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Cantata BWV 128
Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein
Discussions - Part 2

Continue from Part 1

Discussions in the Week of May 20, 2007

Julian Mincham wrote (May 20, 2007):
BWV 128 May 20th

Thanks to Aryeh for posting the last few introductions in my absence. This is the first of the final half dozen cantatas of the second cycle.

BWV 128

CONTEXT

Cantatas BWV 128 and BWV 68 were performed within a fortnight of each other in May 1725. They share the distinction of being the only two cantatas of the last thirteen of the cycle to begin with a chorale fantasia, although neither work fully follows the format of the first forty. Nevertheless, and doubtless because of these fantasias, Bach retained these two works as a part of his second cycle whilst transferring the others with texts by von Ziegler to the third cycle (Dürr p 329).

This might be seen to reinforce the theory that Bach was interrupted in his grand plan of composing a cycle consisting only of cantatas commencing with chorale fantasias.

Nevertheless, it does not run counter to the alternative suggestion that after Cantata BWV 4 he welcomed the freedom of less constrained structures. Additionally these two make up a total of 42 chorale fantasias, 43 if we include the previously composed Cantata BWV 4..

The lack of self imposed constraints becomes apparent in different ways. For example, Cantata BWV 68 is the only one of the series not to end with a four-part harmonization of a chorale, it having been replaced with a somewhat puzzling fugue. Cantata BWV 128 is the only cantata to use one chorale for the fantasia and another at the end. These may seem insignificant points but they are indicative of Bach's endless urge to experiment and innovate. They also indicate that Bach was not, at this time, totally preoccupied with completing the cycle with works which followed the structure of the first forty.

Cantata BWV 128 was composed for Ascension Day, a highly significant event in Christian history. As befits its importance, the instrumental forces are large and impressive; two horns, trumpet, oboes of every kind, strings and continuo. In fact one finds here a greater concentration of orchestral forces than Bach was wont to employ even for the festive celebrations of Christmas! The chorale upon which the fantasia is based was clearly one that Bach liked and was familiar with. In the key of A major it closes Cantata BWV 104 from the first cycle. But Bach was also to use it in a later work Cantata BWV 112 of 1731, returning to the key of G. There he employs it exactly as in the first forty works of the second cycle; it not only closes the cantata but a fantasia based upon it forms the opening movement.

Thus we have a unique point of comparison, two fantasias based upon the same chorale and in the same key. It is interesting to study them together. The later work employs the lower voices in a sparser manner with less use of semi-quaver figurations. However, constant imitative entries are a characteristic of both movements.

There is, however, no obvious reason for Bach's decision to choose a different chorale to close Cantata BWV 128.

A glance at the movement layout indicates a further innovation. The recitative which might be expected between the two arias does not eventuate as a separate movement but is incorporated into the bass aria;

THE CANTATA OF THE WEEK:- BWV 128 Auf Christi Himmel fahrt allein
On Christ's lonely ascent to Heaven.
Chorus/fantasia (Mvt. 1)--recit (tenor) (Mvt. 2)--aria/recit (bass) (Mvt. 3)--duet (alto/tenor) (Mvt. 4)--chorale (Mvt. 5).
The forty-eighth cantata of the cycle for Ascension Day. Librettist:- Mariane von Ziegler.

The main textual themes revolve around the joy of Christ's ascent in order to take his proper place in Heaven and the implications for us of this momentous event. As usual, Bach reveals fundamental aspects of the human condition through aspects of the Lutheran dogma.

So given that Bach considered it appropriate to begin with a chorus (Mvt. 1) of some sort, what were his possible choices? An elegiac tone poem of the type that began Cantata BWV 6 would clearly have not been appropriate and a fugue (Cantatas BWV 103 and BWV 176) might conceivably have been too dense for such a festive occasion. So Bach fell back on his trusted chorale fantasia and obviously took pains to choose the right chorale melody, major, and strongly triumphant.

The text is a statement of allegiance to Christ. The instrumentation boasts an impressive trumpet, two festive horns, two oboes d' amore, one oboe da caccia, strings and continuo. The ritornello is ebullient and, full of appropriate rising figures suggestive of the chorale phrases. The horns have an infectious melody of continuous semi-quavers and the entire feeling is of jubilation and joyful ascent.

The lower voices enter imitatively to support each soprano cantus firmus phrase. They repeat the words of each line emphatically under the sopranos' final long notes. One tiny point of detail is that their imitative entries, based upon material taken directly from the ritornello or the chorale melody, all use motives with an upward direction; except for the seventh and final phrase. Here each lower voice enters on a four-note descending motive. It may be symbolic of Jesus 'coming down' in order to collect his flock. It is certainly an example of Bach's meticulous attention to text detail. Another of many similar examples of Bach's adapting the choral writing in order to emphasise a particular point may be found in the fifth phrase of the fantasia from Cantata BWV 111.

Joyous Ascension, however, is the order of the day and this probably accounts for Bach's getting the tenor recitative (Mvt. 2) out of the way as quickly as possible---call me, I am ready to depart from this world of fear and pain. Even the powerful images evoked by the words 'Angst und Pein' are given no particular emphasis.

The buoyant and authoritative bass aria is based upon a lengthy stanza, far too long for an aria and Durr (p 330) states that Bach himself inserted additional lines. It is quite possible that the original intention was to have had a second recitative separating the arias and, indeed, that would have been the conventional solution. But it seems probable that Bach's intention was to keep the momentum going for as long as possible. True, there will a transformation of mood in the more reflective duet (Mvt. 4), but that will emerge only at the point at which we have come to expect changes of direction; in the last substantial movement preceding the chorale. Bach solves his problem unconventionally by inserting a segment of recitative into an aria which otherwise turns out to be as cheerful as the fantasia.

The initial text is unambiguous---strike up a cheerful sound and announce to all--Jesus has taken his proper place and one day I shall join him! Trumpet and strings proclaim this with a mixture of fanfare and 'joy' motives. The principal melodic direction remains ascending, particularly when the bass enters.

But no real middle section eventuates. When the text turns to mention of the place where the redeemer lives, Bach moves into his dark key of F sharp minor and the aria turns into a recitative! It may be that the sheer variety of ideas expressed in the following lines made them, in Bach's eyes, unsuitable for setting as an aria----I wicome where He lives--if only I could build such a shelter, but I cannot--He dwelt upon a hill---- but hush and do not attempt to fathom His might and power.

It may well be that it was the complexities of ideas within passages such as this that made Bach suspicious and possibly dissatisfied with von Ziegler's texts; music often requires time to make its full impact.

So Bach chooses a compromise solution. The first six lines are set as an aria, the second eight as a recitative and, almost as an afterthought, the instrumental ritornello is reprised as if to say 'so there--that's how it's done!' But Bach does not ignore the complexities. The assiduous student will discover a number of examples of word painting embedded within the melodic contours of this finely wrought recitative.

Apart from the ending of the first recitative, the duet (Mvt. 4) is the only movement in the minor mode. Those who read widely will discover a rather tepid response to this movement claiming that it lacks the vitality and sustained interest of the rest of the work. But a real judgment about the quality of the movement can only be made by viewing it within its overall context and what this reveals of Bach's macro-planning.

It is certainly the longest movement in the cantata but by no means the longest aria in the cycle. It lacks the evocative, haunting quality of some of the oboe obligato arias that Bach has given us but that would not have been appropriate here. This is not the moment of doubt that we may have expected.

Bach might well have concentrated upon the notion of skepticism as a portrayal of the obverse side of the certainty and optimism already expressed. But here hic concentration is upon the awe and wonder we feel as we contemplate His might and power. The music expresses a perfectly proper Lutheran sense of the greatness and unfathomable attributes of the Christian story.

When listened to in this context this aria conveys a flawlessly judged feeling of our place in the cosmos; neither despairing nor wretched, but properly humble and accepting of those things which are greater than ourselves. This is an aria, which has, perhaps, been too lightly dismissed and it deserves re-assessment.

The closing chorale is especially rousing which may explain why Bach chose it in place of that upon which the fantasia was built. Its festive character is emphasized by the addition of two separate horn parts (compare this with the closing chorale of C 1 where the second horn is given a particularly vital role). The text speaks of our coming to God's right hand and ends with a confident prayer that we may be taken into that place for all eternity.

This is a cantata, which ends with the message with which it began. It makes less of a journey such as we find in other works; its theme is bold, clear and unambiguous. Only the sense of wonder portrayed in the duet (Mvt. 4) causes us to pause and reflect.

Cantata link:-http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV128.htm

Douglas Cowling wrote (May 20, 2007):
BWV 128

Julian Mincham wrote:
< They share the distinction of being the only two cantatas of the last thirteen of the cycle to begin with a chorale fantasia, although neither work fully follows the format of the first forty. Nevertheless, and doubtless because of these fantasias, Bach retained these two works as a part of his second cycle whilst transferring the others with texts by von Ziegler to the third cycle (Durr p 329).
This might be seen to reinforce the theory that Bach was interrupted in his grand plan of composing a cycle consisting only of cantatas commencing with chorale fantasias. >

I think it's worth reproposing that in the post-Easter cantatas, Bach chose to echo the reading of the post-Resurrection appearances of Christ from the Gospel of John by beginning each time with a bass aria presenting the Voice of Christ in a scriptural dictum. He is consistent in this pattern, returning for the Sunday after Ascension (Cantata BWV 183, "Sie Werden Euch") to a bass recitative.

Ascension Day was a major weekday festival and stands in some distinction to the Easter pattern as the event of exaltation -- Bach may even have in mind the Voice of Christ being taken away up to heaven. Certainly the use of "lordly" horns is unlike anything else in the Easter cycle. I suspect that the lavish orchestration reflects the importance of the festival to Bach' s congregation: Leipzig was shut down for the day as on a Sunday. Was this one of the days on which the municipal council attended as a body?

Peter Smaill wrote (May 21, 2007):
[To Douglas Cowling] Not only is the horn writing exceptional, so is that for the trumpet- as Whittaker observes, the trumpet has 100 consecutive semiquavers at one point in the second aria/arioso for that voice.

Normally it was the oboist who complained that Bach treated them as if they were bagpipes!

Winschermann [2], Gardiner [5], Rilling [3], Leonhardt [4], Leusink [6], Ramin [1]

Neil Halliday wrote (May 21, 2007):
The opening chorus (Mvt. 1) creates a sunny, happy sound, with more than a hint of ecstasy. Animated instrumental and choral lines swirl around the cantus firmus. No need to study the score, just sit back (or dance) and enjoy!

Actually the cantus firmus is a bit weak in places, in some of the recordings, so it pays to familiarise oneself with the c.f.- a look at the piano reduction score will do (but since I wrote this I see Brad has givem us a link to the complete BGA! Thank you, Brad).

The faster tempos appear to be better; from fastest to slowest they are Koopman [7], Gardiner [5], Suzuki [8], Rilling [3], all satisfactory; Leusink [6] and Leonhardt [4], a bit slow. From the samples, Leonhardt might have one of the clearer renditions of the c.f. but the sample only goes as far as the first phrase. Suzuki has just released Vol. 35; a strong performance of the opening chorus (Mvt. 1) is featured.
http://www.bis.se/index.php?op=album&aID=BIS-SACD-1571

The two horns (in C?) add bright orchestral colour in this movement (note these transposing instruments sound a fourth below than written).

[One detail: Koopman [7] begins the movement with the note (G in the continuo) on the first beat, so his first bar has beats on 1,2,3,4 in the continuo. The others, in accordance with the BGA, have AND 2 AND 3, 4; this rhythm is a bit trickier to comprehend at first, which may be why Koopman chose his method. Now that everyone has access to the BGA (for how long?) you can see what I am talking about].

I don't think I heard the trill at the end of the c.f.'s 2nd and 4th lines, in Leusink's recording [6].

Wow! The trumpet aria is certainly rousing, even exhilarating; and it contains what must be one of the most extended 1/16th note passages for trumpet in the repertoire. The aria has a lovely accompanied recitative, before the repeat of the ritornello with trumpet.

Leusink [6] has the best of the period trumpets, IMO; Leonhardt [4] (cracked notes) and Koopman [7] (sliding from one note to the next) are quite unsatisfactory. Immer on a modern trumpet with Rilling/Schöne [3] are .

I'm surprised Robertson found the AT duet (Mvt. 4) to be uninteresting.

Apart from the attractive oboe obbligato, the initial vocal `theme', given first in canon by the voices, and then in parallel, etc, is most tuneful, with its downward leap of a fifth, on "ergründen" -"fathom". The middle section has a variation of the "theme", and the vocal harmonies on "on the right (hand) of God" are especially attractive.

Rilling [3] has a lively tempo, which is probably a good thing, because the singers have strong vibrato, and the organ isn't the best; but there is nevertheless clarity of musical line, and I find this and the lively tempo make this aria quite enjoyable. The period versions are slower and this also works very well; Leonhardt [4] and Suzuki [8] are fine, Leusink [6] too, but the continuo seems separate from the singers and obbligato; Gardiner's singers [5] have as much vibrato as Rilling's; Koopman [7] has that problematic organ.

Conclusion: a most enjoyable short cantata.

Douglas Cowling wrote (May 21, 2007):
BWV 128 Horns in alt?

Neil Halliday wrote:
< The two horns (in C?) add bright orchestral colour in this movement (note these transposing instruments sound a fourth below than written). >
Do any of the performances have the horns "in alt", playing in the upper octave?

Neil Halliday wrote (May 22, 2002):
Douglas Cowling asked:
>Do any of the performances have the horns "in alt", playing in the upper octave?<
No, and I don't think horns "in alt" would be correct. The score shows that the initial 1/16th note figure on the 1st violins (doubled by oboe) is 'copied', always at a beat's distance, with the same figure on the 1st horn, then second horn, and then (again) on the 1st horn and 2nd horn, then 1st violins take up a broken chord figure also starting on g1. The cumulative effect of repeated phrases beginning on the same note (g1) is obviously required. Also, the highest note on the horns - d3 in the score, sounding a2, would be incongruously high in the octave above (sounding a3).

BTW, the ritornello progresses in an unbroken stream of 1/16th notes, ie, there is always a consecutive semiquaver on one or other(s) of the six instrumental staves, which is one reason for the lively animation of this movement.

2nd BTW: My understanding of transposing instruments is that if a note for the instrument is written as middle C (c1), but sounds as g (ie, a fourth lower), as is the case in this movement, then the instrument (in this case, horn) would be termed a horn in G. Is this correct? I can't recall hearing of a horn in G.

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 22, 2007):
Neil Halliday wrote:
>>2nd BTW: My understanding of transposing instruments is that if a note for the instrument is written as middle C (c1), but sounds as g (ie, a fourth lower), as is the case in this movement, then the instrument(in this case, horn) would be termed a horn in G. Is this correct? I can't recall hearing of a horn in G.<<
The Csibas ("Die Blechblasinstrumente in J. S. Bachs Werken" Berlin/Kassel, 1994) claim that this cantata was played on a Horn in G (as was also BWV 91. A Horn in G was also used in BWV 79, BWV 100, BWV 112, BWV 195, BWV 212, BWV 250-252. Ulrich Prinz confirmed this list in 2005.

Prinz reports (without taking sides in this issue) that the newest MGG2 states that the most recent research on horns, regarding the hotly debated issue whether a Horn in C or D in the performance of Bach's works calls for a Horn in C or D basso or alto, seems to favor more the basso than the alto. However, the issue has not been decided conclusively as yet.

Douglas Cowling wrote (May 22, 2007):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< Prinz reports (without taking sides in this issue) that the newest MGG2 states that the most recent research on horns, regarding the hotly debated issue whether a Horn in C or D in the performance of Bach's works calls for a Horn in C or D basso or alto, seems to favor more the basso than the alto. However, the issue has not been decided conclusively as yet. >
It's a fascinating question. Performance "in alt" produces a completely different orchestral texture, the horns sounding more like trumpets.

Neil Halliday wrote (May 22, 2007):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
<The Csibas ("Die Blechblasinstrumente in J. S. Bachs Werken" Berlin/Kassel, 1994) claim that this cantata was played on a Horn in G>
Thank you. I presume the matter of 'alto' versus 'basso', that you mentioned in relation to horns in C and D, does not apply to horns in G? That would confirm my observation that the starting note for the 1st and 2nd horns, as well as the 1st violins, in BWV 128/1 is g1.

 

Continue on Part 3

Cantata BWV 128: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Recordings & Discussions of Cantatas: Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Cantatas BWV Anh | Order of Discussion

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