Parables of Redemption – J.S. Bach, Cantatas BWV 21 and 135, at Trinity III

The ostensible subject of these two cantatas is redemption, as described by Christ in His parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, which are the first two of a trilogy of three parables of redemption, in which the last is the parable of the prodigal son. The first two form the gospel reading (Luke 15: 1-10) for the third Sunday after Trinity.

1 Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.
2 And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.
3 And he spake this parable unto them, saying,
4 What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?
5 And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
6 And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.
7 I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.
8 Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?
9 And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost.
10 Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.

Domenico Fetti Parable of the Lost Sheep 1619

Domenico Fetti: Parable of the Lost Sheep (1619)

The epistle for the third Sunday after Trinity is 1 Peter 5: 6-11 (Cast your cares upon God):

6 Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time:
7 Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.
8 Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:
9 Whom resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world.
10 But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you.
11 To him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.

The simile in verse 8 seems unfair to the lion.

Cantata 21 is a massive work and is of exceedingly high quality. It originated in Weimar in 1714. It consists of eleven movements, in two parts, each with five movements, plus, in the first part, an instrumental sinfonia. Its relationship to the two readings is quite tenuous, but no matter; there is much psalmic wisdom (94, 42, and 116) and a concluding movement from Revelation (5: 12-13) in the text provided, the music exceptional, and the structure, with the inclusion of four choruses, innovative.

The sinfonia, which is utterly wonderful, clearly prefigures the mood of the opening lines in the succeeding chorus, namely Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis in meinem Herzen (My heart was sore distressed), uses an expressive oboe and violin cantilena, in dialogue, against weary footsteps, a heartbreakingly exquisite bass in the continuo, and sorrowful harmonies in the strings. The continuo quickens on third beat of the sixth bar, and the strings imitate in the seventh, and so introduce the thumbprint of the choral theme in the succeeding movement.

There is a clearness of tone in the choral sections throughout the cantata, giving these portions of the work a kind of muted luminosity, as if metallic and oceanic simultaneously. The first chorus begins with four iterations of ‘ich,’ after which the treading in the bass resumes, but now quickly. The instruments — oboe and strings — merely punctuate the phrases of the choir and resist fugal interplay. However, after an adagio pause on ‘aber,’ the choir’s voices, and the orchestra, take flight, erquicken, together, for an exceptional climax. Throughout, the vocal interplay is astounding.

The soprano aria is all about sighing and weeping, with only the oboe and continuo below, all in 12/8 time. It is another of those compelling pieces in which the beauty of the oboe’s music simultaneously projects utter sadness and utter hope. The tenor recitative, accompanied by the strings, intones woefully of being forsaken by God, and introduces the tenor aria, with the strings, which is about much weeping of salty tears as this despair deepens. The Chorus that concludes the first part of the cantata is a fine piece architecturally, beginning with voices soli and concluding with the full choir. This movement too has an adagio pause.

The second part opens with a soprano recitative, with the strings, asking where is Christ for the faithful one. It introduces a response in a soprano and bass duet, the bass as vox Christi. The human soul and Christ lust spiritually for one another. Ach, ja! ach, nein! the continuo, which is the sole instrumentation, again treading unceasingly, and finally relieved by a change of meter from common time to 3/8, which, however, very soon returns to the formulation of the opening for an equally brief conclusion. There is great tenderness in this duet.

Parable-of-Lost-Coin- c. 1618 Feti.jpg

Domenico Fetti: Parable of the Lost Coin (c. 1618)

The commentary of the following Chorus reminds that no matter how human woe makes itself, it is necessary to remember that God, having not forgotten one, will relieve one in His good time. The Chorus, also a fine piece architecturally, also begins with voices soli, but a cappella, against the chorale in the tenors tutti, and building to the full choir. The orchestra enters only after the double bar of the repeat with trombones doubling the three string and the bassoon parts, to give a contrastingly warm sonority to the continuing lucidity of the choir, made all the more fine by the assigning of the chorale melody to the instruments in unison with the sopranos, and, after the double bar of the repeat of this second section, soli against the choir.

As the singer is charged with the work of turning water, specifically the water of weeping, into wine, by the light of a candle in the heart, a relatively restrained tenor aria, with continuo only, follows, after which restraint one is happy to have the return of the choir for yet another Chorus, which is full of praise and glory, forever and ever. After an introductory grave, with three trumpets and the higher strings sounding quiet fanfares above, the music moves spiritedly in an allegro with a fine fugal subject introduced by the solo quartet a cappella, to be joined in due course by the full choir and by the orchestra again in fanfare. Jubilation, made much pronounced by cantilena in all parts against reiterations of the fugal subject, is assisted by the trumpets. And so closes out the piece, with a marvellous flourish on alleluja.

Cantata 135 is from the second Leipzig cycle of 1724. Like cantata 21, Bach pays little attention to either Peter or Christ’s words for the day, but, again, never mind; the music is great. The cantata is in six movements, and opens with a very fine Chorus, a prayer for divine forgiveness, which gives a canonic presentation of the chorale, with cantus firmus in the bass line. The scoring is highly effective, with oboes, also canonically, moving with persistence with their figurations, and the strings sounding with great beauty, most particularly when stating the chorale (typically also in canon) or wonderfully doubling the vocal lines. This is heightened by trepidation in the highly expressive tenor recitative, which leads to a tenor aria that is a plea in anguish for the mercy of Jesus. The alto recitative finds the situation, if musically marvelous, close to mortal death, but the bass aria that is next more happily brings the power of Jesus to the rescue. And so to the concluding chorale, again, like cantata 21, speaking of glory and heavenly honour, forever and ever.


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