Saturday, 12 May 2012

Lord, as You will, so let it be with me

Johann Sebastian Bach's Cantata No.73, Herr, wie du willt, so schicks mit mir, is one of the many neglected treasures in the composer's counting house. I urge you to give it a listen.

The cantata's title translates as 'Lord, as You will, so let it be with me' and the words Herr, wie du willt are given a little four-note figure in the cantata's opening movement. You will first hear the figure or horns in the bass line of the orchestra's introduction bars, though at the very end the chorus takes it up strikingly. The figure is reinforced by the strings who play in stealthy pizzicatos at many points in the movement. That's two layers. Over them you'll first hear a pair of oboes playing an attractive tune in thirds. The chorus then enters singing a reassuring four-part chorale - the first notes being the Herr, wie du willt motif -, the orchestra continuing to do its thing between each phrase of the chorale. Suddenly the harmony swerves to a halt and the choral fantasy becomes a dramatic, anxious recitative for solo tenor, with the oboes and the Herr, wie du willt motif accompanying. The Herr, wie du willt motif leads us back into the next phrases of the chorale. Another swerve and we find ourselves in an anxious bass recitative. The process continues until we reach the most dramatic recitative of all, that for the soprano. The chorus answers this will repeated, reassuring statements of Herr, wie du willt. It is a fabulous movement. 

Next comes a lyrical tenor aria, whose text runs as follows:

Ach senke doch den Geist der Freuden
Dem Herzen ein!
_Es will oft bei mir geistlich Kranken
_Die Freudigkeit und Hoffnung wanken
_Und zaghaft sein.

Ah, only let the spirit of joy
sink into my heart!
_Often spiritual sickness
_makes joy and hope waver
_and despair.

This boasts a delicious melody which the tenor shares with an oboe. Bach was a word-painter and treats 'Freuden' with joyful melismas whilst treating with 'zafhaft' with sad, sighing, falling phrases.

This word-painting continues in the following bass recitative:

Ach, unser Wille bleibt verkehrt,
Bald trotzig, bald verzagt,
Des Sterbens will er nie gedenken;
Allein ein Christ, in Gottes Geist gelehrt,
Lernt sich in Gottes Willen senken,
Und sagt:

Ah, our will remains perverted,
quickly contrary, quickly dashed,
never considering death;
but a Christian, educated in God's spirit,
teaches itself to sink into God's will
and says:

Listen out for the remarkable dissonances on 'verkehrt', 'trotzig' and 'verzagt'. Bach's ability to use dissonance daringly and dramatically here shows what a word-painter he could be.

This recitative leads into a bass aria, whose opening words are our old friend, Herr, so du willt, here sung to a new four-note figure that is to play as key a role in this movement as its equivalent did in the opening movement.

Herr, so du willt,
So preßt, ihr Todesschmerzen,
Die Seufzer aus dem Herzen,
Wenn mein Gebet nur vor dir gilt.

Herr, so du willt,
So lege meine Glieder
In Staub und Asche nieder,
Dies höchst verderbte Sündenbild.

Herr, so du willt,
So schlagt, ihr Leichenglocken,
Ich folge unerschrocken,
Mein Jammer ist nunmehr gestillt.

Lord, as You will,
then squeeze, you pangs of death,
the sobs out of my heart,
if my prayer is only acceptable before You.

Lord, as You will,
then lay my limbs
down in dust and ashes,
this most corrupted image of sin.

Lord, as You will,
then strike, funeral bells,
I follow unafraid,my suffering is quieted from now on.

The aria unusually follows the three-verse form of the text. The bass has a noble line and the string writing is full of gorgeous suspensions, their dissonances reflecting the 'pangs' and 'sobs' of the text. Corelli, that master of the suspension, couldn't do any better than Bach in this movement and the string writing between the second and third quatrains is simply superb - as is the invocation of 'funeral bells' during the setting of the third quatrain. I won't spoil it by telling you in advance how Bach does that!

This wonderful cantata ends with a chorale harmonisation of the utmost beauty. 

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