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Cantata BWV 47
Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden

Alec Robertson | Thomas Braatz & others


Aryeh Oron wrote (October 9, 2001):
BWV 47 - Background

As a background to this relatively unfamiliar cantata I shall use this time Alec Robertson’s book ‘The Church Cantatas of J.S. Bach’:

Mvt. 1 Chorus
The virtue of humility, the theme of the libretto, it is at once pronounced in a paragraph of Jesus’ words in the Gospel for the day. Everyone even slightly familiar with Bach’s organ works will recognize the massive opening chords of the long introductory ritornello as those of Prelude (and Fugue) in C minor (BWV 546) composed at Weimar, and he draws on other material from the Prelude in the course of this powerful movement. There are two expositions of the fugue, the subject of which, begun by the tenor, is designed to describe the self-exaltation of the proud and, in a tremendous passage, the proud are held up to contempt.

Mvt. 2 Aria for Soprano
In the middle section of this aria, Bach emphasizes, in long sustained notes, that arrogance is akin to the Devil, and pride that is stubbornly maintained will cause God to reject such souls.

Mvt. 3 Recitative for Bass
Bach’s contempt for the proud is vividly expressed. The text refers to Christ’s humility. The proud soul is exhorted to do penance and follow in Christ’s footsteps.

Mvt. 4 Aria for Bass
Arrogance is to be execrated and Bach sees to it that it is in his florid phrases on the word ‘haughtiness’.

Mvt. 5 Chorale
The 11th verse of Hans Sach’s ‘Warum betrübst du sich, mein Herz’ (1560) set to an anonymous melody.”

Thomas Braatz wrote (October 9, 2001):
BWV 47 - Commentary

For me this cantata was another voyage of discovery. In particular, it was the 1st mvt. that captured my imagination and interest. I would like to trace my listening adventure in the hope that others might also share in the experience of discovery. I realize that most of you do not sit with score in hand and follow everything that Bach included in his notation of the score, nor do you necessarily have access to some explanatory texts that describe what Bach scholars have thought and written about this cantata. It is with this in mind that I will attempt to retrace my own listening experience as I come to understand and appreciate the musical composition irrespective of the quality of the recordings that I am listening to.

I usually listen to a cantata without first consulting all the sources that I have available to me. This allows me to determine what I can hear on my own without all the 'directions' as to what I should listen for in the composition. Here are my initial observations regarding mvt. 1:

Without knowing the German language, the first step is made more difficult: discovering the major contrast that is at the heart of the entire cantata. Considering the English: "Whoever himself exalteth shall be abased," leaves me pondering abstract ideas rather than a concrete contrast in motion which the German preserves in the words "nieder" ("down, below") and "Höhe" ("up high.") This immediately, in Bach's mind, translates into an antithetical contrast between movement upwards vs. movement downwards, concepts that are easily represented in the motion of notes up or down the musical scale. There is almost no surprise in Bach's application of this feature as it serves as a real springboard not only for two types of motion that are contrary, but also to represent the more abstract concepts of humility vs. pride in the arias later on.

First impression of the music in mvt. 1:

Instrumental sinfonia, then fugal section, then conclusion where everything comes together.

Second impression of the music in mvt. 1:

A wonderful ritornello prepares the way for a choral fugue with up and down movement. After the first statement of the fugue there is a choral section based more on chords than on the development of the fugue, but then the same fugue begins again, although it sounds just a bit different from the first time. After that a choral section similar to the one that followed the first fugue occurs. This leads into a vigorous finale that rounds off the mvt. Summary: 1) introductory instrumental ritornello 2) choral fugue 3) short choral segments (chordal for the most part) 4) Restatement of the same fugue but different in the way the voices enter 5) Another section of short choral statements that build into 6) the conclusion.

All of this is truly sufficient for a listener (think of any first-time, and probably only time, listener who hears this cantata in a live performance) to come to terms with the text and Bach's monumental realization of it in this mvt. But there is much more depth hidden here than can be uncovered in a single hearing.

Now it is time to consult some of the sources that might shed further light upon this composition. Spitta writes about the wondrous facility, the seeming ease with which Bach is able to direct the vocal lines to wherever he wants them to go. Of course, Schweitzer sees the representation of motion of opposite types, directions. Dürr delves more carefully into the structure which breaks down into sections as follows (I have added the measure numbers and expanded the descriptions:

A Sinfonia/Concerto 1-45
a 1-16
a' 17-45

B 5-pt. Fugue (Choral)
b 45-89

Homophonic Bridge 89-103

B' 2nd 5-pt. Fugue (Choral)
b' 104-152

Homophonic Bridge 152-183

A' Sinfonia/Concerto (with Choreinbau) 184-228
a 184--199
a' 200-228

With this framework in mind, this is what you can hear:
1) Instrumental ritornello -- an exchange of motifs between oboes and strings
2) Choral fugue -- beginning in tenor voice and moving upwards
3) Short, homophonic, stretto-like entrances of the voices with short instrumental interludes
4) Choral fugue -- beginning in the soprano and moving downwards
5) More short, homophonic, stretto-like entrances, short exchanges between voices and instruments
6) Repeat of the instrumental ritornello with Choreinbau.

Interim Summary:

We have a gradual increase from fugal passages beginning with a single voice and increasing the number singing with each fugal entry, leading finally to a combination of all orchestral and vocal parts at the end. This is a steady increase in volume und part-writing density that leads to an emphatic and aesthetically pleasing conclusion.

Now let us delve even deeper to see which further elements can be uncovered:

Crouch and Schulenberg have pointed out the similarity between the beginning of this mvt. and the beginning of an organ work, BWV 546, "Praeludium et Fuga in c." Although the use of a pedal point in the organ piece is not present in the cantata mvt., there is a remarkable similarity between the first 1 1/2 measures of each work. The organ piece has the chords played by different hands (very likely changing manuals and thereby achieving the varied sound that imitates a dialogue.) The NBA dates the 'Praeludium' as having been composed circa 1730, a number of years after the composition of this cantata. Dürr indicates that the more likely origin of the beginning of the cantata can be found in numerous choral works for double choir, where one choir quickly answers the other. There are also early 17th century organ works which imitate the echo-type responses heard in choir works by having short chordal figures answered by a repetition of the same motif an octave lower.

Examining the score more carefully, I found the 'Choreinbau' not to be an afterthought as in BWV 146 but rather to be an integral part of the composition. The weakness (if Bach has any weaknesses!) in BWV 146 is that an independently existing orchestral work, BWV 1052, the harpsichord concerto in D minor, is used and the slow mvt. has the 'Choreinbau,' a superimposed 4-pt. choral addition that is very difficult to perform satisfactorily. On this site we have also discussed BWV 164 which also has a 'Choreinbau.' However, where the 'Choreinbau' is successful, with the existing French Overture from Bach's 4th OSuite serving as its basis, is in BWV 110. The present cantata, BWV 47, shows no 'weaknesses' whatsoever, which causes me to think that Bach's conception of the instrumental section did not exist prior to the composition of the vocal parts. In a way, this cantata mvt. is very similar to BWV 102, which demonstrates many similarities in structure to what we see here. In BWV 102, there were four separate fugues, rather than a single fugue theme repeated as in this cantata's 1st mvt. What I discovered in BWV 102 can also be applied here:

I think that Bach originally conceived the fugue theme based on the text which pointed to the rising and falling of the theme. He probably envisioned, or played the fugue theme to see how it would work out with a countersubject and other fugal entries. Now, without having set down anything in writing, but with the elements and possibilities of the theme in mind, he set about to composing the final section (A' ms. 184-228) first. It is here that the compositional density is the greatest, at times reaching 8 independent musical lines. Having 'solved' this most difficult section which contains almost everything that would appear in the entire mvt. in nuce, Bach could easily write out his overture (just like an opera composer would compose the overture of the opera last) by simply dropping the vocal parts. Voilà! The orchestral parts for ms. 184-228 are exactly the same as ms. 1-45. Here we have the economy of means which served a very practical purpose in Bach's life. [What is really amazing here is that not a single one of the logical breaks between one section or subsection and another is reflected in the autograph copy that has come down to us. Elsewhere we find Bach's 'doodles' that indicate that he is trying out a theme in the unusable space at the bottom of the page, but not in this cantata, which makes me wonder whether Bach's compositional method more often resembled that of Mozart's: In a letter Mozart once stated that an entire symphonic mvt. was already completely formed in his mind and that now all that remained was to commit it to paper ASAP lest he forget some part of it.]

The final section, A', contains just about everything: It has the fugal theme, it has instrumental parts that are independent as well as those that are colla parte, and contrary motion in ms. 198 where the 1st violin moves down while the bc moves up. Since everything in the instrumental parts here (where the choral parts are present) is the same as the instrumental ritornello at the beginning, it should not surprise us that fragments of the fugal theme are already present in the beginning as if Bach were cautiously introducing the fugal theme in bits and pieces: the appearance of the upward moving sequence of the fugal theme in the oboes ms. 12-14 and then in ms. 29 and 31. Meanwhile in the bc there are two-measure sequences of the same fugal theme fragments in ms. 15-16, 42-43, but an extended 5-ms. sequence of the same theme in ms. 31-35. All of this gives the impression that the theme is being introduced gradually.

Now that we have experienced the numerous fugal extracts in the oboes and bc, we should also consider the two-note drooping figures which begin in ms. 2 in the strings, figures that are immediately answered by the oboes. Shortly thereafter this is expanded to a longer figure that goes up and then down. In ms. 5 and 7 the bc leaps downward over 1 1/2 octaves, but in ms. 28 and 30 there is an upward leap of an octave.

With the first entry of the fugue in the tenor part (the bass was partially prepared in the introductory ritornello, but will return for a full entrance later) begins the majestic ascent of the fugal entries, after which the altos enter while the tenors are singing the counter subject of the fugue, then the sopranos followed by the basses (this is the only inconsistency in the ascent). But this is not the end for there is yet another entrance (if this were a different cantata with a larger instrumental ensemble, you would hear a trumpet soaring over the entire performing group with its independent fugal entrance): the oboes in this more modest instrumental ensemble have the final fugal statement in ms. 81-89.

In Section B' the same fugal theme is introduced essentially in reverse order, in a downward direction: soprano, alto, tenor, bass, and oboe (ms. 144-152.) Thus Bach has created a large arch moving upward (the hubris of man) followed by the downward movement (the humiliation of man.) After all this there is the conclusion, Section A'.

Penetrating to an even deeper level, the homophonic bridges that aid in moving seamlessly from the first fugal section to the second and from the second to the final, concluding section deserve closer inspection. How does Bach make it seem so easy to move from one section to another without hardly noticing that an important shift has taken place? The first homophonic bridge (ms. 89-103) is the same as measures 152-164 in the second bridge (Bach only reverses what the oboes and strings are playing.] Talk about economy of means! Upon close examination you will discover the following: There is a rapid exchange of short sections vacillating between 3 ms. of a fragment from the ritornello and 4 ms. of stretto-type entrances of the upper voices while the bass sings part of the fugue theme. The complete pattern is 3 - 4 - 3 - 4 - 3. This leaves two measures, ms. 102 and 103 that are unique as Bach fills in a gap with a patch in such a way that you would never notice it. The second homophonic bridge only equals the first one up to measure 164 after which a unique section occurs in which the tenor and bc carry the fugal theme (164-172) and then the bass and bc (173-181.) This leaves a very special/unique patch from 181-183. Another interesting feature in both homophonic bridges occurs in ms. 89-104 and 152-168, where the bc keeps moving upward relentlessly with the fugal theme. This is worth listening for.

Some other special features to be noted:

As the 'plot' thickens toward the end of the mvt. Bach deliberately creates some special situations that could easily be overlooked. It is as though Bach has reached the greatest point of density that begins to appear more like intentional simultaneity of the antithetical ideas behind Luke 14:11 [NAU] "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." Note Bach's use of contrary motion in certain measures where both directions are present: ms. 198 - the 1st violin is going down while the bc is moving up. In ms 139-140 the bass voice and bc are descending chromatically while at the same time the other parts are rising (going higher) on the words, "soll erhöhet werden." Better yet, in ms. 135-138 the bass voice rises with the fugue theme while singing "erhöhet" but the tenors and altos are coming down while singing "erniedriget." All of this is going on simultaneously! I simply have to imagine Bach's momentary pride in seeing all these elements coming together in this way. But then he probably remembered the admonition contained in the title of this cantata. The designation "Concerto" [in its etymological sense "Latin: 'concertare': 'to contend zealously, dispute, debate'] which Bach personally placed behind the title of the cantata takes on added significance here. Since many of these special features would never be apparent to the normal listener, to whom were these addressed? To only a handful of astute musicians? Or was it simply his conviction as a master musician that only the best is good enough for praising God and nothing else
truly mattered?

An interesting point that Dürr indicates with a big question mark is whether the first fugal section (B) when the voices enter for the first time might be sung by soloists which are joined by the ripienists in the second fugal section (B'). Dürr does not give the reason for his supposition, but I suspect it might be based upon Bach's dynamics which are very carefully markein the instrumental parts at the beginning of each fugal section: 'piano' for the first and 'forte' for the second.

A final note may be of special interest to Brad Lehman who has a theory about 'Bach's dots.' He maintains that the dots (staccato) above a note imply a de-emphasis of the note unless a wedge is also indicated above the note. In a previous cantata I had found a sequence of quarter notes that were marked with dots because they were an indication that a certain motif should not get lost in the chordal accompaniment texture of the instruments, but rather should receive special emphasis by playing the notes detached rather than legato so that they will stand out (BWV 78). In this cantata (BWV 47) ms. 15-16 the 1st violin part has 'dots' over 5 or 6 quarter notes in succession. Here Bach is emphasizing the downward motion as the violin leaps from one note of the chord to the other. The importance of this motif in this cantata should be quite obvious if you have read everything up to this point.

Mvt. 2

Schweitzer points out the 1st violin (or organ in the original version) gives the picture of the necessary exercises in "Demut" ("humility") the figure being persistently forced downwards in spite of their efforts to ascend. Dürr mentions that the original version of 1726 used the obbligato organ part instead of the violin version which Bach revised for a later performance after 1734. The distinction between "Demut" and "Hoffart"
("humility and pride") is clearly delineated between the first and middle sections with the double stops in the latter section.

Mvt. 4

Schweitzer indicates the similarity between the pictorialism in this mvt. and in mvt. 2. In the themes played by the oboe and violin "we seem to see the wavy lines of a twig which someone is testing by bending it." This mvt. is a wonderful trio sonata that is expanded to a fourth part when the voice enters. In the descending motif of the upper instruments, I hear a definite connection with a similar motif in BWV 1060, the Concerto for Oboe and Violin (Reconstruction of the Concerto for Two Harpsichords.) The motif consists of five 16th notes going down the notes of the scale. Now, after hearing the use of this motif in this aria, I will forever associate "Demut" ("humility") with the same sequences as they occur in BWV 1060.


Cantata BWV 47: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2

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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Last update: Friday, September 01, 2017 13:34