J.S. Bach, Cantata 163, at Trinity XXIII – Render unto Caesar

Roman coin

Roman coin

The gospel, Matthew 22: 15-22, contains the passage where Christ states the separation of the earthly state and immortal religion, thus accepting the dominion of the state and teaching the righteousness of Christian faith. This perseveres in today’s world, save that the secular and the sacred are conjoined to ensure we are sufficiently entangled to largely go the way of the co-conspirators, most of us not understanding that that’s the deal of any election year, illegal coup, and any suppression clothed as righteousness.

The cantata deals with the gospel of the day, and though prepared to accept the demands of the government, it places as the ultimate and better objective the abode of the Lord. Given that government is usually heartless, it seems reasonable to select divine perpetuity as a preferred place for the heart.

This is an excellent cantata, highly innovative in structure and orchestration. It needs to be listened to from beginning to end in order to grasp fully what Bach presents, and how. The penultimate movement is a duet for soprano and alto, Nimm mich mir und gieb mich dir (take me from myself and give me to Thee), which in effect asks God to give surcease from earthly existence and obligations. This movement is often sung by two female voices, but this changes the nature of the music, which is written for boy soprano and male alto.

The dualism evinced in earlier movements is merged, and, importantly, the violins and violas, which have been silent since the opening movement, now also play, but in unison. It is also the only movement in triple, Trinitarian meter.

The aria is even more imitational in structure than the earlier music in the cantata, as if union comes to arrive, and is very striking, with the chorale Meinem Jesum lass’ ich nicht (I shall not leave my Jesus)—which is the only music for the strings, and which is the unspoken but known, inverse of the text in that, in the chorale, it is Christ who gives Himself to the mankind—played thrice as six separate phrases—more dualism movingly resolved—by the strings; and with the exquisitely placed yearning of the soprano, near the close, very high in his register. Almost breaks one’s heart.

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