Condemnations – J.S. Bach, Cantatas 185, 24 & 177, at Trinity IV

The Netherlands Bach Society advances that the “theme of the cantata can be summarised as ‘If you want to change the world, start with yourself.’” This, I also say, is correct.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Blind Leading the Blind (1568)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Blind Leading the Blind (1568)

In this cantata, Bach returns more directly to the Biblical teachings, for which the Sunday readings are given below. The opening duet uses the epistle as its theme, and the succeeding alto recitative moves from this theme directly to the gospel reading, which the alto aria then comments upon.  The bass recitative refers explicitly to the parable of the mote and the beam (i.e., a large piece of wood, not a stream of light), upon which the bass aria then comments. Das ist der Christen Kunst: / Nur Gott und sich erkennen (This is the Christian goal: to know God and oneself), and not to judge nor deprecate. And to the chorale, which brings the whole together.

Domenico Fetti: The Parable of the Mote and the Beam (c.1619)

Domenico Fetti: The Parable of the Mote and the Beam (c.1619)

When I first began to study the cantatas, in 1997, I was especially struck by how often Bach employed modest three-part structure, typically, voice, solo instrument, and continuo, and how much he did with it. In addition to the text, almost invariably important, and the meticulous attention to enunciation of it, the selection of voice type and of instrument (either in support or in contrast) produced a sound of special quality, to which the continuo, and the instruments included in it, contributed the critical bass line of the movement in question. Sometimes, Bach even dispensed with the solo instrument, to use a two-part structure, as he does in this cantata, in its fifth movement; where, in having the bassoon, and its distinctive timbre, double the keyboard continuo, a three-part motion is partially evinced even in the two-part structure.

Indeed, in cantata 185, the progression of musical forces is very carefully judged, beginning with a duo, largely canonic but also florid in nature, of soprano and tenor, with the basso continuo, and an oboe d’amore playing the chorale tune at intervals, but otherwise not participating. The effect is of a three-part voicing commenting on the meaning of the chorale, Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (I call to you, Jesus Christ).

An elaborate recitative uses the strings for the first time, over the continuo; and in the aria the oboe and strings combine, often in unison, with the alto, with elaborated statements in the voice and the occasional oboe solo, hence replicating the pattern of the opening duet.

The bass recitative is sung above the bassoon and continuo, and the bass aria is in two-part structure, as described above. The chorale, with choir, concludes the work, with the instruments doubling the voices, with an independent line, a descant, given to the violins.

This type of melodic and sonic experimentation, which succeeds so well, is characteristic of the earlier cantatas written in Weimar, of which this is one, from 1715, later also used in the first Leipzig cycle of 1723 as the cantata before the sermon.

The bassoon, I add, is a fascinating instrument. And Laurence Dreyfuss, in his Bach’s Continuo Group, has a fascinating chapter on the fascinating bassoon, and comments on its part in cantata 185. “In BWV 185, Bach decided on a reduced bassoon part in four of the movements. In Movement 1, he marked the bassoon part tacet; in Movement 2, he specified quarter-note values for the accompagnato recitiative and omitted the bassoon from the adjacent arioso passage; in Movement 3, he included it in the instrumental tutti sections; and in Movement 4, he wrote out the short values for the secco recitative.” (p. 124)

My wife, in her comprehensive way, according to her methodology of several novels a week, is reading through crime novelist Philip Craig’s series set on Martha’s Vineyard. Now, we used to go to that part of world when we lived in southwest New Brunswick across the river from Maine, if most often decamping in Cape Cod, but the Vineyard locale returning to our attention when my absorption with Nantucket, due to my absorption in Herman Melville and Moby-Dick, revived it. Starbuck, after all, was a Nantucket man, Stubb a native of Cape Cod, and Flask from the Vineyard. So, putting aside for a while the research into Tokyo, this afternoon she reads this in Craig’s 17th novel in the series, Dead in Vineyard Sand, written in 2006:

“Full-time fretters are often what I call baroque worriers. Baroque worriers worry in complex, highly convoluted ways about unlikely things that would never occur to most people, and that often depend on a whole series of equally unlikely things happening first. The form and content of their worries are often wonderfully ornamented, like a composition by Bach, and like much of Bach’s work they take a lot of time to complete; thus baroque worriers are inclined to worry most of their waking hours, unlike classic worriers, who get through their worries much more quickly and have time left to do other things.

“I try not to worry about anything. Although I’m not actually able to do that, the effort itself annoys some hard-worrying people, who view it as a kind of insult to humanity. They may have a point, because not only are people probably the only animals who worry, they’re probably the only ones who should.” (p. 120)

Clarino, 1752. (Courtesy: www-geertjanvanderheide-nl)

Clarino, 1752. (Courtesy: www-geertjanvanderheide-nl)

Cantata 24 is for the first Leipzig cycle of 1723, and was used as the cantata after the sermon. The weight of the cantata is in the third movement, which is flanked by two recitatives, the first treating of integrity, and the second of hypocrisy. The chorus itself has the golden rule as its theme, and is a full-scale piece, with clarino (natural horn) riding over the orchestra. The density of the opening is relieved by solo voices and slower note values after a double bar, the effect of which is again relieved, towards the end, by the return of the quicker note values of the opening.

The cantata opens with an alto aria, with an orchestra of oboes and strings. It is a very beautiful aria, calm in outlook, with an exceptionally lyrical melodic line in the voice against the gentle repeated notes in the instruments. The topic is the injunction to follow and imitate the Saviour. The tenor aria that follows the second recitative is also of great beauty. The voice and the continuo deal in exquisite counterpoint, while the oboes fill in the middle of the score with interlocking phrasing. Its topic is that the heart must reflect the truth of God. The concluding chorale, with choir and full orchestra, the latter’s part reminiscent of the oboes’ in the preceding tenor aria. The clarino returns. And the whole ends with great, and true, conviction, imploring God to vouchsafe mankind a heart that is pure.

Readers will note that my view of this work is opposite that of some the musical commentators and scholars. But, then, I am no musical scholar, only a commentator. However, I find it astonishing that some musicologists find Bach didactic. Of course he is. When one reflects on the context, religious, political, and social, within which Bach lived and wrote, and then extrapolates the meaning that is within the music and examines its merits in modern terms, it is then that a sort of remarkable intellectual revelation begins to unfold.

Cantata 177 was written in 1732, and intended to complete the second Leipzig cycle of 1724, which lacked a cantata for Trinity IV. The structure is a large opening Chorus, which is a complex movement with soloistic work for the two oboes and the violin concertante. It is followed by three arias to reach the concluding chorale, which is the same chorale as is found in cantatas 185 and 24. The text here, though, is the five verses of the hymn as written in 1529 by Agricola, and each of the five movements uses one verse, in succession. The middle aria deals with the gospel reading, the other movements with the epistle. The opening Chorus is scored for choir and full orchestra, but the three arias, which are without recitatives, have increasing augmentation, and hence weight, of the instrumentation. The second verse is scored for alto and continuo; the third for soprano, oboe di caccia, and continuo with bassoon; the fourth, tenor, with violin obbligato, bassoon obbligato with a completely independent line, and continuo. Each aria is also an increasingly faster tempo. In the final chorale, giving the fifth verse, the choir and full orchestra rejoin.


Romans 8: 18-23 (the epistle):

18 For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.
19 For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.
20 For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope,
21 Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
22 For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.
23 And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.

Luke 6: 36-42 (the gospel):

36 Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.
37 Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven:
38 Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.
39 And he spake a parable unto them, Can the blind lead the blind? shall they not both fall into the ditch?
40 The disciple is not above his master: but every one that is perfect shall be as his master.
41 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
42 Either how canst thou say to thy brother, Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye.





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