J.S. Bach, Cantata 188, at Trinity XXI – The Unity of the Universe

Autograph page from the 4th movement of BWV 188. Auctioned by Christie's in 2014 for £206,500.

Autograph page from the 4th movement of BWV 188. Auctioned by Christie’s in 2014 for £206,500.

Spinoza demonstrates that the idea of God and the actuality of Nature, the entire substance of the universe, are one and the same; that there is no teleology in the universe; that though men think themselves free, and believe they are aware how and why they work for their own advantage, this concept of independence is false, for it blindly puts aside the causes and essential conditions governing, inflexibly, our organic life. And from this vantage point, I find Bach’s theology perfectly intelligible.

Bach begins this cantata with a transcription of the last movement of the concerto for harpsichord and concerto in D minor, BWV 1052, with the organ replacing the harpsichord. It is monumental and decisive, and sets up, perfectly, the balance of the cantata.

The penultimate movement, a short recitative accompagnato for soprano crystallizes the observation, by its emphasis, that, ultimately, everything, all the ways of the universe, including suffering and pain, is inscrutable; discoverable, but never in its entirety; and sums its parts:

Die Macht der Welt verlieret sich.

Wer kann auf Stand und Hoheit bauen?

The power of the world is on loan to oneself.

Who can rely on status and highness?

The final chorale is the culmination of these perspectives, mine and Bach’s. It coalesces the intractability of the nature of existence, and ours within it, and the manifestations, for us (and by us), of trouble, terror, and suffering.

With my work on this cantata I conclude the chapter on Trinity XXI in the third book of the Bach cantatas series. I now expect the entire set of three that deals with all 80 of the Trinity cantatas will be written by the end of this November.

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