For some reason the cantata BWV 135 has almost always had a rather
tepid reception from people writing about the Bach cantatas. Scholars
are quick to brand both arias as arrangements of lost secular works,
always a somewhat damning charge in the world of Bach criticism. Even
the marvelous opening chorus goes by with a minimum of comment. Part
of this may be how one perceives the tempo. Bach seems to hear the chorale
Herzlich thut mich verlangen” very slowly. The figuration in both extant
organ chorale preludes on this tune, BWV 727 and BWV 742, imply something
very stately. Even the placement of the many four-part harmonizations
in the St. Matthew Passion implies something quite slow.
The first line of the Epistle reading I Peter 5:6 “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God,” sets up the metaphor for the opening chorus of BWV 135. The chorale tune is buried in the texture, sung by the basses, doubled by a trombone, “under the hand of God.” In general this Epistle reading is more influential upon the text and character of the cantata than the problematic parable before the Pharisees and Scribes that is the Gospel reading for the day
Bach’s scheme for the movement is clear. All of the upper strings play a phrase of the chorale accompanied by oboe figuration related to the theme in diminution. The use of the continuo instruments is limited to the doubling of the chorale with the basses. Bach’s scheme is so profiled and clear that when he breaks it the results are astonishing. The entrance of each of the first four phrases of the chorale by the basses is clearly marked and immediately followed by elaboration by the upper 3 voices. In the fifth phrase not only do the upper voices enter before the chorale, but the bass entrance is cleverly buried in the tenor line The following phrase reverts to the opening manner but positively explodes with the subito forte that results from the massed upper voices and the change in range of the strings. Bach clearly sees the emotional climax of this verse as that sixth phrase, something that is unique to this particular setting of “Herzlich thut mich verlangen.” Clearly that particular weighting of the chorale reflects its function in this particular cantata.
Both recitatives of this cantata travel an unusual harmonic distance. The first begins with a chord that not only completes the ambiguous Phrygian cadence of the chorale, but also sets the recitative on its long harmonic journey. If the chorus is slow enough, the easy-going tenor aria with two obbligato oboes will provide a wonderful release. Even the extremes of the declamation of the second phrase are folded easily into the texture. The slowing down of the motion at the word stille provides a marvelous poetic moment. The aria is surprisingly short and the very fact that there is no da capo propels us into the intense alto recitative
Like the first recitative, this one travels a great harmonic distance. The stuttering, halting chorale snippet that begins the recitative propels us into more self-doubt. Peter’s characterization of the devil as a roaring lion in the Epistle reading brings on a bass aria of almost military bearing. In character it is Handelian. One thinks of the generals in the Handel operas, Achilla in Giulio Cesare or Orvieto in Ariodante. After the minute harmonic manipulations of the previous music, the big broad-shouldered sequences of the opening tutti are particularly striking. The da capo is a particular clever foreshortened one, but functions nevertheless to give the last part of the cantata some weight. The final harmonization of the chorale ends in the Phrygian mode, like the last version in the St. Matthew Passion, but without its devastating finality.