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Cantata BWV 98
Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan [I]

Alfred Dürr | Ludwig Finscher | Ruth Tatlow | Thomas Braatz


Thomas Braatz wrote (October 27, 2002):
BWV 98 - Commentaries:

Alfred Dürr:

In comparison to the other two cantatas (BWV 99 and BWV 100), this cantata (BWV 98) can be considered as being the most intimate. Not only is it the shortest, but it also has more of a small-chamber-music sound than the others.

This is particularly noticeable in the opening choral mvt. From a formal standpoint, it resembles quite closely the opening mvts. of the typical chorale cantatas. The chorale melody in the soprano voice is inserted line by line into the independent instrumental section, but the significance of the instrumental section is seriously diminished here. Only the strings move independently while the oboes (oboe I, II, and taille) move colla parte with the voices. Among the strings, the 1st violin predominates to such an extent that the instrumental section seems to be reduced to only to a bc with an obligato violin. The choral section is, for the most part, treated in a homophonic style with blocks of chords. Only the final line of the choral (while the long note is being held by the soprano voice) is extended by means of free polyphony. The real charm of this mvt. can be found in the expressive thematic lines of the 1st violin where Bach creates a musical picture of the vacillation between doubt and faith in God. This vacillation is strengthened by having the strings and the choir alternate or take turns in the spotlight until they finally join forces in the final line of the chorale.

What follows is the repeated structure of recitative – aria – recitative – aria. Both recitatives of the plain secco type, while both arias are given a single, obligato instrumental accompaniment, in the 1st aria accompanied by a solo oboe and the 2nd by the 1st and 2nd violins joining to play the musical line in unison. In order to make up for the missing final chorale, Bach has the aria begin with an embellished reference to the beginning of a hymn by Christian Keymann (1658): “Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht.” Thus this final aria takes on a double function: It is at the same time the expression of the individual Christian (sung by a solo voice in the 1st person and expressed individually by means of the highly embellished solo line,) but also the expression of the entire congregation, if one understands the choral melody as symbolizing the church established by Christ.

Ludwig Finscher (from the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt Teldec series [2]):
Finscher’s commentary relies mainly upon the insights already stated by Alfred Dürr, but Finscher does add the following:

The soprano aria sings in elegiac tones of patience in suffering, graphically transforming the antithesis of weeping and living.

The bass aria is enriched by the fact that the bc also participates in the motivic work.

Ruth Tatlow: (from notes for the Gardiner recording):
1726 was not to be a year without sorrow for the closely knit Bach family. On 29 June Anna Magalena’s first-born, Christiana, died at the age of three….The account in John 4:47-54 of Jesus’ second miracle, healing the official’s son, is the Gospel reading for the 21st Sunday after Trinity. An anonymous author provided Bach in 1726 with the melancholy libretto from which he composed a 5-mvt. cantata for the occasion, “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetanBWV 98, performed on 10 November. The opening mvt. is based on the chorale “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan,” which according to contemporary Dresden and Leipzig hymn schedules is a “hymn of lament and comfort.” After the opening encouragement to remain faithful and accept God’s will in times of distress, the work progresses from the anguish of the believer undergoing the dark night of the soul (“Wie lange soll ich Tag und Nacht / um Hilfe schreien? / Und ist kein Retter da!”, through a picture of God’s merciful heart breaking as he hears our pain (“Und wenn der Mund vor seinen Ohren klagt…/ so bricht in ihm das Herz”) to the final resolve to follow Jesus, come what may (“Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht.”)

There are several textual allusions in BWV 98 to the Passion story, and Bach emphasizes these by reusing musical ideas from his own settings. First, he lifts the concluding instrumental figure from “Ruht wohl,” the last chorus of the SJP, and sets it in the orchestral introduction of the central soprano aria (“Hört, ihr Augen, auf zu weinen,”) using the same key and triple meter. Secondly, in the final mvt. of both BWV 98 and Part I of an earlier version of the SMP (Good Friday 1727; BWV 244b) he refers to Christian Keymann’s chorale “Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht,” using a short textual and melodic quotation in BWV 98 (mvt. 5) and a simple 4-pt. harmonization in BWV 244b (no. 29a.)

And finally, there is a striking similarity between the opening phrase of BWV 98 (mvt. 5) and that in the 1st mvt. of the SMP. A closer examination shows that the phrase is simply an elaboration of the ascending chorale melody. Could Bach have been working on the SMP while writing BWV 98?

My commentary:

In mvt. 1 I was intrigued by the frequent ‘stops’ or rests, where the music reaches a pause of the type that is rather unusual for Bach in such an opening choral fantasia. Bach must have done this for a good reason. This reason is found in the text which reads: “will ich ihm halten stille” [which literally translated would read “I will stop (or want to stop) myself and remain or stand quiet/still (so that God can have his influence and power over me.”)] By having the orchestra stop playing entirely for a moment and 'remain quiet/still,' Bach is underscoring musically how we should understand the text of the chorale. Another very effective moment occurs at the very end of the choral section where Bach extends for another 5 measures the concluding chord, 3 measures of which have the altos and tenors singing a coloratura figure on “walten” [“to reign or have power over.”] Thus Bach illustrates musically that God’s reign over us should and will be extended for a very long time.

In mvt. 3 the soprano sings about “weinen” [“crying.”] This is expressed in the chromatic figure that the oboe plays in mm. 13, 14, but also by the voice in m. 31 where the voice sings the word, “weinen.” On the words, “mein schweres Joch,” [“my heavy burden”] the voice has descending figures as if collapsing under the weight of this heavy burden. In mm. 69-71 and 85-87, the soprano sings about God the Father still ‘living.’ On this word, ‘living’ the soprano breaks into a new, joyful figure in triplets that are used nowhere else in this mvt.

In measure 4 of the alto recitative which begins in G minor (two flats), Bach suddenly modulates to a key that has the alto sing a C# on the word “Kreuzes” thus calling attention to the pun available in German: sharp (the accidental sign in music) = cross. A German will envision Christ’s ‘cross’ and say “Kreuz”, the same word that is used to designate a ‘sharp’ in music. Interesting also is the fact that the ‘cross’ that Christ carried had to be raised, which is just what a ‘sharp’ does to the note in front of which it stands, it 'raises' it a semitone higher.

The final bass aria has some word painting as well: on “erhöhen” [“to raise up”] in mm. 23, 24 and 72, 73, the notes in the solo bass part move upwards, but on “segnen” [“to bless”] mm. 31-33 and 81, 82 they move downwards (the blessing coming from on high.)

A cantata not ending with a final chorale or a choral mvt. ‘to round it off’?

Disregard solo cantatas which need not have a final chorale (ex. BWV 54Widedoch der Sünde” with only 3 mvts. and no chorale at the end.) While there are a number of cantatas with only 5 mvts., they all seem to have a final chorale (BWV 183, BWV 174, etc.) If Bach did not provide a 2-pt. cantata (ex. BWV 43Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen” has 5 mvts. in the 1st part of which ends with an aria, and the 2nd part begins with a recitative and ends with a final chorale, mvt. 11), then he had to use a different cantata after the sermon, particularly when the cantata consisted only of 3 to 7 mvts. Such an additional cantata would frequently be by another composer or by Bach himself. The 2-pt cantatas were specifically composed in this way to serve the purpose of having concerted music before and after the sermon, but when he wanted to present a work by another composer, he still had to supply music for the ‘open slot’ of time either before or after the sermon. Let’s assume that Bach intended to perform a different composition after the sermon on November 10, 1726. He would still have to present the music for the time slot before the sermon. For this, this cantata, BWV 98, would be well-suited. It would then even make sense why he would write “Fine SDG” at the end of the bass aria, the final work in this cantata. Before the sermon, the 4-pt. chorale was frequently omitted. The final chorale then would be sung at the end of the cantata that was sung after the sermon (and during communion.)

The staccato treatment of the 1st violin in mm. 9-12 (and repeated numerous times after this 1st instance) of mvt. 1:

All the HIP recordings insist on playing the unmarked 16th-note, ‘see-sawing’ violin figure as staccato. In comparing this typical violinistic, jumping-up-and-down-at-various- intervals figure with other instances in Bach’s oeuvre, I discovered that, in most instances, Bach leaves this figure unmarked. When he does mark the phrasing of such a figure (let’s assume here 4 16th notes with the double bar which unites them,) he will have such variations as: 1) phrased in pairs of notes – the 1st pair with a slur over them, then the 2nd pair likewise; 2) a phrasing mark over the 1st 3 16th notes and a ‘dot’ (staccato) over the last note – or nothing at all over the last note; 3) a staccato (dot) indication over the 1st note followed by a slur over the final 3 16th notes.

Since Bach marked the phrasing he wanted for the 1st violin part in BWV 98 mvt. 1, and since he did not put any dots over the figure in question, what is it that Bach is trying to say here? If unmarked, does this mean that Bach wanted all the notes to be played staccato as if dots where written above each 16th note? I don’t think so. Nowhere have I read about a general string-playing style that tended to be more generally staccato rather than legato (where legato here does not mean slurring everything together, but rather enunciating each note clearly but connecting them nonetheless.) The dictum that the instruments should attempt as much as possible to emulate the performance style of the voice applies here. This means that the HIP renditions have gone to an extreme, causing the violins, in many instances, to create too many unpleasant detached sounds. The general effect is that of exaggerated and unnecessary squeakiness and scratchiness that have unfortunately become the hallmark of numerous HIP recordings.


Cantata BWV 98: 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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