Of the pieces among the genre that we call the chorale experiments in the 1st Jahrgang, BWV 138 is clearly the most problematical. It is in a form to which Bach would never return. It stretches even Bach’s awesome abilities at musical continuity. But it must be said that in a way the most experimental moments of the piece are the best. Perhaps the weakest moments are the conventional parts, and they may fail (and with Bach this is always relative because this is still a very impressive piece) because they are not as good as most of the rest of the music written in this amazing year. Exploring the point of tension between anxiety and belief is its true strength.
Part of the problem is the Gospel reading for the 15th Sunday after Trinity in 1723, Matthew 6: 23 -34; “Take no thought of clothing or food; seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Bach thrives on the thorny and inexplicable. This is perhaps the least difficult Gospel in all of the didactic season of the church year. It is one of the few Gospels for this season that is based, not upon a parable, but on advice. It is, of course, very good advice (this is the passage about considering the lilies of the fields), but there is nothing of the tough nut that most of the parables provide. There is in our cantata something manufactured about the pain and anxiety. The denouement, with the advent of the bass aria, thus makes less of an impact.
The opening is very impressive, and it is clear that Bach is thinking in a very complex way about the relationship between the chorale and the recitative. After a pathetic and imitative string figure, the 1st oboe d’amore comes in with the chorale tune. A solo tenor sings the same string melody as at the beginning, and finally the chorus comes in on the first chorale phrase. It is distinctive, even unique, to have an incipit to the chorale sung not to the chorale melody but to an independent tune. This same pattern occurs for the first three phrases of the chorale and the music comes to a half close on the dominant. This begins an interesting pattern followed throughout the cantata. The five phrases of the chorale are divided into two units, one of three phrases, one of two. These two sections of the chorale are divided by an extended recitative, with expressive orchestral interludes.
This cantata is from beginning to end continuous. But, unlike some of the earliest cantatas that try this, the sections are quite large. Here there is a tiny segue secco bass recitative that leads directly into the second verse of the chorale. Although many of the same techniques are used in this verse, we see more activity from the lower voices in the chorale segments and the last two phrases begin with the chorale phrase in diminution in the lower voices before its appearance in the soprano. We then have a curious gesture, there is more recitative and the last two phrases are repeated with a different text. There is a different, almost deconstructing, method here, as if the chorale must be dissected before it can finally be heard in its complete form.
Up to this point the piece has an interesting narrative quality to it. It most resembles an earlier Weimar work, Cantata BWV 18, which however used a litany instead of a chorale to connect the recitatives. At this pont in our present cantata Bach introduces a long and somewhat conventional bass aria. It is clear that Bach was fond of this piece, for he arranged it much later as the Gratias in the G Major mass. It has its interesting points. After a broad beginning melody, a little bouncy figure is introduced. Surprisingly, it continues throughout the piece, and at key points is transferred to the continuo. There is something strange and unlikely about it as a continuo figure and the whole effect of this invertible counterpoint links up nicely with the text’s emphasis on God governing all things in our lives. But the aria is not really inspired in its content and somewhat overstays its welcome.
On paper the final movement, where our chorale is finally allowed to be heard from beginning to end, looks terrific. Marching oboes punctuate big sweeping bravura string lines, while the chorus sings in block chords. We have seen this kind of thing work wonderfully. In the next Jahrgang one could describe the last movement of Cantata BWV 109 in exactly these same terms. It is one of Bach’s greatest and most impressive chorale fantasias. Here it doesn’t quite work. What was impressive about the chorale in Bach’s most experimental approach becomes commonplace in this most normative of movements. It seems almost churlish to deny this cantata its place. It is clearly a piece that Bach struggled over. But in the end, for all that we value his formal experiments, the thing that really makes his music immortal is the sheer level of inspiration. This piece, unfortunately, doesn’t consistently have that.
©Craig Smith, with edits and additions by Ryan Turner