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Cantata BWV 111
Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit
Discussions - Part 2

Continue from Part 1

Discussions in the Week of February 18, 2007

Chris Kern wrote (February 18, 2007):
Introduction to BWV 111 - Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit

Discussion for the week of February 18, 2007

Cantata BWV 111 - Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit

Date of first performance: January 21, 1725 (3rd Sunday after Epiphany)

Information about recordings, biblical readings, translations, etc:
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV111.htm

Music example (Leusink [6]): http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Stream/BWV111-Leusink.ram

The chorale that this cantata is based around should be familiar from BWV 244, where it is used after Mt 26:42 ("Withdrawing a second time, he prayed again, "My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!")

Whittaker's opening comment on this cantata is puzzling: "One stands ever in awe of Bach's marvellous inventive powers; no problem seems to great for him to solve, except the mixture of recitative and chorale so often met with in this type of cantata." He does not further explain the meaning of this remark.

The main theme of the text is that God's will is absolute, but that it is for the good of people, so that you should not resist it.

Mvt. 1
Some have found the nature of this movement surprising given the text. Whittaker says that "this superabundance of plain undeviating crochets, minims, and semibreves denotes the certainty of God's will and acts", following the text of the chorale. The style is familiar; with the cantus firmus being given to the sopranos.

Mvt. 2
This is yet another continuo-only bass aria; it is relatively short. I didn't find it particularly interesting, so maybe someone else can comment on the musical structure.

Mvt. 3
The alto recitative alludes to the story of Jonah to make the point that even if you try to run away from God's will, it cannot be escaped.

Mvt. 4
There is a similarity between this movement and the aria "Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit" from BWV 245. Not only is the text similar, but the melody has the same shape. Perhaps Bach felt that there was a connection between the two movements since both deal with moving forward confident in God's protection.

Mvt. 5
The soprano recitative echoes the words of the duet in saying that even death does not cause fear because the singer knows that God has chosen the best time for death (shades of BWV 106?). This is an accompanied recitative with oboes, and the end of the movement is in
arioso form.

Mvt. 6
The standard concluding 4-part chorale.

I listened to three recordings of this cantata: Rilling [4], Harnoncourt [5], and Leusink [6].

[4] Rilling:
An overall good performance, but nothing especially standout. The duet has too much vibrato and the "competing opera singers" feel that Rilling's duets often have, but I like the solo violin. The bass aria is too choppy and forceful. The opening chorale is fine.

[5] Harnoncourt:
The first movement has a very strong ritornello, and the most audible soprano line of any of the performances. I like to hear the chorale tune declaimed strongly as in this movement. The second movement is a bit choppy, like the Rilling, although I like the organ. So few recordings use strong organs, even ones that profess to be HIP. The duet is fine -- not the best boy soprano, but not the worst either. Unfortunately the tenor overwhelms the boy. I actually like the treatment of the chorale here. It's not as disconnected and staccato as some of H's chorales.

[6] Leusink:
The first movement is so-so; not exceptional but not terrible either. The bass aria is the best rendition of the three, though. It takes a slower tempo with more legato, allowing the notes to be clearly heard (i.e. the long run on "widerstreben"). The duet is fairly good as well. Buwalda and van der Meel's voices blend together better than the others -- in particular, van der Meel avoids overwhelming Buwalda with a lead-role-in-an-opera-like tenor voice that many tenors (even ones in HIP performances) tend to use.

I'm not sure there was a standout best performance here -- they all had their strengths and weaknesses.

Douglas Cowling wrote (February 18, 2007):
Chris Kern wrote:
< Discussion for the week of February 18, 2007
Cantata BWV 111 - Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit
Date of first performance: January 21,
1725 (3rd Sunday after Epiphany) >
I have never heard this cantata before and was surprised to see another example of a virtuosic orchestral accompaniment (violins up to high E) with what I can only describe as an "easy" sing for the choir. There is very little chromatic alteration in the vocal parts -- the opening section doesn't have a single accidental. The lines are very regular with few of those awkward intervals that often make Bach such a challenge -- only at "und züchtiget mit Massen" (bar 96) do singers really have to work hard.

And yet there is no feeling that this is a B-level cantata. The terrific energy and drive reminded me of "Ach wie flüchtig" which has a similar feeling, although the choral parts are much more challenging in that cantata.

The parallel to "Ich folge dir" in the duet (Mvt. 4) doesn't seem very pronounced to me. Is this movement based on a dance form? Those dotted figure pedal-points and the abundance of trills are quite striking.

Alain Bruguières wrote (February 18, 2007):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< And yet there is no feeling that this is a B-level cantata. The terrific energy and drive reminded me of "Ach wie flüchtig" which has a similar feeling, although the choral parts are much more challenging in that cantata. >
BWV 111/1 also reminds me strongly of "Ach wie Flüchtig...", not just a matter of feeling: the theme of the ritornello is very similar.

In "Ach wie Flüchtig", the ritornello's drive evokes Ties flowing by inexorably, here I assume that it is the inexorable accomplishment of God's will which is suggested; isn't it a bit surprising that something as temporal as time's fleeting past (hence worthlessness of our earthly possessions and of earthly life itself) and something as eternal as God's Will are depicted in so similar ways?

Julian Mincham wrote (February 18, 2007):
Chris Kern wrote:
< Whittaker's opening comment on this cantata is puzzling: "One stands ever in awe of Bach's marvellous inventive powers; no problem seems to great for him to solve, except the mixture of recitative and chorale so often met with in this type of cantata." He does not further explain the meaning of this remark. >
My guess is that he is merely reflecting Schweitzer's views on these hybrid movements. Schweitzer simply did not understand what Bach was doing in them, particularly in some of the cantatas from the first third of this cycle (I posted some thoughts on some of them last year). Bach also incorporates the ritornello principle too, on occasions.

I think, from memory that you may find similar examples in Cantatas BWV 178, BWV 93, BWV 94, BWV 101 and BWV 113. Such movements are usually composed when long slabs of text need to be set---too long for a chorus or aria and, without some sort of relief, making a recitative int. What is interesting is the detailed attention Bach frequently gives to which lines are appropriate as recit (e.g. this may be comment upon the principles) and chorale (more likely to express the articles of faith) Too long to go into here, but a fascinating area not yet fully explored in print.

Alain Bruguières wrote (February 18, 2007):
Alain Bruguières wrote:
< In "Ach wie Flüchtig", the ritornello's drive evokes Ties flowing by inexorably, >
By which I meant 'time flowing by inexorably.' Sorry!

Chris Kern wrote (February 18, 2007):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< My guess is that he is merely reflecting Schweitzer's views on these hybrid movements. >
But BWV 111 doesn't have any of them. That's the main reason I thought the comment was puzzling as the first sentence of the BWV 111 explanation.

Julian Mincham wrote (February 18, 2007):
hybrid movements

< My guess is that he is merely reflecting Schweitzer's views on these hybrid movements. >
But BWV 111 doesn't have any of them. That's the main reason I thought the comment was puzzling as the first sentence of the BWV 111 explanation.

I now see what you mean. You felt it was puzzling NOT that Whittacker should hold these views but that that he should express them in the context of a cantata which did not include any such movements. I agree--it's almost as if it is in a sort of parenthesis in order to make a particular criticism and it seems out of place here.

But my general comments on both his and Schweitzer's views on these movements stand, I think.

Peter Smaill wrote (February 18, 2007):
The textual puzzle in this Cantata is the setting of prayers for resignation in the face of death without any apparent reference to Jesus at all. IMO however the allusion to the second person of the Trinity is indirect.

Unger's concordance relies as a result largely on the OT and we have an unusual reference to the Book of Jonah. Many remember the story of divine intervention in recuing Jonah from the belly of the whale, fewer the contrast with Jonah's loss of faith in God beforehand . When God apprioaches Jonah and orders him to to to nineveh,top cry against the wicked city , Jonah turns his heels in the opposite direction " But Jonah rose to fleeto tarshish from the presence of the Lord ". All this narrative is hinted at in the reference in BWV 11/2.

The perspective of the text is perhaps explained, as Thomas Braatz has pointed out, because the chorale is by Duke Albrecht of Brandenburg-Culmbach. (Dürr says Duke of Prussia(?) but this seems to be a confusion between our man, whose dates are 1522-1557 and the first Duke of Prussia and of Brandenburg-Ansbach, also Albrecht, but 1490-1568: see: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Lib/Brandenburg.htm.

The chorale was written on the sad occasion of the death of the Duke's wife. The ducal verses are written in part as a gloss on the Lord's Prayer and a plea for abandonment to the divine will. So they are written both from the standpoint of the christian and of Jesus' petitioning of the Father in the Paternoster, "Thy will be done".

The Cantata has no relevance to the readings for the day.

The duet BWV 111/4 is considered by Nicholas Anderson (in Boyd) to reflect Italian influence , particualrly that of Agostino Stefano, who worked in Germany. This connection was also made regarding the duet "Wir eilen" from BWV 78, and there is a textual reason for thinking the compositions related :

BWV 111/4 "So geh ich mit behertzen schritten" ("So walk I with emboldened steps")
BWV 78/2 "Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen schritten" ("We hasten with weak yet eager steps")

Here I wonder what Bach and his librettist intend by using a duet - to recall the Duke following his wife to the grave? More likely a subtle reference, even though the first person is used, to the image of the "walk with God" which frequently is a religious concept from the Psalms onwards.

In passing , the Boyd note also states that the Bach autograph score, which was thought to have been destroyed in Berlin in WW II, in fact survived and is now in the Biblioteka Jagiellonska in Krakow, Poland. Like Jonah and in line with its text, the work was indeed not swallowed up and survived the battlefield.

Douglas Cowling wrote (February 18, 2007):
Peter Smaill wrote:
< The Cantata has no relevance to the readings for the day. >
I have to disagree here. The second half of the Gospel pericope relates the healing of the Centurion's servant which gives us the theme of faith at the moment of death. Mvt. 4. refers explicitly to the hand of healing and Mvt. 5. speaks of the battle for the human soul on deathbed's pillow. Cantata BWV 72, "Alles nur nach Gottes Willen", was also written for this Sunday and concludes with the same chorale, "Was mein Gott will". A good argument could be made that the entire cantata is intended to be a monologue of the servant in the Gospel as a type of the human soul.

Chris Kern wrote (February 18, 2007):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< I now see what you mean. You felt it was puzzling NOT that Whittaker should hold these views but that that he should express them in the context of a cantata which did not include any such movements. I agree--it's almost as if it is in a sort of parenthesis in order to make a particular criticism and it seems out of place here. >
It's a little of both. Dr. Whittaker, writing as he was in the 30's and 40's, definitely was operating with the Romantic-era picture of Bach in mind -- that is, the superhuman genius in the backwater church, surrounded by people who disliked and couldn't comprehend his music, working with singers who could barely carry a tune much less sing his music, but yet he labored on for the glory of God.

This makes some of his comments hard to understand at times -- in particular, I'm not sure that he had a full understanding of what the chorale cantata cycle was. It's hard to tell, but from some of his comments it seems like he considers the cycle to be something foisted on Bach by the Leipzig authorities as a way of reigning in their incomprehensible genius composer. He often excuses "bad" movements by saying that the text Bach was given to work with was bad, or that Bach just didn't like the work so was trying to get through it.

I also think that Dr. Whittaker may not have foreseen a time when all these recordings of complete cantata cycles would be available and that people would want to consult his book for commentaries in that vein; a few sprinkled comments seem to suggest he doubted that many people would read his book at all. This may account for some of the odd, seemingly out-of-place asides.

Don't get me wrong, I think the book is an excellent resource and he did a phenomenal job given what he had to work with at the time.

Neil Halliday wrote (February 19, 2007):
The first line of the chorale melody is identical to the English hymn "O God our help in ages past", and also has similarities to the fugue subject of the "St.Anne" organ fugue.

The chorale melody of lines one and two is repeated for lines three and four, as well as lines seven and eight; and relatively complex harmonisation occurs with lines five and six ("He frees from want, this righteous God, and punishes with measure").

An engaging rhythmic vitality results from the continuous use, at a brisk tempo, of a `quaver and two semiquavers' figure, especially in a constant interplay between the oboes and violins; note the episodes with quasi-syncopated swapping of this figure (bars six to eight, etc). Sometimes the continuo joins the upper instruments with this figure.

While the choral writing is mainly in crotchets or longer notes, the instrumental writing accompanying the cantus firmus is incredibly animated, with whirling, continuous 1/16th note, scalar passages on the unison upper strings, often over animated 1/8th note passages in the continuo. Interesting modulations occur after the fourth line -into avariety of other keys.

Once again Bach's freedom in setting chorale texts is evident; the lower voices, usually in a diminution of the CM, enter before or after the commencement of the c.f., and in line five the lower voices enter together after the commencement of the c.f.

Richter [3] gives an exciting, powerful account of this movement, with intelligent and musically effective variation of dynamics, for example, use of sforzando on the two emphatic opening chords, etc., and a quietening of the strings at certain points, which highlights the charming `syncopation' between the oboes and strings at these places, although no dynamic indications exist in the score. His large choir maintains a satisfactory clarity of line, aided by the nature of the choral writing (noted above). Suzuki [9] is so fast that some of the attractive detail of the complex interplay between violins and oboes is lost.

Richter [3] works magic with the continuo only bass aria, aided by excellent singing from Theo Adam, but most of the praise has to go to the organist who weaves a realisation of great beauty around the somewhat uncompromising (on paper at least) cello line. Notice that the 2nd and third lines of text are set to the first two lines of the CM (ornamented). The long coloratura on "widerstreben" is melodically complex - in fact I find it difficult to make sense of its contour, even playing it on a piano; and in any case the pitch of a bass voice is likely to be difficult to follow in this type of writing. Leusink [6] has the same slow tempo for a similar concept as Richter. Suzuki [9] sounds very promising (I have only heard an internet sample) for the melodic clarity he brings to this `difficult' aria.

The modern string orchestras of Richter [3] and Rilling [4] are particularly enjoyable in the beautiful duet for alto and tenor, which features rich, lyrical writing for strings. The frequent trills on first violins are noteworthy, particularly lovely in Richter. Leusink's violins [6] seem very tentative and weak in places, and I simply cannot hear the first violins in the eight bars that have an attractive, oscillating, bariolage-like figure, about half way through the movement.

Note the four-note chords, which the first violins are required to play, as a conclusion to various sections.

I his duet, Richter [3] has excellent singers - Reynolds (who has clearer pitch than Watts with Rilling [4]) and Schreier - well balanced, able to maintain clarity of pitch in their frequently crossing-over vocal lines. It strikes me that Richter's singers have scarcely more vibrato than Leusink's [6].

Suzuki [9] is fast; listen to his trills - they are hardly more than mordents, or the violinists just don't attempt some of them. This performance sounds like a fast, somewhat `jumpy' dance; I prefer the flowing quality and greater ornamental detail (trills) of Richter's version [3].

Suzuki's accompanied recitative [9] features a vivid oboe sound, but he sounds disinterested in the final chorale, which he dashes off with excessive haste.

Douglas Cowling wrote (February 19, 2007):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< The first line of the chorale melody is identical to the English hymn "O God our help in ages past", and also has similarities to the fugue subject of the "St.Anne" organ fugue. >
The tunes have different openings: "Was mein Gott" has a rising minor third; "St. Anne" has a falling minor third. The following six notes are the same. The rest of the melodies are different. Do scholars consider the theme of the organ fugue which has the falling third to be a variant of "Was mein Gott" or an allusion to another chorale? Handel uses the same theme at the beginning of the Chandos Anthem, "O Praise the Lord" -- a rather daring move as Lutheran chorales were prohibited in the Anglican liturgy.

Russell Telfer wrote (February 22, 2007):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< The first line of the chorale melody is identical to the English hymn "O God our help in ages past", and also has similarities to the fugue subject of the "St.Anne" organ fugue.... >
A brief post on cantata BWV 111 to say that - IMO - this is Bach at his best. The music is thematically linked throughout, and the opening chorus is staggering, I don't think that's too strong. Chris, Peter and Neil, among others, have pointed out the ecumenical significance, and I can't add to that.

I originally heard the cantata for the first time probably in London at Smith Square, performed by the London Bach Society conducted by Paul Steinitz. Fantastic, devastating, when you hear it for the first time. Need to look for the programme ....

 

Continue on Part 3

Cantata BWV 111: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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