The Cantatas of J.S. Bach – BWV 182, on Palm Sunday – Hope Returns to Rejoice

Cantata 182, composed in 1713, is for Palm Sunday, which is the first day of Holy Week and the Sunday before Easter, and commemorates Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. As the day is associated in several ecclesiastical rites with the blessing and procession of palms, processional characteristics feature strongly in the music.

The Gospel for the day is a reading of the Passion according to St. Matthew 26:36–27:54: … the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak … behold, he is at hand that doth betray me … all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword … I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood … why hast thou forsaken me?

The essence of the work is the public return of joy, which, despite the inevitability of further tribulations, does not fail to instill rejoicing for the future.

Albrecht Dürer, Jesus on the donkey, Palm Sunday. 1506.

Albrecht Dürer, Jesus on the donkey, Palm Sunday. 1506.

The work opens with an instrumental sonata (arrival of Christ), recorder and violin playing in dotted rhythm, over pizzicato (plucked, rather than bowed) strings and continuo in the steady 4/4 rhythm of common time. This sonata is of exceptional and greatly simple beauty. The solo instruments’ parts begin each phrase not with the very short 32nd note that the dotted rhythm would imply, but with an unmodified 16th, thus doubling, if ever so slightly, the expected length of the note, and so giving the melodic pattern an additional lilt—as if a person were beginning to walk. In overall effect, the whole is one of a processional march. In the concluding bars, the melodic structure of the march supplants the steady pace in the continuo, as if all were now going forward together to welcome Christ, Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (King of Heaven, ever welcome), which words begin the chorus (welcome of Christ), very animated and very finely written, that follows, and that details the response of the populace to his arrival.

A bass recitative (delight in Christ’s arrival) that is very effective introduces a bass aria (sacrifice for love) with the strings. In this aria, the steady processional rhythm of the opening sonata is now in the bass, again in common time but at twice the speed. This is followed immediately by an even better alto aria (perseverance to overcome obstacles), of ethereal intensity and also exceptionally moving, with a masterful, translucent part in the recorder (sometimes played on transverse flute, which does not deliver quite as poignant a sound), and an involuted vocal line. The central section changes tempo from adagio (very slow) to andante (slow and gentle) and re-introduces the processional bass, at the same augmentation of speed (and also in common time) as in the preceding bass aria.

Albrecht Dürer, The Crucifixion, 1511.

Albrecht Dürer, The Crucifixion, 1511.

This second aria is followed immediately by a yet better tenor aria (loyalty to overcome obstacles), which is very moving (when well sung), with continuo only, whose part is remarkably expressive with its searching, wandering, attentive, waiting line (the processional rhythm now augmented to sixteenth notes and in ¾ metre), produced by extraordinary pauses in the phrasing of both the voice and bass parts. The pauses are followed by arpeggiated (that is, on the defining tones of the harmony and its related musical scale) phrasing or coloratura (that is, colouristic movement of the voice over the notes of the musical scale that define or imply the harmony), with an almost writhing physicality on the prediction, Kreuzige! (Crucify!). Unusually, near the end of the aria, the voice comes to pause on a note that demands a cadenza, (a contextual improvisation, often brilliant, required of the performer), which leads marvellously and remarkably into the closing vocal phrase and its peroration in the contrabass.

The arias give way to a chorale (elation undiminished) for the full chorus and orchestra. This is in twice the pace (cut time instead of common time) of the first chorus. Very fine and meditative, it leads, also unusually, to yet another, and final, chorus (hasten to rejoice, whatever may yet come), again with the full orchestra, with exposed parts for the violin and recorder, and with an increase in pace and change to triple metre (3/8). Also very fine, it is celebratory and welcoming. And, as often in this cantata, it is the instruments that have the final sounds.

The work follows the footsteps of mortality’s hope through the world’s obstacles against it.

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