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Cantata BWV 18
Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt

David E.G. Smith wrote (January 28, 2002):
BWV 18 / BWV 18 Mvt. 3 – the Litany
Commentary on Bach Cantata BWV 18 "Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee"

The libretto for this cantata was written by Erdmann Neumeister and is based on the gospel for Sexagesima, the parable of the sower. Neumeister was a pastor in Hamburg who was known to Bach personally. He was a champion of the orthodox Lutheran party against the pietists and he wrote important theological treatises to champion Lutheran orthodoxy. He was also the originator of the kind of cantata texts that Bach often used in his cantatas, where the basic pattern is to have poetic meditations on the Scriptural themes in the form of alternating recitatives and arias. This style of cantata text was considered modern because it was obviously influenced by opera. When Bach failed to get the post of organist at Hamburg because he couldn't pay a customary donation, Neumeister commented in his Christmas sermon, "If one of the angels who sang at the first Christmas came down from heaven and tried to become the organist of this church and had no money, he might as well fly away again."

Neumeister's text for Sexagesima starts with a long recitative, a quotation from Isaiah 55:10-11. Exegetically, this is very apt, as the point of the passage, that God's Word is effectual, is closely related to the meaning of the parable of the sower. The main secton of the text is a series of recitatives joined together by petitions from Luther's litany (these petitions are quite similar to the petitions of the Anglican litany). The four sections correspond to the four types of soil in the parable. The effect is of invoking the common prayer of the church against the temptations represented in the parable. The aria that follows contrasts the treasure that is God's word with the deceits of the temptations. The final movement is a chorale, an early reformation hymn expressing trust in Holy Scripture.

What this cantata offers exegetically is a short but powerful meditation on the gospel reading, seen through the sensibility of a church in which the Word was of primary importance. The present reality of unbelief, apostasy, and worldliness is underlined and the love of the genuine believer for the Word is expressed, but from within a state church whose authority is not questioned. The believers' reaction to these dangers is not revolution and schism but the prayer of the church and personal faith.

1. The opening instrumental sinfonia, unusually scored for four violas, makes a strong introduction to the work. It contains "descending rain and snow phrases" (Tadashi Isoyama, in the liner notes to the Suzuki recording [6]). The picture conveyed is described as "the feeling of longing for the blossoming of Holy Scripture in the midst of desolation" (Isoyama) or "the steadfastness and inviolability of the Word of God" (Albert Schweitzer).

2. The recitative, according to Schweitzer, is a masterpiece. "The nearly equal divisions of the original passage are gathered up by the music into one great unified phrase that resolves and obliterates, as if by magic, all the rigidities of the verbal passage, giving us the impression that the poetic thought has waited for centuries for this music in order to reveal itself in its true plastic outline." Some later writers are a little less excited. We should at least notice how the images of the fruitfulness of the rain are highlighted by the accompaniment.

3. The main section of the cantata is made up of recitatives and litany responses. The first tenor recitative is derived from the good soil in the parable that produces a hundredfold. The believer asks that his heart could be good soil for the Word. The litany petition – that God add power and the Spirit to the Word.

The first bass recitative asks to be delivered from the lies of Satan, who tries to take the Word away from us, along with our happiness (the seed that falls on the path). The petition - "to tread down Satan under our feet."

The second tenor recitative is about those who fall away from the Word due to persecution (the seed that falls on thin soil). The petition is for deliverance from the violence of the "Turk and the Pope" - secular and religious persecution.

The second bass recitative is about those who care for their "bellies" and for "Mammon" so that the Word is deprived of its power. These lead many to wander from the path of heaven. Note the elaborate vocal setting of "vom Himmel irregehen" ("from heaven stray and wander"), which represents musically the wandering path. The petition is for God to recover those who have strayed.

4. The soprano aria moves away from the dramatic character of the former movement to an inward and personal reflection on the treasure of God's word. The individual believer assents to what the church has prayed. Schweitzer describes the accompanying musical figures as a "wave" motif, inspired by the idea of Satan's "nets."

5. The final movement is a chorale, an early reformation hymn expressing trust in Holy Scripture. The style is simple, bringing together the varied styles of the previous movements in one united prayer that God not take his Word from the believer.

Dick Wursten wrote (January 29, 2002):
As already pointed out by David Smith mvt. 3 consists of a series of recitatives joined together by petitions from Luther's litany. He also noted that these petitions are quite similar to the petitions of the Anglican litany.

Since I had to prepare an introduction to Purcells Anthem: 'Remember not o Lord our offences' (= a supplication from the Anglican litany), I had to study a little bit on the history and contents of the 'litany'. Here a few excerpts from my notes on this subject.

1. litany = from the greek litaneuein = supplicate, beg
2. The cry: 'eleison' was generally used in the Middle-East before christendom christianized it. (also to be found by Homer in the Odyssee (XI, 43) and Ilias (IX,502)
3.The litany was originally part of the Introit. In a procession petititons were prayed, every petition being answered by 'kyrie eleison'... In the 7th century the petitions disappeared and only the 'kyrie eleison' was left. (pope gelasius had already added 'christe eleison' before that). The litany stayed as a processional prayer for special occasions/situations. (esp. distress)
4. From the 12th century the name 'litany' also can be found to mean the procession in which the litany was prayed. 5. The increasing popularity of Mary and the saints leads to the litany of all saints. Very long (almost never ending) lists of petitions appear. (>
negative association: litany = never ending complaint).
6. Luther first drops the litany, but when in 1529 the Turks re-appear in central Europe, he re-makes and re-mixes the litany of all saints (of course without saints) to the Lutheran litany: latina litania correcta. In my german hymnbook I find it as hymn 138 ( Litanei oder Das Fürbittegebet). > BWV 18, mvt 3, I suppose.
7. In the Anglican liturgy (Book of Common Prayer) the litany forms the conclusion of the Morning Prayer.
8. Remnants of or allusions to litany-praying can be found in some hymns: Luther’s 'Mitten wir im Leben sind' (Media vita in morte sumus) has a very impressive litany at the end (Heiliger Herre Gott..) and the same goes for 'O wir armen Sunder' (kyrie elesion at the end of each verse)

Richard Grant wrote (January 29, 2002):
[To Dick Wursten] Thanks, Dick, even to an old altar boy and classicist like myself this was enlightening and informative. Strange, as a boy the Litany of the Saints (RC) seemed almost a hundred times longer than it does to me today, but then we've "lost" some.

Thomas Braatz wrote (February 9, 2002):

Spitta noticed the chaconne nature of the 1st mvt. [Check the meaning of ‘chaconne’ – the use of the 4-bar phrase in the bc.] “A mighty theme in the bappears regularly, usually exactly as it was before, but at times it is given the freedom of a ciacona as the motif even moves into the middle range on one occasion.” Is there any special significance attached to this sinfonia (the representation of rain and snow, etc.)? Spitta does not think so. At the most, it might represent the fullness of the effects that are caused by the spreading of God’s word. In mvt. 4, Spitta refers to the wave-like motion.

Schweitzer criticizes this notion because there is nothing in the text to evoke this description; hence Schweitzer considers the possibility of the word, “net.” About mvt. 1 Schweitzer states that it ‘symbolizes the steadfastness und inviolability of the word of God that is uttered later in the cantata.’

Chafe (2000) discusses this cantata in his book, “Analyzing Bach Cantatas,” and describes the theme of Sexagesima Sunday as the power of God’s word in the process of faith as connected with the Gospel reading, the parable of the seed and the sower, which seems to refer back to another parable from Isaiah (55:10-11), “in which God proclaims that His word is like the rain and snow that fall from heaven and fertilize the earth so that it gives forth seeds to sow and bread to eat.”

Chafe continues: “Neumeister must have been particularly drawn to this subject, since it articulates the very goal of hermeneutics: the believer’s understanding and internalizing God’s word. Once again, therefore, he drew upon the patterns and devices of traditional hermeneutics to represent stages in that understanding, citing the passage from Isaiah as the introductory ‘dictum’ to a four-movement design whose next movement draws a very free paraphrase and expansion of the Gospel parable into the recitative portions of a fourfold recitative-cum-litany complex. Behind Neumeister’s text lies the dualism of falling and rising as a two-stage process that leads from God to humankind and back to God. In the passage from Isaiah falling is a necessary part of the process of growth: the falling snow and rain bring about new growth and new seeds, and the falling seeds themselves renew the cycle as well as providing bread to eat; analogously, God’s word provides spiritual nourishment for the faithful, who return the word to Him through prayer. The Gospel-based recitatives then bring out the analogy of the faithful to the fertile ground on which the seeds fall and of those who have given themselves over to “the world” to the infertile ground. Thus, they extend the idea of falling to all who, like rotten fruit falling from a tree, reenact the fall of humankind in their devotion to the world, falling away from God’s word and bringing about their own destruction. In contrast, the four chant-like litany passages represent the prayers of the faithful—that is, the process by which the “word” returns to God. With the culmination of each of the four recitatives in one of these passages (set by Bach for soprano solo and litany passages), Neumeister creates a sequence representing the viewpoints of the Old Testament (Isaiah), the New Testament, and the church (the recitative and litany passages), following that by the perspective of the individual believer (the aria “Mein Seelenschatz ist Gottes Wort”: God’s word is the treasure of my soul). The eighth verse of “Durch Adams Fall” then affirms the centrality of God’s word to the believer’s hops of salvation….

In linking the passage from Isaiah with “Durch Adams Fall,” Neumeister’s text makes the point that, as the catalyst to faith and salvation, God’s word does not return to Him “empty.” Behind the idea that the word which went forth from God’s mouth is now in the believer’s mouth lies an indirect reference to bread in the passage from Isaiah, which itself recalls the widespread interpretation of God’s word as spiritual manna from Heaven….

“Durch Adam’s Fall” juxtaposes Adam to Jesus, the world below to heaven above, death to eternal life, and fallen humanity to the faithful in hope of salvation. It therefore articulates what Luther called the “summary” of scripture and the only basis for allegorical interpretation: the dialectic of destruction and restoration. The dualism in question, since it is central to the message of redemption, is one that underlies countless of Bach’s sacred texts. In the SMP, for example, the arioso “Der Heiland fällt vor seinem Vater nieder” (The Savior falls low before His Father), representing Jesus’ prostration before God in Gethsemane, His submission to the necessity of a human death, takes up the dualism not only in its text—which continues: “dadurch erhebt er mich und all von unserm Falle hinauf zu Gottes Gnade wieder” (through which He raises me and all from our fall back up to God’s grace”) – but also in the contrary motion between the continually descending arpeggio figures of the strings and the scalar ascent of the bass line. Later in the passion, after the crucifixion and the narrative of Jesus’ burial, another arioso, “Am Abend, da es kühle war, war Adams Fallen offenbar” (In the evening, when it was cool, was Adam’s fall made manifest), refers back to Jesus’ “fall” in Gethsemane as His suppression of Adam (the flesh) — “Am Abend drücket ihn der Heiland nieder” (In the evening the Savior brought him [Adam] down)—and to explain His death as the restoration of humanity to God’s grace: “Der Friedensschluß ist nun mit Gott gemacht, denn Jesus hat sein Kreuz vollbracht” (The reconciliation with God is now accomplished, for Jesus has completed His cross). As is well known, the arioso in question also compares Jesus’ fall and act of restoration to the story of Noah and the flood, which also came to a conclusion in the evening, in keeping with the underlying “purpose’ of representing the story of redemption (destruction followed by restoration) as the subject matter of the entire scriptures.

Bach must have been closely attuned to the underlying descent-ascent dynamic [this is part of Chafe’s main theory governing the analysis of the Bach cantatas] of Neumeister’s text, for he begins “Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee” with an introductory sinfonia, whose principal theme represents the dualism of falling and rising, by means of both its rising sequences of falling fifths and its falling and rising eighth-note patterns. Immediately following the Sinfonia, the bass soloist (traditionally used by Bach to represent the voice of God) enters with God’s words as given in Isaiah, making clear the meaning of the falling and rising patterns in the Sinfonia by means of its division into two halves, the first taking up the literal image of the falling rain and snow, then the growth of seeds to sow, and the second the allegorical interpretation in terms of God’s word (mm. 1-7 and 8-15). Bach respects the division of the text into literal and figurative meanings by setting up musical parallels between the two halves: thus the first words in each half, “Gleich wie der Regen” and “also soll das Wort,” are motivically alike, as are the lines “und nicht wieder dahin kommet” and the “so aus meinem Munde gehet.” Each “half” features a shift from recitative to andante arioso style toward the end as the text turns to the fruitful outcome of the snow and rain, on the one hand, and the word of God, on the other.

After these two movements, both in G minor, the beginning of the recitative-litany complex bridges between the Old Testament ‘dictum’ and the first of the four litany passages. Turning to Eb, the tenor compares the believer’s open heart to the tilled ground awaiting the seed of God’s word and hoping to bring forth its fruit in hundredfolds; its final line intensifies and becomes more anguished as it turns to C minor in Prayer: “O Herr, Herr, hilf! O Herr, laß wohl gelingen” (O Lord, Lord, help! O Lord, let things turn out well). Now the soprano enters, continuing the prayer with the first recitation— “du wollest deinen Geist und Kraft zum Worte geben” (We pray Thou wouldst give YoSpirit and power to Your word)—and leading the reiterated d’s to a Bb cadence, after which the choral response, “Erhör uns, lieber Herre Gott!” (Hear us, dear Lord God!), returns to close in C minor. In this sequence both Neumeister’s text and Bach’s setting are very skillfully arranged so as to articulate the sense of continuity from the Old Testament to the New. The phrase “lass wohl gelingen” echoes the ending of the passage from Isaiah, “und soll ihm gelingen, dazu ichs sende,” while the soprano incantation seems to link up with the Epistle for the day (2 Corinthians 11:19-12:9), which culminates with God’s words to St. Paul that His strength is made perfect in weakness.”

Chafe then goes on to outline the descent from g – Eb – c, the C minor becoming the symbol of human weakness and the point from which the return of the word to God begins. “In this context the fourfold recurrence of the litany serves to articulate the key of C minor as tonic almost by default; and the fact that each soprano incantation cadences in Bb after the G minor underpinning of its recitational tones, while the choral responses all close in C minor, causes each successive return to c to project an “allegorical” quality. That is, the C minor cadences do not follow from the tonal sequences within the solos to nearly the same degree as the first one did after the tenor’s Eb and c. Instead, each of the reappearances of c has the effect of returning to a tonal framework that can serve as the “tonic” key of the movement only by virtue of the reference back to its first appearance. In terms of the relationships among the various keys, G minor, the key of the cantata as a whole, is equally or more prominent (by virtue of the several articulations of its dominant). And the fact that the long final recitative makes a conspicuous return to g as it describes the straying of humanity from heaven is a very telling occurrence. When the last of the litanies prays for God to bring back all those who have fallen into error and temptation, cadencing not in g but on Bb and c as usual, the C minor cadence seems not only to weaken the tonic but also to link up with the association of that key to the deception of the world in the final recitative. By such means Bach conveys a sense that the affective quality of the litanies was intended as a representation of human weakness, a cry for mercy like the “Kyrie eleison” that ends many Lutheran chorales. At the same time, the faithful, in returning repeatedly to c after the tonal digressions of the recitatives, can be said to hold onto God’s word in the midst of worldly deceptions. In this context we are not far from Werckmeister’s interpretation of tempered music as a representation of human weakness, from Johann Kuhnau’s assertion that emphasis on the subdominant toward the end of a movement has an effect of weakening the tonic that is analogous to incomplete recovery from illness. The central recitative-litany complex, since it is based on Jesus’ parable in the Gospel for the day, occupies a pivotal role in the design of Cantata BWV 18, its subdominant tonal framework and wide-ranging flat modulations expressing the believer’s faith struggles in the world. In this respect it can be said to represent the “nadir” of a descent-ascent design from the initial g (mvts. 1 & 2) to the Eb beginning of the first recitative and the reiterated subdominant cadences of the litanies, and back to g through the Eb aria that follows.”


Cantata BWV 18: Details & 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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