On the Feast of St John the Baptist – J.S. Bach – Cantatas BWV 167 (1723), BWV 7 (1724), & BWV 30 (1738)

Domenico Ghirlandaio : Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist (1482)

Domenico Ghirlandaio : Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist (1482)

The structure of cantata 167, written for the first Leipzig cycle of 1723, is unusual. It is compact, and begins with an aria for tenor, centres on a long duet between soprano and alto, and concludes with an elaborate chorale for full chorus and orchestra. The joins of the didactic narrative are a splendid alto recitative, after the opening aria, that begins secco and concludes arioso, and a bass recitative before the concluding chorale and which ends by way of introducing what is to be the subject of that chorale, namely, the chorale Lob und Preis mit Ehren.

The opening tenor aria is in gentle 12/8 time. The duet’s vocal lines are not particularly interesting, but have a remarkable accompaniment by an oboe da caccia, with its particular dark hues. The contrasting middle section, with the oboe less prominent, is in quicker tempo, first in 4/4 — duple time, or tempus imperfectum — and soon changing to ¾ — triple time, or tempus perfectum — before a complete da capo. The chorale is richly orchestrated, and is with preludes, interludes, and postludes. Mincham’s commentary is superb.

Craig Smith writes that “prediction of the coming of John is very like the message of Advent, and the readings for St. John’s day are identical with readings for Advent…. [The] alto recitative turns into a profound and speculative comparison of the coming of John with the coming of Jesus. The mention of “lost sinners” sets the tone for the intense supplication and sorrow of the outstanding movement of the cantata: a moving and detailed duet for soprano and alto with English Horn obbligato. The melancholy character of the opening at first seems strangely inappropriate, but the increasing intensity and in the middle section the heavenly floating quality of the piece makes it clear that Bach wants to emphasize the relationship of the story to the fall of Adam and Eve. A bass recitative sets the tone for an extended choral fantasy on the chorale “Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren.””

Caravaggio - The Beheading of John the Baptist - Detail, with the signature of the artist in the prophet's blood

Caravaggio – The Beheading of John the Baptist – Detail, with the signature of the artist in the prophet’s blood

The death of the prophet as depicted by Caravaggio is an integral part of my book, Caravaggio’s Dagger.

The epistle for the feast of celebration is Isaiah 40:1-5. This speaks, in verse 3, of he who cries in the wilderness, and, in verse 4, how the glory of God outshines all the wonders of the world; in that language in the Bible that is incomparable. This is the scripture that continues with the verse, restated in 1 Peter 1:24, that Brahms selected for the second movement of his German Requiem. The music of that movement is based upon the opening chorus of cantata 27, for Trinity XIV.

1 Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.

2 Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

3 The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

4 Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:

5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.

6 The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field:

7 The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.

8 The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.

The implied reference to the subject of Trinity II is reflected in a number of later works, including the fine Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, which draws from the Norfolk fork tradition, by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The Gospel is the Benedictus of Zechariah, found in Luke 1:57-80, with description of the birth of John, and its reference to the covenant of God made through his “tender mercy,” to “give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace:” a tenderness palpable in the words, and the desire of the thought.

57 Now Elisabeth’s full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son.

58 And her neighbours and her cousins heard how the Lord had shewed great mercy upon her; and they rejoiced with her.

59 And it came to pass, that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father.

60 And his mother answered and said, Not so; but he shall be called John.

61 And they said unto her, There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name.

62 And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called.

63 And he asked for a writing table, and wrote, saying, His name is John. And they marvelled all.

64 And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and praised God.

65 And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judaea.

66 And all they that heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, What manner of child shall this be! And the hand of the Lord was with him.

67 And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying,

68 Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people,

69 And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David;

70 As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began:

71 That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us;

72 To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant;

73 The oath which he sware to our father Abraham,

74 That he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear,

75 In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.

76 And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;

77 To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins,

78 Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,

79 To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

80 And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel.

Perugino: The Baptism of Christ (1500/05)

Perugino: The Baptism of Christ (1500/05)

Cantata 7 was written for the second Leipzig cycle of 1724, and is in many ways the most interesting of the three cantatas for the feast of the birth of John the Baptist. The opening Chorus, with two oboes d’amore and violin concertante obbligato, is a powerful and intricate movement, full of musical felicities.

The text is from a 1541 baptismal hymn by Martin Luther, the text of the opening and closing movement verbatim; of the inner movements, paraphrased.

Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam
Nach seines Vaters Willen,
Von Sankt Johanns die Taufe nahm,
Sein Werk und Amt zu erfüllen;
Da wollt er stiften uns ein Bad,
Zu waschen uns von Sünden,
Ersäufen auch den bittern Tod
Durch sein selbst Blut und Wunden;
Es galt ein neues Leben.

Christ our Lord came to the Jordan
according to His Father’s will,
He received baptism from Saint John,
to fulfill his work and destiny;
thus He wishes to draw us a bath,
to cleanse us from sin,
to drown bitter death as well
through His own blood and wounds;
it permitted a new life.

There are seven distinct thematic components, which the ear will easily identify. The extraordinarily impressing principal theme in French overture style is announced in the upper strings and oboes, and is predominant throughout. The second occurs first in the bass, and is an undulating five-note figure, on the strong beats of the bar, also predominant throughout, and voiced throughout the orchestra, but not the voices.

More, but not solely, restricted to the instrument which principally announces them are three thematic components in the oboes: a staccato statement based on a descending four-note sequence on the strong beats of the bar; a three-note wavering figure, both down and later up, that is off the beat; and, one of those three-note rising, syncopated phrases that also begin on the strong beats of the bar, another instance in which Bach seems in so much of his work effortlessly to draw from the oboe and its vocal equivalent, the male alto, the greatest plangency. Sixth, the solo violin has a distinctive broken scale upon an ostinato lower note.

As so often in Bach, all of this is built upon a bass line that is impeccable in its quality and certain of its assured place and effect.

Some interpreters add or substitute recorders in certain passages, but my impression is that this reduces the clarity and precision of the musical architecture. They are not notated in the score that we have. Some interpreters also believe the movement should be taken at a quick tempo; to me, this does not add tension, but removes it. It is necessary to remember the audience the cantata was written for.

And last is the chorale melody, a cantus firmus, sung by the tenors, and so liberating the freer polyphony, sometimes assisted by the oboes, of the rest of the choir. The chorale sounds nine times, exactly the same number of statements as in the cantata’s concluding chorale, each time yielding to the ritornello commentary of the instruments. There are, however, proclamatory elaborations in the final iteration. In the chorale that concludes the cantata, the instruments double the voices, which do not yield to commentary, and unity of utterance is made plain.

Put all this in the opening Chorus together and one finds a movement of untellable power. But we are witnessing the musical manifestation of the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan. Whether one is a believer or not (and I am not), there is no questioning the genuineness of this faith, and the matchless musical command of its expression. And, I incline to add, this is not self-expression, but an expression of and for the larger community. I find that this movement will play in my mind’s ear for months on end. It has the same kind of relentless certainty and intellectual appeal that one finds often in Bach, for example, as well in the 24th prelude in B minor of the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier and the alto aria Erbarme dich from Matthäus-Passion—all of which are associated with Christ.

There follow three arias, separated by two recitatives. The bass aria, with continuo only, is declamatory in nature, and obsessively employs a rapidly, always descending, five-note scale, which sounds only in the ‘cello and never in the voice. The subject of the aria is the intrinsic need to have water for baptism, and that the Word and the Spirit through baptism purify the sinner. Apparently Bach, with the descending figuration, makes this point 89 times. Strangely, it is not tedious.

The tenor recitative shares the same subject matter as the succeeding aria, with its two concertante violins. The text is of the prefiguration of the crucifixion of Christ, baptised as a man, and to die as one. In the aria, the tenor sings mostly in ¾ while the violins ripple along in 9/8. The effect is of lightness, deliberately so it may seem, as the text also refers to the presence of the Spirit in the form of a dove at the baptism. Moreover, the constant use of triplets and triple time seem quite Trinitarian.

The bass recitative moves us to the Resurrection, and Christ’s injunction to the Apostles to go forth, teach, and ensure that new believers become righteous and blessed if baptised. The going forth into all the world, Geht hin in all Welt, is, to emphasize the instruction, rendered not in secco recitative but as arioso accompagnato in andante tempo.

The final aria is for alto with the two oboes and violin concertante. Unusually, the singer introduces the aria, which is pronouncedly didactic, reminding the members of the congregation of their innate state of sin, and that baptism and belief are cleansing and so will avert their being damned. And then the congregation has Martin Luther summing it up as it sings the final chorale:

Das Aug allein das Wasser sieht,
Wie Menschen Wasser gießen,
Der Glaub allein die Kraft versteht
Des Blutes Jesu Christi,
Und ist für ihm ein rote Flut
Von Christi Blut gefärbet,
Die allen Schaden heilet gut
Von Adam her geerbet,
Auch von uns selbst begangen.

The eye alone the water sees,
As men pour out the water,
But faith alone the pow’r perceives
Christ Jesus’ blood hath given;
For faith there is a sea of red
By Christ’s own blood now colored,
Which all transgressions healeth well
Which Adam hath bequeathed us
And by ourselves committed.

Cantata 30, from 1738, is a parody of the secular congratulatory cantata Angenehmes Wiederau, BWV 30a. Pleasant Wiederau was the manor on an estate acquired by a Leipzig worthy for whom Bach wrote the musical homage. As to the Feast of St John, Bach, who was remarkably adept at meeting impossible deadlines with wondrous compositions, seems to have been pressed by this adaptation, but not to wondrous result; showing that even the best have off-days. But that may be more the influence of the homage rather than the more worthy Saint John.

the-baptism-of-christ Andrea del Verrocchio Leonardo 1475

Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci: The Baptism of Christ (1475)

It’s a large work, in two parts (before and after the sermon) of six movements each. The opening Chorus, which is not terribly interesting, invokes listeners to sing joyous for blessings endless. The bass recitative extols the peace of release from the burden of laws, and then sings praises of the Divine. Aside from the cantilena work for the singer, though, the praises are unexciting. The alto recitative explains how we are to reach the regions of the angels, and the alto aria exhorts the congregation to haste from guilt and wake from sin. This aria, with flute obbligato, is very quick and delightful, and has fine interplay between the singer and flautist, which progresses over a continuo directed to play pizzicato and the organ staccato. The material is structured, like the third theme of the oboes d’amore in cantata 7, as three notes with syncopation, but with the phrases both rising and falling, and without the high degree of plangency. And so to the Chorale, in which the congregationalists inveigh themselves to level hills, fill valleys, smooth the rough, and straighten the crooked; that is to say, Isaiah 40:4, from the epistle of the day.

The second part begins with a bass recitative, punctuated by doleful noises from the oboes in the orchestra to remind the Lord not to forget the presence of those in His church, who advise the Lord that their love intends to remove any offense. The aria, though full of certitude, is not entirely wonderful. The turn of the soprano to recite allows a quick insistence of the awareness of human inconstancy, but, never mind, in the meadows, where the altar is built and the tents are standing, His name will be glorified. Unfortunately, the promise of glorification is a bit tiresome musically. The tenor, in his recitative, recognizes the soul, once ransomed from life, becomes pure and spotless; as is reinforced in the final Chorus, that all souls be hallowed, as expressed by the same music that opened the cantata.

I would be historically remiss if I did not footnote that when I worked in Montréal, every June 24, la fête de St-Jean-Baptiste, the saint designated by Pope Pius X as the patron saint of the Québécois, was, and still is, la fête nationale du Québec, and I was glad of the time off. I understand the Scandinavian and Baltic nations are equally sensible in this regard.

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