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Commentaries: Main Page | Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Other Vocal Works BWV 225-524 | Sources

Cantata BWV 150
Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich
Commentary

 
 

Thomas Braatz wrote (December 13, 2001):
BWV 150 - What to listen for in this cantata:

Overview:

Listen for the many downward-moving passages, some more scale-like (whole tone), others chromatic (semi-tone). Note the turnaround in the final mvt. (with one glaring exception.) The same is true for the various interval jumps. These upward leaps are more frequent than the downward ones.

Mvt. 1 Sinfonia

These introductory measures (only 19 of them) are, perhaps, the ritornello for the 2nd mvt. It is best to think of the 1st 2 mvts. as being combined, since a portion of mvt. 1 is sandwiched between the fugal segments in the 1st section of mvt. 2. The descending chromatic motif (the quarter notes beginning in the 1st violin at the end of ms. 3 and in the bc it is ms. 5) could be considered as the most important motif in the entire cantata. It occurs 6 times in a total of 19 measures. Listen to how various conductors treat this motif. Which is more powerful: a legato for all notes or a division into short phrases? In addition to the major motif, Bach provides further emphasis of this direction with shorter 3, 4, and 5 note, non-chromatic, descending lines. There are half dozen instances of an upward leap of a perfect 4th followed by the downward scale pattern. This is the incipet of a famous chorale based on a melody by Hans Leo Haßler (1601) and the text by Christoph Knoll (1613): “Herzlich tut mich verlangen” [“I do very sincerely desire.”] Here Bach is already employing a technique that he will continue to use throughout his life: a chorale melody is intoned without any words being sung, the purpose of which is to remind the listener of a chorale that will relate directly to cantata’s text.

Mvt. 2 Coro

Notice how the chromatically descending motif continues in this mvt., where it appears 14 times in the 1st major section. 14 is the total of BACH (B=2, A=1, C=3, and H=8) and can be viewed as his personal signature embedded in the music. While the chromatically descending fugal entrances are being sung, the text is being represented through word painting in the bc by 8 (or 9 depending upon how it view this) upward-moving scale passages that express man’s desiring [“verlanget”] to be unified with God above.

A very short ‘allegro’ section has the phrase, “ich hoffe” sung quickly 4 times in succession. Notice the difference in which the various conductors treat this section: intense precision, varying dynamics. The next short section marked ‘un poco allegro’ has the effect of a miniature turba similar to the turba responses in the passions. Here the precise pronunciation of the consonants is of supreme importance. Very abruptly there is an ‘adagio’ section on the words, “zu Schanden,” which allows the conductor to put a different feeling into the words that had already been included in the previous section. Here they need special emphasis as the words are repeated 3 times. After a tiny interlude, the tempo changes to ‘allegro.’ Now the main cantata motif (the chromatically descending scale) is introduced in a permutation fugue. It is the same theme that was heard in slow quarter notes, but with modifications or variations thereof. Notice how the dropping 5ths (perfect and diminished) fit perfectly with the idea of “über mich” [this is taken literally by Bach as “my enemies lording it over me” rather than “my enemies are engaging in ‘Schadenfreude’ = ‘taking pleasure in seeing harm come to one’s enemies’”]. Perhaps this can be seen as the ridicule and verbal abuse that rains down upon you in the form of these interval drops. Here there is a tendency for choirs to quickly lose clarity by singing too much sotto voce (the so-called ‘lite’-entertainment approach to Bach.)

Mvt. 3 Aria

This aria needs to be delivered with conviction and not with a half-hearted, tentative ‘pussy-footing’ by simply ‘tapping’ the notes to be sung in a sotto voce style. Word painting abounds here on the words, “toben,” (agitated figure in the strings); “Kreuz, Sturm” (repeated double-stopping of the violin); “(Unfall) schlägt” (a repeated note in the vocal line emphasis the ‘beating’ or ‘striking’) “Tod, Höll” (large interval drop from ‘death’ to ‘hell.’)

Mvt. 4 Tutti

Perhaps the greatest example of word painting in this entire cantata, and a very memorable one, is Bach’s treatment of the words, “Leite mich” [“Lead, guide me”] where there is a close sound association with another German word, “Leiter” [“ladder.”] Bach obviously understands the word ‘guide, lead’ to be moving upward, as if on a ‘ladder to heaven’ where you move up steadily, one rung of the ladder at a time. This section demands a powerful, dignified presentation as Bach moves the melodic line seamlessly from the bass to the high range of the violins, a span of 3 octaves and 2 notes!! In the following ‘allegro’ section, there are many repeated notes and figures to represent “und lehre mich” [“and teach me”] the educational process per se. Now an ‘andante’ section follows with more word painting: “du bist der Gott” [“you are God”] (an upward-leaping figure); “Gott, der Gott” [“God, the God”] (the soprano and alto sing F# three times in a row {not together, of course} signifying the ‘Trinity”); “harre ich” [“I wait”] (each voice gets the sustained note motif with long notes on which they ‘have to wait,’ the longest being the final bass note in this section.

Mvt. 5 Aria

This is a terzetto, but the voices are not treated solistically, but rather as a group. The winds can be heard blowing up a storm in the bc. In the very first phrase that the voices sing, “Zedern müssen von den Winden” [“how the cedar trees are buffeted about by the winds”] Bach uses an ingenious device to create musically this image by establishing quickly a simple rhythm and then breaking it by means of a hemiola. Bach breaks out of the bondage imposed by the meter and it feels as if you are being carried away from the firm foundation you are standing on. [Sometimes I wonder if Brahms, who knew the score of this cantata intimately, was influenced by Bach to use this device elsewhere in his compositions, just as he also based the last mvt. of his 4th Symphony on the Ciaccona from this cantata’s last mvt.) On “widerbellet” [“barking back”] there is a rather short, but wild coloratura and on the “lehrt” [“teaches’] of “denn sein Wort ganz anders lehrt” Bach breaks into fugal entries to represent the ordered nature of God’s teaching.

Mvt. 6 Coro

Here there is more word painting as, for instance, on “Meine Augen sehen stets zu dem Herrn” [“My eyes steadily look upon the Lord.”] Bach takes the phrase, “stets zu dem Herrn,” and repeats it steadily as a phrase while the instrumentalists provide further coloring. In one spot the bc rumbles back and forth (a slow trill) on two notes to represent the idea of continuing, but the violins have a marvelous figure that is all to frequently underplayed by the conductors who have recorded this mvt. There is an upward-leaping figure (a 4th) that represents man’s looking upward toward the Lord. Most conductors de-emphasize this by concentrating only on the sustained notes. In the phrase, “denn er wird meinen Fuß aus dem Netze ziehen” [“for he will pull my foot out of the net”] there are repeated eighth notes until you come to the word “Netze” [“net”] at which time a different rhythm is established and the final musical idea, repeated twice in succession, moves downward as it to indicate that the net is falling down and away from you as you have had your foot freed from the net (the originally established rhythm.) In this final ‘allegro’ section there is also an interesting twist on the word, “ziehen” [“pull”] where you can feel the final ‘jerk’ at the end of each fugal entry, a jerk that emphasizes the pulling nature of the sudden interval jumps.

Mvt. 7 Ciaccona

Now, finally, as Bach provides a resolution, a positive outcome for all the problems we have been experiencing, the main motiv, concentrated in the bc as a ground bass, is pointed upwards toward God and the heavens above. At the words, “Zur Fr” [“(having been turned) to joy”], this joy is expressed in the voices and the violins as well, “Dornenwegen” (“way of thorns” “thorny paths”] has a chromatic figure moving downwards, “Menschentrutz” [“other people’s defiance”] is expressed in the instrumental accompaniment that follows this word; and “sieghaft streiten” [“to battle victoriously”] has the leaping octave figure that could easily represent horns/trumpets used to call people to join in the battle. The slow trill in the sopranos and altos might also be related to a battle cry such as related by Tacitus when the Germanic women joined the men on the battlefield. The ciaccona motif is repeated 12 times in the bc, then there is one instance where it goes down in contrary motion, but after than it continues for 9 addition entrances.

Thomas Braatz wrote (December 14, 2001):
Commentary on BWV 150 by Eric Chafe

from Eric Chafe’s “Tonal Allegory in the Vocal Music of J.S.Bach” (1991)

In discussing the Bach goblet, a discussion that includes combinations based on the tone patterns, which, by the way, have a chromatically descending motif used extensively in BWV 150 and, of course, BACH represented in tones as well, Chafe, who had just concentrated on Bach’s living ‘under the cross’ in Leipzig, states:
“This last remark brings us to the second, allegorico-theological level of meaning of the [goblet] inscription. Any reading of the poem that reaches outside its immediate historical context evokes a more serious, expressive tone that is similar to the tone of the cantatas. [The poem referred to is: BACH, theurer Bach!/Carl, Tobias, ruffet, Ach!/Johann Ludwig hofft auf Leben./ So du ihnen nur kanst geben,/Drum erhör ihr sehnlich Ach!/Theurer BACH, Bach. – The translation of this cryptic poem can not be included here.] A characteristic element of Lutheran theology in Bach’s time is the idealized Christian who, in the cantatas and countless devotional poems, calls out “Ach” in tribulation, hoping for eternal life; the text of the poem, unusual in an everyday context, in this reading takes on a significance familiar from contemporary theology. The authors wish for salvation both for Bach and for themselves. The “Ach” thus expresses the theology of the cross, Luther’s basic definition of the theology of faith, of the necessary tribulation endured in the present life through faith in Christ and hope for the future life of fulfillment. Only such an interpretation can give meaning to the otherwise peculiar occurrence of the words “hofft auf Leben” in conjunction with a segment of the descending chromatic scale, The descending chromatic scale appears throughout Bach’s work in close association with the immediate expression of the tribulation that signifies the hope of future fulfillment, but in the religious sphere only; otherwise the chromaticism is merely associated with lamentation. Antithesis of this nature – hope linked to lamentation – is the very soul of musical representation of the theology of the cross, and is well known from many Bach cantatas, beginning with “Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich” (BWV 150). Such antithesis is by no means usual, however, in settings of purely secular texts, except where parody is intended.“

And in his discussion of the ‘Passions,’ Chafe makes the following statements:
“But equally clear is his [Bach’s] conception of the theological purpose of the ‘Passion’ [SJP], which, while directly concerned with indicating the benefit for mankind of Jesus’ death, is directed toward understanding and the benefit of faith in the present life, not toward the depiction of transcendent splendor. This meaning determined that the key structure of the SJP (as well as that of the SMP) return to flats in the end. It is the same meaning as Bach intended by modulating into deep sharps in the final movement of Cantata BWV 150, which was followed by a return to the tonic of B minor to emphasize Christ’s presence throughout the daily struggle (and ultimate victory) of the present life. The transcendent realm is indicated, but return to the earthly is essential. Related to this idea, the final section of the SJP focuses on the deep flat-minor keys. Terror “Mein Herz”), mourning (“Zerfließe”), intense prayer (“O hilf, Christe”), and the “sleep of death” (“Ruht wohl”), all in flat-minor keys, precede the final E flat chorale, in which for the last time some anticipation of eternity is suggested, now from a different perspective. The physical objects of meditation are the piercing of Jesus’ side and the burial, both with marked associations of the flesh.”

Chafe begins to explain his anabasis/catabasis theory:
“”Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich,” although not among Bach’s better compositions from this time, features an allegorical design that relates it conceptually to many of Bach’s other works. In particular, the differentiation between the nature of human existence on the one hand, and the life toward which faith und hope are directed on the other, runs through much of Bach’s work.”

Here now is his extensive commentary on Cantata BWV 150:

“We know virtually nothing of the cantatas Bach produced between the Mühlhausen works (1707-1708) and the Weimar works of 1714. It is possible that during that period he composed one surviving cantata, BWV 150, “Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich,” a work whose authorship and date remain uncertain. [Remember this was published in 1991!]If Alfred Dürr’s suggestion for dating this work at Weimar around 1709-1710 is correct, we could posit that it introduces the idea of successive antithesis in a work that stays very close to the Mühlhausen type. This cantata, in quality generally below the level of the Mühlhausen works, remains somewhat anomalous; in some respects it bridges the gap between them and the Weimar cantatas while in others it seems to stand apart from both. Yet, setting these questions to one side, we may discuss the work briefly as an introduction to the more significant Weimar works.

“Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich” begins with a conspicuous and emblematic chromaticism. An introductory sinfonia almost has the character of variations of the descending tetrachord ostinato, while melodic patterns entering in the bass near the end suggest the first line of “Herzlich tut mich verlangen.” The meaning of the chromaticism and the quasi-ostinato element is given in the opening section of the first chorus, which develops the descending chromatic tetrachord polyphonically: ‘Verlangen’ expresses the human condition of the painful feeling of separation from God, the cry of distress so common in the Psalms. There is thus no contradiction when Bach creates a fugue on the descending tetrachord for the closing section of the chorus: “daß meine Feinde nicht freuen über mich.” Between these two sections two changes of style appear, the first for “Mein Gott, ich hoffe auf dich,” which is built on an unchanging harmony, and the second for “Laß mich nicht zu Schanden werden,” which is a series of falling fifths. Sequences of falling fifths return at the end of the closing chromatic fugue in association with the words “über mich.” From these details we understand the idea of descent—whether in the form of the chromatic tetrachord or the circle of fifths—as the expression of a life of adversity. Hope, on the other hand, is represented by holding on to a harmony—C sharp major—that is relatively sharp (higher on the circle of fifths than the tonic).

I would suggest that this cantata is concerned primarily with hope for redemption within the struggle of the present life, and that this idea underlies the ostinato character of the tonic key throughout large parts of the seven-movement sequence. Departures from the tonic, although few in number, therefore have considerable significance. The primary instance is the fifth movement, a trio aria in D major, “Zedern müssen von den Winden.” This movement uses the imagery of cedars bent by the wind to express the idea that the believer must stand firm, placing in God despite all that is contrary: “Rat und Tat auf Gott gestellet, achtet nicht was widerbellet.” The closing words, “den sein Wort ganz anders lert,” explain that man must cling to God’s Word for safety in a world of tribulation. The D major of this message stands in contrast to the B minor of the world; in the preceding movement Bach begins in B minor with “Leite mich in deiner Wahrheit, und lehre mich,” passing an ascending fifth line through all the voices from bass to soprano, with each entrance beginning a fifth higher than the preceding one (B, f sharp, c’ sharp, g’), and turning to D major for the cadence at “lehre mich.” This last teaching is given in the following D major movement.

It is vitally important to this allegory that the return to B minor be made so that the cantata ends with the idea of hope in the present life. The movement following “Zedern müssen von den Winden” is a prelude and fugue for chorus, “Meine Augen stehen stets zu dem Herrn” (prelude), “denn er wird meinen Fuß aus dem Netze ziehen“ (fugue). It begins in D major with a thematic recollection of the preceding movement but turns to B minor for a series of repetitions of „stets zu dem Herrn.“ Already in this change we sense the necessity of looking to God in the present life, while the oscillating figures and reiterated fourths in the strings invoke the sense of holding on. The fugue is built on the theme of a rising stepwise fourth (fifth in the answer), but toward the end of the word ‘Netze’ brings forth long descending chromatic lines, with which the movement ends. We have returned to a world comparable to that of the opening movement. The last movement, a ciacona for chorus, completes the idea of hope in the present life. Even more than the previous fugue theme, the ostinato of this movement suggests a foundation of hope in God: the ground bass is a diatonic stepwise ascending fifth that reverses the idea of the chromatic descending tetrachord of the opening movements and the ‘Netze’ idea heard previously. Lines one through six of the text present three sets of antithesis in rhyming couplets, while the remaining two voice God’s aid to mankind in overcoming the world through Christ’s presence: [entire last mvt. text quoted here]

The structure corresponding to the first six lines consists of a striking series of upward modulations. B minor (three statements of the ostinato, line one), D major (three statements, line two with the key change coming exactly on the word ‘Freude’), F sharp minor (three statements, lines three and four), A major (one statement, line five, and E major (two statements, line six). This tremendous tonal anabasis is of course linked to the teaching expressed in the rising fifths in the fourth movement and is conceptually opposite to the descending fifths in the first chorus and the descending tetrachords. In the first couplet the move up is enhanced by a shift from minor to major, but the second pair stays in minor (the shift from D to F sharp minor appears, with four chromatic semitones on “Dornenwegen”). The upward movement indicates that the overall direction takes precedence over the immediate details. The sharpward progression is equally underscored by increasing instrumental activity, with half and whole notes at the beginning, quarter notes starting at “Freude,” eighth notes (and arpeggio figures) for line six, and the E major instrumental interlude that follows it. Within this latter instrumental passage a single statement of the ostinato reverses the direction both melodically (descending fourth) and tonally (E major back to B minor), just before the final two lines. These last lines are given the most extended treatment by far, and within the final section rhythmic motion moves again from whole and half notes through quarters to eighth notes (‘sieghaft streiten’), then closes in half and whole notes again. The allegory of the whole is unmistakable: within the B minor that represents the present life, anticipation of God’s turning things around prompts sharpward modulation, whereas the presence of Christ helps the individual in the daily struggle of worldly existence.

“Nach dir, Herr, verlanget micht,” although not among Bach’s better compositions from this time, features an allegorical design that relates it conceptually to many of Bach’s other works. In particular, the differentiation between the nature of human existence on the one hand, and the life toward which faith and hope are directed on the other, runs through much of Bach’s work and, beginning with the Weimar cantatas of 1714, is represented quite often by tonal planning. In relation to “Nach dir, Herr” these Weimar compositions exhibit a more dramatic, even extravagant, dimension of tonal allegory….”

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Cantata BWV 150: Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Commentaries: Main Page | Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Other Vocal Works BWV 225-524 | Sources

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Last update: ýNovember 4, 2010 ý17:15:20