First, a grand processional chorus of nearly St. Matthew Passion length, seven minutes of twilight introspection, then, directly, another piece of radically similar character, an alto aria, even longer and more austere (the organist is asked to lay out, no chords).
We are reminded of the advantages to the composer (at least to one in 1725) of writing music for use in church. Principles of contrast – out the window. Limits of attention – don't worry. If Bach, in order to deliver the most profound of his five statements about Simeon in the Temple, needs to write an arduous piece, he can. This is not concert music, it does not need to divert or entertain us. It needs to guide us, illuminate us, through trial if necessary.
In much of the iconography of the scene in which Blessed Simeon after his long wait embraces the baby Jesus, the old man is depicted as blind or near-blind. This is the premise of the text of this cantata as well. Luther’s hymn tune, used in the first movement, suggests (and receives in other Bach pieces) a brighter treatment, but here Bach shrouds it in mystery. Each line of text has a different melodic shape, and each reaches a distinctive musical outcome.
The alto aria, in four huge sections, similarly ignores the hopefulness we read in the text: Simeon still waits, in pain, his rescue is deferred (most wrenchingly by the instrumental outburst which interrupts the final return).
This cantata needs rescue. In the interwoven chorale and recitative for bass which comes next, it is fascinating to hear how compromised, how shadowed this revival is, again in spite of the words. Then, finally, the big tenor-bass duet arrives, a true comet of a piece – "incomprehensible light fills up the entire circle of the earth, echoing with power."
Is it enough? Luther's words in the splendid final chorale quote Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis: "For mine eyes have seen thy salvation … the glory of thy people Israel" (Luke II). But Bach knows also the darker part of that prophecy, spoken to Mary: "A sword shall pierce through thy own soul also."
© John Harbison
Bach’s choice of the Martin Luther chorale “Mit Fried’ und Freud’ ich fahr’ dahin” for his Purification cantata BWV 125 was a logical one. This chorale, a very popular one in Bach’s day, had always been associated with Simeon, the old man in the temple who recognized the divinity of the baby at the purification rites of his mother only 5 weeks after his birth. The Luther melody has always been associated with the Latin Nunc Dimittis although they are not melodically related. There are many earlier 17th Century settings that combine the two tunes. Bach had used the Luther melody to great distinction before. The setting in the Orgelbüchlein is remarkable that it has a character of decrepitude while maintaining a great dignity. The use of the chorale prominently in his great early funeral cantata, “Gottes Zeit,” is just one example of the high regard in which he held the tune. As with many of the Luther chorales the melody is irregular in shape, although there is no sign that it is an arrangement from a Latin hymn like so many others. Particularly notable are the quiet and inward 4th and 6th phrases. The last in particular is a surprising way to end the verse.
Bach’s opening chorus is a quiet 12/8, flowing with a hint of the Siciliano
rhythm. The character is not pastoral however, and there is a great
sense of seriousness, even gravitas, about it. The two quiet phrases
are marvelously characterized. The first, at the text “sanft und stille,”
goes through a remarkable harmonic progression from the tonic e minor
that begins the phrase to an augmented sixth chord on Ab. The second
phrase is perhaps even more startling. Beginning on the dominant, it
progresses to a low-pitched and dark Neapolitan of the tonic only to
press out of it to the tonic.
The alto aria with flute and oboe d’amore obbligati is also grave but of a different character. It is almost gallant in style with a simple non-contrapuntal bass line. The obbligati are very elaborately phrased, almost French in style, with many appogiaturas and the lazy kind of dotted rhythms one associates with Bach’s French contemporaries, Rameau and Couperin. It is elaborately phrased, however, and thoroughly Bachian in its harmonic complexity. The “broken eyes” of the opening line of text are marvelously characterized by the broken and jerky melodic line first seen in the instruments. Bach ties the aria to the character of the chorus by coming to a full stop on the word “sterben” just as he had in the first movement.
The accompanied recitative for bass and strings, really a chorale with
tropes, uses as its principal string figure a little motive that is
no doubt illustrative of the “wunder” in the text. The lines of the
chorale are ingeniously folded in and Bach again closes in on the word
“sterben” in the manner of both the opening chorus and the alto aria.
After three slow and inward pieces, the brilliant tenor-bass duet with
violins is startlingly lively. One senses the sense of wonder and excitement
from the reading in Malachi rather than any event in the Gospels. The
brilliant light encircling the earth is characterized by the wonderful
opening figure for the strings. The tenor and bass parts often go into
long and virtuosic melismas on the word “kreis.” The promise echoing
throughout the universe is brilliantly and forcefully characterized
by the shouts of the two singers over the rumbling bass.
After three serious and inward movements, a piece such as this only works if it as brilliantly and strongly characterized as this one. A secco alto recitative leads into the four-voice harmonization of the chorale to end the cantata.