Aryeh Oron wrote (March 7, 2002):
BWV 157 - Background [Alfred Dürr]
The background below was written completely by Alfred Dürr (1960) and is included in the liner notes to the recording of this cantata by Hellmann for Cantate label. The English translation of the text, by C. Stanford Terry, is also taken from the same source.
Christoph von Ponickau, Chamberlain and Privy Councillor, was in his 75th year when he died, in October 1726. He was buried a few days later in his family tomb at the church of Pomssen. He had deserved well of Saxony in many ways, and was an outstanding personality. He is not known to have any dealings with Bach direct; but among the poems of the latter’s librettist Christian Friedrich Henrici (Picander) there is a long funeral ode on von Ponickau’s death, immediately followed by the text of the cantata ‘Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn!’. It thus seems possible that Picander had a hand in commissioning the cantata from Bach. It was performed on 6 February 1727 at a solemn memorial service in the church of Pomssen.
Bach afterwards used the cantata for the Feast of Purification (February 2), which at that time was still celebrated by the evangelist Church. There was no difficulty about this; for the Gospel for that feast (Luke 2: 22-32) is concerned with the presentation of Christ in the Temple and the story of the aged Simeon, of whom it had been prophesied that he should not die until he had seen Saviour. Simeon words, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen the salvation’ are still regarded as an allegory of Christian death, and a funeral ode on these lines could at any time understood and performed as a commentary on the Gospel for Purification. The libretto begins with a quotation from Genesis 32: 26: ‘I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.’ (Mvt. 1). These words were spoken by Jacob to the Angel with whom he wrestled; but in the cantata they are treated as if addressed to Jesus.
The first aria (Mvt. 2) and the following recitative (Mvt. 3) speak of holding fast to Jesus as a comfort in grief and tribulation. The next aria (Mvt. 4) brings in the idea of death (‘So shall I enter into heaven’); again the blessing is upon the man who will not let Jesus go. There is a recitative, which refers back to the text of the aria; Bach actually incorporated this in the aria, much as in Cantata BWV 169 and certain other works. The text ends with the last verse of the hymn ‘Jesus will I never leave’, by Christian Keymann (1658) (Mvt. 5). The first line originally read, ‘Jesum laß ich nicht von mir’; in the cantata it is the same as the last line: ‘Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht’. Unfortunately it is impossible to say whether Bach made the alteration deliberately or by accident.
In composing the music, Bach may have taken account of the resources available at the memorial service at Pomssen. The chief responsibilities fall to a tenor, a bass, and 3 solo instruments, with continuo. The choir sings only the plain final chorale, and the string orchestra is used only as accompaniment to the chorale and to the recitative (Mvt. 3). But it cannot be said to be a disadvantage that Bach, on this occasion, was not able to call on the more complete orchestra that he used for his weekly cantatas, and chose instead a flute, oboe, and solo violin – a type of combination that he had hardly used in his early cantatas (e.g. BWV 152 Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn). Attractive tone-colour and masterly composition are here most happily combined.
Mvt. 1: Duet for Tenor and Bass
Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn!
(I’ll not let Thee go till blessed by Thee)
Flauto traverso, Oboe, Violino solo, Continuo
The introductory Duet employs the 3 solo instruments and both singers, with continuo. The words ’I will not let thee go, except thou bless me’ are not yet realistically, as is obvious from the use of two voices; furthermore, the idea of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel does not appear to have been in Bach’s mind. The music does not suggest a struggle, but rather the beseeching gestures of the petitioner, of Christendom at prayer.
Ich halte meinen Jesum feste
(I clasp my dear Lord Jesus closely)
Oboe d'amore, Continuo
In the Aria, the idea of holding fast to Jesus is painted with Baroque clarity in long-held notes; the resolute grasp of faith in strong upward-striving demisemiquaver figures. The obbligato instrument is the oboe d’amore, whose deeper compass contrasts with that of the 3 high instruments in Mvt. 1, thus enlarging the range of colour.
Mvt. 3: Recitative for Tenor
Mein lieber Jesu du
(O Master, dearest, best)
Violino I/II, Violetta, Continuo
A recitative with string accompaniment.
Mvt. 4: Aria, Recitative & Arioso for Bass
Ja, ja, ich halte Jesum feste
(Ah yes! I hold to Jesus closely)
Flauto traverso, Violino, Continuo
The recitative is followed by an aria. Here the flute and violin are used, as against the oboe d’amore in Mvt. 2. The form is particularly presents the complete text of the aria, in separate sections; the 2nd half is a much-shortened repetition, three times interrupted by recitatives, of which the first and the third are accompanied by continuo alone, but the 2nd by flute and violin as well. The resolute beginning of the theme, with its wide intervals, and Bach’s choice of a bass soloist, give an impression of joyful and absolute confidence. The rapid movement of the aria themes contrasts effectively with the peaceful recitatives. It is worth noting how Bach secured the coherence of this aria, with its numerous sections, by repeating a motive taken from the instrumental ritornello. The singer begins every aria-section with this motive, almost unaltered; it serves as a motto before the first vocal entry, and is repeated within the sections, so that it is sung 12 times in all – a symbol of ‘holding fast’ throughout the complicated structure of this movement.
Mvt. 5: Chorale
Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht
(Never Jesus will I leave!)
Flauto traverso in octava e Oboe e Violino I col Soprano, Violino II coll'Alto, Violetta col Tenore, Continuo
The cantata ends with a plain four-part chorale.