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Cantata BWV 95
Christus, der ist mein Leben


Aryeh Oron wrote (October 2, 2001)
BWV 95 - Background [W. Murray Young]

After reading the liner notes to all the recordings of BWV 95 at my disposal and several books, I found (how surprising) the book by W. Murray Young as the most illuminating and as supplying the best background for the listener to this mostly sombre cantata.

“This is the last of the extant cantatas for the 16th Sunday after Trinity (BWV 161, BWV 8, & BWV 27), all of which are concerned with death. The Gospel is Luke 7: 11-17, the raising of the widow of Nain’s son, which the libretto does not mention, but simply dwells on death as the prelude to resurrection. The unknown author of this libretto has written an unusual text, having four different chorales and only one aria, yet from these Bach could derive many images of death and resurrection and create a new form of chorale cantata, based on several chorales rather than just one.

1. Chorale
The four-part choir sings the first verse of the anonymous hymn to a full orchestral accompaniment playing Melchior Vulpius’ melody, which will extend into the beginning of the following tenor recitative. The rhythm is solemnly sedate, sounding like a funeral march with its sad longing. All voices in unison make a long run on ‘Sterben’ at the beginning of line 2.

2. Recitative for Tenor
This number continues without pause from the above chorale. He breaks in on the melody, which gradually dies away, leaving him to finish his recitative with continuo only. He says he will depart from the world with joy; if he is called today, he is willing and ready to return to his mortal remains to the earth. He has composed his death-song and is ready to sing it.

3. Chorale
This is stanza one of Luther’s ‘Nunc dimittis’, sung by all voices in unison, with the horn decorating the beginning of all except one, ‘Sanft und stille’ (Calmly and quietly). This verse continues the tenor’s last words in the preceding number. Oddly enough, a joy-motif shines forth in the allegro rhythm, even though it is a funeral hymn.

4. Recitative for Soprano
Accompanied by unison oboes, she bids farewell to this false world, with which she now has nothing further to do. She has put her house in order and will now rest more easily than she could by the rivers of Babylon, where she had to swallow the salt of lust and could only pick Sodom’s apples.
Her number leads without pause into the next chorale, which she will sing to continue her thought, accompanied by oboes and strings.

5. Chorale for Soprano
She sings this first stanza of Valerius Herberger’s funeral hymn, again paradoxically to his exuberant joy-motif in the oboes d’amore. Note that the length of the chorale stanzas has been increasing up to this number. Bach had been experimenting with a short chorale stanza at the beginning of the cantata and then lengthening them in subsequent numbers.

6. Recitative for Tenor
This particular secco recitative is fortunately short; its text is simply a longing for death to come to him. Morose details, such as feeling death in his limbs and choosing death as his dowry, do not add any ray of hope. They lead into his coming aria, which likewise is pessimistic.

7. Aria for Tenor
Throughout this number, pizzicato strings play a realistic imitation of tolling funeral bells. Yet the seeming pessimism of the text still contains a joy-motif in the tenor’s singing and in the oboes d’amore. Bach mystic philosophy of treating death as a release from worldly cares and as the gateway to Paradise is well illustrated by his pictorial music at the climax of this cantata.

8. Recitative for Bass
Whereas the two previous numbers had completely gloomy texts, the libretto now dwells more on the transition from the grave to the after-life. His secco description of this resurrection is concluded by a brief arioso on the thought. Death is only a restful sleep before our reunion with Jesus.

9. Chorale
All voices and instruments portray Bach’s picture of the soul above to ascend to God. This is the fourth verse of Nikolaus Hermann’s hymn, ‘Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist’ (When My Little Hour Is at Hand). Just as Christ has risen, so shall we. At least this conclusion ends optimistically.”

Thomas Braatz wrote (October 3, 2001):
Eric Chafe in his "Tonal Allegory in J.S.Bach" is thoroughly confused by this cantata as he attempts to fit it into his categories of tonal movement from minor to major and from descent to ascent ("catabasis and anabasis"). He has a lot of explaining to do during which he highlights various features from the cantata that others may have overlooked, or least not explained from the unique vantage point of his theories. For this reason I am including the pertinent paragraphs from his expensive book, so that you will not be deprived of his insights:

"In those cantatas that have movements in major and minor modes on the same keynote Bach normally presents the minor mode before the major to emphasize the ideas of ascent and transformation. One descent/ascent cantata, however, reverses that procedure. "Christus, der ist mein Leben." Cantata 95, was written for the sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, the Gospel for which tells of the raising of the youth at Nain (Luke 7:11-17). To highlight the juxtaposition of death and resurrection within the context of faith, Bach presents the first verses of no less than three different chorales in an introductory complex of movements, separated only by recitatives. Two of these --"Christus, der ist mein Leben" and "Mit Fried' und Freud' ich fahr dahin" (with a connecting tenor recitative) -- comprise the opening movement, the former in a sharp, major key (G) and in triple meter, the latter in a flat, minor key (G Dorian) and in quadruple meter. Although the two hymns share words and ideas, "Christus, der ist mein Leben" emphasizes the joyful view of death in a lively setting that takes its cue from the words "Leben," "Gewinn," and Freud, whereas the somewhat archaic style of "Mit Fried' und Freud'" seems more in keeping with "Fried', sanft und stille," and "Schlaf" in Luther's text. Consciously formulated or not, Bach's underlying conception thus owes much to the opposite attributes of "durus" (major) or "mollis" (minor) as associated with both sharp/flat and major/minor tonal polarities. We are not dealing, however, with a positive/negative affective polarity; Bach's choice of these two verses was made, at least in part, because the last line of "Christus, der ist mein Leben" -- "mit Freud' fahr' ich dahin" -- connects one chorale to the other. The tenor recitative joins the two chorales without a break, measuring the tonal distance between the two modes by modulatory stages and providing us as well with the allegory of their relationship. A pronounced catabasis (both tonal and melodic) from G major to C minor marks the turn from the perfect triad and meter associated with the perfect (Christ) to the imperfect (mortality). The tenor solo starts as a jubilus-like extension of the chorale "Mit Freuden, ja, ja mit Herzenslust will ich von hinnen scheiden" and moves to Bach's preferred key for the "sleep of death" on the words "der Erde wieder in ihren Schoß zu bringen." Here the catabasis represents Christian understanding of the duality of death and life as it is already introduced in the antithetical but complementary motivic material that pervades "Christus, der ist mein Leben." [The opening movement of Cantata BWV 95 presents the main instrumental motive in rhythmically identical ascending and descending forms that answer one another between the winds and strings, the quadruple-meter recitative section between the two chorale movements is punctuated by the triple-meter dialogue between the two.] Having accepted this truth, the Christian is free from worldly cares ("Mit Fried' und Freud'").

In the next recitative the abjuration of false desires leads upward from D minor to the D major chorale "Valet will ich dir geben," the fifth and sixth lines of which -- "Im Himmel ist gut wohnen, hinauf steht mein Begier" --voice the hope that underlies the return anabasis. "Valet" retains, rather conspicuously, the duality of ascending and descending motives from "Christus, der ist mein Leben." After this point the antitheses of sharp and flat and anabasis/catabasis are no longer necessary. The following recitative does not modulate widely, and the subsequent aria (the only one in the cantata) stays in D. The first verse of a fourth funeral hymn closes the work in G, the cantata as a whole giving the unmistakable impression of the church's every-present support and comfort for the believer. Although "Christus, der ist mein Leben" is not a true chorale cantata, Bach makes his four funeral hymns into the mainstays of this structure, thereby uniting individual and doctrinal emphases. They, rather than the single aria, embody the duality that lies at the heart of Cantata 95. Thus surrounded and supported by the church, the soloist of the aria expresses his readiness to face death. Melodic anabasis and catabasis are heard several times on individual words and phrases of the final recitative and chorale, in particular in the high first violin line at the beginning of the chorale ("Weil du vom Tod erstanden bist") and the counterbalancing descent of a twelfth in the final line of the bass ("drum fahr' ich hin mit Freuden") again, in which the duality of direction and the positive association of catabasis are reaffirmed one last time."

Suzuki on the subject of trumpets and horns:

"Continuing from the last volume of cantatas, the major problem of the brass instruments remains. In particular, BWV 46, BWV 67, and BWV 162 are known to scholars as cantatas calling for the 'corno da tirarsi'. But what is this 'corno da tirarsi'? A direct translation of the words yields 'horn with a slide', but no such instrument currently exists. In the original part for BWV 46, the unique indication 'Tromba, O Corno da tirarsi' appears in Bach's own handwriting; the meaning of this has been debated roundly, but no single resolution has emerged. [1999]

To begin with, whether it be a trumpet or a horn (these instruments were played by the same players), it is a basic principle of all valveless baroque horns that they use only natural overtones; to produce a series of sequentially higher notes such as a scale using only the lips demanded considerable technique. Since Bach often required notes in his compositions that could not be played using natural overtones, a slide was used to change the length of the instrument itself (thereby changing the base note of the overtones), enabling the notes to be played. The means of attaching a slide to a trumpet is relatively simple, but it is difficult to believe that it is possible to attach a slide to a horn.

Setting scholarly debate aside, Bach Collegium Japan trumpet player Toshio Shimada has succeeded in developing a horn with a slide which is capable of playing parts that call for more than natural overtones; we have made use of this solution in this series. But in truth, particularly in the opening and third movements of BWV 46 and the opening movement of BWV 95, specific adjustments were necessary to accommodate the key of each piece and the tempo as it was established in the course of rehearsal."

['Corno' generally means 'horn.' Of the 6 recordings that I listened to only one (Rilling) uses a horn. 3 recordings use a 'cornett' (Ramin, Harnoncourt, Koopman), Suzuki uses the special horn (not trumpet) with a slide, and Leusink, well, what does he use? An organ stop on the 2nd organ.]

[There is a funereal quality associated with the horn. (The MGG indicates an association, among other things with 'rites of resurrection' and 'death cult,' and since the original instruments known as 'horn' were actually made of animal horn (rhinoceros, etc.) there are 'healing' qualities associated with it. The OT horn that shattered the walls of Jericho is also one of death and destruction.) If actual bronze 'Luren' from Denmark (1100 to 500 BC) have come down to us intact, why is it that we can not find a single horn, and while we are at it trumpet as well, from Bach's time and area of Germany where he performed his cantatas? I can understand it, if delicate string instruments would not survive, but metal instruments?]

Some comments from some of the earlier Bach scholars:

Spitta: Bach makes use of 4 of the most beautiful and best-known hymns of the protestant church on the subject of death. Thus, through the use of poetic-musical emotion, the cantata achieves great intensity of feeling. A lack of unity can not be overlooked. The significance of the chorale in Bach's cantatas is more than simply that of a meaningful text combined with a beautiful melody. In contrast to the more subjective arias and recitatives, the chorales are the more commonly understood central point of the cantata. While Bach might have been justified in beginning with one chorale in mvt. 1 and using a different chorale at the end of the cantata, he decided here in favor of using two or more at the beginning, thus creating a very unsettling atmosphere for the listener. As much as Bach loved to indulge himself musically in recreating the feelings of dying and death, here he seems to have outdone himself: he went so far as to completely destroy the regular proportions of the lines of the text by using long, held notes on the word, "Sterben." On the other hand, very well thought out is Bach's uninterrupted transition from the 4-part chorus to a solo passage, first and arioso, then a recitative, after which the chorus continues with a different chorale, "Mit Fried' und Freud' ich fahr dahin."

[Schweitzer indirectly blames Spitta for comments that kept this cantata from being performed more frequently than it was at the beginning of the 20th century.]

Voigt: Although Bach composed many cantatas on the theme of death, he hardly was able to depict the subject with so many different aspects as are found in this one. To have two chorales in mvt. 1 followed by a recitative and yet another chorale for soprano voice seems not to be a very fortunate solution because this chorale suffers under the weight of the two preceding ones. The best thing for a conductor to do would be to skip the soprano recitative and chorale. The text of the recitative is not very good and does not seem to be going anywhere.

[This was the second expert weighing in on the quality of the cantata and its prospects for performance.]

Schweitzer: "This robust man [Bach], who seems to be in the thick of life with his family and his work, and whose mouth seems to express something like comfortable joy in life, was inwardly dead to the world. His whole thought was transfigured by a wonderful, serene longing for death. Again and again, whenever the text affords the least pretext for it, he gives voice to this longing in his music; and nowhere is his speech so moving as in the cantatas in which he discourses on the release from the body of this death. The Epiphany and certain bass cantatas are the revelation of his most intimate religious feelings. Sometimes it is a sorrowful and weary longing that the music expresses; at others, a glad, serene desire, finding voice in one of those lulling cradle-songs that only he could write; then again a passionate, ecstatic longing that calls death to it jubilantly, and goes forth in rapture to meet it."

Schweitzer: The reason this cantata is not frequently performed is perhaps due to "the extraordinary technical demands that the tenor aria makes on the singer."

[Here, then, we have another reason given, why this cantata was generally avoided.]

Dürr: The date of the first performance of this cantata was established by Dürr: September 12, 1723. An unknown poet makes a connection between the Gospel for 16th Sunday after Trinity and the text in mvt. 6 (bass recitative), in which the reasfor wishing for death is explained: "Denn ich weiß.daß ich aus meinem Grabe ganz einen sichern Zugang zu dem Vater habe.So kann ich nun mit frohen Sinnen mein selig Auferstehn auf meinen Heiland gründen." ("For I know this.that from my grave I will certainly gain entrance to the heavenly father.So now I can found my blessed resurrection upon my Healer/Savior [Christ.]" The idea hinted at here is that Christ will likewise "awaken me to life in the spiritual world," just as he brought the boy from Nain back to life in the Gospel reading: the raising of the widow's son [the Youth of Nain].

Commentary on each mvt. drawn mainly from Schweitzer and Dürr with a few observations of my own:

Mvt. 1 This is actually a complex of chorus - solo tenor arioso/recitative - chorus which are joined to create a unified whole. Using the thematic material that has syncopated rhythms with parallel thirds and sixths (expressive of the longing for death) [I don't know how Dürr arrives at this conclusion. I have never associated thirds and sixths with death, although it will be interesting to observe whether this point holds in other similar cantatas.] The theme/motif is very short: 1 1/3 measures in length. It is thrown back and forth between the oboi d'amore and the strings in a conversational style, but in the middle of this introductory ritornello an upward-sweeping figure in the 1st violin is introduced. This becomes very strong and evident in ms. 9-11. This is symbolic of the life ["Christus is mein LEBEN=life"] and resurrection. The same figure is then picked up by the bc in ms. 12-14. In ms. 21-26, the word, "Sterben" ("to DIE.will bring me more in return") is painted with a rather eerie sound with an augmentation (lengthening) of note values along with a 'piano' indication in the voices and instruments. There is a slowly 'building' chord (actually the reverse of pyramiding), a downward building (sounds like an oxymoron) dissonance that eventually ends with a diminished chord. On the words, "ist mein Gewinn" ("becomes my reward") the regular movement in quarter notes continues with a 'forte' dynamic marking. Dürr offers and explanation for Bach's use of this augmentation on the word, "Sterben." Dürr finds that this is part of a long-standing Leipzig tradition that goes back to and it documented in a comment probably by Johann Hermann Schein in his "Leipziger Cantional" (1627), specifically in regard to the chorale "Ich hab mein Sach Gott heimgestellt," : "When the "Cantores" come to the 10th verse, they sing with a very slow tempo, because there are words like "Sterben ist mein Gewinn" which must be emphasized."

Ludwig Finscher characterizes the first chorale as being "newer, more sensitive" with the ritornello having a "soft, distantly saraband-like modern" sound.

Schweitzer: Regarding the initial motif, he states: "Syncopated "step" motives, in an idealised form, express the weariness that has found rest in Christ. Of this order are the themes of the beautiful sacred lullabies in which Bach describes the blissful weariness of death. The 1st chorale speaks of the lassitude of death. The orchestra accompanies it with a melancholy funereal lullaby, in which is interwoven a figure expressive of deep longing.

The middle section (tenor arioso and recitative): Connecting the two chorales are the last words of the 1st chorale: "Mit Freud' fahr ich dahin" and the beginning of the second, Luther hymn, "Mit Fried' und Freud' ich fahr dahin." When the tenor begins his interruption at the end of the 1st chorale, he begins with his ecstatic outburst, a coloratura on the words, "Mit Freuden" (Also a linking element between the chorales as it also uses the word, "Freuden"), I can not help but be reminded of another similar outburst of joy that occurs when the bass-baritone in the final mvt. of Beethoven's Ninth attempts to stop the cacophony created by the individual members of the orchestra in a section marked 'Presto.' Two words are treated with similar coloraturas on the words that I emphasize: "O FREUNde, nicht diese Töne, sondern laßt uns angenehmere anstimmen, und FREUDENvollere."

All the while the tenor in this recitative portion of mvt. 1 is singing the text, the so-called "step"/"life"/"lullaby" motif appears less and less frequently with increasing rest episodes between each reiteration of the motif. They "die out" gradually as Schweitzer had pointed out. "The lullaby dies away." The tenor solo keeps switching between an arioso and a secco recitative, and all these "dying" motifs are connected thematically with the 1st mvt.

The 2nd chorale, Luther's "Mit Fried' und Freud'" is prefigured, that is, the melody is introduced fugato very similar to a Pachelbel organ chorale before the chorus enters with the soprano voice carrying the cantus firmus. Dürr makes a point of stating that no 'Zink' should be used here, as there is no evidence to support this idea. When the voices enter, all the instruments play colla parte except the 1st violin which becomes the 5th 'voice' with a separate part. At this point in the text it appears that a major victory over death has already been achieved. Now when we reach a moment similar to the special treatment that "Sterben" had received in the 1st chorale, the fear has been transformed to a death that is "sanft und stille" ("calm and quiet".) It is as though Bach has balanced the death experience by showing one face of death in the 1st chorale, and then showing us the obverse of the coin in the other. The faster moving bc illustrates the words, "Ich fahr dahin" ("I will travel/move to that destination")

Mvts. 2 & 3: A secco recitative leads directly into the chorale (mvt. 3) which is presented unadorned for the most part by the soprano voice at first with an ostinato motif in the bc. then expanded to the oboes in unison with their own motif which almost makes this into an aria. Schweitzer: "Then the sopranos [he wants this to be sung by boy sopranos] sing the joyous hymn of parting from the world, "Valet will ich dir geben" ("Farewell do I bid thee") the oboes accompanying it with a "joy" motive of almost excessive exuberance: The figures in the basses symbolize the "hinauf steht mein' Begier" ("My longing is for heaven.") " Spitta notices in this chorale: "One can hear a close relationship with a similar chorale trio in "Wachet auf."

Mvt. 5: The only true aria (the 3rd mvt. comes close to being one) in this cantata is mvt. 5 (tenor) which is framed on either side by a secco recitative by the tenor before the aria and by the bass after it. This mvt. has the only non-chorale text of the entire cantata. In negating the world, it expresses an utterly ecstatic wish for death. "Schlage doch bald den allerletzten Glockenschlag" ("Ring the final bell (death knell) as soon as possible.") Schweitzer noted: "We often hear the pealing of the funeral bells in Bach's music. It does not even need any definite word to call up a musical picture of this kind; the mere mention of death and the end of things is enough. Sometimes it is only bells sounding vaguely from afar, that we hear in the pizzicati of the strings. In this mvt. we hear the pealing of bells also in the bc in the repeated two-note figure with rests in between them." The Suzuki liner notes call this mvt. "a symphony of bells. The 1st violins are in semiquavers, the 2nds and violas in quavers and the continuo in crotchets, all pizzicato, imitating the sound of diverse sizes of bells. On top of this the oboes d'amore develop a happy duo." Here are the special effects and symbols ascribed to the various elements of this aria:
1) the oboi d'amore - a lullaby-style melody with an after-effect echo; imitation of the swinging death bells
2) the pizzicati of the strings - Schweitzer: "give a wonderful effect of distant bells."
On the word "längst" ("for the longest time") Bach has the tenor hold a long high note on a G#.

Mvt. 6: In ms. 2-4 Bach has the bass move from a low 'a' to a high 'd' while singing "daß ich aus meinem Grabe ganz einen sichern Zugang zu dem Vater habe" ("that I, from the grave, have certain access to the father [my heavFather]")

Mvt. 7: The final chorale is expanded to 5-part harmony with the 1st violin supplying a separate descant part. The violin part, supported by a similar motion in the bc, and by moving up into the high range stepwise, underscores the words, "Weil du vom Tod erstanden bist" ('because you have risen from the dead"), after which it descends on the words "werd ich im Grab nicht bleiben" ("I will not remain in the grave") and points to the grave. On the words "mein Auffahrt" ("my resurrection") the bass line moves upward on the steps of the scale. The word "Todsfurcht" ("fear of death") is colored with chromaticism in the bass. On the final phrase "drum fahr ich hin mit Freuden" ("for that reason I will travel there joyfully") the bass moves down stepwise from a high 'd' to a low f# and "Freuden" ("joys") receives a final flourish. [Imagine that this cantata had also been lost and that all that survived was the final chorale that fortunately had been copied and included without any text in a book of 4-part chorale harmonizations by Bach. The editor or the copier then inserted as a title for this harmonization: "Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist" (since chorale texts were frequently sung to other chorale melodies, the title of the chorale melody that Bach had used might have been considered more important than the actual text of the chorale in the cantata. This would have added another element of confusion.) As is turns out in this instance, Bach used the fourth verse (not the last verse of this 5-verse chorale text). Now imagine that you are currently faced with the project of recording the complete works of Bach and all you have is a superscript as a possible indication as to which chorale text Bach had in mind as he composed the 4-part setting. As you can see from the example in this cantata, Bach used the harmonization to reveal/paint the text in a musical form. Now seriously, what are the chances that such a noble recording endeavor would actually find the only verse that correctly connects with Bach's musical intentions? Yes, there is much detective work to be done and unfortunately the NBA is not much help in this regard. Simply plugging in the 1st verse of any given chorale, will be doing an injustice to Bach's skills as a composer. On the one hand, we are grateful that someone had the foresight to supply examples of Bach's 4-pt. harmonizations, albeit without the proper words, but on the other hand we are faced with a great challenge to try to link up the correct text with Bach's music. If anyone is aware of any recording of these works BWV253-438, that takes these matters into account, I would certainly like to know about this.]


Cantata BWV 95: 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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Last update: Friday, September 01, 2017 13:28