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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

Cantata BWV 7
Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam

Schweitzer | Dürr | Anderson | Chafe


Thomas Braatz wrote (June 29, 2001):
BWV 7 - Commentary

Felix Mendelssohn stated in an unpublished letter to Franz Hauser that he particularly liked four cantatas by Bach: BWV 7, BWV 8, BWV 68, and BWV 78.

Albert Schweitzer

Schweitzer (1905) sees mvt. 1 as representing waves. He compares it with the Organ Fantasia BWV 684 of which he says, "the quick semiquavers rustle along in beautiful wavy lines over the melody in the bass. These are examples of waves great and small rising over and over again, one overwhelming the other. It is more for the eye than the ear."
Mvt. 1 is "a representation of the rapid waves of the Jordan River." Bach depicts the "motion of flowing water." "The chief motive in the great orchestral symphony is not unlike BWV 5 in the "Ergieße dich" aria where the solo viola keeps up a delightful flowing and murmuring obbligato." In mvt. 1 "Bach has employed on a large scale the method of painting he had already used in his chorale preludes upon this chorale {BWV 684, 685)." Schweitzer also asks us to compare this with the secular cantata "Schleicht, spielende Wellen" ("Flow, playful waves") BWV 206 which has a fine representation of rapid waves. "The representation of the rhythm and sound of the moving water is as realistic as it could be. We see great waves and little ones; some overtake the others and break over them; the rapid song of the flutes [there are no flutes in this cantata! but Schweitzer probably heard such a performance where the flutes replaced the oboi d'amore, the players of which were not available at that time] is bright and gloomy in turns; then the monotony of the even motion is again broken for a moment by a mighty surge of the greater waves. The following are are the chief of the themes and motives by means of the succession and interlocking of which Bach depicts so wonderfully the animated play of the waves [6 examples given- I will try to include them in my examples from the score.] The recitative, "Merket und hört" which proclaims the promises of baptism and calls for faith in them, is accompanied by a theme that has been prompted by the idea of firm and assured steps. Here again, as in chorale prelude VI,30 [reference to Peters Edition], Bach's purpose is to represent immovable faith in the marvel of the sacrament." Schweitzer also comments on the transition from legato to staccato and makes a comparison with SMP (BWV 244) "Blute nur" and "Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder" sections. "The full wealth of Bach's blending of the two in semiquaver passages is seen in the orchestral accompaniment in the first chorus of BWV 7."

Alfred Dürr

Dürr (1971) makes a point of noting that there is no specific reference to the Gospel reading for this special holiday, which is about the birth of John the Baptist, regarding which there is no specific reference at all. Mvt. 1: The reason the cantus firmus is in the tenor comes as a result of being the 3rd cantata in this cycle. (This probably means that Bach worked 'democratically' as he distributed the chorale melody to different voices, so that the sopranos would not always be favored in this respect. I assume this means that the 1st cantata in this cycle had the cantus firmus in the soprano voice, the 2nd in the alto voice, and now the 3rd in the tenor voice.) The remaining voices in BWV 7 1st mvt. surround the cantus firmus, that has long note values, with free polyphony containing occasional imitations of the cantus firmus, but otherwise they do not seem to be related to the cantus firmus. Even more independence is shown by the instrumental parts which present themes unrelated to the cantus firmus. The similarity of this 1st mvt. with a violin concerto becomes clear when you compare the choral sections, always accompanied by the solo violin with the solo episodes of a violin concerto and the intervening orchestral episodes with the tutti ritornellos of such an instrumental concerto. But because the instrumental episodes also contain extensive solo musical figures played by the solo violin, it would seem that those who explain this solo work as the sparkling play of waves of the Jordan River are correct in their contention. There is no doubt that Bach was inspired by the unmistakable image of the wave motif which begins in the continuo and continues to be heard incessantly throughout the entire mvt., and later appears in the ripieno violins including even the violas. At first it appears this way as an underlying figure (example given), but the main tutti theme is more difficult to explain as it is sharply contoured with a strong rhythmic character. Arnold Shering thinks he sees the rocks appearing, through which the river makes its way in the narrow passages. But this interpretation is not entirely convincing because many other possibilities could also be suggested. It makes more sense to think of this rhythmic theme as a counterpart to the gentle movement of the waves.

The three arias are presented in a sequence that builds to a higher level and achieves greater complexity than the one that went before it. Mvt. 2 bass aria: Either Jesus or John the Baptist [Dürr does not seem to know which] are asking us to recognize the significance of this particular baptism. The descending 32nd notes can be seen as the pouring out of the baptismal water. The second aria has a gigue-like characteristic with two violins surrounding the voice which allows for expressing special nuances such as 1) "mit Blut erkauft" ("having been bought with blood") has a chromatically descending melody line; 2) "getauft" ("baptized") has the rapidly plunging notes of a triad; 3) "damit wir ohne Zweifel glauben" ("so that we believe without having doubts") has this doubt expressed using daring harmonic progressions of a baroque-like nature. Structure: The three sections for the voice are very much alike (A A' A") with the violins quoting the ritornello when the voice is singing. Perhaps this, in combination with the separation into the 3's of the gigue-like rhythm together with the 3 sections of the voice, serves as a symbol of the Trinity to which there is a reference in the text. Mvt. 5 begins as a recitative with short chords played by the strings. The command to baptize "Geht hin in alle Welt" is an arioso and receives special emphasis. Mvt. 6 is the last aria and in this aria oboes are added for support. It belongs to a type of composition called the 'cavata' which replaces the concertato virtuosity of the Neapolitan da-capo aria with a more song-like structure resembling the arioso. There is no instrumental introduction, but there is a 4-measure ritornello that aids in providing structure by returning each time in a quasi-rondo form. At first the voice is accompanied only by the continuo, but in the 2nd part it receives substantial support from the strings. Dürr repeats most of these observations in the notes section for the Teldec Harnoncourt/Leonhardt series.

Nicholas Anderson

Nicholas Anderson (1999) [Oxford Composer Companions:J.S.Bach -{Boyd}] writes as follows: "Customarily among Bach's chorale-based cantatas of the Leipzig period, the most elaborate writing is to be found in the impressively proportioned opening choruses. In these Bach was able to demonstrate his consummate artistry both in portraying vivid, often colourful images and in unifying disparate musical elements and disciplines. In the present work (BWV 7) the opening chorus occupies almost a third of Bach's score. It is an elaborate choral fantasia in which the voices set the scene of Christ's own baptism. A pervasive image of the undulating waters of the Jordan,it would seem, is affectingly evoked by the predominantly flowing quavers of the oboes d'amore set against the restless, passing semiquavers of the ripieno strings. This extraordinarily subtle movment further incorporates a 16th-century chorale melody by Johann Walther, providing an example of a technique in which Bach's pupil J.P.Kirnberger considered that his master 'excelled all the composers in the world.' The recitative and arias that follow expand in various ways on the Christian significance of baptism. First comes a continuo aria for bass whose text reflects on the symbolism of the baptismal water. A tenor recitative contain s part of the celebrated text from St. Matthew 3:17, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.' The tenor aria which follows further considers Christ's baptism with particular reference to the Trinity and to the symbol of the holy dove. Bach colours the text here with two concertante violins which soar, bird-like, above the vocal line and the basso continuo. The text of the bass recitative, with string accompaniment, relates to St. Matthew 28:19; in the sixth bar the recitative merges into an arioso where the words of Christ's exhortation to his disciples, 'Go ye therefore, and teach all nations' are paraphrased. The text of the last aria, for alto with two oboes d'amore, strings, and continuo, serves as a reminder to mankind that without faith and cleansing by baptism there is no hope of everlasting life. The cantata ends with a straightforward four-part harmonization of the hymn melody by Walther already quoted in the opening chorus."

Eric Chafe

In "Analyzing Bach Cantatas" Eric Chafe's (2000) main interest is in identifying a correlation between the progressions of keys, often ascent or descent thereof, and the theological import that Bach may have been trying to convey. Chafe sees a shift of key in the final phrase of the final chorale of BWV 7 as representing the 'new life' that issues from the Baptism of Christ Jesus. In BWV 7 the shift from tonic to dominant, from E minor to B minor "can be thought of as Dorian shifting to Aolian [sic] or as Dorian ending on the dominant (or simply as a modulation from e to b.) In this case the shift of key or mode was perhaps intended to mirror the final line of its first verse, "Das galt ein neues Leben," which expresses the central idea of the chorale, that Baptism represents rebirth into a new life. {Footnote: In fact, "Christ, unser Herr" is constructed so as to highlight the final line of each of the seven strophes as if it were an "extra" line. Each strophe has nine lines, following the rhyme scheme ababcdcde, according to which the final line stands apart. And the melody reflects this quality closely, the eighth line closing in the original tonic at low pitch, after which the ninth line begins an octave higher and closes in the dominant. In some strophes the final line sounds like an afterthought or an amplification of the content of the strophe.} In the opening movement Bach absorbs the e--b shift in the melody into a chorale fantasia that remains in e (set by Bach in the one-sharp signature), whereas in the final chorale he realizes the shift of mode in tonal terms, ending the movement and therefore the cantata in b and notating the chorale in two sharps. And other aspects of the modulatory character of the cantata as a whole reflect Bach's associating not only the dominant region with the new life of the spirit but also the subdominant region with the idea of the incarnation --that is, God's taking on human or physical form. The latter quality emerges with particular clarity in the D minor ending of the first recitative, associated with Jesus' "niedriger Gestalt," His taking on the "Fleisch und Blut der Menschenkinder," and the A minor aria that follows, which tells how the Trinity appeared at Jesus' Baptism in "word" (the voice of God the Father) and "picture" (the Holy Spirit in the form of the dove) so as to be comprehensible to humankind. In this context the shift to b at the end of the final chorale, setting the line "auch von uns selbst begangen," refers to the "new life" of the opening movement, the elevation of humankind through Jesus' incarnation and Baptism." [Not wishing to upset anyone's belief or theology, I only wish to state my personal understanding of this great moment in the history of mankind, without desiring in any way to stimulate or engage in any discussion of these matters -- it is Christ that is being incarnated in the person of Jesus at the baptism that took place in the Jordan River. Thus we have the unique foundation of the Trinity here with Jesus becoming Christ Jesus at the time of this baptism, a fact that Bach may have recognized and understood as such, and for that reason, dispensed entirely with the Gospel reading for the holiday, much to the chagrin of many commentators, in favor of the 'higher' connection, the significance of the baptism, rather than dwell on the birth and life of the facilitator of this event, John the Baptist.]


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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: żNovember 4, 2010 ż17:21:27