The Cantatas of J.S. Bach – BWV 199, at Trinity Sunday XI – Unworthiness Overcome

Cantata 199, composed in 1714, is for Trinity Sunday XI. Trinity Sunday, which is the festival of the Holy Trinity, is the first Sunday after Pentecost (Whit Sunday), and Trinity XI is the eleventh Sunday after Trinity Sunday.

Georg Christian Lehms (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Georg Christian Lehms (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

The cantata is a solo cantata, scored for soprano (without choir), solo oboe, and strings. The text derives Georg Christian Lehms, whose liturgical collection Gottegefälliges Kirchen-Opffer (church offerings pleasing to God) was published in 1711, plus a chorale stanza derived from a 1630 text of Johann Heermann, and which serves for a chorale.

The Gospel is Luke 18: 9-14: …the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes, but smote upon his breast, saying … be merciful to me a sinner … every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

The work deals with man’s recurrent battle with the sense of unworthiness, and its amelioration through joyfulness derived from, and within the context of, the recognition of the natures and depths of others’ difficulties.

Gustave Doré, The Pharisee and the Publican (Courtesy: catholic-resources.org)

Gustave Doré, The Pharisee and the Publican (Courtesy: catholic-resources.org)

The cantata opens with a recitative with the strings that is of great effect, the relationship of the music to the words (unworthiness as an individual) exceptional and exceedingly well-judged. The subsequent aria (the sorrow of this desolation), with a middle section in recitative, contains one of Bach’s tellingly eloquent oboe solos, and is both superb and moving.

This is followed by an effective recitative (guidance sought) with the strings, which leads to a very fine and magnificently scored aria (confession of incompletion), again with a slow middle section, and reminding one for all the world of Handel’s best cantabile (songful) style (e.g., the larghetto second movement of Op. 6, #12).

A short recitative (comfort espied) leads immediately to the Heermann chorale (dejection disappears in the context of the greater wounds of others), scored for the voice with viola obbligato and strings, and is the turning point of the piece. The cantata concludes with a recitative (perspective permits a return of joyfulness) with the strings that leads to a concluding and gay aria (joyfulness can dilute unworthiness), with the orchestra, in the typical triple dance meter of gigue rhythm.

The work has thus moved from introspective despondency that recurs from natural imperfection and the frustration of accomplishment to their leavening with the joyfulness that also must be found within.

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