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Cantata BWV 177
Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ
Discussions - Part 2

Continue from Part 1

Discussions in the Week of August 24, 2008 (2nd round)

Stephen Benson wrote (August 24, 2008):
Introduction to BWV 177 Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ

"Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ" BWV 177 is a chorale cantata set "per omnes versus" on a 1530 hymn by Johann Agricola (according to most sources, but disputed by several BCL members (see Discussions at: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV177-D.htm ). Composed by Bach in 1732 for the 4th Sunday after Trinity, it was written to fill in a gap from his 1724-25 chorale cantata cycle, when he had written BWV 10 for the Feast of the Visitation which coincidentally had fallen on that fourth Sunday. The importance of that feast required that Bach compose a cantata whose text was unrelated to the Gospel text for the day, in this case Luke 6: 36-42 "Be merciful and do not judge." For "Ich ruf zu dir", then, Bach selected a hymn text whose central
message was a clear declaration of the primacy of faith over works.

A prayer of supplication, "Ich ruf zu dir" is notable, in one respect, for what is NOT there -- recitatives. Between an exceptionally fine opening chorus and the concluding chorale lie three arias for alto, soprano, and tenor. The progression of those arias displays increasing complexity of instrumental support -- continuo only in the first aria, continuo and oboe da caccia in the second, and continuo, solo violin, and solo bassoon in the third. Connections to the chorale melody become progressively distant in direct proportion to each aria's distance from the opening chorus.

Mvt. 1 Chorus: "Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ"
SATB chorus, oboes I and II, solo violin, strings, continuo

The oboes, the very first voices we hear, diverge in the very first measure, oboe I leaping a fifth in a 'call' motif and oboe II descending in thirds, that opening descending third interval characteristic of the openings of the vocal parts in this and each of the following movements. In the midst of that initial breath, a graceful, swirling violin figure intrudes that is repeated 118 times in the opening movement as the violins, both solo and tutti, go their separate ways from the chorale melody as carried by the sopranos. That recurring figure has a surprising rhythmic complexity for such a short phrase: 14 notes -- 3 semiquavers/4 demisemiquavers/4 semiquavers/2 demisemiquavers/1 quaver -- a lilting arabesque with an abrupt finish. And all of this happens in the first three measures!Bach’s mastery of the unexpected pokes through in several places in this movement, not the least of which are the syncopations and then the dotted rhythms in the violin in mm. 158-164. Subtle little quirky details at first surprise, and then, upon reflection, seem like the only 'right' touch. Unusual, too, is the fact that until m. 223, the cantus firmus entries in the soprano are all preceded by preparatory phrases in the other voices.\

The whole movement is what I like to think of as glorious cacophony. The oboes are doing their thing; the strings, both solo violin and tutti, are doing theirs; the sopranos provide a unifying core of the chorale melody while the other voices engage in imitative play underneath; and it all fits together seamlessly, maybe even 'miraculously'! The more one listens, the more one hears, a luxury for which we should be thankful, one not afforded the Lutheran faithful of the 18th century.

Mvt. 2 Aria: "Ich bitt noch mehr, o Herr Gott"
Alto, continuo

A ravishing plea for mercy expressed in a duet for alto and continuo. Some of the rhythmic complexity from the violin motif of the first movement creeps in here, particularly in the melismatic solo passages for the voice. That vocal line weaves exquisitely in and around a gently caressing continuo providing an absolutely hypnotic dialogue. The shape of that continuo line is reminiscent itself of the violin figuration in the first movement. As David Humphreys describes it in the Oxford Composer Companions "Bach": "The anguished tone of the text is reflected musically in the opening ritornello, which is partly based on a motif joining the 'suspirans' figure (a stepwise anacrusis preceded by a rest) to a sighing appoggiatura…" I find the shape of the ritornello figures intriguing, beginning with a 'v', then an inverted 'v', a repeat of those shapes, and finally a wedge culminating in the entry of the alto at the end of the ritornello. This, to me, is one of those places where rests are an immensely important element in the phrasing, and Bach has utilized them masterfully. The inherent hesitation provided by the rest at the beginning of each phrase underscores the supplicatory content of the text, the essence of which stresses the fallibility inherent in the human condition and the hope that God will overlook our inevitable failings:

"Grant me also the hope, in advance,
That when I must depart from here
I may trust in You
And not build
On all my deeds,
Otherwise I will regret it for ever."
(Dürr translation)

Mvt. 3 Aria: "Verleih, dass ich aus Herzensgrund"
Soprano, oboe da caccia, continuo

In E-flat major, following the relative C minor, this is the first movement in a major key, and is described by Dürr as sounding "full of comfort and propitiation on account of its singing melody and the warm alto pitch of its obbligato instrument, the oboe da caccia." The optimistic tone of this aria, according to Dr. Andreas Bomba in the liner notes to the Rilling recording [3], perhaps results from the operative textual reference to "life renewing". He also notes the "long joyful melismas".

Mvt. 4 Aria: "Lass mich kein Lust noch Furcht von dir"
Tenor, solo violin, solo bassoon, continuo

Citing Dürr once again: "Here, solo violin and bassoon surround the voice in joyful abandon, which is disturbed temporarily -- and, on that account, all the more impressively -- only at the words 'vom Sterben' (from death)."

The pairing of violin and obbligato bassoon produces a combined timbre and playful effect once more indicative of dance and celebration. And, once more, the supplicant stresses the relative importance of faith over action:

"No one can inherit
Or acquire
Through deeds Your grace"
(Dürr translation)

Mvt. 5 Chorus: "Ich lieg im Streit und widerstreb"
SATB chorus, continuo, (and instruments playing colla parte)

For a concluding chorale, the atmosphere is relatively relaxed because of the presence of passing notes and ornaments. Note the harmonics on 'umstosse' (overthrow) and 'Gefahr' (harm). Dr. Bomba once more: "…experts on Bach’s art of writing chorales will connect the Neapolitan sixth chord at the end of the sixth and the rebellious tenor voice in the penultimate line with the appropriate words 'overthrow' and 'harm'".

Word painting plays a significant role throughout the cantata. Besides the 'umstosse' and 'Gefahr' noted above, 'abkehren' (stray) and 'wenn Ungluck geht daher' (when misfortune comes near) in the soprano aria (Mvt. 3) and 'bestandigsein' (constancy) and 'sterben' (death) in the tenor aria (Mvt. 4) are all accompanied by appropriate musical gestures.

As usual, much information with respect to texts, recordings, musical examples, and provenance can be found from the first round of discussions at: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV177.htm .

"Ich ruf zu dir" is an unusually fine cantata that doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves. For those of you who are familiar with it, this is a wonderfully opportunity to become reacquainted with its felicities. For those of you who have yet to meet this enchanting music, you are in for a treat. I hope many of you will join in and contribute to the discussion this week.

Douglas Cowling wrote (August 24, 2008):
Stephen Benson wrote:
< "Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ" BWV 177 is a chorale cantata set "per omnes versus" on a 1530 hymn by Johann Agricola >
As always, a joy to hear and study a Bach cantata which I've never encountered.

A few features which struck me ...

* The concertate violin part in the opening chorus is exceptionally beautiful, especially the way in which the tutti strings enter for each line of the chorale when the voices and unsion oboes would obliterate the counter-melody. Bach uses precisely the same scoring technique in Cantata BWV 1, "Wie Schön Leuchtet". That's the only other cantata I can think of with concertate violin parts. Are there others?

* How many other cantatas do not have recitatives? Cantata BWV 4, "Christ Lag In Todesbanden" is one.

* The obligato duet for solo violin and bassoon is an unexpected delight and a formidable technical hurdle for the bassoonist. I can only think of the Sinfonia to "Am Abend Aber" which is equally demanding. Did Bach write this for a specific player? If he played the violin part himself, he certainly gave his colleague a workout!

* None of the performances I've listened to capture the "struggle" image in the chorale -- a rather violent "affekt" seems called for. The intensity of the part-writing reminded me of "Unter deinen Schirmen" in "Jesu, Meine Freude" which has a similar war-like text.

Jean Laaninen wrote (August 25, 2008):
[To Stephen Benson] The lack of recitatives is interesting, but also interesting is the point that the arias number three...once again, perhaps we have a theological statement.

Julian Mincham wrote (August 25, 2008):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< Bach uses precisely the same scoring technique in Cantata BWV 1, "Wie Schön Leuchtet". That's the only other cantata I can think of with concertate violin parts. Are there others? >
My favourite is BWV 7 the 3rd from the second cycle, a magnificent depiction of the mighty waters of the River Jordan. Also, uniquley it has the CF in the tenor part freeing the sopranos to soar above everything else.

Peter Smaill wrote (August 25, 2008):
[To Jean Laaninen] Some thoughts on BWV177:

One is immediately captivated in the opening movement by the violino concertante figure which appears 118 times (not a significant number!) . For me this is partly because of a statement, by the late Anne Leahy, that demisemiquavers indicate the Holy Spirit, possibly in the context of prayer; for there is no mention in the text, which covers the Father and Son only.

The structure is down to the fact that there?are five verses to the Agricola chorale and at 28 minutes it is already a long work.

Several per omnes versus Cantatas have no recitatives, BWV 129 being a recent example; BWV 137, "Lobe den Herren" which interrupts he monotony by use of violino concertante violinlikewise;?but also the early wedding Cantata BWV 196 which is a straight setting of Psalm 115.12-15.No recitatives there either.

Doctrinally this Chorale swipes at Calvinism : BWV 177/4 (Mvt. 4):

"No one can inherit
Or acquire
Through deeds Your grace,
Which delivers us from death".

Peter Smaill wrote (August 25, 2008):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< My favourite is BWV 7 the 3rd from the second cycle, a magnificent depiction of the mighty waters of the River Jordan. Also, uniquley it has the CF in the tenor part freeing the sopranos to soar above everything else. >
Thanks Jean, Doug and Julian,

BWV 1 depicts the Annunciation, the work of the Holy Ghost; BWV 7, very important doctrinally, is the Trinity at work and is explicitly depicting the Holy Spirit at the Baptism of Christ. So, demisemiquavers or not, this may be the purpose of using the concertate violino: to denote the third person of the Trinity. Light blue touchpaper......

Douglas Cowling wrote (August 25, 2008):
Peter Smaill wrote:
< BWV 1 depicts the Annunciation, the work of the Holy Ghost; BWV 7, very important doctrinally, is the Trinity at work and is explicitly depicting the Holy Spirit at the Baptism of Christ. So, demisemiquavers or not, this may be the purpose of using the concertate violino: to denote the third person of the Trinity. Light blue touchpaper...... >
It would be interesting to see if there is a tradition of a violin solo as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Beethoven certainly used it to spectacular effect in the Benedictus of the Missa Soelmnis, which in itself is a microsom of Viennese church music. A generation before, Mozart used solo violin, flute, and bassoon for the incomprable "Et Incarnatus" of the C Minor Mass.

Does Bach prefer the flute as a symbol of the Holy Spirit? He certainly uses it symbolically in "Et Incarnatus" of the Mass in B Minor (BWV 232). Have scholars decided whether the obligato in the "Benedictus" is for flute or violin? (flute last time I checked).

And if you're looking for Trinitarian Triplets, Cantata BWV 1, "Wie Schön" has three pairs of solo instruments: horns, oboes and violins.

Jean Laaninen wrote (August 25, 2008):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< My favourite is BWV 7 the 3rd from the second cycle, a magnificent depiction of the mighty waters of the River Jordan. Also, uniquley it has the CF in the tenor part freeing the sopranos to soar above everything else. >
Thanks for mentioning BWV 7. I took the time to listen for comparison and this is magnificent.

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (August 25, 2008):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< It would be interesting to see if there is a tradition of a violin solo as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Beethoven certainly used it to spectacular effect in the Benedictus of the Missa Soelmnis, which in itself is a microsom of Viennese church music. >
I think we tend to look for musical allegory when it's not there. String instruments made up the essential element of the baroque orchestra, so solo passages in this particular cantata could only mean anything more than the fact Bach (or maybe his children) had an opportunity to perform his own music and showcase some violin skills. The other instruments don't have any particular meaning either except they were available for performances. If Bach had used a chaleameaux, what important doctrine of Christianity would have that represented?

Julian Mincham wrote (August 26, 2008):
Kim Patrick Clow wrote:
< I think we tend to look for musical allegory when it's not there. String instruments made up the essential element of the baroque orchestra, so solo passages in this particular cantata could only mean anything more than the fact Bach (or maybe his children) had an opportunity to perform his own music and showcase some violin
skills. The other instruments don't have any particular meaning either except they were available for performances. >
Or quite possibly a combination of both sets of circumstances i.e. when Bach had a greater range of instruments available than the basic strings, oboes and continuo he may well have made the choice of solo instruments on other, possibly symbolic, grounds. Certainly it seems from the distribution of the cantatas that, say, a soloist bassoonist, virtuoso flute?or piccolo cello may have only been available at certain times.

However a further thought relates back to discussions that took place during the discussions of the 2nd cycle cantatas when some posters argued that Bach could not have written them all at the rate of one or two a week; he must, it was suggested, have been composing works weeks, months or even years ahead (a proposal which I?have never found to be very convincing).

But if it iassumed that the orchestration week by week depended upon the availability of instruments for that particular week, this seriously diminishes the force of this argument.

Of course he may well have been turning over the general ideas and strucures of movements well in advance leaving details (is the choice of the instrumentation a mere 'detail'??) to be decided in the days leading up to the first performances. But the ways?that the idiomatic characteristics of his? instrumental writing and the compositional ideas so often fit like a glove would tend to suggest that the works were conceived and composed as a totatity.

Ed Myskowski wrote (August 27, 2008):
Peter Smaill wrote:
< Doctrinally this Chorale swipes at Calvinism : BWV 177/4 (Mvt. 4):
"No one can inherit
Or acquire
Through deeds Your grace,
Which delivers us from death". >
Ed Myskowski replies:
Perhaps it swipes more widely than Calvinism, intentionally or not? A wag (not me!) stopped a Rabbi on the street and asked him to explain the Bible (as I heard the story), as fully as possible, while standing on one leg. The Rabbi pondered a moment, lifted his left foot, and answered:

<Love your neighbor as yourself. Everything else is commentary.>

Mary wrote (August 28, 2008):
[To Ed Myskowski] It's pure Martin Luther paraphrased. mav

Douglas Cowling wrote (August 28, 2008):
BWV 177 Sectarianism

Mary wrote:
> It's pure Martin Luther paraphrased. Mav <
Just as indication of how important these sectarian rivalries were and how closely texts were scrutinized can be seen in Handel's career. The Lutheran composer was appointed organist to Halle Cathedral after grave reservations by the Calvinist clergy. He went on to be suspected but the Catholic clergy in Rome and later by the Anglican hierarchy in London.

He wrote splendid music for them all.

Paul T. McCain wrote (August 29, 2008):
BWV 177 and Swipes at Calvinism

Peter Smaill wrote:
< Doctrinally this Chorale swipes at Calvinism : BWV 177/4:
"No one can inherit
Or acquire
Through deeds Your grace,
Which delivers us from death". >
Peter, there is nothing in this phrase that is a "swipe" at Calvinism. Lutheranism teaches this very truth as well. Calvinism does not teach man receives salvation through deeds or through inheritance, but only by the grace of God, in Christ.

Not sure where you see Calvinism in that phrase.

Perhaps Bach did take "swipes" at Calvinism in his Cantatas, but this phrase is no such swipe.

Peter Smaill wrote (August 30, 2008):
[To Paul T. McCain]
"No one can inherit
Or acquire
Through deeds Your grace,
Which delivers us from death".

I tremble at the prospect of debating Calvin with an ordained clergyman. Here goes;

Indeed the statement is an expression of the Lutheran position, and it is unfair to state that Calvin taught justification by works "tout simple", although his adversaries often held this to be so. Bach's librettist is I think considering both predestination ("inheritance") which is definitely but infrequently written about by Calvin, as well as the position of works in the scheme of salvation. Calvin is, it is true, not as crude as to put works ahead of Grace, but gives them a higher emphasis than Lutheranism. Here is a Calvin text (I think from rom the Institutes) on the subject, leading to the Calvinist position of double justification:

"In this way we can admit not only that there is a partial righteousness in works (as our adversaries maintain), but that they are approved by God as if they were absolutely perfect. If we remember on what foundation this is rested, every difficulty will be solved. The first time when a work begins to be acceptable is when it is received with pardon. And whence pardon, but just because God looks upon us and all that belongs to us as in Christ? Therefore, as we ourselves when ingrafted into Christ appear righteous before God, because our iniquities are covered with his innocence; so our works are, and are deemed righteous, because every thing otherwise defective in them being buried by the purity of Christ is not imputed. Thus we may justly say, that not only ourselves, but our works also, are justified by faith alone. Now, if that righteousness of works, whatever it be, depends on faith and free justification, and is produced by it, it ought to be included under it and, so to speak, made subordinate to it, as the effect to its cause; so far is it from being entitled to be set up to impair or destroy the doctrine of justification."

It is fair to say that Calvin is commonly considered to have a much less subtle doctrine than this, and Calvinist societies have historically put store by good works purely as evidence of election. Nevertheless the formulation above is surely different from Lutheranism on this point. Lutheranism does not seem to ascribe?salvific value to works at all, even though the tradition of charitable work in Lutheranism is active for other reasons, namely the call to imitate Christ as far as possible.

Taken together I still think this is a swipe at Calvinism. There is perhaps also an intention to expose the related Pelagian heresy of considering good works as a route to heaven. It is a swipe at something doctrinal!

Mary wrote (August 30, 2008):
[To Peter Smaill] As a former Lutheran who had to memorize Luther, I read the passage as a screed against the whole Roman concept of Indulgences. Luther came to his position long before Calvin. JC could be considered a rebuttal to Luther. But then again, I could be wrong.

 

Continue on Part 3

Cantata BWV 177: 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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