Cantata 84, one of the most interesting of the cantatas, was composed in 1727, and is for Septuagesima Sunday, the third Sunday before Lent, and the beginning of the period of 70 days—hence the name—that ends on the Saturday of Easter week. Cantata 84 is scored for soprano, chorus, and orchestra, with particular attention to the oboes. The chorus is employed only in the concluding movement. The work is in five parts: two arias separated by recitatives, and a concluding chorale. The 1728 text is by Christian Friedrich Henrici, known as Picander, except the 1686 chorale, which is by Ämilie Juliane von Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt.
The Gospel for the day is Matthew 20: 1-16: For the kingdom of heaven is like … an householder, which went out … to hire labourers into his vineyard … And he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day … when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came they supposed that they should have received more … Saying, These last have wrought but one hour … But he answered … Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst thou not agree with me for a penny? … So the last shall be first, and first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
The theme of the work is contentment with good fortune, which, being not an entitlement, is intrinsically a happiness.
The opening aria—Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke, das mir der liebe Gott beschert (I am content in my good fortune, which gracious God bestows on me)—, a masterpiece, is deeply heart-felt, full of acceptance, and hovers between the ecstasy of joy and the remembered pain of worldly suffering and the consolation of its going. It instills a great and welcome peacefulness. The oboe line is exquisite, and flows in imitative interplay with the voice, producing a great sense of meditative fullness.
The first recitative (nothing is owed one, and impatience with others’ abundance is unmerited) lies very high in the soprano’s tessitura (the prevailing compass, e.g., high, medium, low, of the total range of the voice or instrument). It provides the transition to the second aria (good conscience, spirit, and heart are worthier than envy), in which a solo violin is added to the solo oboe, and which also is of considerable appeal. This in turn leads to the reflective and self-consoling second recitative (good works make a good life) that introduces the exceedingly beautiful chorale (contentment mitigates care) that sums up the intent of the work on the melody: Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten (If thou but suffer God to guide thee).
The work is a profound meditation on the contentment that satisfaction with one’s life can bring. And worthily relevant in our avaricious age.
Loss, hope, suffering, joy, worth, courage, trust, death, acceptance: these are all constants in contemporary life. And have been so in time before us.
For an introduction to the cantatas, see this CulturalRites article.