Cantata BWV 26Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig
Voigt | Schweitzer | Smend | Dürr | Chafe
Thomas Braatz wrote (November 16, 2002):
BWV 26 - Commentaries:
This is a somber, dark cantata from beginning to end, but the introductory chorus and the bass aria of great beauty and very moving. My concept of the 1st mvt. would involve having the voices present this music rather quietly, even when the choir sings the unison sections. This is done in order to present the effect of a restless rushing to and fro. This would not preclude having the entire orchestra play at full strength at the end of a section such as the point just before the voices set in. All in all, this cantata is very worthwhile and rewarding for the conductor, the performers and the listeners alike.
The tenor aria stands behind the other numbers in this cantata. This is due to an excess of word painting. The middle section, however, has more depth. Sections of the da capo repeat can be eliminated without a problem.
The bass aria is a 1st class piece, having a very lively but almost fanatical expression. One can almost hear a tent preacher holding forth. This is certainly a work that could be considered ‘dramatic.’
By means of an ‘ingenious’ scale-passage, Bach compares the transitoriness of life to the cloud “that soon arises and soon has passed away.” This is in reference to BWV 644 from the ‘Orgelbüchlein.’ Schweitzer, based on the research available to him at the time, then goes on to claim that ‘about twenty years later’ Bach composed BWV 26, which is “simply an amplification of this little picture.” The 1st is in essence a sketch of the material he would use for the 1st mvt. of the cantata. [The fact is that the time lapse between the organ chorale prelude and the cantata based on the same chorale is about 10 years.]
Schweitzer, like Voigt, prefers that the playing should be kept light to suggest the flying and undulating mists.
Bach is equally fond of describing the motion of the clouds. He generally does this by means of scale figures merging into each other in similar and contrary motion. This 1st mvt. is a great piece of tone-painting.
In Mvt. 2, Bach symbolizes someone hurrying after or by the side of another by imitative passages for the voices, often almost in canon. He depicts the “hastening” in much the same style as at the commencement of the Easter oratorio, “Kommt, eilet und laufet.” (BWV 249)
In Mvt. 4, the bass aria, the theme is founded on the ‘joy’ motive, making it a cheerful song of freedom from the world. But as soon as the words, “rauschen und reißen die wallenden Fluten” [“The floods rush overwhelmingly along”] or “in Trümmer zerfällt” [“falls in ruins”] occur, the orchestra at once reproduces these pictures in appropriate motives.
Michael Franck wrote the text for the chorale, “Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig“ right after the 30 Years War, and, based on the great number of reprints after its initial appearance, it was spread far and wide as perhaps no other chorale of that period. In its 13 verses, he describes, with repetition of a similar beginning, how everything on earth is destined to destruction through death. Everything includes all material goods as well as those that might be considered as ideal. Christ’s name is not invoked even once. One can search in vain for a single word of comfort, until the very powerful last line of the chorale: “Wer Gott fürcht’, bleibt ewig stehen” [“Whoever fears God, will remain standing forever,”] where the eternal is contrasted with the transitory.
Very astonishing is the skill with which the librettist is able to condense 7 verses into the recitative beginning, “Die Freude wird zur Traurigkeit.”
Transitory and worthless are all the goods that the world has to offer, even the spiritual ones. This is admirably expressed in the 1st mvt. A flute, 3 oboes, a string orchestra and an organ surround the choral sections which are dominated by the cantus firmus (sopranos) that is accompanied colla parte by a horn. Based on the formal structure alone, this cantata belongs to the group of many chorale cantatas that were composed around the same time and that have many features in common. But here we can see precisely how Bach’s mastery of the form, allows him to compose with unbelievable diversity despite the similarity in form. The form is simply the container or the frame for his musical ideas. The accompanying voices (A,T,B) speak a very fast-moving language, as it they were in a hurry to catch up with the many pheonomena that are disappearing as fast as they appear. Short, broken fragments of motives are thrown about in the musical picture that unfolds before us.
This mvt. continues the notion of fleeting motion with the rushing mvt. of water which is meant to symbolize how the days of our lives also flow by quickly. Bach’s relationship to death has already been pointed out elsewhere: he always knows that, no matter how he might argue with God, he will be in the hand of God and his Savior. This makes it all the more impressive when Bach devotes himself exclusively to the single thought: “Alles, alles, was wir sehen,/Das muß fallen und vergehen” [“Everything that we see, must fall down and disappear.”] When we listen to this cantata, we must not forget that it did not influence the church service on the 24th Sunday after Trinity alone. The Gospel reading the other hymns need to be considered as well. The Gospel reading relates the events surrounding the awakening of Jairus’ daughter. The designated hymns for this Sunday all treat the subject of death. Christ, as the one to save us from death, appears even more powerful and comforting, the more intensely we experience the awful reality of the world of death as presented by Bach with great mastery in this uncanny, horror-filled cantata.
This cantata belongs to the chorale cantata cycle known as the Second Leipzig Cantata Cycle (1724-1725.) The main goal of the librettist was to reduce the large number of verses of the Michael Franck chorale to a manageable number of cantata mvts. Since the content of the chorale consists of an enumeration of all the worthless things here on earth, it is relatively easy to follow how the librettist went about accomplishing his task:
Vs. Keyword (…ist/sind der Menschen)
2 Tage (Mvt. 2)
3-9 Freude, Schöne, Stärke, Glücke, Ehren Wissen Dichten (Mvt. 3)
10 Schätze (Mvt. 4)
11-12 Herrschen, Prangen (Mvt. 5)
As obvious as the connection to this Sunday’s Gospel is, it nevertheless remains a vague or very general connection and does not connect directly with specific facts stated in the reading. There is not even an explanation for the contradiction that becomes apparent when one considers that Jesus is calling the girl back to a life on earth that is worthless from a spiritual standpoint.
Here is the Gospel reading (NLT-Matt 9:18-26):
As Jesus was saying this, the leader of a synagogue came and knelt down before him. "My daughter has just died," he said, "but you can bring her back to life again if you just come and lay your hand upon her."
As Jesus and the disciples were going to the official's home, a woman who had had a hemorrhage for twelve years came up behind him. She touched the fringe of his robe, for she thought, "If I can just touch his robe, I will be healed."
Jesus turned around and said to her, "Daughter, be encouraged! Your faith has made you well." And the woman was healed at that moment.
When Jesus arrived at the official's home, he noticed the noisy crowds and heard the funeral music. He said, "Go away, for the girl isn't dead; she's only asleep." Bthe crowd laughed at him. When the crowd was finally outside, Jesus went in and took the girl by the hand, and she stood up!
The report of this miracle swept through the entire countryside.
Bach uses the form that he prefers to use for most of his chorale cantatas: line by line the soprano (supported by a horn) sings the choral melody in long notes. This is supported by the three lower voices filling in the chords but moving very quickly in 8th notes, thus they underline the notion of life’s transitory nature. Every line concludes with a unison quotation of the 1st half lines of the choral melody. The orchestral material illustrates even more obviously this state of transitoriness: the flute, 3 oboes and strings are combined to produce with chordal harmonies many ascending and descending scales of 16th notes. Even the bc joins in playing these motifs which give the impression of a spooky rushing sound that will not allow this mvt. to find a solid resting point.
The scale-like figures of the 1st mvt. continue into the 2nd mvt. (tenor aria) where they now represent the fast-moving, rushing sound of water. Both obligato instruments, a solo violin and a flute have ever-changing functions: at times they run parallel to each other in unison, at which time the violin sometimes pauses, creating thereby an echo effect. At other times the violin and the bc simply accompany the voice and flute, then again the flute and violin run along in parallel thirds or take on a concertante function. The tenor also takes up the running scale-like passages and thus joins the ensemble to create a quartet of parts and voice. Only in the middle section do these running scales subside at the words, “wie sich die Tropfen plötzlich teilen.”
Only after the initial coloratura on the word, “Freude,” does the continual movement expressed in the 1st 2 mvts. reach a relatively quiet moment in a simple secco recitative.
But the momentary rest in the preceding recitative quickly gives way to relentless rhythm of a “Totentanz” [a dance of death] which is expressed aptly by 3 oboes and bc in the form of a quasi-bourrée. Once again the singer continues with the same theme introduced by the instrumentalists, who very obviously are supposed to characterize what is meant by “irdische Schätze” [“earthly treasures.”] However, by moving into a minor key, the dance mvt. loses its joyful aspect and calls forth a macabre fear instead. It is Death playing on his chalumeau who forces mankind to dance according to his tune.
Once again there is a simple secco recitative.
Only now, in the final line of the final chorale, with the words, “Wer Gott fürcht’, bleibt ewig stehen,” is there a hint of comfort in this cantata.
In content this cantata may seem to have little in common with that which a present-day pastor would have to say about this Gospel reading, but in its impressive collection of decisive images it can have an earth-shaking effect spiritually upon the listener. In doing so it fits in perfectly with the type of thinking that should be occurring at the end of the liturgical year, and in this, from a musical standpoint at least, this cantata is above all a superb masterpiece.
[Eric Chafe’s main theory on the cantatas is that of anabasis/catabasis – a upward, then downward mvt. in tonality from one mvt. to another of a cantata, or in the instance given below, even within a given mvt.]
In the aria “Ich halt’ es mit dem lieben Gott,“(BWV 52/5) the world is represented by three oboes, moving entirely in homophonic style. This sonority, relating to the introductory concerto mvt. , had been used by Bach two years earlier, in 1724, in the E minor bass aria “An irdische Schätze das Herze zu hängen ist eine Verführung der törichten Welt” (BWV 26.) “An irdische Schätze” is written in gavotte style.
Cantata BWV 26, composed in Leipzig in 1724, illustrates the transience of human qualities with an ascent/descent plan culminating in the central aria, which is characterized by a mocking quality. It is associated here, however, not with the legitimate representatives of God on earth but with human aspiration and worldliness per se. The rapidly ascending and descending scales of the opening chorus of the Cantata, “Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig,” in A minor, suggest the fleetingness of worldly achievement. A C major aria translates this idea into the rising and falling of waves (“So schnell ein rauschend Wasser schießt, so eilen unser’s Lebens Tage”), and a recitative moving from C major to E minor continues the dualism with carefully placed flattened and sharpened tones and tonal directions. “Die Freude wird zur Traurigkeit (B flat), die Schönheit (C sharp) fällt (B flat) als eine Blume, die größte (B natural) Stärke wird geschwächt (E flat, cadence to C minor)“, and so on. The recitative closes, „Bald ist es aus mit Ehr und Ruhme, die Wissenschaft, und was ein Mensche dichtet, wird endlich durch das Grab vernichtet.“ Now a bass aria in E minor, gavotte-like in style and accompanied by three oboes(!), represents the foolishness of resting hopes in the world in a setting so pompous that it borders on the comic. The following recitative moves back down to A minor with tonal devices similar to the earlier one, and the final chorale (A minor) underscores the message of worldly transience. Throughout this cantata the recognition of the futility of human endeavor is always close to the surface.
[It is interesting to observe the difference of opinion between Dürr and Chafe regarding the rhythm of the 4th mvt. (bass aria.) Dürr calls this mvt. a quasi-bourrée, while Chafe claims that it is gavotte-like. As the final judge in this matter I call upon Meredith Little & Natalie Jenne in their new, expanded edition of “Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach.” After painstaking and careful research, they have concluded that this mvt. fits in neither category (nor in any other.)]
Cantata BWV 26: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Bach-W. Walton: The Wise Virgins, suite from the ballet (arranged music of J.S. Bach)