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Cantata BWV 81
Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?
Discussions - Part 3

Continue from Part 2

Discussions in the Week of February 7, 2010

Peter Smaill wrote (February 7, 2010):
Introduction to BWV 81, "Jesus Schlaeft, was soll ich hoffen?"

Cantata BWV 81, Jesus Schläft, was soll ich hoffen?

Written for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany

First performance January 30th, 1724

(Bach's first opportunity to write a Cantata for that day in Leipzig.)

1. Aria (alto): Jesus Schläft, was soll ich hoffen?
2. Recitative (tenor): Herr! Warum trittest du so ferne!
3. Aria (tenor): "Die schäumenden Wellen von Belials Bächen"
4. Arioso (bass): "Ihr Kleingläubigen, warum seid ihr so furchtsam?"
5. Aria (bass): “Schweig, aufgetürmtes meer!
6. Recitative (alto): Wohl mir, mein Jesu spricht ein wort
7. Chorale: "Unter deinen Schirmen"

Liturgy: Romans 13: 8-10; Gospel: Matthew 8: 23-27

BCW Resources and Previous Discussions:

http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV81.htm
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV81-D.htm (two parts)

Introduction

Just about a year separates the performance of BWV 81 (January 30th 1724) from Bach’s Pröbestuck, BWV 22, for Quinquagesima 1723 (February 7th”). This Cantata, one of the most operatic in its exuberant word-painting and declamation, is evidence that the Leipzig Council had perhaps got more than they bargained for. As Martin Geck points out, “Bach’s reputation for refinement had preceded him, otherwise Leipzig’s Mayor Steger would not have expressly laid down the condition to Bach later on, upon his being appointed, to make such compositions as are not theatrical.”

What would the Leipzigers made of the rushing semiquavers and leaping vocal passages depicting the storm at sea, in which the terrified disciples are enjoined to calm by the lately woken Jesus ? If they had felt a yearning for a more restrained setting by the failed first choice as cantor, Christoph Graupner of Darmstadt, they would have been mistaken; for this Sunday also elicited later on a dramatic work from him, the 1734 Cantata “Herr, die Wasserströme erheben sich”, which in the recording by Phillip Herreweghe (“Before Bach” CD, Harmonia Mundi) makes the storm that of a Vivaldian winter, concluding with a most beautiful chorale setting in which a poignant lullaby motif in the strings leads to solo and duet vorimitation of the chorale, “ “Was bist so hochbetrübet”, the whole closing in an atmosphere of calm and resignation.

So both Bach and Graupner took the opportunity to dramatise the Gospel for the day. Previously, in discussing the sea-faring BWV 56, “Ich will mein Kreuzstab gerne tragen”, we discussed the metaphysical sermon of a Lübeck pastor ( formerly of the Thomaskirche) August Pfeiffer, which was set for this Sunday (published in 1679 in the “Evangelische Schaetz-Kamer”,and in Bach’s library). It becomes clearer that the particular Gospel for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany was an inspiration to many over a long period. In Baroque ideology, the account of the Disciples is turned into a homily on personal experience, that of the navigatio vitae, in which the Christian is enjoined to endure the storms of this life. BWV 81 is an exemplar of how the originally medieval idea migrates through renaissance imagery and becomes a personal, devotional, abstraction in which musical and physical imagery are strongly intertwined.

Emblemata and BWV 81

Following the pioneering work of Detlef Gojowy and Lucia Häselbock, increasing interest is being shown by scholars in the connection between the scores of emblemata books arising from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and the texts of the Bach cantatas. The origin of this movement in visual symbolism is the famous Alciati. The storm-tossed ship is a commonplace of this genre (“Spes Proxima”, originally a pagan reference to Castor and Pollux) and so it is not difficult to relate BWV 81 to the artform. Two good searchable resources for this are supplied by Glasgow University:

http://www.emblems.arts.gla.ac.uk/alciato/books.php?id=A21a
http://www.emblems.arts.gla.ac.uk/french/search.php?book=FALa

Thus there is a geneal link to emblemata. However, there was in our previous discussions a specific question as to the imagery of BWV 81. The tenor aria, Mvt. 3, has the puzzling line, “Ein Christe soll zwar wie wellen stehn”, “A Christian should stand like a wave...”

From Wustmann onwards, many have considered this word a scribe's mistake, and the conventional image of “Felsen” (“Rock”) might be substituted. However, the libretto booklet (discovered in 1970) and J.C.F. Bach’s surviving transcription, make it clear that “wellen”, not “felsen” is intended. In our previous discussions, a subsidiary possible translation of “wellen” as “pillar” or “shaft” (Kepler and Dürer support this) was considered, but the image of a pillar and stormy waters did not seem to go together. I wondered if old emblemata books could help solve this riddle.

In examining as many emblemata books as could conveniently be accessed, there could not find this combination of pillar and stormy waves; nor the even more unusual idea of the “wellen” being the rods used to test depth, which occurs as an image in nineteenth century Romantic painting. Then, almost by chance, an obscure engraving caught my eye in which very particular emblems are capable of being linked to at least two Cantatas and a solution to the “wellen” problem occurs; “pillar” is indeed an appropriate combination with, or rather antithesis to, “waves.”

A discovery?

The source image is a version of the frontispiece to the “Eikon Basilica”, the book of pious reflections of Charles 1 of England, Scotland and Ireland, whose beheading in 1649 resulted through this publication (39 English and 20 foreign editions, including in German) in his transformation into the image (especially) in Northern European court circles of the suffering of the believing Christian. This particular engraving, made after 1662 in Antwerp, was used in three late editions and may have made its way to Weimar following the visit of the Prince Johann Ernst to the Low Countries in 1716. Alas, the copy of the Eikon in the Anna Amalia library was lost to fire in 2004 but in any event so many were in circulation that the transmission to Bach’s librettist may have come otherwise.

The fate of Charles I was of great interest on the continent; paradoxically the only play on the subject is not in the English language but in German, Gryphius’ Carolus Stuardus. To follow the argument it is recommended that the image on which the case turns is examined and printed out:
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Emb/BWV81-Emb.htm

Here we see a storm at sea, with Charles as boatman (“Steursmann”) to the ship of state (Pfeiffer gives this role at the tiller to Jesus in his sermon for the day). Proximate to the stormy waves, Charles is praying in front of a detached fluted pillar, an element separated from the architectural capriccio (an effect not so clearly seen in the usual William Marshal frontispiece). Given the analysis of the emblems of the Eikon, namely that they are paradoxically paired or grouped (“crown” being the earthly discarded in favour of the Crown of Thorns and the Crown of Heaven, for example) it would be not surprising in a development of this imato have a dual meaning for “wellen.”

What drives the interrelationship further are the palm trees weighed down in the right of the engraving, an idea originating in Alciati and indicating the ancient idea that the burden cause the tree to grow stronger. This is also the image given in BWV 44, “Sie werden euch in der bann tun” in connection with the suffering Christian:

“However, Christians resemble palm branches
Which through their burden just climb higher.”

It is also the case that a rock, “Felsen”, the more conventional counter-image to waves, features and indeed this is a word used in Gryphius’ Carolus Stuardus. Hans-Joachim Schulze concludes that we may use “Felsen”:

“Hier ein wort so substitieren, das etwas mehr Widerstandskraft suggestierert, beispielwise “Felsen” , ist sicherlich nicht verboten”.(Here that a word may be substituted, something more suggestive of upright standing , the exemplar being “Rock”, is surely not forbidden”.)

Now, however, that we have a famous emblemata engraving in which a pillar sits alongside the conventional image of the rock, the possibility of the text being wholly intended as “wellen” tips the balance in my opinion towards probability.

Causation or Coincidence?

Had the librettist of BWV 81 and BWV 44 seen the illustration for the Eikon? It is tempting to say so; especially a BWV 81 was performed on the exact day of Charles’ execution, January 30, which was a day for State prayer in the Church of England for nearly two hundred years.

However, it could be more likely contended that it was the illustrators of the Eikon who had earlier taken the reading for that day (if it be a Sunday) to emphasise an arcane connection between Charles’ death and the readings at that time.

In any analysis, however, we can see in this example an intimacy between emblemata techniques and the Cantatas, drawing their imagery from the same well.

Bach, whatever the sources, responds with dramatic intensity in which the turning point, the bass arioso, acts as the fulcrum for the believers’ see-saw, from fear to assurance. Structurally, musically, and in richness of imagery the work has an especial appeal quite apart from its role as an exemplary answer to the question: if Bach had composed an opera, what would it have sounded like? To which we can add - that the sets might well have had the odd pillar….?? !!

Raymond Joly, in concluding this topic in the last conversations, ends “This is enormous fun, and thanks to everyone”. In that spirit we can look forward to the BCW having another shot at debating this long-standing verbal problem in the text of BWV 81, and exchanging views on the especial musical experience of the arias set by Bach.

Paul Johnson wrote (February 7, 2010):
[To Peter Smaill] In his linear notes to his recording [6], Gardiner reminds us of the Leipzig councilman Dr Steger who voted for the appointment of Bach to his new post on the proviso 'that he should make compositions that were not theatrical'. I doubt, nine months later, Dr Steger would have been happy with BWV 81! The Aria that bursts forth as Mvt. 3 is as theatrical as anything one would be likely to hear in Italian opera, and perhaps more dramatic. And every other movement seems infused with this sense of drama. I really like this cantata, so thanks to Peter's email for prompting me to listen.

George Bromley wrote (February 7, 2010):
[To Peter Smaill] Thank you Peter for a most interesting and well written article.

Julian Mincham wrote (February 7, 2010):
[To Peter Smaill] The comparisons with other settings by Bach of storm music are very revealing, although it would be misleading to assume that this was the first of his highly dramatic operatic settings in the first cycle; there are many movements which appear to contradict his conditions of employmeny that pre-date this storm aria 1n 1723 and early 1724.

A minor point of interest is the setting of the chorale, presented in BWV 64 less than a month previously and later again for 87 in the second cycle (also used as the basis of the motet Jesu meine freude of course). Bach could well have just taken the harmonisation of BWV 64 and reused it for BWV 81--but he didn't. The cadence structure is maintained but the details (particularly the bass line) are altered.

Why? Second thoughts? Maybe. A response to the text of a different verse? Almost certainly. And the BWV 87 setting is transposed to D minor. the key of the opening bass aria. That makes the first note of the chorale A, A, G, F, E, D the keynotes of the six English suites. It may be entirely coincidental. But as a man who liked puzzles and numbers, might Bach have made that connection as do some poets who maks the first letters of each line of a stanza spell out a word? bBch would certainly not be alone as an artist in playing games of this kind.

Douglas Cowling wrote (February 8, 2010):
Peter Smaill wrote:
< As Martin Geck points out, ³Bach¹s reputation for refinement had preceded him, otherwise Leipzig¹s Mayor Steger would not have expressly laid down the condition to Bach later on, upon his being appointed, to make such compositions as are not theatrical.² >
Considering that Bach had, as far as we know, no reputation as a composer of operas or staged theatre pieces like serenatas, what was Steger actually objecting to and on what basis? Was the objection musical or literary? What were the red flags for "theatrical"?

Was it is as simple that a non-musician town councillor would look ahead of time at the text booklets that Bach was selling and see that the cantata texts contained fewer and fewer scriptural and traditional chorale texts and more and more poetic recitatives and da capo arias?

I think we'd have a hard time arguing that rushing figures depicting waves were a novelty which were imported from secular music. Such elaborate word painting goes back to the Renaissance: even a conservative composer such as Lassus set the earthquake of "Terra tremuit" to heaving, disjointed figures. Both sacred and secular music in the Baroque had a homogenous style from the very beginning.

And although Bach's vocal writing is often florid, it is rare to find an implied cadenza moment in any of his arias, unlike Handel. So it would be hard to level an accusation against him that he was encouraging vocal vanity. If anything, his control of singers is unusually iron-fisted compared with Handel.

It is easy to reduce the contemporary debate about Bach's music to a Romantic clash universal genius with small-town philistines. There may theological literary questions at the basis of the 18th century controversy.

Neil Halliday wrote (February 8, 2010):
Peter Smaill wrote:
< and exchanging views on the especial musical experience of the arias set by Bach. >
Rilling [3] was fortunate to have the lovely voice of Julia Hamari in the opening alto aria, recorded in 1971. The music makes a very moving adagio, with the long notes on "schläffen" and "offen" being extraordinarily expressive.

Notice the vocal part ends most effectively on the supertonic (as if asking the question musically), just before the resumption of the final ritornello.
------
In comparing the realisations of the continuo-only bass arioso, set to Christ's words, I find the somewhat jaunty effect of the later recordings (eg, Kuijken [9]) lacking the nobilty or authority that the movement needs to project.

Except Koopman [4] that is, who matches Richter's slower tempo [1], and has possibly the most expressive version, aided by the pleasing bass vocalist, Klaus Mertens. Suzuki [7], though faster, is satisfactory - aided by another fine Bach bass, Peter Kooy.
----
I notice Koopman [4] is happy to ignore the figured bass figures (under the four tied E's in the continuo - a style/method initiated by Harnoncourt, I believe) in the second of the seccos; Kuijken [9] demonstrates best practice, currently, in this regard. (Rilling [3] suffers from heavy continuo strings' vibrato, as is often the case in his secccos, not to mention a poorly recorded harpsichord).
----

As for the storm arias, they make exciting listening in good versions; as usual it's worth following the text while listening (if one learns the meaning of the words being followed).

Peter Smaill wrote (February 8, 2010):
[To Douglas Cowling] Douglas Cowling is touching on a point which is much wider than BWV 81, "Was Bach so very much more dramatic in his settings than others? Or does his position as an innovator rest on much wider considerations?"

It is certainly not enough to say that the importation and development of florid Italian aria styles is his main contribution to the Cantata form. The revolution was aready underway,

Bach was appointed by the absolutist Court party, led by Gottfried Lange, himself a poet and attracted to candidates with an operatic background; whereas Bach's predecessor Kihnau, according to Ulrich Siegele, was a creature of the conservative town party, the Estates. Yet, under an order from the Elector to improve music at Leipzig in 1701, Kuhnau himself produced works showing considerable innovation from the Leipzig traditionalist point of view.

The Mayor was in my view already disappointed when Bach was appointed, that the old ways had passed away. The Thomaskirche, with its ostentatious new marble altar installed by Burgomaster Lange's agency very recently, was to be the backdrop for further musical experimentation such as fully concerted performances of the Passion. (Kuhnau's St Mark Passion was performed at Leipzig in 1717, the first to be presented there.) Kuhnau and Lange had paved the way for a more dramatic experience of the Liturgy and Cantatas already.

Ed Myskowski wrote (February 8, 2010):
Peter Smaill wrote:
< ...however, we can see in this example an intimacy between emblemata techniques and the Cantatas, drawing their imagery from the same well. >
Well, as I suggested the last time around, all is wellen that ends well.

Douglas Cowling wrote (February 8, 2010):
Peter Smaill wrote:
< The Mayor was in my view already disappointed when Bach was appointed, that the old ways had passed away. The Thomaskirche, with its ostentatious new marble altar installed by Burgomaster Lange's agency very recently, was to be the backdrop for further musical experimentation such as fully concerted performances of the Passion. >
I've always been curious whether the conflict over the Cantor vs Court models at time of Bach's appointment was a real musical or even ecclesiastical debate. Or was it a cover for political governance issues? Was an old-fashioned motet-writing musician vs. an avant-garde aria-writing composer a cover for a political struggle between independent civic rights vs. royal absolutism? (We're only a generation away from revolution in America and France.) Surely the question of whether Bach wouldn't teach Latin or was supposedly writing "theatrical" music could not have produced such a protracted political paralysis.

It wouldn't be the first time that music was used for cover. In Handel's London, the two opera companies became associated with the political circles of the King and the Prince of Wales -- with disastrous consequences for all musicians. I'm even half-inclined to view the Entwurf as another bout of political theatre between the factions. We tend to view Bach as the noble victim in squalid civic politics: his Dresden connection may have made him a political player.

Ed Myskowski wrote (February 8, 2010):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< I'm even half-inclined to view the Entwurf as another bout of political theatre between the factions. We tend to view Bach as the noble victim in squalid civic politics: his Dresden connection may have made him a political player. >
Might as well go for the full tilt. These views are elaborated in much detail in the reference (not exactly a good read, IMO) "Bach's Changing World: Voices in the Community" (ed. Carol Baron), University of Rochester Press, 2006, first (I believe) recommended to BCML by Will Hoffman.

William Hoffman wrote (February 9, 2010):
We are finally getting a better look at Bach in the 1730s and can look back with a fuller perspective to complex issues like opera, theater and culture. I suspect there was considerable posing and bowing, rendering unto Caesar and his dominions and minions, like the Evening in the Palace of Reason, and all the other dogs and their trees. Seriously, there is a recent book on Leipzig poet(ess) Mariane von Ziegler and John Butt has a new book on the Passion and modernity's view coming from CUP later this month. Also, the biannual meeting of the American Bach Society has papers on Bach's contemporaries and a closer look at the 1730s: www.americanbachsociety.org/Meetings/Madison/Madison_program.html

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (February 9, 2010):
William Hoffman wrote:
< Also, the biannual meeting of the American Bach Society has papers on Bach's contemporaries and a closer look at the 1730s: www.americanbachsociety.org/Meetings/Madison/Madison_program.html >
Barbara Reul is going to give a fascinating paper, as is Frau Kramer, from Frankfurt. They're both working on a fascinating book about 18th century German court life and the musical establishments, particuarly Darmstadt, and Zerbst as well as the larger courts (e.g. Dresden): something long overdue in English I might add. But thanks for bringing this up, I wished I could attend this conference!

Neil Halliday wrote (February 12, 2010):
Peter Smaill wrote:
>In that spirit we can look forward to the BCW having another shot at debating this long-standing verbal problem in the text of BWV 81<
The Rilling booklet [3] suggests a way around the problem of "standing like a wave" by translating the text as "rising like a wave" - thereby capturing the image of a wave rising before the wind (before it breaks), allowing, perhaps, consideration of another aspect of a wave that may be suitable as a simile for Christian strength/power.

But only the poet can enlighten us, and we are not sure who he (she) is!

BTW, the text does display unusally regular rhyming patterns, whatever its value as poetry.

1st movement: ABBA
2nd movement: A,BBCC,A,DDEE
3rd movement: ABCCBA (a palindrome pattern)
4th movement: scripture
5th movement: A,BCBC
and also the 6th movement: (chorale) AAB,CCB,DEE.

Ed Myskowski wrote (February 13, 2010):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< BTW, the text does display unusally regular rhyming patterns, whatever its value as poetry.
1st movement: ABBA
2nd movement: A,BBCC,A,DDEE
3rd movement: ABCCBA (a palindrome pattern)
4th movement: scripture
5th movement: A,BCBC
and also the 6th movement: (chorale) AAB,CCB,DEE. >
Thanks for pointing this out, it does indeed suggest that the architecture (poetry?) of the text was not trivial.

Neil Halliday wrote (February 15, 2010):
BWV 81/1: Not immediately apparent from listening to some recordings is the almost two-octave scalar descent in the continuo, first example starting in bar 2. This occurs three more times; at the end of the first long held note on "schläft" and at the end of the first long-held note on "offen" (death's abyss open), and finally its repeat in the closing ritornello. The relation to the text is obvious. There are similar frequent scalarinstrumental and vocal descents of lesser extent.

Also interesting is the unmistakable timbre of the unison recorders, alone, that accompanies the final repeated statements of "what shall I hope". (The only other brief instance of unison recorders in the score occurs with upper string harmonisation, bars 25 and 26).

 

Cantata BWV 81: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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