In 1707 the twenty-two year old organist at Mühlhausen, Johann Sebastian
Bach wrote what might be his first sacred cantata, BWV 131 “Aus der
Tiefe.” It was probably written as a memorial for a fire in the town,
so the text was based upon Psalm 130, with the addition of two verses
from the chorale, “Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut.” The composer
of course had many models for his style, most notably the distinguished
works in this genre by Buxtehude. But already in this very young piece
we see occasional glimpses of the real Bach. Perhaps most characteristic
is the sense of symmetry in the form with the 2nd and 4th movements
of five being solo arias with the chorale “Herr Jesu Christ” sung in
long notes by an upper voice. These chorale organized movements alternate
with free and sectionalized settings of the Psalm.
The scoring is characteristic for small-scale sacred concertos (as they were then called) of the period. Oboe, a single violin, two violas, one notated in alto clef, one in tenor, are joined by a continuo group consisting of a cello; perhaps, though not likely, a bass or violone that played an octave below; undoubtedly an organ; and here a bassoon, which sometimes plays independent lines but most often plays with the continuo group. The oboe and violin often play in dialogue or duet. They seldom double each other as is the case in so many later Bach cantatas. The violas are always accompanimental, although they sometimes double the voices. The bassoon usually doubles the cello-organ combination, although it sometimes makes an independent duet with the oboe. These scoring details are important to enumerate with Bach at the beginning of his career, because they would continue to be the norm. One by one many of these practices would drop away from Bach’s style, but many would remain throughout his career.
The piece opens with an expressive Adagio. Oboe and violin sing a serious and flexible duet. We already see here Bach’s taste for more active and more detailed bass lines than most of his contemporaries. This reflects Bach’s skill and taste as one of the masters of playing and writing for the pedals on the organ. His tendency to here the harmony from the bottom up clearly generates from his extraordinary capability to do anything he wants with the pedals. The entrance of the voices show’s Bach’s predilection at this period for mannerist text setting. This is style that Bach would occasionally return to, but for the most part soon abandoned.
Bach at this period is willing, even eager to indulge in a great amount of text repetition. This is something that would get him in trouble with the Leipzig performance of “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis.” This cantata has perhaps the most extreme examples of it, and one must say as he begins the text in a more and more specific manner, that mannerism soon falls away. The music tends to fall in quite small periods. Often there is a tempo change for every line of text. The ability to make very large forms is here beyond him although the two chorale fantasias are interesting precursors to his manner in Leipzig. We should remember that this music is written before Bach’s discovery of Italian concerti grossi, an important milestone in his career.
The first tempo change in the first movement at bar 57 introduces an important Bach technique of the period, the block choral statement followed by an individual voice statement that is eventually treated fugally. Bach is not at this era a great, or at least sophisticated, fugue writer. The marvelous essays by Buxtehude in that form were, at this period, beyond him. Although there is a generalized very good sense of the mood of the text, individual lines are not specifically characterized. At some points Bach will seize upon an image and project it vividly. For instance the word “flehen” (complaining) is given a wonderful whining portrait with the echo effects. One would like to love the two chorale settings in “Aus der Tiefe,” for they are such a window on the future. But the text repetition of the solo is so extreme and really unvaried that they both can become rather tedious. Bach has discovered a way to compose a large form but really does not know how to use it.
The third number introduces another early Bach manner that serves him
well through the early period. It also is perhaps the most successful
section of the cantata. This technique combines long vocal lines, often
chromatic in nature with small repeated motoric elements. This “prayer
wheel” sound avoids the monotony of the chorale settings both by its
harmonic motion but by the intricacy of its texture. This manner becomes
more used and even more effective in some of Bach’s slightly later but
still early pieces such as BWV 150 and especially BWV 106.
Cantata BWV 131 has a large number of slow tempi. It is clear that Largo in this context is not so slow as Adagio, and really should be a rather moving “walking” tempo Andante. Allegro and Vivace seem to be used interchangeably and should both be quite brisk. Both chorale settings gain if they are not taken too slowly, This cantata has been quite often performed, but really is not nearly so effective as the piece that it most resembles, the Cantata BWV 150. There we find many of the qualities of this piece in a much more favorable light.