Earthly Mediation of the Sacred – J.S. Bach – Cantatas 147 and 10, at the Feast of the Visitation

The Visitation is a medieval Christian feast, dating to the 13th century, traditionally celebrated on July 2nd, the conclusion of the octave after the birth of John the Baptist. The 1969 revision of the calendar as a consequence of the reforms of Pope John XXIII moved the feast to May 31st, between the Annunciation and the birth of John. The Lutheran church, however, retained the July date. The visitation is the second Joyful Mystery of the Rosary, after the Annunciation.

The central manifestation of the visit, immediately after the Annunciation, of Mary—pregnant with Jesus—to care for her cousin, Elizabeth—pregnant with John the Baptist—is that it is the first instance of Mary’s mediation in the transmission of divine grace to humanity. In the Scriptures this mediation is described through Mary’s declamation of the canticle that is the Magnificat.


La Visitation, La Cathédrale de Reims, XIIIe siècle

The correlations of Cantata 147, a 1723 Leipzig cantata (based in part on a 1716 Weimar cantata for Advent IV), are to the cantatas for the feast of Saint John the Baptist, and to the Magnificat, the Song of Mary.

The Epistle is Isaiah 11: 1-5

1 And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:
2 And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord;
3 And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears:
4 But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth: with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.
5 And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.

Jesse is the father of David. Stem means stump, the imagery here referring to a tree representing the House of David. The implied prophecy is of the Messiah, who is to arise from the descendants of David. Common justice is constrained by its reliance on what is thought to be seen and heard; whereas Christ will judge on His knowing what is in the heart and mind, the implication being that, when mortal judgment is held in abeyance the feasibility of repentance that derives from the discovery of how to live righteously becomes possible. The further implication, then, is that repentance of the action or inaction removes mortal jurisdiction of it, that ultimate judgment is Christ’s, and that those who would not accept the repentance of individuals (the meek and oppressed, the oppressors being rulers and government or those with power over others) would be those who are to be slain (the wicked).

The Gospel is Luke 1: 39-56, which includes the Magnificat of Mary.

Raphael 1517 Prado

Raphael: The Visitation (1517), in the Prado

The scoring of the cantata is elaborate, with trumpet, tromba da tirarsi, oboe, oboe d’amore, and oboe di caccia added to the complement of voices, strings, and continuo, and deployed en masse in the choral movements. In the opening chorus, the bassoon part is written independent of the basso continuo, from which it is occasionally differentiated; in some instances it also parallels the line of the bass voice. Structurally, the cantata is in two parts, one before and one after the sermon, as was common. The first part begins with a complex chorus, then twice alternates between recitative and aria, and concludes with a chorale. The second part opens with an aria, continues with a recitative and a second aria, and concludes with same chorale. The second part, then, lasts about half the time of the first, no doubt inciting the appreciation of the congregation at its contemplation of the wisdom, invocations, and adjurations of the sermon of the day.

The opening chorus is in expansive 6/4 time, with a solo trumpet part of interest, and with sudden a cappella sections (with only continuo) of striking conviction and presence—the text concerned with witness and acceptance of Christ. The tenor recitative introduces Mary as mediatrix of the divine atonement for mortal sinfulness through Christ; which prompts the alto aria (voice, oboe d’amore, and continuo) whose sentiments are identical to those of the opening chorus: do not be ashamed to acknowledge the Redeemer, and if one does not deny His Godhead, Heaven will welcome you; and only you who believe.

Bach is intent to drive the message home. The bass recitative in its agitation reminds us of the blindness that often infects the mighty; but if in worship the poor and needy throng to the Saviour, who asks for the heart and soul of all who cry out to Him, the day of hope, long expected, will arrive. The soprano aria (voice, continuo, and a solo violin in an intricate line essentially written in 24/16 against the voice and continuo’s 4/4) persists in the message to become heartfelt disciples in order to receive the Grace of Christ’s mercy; so leading to the chorale (scored for full chorus and orchestra), affirming that if He is not forsaken, Jesus never will leave one, even if one’s heart should break. The chorale tune is Werde munter, mein Gemüthe (Be cheerful, my mind), known in English as Jesu, joy of man’s desiring. So ends the first part.

A tenor aria, in which the heart is aflame to magnify the Saviour, opens the second part. The scoring is unusual, even somewhat tensile, being comprised of only the voice and the continuo (of violoncello and violone) that includes an independent, highly decorated part for the organ, producing the effect of an implied 18/16 against the 3/4 of the voice and lower strings. Instrumental commentary through the use of two oboes da caccia, mostly in unison but at crucial parts of the text in dialogue, occurs in the alto aria, which returns the congregation to Mary and Elizabeth, and specifically links John the Baptist to the mediating purpose of the Visitation. The bass aria, scored for voice and the full orchestra with a jubilant part for the slide trumpet, deals with the mutual overflow of love between the divine and the mortal; indeed, the sacred and the profane, as is confirmed in the concluding chorale, musically identical to its earlier appearance, but now with different words confirming that Christ and congregation will congruent be and so remain.

Cantata 10 dates from 1724 and the second cantata cycle. Like cantata 147 it is based upon the Magnificat. It is more musically interesting than its predecessor, and also incorporates the melody of the Gregorian 9th psalm-tone, or tonus peregrinus, that is, the pilgrim’s chant. Lutheranism had assigned this psalm-tone to singing of the Magnificat, the canticle that had assumed considerable importance in the early liturgy.

The Gregorian eight psalm-tones, or modes, are based on whole tone scales. They are the Dorian (based on D), Phyrgian (on E), Lydian (on F), and Mixolydian (on G), termed authentic modes. Paired with these are the plagal modes, which begin a fourth below and rise to a fifth above the note on which its pair is based; hence, the Hypodorian is based on A, the Hypophyrgian on B, the Hypolydian on C, and the Hypomixolydian on D. The essential difference between the eight modes and the ninth is that the tonus peregrinus incorporates, in the first of the two verses, a note that would be expected to be the dominant but is adjusted one note upwards. Gregorian chant accompanied the Mass and other monastic, church, and chapel rites in Western Christianity. It was notated as early as the 10th century, having already by then been in monastic use for several centuries.

Cantata 10 has a bravura opening with flourishes in the orchestra of oboes, trumpets, and strings. The music is optimistic, the text based on the handmaiden Mary’s magnification of her purpose. The polyphony uses long sequences of first ascending and then descending steps in the bass and shorter segments of it elsewhere in the tonal fabric, and instrumental arpeggi derived from this groundbass as joyous punctuation. The tonus peregrinus occurs first in the soprano line (doubled by the trumpet), and later in the alto.

In the soprano aria, which is both energetic and bright, Mary communes with the Lord. The musical lines continue to use and upward and downward pattern, the wonder of the speaker accentuated by Bach’s occasional use of oboes in parallel with the strings. The fine tenor recitative, with continuo only, that follows, brings back the topic of the sightlessness of the mightly. It is extraordinarily moving.

The bass aria, in dialogue with a soloistic continuo, speaks of the pit of sulphur for the mighty and the lifting up into grace of the humble. The duet for alto and tenor is of disarming pathos, is based on a single line of text of God’s mercy for His chosen, and brings the return of the tonus peregrinus played in unison by the oboes and the tromba da tirarsi. The tenor recitative that follows, which speaks of the role of the Redeemer, concludes as a magnificent andante arioso over wave figurations in the strings. Sein Same mußte sich so sehr / Wie Sand am Meer / und Stern am Firmament ausbreiten (His seed would multiply / Like the sand on the sea-shore / And the stars in the firmament). It is one of those moments when Bach touches the hearts of others and his own.

And the final chorale, on the tonus peregrinus, is simple, and the world without end is of the most telling effect. The ascending scale returns, but does not descend.

For those, such as I, who resist the idea that faith will cure all, they nonetheless can take from these cantata’s didacticism the underlying concept, somewhat intertwined with the concept of the mutual desire and need of the divine and the mortal, that what constitutes delight in being alive is the recognition that life is greater than us; and that it would be inordinately helpful and prudent were we to accept this always and act, preserve, admire, and be thankful accordingly. But, I must add, this seldom being the instance in our Western ways, Bach composed cantata after cantata in, I like to think, an endeavour to stay the foolishness of the human tide.


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