The Cantatas of J.S. Bach – BWV 78, at Trinity Sunday XIV – Courage Through Trust

Cantata 78, composed in 1724, is for Trinity XIV. The text is largely anonymous, and the work is scored for vocal quartet, choir, strings, horn, flute, and oboe.

Albrecht Dürer, Adoration of the Trinity (Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna)

Albrecht Dürer, Adoration of the Trinity (Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna)

The Gospel is Luke 17: 11-19: … there met him ten men who were lepers … they lifted up their voices, and said … have mercy on us … he said … Go shew yourselves unto the priests … as they went, they were cleansed. And one of them … turned back … and fell down … giving him thanks. And Jesus answering said, Were there not ten cleansed? but where are the nine? … There are not found that returned to give glory … save this stranger… Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole.

The cantata deals with the theme of how trust in oneself, however degraded one might have become, gives one courage to restore one’s true being.

The work opens with a chorus (trust is my refuge), one of Bach’s most remarkable pieces, and showing stupendous mastery. Conceived as an immense statement but without becoming massive in execution, the movement has a particularly remarkable theme reminiscent of the chaconne, a remarkable chromatic figure in the bass, and repeated interpolations of the chorale. The whole has extraordinary felicities of expression, the impact made all the greater by the consistent use of restraint and understatement. The sheer musical strength of this movement, with its magnificent counterpoint and intense concentration, as well as its almost breathtaking diminution of note-values, in the central section, to produce an immense propulsion of movement above the chromatic bass figure, all move the piece to its conclusion: Jesus, Thou art still my sure retreat: sei jetzt doch, o Gott, mein Hort.

The second movement (we hasten forward with feeble ability) is a soprano and alto duet, with continuo. Brisk, masterful, and exquisite, it is full of fine turns of expression, as the supplicants proceed with eager but halting footsteps: Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen, Schritten.

A tenor recitative (I am tainted in my mortality), concluding arioso (that is, recitative that is lyrical rather than declamatory) and in strict time, is followed by a tenor aria (but self-trust heartens one to self-victory), with tranverse flute obbligato, on whose instrumental line the aria centres, above a continuo, pizzicato throughout, the tenor making the statement that as Jesus will stand at his side, so will the singer be heartened: das ich beherzt.

James Tissot, Healing of the Ten Lepers (Courtesy: www.gospel-parallels.net)

James Tissot, Healing of the Ten Lepers (Courtesy: http://www.gospel-parallels.net)

The fifth movement is a bass recitative (strength renews), with four changes of tempo (tempo ordinario, vivace—swiftly—, lento, andante), set against the participation of the strings. It is intensely reflective and moving. The harmony is extremely telling: Dies, mein Herz, mit Leid vermenget, do dein teures Blut besprenget: This, my heart, with grief confounded, now sprinkled with Thy precious blood.

Following this is a purposeful bass aria (my conscience brings my self-trust to fulfilment), of considerable appeal, with oboe obbligato in concertante (that is, in elaborate solo) fashion with the strings, the whole heightened by the magnificent part for the solo oboe. Wenn Christen an dich glauben, wird sie kein Feind in Ewigkeit aus deinen Händen rauben: When Christians believe in Thee, no foe can tear them out of Thy Hand.

The work concludes with absolute splendour (let me not lose courage, let me stay strong) on the chorale on Jesu, der du meine Seele.

One’s courage to continue has reasserted itself.

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