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Cantata BWV 176
Es ist ein trotzig und verzagt Ding
Discussions - Part 1

Discussions in the Week of June 10, 2001

Aryeh Oron wrote (June 11, 2001):
Background

This is the week of Cantata BWV 176 according to Thomas Braatz’ suggestion, the 3rd one in his proposed list of cantatas for discussion. This is an opportunity for me to welcome the new joiners to the Bach Cantatas Mailing List (BCML). All of you are invited to contribute to the weekly cantata discussions. Please do not shy away. The world of the Bach Cantatas is so rich and varied, and I have learnt to know that even an occasional and inexperienced listener can hear things that escaped the attention of the experts. The whole idea of this group is that we shall enrich each other’s world by sharing our listening experiences. There are already more than 160 members in the BCML, all of whom have joined (or rejoined from the previous list) in the last six months. But if I am not mistaken the number of the active contributors to the weekly cantata discussions can be easily counted on one hand. I can live with it, but I would like to hear more opinions. So, please contribute.

As a short background for this cantata, I shall use this time Oxford Companion:
“Cantata BWV 176 for Trinity Sunday was first performed on May 27, 1725. The last of nine works on texts by Christiane Mariane von Ziegler, it marked the completion of Bach’s second year of cantata composition at Leipzig. One of his shortest cantatas, it was his last completed work prior to his apparent cessation of regular cantata composition.”

Complete Recordings

I am aware of only 4 complete recordings of Cantata BWV 176, and during last week I have been listening to them all. Furthermore, two of these four recordings were done by the same conductor - Helmuth Rilling! I do not know of any other recording of this cantata, or of any individual movements from it. See: Cantata BWV 176 - Recordings.

[1] Helmuth Rilling (Mid 1960’s?; 1st recording)
[2] Helmuth Rilling (1980; 2nd recording)
[3] Gustav Leonhardt (1988)
[4] Pieter Jan Leusink (2000)

Mvt. 1 - Chorus

Original German text:
Es ist ein trotzig und verzagt Ding um aller Menschen Herze

English translations
It is an obstinate and hopeless thing about all men’s hearts (W. Gillies Whittaker & Alec Robertson)
There is a daring and a shy thing about the human spirit. (Z. Philip Ambrose)
There is a defiant and respondent thing about all men’s hearts (Murray w. Young)
The heart is wicked and deceitful in every mortal creature (Teldec)
There is something stubborn and fainthearted about the human heart (Richard Stokes)
The heart is deceitful above all things (Oxford Companion)

IMO, Young’s translation reflects the German text in the best way. In this case I can turn to original Hebrew text from Jeremiah 17: 9, and enjoy the wonderful and eternal biblical phrases, which are open to endless and unlimited commentary, and still can be read and please simply as they are.

Albert Schweitzer (1908, rough translation from Hebrew into English):
“In the first choral movement of this cantata it was noted in the directions to the parts of the voices of the choir, for the accompaniment of the theme, firstly forte and afterwards piano. It gives room to the assumption that Bach intended that the theme of the choir would also be sung firstly forte and from the middle piano [musical quotation]. Looking carefully, we can learn that all the choral movement is aimed for the direct proximity of forte and piano. The decryption of the words ‘stubborn’ and ‘fainthearted’ embedded in the text, might be seem somewhat naive. But from musical perception it is natural, even graceful.”

W. Gillies Whittaker (1959):
“The fugue subject begins vigorously and stubbornly; ‘ein trotzig’ is emphasized by repetition, as if in heated indignation. There are no expression marks in the voice part, but the whizzing semiquaver passage which accompanies (beats 3 and 4 of violin 1 are an anticipation by inversion of the second ‘trotzig) is marked forte and piano comes at ‘und verzagt’ [musical quotation]. One must conclude that the bassi are to be soft at the same point. The meaning is clear, the contrast between obstinacy and hopelessness. The same change is marked during the tenor entry; after the resumption of forte for the alto entry there are no more dynamic signs. One must assume that the method is to be followed throughout. The end of ‘trotzig’ and ‘und verzagt Ding’ employ two adjacent semitones, D# C, C B, a device not unlike certain progressions in Purcell in similar cases, a kind of cringing. The chorus (Mvt. 1) is splendidly effective, the vehemently declamatory lines producing turbulent mass of surging tone. The continuo rarely departs from strict doubling of the basses, two oboes and oboe da caccia strengthen the upper voices. The whizzing idea of the strings disappears after the exposition and comes again only, five bars before the end. Otherwise violins and viola pursue a motion of their own, mostly minims and crotchets, not always independent of the voices, as if they were some immovable rock round which tempests were raging.”

Alec Robertson (1972):
“The chorus (Mvt. 1) enters simultaneously with the strings in the first bar with these pessimistic words, which Bach sets to a vigorous and condemnatory fugue. The text has no direct relation to the Gospel or Epistle for the day – this comes in the recitative that follows – but his based on Jeremiah 17: 9; but later in the Gospel (5: 19) Christ declares that ‘men loved darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil’. The musical texture is highly dramatic and dense.”

Nele Anders (1988, liner notes to the Teldec recording)
“Bach transfers the interpretation of text and emotion to the structure and melodic shaping of the opening chorus (Mvt. 1), a large-scale fugue. The fugal theme is built up on the contrast between the defiantly soaring C minor triad and its upward scale passage to a ‘despairingly’ descending chromaticism. These two so very different examples of human behaviour are given a more profound significance by means of the reminder in the recitative (Mvt. 2) of Nicodemus.” [Snip]

Murray W. Young (1989):
“The text is based on Jeremiah 17: 9, which the four-part choir begins to sing immediately in a fugue played tutti by the instruments. They sing a vehement denunciation of mankind’s heart in a tumultuous and pessimistic tone, reminiscent of the tumult-motif in Bach’s Passions.”

Simon Crouch (1996, 1998):
“This very short cantata opens with the words of the title set to a what Robertson describe as a "vigorous and condemnatory fugue". I can think of no better description! If you're a fugue fan then this is probably the highlight of this work.”

David Schulenberg (Oxford Companion, 1999):
“The biblical quotation is set to a four-part choral fugue. The verse is too brief to be divided between subject and counter-subject but, although it might be seem to have presented little musical potential, the contrasting effect suggested by its two adjectives are exploited within the subject. This is divided into a lively triadic portion, with a rising melisma on ‘trotzig’ (‘spiteful’), and a quiet chromatic phrase for ‘verzagt’ (‘despairing’). This division is paralleled in the accompanying strings, which throughout the movement present their own counterpoint; the latter opens with a vigorous idea reminiscent of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, but this gives way to sustained chords that Bach marked piano in the original parts. The top three vocal parts are doubled by two oboes and taille. The form is unusual for Bach choral fugue: two and a half expositions (without ritornellos), each beginningwith a bass entry in the tonic (C minor); new counterpoint is added in the second exposition.”

Dingemann van Wijnen (Liner notes to the Brilliant Classics recording, 2000):
“BWV 176 opens with one of those amazing Bach fugues, which you cannot get out of your head after hearing them. The word ‘trotzig’ in angrily repeated. Before we realize it the number finishes.”

IMO, the notes from David Schulenberg are exemplary. They are much more elaborated than the usual shortish notes by Nicholas Anderson in the Oxford Companion. Read them again and again with every repeated hearing, and you will grasp gradually the essence of this movement.

Personal observation

As they say ‘the reality is in the eyes of the observer’. Or, what is a book? Is it the written words as were put by the writer? Or is it the association the reader has when he is reading the text? Anyhow, I would not like to argue with all the experts’ opinions, which are quoted above. I want only to say that my associations when hearing Bach’s music as was set to Jeremiah’s words is a little bit different from theirs. The movement starts with a very short ritornello, before the choir enters. It is as if somebody wants to say ‘see, that is where you were before, sure in your way and fear nothing’. And then, suddenly, without warning, a giant hand is grasping you in your neck, hurling you back and forth, and then throw you into a deep pit, leaving you there to think about your destiny, and that ‘There is a defiant and respondent thing about all men’s hearts’. And while you are lying there in the dark, your spirit is moving from despair to hope.

Review of the Recordings

(1) Helmuth Rilling (2:49)
This recording was done in the mid 1960’s in a series of cantata recordings by the German Cantate label, which drew upon the expertise of a variety of German Kantor-conductors, notably Wilhelm Ehmann, Helmuth Kählhofer, Diethard Hellmann, Wolfgang Gönnenwein, and more, and which was loosely connected by the editorial work of the NBA. I compiled a list of them from various sources and put in the following page in the Bach Cantatas Website: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Performers/Cantate.htm. IMO, the level of most of these recordings is very high, even in comparison to the most modern recordings. However, most of them have never been reissued in CD form, except some of the secular cantatas recorded by Helmuth Rilling. In his first recording of BWV 176, Rilling proves himself to be the master of the choir. In a complicated fugue like this, it is very important that every voice will be clearly heard, especially when you listen to the music without the score at hand. I especially enjoyed the upper voices (sopranos and altos). I believe that each vocal line can be more easily followed when a mixed choir is used. And their technique is phenomenal. Although Rilling is using a relatively big choir, each vocal line is unified and sounds like a warm, clear and rich voice. The association about which I wrote above in the ‘Personal Observation’ came into my mind while I was listening to this recording. The general mood is indeed pessimistic, but I also hear some hidden optimism underneath the surface.

(2) Helmuth Rilling (2:41)
Although the playing time is very close and Rilling is using the same forces (well, at least the names of the choir and orchestra are identical, although I believe that there were changes in the staffing of both groups in the period of about 15 years, which passed between the first of Rilling’s recording of this cantata and the present one), the approach is quite different. Where the first recording tended to emphasize the legato side, this one is serrated like a sharp saw. The contrasts between the two moods are extreme and can be clearly heard. One could think that Rilling learnt something from Harnoncourt. Well, one can always be benefited from learning and listening to others. This rendition is darker and reflects deep despair. It is more aggressive, loaded with rage and anger and indeed pessimistic, with no hint of suggestion for comfort.

(3) Gustav Leonhardt (2:35)
After so many cantatas, which have been reviewed so far in the BCML, I come to conclusion that generally I prefer Leonhardt to Harnoncourt in their joint effort of recording the (almost) complete sacred cantatas for Teldec. Leonhardt is more humble, less compulsive, and let the music speak for itself. On the other hand, his approach is dryer and less enthusiastic. His rendition of the opening chorus (Mvt. 1) of this cantata is precise up to being metronomic, and the changes from piano to forte can be clearly heard. But at the same time this approach sounds as a consequence somewhat less interesting than both of Rilling’s recordings do. In the comparison it sounds neutral, almost anaemic. After all, we are talking here about human feeling, despair and distress, even rage. Although the voices of the combined choir are wonderful, I like it less than both of Rilling’s recordings. Some warmth is missing, and the separation between the vocal lines is not as distinctive as Rilling’s are. In this interpretation I am also disturbed by the opening notes. As I wrote in the ‘Personal Observation‘ above, I think that the initial few instrumental notes, which precede the breaking in of the choir, are important. In this rendition they are barely heard.

(4) Pieter Jan Leusink (2:06)
I expected this rendition to be the opposite to that of Leonhardt’s [3], that is to say, less stiff and more spontaneous. But the quick tempo Leusink decided to take for this movement really ruins everything. This movement is full of lights and shades and many nuances. But in such velocity all theses delicate details get lost. It might be that those details are there, and that in slow motion process they can be heard. But who would like to listen to a recording in slow motion? The tempo the interpreter is taking is a mean of expression, which should be chosen after a serious thought. I do not think that such preliminary thought had been given to this interpretation before this recording was done. However, I found one positive point in this rendition. The opening instrumental notes, missed by Leonhardt, are given here the right attention, and therefore the entry of the choir is more meaningful.

Conclusion

I like both of Rilling’s recordings of the opening chorus (Mvt. 1). Although they are quite different in their approach, each one of them can give enormous satisfaction.

And as always, I would like to hear other opinions, regarding the above mentioned performances, or other recordings.

Marie Jensen wrote (June 12, 2001):
BWV 165 O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad
BWV 194 Höchsterwünschtes Freudenfest
BWV 176 Es ist ein trotzig und verzagt Ding
BWV 129 Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott

are the cantatas listed for Trinity Sunday. Last year BWV 165 was discussed.

Looking at the titles BWV 176 is different . It is hard to believe, that it should be for the same Sunday as the others. It seems to have nothing to do with the celebration of The Holy Trinity. The words Trotzig --obstinate, verzagt---shy are not exactly festive and the opening fugue is edged and defensive, moving with tiny steps on tiptoes as the adjectives indicate. I find this approach very exciting: Beginning with man:shy, perhaps obstinate, but curious, excited to meet God.

Try to compare with BWV 129: a traditional celebration with trumpets, drums and "Gelobet sei der Herr"! **

BWV 176
Mariane von Ziegler, the librettist, is very interested in the pharisee Nicodemus who in the darkness of the night has come to Jesus to learn from Him. He is shy, perhaps obstinate to. At least he wants to listen; he cannot wait till the sun has set.The late hour of his visiting shows how afraid he is for his collegues. This could easily take place in a post-christian society, where faith in Jesus has become suspect in many circles again. But as he begins to believe, he has to repeat the good news twice in the bass recitativo "Weil alle, die nur an dich glauben, nicht verloren werden"

The opposite of the edged "human fear" fugue is Mvt. 5, the alto aria "Ermuntre dich" with Oboe I/II e Oboe da caccia all' unisono, which of course is going completely Trinity: Three intruments firmly glued together dancing around the voice. From time to time there are these monophone dances in end of Bach cantatas, often symbolising the souls union with God. (for example, BWV 186 mvt 10..Lass Seele kein leiden von Jesu dich scheiden).They always surprise me: Bach the master of polyphony and counterpoint writes such music. For a moment I think, how funny. But of course, when JSB uses a certain musical form, there is always an idea behind.

(4) Buwalda or not, I find this cantata concept very interesting.

** If you are in for untraditional worshipping, then try Stockhausens Gesang der Jünglinge. 3 Wienersängerknaben, Thomaner - or who they are- in Nebudkanezers furnace , "Preise dem Herrn" cut out in pieces in a strange universe of radio noises. Can anybody recommend a good recording?

Thomas Braatz wrote (June 12, 2001):
BWV 176 - Commentary [Spitta's comments, Schweitzer's comments, Alfred Dürr, Nele Anders (1988), Dingeman van Wijnen (2000), David Schulenberg (1999, Oxford Composer Companions [Boyd]), Eric Chafe (1991, Tonal Allegory in the Vocal Music of J.S.Bach), my own slant on this cantata]

See: Cantata BWV 176 - Commentary

Recordings:

I have the Rilling (1980) [2], the Leonhardt (1988) (3), and the Leusink (2000) (4).

Mvt. 1 Chorus
With Rilling (2) the tempo is appropriate (the same tempo that Leonhardt (3) uses) because it allows the music to 'stand solidly' in space as they utter their defiant fugal entries on the ascent. But on the descent, the two-note phrases can be heard, not as 'sighs' but rather determined phrases with very little change in volume in the voices. Leonhardt has very little defiance in his approach which completely understates that aspect of the text, and he chooses to highlight the 'sighs' that sound more like crying or wailing. When the sopranos and altos have 16th notes, they let their voices glide from one note to the next which makes me wonder at times whether they really sing each note correctly as they 'slide' from one note to the next very quickly. Leusink (4) begins very fast, as if to say to Gardiner, "I can beat you at your own game!" Everything is more staccato and as a result the mvt. lacks solidity or a firm foundation which this fugue demands. The sopranos, whose falsettist qualities I do not like anyway, sound uncontrolled and insecure at times as if they are not sure about the note they have 'landed on.'

Mvt. 2 and Mvt. 5 Alto Recitative and Aria
Esswood (3) has trouble hearing the intonation correctly. This happens in the recitative as well as in the middle section of the aria. Buwalda (4) 'whoops' and 'swoops' a bit when trying to attack the high notes after coming from a lower note. Watkinson (2) sounds almost like a counter-tenor at times. There is that particular quality to her voice. In the aria you will hear her 'trembling' vibrato which distracts from the beauty of the performance. With a much larger voice capacity than the other two, she was able to sing the long melismas without taking a breath.

Mvt. 3 Soprano Aria
Holton (4) is fortunate to have a very light instrumental accompaniment, otherwise her voice would disappear entirely in the low range. Her voice is simply too small and is unable to be heard properly on the long held note on the word, "ruhn" ("rest"). She is so busy trying to hit all the notes, that there is little expression to be heard. Echternach (3) has to cope with an even faster tempo. The orchestral accompaniment is very light allowing the boy soprano not to have to fight yet another battle against a loud instrumental ensemble. But from the very first note he sings, it becomes apparent that "he is not going to make it." Well, he does make through, but not without serious problems. He even tries a vibrato, which does not help his voice one bit. If there is one thing that he 'has got down,' it is the long held note, wherever it appears. He has more suitable volume than Holton and does it without a vibrato or tremolo as well. But one note does not an aria make! Nielsen (2) will have to be my choice. She has a full voice with expression that she can project into a large church and still be heard properly even without a microphone.

Mvt. 4 Bass Recitative
All three versions are very good with Ramselaar (4) having a better voice quality than Egmond (3), but Egmond having more expression. Heldwein (2) has a large voice that can be heard in a large church clearly.

Mvt. 6 Chorale
Leonhardt's version (3) is truly unsettling (awful, terrible) with each note receiving extra emphasis, all of which destroys the flowing line in the music. Does he really think that this sounds good? He must have been glad that this series was almost over. Leusink (4) takes the chorale (Mvt. 6) faster, but the musical line flows more evenly. Although Leonhardt clipped the fermati only slightly, Leusink has appropriated this unique feature for himself. In almost every chorale I hear conducted by him, the value of the note below the fermate is clipped short (too short), it is as though the fermate did not exist at all, or that it indicates for Leusink just the opposite of its real meaning. The last 5 or 6 notes of the chorale (Mvt. 6) are spoiled by the falsettists having to go to the higher part of their range. I know that I will never get used to this sound. Rilling's version (2) is the best, since there is nothing else left to choose from. Seriously, it is a good version, but I would like to hear others that are well performed. Is a four-part chorale that difficult to perform properly? The answer, unfortunately, seems to be 'yes.'

 

Continue on Part 2

Cantata BWV 176: 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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