Cantata BWV 155Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange?
Aryeh Oron wrote (January 24, 2002):
The background below is based on several sources (Albert Schweitzer, W. Gilles Whittaker, Alec Robertson, W. Murray Young, Christoph Wolff, Hans Christoph Worbs, Nicholas Anderson, etc.) and something of my own. The English translations are taken from Richard Stokes' book.
This rather brief, four part (SATB) solo cantata for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany was composed on Frank's poem. The Gospel for the day is John 2: 1-11 - Christ turns water into wine at the wedding of Cana - but Frank's libretto seems to have only slight reference to it in the alto-tenor duet. Instead, Franks develops the general idea that we should turn to God in time of tribulation. God knows the right time to deliver us from trouble.
All four voices type have solo duties to perform, although the distinction of the parts reveals a dialogue principle at work, with Bach treating the voices in a traditional allegorical manner, even though Frank makes no such provisions. The soprano is the voice of the Soul (vox animae) and the bass the voice of the Redeemer (vox Christi), while the alto and tenor represents Faith and Hope respectively.
Mvt. 1 Recitative for Soprano
Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange?
(My God, how long, ah! How long!)
It is typical that the libretto should speak not of sorrow at what is to befall Christ, but of the Soul's own sorrow. The Soul's is dejected over her daily lot of sorrow, which seems to never end. She asks God how long she must endure it. The continuo has a pedal bass, groups of four quavers, throbbing throughout most of the length of the recitative with frequent dissonant chords above. She concludes the last two lines in coloratura arioso. Bach graphically illustrates the 'Der Freuden Wein gebricht' (The wine of joy is lacking) in both voice and strings, as also the despairing conclusion, 'Mir sinkt fast alle Zuversicht' (My confidence has all but gone). The sombre mood of this recitative reminds very much the opening recitative of the solo cantata for soprano BWV 199 'Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut'.
Mvt. 2 Aria (Duet) for Alto and Tenor
Du mußt glauben, du mußt hoffen
(You must believe, you must hope)
The text reflects not only the Gospel here but also the Epistle 'Du mußt glauben, du mußt hoffen, / Du mußt gottgelassen sein!' (You must believe, you must hope, / You must have trust in God). These consolatory words are expressed in a gentle melody in sixths and thirds. The singers play the part of comforters to the Soul in despair. They have long runs on 'gelassen' (resigned), 'efreun' (gladden) and 'offen' (open). A solo bassoon provides the ritornellos and also plays in canon with the voices except at the start and before the middle section. It is, as Whittaker says, one of the finest bassoon obbligati Bach ever wrote, exploiting a wide reach of its encompass. This is indeed a gently soothing and consoling movement, which reminds some passages from other early Bach Cantatas.
Mvt. 3 Recitative for Bass
So sei, o Seele, sei zufrieden!
(So be, O soul, content!)
In this secco recitative in the role of Jesus, who speaks to the Soul, the bass tells her that He (her dearest friend) has not forsaken her. Her sorrows will not last, as He will turn her bitter tears from wormwood into the virgin honey of joy. He is only testing her love for Him through her suffering. The dryness of this rather long recitative is relieved by some illustrative passages for continuo.
Mvt. 4 Aria for Soprano
Wirf, mein Herze, wirf dich noch
(Through yourself, my heart, through yourself)
The Soul expresses her change to happiness in a joy-motif, which graphically illustrates her idea of throwing into Jesus' arms. The sensual melody of the aria vividly reproduces, on the violins, the gesture of abandonment in the opening words, and, two bars before the voice comes in, its loving reception. Dotted rhythms and wide intervals in both the strings accompaniment and the vocal line lend a sprightly character to this aria. The raging rhythm becomes suddenly a long chord. But this chord has no serenity but shiver and thrill, symbolising the transformation of the Soul's feelings from despair (and fear of abandonment) into hope. The idea of placing our worries on His mercy is neatly personified in the last three lines.
Mvt. 5 Chorale
Ob sichs anließ, als wollt er nicht
(Though it may at first seem He is not willing)
The confidence is fully restored in the concluding chorale, stanza 12 of Paul Speratus' hymn 'Es ist das Heil uns kommen her' (Our Salvation has Come to us) (1524), set to its original melody. This hymn seems to confirm the whole thought expressed in the preceding movements: although we may think that God is sometimes not present, He is always near us in word and in spirit.
Thomas Braatz wrote (January 25, 2002):
From the gospel reading on the Wedding at Cana, the only thought that was included in the cantata text was that God will finally help when you really need him, even if it appears that he takes his time in doing so. This already outlines the simple psychological and dramatic scheme that connects the mvts. of the cantata. Mvt. 1: While the bass using eighth notes at the same pitch (d) incessantly hammers away at the same note, the soprano laments in recitative style that she sees no end to her misery, and she ends this lament on two melismas, one twisting upward on “Freudenwein” [“the wine of joy”], but then on “mir sinkt fast alle Zuversicht” [“I practically give up all my hope”] sinking exhausted back again among the violins that have been imitating her musical figures. Mvt. 2: This alto/tenor duet attempts to put the believer back on his feet again with “Du mußt glauben, du mußt hoffen” [“You must believe, you must hope”] and interweaves a bassoon part with broken, widely diverging harmonies. These passages are sometimes independent of the voice parts, at other times they imitate them. Another step in calming the believer occurs in the bass recitative (mvt. 3) “So sei, o Seele , sei zufrieden!” [“Then, o Soul, be satisfied with what you have!”], after which follows a splendid soprano aria, “Wirf mein Herze...” [“Throw myself, your heart.”] This is one of those Bach mvts., that one can listen to over and over again, since it has a strong rhythmic factor, along with steadily forward-driving 7th chord harmonies that underline the feeling of victory expressed by the vocal line. Here we see again the reversed pedal points [the long held notes in the vocal part], those large, arching phrases that fly by us as we listen to what the hand of the master can create with such certainty. Very effective and almost impossible to describe is the wonderful sudden shift from major to minor that occurs in the middle section of the aria. This is very reminiscent of the same daring device that has been more closely identified with Schubert, in whose music it is frequently used.
Voigt calls this “ein kleines Werkchen von intimen Charakter” (“a little work of an intimate nature.”) He points out the development of “Stimmung” [“feeling/atmosphere”] in this cantata:
Mvt. 1: “Gefühl der Gottesverlassenheit” [“The feeling of having been abandoned by God”]
Mvt. 2: “Mahnung zum Vertrauen” [“A warning is given to maintain one’s trust in God”]
Mvt. 3: “Eröffnung der Hoffnung” [“Opening oneself to the possibility of hope”]
Mvt. 4: “Leidenschaftliche Hingabe der Seele” [“The soul turns passionately toward God”]
Mvt. 5: “Wiedergewonnene feste Zuversicht” [“Confident hope has been restored”]
Every mvt. is replete with the deepest musical feeling, and as such, when considering the framework just outlined, this work can be considered to have attained perfection.
Mvt. 1: The pedal point, the long, monotonous beating thereof, represents the torture caused by worries that restlessly gnaw away at one’s soul.
Mvt. 2: This mvt. is at the same time of an extremely popular nature, but also very deeply expressive. The bassoon part that can easily create the effect of restlessness demands as a counterpart that the upper strings be treated in acalmer fashion with less agitation.
Mvt. 3: The bass recitative displays a maturity in the formation of the melodic line, a maturity on a level found only in Bach’s best works of a later period.
Mvt. 4: In the soprano aria there is evident passionate devotion which is underlined by the sudden shift from major to minor that occurs at the end of each vocal section.
This is a cantata without an opening chorus. Mvt. 1 begins with a twelve-bar repetition of the same note in quavers, creating an effect of anxiety (in other cantatas this might represent a trembling or shuddering.) “My God, how long, oh, how long? Too great is my distress. No end do I see to sorrow and care.” To which the alto and tenor say consolingly, “Thou must believe, thou must hope,” while the bassoon and cello maintain uninterruptedly one of those curiously extended figures with which Bach symbolizes steadfast faith. A motive in the demisemiquavers, that forms the middle part of the theme, then enters at the words, “Jesus knows the right hour at which to gladden thee with his help,” and its meaning becomes apparent. The theme with wide jumps symbolizes the combination of firm faith and joyful hope. The soprano aria (mvt. 4) “Throw thyself, my heart, into the loving arms of the Most High” breathes a quite sensuous passion. The wild rhythm of the strings merges sharply into a long chord, which however, does not express rest, but trembling and shuddering while the bass now takes over the passionate theme. This procedure is repeated five times. The picture given in the text could not be represented more realistically in music. In mvt. 4, the upper voices pause suddenly on a chord while the bass of the theme continues. “Cast thyself, oh my heart, into the loving arms of God,” in which passionate mvt. it depicts the heart at rest in God’s arms.
Dürr mentions the connection to the Gospel reading (Wedding at Cana). Jesus remains hidden since his hour has not yet come, but the soul may hope, that He will appear when needed to give comfort. The word, “Freudenwein” [“the wine of joy,”] in mvts. 1 & 3 also helps to make the connection to the Gospel reading. The obbligato bassoon part in mvt. 2 is one, when compared to all the other similar parts in all of the Bach cantatas, that expects the greatest amount of virtuosity from the player. Dürr surmises that the choir in mvt. 5 may have consisted only of the 4 soloists [Suzuki follows through on this suggestion.] Mvt. 1: The 11 ½ ms of the hammering pedal point on ‘d’ captures the attention of the listener, and it expresses a feeling of waiting for something longingly as indicated in the text. There is a sudden spiraling upward mvt. on “den Freudenwein gebricht” [“the wine of joy is lacking,”] only to fall back in exhaustion on the words, “mir sinkt fast alle Zuversicht” [“almost all of my confident hope is sinking away.”] Mvt. 2 is one of the most original duets that Bach ever wrote. While the bc ‘daubs’ its chords, the obbligato bassoon at the beginning of the mvt. measures off an interval jump of a 13th and continues with wide leaps throughout the mvt., sometimes interrupted by very fast running figures. The voices continue mainly in a homophonic, sometimes imitative style. The bass recitative (mvt. 3) gives comfort to the soul. It is not by chance that Bach chooses to use the ‘vox Christi’ for this mvt. Although there are rather static lines in the bc, the mvt. tends almost to become an arioso, particularly where the words, “damit sein Gnadenlicht dir desto lieblicher erscheine” [“so that the light of His grace may shine upon you even more pleasantly.”] Mvt. 4 has lively, dotted rhythms both in the instruments and the voice part, and even the bc joins in while the others have gentle mvt. in the strings.
Chafe compares this cantata to BWV 21 which describes a process analogous to the believer’s increasing experience of faith, what we might call the faith ‘dynamic’ of the entire work. The juxtaposition of “Weinen/Wein” [“crying/wine”] was a widespread metaphor for the antithesis of worldly tribulation and the hope of eternal life that derived from the Gospel story of the changing of water into wine at the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11), Jesus’ first miracle and the occasion on which, as the Gospel tells us, He first “manifested forth His glory.” We find this and related metaphors in Bach’s cantatas for the 2nd Sunday in Epiphany, for which the story of the wedding at Cana was the Gospel reading. Cantata 155, for example, sets up antitheses between the believer’s “Tränenmaß” [“a measure of tears”] and “bittere Zähren” [“bitter tears,”] on the one hand, and God’s “Trost- und Freudenwein” [“the wine of comfort and joy”] on the other. Tears constitute the primary symbol of worldly tribulation, and their increasing in quantity through time (corresponding to the filling of the wine jars in the Gospel narrative) reflects the believer’s increasing torment throughout the long period of waiting for God’s intervention….The narrative of the wedding at Cana is the first appearance of that expression in John’s Gospel. Jesus’ remark to Mary that His “hour” had not yet come – and the final verse seems to confirm this association between Jesus’ “hour” and His glorification. Bach’s two most characteristic cantatas for the 2nd Sunday in Epiphany, “Mein Gott, wie lang’, ach lange” (BWV 155) and “Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen,” (BWV 13) both interpret Jesus’ “hour” in terms of the believer’s hopes for “Trost” [“comfort”] from God. According to this view, Jesus’ waiting until the wine jars were full of water represented God’s knowing the proper time (i.e., “hour”) at which to make Himself known, the time at which the believer’s long period of waiting in doubt and tribulation would finally end.
Although the tears-wine metaphor is shared by BWV 21, BWV 155, and BWV 13, the aria, “Erfreue dich, Seele” [“Be joyful, Soul”] (BWV 21) renders the sense of “Verwandlung”, or transformation all the greater in that it juxtaposes words that are identical or very close in sound, whereas their meanings are opposite: “Weinen/Wein” [“crying/wine”] and “Ächzen/Jauchzen” [“groaning, to shout for joy.”]
I think Chafe has uncovered the very type of thing that Bach enjoyed working with and reveals another level of Bach’s genius. In this case, homonyms, or near homonyms, serve as the basis of an antithesis that provides for tension and dramatic development that will help to propel the cantata forward through the sequence of mvts. The antithesis becomes a unifying factor. Is this oxymoronic, or what?
Cantata BWV 155: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3