Of Good and Evil – J.S. Bach, Cantata 19, at Michaelmas

Although the tenor aria, Bleibt, ihr Engel, bleibt bei mir! (Stay, thou angels, stay with me), is generally, and justly, considered the high point of this cantata, the aria that is the most penetrative psychologically is the earlier aria for boy soprano, Gott schickt uns Mahanaim zu (God sends us to Mahanaim). The aria is additionally scored for two oboes d’amore, with independent parts, and continuo.

The specific references in the soprano aria are found in Genesis 32:1-2:

And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him.

And when Jacob saw them, he said, This is God’s host: and he called the name of that place Mahanaim.

and Genesis 32:6-8:

6 And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, We came to thy brother Esau, and also he cometh to meet thee, and four hundred men with him.

7 Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed: and he divided the people that was with him, and the flocks, and herds, and the camels, into two bands;

8 And said, If Esau come to the one company, and smite it, then the other company which is left shall escape.

Frans Francken II: Meeting of Esau and Jacob (1620s). Courtesy: State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

Frans Francken II: Meeting of Esau and Jacob (1620s). Courtesy: State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

Hence, the two oboes d’amore, are always out of step with one another, and with the agitation in the continuo; for despite the circumscription of the camp by the angels of the Lord, the angels of Evil remain. The discomfort that is within the music is palpable, even disconcerting. And the voice part, allocated to the boy soprano, is plaintive, but also tremulous, the plaint subliminally unconvincing to those who are to hear it. In the continuo, the serpent Satan continues to writhe; and, from time to time, as if unconsciously, this writhing transfers to the singer. The aria communicates an acute, almost ardent, state of disquiet. A long ritornello, for the instruments only, begins the aria, and even more insistently, concludes it; without the voice, for the singer is left alone, solitary, unassisted, abandoned in the unresolved tensions and uncertainty of existence.

The enduring reality of this situation, both physically and psychologically, and hence spiritually, it may be too obvious to insist, also remains.

Location of Mahanaim (Courtesy: Gilbert House Fellowship)

Location of Mahanaim (Courtesy: Gilbert House Fellowship)

As is generally so in Bach (and, to large extent, in many other works of art), separating the part from the whole mutes the impact of the part, which cannot be fully felt outside the completion of the whole.

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