J.S. Bach, Cantata 89, at Trinity XXII – Threat and Mercy

Cornelis Cort : Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (c. 16th century)

Cornelis Cort : Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (c. 16th century)

This cantata is concerned with the metaphorical presentation of a God whose judgment is merciless rather than patiently forgiving, and a humankind beset by, and, by itself unable to overcome, its own guilty shortcomings.

The librettist has chosen Hosea 11:8 for the opening movement:

8 How shall I give thee up, Ephraim? how shall I deliver thee, Israel? how shall I make thee as Admah? how shall I set thee as Zeboim? mine heart is turned within me, my repentings are kindled together.

Essentially this is threat clothed in mercy, and Bach provides some fascinating refinements of this in the opening music of his Sunday music, an aria for bass voice, strings, two oboes, horn, and continuo, in which he adroitly portrays threat, in a rising arpeggio, and mercy, in a wavering motif, simultaneously. The aria ends with the voice silent. The horn’s part, which is often dismissed by commentators, is rather fascinating: it emphasizes the unspoken decisiveness in the three questions posed, their question marks a point of sudden repose and silence in the music.

Nothing is accidental in Bach.

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