The brilliant and extroverted aria that opens Bereite die Wege, Bereite die Bahn [Prepare the paths, prepare the road], belies the profound inward journey of this cantata. In Bach’s time - after the first Sunday’s festivities – Advent was considered a season of reflection and penitence even in the face of the joyous coming of Christ. This cantata dates from 1715 in Weimar where (unlike in Leipzig) concerted music was permitted during Advent. The Gospel for today’s cantata is the moving testimony of John the Baptist in which he quotes the prophet Isaias: ‘make straight the way of the Lord’. Baptismal images abound both in the text and the music.
The cantata opens with a virtuoso aria of joyous anticipation for soprano, oboe d’amore, and strings. The endless melismas on the word ‘Bahn’ represent the ‘long path’ and perhaps the splashing of baptismal water. The text (of the B section) exhorts us to make the path ‘completely level for the Highest’, amusingly mirrored in the vocal line, where several words are repeated on one pitch. The complex tenor recitative ruminates on the idea of preparation. Listen for the rolling passage work in the cello and voice on the word ‘Wälz’ [roll]. In the bass aria, the question asked of John the Baptist by the Priests and Levites, ‘Wer bist du?’ [Who are you?], becomes a personal question with a rigid and unpleasant answer. The rolling bass accompaniment has an almost industrial feel as a road is effortfully cleared of sin for the Savior. The didactic vocal writing is fragmented and almost clumsy. The long bizarre melisma on the word ‘heuchlerischer’ [hypocritical] is particularly striking. The alto recitative softens the tone as the sinner struggles to reaffirm the covenant of baptism. The aria that follows is the centerpiece of the cantata. The vocal line, while tinged with sadness, is bathed in cascades of 32nd notes from the solo violin (baptismal water imagery, surely). Like the greatest Bach arias, it is utterly personal and emotionally layered. In this case, a feeling of personal joy somehow radiates from an overall sense of profound melancholy. A simple harmonization of some tough words brings us rather abruptly down to earth in the closing chorale.
© Michael Beattie
All of Bach's Weimar cantatas have a special quality, mostly attributable to Salomo Franck's wonderful libretti. In BWV 132, the opening Advent words generate long expressive melismas for the soprano and the oboe d'amore. The large secco tenor recitative darkens the texture considerably preparing us for the severe and very striking bass aria with continuo. While today it may seem strange to find such a forbidding piece in the Christmas season, Advent was always a penitential time in Bach's church. The alto recitative with strings continues the penitential tone but the brilliant aria with violin obbligato lights the way for the lovely setting of the chorale "Herr Christ, der einig Gottes Sohn."