The texts of Georg Christian Lehms are the most extreme, self-flagellating texts ever set by Bach. Of all of his texts, the one for BWV 199 is perhaps the bloodiest. This is one of those texts that, if it weren’t set with such penetration and sincerity that one could not take it seriously. It has, however, generated one of the great Bach cantatas that is almost unique in its intensity and passion. The work was only known in fragments, and was published that way in the old Bach Gesellschaft until it was discovered whole by the Danish scholar Matiennsen early in the twentieth century. Since then four versions of the piece have come to light.
The work has many distinctive features. Most immediately striking is the new and flexible recitative style. The three accompagnato recitatives are especially advanced; being genuine accompanied recitatives with flexible speech rhythms in the voice part and rather neutral, non-motivic string parts. The old quasi-arioso kind of recitatives of the Buxtehude type that we have seen up to this time are replaced here by something much more operatic. Certainly the intensity of the text has something to do with this, but also the new discipline and organization of the aria forms demands something freer and more contrasting in the recitatives. It is interesting that Mozart several generations later went through this same process in his operas. The elaborate ariosos of Idomeneo were replaced by much drier and more musically perfunctory recitatives in Figaro.
The first few lines of text in the opening recitative are a good example of Bach’s new found freedom. While the first several phrases have some melodic profile, it is tied to the sense of the words. (The little turn on the word schwimmt” the augmented sixth on the word “sünden”) Each phrase, both in its length, but here almost more importantly, in its range is autonomous. The strings provide a rigorous tonal context for the wide-ranging recitative but no melodic profile. When the intensity and direction of the ideas becomes fully formed, the music goes into a rigorous aria form. In both of our arias here, that form is a da capo, one that is not so common in the earlier Bach cantatas.
The second aria with oboe obbligato is one of the first great oboe arias. The wonderful and inspired associative logic of the material in the first ritornello is so natural that one must be reminded that this style is still relatively new to Bach. While all of the musical ideas, the “sighing” in the word ”seufzer” and the hollow open fifth on the word “stumme” generate from the text, there is a structural rigor that is, of course not present in the recitatives. Bach has taken from the world of opera the idea that a recitative is perfect for random thoughts and the aria is the perfect form for the time when these thoughts become organized. The aria has an interesting feature that the end of the B section degenerates into a secco recitative only to be brought back into control by the da capo.
The second accompagnato has a certain rigor at the cadences, not found in the first that very much sets up the sense and sound of the following aria. While the first aria has a kind of soaring almost keening quality, the second aria is melodically almost a mirror opposite. The huge opening ritornello of twenty four bars shows Bach reveling in his new-found structural control. Two or three years earlier he would not have even attempted such an edifice. The B section ends with a striking foray into the subdominant giving the whole movement a kind of vulnerability and softness that is a perfect setup for the denouement of the introduction of the chorale.
The chorale movement is the section that underwent the most changes in the various versions of the cantata. The obbligato is written variously for viola, cello, viola da gamba and violoncello piccolo. The first version, for viola, is the one most often heard today. It is the most simple melodically and has none of the ornamental detail of the later cello version. Martienssen’s published version with the cello changes incorporated into the viola part is a good solution. As with the best of Bach’s pieces in this genre, the obbligato is a wonderful catchy tune, here based upon the first few notes of the chorale. It’s marvelous open-hearted quality is a relief after the inward looking intensity of the first two arias.
The final aria with oboe and strings is introduced by another accompagnato. The aria is a da capo but is so brief that it is hard to make work as a closing movement. Particularly odd is the lack of a closing ritornello. There is something to be said for playing again the opening nine bars at the end of the piece to provide a fitting conclusion.
©Craig Smith, adapted by Ryan Turner