BACH, J.S.: Alto Cantatas Vol. 1
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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 theeyes of posterity. A total of some two hundred cantatashave so far between confirmed, sacred as well as secularfunctional music (seemingly only three fifths of all hiscompositions in this genre), written by Bach in over fourdecades.
The church cantatas are not only associated with theparticular readings for each Sunday and feast day in theestablished church calendar, but also have particularrelevance to a leading principle of Lutheran theology,the living proclamation of the Gospel. This, then, is allto do with the word of God, that it is followed and thatit raises souls up and refreshes them so that they do notbecome weary. For Luther, characteristically looking tothe simple and the young, that is the true purpose. Tothis end he writes in 1526 that one must read, sing,preach, write and write poetry, and 'if it were helpfuland necessary I would let it sound out with all the bellsand play out with all the organs and let everything thatcan sound, sound out'. Hence music had its directlegitimation in the Protestant rite and indeed in closerelationship with the central sermon. It was thenpredetermined as an effective functional art, to drive theword of God into hearts, as Luther demanded, and it didthis over the centuries in changing forms as 'floridmusic' together with the obligatory congregationalsinging. Motet forms, sacred concertos, the Protestantsong tradition and the influence of opera came togetherin text and music in some complexity, until about 1700the definitive form of what was possible was reached(Konrad K??ster). Here Bach entered with unparalleledcommand and created a universe of overwhelmingartistic diversity.
This openness in the sense of a continuingindependence of musical 'church devotions' togetherwith formal traditions, as was generally perceived bycontemporaries and explored with varying degrees ofenthusiasm for experiment, is reflected also in Bach'swork indications. Given that he generally designated hischurch pieces according to the plain annual churchcalendar, he preferred to call them 'concerto'. The term'cantata' appears only seldom and is found most, notinadvertently, in the titles of his solo cantatas, forexample BWV 54, 56, 82 and 170. Although Bach heretoo anticipates in masterly fashion each form, the use ofonly a single voice part in alternating aria and recitative,the integration of concertante elements as well as theomission or mere indication of the congregationalchorus with the final chorale, relates these to the Italianchamber cantata, to which the title 'Cantata' was thengiven.
The works here included mark various stages inBach's writing of cantatas. While BWV 54 comes fromthe composer's period at Weimar, BWV 170 and 169, asparts of the so-called third Leipzig cycle, belong to alater period. They have a virtuoso element in thetreatment of the organ as a solo instrument, which is acharacteristic of Bach's later years, like the unusualform of the aria Bekennen will ich seinen Namen, BWV200, setting verse by an unknown poet. The texts ofBWV 54 and 170 are taken from the cantata collection ofthe Darmstadt court librarian Georg Christian Lehms'sGottgefalliges Kirchen-Opffer (Church OfferingPleasing to God) of 1711. The writer of the text of BWV169 is unknown. The cantata fragment Schlage doch,gew??nschte Stunde, BWV 53, was formerly attributed toBach (namely by Forkel), but as a result of more recentresearch is now thought to be the work of the Leipzigorganist Melchior Hoffmann and has therefore not beenincluded in the Neue Bach Gesamtausgabe.
Vergn??gte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, BWV 170,(Happy rest, beloved pleasure of the soul) was written in1726 for the sixth Sunday after Trinity. Here Bach forthe first time uses the organ as an obbligato instrumentin a cantata, freeing it from the continuo group andentrusting it with an independent (soloistic) function.
The central aria is as regards its musical meaningespecially obvious: 'Wie jammern mich doch dieverkehrten Herzen' ('How yet I pity hearts perverted')writes Lehms, and plays therewith on a central messageof the text of the Sermon on the Mount (St Matthew 5,20-26), the petty righteousness of the scribes andpharisees in contrast with the Christian command forreconciliation. Bach underlines this sad forsaking byGod of the unbeliever by witholding in the music thebass foundation, which, in sacred baroque music, andparticularly in Bach's compositions, is the symbol offirm faith. Violins and violas in unison form thecomparatively thin basis of the quartet movement filledout by the solo alto and the organ part on two manuals.
A secco recitative, clear and scored with strings, comesbetween the opening and closing arias, which serve oneanother also as rhetorical antecedent and consequent.
It cannot be said for certain for which Sunday Bachcomposed the cantata Widerstehe doch der S??nde, BWV54, (Yet resist sin), since Lehms's text from the firstallows a variable application with its clear denunciation,exposure and rejection of sin. As most probable terminaldates to be considered, however, are the seventh Sundayafter Trinity or Oculi Sunday [the third Sunday in Lent],on which there are readings on the theme of sin from StPaul's Epistle to the Romans (Romans 6, 19-23) and hisEpistle to the Ephesians (Ephesians 5, 1-9). With twoarias framing a recitative the work represents thesimplest type of the form. Only violins and violas withthe continuo accompany the vocal part and form in thefirst aria, through the division of the violas, a five-parttexture, while the second aria is an impressive fugatofour-part movement in free da capo form, the immediateimaginative power of which is unequalled. Like adragon the 'Devil' waltzes in close chains ofsemiquavers with the alto part. The contrite theme, atfirst descending in semitones ('Wer - S??n -de - tut: Eflat, D, D flat, C) always presses on, until the placewhere sin is abandoned, seemingly after resistance,'with true devotion', and the Devil protests far below inthe bass. In this way, specifically through the totalspiritual penetration of the material, Bach has here, in allthe movements, far exceeded the seemingly limitedpossibilities of a small-scale composition.
With the composition of the cantata Gott soll alleinmein Herze haben, BWV 169, (God alone shall have myheart), for the eighteenth Sunday after Trinity,generously scored for three oboes, strings, obbligatoorgan and basso continuo, Bach, in 1726, fell back againon a lost instrumental concerto written earlier. Both theintroductory Sinfonia and the second aria represent newversions of this original material that later was usedagain for the Harpsichord Concerto in E major, BWV1053. A simple chorale on the melody of Luther's Nunbitten wir den heiligen Geist (Now we pray the HolyGhost) forms the conclusion.
In Schlage doch, gew??nschte Stunde, BWV 53,(Strike then, desired hour), at the beginning of the aria,which is only part of a larger mourning cantata, theorchestral ritornello states, in heavily breathing 3/2metre, slowed by pauses, the material of the text setting,based on a descending E major triad, and then makesroom over the dominant pedal for a violin rockingmotion, which later forms the second section of thesimple da capo form; a rocking motion that could betaken also as symbolic expression for the tolling of thebells. Yet 'two little bells' are here the chief attraction ofan otherwise rather unpretentious composition with twoviolins, one viola and basso continuo. Threefoldrepetition of the first two lines of the text with constantshortening of the note values in the first part and thesometimes very high tessitura of the vocal part in thesecond part of the aria duly sho