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December 23, 2015

Bach Cantatas (57): Trinity XXIV

The twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity. There is a strong eschatological bent to the cantatas for this day, which rather than following the reading for this Sunday about the raising of the rich ruler Jairus' daughter, take their cue from the Leipzig hymn schedule which prescribed that hymns "on death and dying" should be used on this day. So here we have two cantatas with an acute sense of "last things."

There are two cantatas for this Sunday, both among the best Bach has written.

Readings:
Colossians 1:9–14, prayer for the Colossians
Matthew 9:18–26, the story of Jairus' daughter

References:
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Cantatas:
  • O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 60, 7 November 1723
    Aria (alto and tenor): O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort - Herr, ich warte auf dein Heil
    Recitative (alto and tenor): O schwerer Gang zum letzten Kampf und Streite! - Mein Beistand ist schon da
    Aria (alto and tenor): Mein letztes Lager will mich schrecken - Mich wird des Heilands Hand bedecken
    Recitative (alto and bass): Der Tod bleibt doch der menschlichen Natur verhaßt - Selig sind die Toten
    Chorale: Es ist genung


    ("O eternity, you word of thunder") This cantata has been called a work about the fear of death, a "gripping dramatization of existential angst," and "one of the most intense and neurotic thirteen minutes of music ever written." The cantata is in an unusual way concentrated on two solo voices. In the first three movements it forms a dialogue between Fear (alto) and Hope (tenor), with only a slight link to the readings of the day. But Hope alone cannot overcome Fear; only faith can lead to salvation, is the Lutheran message. Thus they are answered by the bass as Vox Christi in the fourth movement. There is no opening chorus, the cantata starts immediately with the first duet. In that duet, a chorale fantasia full of tremolos in the strings, the alto (Fear) and the horn perform a chorale melody (likening eternity to a "thunderous word"), while the tenor (Hope) sings a contrasting line with a simple expression of trust. After a secco recitative, also in duet form, containing an agonizing melisma by the alto on the word "torture," follows another argument between alto and tenor accompanied by oboe d'amore (fear) and violin (hope). With its jagged rhythms, this is a rather unpleasant duet, but Hope has the last word. In the ensuing recitative/arioso Fear is met by consoling words from the Vox Christi, "Selig sind die Toten." The final chorale, "Es ist genung," starts with a remarkable harmonization (an unstable whole tone scale), although the words offer some comfort. Alban Berg used this chorale in the final movement of his beautiful violin concerto (1935). In fact, this cantata seems to have been a favorite among the fin de siècle intelligentsia in Vienna, as the final chorale also inspired Oskar Kokoshka to a series of drawings based upon the dialogue between Fear and Hope. 



  • Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig, BWV 26, 19 November 1724
    Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig (Chorale fantasia)
    So schnell ein rauschend Wasser schießt (Tenor aria)
    Die Freude wird zur Traurigkeit (Alto recitative)
    An irdische Schätze das Herze zu hängen (Bass aria)
    Die höchste Herrlichkeit und Pracht (Soprano recitative)
    Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig (Chorale)


    ("Ah, how fleeting, ah how insignificant") A short choral cantata from the second annual Leipzig cycle. The cantata stresses the futility of storing treasures on earth, starting with an athletic chorus accompanied by three oboes and concertante strings. The "boxy" but magnificent hymn melody (from 1652) is heard in the soprano vocal line, strengthened by a horn. This is followed by a virtuoso aria for tenor, "As quickly as rushing water," accompanied by an attractive solo flute and violin figures, while the cascading semiquavers in the instruments are copied by the voice to evoke the fleeting nature of mortal life as water running down a valley before disappearing. The alto recitative continues in this vein, by stressing the transience of all human aspirations, and the bass (with bassoon and three oboes) next comments upon the uselessness of earthly possessions. The rhythm is that of a  bourrée, a dance, but rather than merrymaking, this is a veritable Totentanz. The soprano next hammers down the fact that even the highest powers will not escape death. The cantata closes with a straightforward chorale harmonization of the hymn "Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig."

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