Sunday, 22 July 2012

Bach's first cantata?

Returning back into the depths (yet once more reaching out to the heights), did you know that out of his couple of hundred or so surviving cantatas, the first Johann Sebastian Bach is believed to have composed is a setting of the De Profundis ('From the deep, Lord, I Cried to Thee')? (BWV150 is the only other contender).

Aus der Tiefe rufe ich, Herr, zu dir BWV131 sets Martin Luther's words in full, though verses from Bartholomäus Ringwaldt's chorale Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut ('I wait for the Lord') are interloped between them. 

The cantata may be Bach's earliest but it does not sound in any way immature. Far from it. It is a beautiful piece. 

Being early though it doesn't do quite what you would expect a Bach cantata to do. Its structure is a continuous one without closed form sections. It is also a symmetrical one, following a chorus-arioso-chorus-arioso-chorus pattern. It begins with a chorus introduced by a substantial and very lovely G minor sinfonia for solo oboe and strings. The chorus enters and embed their beautiful phrases into this texture. Their phrases overlap dissonantly on "rufe" ('cry', 'call'), emphasising the poignancy of the word. Suddenly the tempo changes from slow to fast and the next choral section begins, "Herr, Herr hore meine Stimme" ('Lord, hear my voice'), taking the form of a dancing fugue. Without a break the bass steps in over a walking accompaniment with "So du willst, Herr, Sünde zurechnen" ('If you, Lord, were to mark iniquities'), an arioso with oboe obbligato. As he sings Luther's words of penitence the sopranos of the choir (or a solo soprano) enter, chorale-fantasia-style, singing Ringwaldt's hymn of hope phrase by phrase as a cantus firmus. Again without a break, the cantata continues with a chorus, "Ich harre des Herrn" ('I wait for the Lord'), where that sense of hope is reinforced. In another instance of word-painting, there are delaying melismas here on "Harre" ('wait'). Balancing the earlier bass arioso, a tenor arioso, "Meine Seele wartet auf der Herrn" ('My soul waits for the Lord') follows straight on, with the altos of the chorus singing the next verse of Ringwaldt's chorale, this time only with continuo accompaniment. The closing chorus, "Israel, hoffe auf den Herrn" ('Israel, hope in the Lord'), opens with three stately invocations of "Israel" (perhaps evoking the Trinity) that remind me of the Masonic music of Mozart's Magic Flute. This chorus, like the work as a whole, has a motet-like structure that is unlike that later used by Bach, with each phrase of the text given its own contrasting treatment, the closing section being a fugue. 

You can't beat starting a Sunday morning with a Bach cantata!

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