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Imagery in Bach's Vocal Works



Imagery in Bach

Continue of discussion from: Cantata BWV 182 - Discussions Part 2

Peter Smaill wrote (February 20, 2005):
I am grateful to contributors who have pointed to further scholarship (Tatlow and Fludd) and only a little hesitant in developing the theme since the entirely coincidental appearance of references on our website to possible Rosicrucian impulses on Cantatas (re BWV 34) and the image of the "soul walking on roses" in BWV 182 and BWV 159 seem to be leading to entrenching of positions. This theme surely is at an exploratory stage and the ivestigation may ever be inconclusive.

On further investigation :

The image of the rose also appears in another, thematically similar, reflection on mortality, BWV 161/4, "Komm du suessen Todesstunde":

Welt, gute Nacht!
und kann ich nur den trost erwerben.
in Jesu armen bald zu sterben:
er ist mein sanfter Schlaf.
das kuehle Grab wird mit Rosen decken,
Bis Jesus mich wird auferwecken,
bis er sein schaf
Fuhrt auf die suesse Lebensweide.

World, good night!
And my only comfort is that soon
I shall die in the arms of Jesus:
He is my gentle sleep.
The cool grave shall cover me with roses
Till Jesus shall wake me again,
Till he leads his sheep
Onto Life's sweet pasture.....

By way of background, we also have in the text of a verse of "Wie schön leuchtet die Morgenstern " (1599) (v1 of course from BWV 1), an allusion in highly mystical language, English translation as follows;

You bright Jasper and Ruby
Pour the flames of your love deep into my heart
And make me glad that I remain a living rib
of your chosen body.
I am sick for longing for you,
Beloved rose of Heaven,
and my heart glows, wounded by love.

While this macaronic verse ("gratiosa Coeli rosa " is the Latin used ) was not set by Bach, this third verse of Phillip Nicolai's hymn is an emple of the religious imagery from which the librettist could draw.

A further allusion to "walking on roses " comes in a radically different context. In BWV 213 ("Lasst uns sorgen "), the secular cantata known as Hercules at the Crossroads, the figure of Lust invites Hercules on the path of lascivious dalliance with the proposition :

Come, follow my path....
Enchantment already precedes you,
strewing roses at your feet...

I would struggle to think this use of the image of the rose has anything to do with Rosicrucianism. In the context of death and the Passion, however, Bach still seems to be setting a mystical icon to music.

Whether Bach is simply using texts in common usage ( Stockmann) / as appealing to Salomo Franck (BWV 161), or is in fact personally is drawn to them, implying an affinity to mystical representation, is a question which is open.

Paul Farseth wrote (February 20, 2005):
ROSE Imagery in Bach

Doesn't the image of Heaven's Rose come from the allegorical reading of the line "I am the Rose of Sharon" in the Song of Songs, sometimes applied to the Virigin, sometimes to the Church or "company of believers" as the Bride. The quotation given from "Wie schoen leuchted der Morgenstern" is drawing on the Song of Songs. (Perhaps many of you have already posted to this effect recently or on the last cycle.)

In English hymnody the famous hymn "Crown Him with many crowns" calls Jesus "fruit of the mystic rose, yet of that rose the stem," in this case referring to the Virgin.

Thomas Braatz wrote (February 27, 2005):
Sometime ago Peter Smaill introduced into the discussions here the possible symbolic meaning and imagery behind the word "rose" as used in Bach's cantata texts. Peter offered examples and possible explanations for the use of this word with symbolic imagery in BWV 159/5, BWV 182/7, BWV 161/4 and even BWV 213.

I have just received a copy of a book by Lucia Haselböck "Bach Textlexikon: Ein Wörterbuch der religiösen Sprachbilder im Vokalwerk von Johann Sebastian Bach" {"A dictionary of Bach's texts containing the religious 'picture words' in Johann
Sebastian Bach's vocal works"}[Bärenreiter, Kassel, 2004.] I would like to share her entry for the word 'Rose' which Peter has already discussed to some degree. Here is the translation:

"Rose" This is a picture of joy and beauty as an antithesis to thorns specifically and generally. In religious symbolism, the rose belongs to the flowers of paradise. The 5-petaled rose points to the 5 wounds of Christ. The mystic Heinrich Seuse sees in the
rose-tree the life-bringing tree of the cross in which the red fruits represent Christ's wounds and become "Rosen der Minne" [roses of love, whereby 'Minne' is generally understood in German as chivalrous love.] For Baroque poets rose blossoms are metaphors for the Christ's wounds as well, particularly when their poetry is based upon the hymn "Rhythmica oratio" (compare p. 22): Rist, in his "Paßions-Andachten" p. 254, has "O liebstes Hertz / eröffne Dich / gleich einer Rosen säuberlich" ["O dearest heart, open yourself up with purity the same way the rose does"]; Gerhardt, in his "Andachten" p. 306, writes "Erweitre dich / mach alles voll / sey meine Ros' und riech mir wol" ["Expand yourself and fill everything up, be my rose and let me experience pleasantly your aroma."] In Paul Gerhardt's treatment of the Latin hymn mentioned above(ibid. p. 292,) the roses stand for the wounds on Christ's hands: "Die Rosen / die ich mein allhie / Sind deine Maal und Plagen / Die dir am End / In deine
Händ / Am Creutze sind geschlagen
" ["The roses that I am referring to here are your stigmata and misery / they were finally beaten/punched into your hands on the cross."] In Bach's texts the rose is usually used symbolically as an antithesis to thorns.

1. A human being's path through life.

The poet Salomo Franck leaves everything to the will of God when he makes his request as follows: "Er führe mich nur immer hin / auf Dorn- und Rosenstraßen" ["Let Him continue to lead me forth on the thorny and rosy paths (streets)"] BWV 72/3; and the unknown librettest of BWV 86 wants to signify prayer with the phrase 'Rosen breachen' ['to break roses'], a prayer as that related to John 16:22-30 (where the prayer in Jesus' name is mentioned): "Ich will doch wohl Rosen brechen, / wenn mich gleich die Dornen stechen" ["I do want to break off the roses even if the thorns will prick me"] BWV 86/2. The 33rd verse of Paul Stockmann's hymn "Jesu Leiden, Pein und Tod" ["Jesus' suffering, pain and death"](compare p. 26), which perceives the joy of salvation in the picture of the rose, is used by Bach in two cantatas: "Meine Seel auf Rosen geht, / wenn ich dran gedenke" ["My soul is walking on roses whenever I think about it"} see 'blühen' [entry for 'to blossom/flower'] BWV 159/5 and BWV 182/7.

2. Roses and Thorns representing the antithesis of heaven and earth

In the cantata "Komm, du süße Todesstunde" ["Come, sweet hour of death"], Salomo Franck uses this picture of roses and thorns. Just like many other of his contemporary poets, he sees the world in a negative light: "Der Welt Lust ist Last" ["Pleasure in this
world is a burden"] "Zucker ist Gift" ["Sugar is poison"]"das Freudenlicht ist bedrohlich" ["The light of joy is threatening"]"und wo man deine Rosen bricht, / sind Dornen ohne Zahl / zu meiner Seelen Qual" ["and wherever we break your roses there will be innumerable thorns to torture my soul"] BWV 161/2. In contrast to this, the rose can be a symbol of he. The singers of the 'love-duet' in the cantata "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" ["Sleepers awake, the voice is calling us"] sing as follows: "Ich will mit dir in Himmels Rosen weiden. / Du sollst mit mir in Himmels Rosen
" ["I wish to thoroughly enjoy with you the roses of heaven {being surrounded by them as grazing cattle in the field would}. I want you to graze with me through the fields of roses in heaven."] BWV 140/6.

(The author provides an illustration of Christ on the cross from which a rose tree has grown. There are two individuals, one of whom is in the rose bush attempting to pick a rose. He says "Rosen will ich brechen und uf diu liden machen" ["I want to break off some roses and place them on my suffering(s)"]

Peter Smaill wrote (February 27, 2005):
[To Thomas Braatz] Thank you very much indeed for drawing attention to the scholarship already extant on the matter of imagery in Bach. The passage which triggered the pursuit of the Rose was identified by Robertson as especially attractive, but his analysis is almost entirely musically oriented; whereas the literary background, historically the poor cousin to the musicologists, is now receiving more attention.

The image of the thorn is even more significant to Bach, the "Dornenkronen" being a feature of the Passions. We have already passed the first use of this image in the early Cantata BWV 150, and in an interesting position given the acrostic previously identified :

"Christen auf den Dornenwegen
Füren Himmels Kraft und Segen


("Christians on the thorny paths
are led by heaven's power and blessing "

And, in Bach's own annotations to the Calov Bible (recently discussed), he writes, this time in later life (quoted in James Gaines, "Evening in the Palace of Reason") :

"What is the world but a large thorn growth that we must tear ourselves through?"

The Thorn is thus an image specifically used by Bach himself (as distinct from his librettists) and occurs frequently in the Cantata texts.

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