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Cantata BWV 153
Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind

A. Dürr | E. Chafe | Little & Jenne


Thomas Braatz wrote (July 7, 2003):
Dürr’s Commentary:

The unknown librettist, whose text Bach set to music for a performance on January 2, 1724, uses as a pretext for speaking about enemies of a Christian in a more general sense, the Gospel reading for this Sunday about the flight to Egypt and Herod’s mass murder of children. In so doing he also finds a connection with the Epistle as well. Moreover, in mvt. 7, he makes the following reference: If God’s own Son must already suffer ‘even at a tender age,’ then Christians can confidently hope that their suffering will also find an end and the heavenly kingdom will be open to them. Because this libretto has in common with some other cantata texts of the same period (BWV 40 & BWV 64) an unusually large number chorale texts, there is a good possibility that the same librettist is responsible for all of them.

Bach’s composition does not begin in the usual manner with an imposing introductory choral mvt., but rather with a simple 4-pt. setting of a chorale, the 1st vs. of a chorale by David Denicke (1646.) The reason for this can probably be easily ascribed to some easily explained circumstances: Since the Sunday after New Year in 1724 fell on a date as early as January 2nd, one day after the Thomanerchor had just sung BWV 190 and in the short period of time during which boys had to sing almost continuously on 3 other days of Christmas: BWV 63, BWV 40, BWV 64, BWV 243a (the extended Eb version of the Magnificat with all the additional Christmas sections not included in the later D-major version), BWV 238 (‘Sanctus’) – all of these compositions which made great demands upon vocalist and listener alike as Bach demonstrated an imposing wealth of music as well as the capabilities of his musical forces which were being stretched to the limit. Bach realized what they had accomplished and decided to go easy on his usual demands, particularly since he intended in just 4 days to perform on Epiphany BWV 65 with its impressive opening chorus.

For this reason, the choir, in the current cantata (BWV 153), sings only simple 4-pt. chorales and everything else given to the 3 soloists and the string orchestra. The recitatives are all accompanied by only the continuo and the only variety that is achieved comes by means of the ‘Arioso’ sections (at the end of the 4th and 7th mvts.)

Mvt. 3 is also termed an ‘Arioso’ and belongs to the typical type of bass solos based upon Bible texts (here Isaiah 41:10.) These are very much like an aria, but only rarely are designated as such. The instrumental part is restricted only to the continuo just as in the recitatives, but the mvt. begins with a short 8-ms. ritornello which is used not only to ‘frame’ the mvt. (it appears once again without the voice at the end), but also appears in repeated form during the vocal section, and this in various keys (the cadences of these repetitions end in the following keys: e minor, e minor, b minor, D major, e minor, e minor.)

Both arias reflect most clearly the contrast between earthly suffering and heavenly comfort. The 1st aria, mvt. 6 for tenor, presents the imaginative idea representing the enemies attacking from all sides. This is done by means of the swift violin passages, the jerky unison passages, the taut, dotted rhythms and also the daring harmonies that Bach employs. The 2nd aria (mvt. 8 for alto) is an undisguised minuet. It may even be a vocalized form of a mvt. taken from an instrumental suite or perhaps even a parody of a secular cantata. Here, however, it is used to express and describe the eternal joys which a soul will experience in heaven. The structural form consists of, as befitting a minuet, a 2-pt. mvt. with reprise: each section is at first presented instrumentally, then, into the slightly expanded reprise, Bach composes the vocal part [Vokaleinbau.] Only at the end of the 2nd reprise at the words:

“Daselbsten verwechselt mein Jesus das Leiden
Mit seliger Wonne, mit ewigen Freuden“

a new theme begins at a faster tempo marked ‚allegro.’ With this the vocal part of this aria concludes in a very spirited fashion. At this point the instruments take up again the reprise which had been interrupted and conclude the mvt. with it.

Eric Chafe:

[Take a deep breath before you plunge in. This is not easy reading, but the effort you put into it will be amply rewarded.]

Even though the 1st Sunday in the new year occurred generally before rather than after Epiphany, its Gospel story, of the flight of the holy family to Egypt (Matt 2:13-23), belongs chronologically later in the liturgical sequence. Among Bach’s works for those 2 occasions, only the ‘Christmas Oratorio,’ (BWV 248) since it is a cycle, preserves the correct chronology. But since the flight of the holy family was traditionally interpreted as a reenactment of the Old Testament narrative of the captivity of Israel in Egypt, as well as a prefiguring of the contemporary believer’s longing for eternity as a release from worldly persecution and tribulation, it is appropriate that it come as early as possible in the new year. Its theme, that is, articulates the metaphor of the old year as the time of Israel, the new as the time of Christ and the church, thereby encouraging the believer to draw parallels between the turning of the year, the changing eras of salvation history, and his own faith experience.

The typical character, or “dynamic,” of that faith experience was, of course, that of Luther’s “analogy of faith” – that is, destruction followed by restoration. Countless Bible stories – the flood, Daniel in the lions’ den, the 3 men in the fiery furnace, the destruction of Jerusalem and of Sodom and Gomorrah, Israel in Egypt and others – exhibited this dynamic, and a considerable number of Bach’s cantata texts cited such stories in order to draw analogies to the believer’s situation. In fact, as we have seen in Bach’s 1723-24 cycle, the cantata for the final Sunday of the liturgical year (Cantata BWV 70, “Wachet! betet! betet! wachet!” for the 26th Sunday after Trinity) had used the metaphor of the world as Egypt in order to aid in developing the theme of destruction and restoration, interpreting the ending of the liturgical year as the “letzte Zeit” before the end of the world and the beginning of the new as the “Anfang wahrer Freude” of God’s restoration of the faithful to the “himmlische Eden.”

Cantata BWV 153 articulates the metaphoric layers just described by means of a 3-stage design, each stage involving 3 mvts.: an aria, a recitative, and a chorale:

Mvt. Genre Instrumentation Text Incipit Key

1 Chorale SATB chorus, str. bc Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind #/E modal

2 Recitative Alto, bc Mein liebster Gott, ach lass dichs a – b

3 Arioso Baß, bc Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin mit dir e

4 Recitative Tenor, bc Du sprichst zwar, lieber Gott, G – d

5 Chorale SATB chorus, str. bc Und obgleich alle Teufel E Phrygian

6 Aria Tenor, str. bc Stürmt nur, stürmt, ihr Trübsalweitter a

7 Recitative Baß, bc Getrost! Mein Herz, erdulde unter…. F – C

8 Aria Alto, str. bc Soll ich meinen Lebenslauf unter…. C
Hilf mir mein Sach recht greifen an
Erhalt mein Herz im Glauben rein.

Bach rotates the ordering of the mvt. types within each segment, however, so that the 3 chorales constitute the beginning, middle, and ending mvts. of the cantata (nos. 1, 5, and 9) as well as of the 3 segments in turn: chorale recitative, aria (segment 1): recitative chorale, aria (segment 2); and recitative, aria, chorale (segment 3). The harmonizations and placement of the 3 chorale setting provide, in fact, an imporkey to understanding Bach’s intentions in this cantata. The melodies of the 1st and 2nd chorales – that of “Ach Goptt, vom Himmel sieh’ darein” for “Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind” (Look, dear Godd how many enemy and that of “Herzlich tut mich verlangen” for “Und obgleich alle Teufel” (And although all demons) – belong to a group including such other melodies as “Aus tiefer Not,” “Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott,” and “Christus, der uns selig macht, “ which are generally identified as Phrygian or Hypophrygian. The distinction drawn in the preceding chapter between Bach’s treatment of melodies in those two modes comes very much into play in Cantata BWV 153. The 3rd melody, however – that associated principally with “O Jesu Christ, meines Lebens Licht” and secondarily with “Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid” – is a pure Hypoionian (C major) setting that creates an entirely different effect at the end of the work. While Bach’s harmonizations of the 1st and 2nd chorales are complex and their final cadences sound like dominant endings, the 3rd is one of the most straightforward “tonal” settings in Bach’s work, its four phrases, in note-against-note style, cadencing to D (half close on V of V), G (tonicized), G (V of C), and C (I) in turn. Bach’s indicating that 3 successive vs. of the hymn be sung to this harmonization ensures that the ending of the cantata creates the effect of laying all earlier conflicts and ambiguities to rest.

In addition, the 1st 6 mvts. are in either modal or minor-key settings, while the final recitative (mvt. 7) turns to C for the last of its 3 sections and the final aria and chorale are in G and C, respectively. Within this scheme the 3 arias unfold a progression forward from the word of God, cited from Isaiah (mvt. 3), and set for bass and bc only, through a representation of the believer, beset by “storms” of tribulation but clinging to God’s promise (mvt. 6), to an expression of the believer’s confidence in the certainty of eternal life (mvt. 8). All 3 arias are through-composed, the last one comprising 3 sections of increasingly jubilant character. The 3 recitatives (mvt. 2, 4, and 7) are all of highly modulatory character, but with quite different tonal characters and roles in the overall design, the 1st articulating a sharpward motion that bridges from the sphere of the believer in extreme torment (mvt. 1) to God’s promise (mvt. 3), the 2nd moving in the flat direction to set up the effect of God’s promise on the believer, and the 3rd effecting the shift from the minor keys of preceding mvts. to the concluding major-key mvts. of the cantata. The 3rd recitative, like the 3rd aria and the 3rd chorale, presents us with a 3-stage design that mirrors that of the cantata as a whole.

Bach’s confronting minor/major keys and modal/tonal styles in “Schau, lieber Gott” reflect the way that the affective character and overall design of the work derive from familiar hermeneutic principles. The pivotal moment in the inner dynamic of the cantata coincides with the believer’s recognizing the meaning of the flight to Egypt for him personally – that is, in the tropological sense. While the 1st and 2nd segments center on his feelings of persecution, drawing heavily, like the 1st part of Cantata BWV 21, on expressions from the most tormented of the Psalms, both featuring modal chorales that cadence on E and both ending with minor-key arias that contain promises of God, the recitative that begins the 3rd segment introduces a reference to Jesus’ flight from Herod’s persecution, turning to C at the end, as it presents Jesus’ sufferings as the source of comfort for the believer: “Wohlan, mit Jesu tröste dich und glaube festiglich: Denjenigen, die her mit Christo leiden, will er das Himmelreich bescheiden” (So then, comfort yourself with Jesus and believe firmly: that those who suffer with Christ her, to them He will grant the kingdom of Heaven.) After the dominance of Old Testament – derived tests, the reference to the Gospel for the day marks a turning point. The modern minuet-like style of the G major aria and uncomplicated tonal character of the C major chorale then effect a shift to the joyful affective sphere of the contemporary believer and his hopes for salvation. The 3 concluding chorale vs. then seem to place the 3 stages in the believer’s understanding within the perspective of his hopes for eternal life (i.e., the eschatological perspective.)

Within this basic design the 1st 6 mvts. focus on the opposition of the believer’s weakness and God’s promises of support and redemption, which Bach establishes in the 1st segment by means of a progression from the opening chorale, associated with the believer’s feeling of persecution, to the 1st aria (mvt. 3), God’s words of support, drawn from Isaiah 41:10.

The cantata begins with a striking representation of the believer’s awareness of the forces that threaten his destruction in the word: the 1st verse of David Denicke’s “Schau, lieber Gott, sie meine Feind” (1646), set to the melody of “Ach, Gott, vom Himmel sieh’ darein,” an appropriate association, since both chorale texts emphasize human weakness and the necessity of calling out for God’s intervention, “Schau, lieber Gott” even more, perhaps, than “Ach Gott, vom Himmel,” since it dwells on how easily the believer’s enemies overcome him.

Alfred Dürr speculates that Bach’s choice of a 4-pt. cantional setting for the chorale was motivated by external circumstances – namely, Bach’s already having produced a large number of cantatas with elaborate opening choruses in the preceding weeks of the season. While that may be true, it is clear that Bach was stimulated very much by internal concerns – namely, the prominence of human weakness in the theological message of Cantata BWV 153. His setting of “Schau, lieber Tott” has close affinities, especially in its final cadence, with the setting of “Ach Gott, vom Himmel” that ended Cantata BWV 77 the preceding summer (on the 13th Sunday after Trinity, August 22.) In that work, which is the subject of chapters 7 & 8 of the present study, the final chorale culminates a shift from the ‘cantus durus’ of the opening mvt. (in which extensive flat modulations undermine its stability) to the final ‘cantus mollis’ setting of “Ach Gott, vom Himmel,” in which, as we will see, Bach created an astonishing aural image of the inability of humankind to live up to God’s demands. Seeming almost to reflect back on the ending of that work, Cantata BWV 153 takes the undermining or weakening of the believer by his enemies as its starting point, after which the design centers on the opposition between the threat of destruction and the supportive power of God’s promises.

Bach’s chief means of representing that opposition involves the disparity between “weak” and “strong” tonic keys, principally the disparity of stable and unstable E cadences throughout much of the 1st 2 segments. Bach indicates the nature of the dichotomies involved in the 1st segment by notating it and the modulatory recitative that follows (mvt. 4) entirely in the 1-sharp key signature even though only the aria (mvt. 3) can be said to be in e.

At this transposition level the melody of “Schau, lieber Gott” (“Ach Gott, vom Himmel”) is in what Werckmeister considered to be (B) Hypophrygian in the ‘cantus durus,’ containing an f#’ in phrase 5, but no f naturals at all. Kirnberger, who published a setting at the same pitch level, and also ending on an E major chord, notated the melody without a sharp in the signature (even though he compared his Aolian setting with a G major setting at the same pitch that he notated in the 1-sharp signature.) And except for phrase 5, which has the melodic f#’ and which Kirnberger ended with a Phrygian cadence to B, he harmonized it with f naturals throughout. Hence the fact that his harmonization, designated clearly as Aolian, has been interpreted as (E) Phrygian and as Aolian ending on the dominant, the latter interpretation implying that the trufinal (A) is 2 fifths lower than the melodic final. In the latter interpretation the B Hypophrygian melody is simply absorbed into the key of a, ending on the dominant of that key.

In fact, most settings of “Ach Gott, vom Himmel,” including Bach’s, create exactly this impression – of ending on a dominant harmony that is a 5th below the melodic final – which, as we saw, Werckmeister rejected. Bach’s 1-sharp key signature, however, might have indicated his awareness of a ‘problem.’ He might, that is, have perceived the disparity between the B Hypophrygian mode of the melody and the fact that its sevenfold alternation of phrases ending on b’ and a’ invited interpretation in terms of A minor. His setting, which is considerably more complex and subtle than Kirnberger’s, reflects the alternating phrase endings by alternating the pitches F# and F phrases by phrase. Phrases 1, 3, and 5 (with cadences to E , E, and B) all feature the pitch F# without F natural in the harmony (a striking difference from Kirnberger’s emphasis on F natural in phrases 1 and 3), while phrases 2, 4, and 6 (all cadencing on A) feature f with not F#s. In the 2 (repeated) phrases of the ‘Stollen’ this difference is insignificant, since the single f#’ of the 1st phrase is merely a passing tone, and the relationship of the 2 phrases creates the sense of an antecedent/consequent pairing in A minor. Nevertheless, Bach took pains to give the change from f#’ to f’ an “expressive” character on the 1st chord of phrase 2, where the tenor f’ “contradicts” the alto f#’ of the preceding phrase ending, then to draw attention to the f’ on the 5th chord, where it is dissonant against the bass e. And in phrases 5 through 7 the f# - f difference mirrors the meaning of the single sentence that spans those phrases: “Herr, wo mich deine Gnad’ nicht halt / so kann der Teufel, Fleisch und Welt / mich leicht in Unglück stürzen” (Lord, if Your grace does not sustain me / then the devil, the flesh and the world / can easily cast me into misfortune.) In these 3 phrases Bach matches the reference to what will happen to the believer if God and His grace are not present by setting phrase 5 entirely within the framework represented by the one-sharp signature, then undermining that framework over the next 2 phrases in analogy with the progressive “weakening” of the believer by his enemies. Phrase 5 matches Werckmeister’s requirements for the Hypophrygian mode exactly. It not only ends with the Phrygian cadence to B but also features f# throughout the phrase; at the outset the bass line even presents the pitches of the 1st phrase of the chorale melody 1 degree sharper than at the beginning of the setting (i.e., beginning from f#, rather than b, but accented differently, of course,) and at the end it introduces the last 4 pitches of the 1st phrase (down 2 octaves.) This phrase therefore sounds like a variant of the 1st phrase, but solidly in the one-sharp framework for the 1st time in the entire setting. In other words, although we may draw this phrase into the key of a (as V of V), we lose something important in Bach’s setting if we do not recognize that it represents a sharper region than the preceding phrases – that is, if we discount its “hexachordal” aspect.

After the 6 f#s of phrase 5, the shift to an F major root-position triad on the 2nd chord of phrase 6 represents another very expressive gesture, turning the cadence of that phrase back to a. The 7th and last phrase of Bach’s setting, however, is the most telling of his intentions, since not only does it break the pattern of the phrase-by-phrase F – F# alternation, beginning with F and ending with F#, but directly before the final E cadence it moves to the furthest point in the flat direction of this entire setting. Bach begins the 7th phrase as if A minor were the tonic key, even moving to harmonies that suggest to our ears the subdominant of a in the penultimate measure: D minor and C# diminished-7th chords. The tenor b flat of the C# diminished-7th chord extends the pitch spectrum of the mvt. one step in the flat direction beyond F, its flat limit to this point, and the a – b flat – a of the tenor line points unmistakably toward D minor. However, Bach changes the D minor to D major on the next chord and follows it by a diminished-7th chord on d#, then the final E major chord (i.e., transposition of the C# diminished-7th and D major chords up a tone in sequence.) Thus, instead of either a plagal or an authentic cadence to E, by far the preferred cadences in the harmonizations of other composers, Bach approaches the final bass note e by means of a chromatic ascent from c# and d through d#. Although the D major chord has a strikingly “fresh” and relatively sharp sound as the point where the alto F#’ replaces its earlier F’, Bach’s sequence emphasizes the flat/sharp, whole-tone relationship that normally exists between the subdominant and the dominant, especially in minor keys, unmistakably causing the E to sound like the dominant of a. After the weakening effect of the shift toward D minor, the reappearance of the F#’ in the antepenultimate D major chord has the quality of hope against hope, so to speak – that is, it represents a local brightening of the harmony that, although very expressive, still functions like the subdominant of a. After the dominant (sharp) character of phrase 5, the F major harmony near the beginning of phrase 6 and the replacement of F# by F natural throughout that phrase seem to mirror the believer’s envisioning the absence of God’s grace, to make the point that in order for the E ending to sound secure F# must constitute a fundamental pitch – that is, a component of the basic scale and the 5th of the B major chord. It does not seem far-fetched, therefore, to interpret the progressive flattening of the tonality through phrases 5 to 7 as an analogue of the believer’s fears and the final cadence to E as representing a level he cannot sustain (the sharp system of Bach’s key signature.)

And the opposition of stable and unstable tonal regions continues throughout the 1st 7 mvts. of the cantata, the sharp region generally undermined by the flat until the final aria and chorale. Directly following the opening chorale, the 1st recitative amplifies the believer’s cries of persecution: “Mein liebster Gott, ach laß dichs doch erbarmen, ach hilf doch, hilf mir Armen! Ich wohne hier bei lauter Löwen und bei Drachen, und diese wollen mir durch Wut und Grimmigkeit in kurzer Zeit den Garaus völlig machen” (My dearest God, ah, permit Yourself to have mercy, ah, help, help this poor weak one! I dwell here among lions and dragons, and they want through rage and fury to do me in completely.”) And it confirms the “weak” ending of the chorale by moving immediately to a, in association with the believer’s cry for God’s mercy. Its tonal direction, however, is markedly toward the sharpest region of the cantata, reaching the dominant of F# in its 6th ms. and closing in b 2 ms. after that. It appears that after the “subdominant” threat of the believer’s destruction at the end of the opening chorale the unremitting motion in the sharp direction represents the violence of his enemies – that is, it was intended to project a ‘durus’ quality. Bach’s response is the E minor of the ariosolike aria for bass and bc, drawn, as in the biblical ‘dictum’ of Cantata BWV 18, from Isaiah 41:10: Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin mit dir, Weiche nicht, ich bin dein Gott; ich stärke dich, ich helfe dir auch durch die rechte Hand meiner Gerechtigkeit” (Fear thou not, for I am with thee. Be not dismayed, for I am thy God; I will strengthen thee, I will help thee also with the right hand of My righteousness.) This solo marks a point of culmination in the cantata, since of the 1st 3 mvts., all of which Bach notated with the one-sharp key signature, this is the only one to offer a positive message and the only one to settle solidly and unambiguously on e. And this E minor – the 1st point of real tonal stability in the cantata – not only projects an entirely different tonal character from the weak E of the opening chorale but also mirrors thtext of the aria. The lines “Weiche nicht, ich bin dein Gott; ich stärke dich, ich helfe dir auch durch die rechte Hand meiner Gerichtigkeit,” urge the believer not to yield to his foes, for God gives strength and assistance. In this passage the words “Weiche nicht” (“do not yield” – literally, “do not ‘soften’”) may well bring up musical associations for anyone familiar with the common usage of the terms ‘hart’ and ‘weich’ as synonyms for ‘dur’ (sharp, major) and ‘moll’ (flat, minor) in 17th- and 18th’ century Germany. That is, this representation of the voice of God urges the believer (metaphorically) not to allow the flat, or subdominant, tonal region to weaken or undermine his faith, as it had threatened to in the opening chorale.

In the 1st segment of the cantata the 2 very different E modes attest to Bach’s awareness of the issues involved in modal composition within a basically tonal framework. They correspond closely, in fact, to the 2 viewpoints on the Hypophrygian mode that Athanasius Kircher set forth in 1650, the one mode undermining its final E by means of flat elements in the pitch spectrum and the other strengthening it by drawing on the one-sharp system to provide its dominant. In this light, Bach’s setting of “Schau, lieber Gott” confronts both views of the mode, since it proclaims f# as a fundamental pitch in both its key signature and the setting of its 5th phrase even while it tends toward the subdominant of a just before the end. The E minor aria then provides a model for the strong sense of key that the believer must (metaphorically) attempt to sustain.

Although the 4th mvt., a tenor recitative, carries forward the one-sharp signature of the preceding mvts., its validity is contradicted by the modulatory course of events after the 1st 6 of its 19 ms. After beginning in G and cadencing in b for the believer’s response to God’s word of ‘Trost’ – “Du sprichst zwar, lieber Gott, zu meiner Seelen Ruh’ mir einen Trost in meinem Leiden zu” (Thou speakest to be sure, dear God, for my soul’s rest a comfort to me in my sufferings) – Bach shifts the modulatory direction toward a and e, closing in the latter key: “Ach, aber meine Plage vergrößert sich von Tag zu Tage” (Ah, but my torment increases from day to day,) so as to initiate the next stage in the undermining of the believer by his enemies. With the next phrase, Bach reintroduces the pitch b flat for the 1st time since the ending of the opening chorale, and with obviously related associations: entering on the word “Feinde” (“denn meiner Feinde sind so viel”: for my enemies are so many,) it converts the E minor cadence into a motion toward d that leads ultimately to g and even c, as the believer voices his fears and cries out for God’s aid. It appears that the flat regions continues to symbolize the believer’s weakness by invoking the affective sphere associated with the term ‘mollis’: “denn meiner Feinde sind so viel, mein Leben ist ihr Ziel, ihr Bogen wird auf mich gespannt, sie richten ihre Pfeile zum Verderben, ich soll von ihren Händen sterben; Gott! meine Not ist dir bekannt, die ganze Welt wird mir zur Marterhöhle; hilf, Helfer, hilf! errette meine Seele!” (For my enemies are so many, my life is their goal, their bow is drawn toward me, they direct their arrows toward my destruction, I will die from their hands; God! my need is known to You, the entire world is become a pit of martyrdom to me; help, helper, help! rescue my soul!)

Since the “goal” (Ziel) of the believer’s enemies in the world is depicted in this recitative as the key of d, which appears 1st on the word “Ziel,” then serves as the key of the final cadence, it is evident that the “weakening” or “softening’ warned against in the E minor aria has taken place. In contrast to the sharpward motion of the 1st recitative and its culmination in the E minor aria, the flat motion of the 2nd one leads to a second E mode chorale verse, ending now with a reference to God’s “Ziel.” [Text and translation given here]

Bach’s setting, sung to the Phrygian melody “Herzlich tut mich verlangen,” appears in the “natural” instead of the one-sharp key signature (the 1st key-signature shift in the work.) The only Phrygian cadences of this setting, however, on phrases 1 and 3 of the ‘Stollen,’ are to the one-flat hexachord (i.e., to A, sounding like the dominant of d,) after which the 2nd and 4th phrases close solidly in a with the aid of diminished- and dominant-7th chords functioning as V of V. In other words, the chorale begins in the flat region of the recitative ending but moves sharpward. Likewise, in the ‘Abgesang,’ half closes in F and d (phrases 5 & 6) give way to a full close to G (phrase 7) and the final plagal cadence to E. The flat-sharp motion of both the ‘Stollen’ and the ‘Abgesang’ mirrors the overall sense of the chorale verse, which begins with reference to the devil’s opposition to the faithful and ends with an affirmation of God’s help in leading things to His “Zweck und Ziel.” In relation to the opening complex (mvts. 1 – 3) this 2nd modal chorale to end on E is much more affected than the 1st one by the emphasis on d at the beginnings of the ‘Stollen’ and the ‘Abgesang’ (rather than at the end, as in “Schau, lieber Gott”.) This quality suggests at first that the believer’s difficulty in holding onto E has increased under the undermining effect of his enemies as narrated in the foregoing recitative. The tonal motion that follows in both cases, however, seems to “overcome” the flat emphasis. In the final phrase Bach reaches the penultimate A minor harmony by introducing a secondary-dominant sequence above the chromatic f# - g – g# - a ascent that precedes the final e in the bass (thus ending the chorale with the harmonic sequence D 6/5 - G – E 6/5 – a – E.) The 1st 2 of these harmonies seem to be preparing a final cadence on the C beneath the final G natural’ – e’ descent of the melody, as, in fact, other Bach settings of this chorale end, but at the last moment Bach leads the lower parts upward to a plagal a – E cadence instead. The effect is to render the “fresh” – sounding antepenultimate E6 chord part of a logical process that seems to continue the cadence further than expected. Owing partly to the metrical placement of the final chords, we have no difficulty in accepting the plagal E cadence as a Phrygian final despite its dominant sound. This dualistic quality is subtly suggestive of the distinction between God’s goal and the believer’s tormented condition. The E cadence is, in fact, far less “weak” than the final E of the opening chorale, since its ‘cantus naturalis’ tonal context does not proclaim the disparity between modal and tonal interpretations (i.e., the failure of the final E to serve as a “tonic”) so intensely. In other words, there is more of a balance between the Phrygian E ending and the dominant of A minor, analogous to the believer’s accepting his own weakness and placing his trust in God’s aid.

After this 2nd chorale Bach confirms A minor, as he had directly following the ending of the 1st chorale. The tenor aria “Stürmt nur, stürmt, ihr Trübsalswetter” juxtaposes the “storms” of tribulation, the “flames” of misfortune, and the hostility of the believer’s enemies to God’s words of comfort: “ich bin dein Hort und Erretter.” But now the believer, secure in God’s promise, defies the world to do its worst: [The text of the tenor aria is given.]

The aria is, of course, through-composed, featuring sections in a – e (lines 1 – 2; ms. 1 – 18), d (lines 3 – 5, ms. 18-24), and d – a (lines 6 – 7, ms. 24-35). Not unexpectedly, God’s words in the final line bring about the return to the original A minor tonality after a middle section that once again introduces the subdominant tonal sphere. While the opening section closes solidly in the dominant, e, suggesting, when taken along with the text, the necessary combination of violent energy (the storms of tribulation) and structural solidity (the believer’s confidence,) the 2nd section uses the subdominant region to bring about a weakening effect once again. The 1st b flat enters, as it did at the end of the 1st chorale (“mich leicht in Ungück stürzen”), with a reference to the believer’s misfortune, on the word, “Unglücksflammen” (Schlagt, ihr Unglücksfalmmen, über mich zusammen, stört, ihr Feinde, meine Ruh’”); now the b flat converts an E minor cadence to the diminished-7th chord on c#, turning the tonality toward d, just as it did in the 2nd recitative (“denn meiner Feinde sind so viel”). And the ending phrase, “stört, ihr Feinde, meine Ruh’,” introduces the subdominant of d, leading to a sustained b flat on “Ruh’” that pauses on the same C# diminished-7th chord again. All these places have in common their association of the subdominant region with the undermining or weakening of the faithful by their enemies.

After the pause on “Ruh,” the tenor continues with the introduction of God’s words of comfort, “spricht mir doch Gott tröstlich zu: Ich bin dein Hort und Erreter,” cadencing in d on “zu.” For God’s word, however, Bach moves rapidly away from d and back to a, a gesture that creates the effect of overcoming the subdominant weakening: the final vocal flourish on “Erretter” underscores that quality. In this aria Bach confirms the key toward which the opening chorale had tended, where it represented the reality behind the believer’s unsuccessful attempt to cadence solidly in D. In the 1st aria God’s promise had introduced a secure E minor in response to the narrative of the believer’s persecution by his enemies; and in the E Phrygian ending of the 2nd chorale the reference to God’s “Ziel” had set up the A minor of the 2nd aria, in which the believer comes to accept God’s promise as the means by which he can overcome both tribulation and persecution.

If these events were intended by Bach in terms of the kind of tonal ‘narrative’ I have described, then the final outcome of the cantata ought to be in major (i.e., not ‘weich’ or ‘moll’, and not, of course, in a flat key.) In this context the recitative that follows the A minor aria occupies, as mentioned earlier, a pivotal place in the design, since, beginning and ending on C, it sets up the G and C of the final aria and chorale. Bach divides the recitative into 3 distinct segments, of which the 1st and 3rd deal with the contemporary believer and his hopes for salvation; they are in major (ending in G and C, respectively,) while the 2nd segment, summarizing the Gospel narrative of the flight to Egypt, is in E minor. The keynotes thus outline the C major triad. Once again Bach seems to have designed the tonal aspects of the mvt. with a view for the differentiation of flat and sharp areas. Beginning on a C6 chord and a C arpeggio in the voice (“Getrost! Mein Herz”: Be comforted! My heart,) Bach has the bass solo leap a 7th to b flat as the text reminds us of the necessity of patient suffering: “erdulde deinen Schmerz, lass dich dein Kreuz nicht unterdrücken!” (endure your pain, do not let your cross overwhelm you!). The bc e then shifts to e flat and leaps from there down a diminished 6th to G# on “Kreuz” as the bass leaps up a tritone to b natural. These provocatively audible rhetorical devices form, however, only part of a broader sequence of events. After this phrase cadences to a, the final phrase of this 1st segment turns to G as the bass anticipates the positive outcome of the believer’s suffering: “Gott wird dich schon zu rechter Zeit erquicken” (God will certainly revive you at the appropriate time.”)

Then the 2nd segment of the recitative, entirely and solidly in e, explains Herod’s persecution and the flight to Egypt as an example of how Jesus became a fugitive immediately after His birth. The return to e might well have been conceived by Bach as the fulfillment of God’s promise in the E minor ariosos: that is, God’s standing by and strengthening the believer come to pass in Jesus’ sufferings on his behalf. Immediately following the e cadence, Bach once again reintroduces the pitch b flat in the voice, this time, however, not with the c# diminished-7th chord, but with the dominant of F, which resolves to F, then shifts to C as the character of the recitative turns from Jesus’ persecution by Herod to its benefit for the believer: “Wohlan, mit Jesu tröste dich, und glaube festiglich: denjenigen, die hier mit Christo leiden, will er das Himmelreich bescheiden” (Now then, comfort yourself with Jesus, and believe firmly: that to all those who suffer with Christ here He will grant the Kingdom of Heaven.”) Within this final C major arioso passage Bach sounds the b flat twice more – 1st as a sustained tone on “leiden” that gives way almost immediately to a b natural—b flat – b natural succession within the phrase “will er [b natural] das Himmelreich [b flat] bescheiden [b natural].” The ease of this last shift makes clear that the 2 pitches are no longer representative of polarized tonal regions but simply part of the final articulation of C.

In fact, this recitative touches on all the keys of the C – a ‘ambitus’ except the one that has served throughout the cantata to represent the ‘undermining’ of the believer, D minor. In this light, it suggests that behind Bach’s tonal design for the work as a whole lies an allegorical perception of the dominant or one-sharp region (e – G) as strengthening the ‘natural’ or a – C regions, while the subdominant or flat region (principally d with elements of g and c in the 2nd recitative) weakens it. The believer is located midway between 2 worlds, one of which represents the goal of his hopes and trust in God while the other represents all that threatens his stability in the world. With the turn to G and C for the final aria and chorale there are no more flat accidentals of any kind in the cantata.

When, just 6 weeks before the 1st performance of “Schau, lieber Gott,” Bach had represented the world by analogy with Egypt in the aria “Wenn kömmt der Tag, an dem wir ziehen aus dem Ägypten dieser Welt?” of Cantata 70, he had anticipated the believer’s escape from the world by means of a ‘rising’ tonal progression through 2 arias in a and e that had culminated in the triple-meter chorale in G that ended part 1. That chorale voiced the believer’s anticipation of eternity in terms of Jesus’ calling him from the ‘vale of tears’ to the jubilation and triumph of eternity. The final aria of Cantata BWV 153 expresses virtually the identical sentiments, turning to G major and triple meter:

[The text and translation of the final (alto) aria is given here.]

As mentioned earlier, this aria adopts the style of the minuet, dominated by a flowing melodic style. It unfolds in 3 stages, the last one marked ‘allegro’ and introducing the believer’s anticipation of Jesus’ changing his sufferings into joy. After this aria the 4 phrases of the final chorale – also in triple meter – strengthen the C by means of the aforementioned succession of cadences on D (half close,) G, G, and C. Its text draws on the last 3 vs. of “Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid” (vs. 16 through 18,) sung in immediate succession, to summarize the progression from acceptance of worldly persecution (vs. 16) to readiness for death (vs. 17) and the anticipation of eternity (vs. 18), ending with the believer’s cry of longing to be with God: “O mein Heiland, wär ich bei dir!” In the 3rd segment of the cantata the initial sections of the recitative, aria, and chorale all take up the believer’s “Kreuz,’ a symbol, of course, of his enduring worldly persecution, after which the subsequent progression of ideas in each mvt. leads to the anticipation of eternity, thus mirroring the dynamic of the cantata as a whole. Eternity is, of course, the ‘promised land’ of the Old Testament exodus, reinterpreted eschatologically:

[The 3 vs. of the final chorale with a translation are printed out here.]

From this perspective, Bach’s beginning Cantata BWV 153 with a simple setting of the melody of “Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh’ darein” enabled him to bring the modal quality of that setting into the foreground, to draw it into a larger framework in which the subdominant coloring of its final cadence would fit with recurrences of the subdominant or flat side of the ‘ambitus’ throughout the canas an allegory of the undermining of the believer’s faith by his enemies in the world. In the 1st 2 mvts. (chorale & recitative) there is a disparity between the tonal region represented by the one-sharp key signature of the opening chorale and the much flatter harmonization of the mvt. as well as between the believer’s A minor cry for mercy and the increasing sharpness of his persecutors in the 1st recitative. God’s response (the E minor aria) puts these tonal disparities in perspective, after which the introduction of flat tonal regions in the 2nd recitative mirrors the continuing narrative of the believer’s persecution. The believer has to resist such undermining, to suffer patiently, trusting in God’s intervening on his behalf, which the 2nd chorale and aria reaffirm, now in the ‘cantus naturalis.’ the 3rd and final recitative resolves the believer’s doubts by articulating the role of suffering and persecution as his ‘cross,’ to be endured in faith until such time as he inherits the benefits of Jesus’ sufferings on his behalf (the closing lines, as cited previously.) The texts that Bach sets with the solid G and C major tonalities that end the 1st and 3rd segments of this recitative (“Gott wird dich schon zu rechter Zeit erquicken”: G; “will er das Himmelreich bescheiden”: C) suggest that the emergence of those keys is associated with God’s ‘goal’ for the believer as forecast in the penultimate G major phrase and the averted C major cadence of the 2nd chorale. They enable the 3rd segment of the cantata to articulate a secure dominant-tonic relationship centered on C major, in which key the final chorale proclaims, once again in 3 stages, the full confidence of the believer’s faith and its eschatological goal.

In what I have just outlined for Cantata BWV 153 there are, inevitably, many interpretative uncertainties regarding Bach’s precise intent for the numerous details that make up such an elaborate design. Absolute proof of such intent will never, of course, be forthcoming, and the balancing of musical and theological features of his works remains a subtle process that involves 2 quite different kinds of analytical procedures. Usually, however, there are certain very broad aspects of any cantata design that provides us with very strong indications of overall musico-theological intent. In the case of Cantata BWV 153 the changes from modal to tonal chorale setting and from minor to major mvt. keys at the end go hand in hand with the obvious differences in style that emerge in the final aria and chorale to make clear the role of the 3rd recitative in effecting a shift from the pejorative tone of the opening mvt. to the affirmational tone of the ending. The shifting tonalities finally settle on a clear C major framework at the end, just at the point where the believer comes to full understanding of the role of worldly persecution in his hopes for salvation. On a large scale the affective ‘dynamic’ of the work is increasingly hopeful, whereas the individual details cannot be so unambiguously defined. The paradoxical aspect of the theological message – that worldly tribulation and persecution, while destructive in themselves, have ultimately positive value – can probably only be mirrored in music with the aid of a text to point the way (as Kuhnau asserted.) The technique of thematic transformation, were it part of Bach’s style, might offer means of indicating such gradual and ‘internal’ processes as the growth of faith, understanding, and confidence. Within Bach’s compositional framework one of the closest equivalents is provided by sequences of changing styles and, in many cases, ‘tonal’ styles and key successions. The subtlety of Bach’s tonal devices, especially when the church modes are involved. raises questions that can never be unambiguously answered – as can those of poetic texts – but whose very existence is a compelling stimulus to the analysis of music and ‘word’ together as signposts to a unified reality.

Little & Jenne (‘Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach’ – expanded edition 2001):

Another piece which also begins in ¾, „Soll ich meinen LebenslaufBWV 153,8, has clear minuet dance rhythms, but suddenly shifts to a faster tempo, „allegro“ in measure 70, for a jubilant, joyful ending.

The characteristics of minuet-like mvts. in Bach’s oeuvre are:

1. Triple meter with one unequal beat per measure, 3/8 or, occasionally ¾ time signature
2. Moderate affect: intimate, nonchalant; simply joy or peace
3. Moderate tempo
4. Balanced 4 + 4 phrases, or multiples thereof, with extensions
5. Characteristic rhythmic patterns
6. Simple harmonies, usually two-chord changes per measure.


Cantata BWV 153: Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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Last update: ýSeptember 8, 2011 ý15:23:27