die Sünder an
    Recitativo (tenor): Der Heiland nimmt die Sünder an
    Aria (soprano, alto): Ach Herr, mein Gott, vergib mirs doch
    Chorale: Stärk mich mit deinem Freudengeist

    ("Lord Jesus Christ, you highest good") Chorale cantata based on the eight stanzas of Bartholomäus Ringwaldt's hymn "Herr, sei mir armem Sünder gnädig" (1588), a song of penitence related to the tax collector's prayer from the readings. The opening chorus is a superb chorale fantasia with orchestral accompaniment based on the hymn tune. After a string introduction, the next verse of the hymn is sung by solo alto. The ambiguous bass aria is accompanied by oboes d'amore and combines a jolly tune with "trembling, fear, and pain." Next follows a chorale with tropes. The most attractive movement is the lighthearted tenor aria accompanied by virtuoso flute. There is also a rich string cadence on the text "sweet word full of comfort and life." The next recitative is followed by a duet for soprano and alto with such long double melismas that it is almost impossible to perform, after which a straightforward setting of the hymn tune rings out the cantata. (***)

August 12, 2012

Bach Cantatas (43): Trinity X

All of Bach’s cantatas for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity are about the prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem, linked to the Lamentations of Jeremiah and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

1 Corinthians 12:1–11, "different gifts, but one spirit"
Luke 19:41–48, Jesus announces the destruction of Jerusalem; Cleansing of the Temple


  • Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgend ein Schmerz sei, BWV 46, 1 August 1723

    Coro: Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgend ein Schmerz sei
    Recitativo (tenor): So klage du, zerstörte Gottesstadt
    Aria (bass): Dein Wetter zog sich auf von weiten
    Recitativo (alto): Doch bildet euch, o Sünder, ja nicht ein
    Aria (alto): Doch Jesus will auch bei der Strafe
    Chorale: O großer Gott von Treu

    ("Behold and see, if there be any sorrow") The opening chorus brings an impressive lament of large proportions, based on the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Note the wailing recorders. Bach reworked this later as the Qui tollis of his Mass in B minor, so he must have been satisfied with it. After an interesting recitative, with as conclusion "You did not heed Jesus' tears, now heed the tidal wave of passion that you have built up over yourself," the bass aria pictures dramatically the outbreak of the thunderstorm of God's wrath, offering the trumpet a good opportunity to show off. "Excessive sins ignite the lightning of vengeance," and indeed, the cracks of lightning can be heard in the roaring orchestra. The alto recitative then personalizes the threat of destruction: "Do not imagine, o sinners, that Jerusalem alone is full of sin - you will all perish as dreadfully." This is followed by a tender aria in which the righteous are assured that they will be saved by the Shepherd Jesus (note the now pastoral recorder). The aria is scored without basso continuo. In the chorale “O großer Gott von Treu” the wailing recorders return to make the circle of lamentation complete. (***)

  • Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott, BWV 101, 13 August 1724

    Coro: Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott
    Aria (tenor): Handle nicht nach deinen Rechten
    Recitativo e chorale (soprano): Ach! Herr Gott, durch die Treue dein
    Aria (bass): Warum willst du so zornig sein?
    Recitativo e chorale (tenor): Die Sünd hat uns verderbet sehr
    Aria (soprano, alto): Gedenk an Jesu bittern Tod
    Chorale: Leit uns mit deiner rechten Hand

    ("Take away from us, Lord, faithful God") Chorale cantata sung on the melody of Martin Luther's Vater unser im Himmelreich - a melody present in all movements but the first aria. The text was adapted from a hymn by Martin Moller describing the horrors of the plague (1584), so obviously it is a rather somber piece. That being said, the opening chorus is one of the grandest of all of Bach’s choruses. It has something of an choral prelude for organ. There are many changes of texture, from a "marching theme" to a "sighing theme." The tenor aria is accompanied by a virtuoso flute (or violin). The recitative combines an embellished version of the chorale melody with secco recitative. The dramatic bass aria raises the question: "Why are you so incensed with us?" The next recitative mirrors the first and the final soprano/alto duet is a melancholy Siciliano with a gentle accompaniment from the flute and oboe da caccia: "Think on Jesus' bitter death." The cantata ends with a straightforward harmonization of the chorale. (***)

  • Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben, BWV 102, 25 August 1726

    Chorus: Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben
    Recitativo (bass): Wo ist das Ebenbild, das Gott uns eingepräget
    Aria (alto, oboe): Weh der Seele, die den Schaden nicht mehr kennt
    Arioso (bass): Verachtest du den Reichtum seiner Gnade
    Parte seconda
    Aria (tenor, flute or violin): Erschrecke doch, du allzu sichre Seele
    Recitativo (alto, oboes): Beim Warten ist Gefahr
    Chorale: Heut lebst du, heut bekehre dich

    ("Lord, Your eyes look for faith") The words of the cantata are only generally connected to the readings, asking "stubborn and unpenitent hearts" to "make repentance this instant before swift death overtakes one." The whole cantata is in this mood. The opening chorus is an intricate choral fugue, rigorous and austere, a good example of Bach's art at its most Lutheran. The alto aria with obbligato oboe is nicely dramatic; the arioso for bass with strings shows lots of energy. The tenor aria sports an interesting accompaniment by the violin piccolo. After that, an extended alto recitative brings on the final chorale "Vater unser im Himmelreich." (***)

August 8, 2012

"A Simple Soul" by Gustave Flaubert (The Art of the Novella 11)

A Simple Soul (called Un cœur simple or Le perroquet in French) is so well and beautifully written, that one wishes Flaubert would have created more stories like this - unfortunately, his production was very small. He wrote extremely slowly, it has been said that a single page took him five days to finish.

"Simplicity" is indeed the keyword in this story of a servant called Felicité. She is a peasant woman with no education - even illiterate - and also without property, husband or children. Without her mistress, she wouldn't even have a roof above her head. She had a great love when she was young, but the man suddenly left her to marry a well-to-do woman "to avoid conscription." After that, Felicité left the farm and headed to the city to start working as a servant in the house of the widow Mme Aubian. Mme Aubian is no easy mistress, but Felicité is loyal and easily bestows her affections on the two children of the house. In fact, she is utterly selfless and lives only for those around her. This also includes her relatives such as a poor nephew she tries to help.

The sad fact is that all she gives to are unworthy of her generosity and take advantage of her. But she is unaffected by this, for true altruism is a reward in itself. Felicité can deal with anything that comes her way. Her belief in the basic goodness of life makes her happier than those around her - although she also knows sorrow when, one after the other, the daughter of her mistress and her nephew die. At the same time she is no Dostoyevskian holy fool (an inane figure Flaubert loathed) but "stands with both feet in the clay" (as a Dutch saying goes).

In later life, Felicité obtains a parrot (which reminds her indirectly of her nephew who died as a sailor in the tropics) and becomes very much attached to the bird. When the parrot dies, she has it stuffed. She develops a sort of spiritual relationship with the parrot, who becomes the embodiment of her relationship to the divine. At the same time, the love she shows the parrot is symbolic of her lifelong altruism. When she dies, Flaubert invokes the image of the parrot floating above her as a sort of Holy Ghost... It is a wonderful apotheosis.

As usual, Flaubert combines richly observed detail with spare, deceptively simple language. He truly is masterful in this perfectly realized character study. He also shows he was educated as a doctor: like in Madame Bovary (see my post here) he gives eerily detailed descriptions of illness and death.

"A Simple Heart" was the inspiration for the novel by Julian Barnes, Flaubert's Parrot.
English translation at Gutenberg
Audiovox recording
French original
French audio version
Flaubert site of University of Rouen (French)

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). (**)

August 3, 2012

Best Stories of Ivan Turgenev (2): Lyrical Stories

Lyrical Stories (1855-1870) - In this group belong Turgenev's three masterful love stories: Torrents of Spring, First Love and Asya, the best works he ever wrote. Other stories continue the trend from Turgenev's earlier phase, to portray typical Russian types, such as "indolent young men" or  "superfluous men."

The Three Meetings (1853) The narrator has three chance meetings with a mysterious woman, with whom he has fallen in love - of course without being able to satisfy his desire. The romantic effusions in this story are somewhat atypical of Turgenyev.

A Quiet Backwater (1854) The "quiet backwater" is of course a typical place in the Russian countryside. A young, absent landowner makes his annual visit and is invited by a neighbor - where he meets Marya, a "wild beauty of the steppes" and also Nadyezhda, a sort of mocking Amazon.  In contrast, her brother Veretyev is portrayed negatively as a lazy, indolent character. Told in an objective style, the story reads like the start of a novel, which however does not really come off the ground.

Two Friends (1855) A young landowner has decided to start living on his estate in the countryside, where he befriends a neighbor of the same age. The neighbor, hearing that the landowner wants to get married, introduces him to various houses in the vicinity, but the ladies are rather eccentric and do not pass muster. Finally he meets a simple girl, with a goodhearted smile, who lives with her widowed father. He marries her against counsel, then indeed finds "there is nothing in her." He dislikes living with her and starts traveling abroad where he finally dies. The friend marries the now widowed "simple girl."

Yakov Pasinkov (1856). The narrator is in love with the rather puritanical Sophia, but by chance reads a letter she has written to a friend, and so finds out she really loves another, Asanov. He is so foolish to confront her with this knowledge. A mutual friend, Yakov Pasinkov, helps to smoothen things a bit, but Sophia of course marries Asanov. Seven years later the narrator is present at the deathbed of Pasinkov and learns that he, too, was very much in love with Sophia. This, too, is a tragedy of the "superfluous man."

A Tour in the Forest (1856) The narrator is a hunter, like in the Sportsman's Sketches, who is taken by farmers on a hunt in a deep forest. The most interesting element of this story is the description of the endless, majestic forest.

A Correspondence (1856) Correspondence between a young man and a woman who having to cope both with broken engagements, find intellectual solace with each other. They become quite close and Alexev promises to visit Marya, but that is the last she hears from him, until, more than a year later a letter with an explanation reaches her: Alexev confesses he had madly fallen in love with a beautiful but uneducated dancing girl. He has followed her to Dresden where he now lies dying from tuberculosis. Interesting is Alexev's idea that love is not something pleasant but a malady like cholera, which takes possession of a person against his or her will... Here we see the theme of Torrents of Spring already foreshadowed.

Faust (1856) A novel told in nine letters written to a friend. After returning to his estate, the narrator meets an old acquaintance who has married Vera, a woman he himself had long ago been in love with. Although in her late twenties and with three children, her looks have not changed. The narrator becomes the house-friend of the couple, visiting almost every day. Vera has no knowledge of literature (her mother used to be against poetry), so the narrator starts reading Goethe's Faust with her. Gradually the old feelings of love are rekindled by the tender scenes in Faust. This shocks Vera so much that she falls ill and pines away. The narrator concludes that he should have practiced resignation, and left when he felt his love revive.

Asya (1858). The narrator has come to the beautiful Rhine valley to seek relief from a broken love affair. He finds two other Russians here, brother and sister (in fact a half-sister, she has been born out of wedlock as later is divulged). The narrator is interested in the 17-year old Asya, who has fast changing moods: she can be wild, naive, and coquettish. Although Asya is rather strange and mysterious, he falls in love with her. At a secret rendez-vous, he hears that she also feels love for him. But now, at the decisive moment, he hesitates to set the next step and ask her to marry him. The following morning, when he feels regret and wants to redress things, brother and sister have disappeared from the village and he never finds Asya back - they apparently have mistakenly concluded that the narrator is not interested in marriage as Asya is an extramarital child. Turgenev's first story of resignation. Asya's situation was the same as that of Turgenev's daughter Polina, who was born out of his relation with a serf.

First Love (1860). A 15 year old boy harbors feelings of "first love" for Zinaide, a beautiful, but five years older neighboring girl who has a whole circle of admirers around her, a sort of salon, with whom she plays games, making the men in a dictatorial way do all kinds of silly things. She treats the narrator as her page-boy. When he starts thinking she may have some kind of special feelings for him, and follows her secretly, he discovers she has an unexpected lover: his father! The world of the narrator falls apart. The story is based on Turgenev's bittersweet childhood memories - Turgenev was at age 15 indeed in love with a woman who had an affair with his father.

The Torrents of Spring (1871) - The melancholy reminiscences of a superfluous man, a story of romantic regret. In Germany, the narrator falls in love with a beautiful, pure Italian girl, Gemma. He fights a duel for her with German officers who have insulted her and so wins her love (she was originally engaged to a stiff German "with good prospects"). They decide to marry. In order to make that possible, he travels to a neighboring city where a large Russian community is, to sell his estate. An old acquaintance introduces him to his wife, Polozova, who has an independent fortune. She is a dark vampish woman and after toying with him for a few days, she manages to seduce the narrator, something she had put a bet on with her husband. The narrator is lost in dream of lust and becomes one of a group of admirers she has constantly around her. He never meets Gemma again and after many years returns to Russia, his life in shambles. Then, when finding a keepsake, he remembers Gemma and is consumed by immense regret. By the way, in this story Turgenev satirizes the Germans, who had become arrogant after their victory in the war with France (1870). Turgenev had lived for many years in Baden-Baden, but as the atmosphere had become uncongenial, he now moved to Paris, as did the Viardots.
See my post about this beautiful story.

Interesting series of articles about the literature of Turgenev (German)
General evaluation of these stories: 10 points out of 10.