Cantata BWV 139 was composed in Leipzig in 1724. Today’s gospel reading from Matthew 22: 15-22 is less directly influential upon the text, than the Epistle reading from the Lutheran lectionary of Bach’s time for the day - Philippians 3: 17-21. The main argument is the rejection of earthly things for the world of heaven. Much of the cantata text, although verbally quite emphatic, is rather gentle in tone. Even the alto recitative that speaks of the wolves’ anger is fairly mild in tone. The last aria finally takes up the tone of the words and is something indeed very violent.
In the opening chorus, a chorale fantasia, the chorale tune is a nice melody, but rather bland in character. Bach makes up for the lack of profile by writing an orchestration of unusual richness. This richness is achieved not by a particularly colorful combination of instruments, but by the fact that all of the lines are almost without exception never doubled. The scoring is for two oboes d’amore and strings. It is likely that a flute, probably doubling the chorale tune is lost. In any texture like this Bach almost invariably will double the oboes and the strings, with occasional passage of independence for each set of instruments. Here from the outset, there is a five-voice texture (2 oboes, 2 violins, and viola) above the continuo. Even with the entrance of the chorus, the orchestral parts usually remain independent. This gives a lush rich singing texture. The chorale tune itself is pitched rather low in the sopranos. Not only a flute at the octave, as in BWV 101 heard two weeks ago, would help it be heard, but maybe a horn doubling is also missing. The cantata survives only from an incomplete set of parts in Leipzig, no score has been found. The clue to the warm and gentle character can be found in the opening two lines that plead for the soul to abandon oneself with childlike trust. All of the later lines about sin and the devil go uncharacterized.
From the outset it has been known that one obbligato is missing from the tenor aria. The Bach scholar Robert Levin thinks that there is a missing obbligato and has written a reconstruction filling in the second violin part. The work is a light-hearted da capo aria with much agreeable fortspinnung, the use of sequences and simple repetition to develop a musical motif, in both the voice and the solo violins.
The alto recitative declaims its rather hair-raising text with a strange calm, rendering the explosion that happens in the bass aria is therefore all the more surprising. The bass aria is one of the most structurally inventive things in all of Bach. In fact in every way the work is sui generis. In this, Bach’s most creative period, we are used to startling innovation, but nothing before has prepared us for this piece. The orchestration is unusual. The two oboes d’amore play a clangorous and jarring dotted rhythm figure in unison against that the solo violin plays agitated arpeggios. The continuo plays a dotted rhythm figure but twice as fast as the oboes. The oboes in unison create a special wailing sound that is almost like a human cry. The violin clearly is illustrating the “hundredweight chain” of the text. As unusual as the scoring is it is the structure that is unique. There are three tempi. The first is an allegro 4/4. This goes segue into a vivace 6/8 with the eighth note unit remaining equal. The third tempo is a 4/4 andante approximately half the speed of the allegro. There are eleven tempo changes in the aria. The over-all effect is that of a da capo with the andante and allegro interludes functioning as the B section. But the actual da capo is quite irregular and containing many more vivace episodes than the first A section. The overall effect is chaos and pandemonium. The ratcheting of up of the tempo in the transition between the 4/4 allegro and the 6/8 vivace is terrifically exhilarating. This is an aria that got the notice of the very first Bach scholars, Spitta writes excitedly about it. The soprano recitative, accompanied by a halo of strings, reverts to the beginning strange calm. The cantata ends with a rich, unusually beautiful harmonization of the chorale melody.
©Craig Smith, adapted by Ryan Turner