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Cantata BWV 176
Es ist ein trotzig und verzagt Ding

P. Spitta | A. Schweitzer | A. Dürr | N. Anders | D.v. Wijnen | D. Schulenberg | E. Chafe


Thomas Braatz wrote (June 12, 2001):
BWV 176 - Commentary

This time allow me to quote at length from the widely diverging discussions regarding this cantata, BWV 176, by two recognized Bach scholars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Spitta and Schweitzer. I hope you will feel the perplexity expressed by Spitta (1883) and how Schweitzer (1905,1911) manages to 'get inside' Bach's head to uncover elements of the composing process which, in turn, adds to the listener's understanding of the cantata and also aids in the interpretation of this work, as we will see later on. Dürr weighs in with an opinion that partially returns to Spitta's idea about
the first mvt., and Chafe discovers a unifying element that extends to other mvts.

Here, then, are Spitta's comments on BWV 176:
"This cantata, considered as a whole, presents for us an insolvable riddle. According to the Gospel, Nicodemus secretly makes his way through the night in order to visit with Jesus. The author of the cantata text recognizes the weak-willed faint-heartedness of such an action and, for that reason, chooses a quote from the Old Testament: "Es ist ein trotzig und verzagt Ding um aller Menschen Herze" ("It is a defiant yet desperate/despairing thing concerning the hearts of all human beings") Now the author of the text continues with the thought, if a Christian were to do likewise, not seeking Jesus in public, then this comes a the result of a feeling of shame regarding one's own inadequacy. But with the hope of being saved through one's faith, one can venture to take courage. This thought should have been clear to Bach, just as it is clear to us. This is why it is incomprehensible, that Bach, in his music, insists on the very opposite of this idea: He does not emphasize "Verzagtheit" ("timidity") in the introductory choral section, but rather places strong emphasis upon "Trotz" ("a defiant attitude,") however this is not characterized by a 'normal' "Trotz," no, it is a 'titanic' "Trotz" that storms against heaven in this terribly energetic fugal theme. This piece is a masterful composition of the highest order, but its character loses all connection with the text that follows this mvt. The gavotte-like 1st aria provides a stark contrast to the 1st mvt. The aria, as simply a musical composition, is certainly attractive enough, but it does not even fit its own text, which is about the shyness of a Christian standing before Jesus, the miracle-worker filled with the presence of God. Even if the following mvts. fare somewhat better in being suited to the text, the general effect of the cantata is one of disunity, of disharmony among its elements. If it were not for the existence of an autograph copy, one would have to consider that someone else had a hand in taking Bach's music from elsewhere and fitting the words to the music in the first two mvts. of the cantata. Now all we can do is point out the disparity or contradiction between the words and the music."

Schweitzer's comments are as follows:
After pointing out Spitta's shock ("Spitta was horror-struck"), Schweitzer says, "the discord between the text and the music disappears as soon as we realize that Bach had the idea of movement here. The words run thus: 'When I inquire after the Master, his (the sun's) beloved light will be clouded, because I am afraid by day.' The situation is explained by the preceding recitative, in which Nicodemus waits for the sun to set in order to go to Jesus. In the aria, he is on his way to Him; in the following recitative he is with Him. The aria thus represents him soliloquizing as he walks delicately and circumspectly, but joyously in the twilight. The rhythm that runs through the mvt. is really the only characteristic thing in the text that the music can fasten upon. Here the music in no way aims at expressing pure "feeling." Examples of this kind show that when we are studying Bach, the seemingly shortest and most direct way from the text to the music is not always the right one. To discover his real thought (process), we must very often follow him along the by-paths that surround his idea, which is strongly pictorial in essence. His music is often a picture of the situation."

By the time we come to Alfred Dürr, we find that he still thinks that Bach has placed more emphasis on the "Trotz" ("defiance") than the "Verzagtheit" ("timidity.") According to Dürr, mvt. 1 is "one gigantic erratic Block," a huge rock, in other words, that lacks consistency, regularity, and uniformity. To Dürr's credit, however, he does point out that Bach allows the text to dictate the dynamics of the fugal theme, and that in addition to this Bach added 'forte' and 'piano' markings in the orchestral parts. There is, first of all, an upward-striving triadic element, quickly followed by a faster movement going up the musical scale, before the theme begins descending chromatically. He points out other unusual features of this mvt. no ritornelli anywhere, no dialog such as with pairings of voices that we saw in mvt. 1 of BWV 74. He also notes how important this notion of dynamics arising from the text is in the two arias that follow.

Nele Anders (1988) in his notes that accompany the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt Teldec series points out another element. He states that in this cantata, "Bach transfers the interpretation of text and emotion to the structure and melodic shaping of the opening chorus, a large-scale fugue. The fugal theme is built up on the contrast between the defiantly soaring C minor triad and its upward scale passage to a "despairingly" descending chromaticism. These two so very different examples of human behavior are given a more profound significance by means of the reminder in the recitative (mvt.1) of Nicodemus, who only dared to visit Jesus at night, and of Joshua, during whose battle with the Ammonites, the sun stood still so long until victory was certain."

Dingeman van Wijnen (2000) in his notes for the Leusink Series on Brilliant Classics states that the cantata "opens with one of those amazing Bach fugues which you cannot get out of your head after hearing them. The word "trotzig" is angrily repeated. Before we realize it, the number finishes."

David Schulenberg (1999) {Oxford Composer Companions [Boyd]} points out that this is one of Bach's last regularly composed cantatas after which the composition of the cantatas becomes more sporadic. It is one of his shortest cantatas. "The opening biblical quotation (Jer. 17:9) is set as a four-part fugue. The verse is too brief to be divided between subject and countersubject but, although it might seem to have presented little musical potential, the contrasting affects suggested by its two adjectives are exploited within the subject. This is divided into a lively triadic portion, with a rising melisma on 'trotzig' ("spiteful"), and a quiet chromatic phrase for 'verzagt' ("despairing"). This division is paralleled in the accompanying strings, which throughout the mvt. present their own countersubject; the latter opens with a vigorous idea reminiscent of the 5th Brandenburg Concerto, but this gives way to sustained chords that Bach marked 'piano' in the original parts. The top three vocal parts are doubled by two oboes and taille. The form is unusual for a Bach choral fugue, two and a half expositions (without ritornellos), each beginning with a bass entry in the tonic (C minor), new counterpoint is added in the second exposition."

Eric Chafe (1991) in his very expensive book, "Tonal Allegory in the Vocal Music of J.S.Bach," a book that I have only consulted a few times as I investigated the cantatas under discussion here, at first left me 'crossing my fingers' that this book would not be similar to thpurchase of Christoph Wolff's and Ton Koopman's "The World of the Bach Cantatas," which, as far as I can tell from using it (correction: 3 volumes!), offers little or nothing of significance in regard to aspects of any specific cantata. It seems to be more for general background on the cantatas, giving many overviews, but lacking in specifics, which is made up for by many pretty pictures. Eric Chafe, as far as I can tell from my limited use of this book , is seriously attempting to break new ground, to set new directions for Bach scholarship to investigate in the future. So far I have obtained some insight into his main theory: the anabasis and catabasis (the upward and downward movement) of tonalities, primarily from one mvt. to another within the cantata, and how this movement relates to the text, but when he attempts to relate all of this to the supposed theology of J.S.Bach, I lose the 'live connection' that I have with Bach's music. It becomes too abstract, cold, and intellectual for me. I lose the entire connection with the cantata when Chafe 'puts on his theologian hat' or attempts to imply that Bach really made a connection here with the Epistle of the day in his cantata: "Composed for Trinity Sunday, the cantata conveys through its ascent/descent plan the majesty and incomprehensibility of God, as expressed in the Epistle for the day."

Here is the Epistle in the KJV Romans 11:33-36 :

"33 O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!
34 For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?
35 Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?
36 For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen."

A general connection, such as stated here, could pertain to many other cantatas in a general way, but is it specifically related to this cantata? I don't get it. Can anyone out there enlighten me, as to what I am missing here? What does 'going up and down' the key tonalities in this specific cantata have to do with this Epistle of the day? Chafe's concept of anabasis and catabasis is more interesting to me when he ties it in directly with the cantata. This is his description of the general scheme of tonalities in this cantata: "The melodic line moves up from C minor (opening chorus) and G minor (recitative) to B flat (once again an aria in gavotte-like style, but without any trace of caricature), then returns through G minor (recitative) and E flat (aria) to C minor (chorale)." He forces the theological connection with Trinity Sunday, but later admits that the tonal structure "is primarily a representation of human qualities." This is the Bach that I have come to know. Not a Bach that takes a theological abstraction and wants to make a musical abstraction that the listeners will perceive abstractly (if they are so fortunate to be such keen listeners to able to pick this up without an explanation being given.) Remember the problems that the 19th century had in accepting Bach, because he did not fit into the musical straightjacket of sacred music as it was supposed to be written and composed. Some would like to argue, "But Bach spent almost a half year's salary to acquire a set of Luther's works!" To which I might answer, "Perhaps he was not so much interested in the abstract theology, than to discover the 'man,' the 'human being,' whose name was Luther, a man who had 'both feet on the ground' and also had to fight the church authorities and those allied with them. [I still remember a German professor pointing out the struggle Luther went through in translating the Bible. In one instance, I believe it was Isaiah 51:6 "Denn der Himmel wird wie ein Rauch vergehen und die Erde wie ein Kleid veralten, und die darauf wohnen, werden im Nu dahinsterben." NLT: "For the skies will disappear like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a piece of clothing. The people of the earth will die like flies." Other translations say 'gnats' or 'insects.' The KJV: "or the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment, and they that dwell therein shall die in like manner." "in like manner?" You can see the problem here. At this point in one of the numerous attempts he made at translating this verse, Luther placed an asterisk to draw the attention of the reader to the bottom of the page. There Luther indicated that it might be best to simply have the reader snap his fingers at this point, because the critical idea is how fast this will happen, and not to compare man with insects or anything of that sort.] I can well imagine that Bach would see 'eye to eye' with Luther on a point such as this, because it cuts right through any possible theological mumbo-jumbo to get right at the heart of the matter in question.

Then Chafe correctly zeros in on the major antithesis that exists between the words, "trotzig" and "verzagt." He equates "trotzig" with 'stubborn, obstinate, and willful', and "verzagt" with 'discouraging, dejected, timorous.' Then he goes on to suggest that "trotzig" can be further related with aggression and aspiration (Whoops! There he lost me. I have difficulty seeing a connection between aggression and aspiration.) and "versagt" with human weakness. Then he says, "And of course the two are ultimately the same." What level or perspective are we on here? God's or mankind's? Then Chafe explains that the 2nd mvt. recitative makes it all clear: "Nicodemus's weakness in coming forth only by night can be seen positively – an acknowledgement of human weakness and an inability to comprehend God's ways. Bach's opening theme represents human aspiration with an emphatic ascending minor triad reminiscent of "Bestelle dein Haus" from the "Actus Tragicus" (BWV 106). An interesting comparison, I admit, but just how do the first notes in this cantata connote aspiration? Aspiration is a longing or desire and the only aggressive use of the term that I know is reserved for an obstetrician who applies this procedure to arrest the growth of the fetus. Now, after Chafe takes us up the final sweep of notes to the highest point of the main fugal motif, he makes an observation that is worth a quarter of the price I paid for his expensive book, he states: "the tone changes to chromatic appoggiatura "sigh" figures that descend in a very different character but that nevertheless suggests an overall symmetrical pattern in its equaling the length of the ascent and descending minor triad conclusion. [Finally, something really new for us to listen for carefully in the recordings: a 'sighing' motif!] Bach underscores the antithesis by making the strings play forte, concitato-like figures as accompaniment to the first half and sustained piano chords to the second. [Dürr had already pointed this out -- see above.] Then Chafe illustrates with examples from the score (I will try to provide these for you) how the two arias follow a similar scheme of upwards/downwards with the two-note 'sighing' figures also present. Here is an element that provides an insight into how Bach unifies the various movements of a cantata. This is very worthwhile considering and listening for. But when Chafe, referring to mvt. 3 (soprano aria), points out "the short ascent/descent figures of the type used to represent the rainbow in the aria "Erwäge" from the St. John Passion (BWV 245) appear prominently for "Niemand kann die Wunder thun," The pattern he refers to occurs very frequently throughout the aria and could just as well referred to another passage from the text that has the same instrumental accompaniment: "Dein sonst hell beliebter Schein." I am, however, grateful that Chafe pointed out the connection, because this segment from the SJP holds great meaning and attraction for me because I feel that Bach very intentionally created this marvelous effect on the word "Regenbogen" ("rainbow") to draw the listener's attention to this passage. For me this is a very mysterious moment, not only in this entire aria, but in the entire SJP. Now with the help of Chafe I have found a connection between this sacred moment and another Bach cantata, this one.

If anyone is still reading at this point, I would like to provide my own slant on this cantata and its first mvt. in particular.

1. Realization of Dissatisfaction with his Position in Leipzig.
Since this is the last of the regularly composed and presented cantatas (the 3rd and 4th Leipzig cantata cycles were more sporadic in nature and cantatas by other composers were featured as well), we have an indication that Bach was no longer completely fulfilled or satisfied with his role within the church.

2. Understanding of the Word.
Recently I read somewhere in Christoph Wolff's biography of Bach, that Bach had contacts with the intelligentsia of Leipzig - Leipzig had a famous university (even Goethe came from Frankfurt to Leipzig and studied there.) One of Bach's contacts was a noted Hebrew Professor, whom he might easily have asked for further input in attempting to understand texts from the Old Testament, such as the one the 1st mvt. here is based upon. What he may have heard from this man are definitions of `aqob (aw-kobe´) meaning "deceitful, sly, insidious, slippery" and 'anash (aw-nash') meaning "to be weak, sick, frail, to be incurable, desperate, desperately wicked, woeful," these words being the Hebrew original from which Luther worked in order to come up with "trotzig" and "verzagt."

3. Hidden Attack against the Authorities.
Knowing how Bach loved to work on many levels at the same time, and in some instances even used his cantata texts to get his personal viewpoint, his personal message across to those who might understand it, supporters as well as detractors, and knowing full well that any accusations that would arise, would come to naught because it would be hard to prove a connection since he left no 'paper trail' only the double entendre, I think that this cantata is a summary statement of strong feelings that he had about the difficult situation he found himself in. Just consider for a moment, how the title of the cantata title would sound when applied to those who were acting toward him in these ways, or did Bach express his own attitude of defiance followed by despair, or both of these applications simultaneously.

4. Antithesis the Motivating Factor.
The antithesis is the germinal idea upon which Bach constructed his cantata. It provided the inner movement he needed. He found ways to extend this idea to later mvts. to provide a unifying effect, an effect that was not understood very well until Chafe uncovered this connection.

5. The Unprovable Esoteric Connection.
I seriously think that Bach had connections with individuals who were part of an 'esoteric underground' that passed things on in an oral tradition only to those that would understand it (like Jesus and his disciples). This will probably sound like a crazy conspiracy theory would to most people or perhaps you may think that I have been reading too much science fiction. But I sometimes see in the 'odd' choice of words by Bach's librettists, and in his own modifications as well, 'signal' words that seem to point to something more, something that we have lost because it was not considered worth writing down, or it could conceivably be dangerous for those who did so (memories of the Inquisition, witch trials, etc.) I am reminded of the fairy tales that had been told for centuries, but no one bothered to record them until the late 18th century, and by the time the Grimm Brothers came along, it was almost too late to save them from being lost forever. In this cantata I ponder the story of Nicodemus and the words in the 3rd aria such as "Dein sonst beliebter Schein soll vor (für) mich umnebelt sein, weil ich nach dem Meister frage.."and the following recitative "Ich fürchte, daß bei Tage mein Ohnmacht nicht bestehen kann." Of course these words could be explained only in terms of the Nicodemus story, just as the Jesus' parables were stories simply by themselves without further explanation. But we also know that the disciples were privy to other interpretations of these stories. So it seems to me that there is definitely more here than meets the eye. Perhaps some future generation will make more sense out of this, than we can at this point in history. Just consider how the opinion about this cantata has changed since the 19th century!


Cantata BWV 176: Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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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