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Cantata BWV 2
Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein
Discussions - Part 2

Continue from Part 1

Discussions in the Week of June 4, 2006 (2nd round)

Eric Bergerud wrote (June 3, 2006):
June 4; Introduction: BWV 2

Cantata BWV 2: Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein

One wonders if Bach's best boy soprano was ill or suspended during mid-June 1724 because, as in BWV 20 performed the week before, the master composed BWV 2 without a soprano aria. Yet this melancholy but beautiful work is quite different from its predecessor of the 2nd Leipzig cycle. While BWV 20 was complex and ornate, BWV 2 looks backward in style. It opens with a splendid motet that Whittaker finds reminiscent of Pachelbel. (Sounds like Bach to me.) There are lovely arias for tenor and alto. A simple, somber chorale finishes the work. Anyway, pick the tenor or alto of your choice and I don't think any available performances will disappoint.

Those on the list at all interested in the message that accompanies the music should certainly examine the text of the cantata and the Luther hymn that it's based upon (both linked below) and read the fascinating discussion from 2002. Luther's work, based upon a Psalm, laments the difficulties facing the believers in maintaining faith in the Lord, a message that is prominent in both Testaments. I think it's pretty clear however that Luther was speaking of matters beyond the eternal. As his Catholic critics had predicted once schism began in the Church it proved impossible to control and threatened temporal as well as spiritual anarchy. Some of Luther's followers at Wittenberg expanded greatly on Brother Martin's message and took it in a mystical or theocratic direction. As Luther knew all too well tension between the classes was running high before the 95 theses. By 1522 Protestant radicals were quite intentionally stoking these fires to Luther's horror. (With all due respect to my predecessors in 2002, I don't think Luther was referring to the Anabaptists in his hymn. Rather, I suspect, he was directing his rhetorical guns much closer to home at individuals like Andreas Karlstadt , Thomas Müntzer and their followers many of whom wished to use violence to create a theocracy, a concept that that ran completely counter to Luther's teachings. Indeed, the issue so concerned Luther that he left hiding at Wartburg and returned to Wittenberg to lecture in favor of moderation, in Augustinian garb no less, but vainly as it turned out.) I also think it's possible that, as suggested in the discussion, Bach himself was employing the message at hand to warn against the rationalism of the early Enlightenment. Regardless of the politics or theology brought up the work deals movingly with spiritual confusion - an issue that far transcends any particular faith or historical period. There's a lot to think about here and great music to appreciate. I hope members of the list will offer their views.

Details:

Cantata BWV 2: Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein (Ah God, look down from heaven)
Event: 2nd Sunday after Trinity
First Performance: Leipzig June 18, 1724.
Readings: Epistle: 1 John 3: 13-18; Gospel: Luke 14: 16-24
Text: Martin Luther (Mvts. 1, 6 - after Psalm 12); Anon (Mvts. 2-5)
2002 Discussions: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV2-D.htm

Chorale Text: Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/Chorale026-Eng3.htm

German-English Text: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/BWV2-Eng3.htm

Complete Leusink Performance [4]: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Mus/BWV2-Mus.htm

Excerpt from liner notes by Clemens Romijin accompanying Leusink performance [4]:

Cantata BWV 2 'Ach, Gott, vom Himmel sieh' is the second work from the 1724 chorale-based cycle; it employs a chorale text in which Luther made a free adaptation of parts of Psalm 12. The six-movement work is embraced by two choral movements, the first a strict, archaic motet with the cantus firmus in the alto, and the last a simple four-part chorale. In between are two recitative-aria pairs.

Structure and Timings (from Leusink [4])

Mvt. 1. Coro [S, A, T, B] (4'13)
Violino I e Trombone I col Soprano, Violino II e Oboe I/II e Trombone II
coll'Alto, Viola e Trombone III col Tenore, Trombone IV col Basso, Continuo

Mvt. 2. Recitativo [Tenor] (1'15)
Continuo

Mvt. 3. Aria [Alto] (3'48)
Violino solo, Continuo

Mvt. 4. Recitative [Bass] (1'50)
Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo

Mvt. 5. Aria [Tenor] (5'52)
Oboe I/II, Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo

Mvt. 6. Chorale [S, A, T, B] (1'00)
Violino I e Oboe I/II e Trombone I col Soprano, Violino II e Trombone II
coll'Alto, Viola e Trombone III col Tenore, Trombone IV col Basso, Continuo

Peter Smaill wrote (June 4, 2006):
BWV 2 could not be more different in its first movement from its predecessor BWV 20; in place of a contemporary Frenchified, secular-mocking, overture, we have a stern antique Motet. Bach seems to be aiming at "unity by diversity"; the first movements of the second cycle's Canatats for the first three Sundays in Trinity are highly diverse.

In the case of BWV 2 the cause is Luther. Melamed, in his survey "Bach and the German Motet", notes that Chorales whose texts are by Luther are especially chosen for motet-style treatment : these are BWV 4/5; BWV 182/7; BWV 2/1, which we here examine; BWV 38/1, BWV 121/1; BWV 28/2; BWV 14/1 and BWV 80/1. Either there is a text by Luther, or a "dictum" specially suited to the objective, didactic workings of a strict motet form.

With the brass parts "colla parte", the effect is particularly archaic and of severe beauty. The effect is due also to the modalism of the Chorus, and also the final Chorale ,'a plain choral setting" (Dürr).

Is it? Modulating into A Minor from G minor and resolving unexpectedly to D major at the end, in a similar fashion to the tonally-mysterious BWV 46, "Schauet doch", heard on the 10th Sunday after Trinity 1723?

Chafe , in "Analysing Bach's Cantatas", devotes many pages to BWV 2 and repeats the Werckmeister analysis of the peculiar tonality of the first and last movements as Hypophyrigian. The impact is that the only relief (apart from one aria) to the gloomy texts (and key settings) are the D major resolutions of the austere opening Motet and the final Chorale, both effects highly satisfying therefore (Chafe finds the Chorale ending ambiguous nevertheless).

Otherwise the greatest interest is the tenor aria, BWV 2/5. Here the contrary movement of the (rising) vocal line and (descending) lower parts seem to indicate both the distillation of silver from base metals and the exby means of the Cross of the Christian from abandonment to the heretics and Godless. "Kreuz" is given exquisite chromatic melismas and (per Timothy A Smith) Circulatio ornamentation, making it the key-word of the Cantata.

As often in the Chorale cantatas there is only an approximate relationship to the readings for the day (It is a paraphrase of Psalm XII) - the Gospel of the absent supper-guests is ignored - and we have thus only a generalised reflection on the waywardness of mankind. But in what intense form !

Julian Mincham wrote (June 4, 2006):
Further thought about BWV 2

BWV 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein Oh God, Look down from Heaven

Another cracking cantata and, as Peter has pointed out, so different from the last week's BWV 20.

The theme of the work is the barrenness of life on earth without the word, trust and love of God.

Noteworthy is Bach's return to the older, more traditionally Germanic motet form for the first movement. The first cantata of the cycle Cantata BWV 20 began with a French overture style chorus with overtones of wealth and power. Cantata BWV 7, the third of the cycle, will begin with an almost symphonic representation of the waters of the river Jordan, combining an Italianate ritornello and concerto structure with largely homophonic choral blocks. No three chorale choruses could be more different in style, form and tradition.

There is little doubt that, in making these wide ranging choices for works to be performed within the space of a fortnight, Bach is thumbing his nose at his critics. He is, in effect, saying to his congregations and authorities you will be hearing music of all styles from all nations; operatic, modern, traditional, experimental. All that matters is that the music is good and fit for purpose; 'well regulated' as he himself described it. This is a statement of supreme confidence, possibly even arrogance!

As already stated the chorale is of more than usual interest. Bach used it in at least three harmonized versions, notably in Cantata BWV 153, an earlier work from the first cycle. That harmonization, a tone higher, is more straight forward centred solidly in the key of A minor. The harmonization for this cantata is very different. The first phrase is unchanged. But the Ab chord which begins the second phrase "Fur Diesem argn Geschlechte" is very weird and unrelated to the chords which precede and follow it. The harmony is thus coloured in such a way as to mark (I suggest) the evil ones as being outside or external to the normal God fearing community. Similarly the last line has a tonal dissonance as the chords pass through C minor to come finally to rest on the chord of D major. This is the dominant, or "unfinished" chord of the chorale's key, G minor and it is not uncommon for Bach to end a harmonization in this way. (O Sacred Head). But here he makes a particular point; the idea of the heretics and the godless being around but not with us and separating us from God's truth, is painted in tonal terms right to the last chord.

It is always interesting to note when Bach reharmonises a chorale for a new cantata. Once the constraints of practical resources and lack of time (which sometimes required the rehashing of an earlier movement, or indeed a whole work) are put aside, it becomes clear that Bach never does anything without good reason. If the chorale is reharmonised, it is not simply because he has had second thoughts or thinks he can improve on the earlier version. It is because his extraordinary sensitivity to the text stimulates his imagination anew. He finds new ways, tonal, dissonant or textual which he can use to reinforce the religious message, the individual images or both. Why else that almost bizarre Ab chord?

The chorale provides material for much of the rest of the work, though not all. The opening chorus, as we shall see is a typically dense motet-like movement which discusses each of the chorale phrases in turn, but the two arias show little evidence of thematic connections. In fact Schweitzer (p376) suggests that the tenor aria may well have come from another work but provides no evidence. However there is no doubt about the recitatives, particularly the first one. It begins with an overlapping imitation (one could hardly call it a canon) between the tenor and the bass line of the chorale's first phrase. The bass line also uses a version of the third phrase a little later. The second recitative makes considerable use of the stepwise movements of both the chorale melody and its bass and heralds the scalic quaver movement (in both directions) of the following aria.

The opening chorus is scored for four part chorus with the parts doubled by strings, two oboes and the inevitable trombones. This movement is somewhat reminiscent of the second Kyrie of the B minor Mass (BWV 232). Both impress with the highly chromatic harmony which Bach loved to employ in minor keys and both end with a heavenly soaring of the sopranos. Another similar movement, in terms of the arid chromaticism and touches of Phrygian harmony is the opening chorus of BWV 38 from the first cycle.

One of the main differences in strategy between this and the opening movement of BWV 20 is that here all voices make much of the chorale melody. (In Cantata BWV 20 the remaining three voices simply support the cantus firmus line.) Chorale phrase 1 is introduced immediately by tenors, followed by basses then sopranos. Finally the altos take it up but with the notes augmented; twice as long as in the first three statements. Then comes the second phrase treated in much the same way in that the order of the voices is the same: T,B, S and Alto with the augmented version, but here Bach increases the intensity of expression in two ways. Firstly the entries overlap; the basses come in with their statement before the tenors have completed theirs; and the sopranos enter on the basses' third note.

But Bach has also racked up the tension with his use of highly chromatic harmony. This should not be a surprise since the bass line suggested it as early as Bars 3 and 4 and the tenors have the same semitone progression five bars later. This is very typical of Bach's musical thinking. An element which is later to become highly significant, either structurally or in order to point the imagery, is often introduced humbly and without fanfare at an earlier stage. We are unlikely to notice it consciously; but it lodges, somehow, within our brains and we are emotionally prepared for the event when it later unfolds.

The chromatic harmony induces a harsh and arid quality to this movement which, to the modern ear, may well invoke the cold, lifeless scene of a waterless and barren planet surface .It reminds us of the language of some of the late works such as the Musical Offering or the Art of Fugue. Nevertheless it is, in this instance, not totally uncompromising. Bach's message is that when we live in an environment where God's word is absent, life will be bare and sterile. But there is always hope; and this will be reinforced in later movements.

The general mood of the alto aria, with florid violin obligato is, as first sight, surprisingly benign, particularly when the text provides what must have seemed tempting images of "destroying", and "Driving out of heresies and false dogma" One might, perhaps have expected a movements of driving relentlessness as, for example, opens Cantata BWV 168. But Bach forgoes this because he is taking the wider view. The opening and closing movements are designed to convey the desolation of life without God's word but this fundamentally negative outlook does not fit well with Bach's positive Lutheranism. Warnings must be given and heeded, but Bach's religion is basically optimistic, seeing, extolling and living one's life by the virtues of a close relationship with God. The overall mood of the cantata must not one of unredeemed pessi; hence this aria. Bach was, as we know an excellent and sought after teacher. Frequently this is reflected in the cantatas which have a strong moral or instructional element. Bach knows that it is poor psychology to emphasise only the gloom and doom; humans need also the positive aspects towards which to strive. This music is not primarily about the desolation of religious alienation, but the very opposite; this is the certainty and inner strength which all may attain when "false words"are banished and the truth adopted. There is one moment which binds this aria irrevocably to the chorale. On the last line of text "Trotz dem,der uns will meistern," (the speaking of the heretics against he who should be their master) Bach employs the complete final melodic line of the chorale.

The tenor aria is similarly restrained. The text is a simple moral which reminds the Christian of the need to be patient in suffering since the prize comes through the forbearance of affliction. Again the obvious images of fire as a purifier and Christ's suffering on the cross are not dwelt upon. The key returns to the minor which reminds us of the barrenness of the first movement but the rhythms are smooth, flowing and conjunct in all contrapuntal lines. A quiet and composed acceptance of circumstances is the key message here. There is an emphasis throughout on a flowing quaver melodic line in all parts, the idea of which is taken from the first four notes of the chorale. But the convoluted tenor line in the middle section clearly conveys the message that whilst patience in adversity may be an essential part of the good Christian's credo, it is not going to be easy!

This was only the second cantata of the second cycle. Nevertheless it demonstrates Bach's tightly structured, organic approach to the composition of "well regulated" church music. We shall come across numerous examples of this highly organized approach to musical composition in our journey through the cycle. However, one could spend a year on this single work and still be learning more about it.

Douglas Cowling wrote (June 4, 2006):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< There is little doubt that, in making these wide ranging choices for works to be performed within the space of a fortnight, Bach is thumbing his nose at his critics. He is, in effect, saying to his congregations and authorities you will be hearing music of all styles from all nations; operatic, modern, traditional, experimental. All that matters is that the music is good and fit for purpose; 'well regulated' as he himself described it. This is a statement of supreme confidence, possibly even arrogance! >
I'm not sure we can read that much bravado into Bach's decision, but he certainly sent out the message that he was a "catholic" composer who valued both the traditional heritage exemplified by his own family and the latest experiments in music.

Monteverdi did much the same thing when he was appointed to St.Mark's Venice in 1612. Some in the government were worried that he would unleash an avalanche of "Second Practice" music with all that avant-garde solo singing and instrumental scoring. In fact, Monteverdi balanced the two styles and performed Lassus and Gabrieli in equal measure with his own music.

Julian Mincham wrote (June 4, 2006):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< I'm not sure we can read that much bravado into Bach's decision >
Why not?

Neil Halliday wrote (June 5, 2006):
BWV 2

Speaking of tempi, interestingly the opening chorus succeeds at a variety of tempi, as shown by Harnoncourt (3.50) [1], Rilling (4.04) [2], and Suzuki (4.48) [8], with this last one sounding appropriately gloomy with the prominent trombones, while the other two are livelier.

In the tenor aria, Suzuki (4.58) [8] with short staccato on the `weak' notes, sounds too fast and lacking weight to me, while Harnoncourt, with the slowest (7.10) [1], has an interesting performance. Rilling (6.16) [2] is also satisfying, but the string articulation is a little `square' (difficult to describe).

Thanks to Julian Mincham for an interesting analysis/description of this cantata.

Julian Mincham wrote (June 5, 2006):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< Thanks to Julian Mincham for an interesting analysis/description of this cantata. >
Thank you Neil for this comment.

I also read your comments on the music with great interest.

I planned, time permitting, to do a somewhat expansive essay-cum-personal interpretation of the first four cantatas only of the second cycle. It seems to me that Bach is 'setting out his stall' in these four marvellous works and a detailed knowlwdge of them helps greatly in the understanding of the following fifty or so cantatas.

It worked this way for me, at least!

Ed Myskowski wrote (June 9, 2006):
Once again, as in last weeks discussion, I refer to Aryeh's comments from 2002 re the Harnoncourt [1] and Smith/Emmanuel [6] recordings, which I have on LP and CD, respectively. I have enjoyed listening to both these performances several times, with increasing pleasure. As Aryeh noted, the Smith opening chorus (BWV 2/1) is especially outstanding. Harnoncourt sounds consistent from beginning to end. The opening chorus is quicker than Smith, (3:49 vs 4:26). I do not find this terribly objectionable, others may, or may prefer the quicker tempo. I do prefer the Smith, but that may be a home town opinion. Compare Aryeh's enthusiasm for Harnoncourt.

Neil Halliday wrote:
< In the tenor aria, Suzuki (5.58) with short staccato on the `weak' notes, sounds too fast and lacking weight to me, while Harnoncourt, with the slowest (7.10) [1], has an interesting performance. Rilling (6.16) is also satisfying, but the string articulation is a little `square' (difficult to describe). >
Smith/Emmanuel come in at 7:14 for this aria [6], I was surprised that it is the same as Harnoncourt [1]. I think the surprise is because Smith has string (and oboe) articulation which is the opposite of square (perhaps sprightly?) which gives the aria a feeling of never lagging, despite the unhurried tempo, and because Harnoncourt is slow and sounds slower. Not necessarily bad, but certainly not in character with a reputation for quickness. I agree with Neil, an interesting performance. Aryeh had some reservations about tenor William Hite (Smith/Emmanuel), which I do not share. Certainly Equiluz has a clear and pure tone while Hite is more resonant, but I find both equally enjoyable. I would give a slight edge to the Emmanuel players. Craig Smith notes about this aria in the CD booklet: It is one of those tunes that once heard is never forgotten. Bach found the metaphor of the refining of silver as central to the message of the cantata.

Smith's [6] respect for this aria comes across in his performance. It is notable for the architecture of the cantata that the central message is again (as in BWV 20 last week) a major aria just before the final chorale.

In a discussion from years back, Aryeh had recommended the Oxford Composer Companion to Bach. Not long ago, I got a copy on his word, and find it very useful, especially so with regard to BWV 2. There are individual entries for each cantata, but a number of contributors provide a corresponding variety of viewpoints. For this one, Alberto Basso clearly points out that Bach repeats the chorale melody in interior movements when there is an exact quote of chorale text. This corrects other sources which state that the chorale cantatas of Jahrgang II use the melody only for the opening chorus and closing chorale, with interior movements based on quoted or paraphrased text with original music. This confused me no end, since the first line of the Rec. BWV 2/2 is the chorale melody. Basso cleared this up, and it helps that in Smith/Emmanuel booknotes [6], the exact chorale quotes are highlighted. While thinking about books, Aryeh's recommendation of Robertson, The Church Cantatas of J. S. Bach, is also very welcome if you are lucky enough to have access to a library or second-hand copy. Finally, Aryeh has already mentioned how outstanding are Craig Smith's booklet notes, and quoted from
them in the previous discussions.

 

Continue on Part 3

Cantata BWV 2: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
Discussions:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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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