The richness of Bach’s sacred cantatas is extraordinary. In this my 20th year knowing them they remain inexhaustible in what they reveal. Cantatas 76 and 2 speak of the hate and insincerity that arises in those who lack compassion to share. Not only a Biblical parable.
Cantata 76 (1723, (Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes — The heavens are telling the glory of God) is the second cantata of the first cycle. The symmetrical structure of two parts, of seven movements each, is the same as that for cantata 75, which begins the cycle.
The Epistle for Trinity II Sunday is I John 3:13-18. Whoever does not love remains in Death.
13 Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you.
14 We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death.
15 Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.
16 Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.
17 But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?
18 My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.
Brethren refers to believers. Hence, if one believes one will not enter the kingdom of Death but reach the Kingdom of perpetual life, that is, being born again. By implication, the ungodly represent those men who exemplify the wicked and contemptible attributes of humanity; and specifically, such demonstration of contempt and hate is to you. Furthermore, as it is expected, it is not to be marvelled not, especially in the context that we, who are the believers, through all love for one another, will withstand and so transcend this enmity in the Kingdom of life to come. Furthermore yet, those who, though having an excess of material goods, and share them not with those in need, are devoid of compassion; and so, cannot love.
The Gospel is Luke 14:16-24, the parable of the great banquet, related by Jesus at a dinner that he attends.
16 Then said he unto him, A certain man made a great supper, and bade many:
17 And sent his servant at supper time to say to them that were bidden, Come; for all things are now ready.
18 And they all with one consent began to make excuse. The first said unto him, I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it: I pray thee have me excused.
19 And another said, I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to prove them: I pray thee have me excused.
20 And another said, I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.
21 So that servant came, and shewed his lord these things. Then the master of the house being angry said to his servant, Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind.
22 And the servant said, Lord, it is done as thou hast commanded, and yet there is room.
23 And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.
24 For I say unto you, That none of those men which were bidden shall taste of my supper.
The parable also appears, with differences, in Matthew 22:1-14, which makes explicit that the feast represents the kingdom of Heaven, that those unsuitable shall be cast from it; “for many are called, but few chosen.” Implied in this is the notion of the value of selfless generosity, that is to say, that giving is of itself and not an anticipation of something in return, for many are unable to give recompense. Key points are that the insincerity of the well-to-do, that is to say, their evasion of the offer of salvation, ensures their permanent debarment from the eternal feast; and that all who are worthy, not matter their station or circumstance, are able to partake of the feast, that is to say, of salvation. Hence the Kingdom will be complete when all who are elect are within.
The introductory Chorus of the first part is in two sections, each introduced by solos. The sound of the trumpet floats above all. The part writing is intricate, very musically interesting, and very demanding to bring off. The accompanied tenor recitative is presented largely as a fine arioso. The soprano aria, scored only for voice, solo violin, and continuo, is in standard da capo form. A brief bass recitative leads to an aria for bass, with the trumpet restored to the orchestra; there is thrilling work in the voice. And a longer alto recitative introduces the Chorale that closes the first part. This Chorale is splendid and thunderous, the trumpet intoning the melody continuously and in slight anticipation.
The second is opened with an instrumental sinfonia, scored solely for the unusual but effective grouping of oboe d’amore, viola da gamba, and continuo. An accompanied recitative for bass, in which the viola da gamba moves to the continuo, comes to a tenor aria, finely accompanied only by the viola da gamba, which is now doubled by the continuo. A short but finely judged recitative for alto (with the viola da gamba again amongst the continuo) leads to an alto aria in 9/8 and without a da capo, with only oboe d’amore, the viola da gamba restored as main voice, and continuo; namely, the same scoring as the introductory sinfonia, but with the voice superimposed. A brief tenor recitative brings the return of the same Chorale, with the same scoring, that concluded the first part, only on different words.
Cantata 2 (1724, Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein—Oh God, look down from heaven) is the second cantata of the second cycle.
It opens with a Chorus, with two oboes and four trombones doubling the motetic writing. The movement is a touch austere. A tenor recitative leads to a somewhat florid alto aria with solo violin. A bass recitative that closes with a fine arioso introduces a tenor aria, which includes a pair of oboes. A good piece, it contains considerable ‘weeping.’ And a chorale, with the orchestra, closes the work.