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Cantata BWV 6
Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden
Examples from the Score with Commentary

Commentary | Mvt. 1 | Mvt. 2 | Mvt. 3 | Mvt. 4 | Mvt. 5 | Mvt. 6



This week I thought I would try a different approach to understanding and appreciating BWV 6. Consulting various texts that I have, it is possible to document how differently scholars viewed this cantata over the past 129 years. One of the giants of Bach scholarship is Philipp Spitta who began publishing his monumental volumes in 1873. He identifies the tripartite structure - slow, the faster fugal section, slow - as being new in Bach's design of an initial cantata movement. He senses the movement from a relatively quiet feeling the disciples had in their natural surroundings in the evening to the middle section of much greater excitement, perhaps even agitation on their part. He says that Bach is describing a tranquility that is normally observable in nature, but here there is an uncanny fear that is also present as night falls. Spitta sees the long notes held out by different voices in the fugal section as resembling calls coming across a field at twilight and in the first and the third repeated section, he sees long, deep shadows falling across the landscape. In the alto aria mvt. 2, at the point where the alto sings, "Bleib, ach bleibe unser Licht, weil die Finsternis einbricht!" the otherwise noble longing expressed in the first part of the aria is transformed into an almost heartbreaking feeling at the approach of darkness with a frightful, eerie quality.

[Just a personal note at this point -- as a young man, I never did enjoy what I considered in my scientific frame of mind to be 'flights of fancy' or an overactive imagination in the description of Bach's works. Now things have been turned around, as I recognize that listeners are able to perceive similar things without taking recourse to reading in advance everything that has been written about any given cantata. I would even suggest that you, as a listener, should first listen to one recording of a cantata without reading about the various interpretations, so as to be able to enhance your ability to discover many things on your own without help from other sources. Then read Aryeh's presentation to find confirmation of some things that you did already notice and others that are new to you. Then listen to another recording, etc. After a while you will come to the conclusion that you do have the ability to sense correctly what is important or different in a Bach cantata. And if it is any comfort for anyone just beginning to listen and understand Bach's cantatas, consider that fact that the experts, the "big guns" in Bach scholarship can be completely wrong in their assessments. Read on!]

The soprano chorale, mvt. 3, that Bach considered special enough to include in the Schübler Chorales for organ, BWV 649, is the very mvt. that Spitta describes as lacking depth. For him there are too many quirky jumps, arpeggios and runs. He even goes so far as to lump this mvt. with the tenor aria that follows the recitative. In essence Spitta says, from the standpoint of compositional quality, "keep the first two mvts., the rest you can throw away." So much for Spitta, who had great flashes of insight, but with so much material to cover, fell short in time and energy to cover everything with equal greatness. Who knows? Perhaps he had only heard this cantata once in his life, and somehow the greatness of Bach came through in the first two movements despite the poor performance he may have heard. Why else would we always be hungry for 'just another new recording' of a Bach cantata?

In his discussion of this cantata, Albert Schweitzer (1905) begins with, "The solo movements of BWV 6 are somewhat lengthy." Not a very auspicious beginning, but we know that Schweitzer characterized Bach as the supreme painter in music, whereas Beethoven and Wagner were for Schweitzer the great poets of music. So he calls the opening mvt. "a masterpiece of poetry in music." He points to the descending nature of the music for the words, "denn es will Abend werden" = "for evening is nigh," and states that 'the voices descend, as if the gloom of night were weighing upon them.' Schweitzer is the only one who sees/hears in the accompaniment a repeated note sequence, 'an anxious quivering.' The middle fugal section he characterizes as having even more urgency and expressiveness of entreaty and pain. He picks up on Spitta's apt description of the long, drawn-out notes in the fugue as resembling 'cries resounding from the gloomy fields, and then sudden stillness, after which a return to prayer with ' a caressing triple rhythm.' When the cadence changes to a major key, it is 'as if the Lord had intimated the granting of the prayer.'

Woldamar Voigt in his "Die Kirchenkantaten J. S. Bachs" 1918 attempts to provide a guide for anyone who wants to understand the sacred cantatas of J.S.Bach, but also gives advice on how to present the cantatas in a performance. In mvt. 1 he hears the deep-sounding bells (are these the same as the 'anxious quivering' that Schweitzer discovered?) in the somber evening ambience. Bach's scoring for three oboes (one being the oboe da caccia) he would expand by adding two flutes to the 1st oboe part, a clarinet to the 2nd oboe part and a clarinet and a bassoon to the 3rd oboe (da caccias were probably not even available at that time). Mvt. 2 (alto aria) he says, is beautiful, and since Bach does not use a complete da capo here, 'you have the freedom to shorten likewise the other arias elsewhere.' For the soprano chorale mvt. 3, Voigt suggests using a viola to replace the violoncello piccolo along with a quiet organ accompaniment. Better yet, he says, skip the soprano part and play that part on the organ using one or two gamba stops, and arrange the continuo to be played by the string orchestra. Because the text of the tenor aria mvt. 4 is so bland or insipid, it had an effect upon the composition of the music, making the second part of this aria become halting or too hesitant, so that it can not move forward properly. "You may be forced to keep this tenor aria, because it simply would not do, to have the final chorale follow right after the soprano chorale." So much for Woldemar's advice to a new generation of budding organists/choir directors at the beginning of the 20th century!

Alfred Dürr (Johann Sebastian Bach: Die Kantaten) 1971, who also wrote the liner notes for this cantata in the Teldec series, laments the dry text by a theologian, who at least had the insight to include a passing reference to NT Rev 2,5 in mvt. 4, where the bass sings in the recitative, "Drum hast du auch den Leuchter umgestoßen"="Therefore hast Thou knocked over the candlestick." Structurally, says Dürr, the cantata is bipartite, but he does not think the cantata was performed in parts (before and after the sermon). In addition to mentioning the impressive greatness that Bach exhibits in mvt. 1, Dürr points out the three groups that frequently enter with the theme at different times: 1) the oboe choir 2) the string orchestra 3) the choir. It is as if they were gesturing to each other as they express their feelings. The faster fugal section begins with only voices and continuo until all voices have entered, then the full orchestra joins in the fugue. This is somewhat like having the solo voices followed by the ripieno choir. In mvt. 2 Dürr sees again a moving gesture, this time upwards with the words, "Hochgelobter Gottessohn"="Highly praised Son of God." With the word "Finsternis" ="Darkness" there is a sinking downward in whole-tone steps. Bach has chosen the darker alto voice, paired with the oboe da caccia, to illustrate this darkne. Regarding mvt. 3 (soprano chorale) he points to the virtuosic, rhythmical figures that abound and surround the chorale. The main motif in the tenor aria mvt. 5 which first appears in the strings and then in the voice, he says, "are without a doubt a symbol for a cross" [I have difficulty seeing this, but I will include his example, and perhaps you can find the cross.]

Nicholas Anderson (Oxford Composer Companions: J.S.Bach) 1999, counters Spitta by saying that Bach is using an earlier, preferred structural scheme in this cantata: Biblical text - aria - chorale - recitative - aria - chorale. The NBA I/10 KB does not accept Anderson's contention that the existence of the usual organ part along with an extra harpsichord part proves that they were used simultaneously and that this was "an accepted practice, if not a habitual one" in Bach's time. According to Anderson, mvt. 1 is 'affective word painting,' 'the falling theme evokes evening,' and the repetition of the words, "Bleib bei uns" has an 'imploring urgency.' He connects, as Aryeh has already pointed out, the falling theme with the "Ruht wohl", the penultimate section of SJP BWV 245. The 2nd mvt. has a dance-like theme and contains a plea for Christ's continuing presence. Anderson describes this aria as 'expressive melodic writing, but somberly colored, depicting the encroaching darkness.' Of mvt. 5 (tenor aria) he states that it has a full string accompaniment and that the 'resolute melodic contour in the upper string parts reflects the underlying optimism of the text.'


Mvt. 1

The first example from the score

demonstrates a density of motifs that are setting the stage for the words that will follow. In the short span of only a few measures, Bach has managed with an economy of means to establish the visual scene and a mood in nature that reverberates in the hearts of the disciples. The motifs are labeled, but pay particular attention to the single entrances of the oboes, for in the chorale at the end of the cantata, Bach reechoes what is presented here. What a marvelous way to achieve unity and how subtle!

In the example

observe the change in the phrasing in the oboe parts. The longer legato phrases are in effect causing a calmness to descend upon the disciples or any Christians who are asking Christ to stay with them.

If you want to hear clearly the layering effect as the pairing of voices and the pairing of instruments takes place (remember how the oboes had entered individually in the first few bars), listen to the Rilling recording. Only after hearing it there, did I become somewhat aware of this effect in some of the other recordings.

Here you have the beginning of the 'distant calls across the field' with long held notes beginning with the bass, then tenor, after which there is a break. Then the alto and soprano follow with their calls. These calls serve to link the first section with the faster fugal section that follows it. In the fugue the basses immediately begin with this same 'call motif'

followed this time by the sopranos (surprise!), after which this motif is played by the 1st oboe and 1st violin (If this were a cantata with trumpets, you can rest assured that they would be playing this motif, soaring high above all the other musical activity that is going on in the fugue.)

Next the tenors with the oboe da caccia and the viola have the motif, followed by the altos with the 2nd oboe and 2nd violin and finally, once again the sopranos with the 1st oboe and 1st violin as before. Then once more the basses without any help from anyone, not even the continuo! Then follows a call by only the 1st oboe and the 1st violin now playing an octave higher. So what do we have so far: four calls in the first section and eight in the fugal section. Why twelve? Are these the individual calls of all twelve disciples, reminiscent of passages in the Passions, BWV 244 and BWV 245? Should we be considering the twelve signs of the Zodiac or the Knights of the Round Table? Wait! There is one last call that differs from all the rest, since at the end of the fugue all the voices are singing unison (we know that Bach does not do this very often, and when he does, it has a great effect)! Is this the place where everyone in the congregation or all who are listening join with Bach in expressing this most urgent desire: "Stay with us, we need you now more than ever?"

Did you also notice that, in the fugue, the entrances of the call motif are grouped as follows: 1st group: bass, soprano, instruments (top parts only); 2nd group: tenor, alto soprano, each together with specific instruments and each group consisting of three (one voice part and two instrument parts); 3rd group: bass, not together, but followed by the two highest violin and oboe parts. Is this a coincidental grouping? I think not. The 3rd group has only a single voice not coupled with any instruments just as it was at the beginning of the fugue, there is no doubling with the continuo in either place. This aloneness of the bass is, at the beginning followed by all the marvelous entrances in the fugue, but at the end awaits the unified call of all the voices together as a climax to this section.


Mvt. 2

All the mvts. share in presenting falling motifs, this aria mvt. 2 is no exception.

The voice begins with a happy, dance-like motif.

Some typical word painting on "niederlegen"='to lay down (the request)'


Mvt. 3

In mvt. 3 the long descending line in the violoncello piccolo also has a continuo that follows this downward direction.


shows further downward runs in the accompanying instrument.


Mvt. 4

One of the most dramatic moments in this cantata occurs when a deep-colored bass concludes his recitative with this downward plunge into utter darkness.


Mvt. 5

Where does Alfred Dürr see the cross in this figure?

He is not referring to the 'sharp' on the last note, is he? This mvt 5 begins with many broken patterns and triplet groupings as well. If you listen to Harnoncourt's version, you will see that he 'improves' Bach's markings by putting in longer phrases, the very thing that Harnoncourt normally abhors. Notice also the presence of downward patterns.

A plaintive motif occurs throughout the mvt.

It reminds me very much of the minor variation in Mozart's Clarinet Quintet K581 last movement "Allegretto con variazioni" where the viola has a similar motif. For me both instances have a very sad heart-rending effect, and it is accomplished with only a few notes, some of which are like grace notes. Toward the end of the mvt., where "das Licht"="the Light" is referred to in the text that is being sung, Bach employs a 'halo' effect very similar to the use that it finds in the Passions when Jesus speaks. He does this by including long notes on the strings, thus enveloping the voice with additional warmth. The text makes it clear that we are referring to Christ in this instance, thus the halo is very appropriate. You will have to listen carefully to the recordings to hear it, since the parts are marked 'piano.' I think that I first heard it clearly in Coin's version.

Mvt. 6

Mvt. 6, the chorale demonstrates Bach's remarkable ability to create coherence by subtly including references to earlier movements. It also illustrates that Bach's harmonizations of four-part chorales are part of the unified whole which we call the cantata. They can not simply be substituted one for the other simply because they have the same melody line.


All snippets from NBA I/10
Contributed by Thomas Braatz (April 12, 2001)

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Last update: ýFebruary 19, 2008 ý15:38:15