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Cantata BWV 27
Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende?

Eric Chafe


Thomas Braatz wrote (September 20, 2002):
BWV 27 - Commentary:

Eric Chafe:

The main theme of Eric Chafe’s analysis of the Bach cantatas is based upon the notion of anabasis/catabasis, which simply put means whether the mvts. of a cantata are moving higher (i.e., sharper)[ = anabasis,] or lower (i.e., flatter) [= catabasis] on the circle of fifths from where they have begun. Chafe continues: “And even when there is not such a stage-by-stage progression toward the final key as there is in Cantata BWV 21 (or Cantatas BWV 12, BWV 61, and BWV 27 and a host of other “ascent” cantatas), shift of key at the end of a cantata, or even just for the final phrase of the final chorale, may be associated with ideas such as the juxtaposition of the old and new years (Cantatas BWV 121 and BWV 41 and the chorale “Das alte Jahr vergangen ist”) or the old and new “man” –that is, Adam and Jesus (“Durch Adams Fall”) – or some other (related) theological idea such as the opposition of death and resurrection (Cantata BWV 127) or the “new life” given by Baptism (Cantata BWV 7).“

Regarding the final chorale in BWV 27 Chafe writes: “The change was from quadruple to triple meter, a type of shift that was undoubtedly intended to suggest that the change would be a joyful one. In terms of the metaphoric dimension of the change from old to new year, the shift from quadruple to triple meter often signified anticipation of eternity. In Bach’s cantatas that is a very frequently encountered allegory. See, for example, the final line of the chorale (by Johann Rosenmüller) that ends Cantata BWV 27 and that was undoubtedly introduced by Bach to fit in with the allegorical idea expression in the catchphrase “Ende gut macht alles gut” (which appears in the opening chorus and the first recitative). Rosenmüller’s final lines, “In dem Himmel allezeit Friede,/Freud und Seligkeit,” indicate the meaning clearly. “

Elsewhere Chafe stated: “The two cantatas “Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende” (BWV 27) and “Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe” (BWV 156) both begin with anticipation of death. Cantata BWV 27 delineates a progression toward the anticipation of eternity, while Cantata BWV 156 is the prayer of one near death first for release from the sickbed of punishment for sin, then for God’s aid with the sickness of the soul. In the one (BWV 27) readiness for death and in the other (BWV 156) acceptance of God’s will leads to the awaited “blessed end.” Cantata BWV 27 begins in c and ends, after a rising-third sequence of keys, in Bb; Cantata BWV 156 begins in F and ends, after first modulating in the subdominant direction in association with the theme of sickness, in C.”

In talking about Heinichen’s circle of keys where each ambitus follows the same order: for C major/A major the arrangement is F, d, C, a, G, e, Chafe comments: “Heinichen rejects the sequence of keys that moves entirely by thirds – d, F, a, C, e, G (a sequence that constitutes successions of movement keys in a number of Bach’s most consciously planned cantatas, such as Nos. BWV 61, BWV 12, BWV 186, BWV 27, BWV 104)—because the major third relationship is not considered to be a close one.”

Another interesting excursion by Chafe is: “Within several of these works [the Weimar cantatas of 1714] the pattern of tonal anabasis, or ascent (sharpward motion) through the circle of keys, emerges as a device by which Bach allegorizes sequences of increasingly positive emotions, as well as more internal concerns. Six of the eight surviving cantatas from that year exhibit overall patterned tonal planning to varying degrees, and of the six, five begin and end in different keys. Of these five, four begin in a minor and end in a major key. This open-ended approach to tonal planning reminds us of Bach’s second “Symbolum” canon, “Omnia tunc bona quando clausula bona est. In Fine videbitur cumus toni.” Which suggests a modulatory design in which the final key marks a change from the beginning but provides a satisfactory resolution to the whole [the latter part of this “Symbolum” was popularized by Luther – Bach’s canon was lost and is no longer available.] This is exactly the nature of Cantatas BWV 172, BWV 199, BWV 12, BWV 21, and BWV 61, the last two of which exhibit an eschatological character at the end. In fact, two cantatas from Bach’s Leipzig period, No. BWV 27, “Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende?“ and No. BWV 156, „Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe,“ use German versions of the „Symbolum“ („Ende gut, macht alles gut“; „Ist Alles gut, wenn gut das End“) in their texts to express this central Lutheran concept; both works end in keys different from those in which they began, No. BWV 27 being an interesting example of an anabasis cantata. Although this new form of tonal planning is not incompatible with symmetry, it represents a greatly increased emphasis on the allegory of spiritual development in Bach’s cantatas to this point.”

With Chafe, BWV 27 figures prominently as an example of an ‘anabasis’ cantata:
“This chapter discusses the three remaining types of tonal planning—anabasis, catabasis, and ascent/descent –along with Cantatas 109 and 38 that deal with the central Lutheran belief of justification by faith. The anabasis cantatas composed in Leipzig are fewer in number than we might expect, considering how many of them Bach composed in this first year at Weimar. This is partly explained by the large number of descent/ascent cantatas among the Leipzig works, and anabasis is very prominent in them. In fact, several cantatas of the latter type end, as we saw, in higher keys than those in which they began and might be grouped in this category as well. Also, other works have similar higher endings but are not discussed here because their plans do not consistently exhibit the features of tonal planning as a whole. The five anabasis cantatas selected for discussion illustrate the major characteristics of this.

In Cantata BWV 27, “Wer weiß, wie nache mir meine Ende,” a simple ascent by thirds—C minor, E flat, G minor, and B flat – allegorizes the Lutheran desire to die a blessed death. Epitomized in the chorale “Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem sel’gen End’,” this idea runs through many Bach cantatas, leading to the frequent observation that the composer favored death as a subject. Death seldom fails to call forth special affective treatment by Bach, although some might contend that Bach’s response stems from the Lutheran view of death rather than a personal stance. Lutheran eschatology and the doctrine of justification by faith attempted to transform the meaning of death. Taking a dialectical approach that emphasized on the one hand the idea of death as man’s punishment for his sins, and on the other the comfort of redemption, the Lutheran view made death into a short sleep from which the faithful would awaken into God’s eternity. The anticipation or foretaste of that eternity now so colored death that it was often described as “sweet” (e. g., Cantata BWV 161, “Komm, du süße Todesstunde”). Within this framework the importance of trust (in the double sense of God’s comforting mankind and oman’s placing his trust in God) cannot be overestimated. We have seen the idea of trust associated with rising tonal progression in such Cantatas as Nos. BWV 106 and BWV 21. In “Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende” the ascent and the alternation between the minor and major keys can be considered a response to the prayer that ends the opening movement, “mach’s nur mit meinem Ende gut,” and is confirmed at the end of the first recitative, “denn Ende gut, macht Alles gut.” Proof of the centrality of the Lutheran “Symbolum” to Bach’s thought is found not only in his giving it canonic status but in his allowing it both here and in Cantata BWV 156 to determine the character of works whose endings are higher than their beginnings. Bach achieves a more impressive tone in Cantata BWV 27, moving from the mingling of the individual and pathetic with the message of comfort (opening chorus) to hope, the stilling of worldly desire (akin to the stilling of the “Gewissensangst” in Cantata BWV 105 and, finally, the joy of simple faith.

The joy of simple faith is a key to Bach’s treatment of death in all his works. We have seen that the “Actus Tragicus” (BWV 106) manages to retain a basic simplicity of utterance that belies and ultimately overcomes the allegorical complexity inherent in the doctrinal emphases. Bach seldom needed such a high degree of allegorical complexity in his later works; its presence in the “Actus Tragicus” (BWV 106) signals the transitional character of the work. “Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende” is far more direct and personal, qualities in Bach’s work that, as we saw, came to the fore at Weimar (“Komm, du süße Todesstunde” is the pivotal piece in terms of the subject of death). Triple meter, often in homophonic textures, links Cantata BWV 161 with Bach’s treatment of death and to the Lutheran idea of the “sleep of death.” Another tie to death as a subject is the close conjunction of relative major and minor keys. In “Komm, du süße Todesstunde” all the movements are set either in A minor or C major, without associating positive or negative values to the minor and major modes. Since the key-signature levels do not change among the movements, the tonal allegory in such a work might seem to be confined to modulations within the recitatives. In fact, the subtle derivation of the themes of the closed movements from “Herzlich tut mich verlangen” points to the intimate relationship between the two modes, both of which are used to harmonize the Phrygian chorale. At the final cadence of the cantata the E major chord and the settling of the recorder line on the appoggiatura a’’-g’’ sharp expresses the side of the mode that contains both a historical and a modern aspect. The E major chord is the correct final for the Phrygian mode, yet it sounds like the dominant of A minor. Here, as elsewhere in the Bach cantatas (such as the ending of Cantata BWV 135, the ending of “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden” in the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244), and the close of Cantata 38) the Phrygian ending allegorizes the nature of the final question regarding death, put in Cantata BWV 161 as a rhetorical question: “Was schad’t mir dann der Tod?” This perfect symbol of the faithful anticipation of eternity (E major) from the earthly framework (A minor and the C system) provides a clue to Bach’s comforting meditation on death, whether or not he chooses to utilize pastorale and dance (sarabande, Siciliano) elements. Faith and trust are child-like in their simplicity, accepting a meaning that reason would question.

In the case of Cantata BWV 27, Bach uses rising thirds similarly to those of the Weimar cantatas “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” (BWV 12) and “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,” (BWV 61) making a similar progression from the complexity of the opening chorus to the directness of the final chorale. The work emphasizes the church’s comforting role in supporting the individual; in the opening chorus not only the chorale but even the troping recitatives are set in triple meter (a unique instance.) The ritornello material of this chorus was created to picture the basic antithesis underlying meditation on death. In the first six bars the strings play a descending arpeggio figure above an alternating-octave C pedal and below a duet of pathetic character in the oboes; then, for the remaining six bars the voices are exchanged, and the arpeggio figure appears in the basso continuo, now ascending. Throughout the movement only the descending form will be used until the final ritornello, following “mach’s nur mir meinem Ende gut,” where the ascending form returns to dominate the ending. Both the devices of quadruple versus triple meter and melodic descent/ascent run throughout the cantata, while the tonal plan indicates the basic upward direction.

The first recitative states that life’s only goal is to die a blessed death and enjoy the benefits of faith. This way of thinking suggests the devaluation of life that Walter Benjamin posited as the motive behind allegory in the “Trauerspiel.” The soloist (tenor) voices the willingness to live in constant readiness for death, adding “und was das Werk der Hände tut, ist gleichsam ob ich sicher wüßte, daß ich noch heute sterben müßte; denn Ende gut, macht Alles gut.” We cannot know whether Bach really had this kind of faith, but that he knew what it meant is clear from the following movement. In reference to the “work of the hands” the obbligato organ part of the E flat aria, “Willkommen will ich sagen, wenn der Tod ans Bette tritt,’ takes on a personal character that is suggested in the oboe da caccia part as well [The oboe da caccia often has a special role in Bach’s music related to the affect of love.] The movement retains some of the motive ideas of the opening chorus in a general way—the slurred duplets of the oboe lines and the alternating-octave pedal, in particular—but the tone of hope dominates and is conveyed from the outset by the rising fifth of the oboe line. These movements, in the three-flat system, are concerned primarily with the acceptance of death, while the last two deal with readiness to leave the world.

Following an accompanied recitative expressing longing for the future life, the G minor bass aria with strings, “Gute Nacht, du Weltgetümmel,” alternates the styles of a sarabande-like lullaby (“Gute Nacht”) and the ‘stile concitato’ (“du Weltgetümmel”), with the former beginning and ending the aria. In the middle section the words “Ich steh’ schon mit einem Fuß” prompt wide-ranging melodic descent by thirds to the open g-string of the violin, while the completion, “bei dem lieben Gott im Himmel” (rather than the expected ‘im Grabe’) returns to the upper register. Occasional melodic resemblances to the final chorus of the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) (also modeled on the sarabande) and the aria “Es ist vollbracht” of the St. John Passion (BWV 245) were undoubtedly unintentional but fit entirely with the meaning of the aria. Bach chose the final choral, “Welt ade! ich bin dein müde,” from its original seventeenth-century setting by Johann Rosenmüller, rather than harmonize it himself, undoubtedly to articulate the simple quality of faith evoked by the harmonies, the antiphonal effect of the low and high voices at the beginning, and the archaic turn from duple to triple proportion for the final phrase (“in dem Himmel allezeit Friede, Freud’ und Seligkeit”). Remembering Bach’s reference in this 1730 memorandum to the council to the change in musical style that had taken place since the time of Kuhnau and Schelle, one can imagine that the ending of Cantata BWV 27 represented a form of no, a yearning for the spirit of a simpler age that was already a thing of the past when the “Actus Tragicus” (BWV 106) was composed.“


Cantata BWV 27: Details & Complete Recordings | 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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