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Cantata BWV 206
Schleicht, spielende Wellen, und murmelt gelinde!
Discussions - Part 2

Continue from Part 1

Discussions in the Week of November 9, 2008

Thérèse Hanquet wrote (November 9, 2008):
Introduction to BWV 206 «Schleicht, spielende Wellen, und murmelt gelinde!»

Cantata BWV 206: «Schleicht, spielende Wellen, und murmelt gelinde!»

Dramma per Musica, for the Birthday of Augustus III

Author of the libretto: anonymous, maybe Picander?

First performance: October 7th, 1736

The composition of BWV 206 («Schleicht, spielende Wellen, und murmelt gelinde!» - translation by Francis Browne "Glide, playful waves, and murmur gently!") has an interesting history, detailed notably by Martin Geck in his book «Johann-Sebastian Bach - Life and work» (page 195). I have tried to explore somewhat further the context of the composition.

Sorry for the historical details that will follow, but they play a role in the context of the cantata... Since Bach had taken the charge of director of the Collegium Musicum in 1729, he had produced several "dramma per musica" in honor of special events related to the Dresden Elector and his family. Elector August II, born on October 17th, 1696, inherited in 1733 the title of king of Poland (as August III) from his father, an event that was contested and provoked the War of Polish Succession. August II/III was the son of the famous princess Christiane Eberhardine, whose death had inspired to Bach the moving cantata BWV 198Lass, Fürstin,...»), and himself had married princess Maria-Josepha of Austria, daughter of King Joseph II. In 1734, Bach intended to perform a new "dramma per musica" for the Elector's birthday. But a few days before, he was informed that the Elector intended to visit the Leipzig Fair and that an evening concert had to be organized for the occasion on October 5th, first anniversary of August's election as King of Poland. It should be reminded that this was a disputed election, by the part of the Polish Diet which took side with the Elector's allies - Austria and Russia - against his rival, Stanisław Leszczyński, elected by the Diet in September and supported by France. Due to the War of Polish Succession, August was only crowned on January 17th, 1734. Curiously October 5th would also be the day on which August died, but much later, in 1763!

Anyway, Bach composed BWV 215Preise dein Glücke, gesegnetes Sachsen») for the new context of the Elector's visit, and this new cantata was performed on October 5th, 1734. This cantata (discussed a few weeks ago) is quite explicit in its text as to the troubled political context and clearly acclaims August as the winner of the struggle. The cantata was praised, but had a sad side-result: the death of one of the best trumpet player of the city, Gottfried Reiche - apparently exhausted by the huge effort of playing this demanding part at a respectable age (67) and in difficult conditions (Cantagrel, «Le moulin et la rivière», page 354).

The original birthday cantata - BWV 206 - remained in the drawers for two years, until 1736, the year when Stanisław Leszczyński finally abandoned his claims to the throne of Poland. Is this linked with this event or not, but BWV 206 was performed for the first time at Café Zimmerman on October 7th, 1736. We have no evidence that the Elector was present - probably not, as we do not have such accounts as we have for BWV 215. It should be mentioned that a few weeks later, Bach finally reached his goal to be officially acknowledged as composer of the Dresden Court.

I have a first question here, as we know that August was born on October 17th and not 7th: why celebrate his birthday 10 days in advance? Are we sure that BWV 206 is / was conceived as a birthday cantata, as there are no clear references to this event? It seems also that a Saint August is celebrated on October 7th (other dates for this name are August 28th and February 29th), but as a Catholic I acknowledge that the days for celebration of Saints are a complicated and fluctuating matter! Maybe Thomas Braatz will give us some details about the score of BWV 206 (for example: was it revised between 1734 and 1736? And between 1736 and 1740?), as well as further indications as to its purpose. But I can imagine that the political context was not absent of Bach's mind when he composed (and maybe revised) the cantata.

An argument in favor of this is the "plot" of the cantata. First it must be noted that although Bach called this cantata "dramma per musica" (as did Pergolsei, Vivaldi and even Mozart for some of their operas), BWV 206 has no such plot as we would find in an opera. It is rather a "debate" between several characters, actually four rivers, entering successively during the course of the piece: the Vistula (bass), the Elbe (tenor), the Danube (alto) and the Pleisse (soprano). This reminds us of other secular cantatas such as BWV 205 (another "dramma per musica") with its four mythological figures, and BWV 207 with its four allegorical figures. But here we do not have mythological but real rivers, which symbolize places (cities) and areas (their basins). The Vistula is the longest river of Poland, which had become August's kingdom, while the Elbe has its source in the Czech Republic and then goes through Dresden (the Elector's city) before reaching the North Sea. The Danube, with its sources in Germany, makes the border of ten European countries, and goes through Belgrade, Bratislava, Budapest and Vienna, the city of Maria-Josepha of Austria, the Elector's wife. As for the Pleisse, it is the river of Leipzig.

The rivers - for various reasons - all acclaim August and want to keep him in their neighborhood, which naturally provokes competition between them. The Pleisse is the one that will bring all others together by convincing them to make some compromises and to join in a common praise of August.

My second question has to do with the "political message" of BWV 206 vs. BWV 215. Why did Bach leave aside BWV 206 and compose a whole new cantata in October 1734, with all the extra work this required? Did the presence of the Elector change so much the context that he saw no way to adapt his original cantata? Was it important to have a more "war and victory-oriented" message (as is the case in BWV 215)? BWV 206 sounds indeed rather as a praise of peace, even though there are some references to war but through its consequences (e.g. the mention of dead corpses and rusting weapons in the Vistula, in the bass recitative - Mvt 2). Or maybe BWV 206 was too centered on Leipzig (through the figure of the Pleisse river) and not enough on the Elector himself, as is BWV 215?

Compared to other secular cantatas, it is remarkable that BWV 206 was not parodied in later works and contains no music previously used in other works (at least as far as we know). Another noticeable feature is that it was
performed again four years after its first performance: in August 1740, also at Café Zimmerman.

We have all reasons to think that Bach devoted much attention to the music of this cantata, maybe because he felt that the title of Court composer was within his reach. Also the Collegium musicum provided him with valuable resources for such performances. The instrumentation is indeed very rich, with three trumpets, timpani, two oboes d’amore and three transverse flutes in addition to strings and continuo.

The structure of the piece is quite straightforward: an opening chorus, then each river sings a recitative and an aria. The 10th movement has all four soloists singing in turn. A closing chorus concludes the work.

Gilles C, in his book previously mentioned, highlights BWV 206 as an example how Bach's music deals with water, making the link with the name Bach (which in German means small river, hence the book's title: "The river and the mill"). One of the first examples he gives of this is the way BWV 206 depicts waves, subtly personalizing each of the four rivers, while the opening chorus also features wave-like movements.

I have listened to two recordings: Schreier [4] (in the Brilliant set) and Bernius with Kammerchor Stuttgart and Concerto Köln [5]. I agree with what has been said in the previous discussions about the remarkable quality of the music, with its dance-like movements. This is quite obvious and enjoyable in both versions. All in all, music that makes you feel good!

I will not detail here all movements, just mention a few special points.

The opening chorus is quite long (more than 6 minutes in both versions) but maintains the attention from beginning to end. The beginning is indeed quite surprising, with a few "soft" measures played piano, followed by a sudden forte with the entry of the trumpets. The whole movement is full of contrasts and has a dance-like quality. There are many places in the score where the notes played by the strings really picture waves - also on the paper!

All recitatives are quite expressive of the different characters of the four rivers. The Fayard «Guide de la musique sacrée et chorale profane» notes that only the Pleisse, in the final recitative, is accompanied by strings, all others recitatives being supported by the continuo alone, maybe because the river of Leipzig deserves special treatment... Or another reason may be that this part marks the resolution of the plot?

The arias are also remarkable. In the last discussions, Aryeh emphasized the high quality of the alto aria «Reis von Habsburgs hohem Stamme» (Mvt. 7). I must say I like them all, with each its specific character, enhanced by selected instruments: violins and viola for the Vistula, violin alone for the Elbe, two oboes d'amore for the Danube, and three traverso flutes for the Pleisse.

The closing chorus is truly festive, with its joyous rhythms, and the contrast between the parts underlined by the trumpets and the parts where the choir sings pianissimo. The contrast and dynamics are particularly apparent in Schreier's version [4].

I would be curious to know what is the "favorite river" of members of the list? I for one cannot decide yet...

As a support to the discussion, you will find as usual a lot of interesting information on the BCW home page of BWV 206: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV206.htm. You may also want to visit the home page of BWV 215 to make comparisons... http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV215.htm.

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 9, 2008):
Thérèse Hanquet wrote:
< I would be curious to know what is the "favorite river" of members of the list? I for one cannot decide yet... >
Oh, the Pleisse certainly comes out on top! I fell in love with this aria (Mvt. 9) when I first heard the cantata as a teenager. The melodic material is delightful and the interplay of the high soprano voice and three flutes -- the only example of such orchestration in Bach, I think -- is like champagne being served. I arranged it for four flutes in high school for student friends who needed an ensemble piece. They were pretty delightful too.

William Hoffman wrote (November 11, 2008):
Introduction to BWV 206: Questions: timing & politics

Celebrating birthday 10 days in advance: royal celebrations took place over a long period of time, especially if they involved an entire court or a visit during a time period. The Dresden celebrations in 1719, for the Saxon Court and the new court theater, lasted several months, including an elaborate Heinichen serenata, "Dianna sull'Elba," with fireworks at night on barges on the Elbe -- shades of watermusic of Handel (1717), Telemann (Overture, Hamburg's Tides), and Vivaldi (Concerti "La tempesta di mare," Opp. 8/5, 10/1). Could Bach's Cantata BWV 206 be his "watermusic," celebrating the four rivers of commerce and boundaries?

Politics. With his Court Composer title hanging, Bach was especially sensitive to the political winds, particularly after he had courted favor with the Saxon Ambassador, Count von Flemming, with three cantatas. Bach composed at least the first movement of BWV 206 with a complete libretto and simply withheld the remained until the opportune time, Fall 1736. Cantata BWV 206 is Bach's last original surviving dramma per musica for the Royal Court (no music survives from BWV Anh. 13 and BC 25).

As to Bach's attitude toward war and peace, we have various biblical treatments (Cantatas BWV 50, BWV 54, BWV 80a; BWV 232IV Dona nobis pacem) but historically little. The Polish War of Succession was successful and strengthen the Leipzig-Saxony relationship. But August's sheer folly with the Berlin Court, including the invasion of Leipzig by Prussian troops in 1746, was a hardship. Apparently, Bach's only remaining connection with the Saxon Court was the stile antico mass music.

Bach was adept at shifting his attention from Dresden to Berlin in the 1740s. I think much of it was initially motivated by music. At the Dresden Court, Bach found the influence of drammi per musica and Zelenka's stile misto (mixed style). Earlier, he had been impressed with Heinichen's orchestra, Italian solo cantatas, Hasse's sacred Latin works, and Peranda's (fomerly Schütz') Markus Passion in the Court library.

Wolff speculates that Bach had no chance to succeed Heinichen as capellmeister because he had no opera credentials. The post was open from Heinichen's death in 1729 to 1735 with the official appointment of Hasse. Meanwhile, Bach had helped secure Friedemann's post as organist at the Sophienkirchke in Dresden in 1733 (W.F. moved on to Halle in 1746) while C.P.E. pursued Berlin by way of Frankfurt (1733-38) through a law degree and the good graces of his Godfather, Telemann, whom he succeeded at Hamburg in 1768. It appears that Sebastian had a heavy hand getting Friedemann to Dresden while Carl pursued his career on his own and with great patience and deliberation.

Thérèse Hanquet wrote (November 11, 2008):
[To William Hoffman] Thank you very much William for these documented answers to my questions.

I like the idea of BWV 206 as Bach's "watermusic"!

Also I note your reminder that in 1736 Wilhelm Friedemann was working in Dresden.We know that Johann Sebastian was eager to give the best chances of education and work to his sons, and especially to the eldest one. This may also have influenced his attitude.

Ed Myskowski wrote (November 15, 2008):
Introduction to BWV 206

Therese Hanquet wrote:
>The rivers - for various reasons - all acclaim August and want to keep him in their neighborhood, which naturally provokes competition between them. The Pleisse is the one that will bring all others together by convincing them to make some compromises and to join in a common praise of August<.
<snip>
>But I can imagine that the political context was not absent of Bach's mind when he composed (and maybe revised) the cantata.<
EM
I share that imagination. Compliments on a nicely constructed, elegant English sentence, as well!

TH
>We have all reasons to think that Bach devoted much attention to the music of this cantata, maybe because he felt that the title of Court composer was within his reach.<
EM
Perhaps Therese means to imply that Bach saw his official musical positions, and the music itself, as a factor in political and religious conciliation? If not, feel free to blame me for the suggestion.

TH
>The structure of the piece is quite straightforward: an opening chorus, then each river sings a recitative and an aria. The 10th movement has all four soloists singing in turn.<
EM
A very conciliatory, four-part recitative (unique?).

TH
>Gilles Cantagrel, in his book previously mentioned, highlights BWV 206 as an example how Bach's music deals with water, making the link with the name Bach (which in German means small river, hence the book's title: "The river and the mill"). One of the first examples he gives of this is the way BWV 206 depicts waves, subtly personalizing each of the four rivers, while the opening chorus also features wave-like movements.<

EM
A lovely detail. I have nothing to add. I trust everyone will forgive me for repeating it, for emphasis.

TH
>I have listened to two recordings: Schreier (in the Brilliant set) and Bernius with Kammerchor Stuttgart and Concerto Köln. I agree with what has been said in the previous discussions about the remarkable quality of the music, with its dance-like movements. This is quite obvious and enjoyable in both versions. All in all, music that makes you feel good!<
EM
Curiously (or by specific choice for quality or contrast?), the earliest recording, Rieu [1] from 1963, is included with the Bach 2000 set, which otherwise uses more recent versions of the secular cantatas. It is a satisfying performance in every way, not least in sound balance! Oh, for the good old days of minimal engineering. I did not yet have time for comparison with
Schreier..

TH
>There are many places in the score where the notes played by the strings really picture waves - also on the paper!<
EM
Although I do not have a score at hand, this is an enjoyable detail to visualize. It is very helpful to mention it.

TH
>I would be curious to know what is the "favorite river" of members of the list? I for one cannot decide yet...<
EM
It is difficult not to choose the Pleisse (soprano). As Doug has pointed out, Bach sets it up musically, and as Therese has pointed out, that reinforces and concludes the political allegory. To me, the greatest beauty is in the contrast, the transition, from the Danube (alto) to the Pleisse, the coexistence of the two. The need for the coexistence.

Thanks to Therese for the notable effort put into her introductions, and for new insights on the social context of this one, in particular. I did not intend to add anything new in my responses, other than to say that I read and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Thérèse Hanquet wrote (November 15, 2008):
[To Ed Myskowski] Thanks for all Ed!

I was precisely surprised that there were so few reactions this week, as this cantata is beautiful and its context interesting. I had a good time trying to find documentation...

I hope your comments will encourage others today, as tomorrow I will send the next intro...

Thérèse Hanquet wrote (November 15, 2008):
[To Ed Myskowski] I forgot to answer your suggestion hereunder.

Actually, I meant that Bach was apparently quite motivated to be designated Court Composer (at least it is what I read between the lines in his biographies) and he surely wanted to provide as many arguments as possible in view of this. But actually, this could be for several reasons indeed (I do not know what it financially implied to be Court composer).

One thing that strikes me is that although his music may be celestial, Bach himself paid much attention to "earthly" things, and in particular financial considerations. This does not mean that they were an ultimate end for him: we know that it was an important concern for him to give the best education he could to his children, and this probably explains some choices he made in the past. In 1734-36, what were his motivations? He probably wanted to have more musical opportunities, and to give a chance to his music to be more widely heard. And of course yes, maybe his ultimate aim could be political and/or religious conciliation...

Ed Myskowski wrote:
TH
>>We have all reasons to think that Bach devoted much attention to the music of this cantata, maybe because he felt that the title of Court composer was within his reach.<<
EM
< Perhaps Therese means to imply that Bach saw his official musical positions, and the music itself, as a factor in political and religious conciliation? If not, feel free to blame me for the suggestion. >

Stephen Benson wrote (November 15, 2008):
Thérèse Hanquet wrote:
< I was precisely surprised that there were so few reactions this week, as this cantata is beautiful and its context interesting. >
I sometimes get the sneaking suspicion that, lacking the theological foundation of the sacred cantatas and frequently focusing on mere terrestrial mortals, the secular cantatas are somehow considered lesser fare -- hack work, almost -- and not worthy of the intense scrutiny and analysis devoted to the sacred cantatas. If this is so, it's a real shame, for there is much beautiful music and a wealth of genius in the secular cantatas, of which "Schleicht, spielende Wellen" is a prime example. A few questions:

1) Did Bach's own working parody practices where he could move in the direction from secular to sacred, but not the reverse, reinforce this impression?

2) Is it my imagination, or are the secular cantatas frequently less rigorously contrapuntal than the sacred cantatas? (Of course, as I write this, I'm listening to the Schreier recording, which has now left BWV 206 and moved into the joyously contrapuntal play of the opening chorus of BWV 215! Maybe I've answered my own question.)

3) As a corollary of the previous question, however, do I detect elements of the "style galant" emerging from the arias in BWV 206?

As for a "favorite river", I agree that they all have their attractions. If I HAD to choose one, it would probably be the Elbe, for its delicious interplay between the tenor soloist and obbligato violin.

Given the social and political context of the text, and given its overarching spirit of conciliation and cooperation, this is one of those works that would merit attention from, and the consideration of, our own 21st-century world leaders. Do any of them listen to Bach?

William Hoffman wrote (November 17, 2008):
BWV 206: Secular Cantatas Redux

Stephen Benson wrote:
1) Did Bach's own working parody practices where he could move in the direction from secular to sacred, but not the reverse, reinforce this impression?
2) Is it my imagination, or are the secular cantatas frequently less rigorously contrapuntal than the sacred cantatas? (Of course, as I write this, I'm listening to the Schreier recording, which has now left BWV 206 and moved into the joyously contrapuntal play of the opening chorus of
BWV 215! Maybe I've answered my own question.)
3) As a corollary of the previous question, however, do I detect elements of the "style galant" emerging from tharias in BWV 206? >
William Hoffman replies: There are several misconceptions about Bach's secular music implicit in the still lesser regard toward Bach's secular cantatas and the questions above. I'll be positive:

Particular Bach's secular cantatas were milestones in his creative development and his engagement in the wider world. I'll mention only two: Cantata BWV 208 and BWV 198.

Cantata BWV 208 of c.1714 was Bach's first major, significant cantata in the new Italian operatic style, which was the trademark of virtually all of his some 200 sacred cantatas. It broke out of the old style of vocal works which never were repeated, except for BWV 4. It contained the first recitatives and the first da capo arias. It probably began with the substantial sinfonia, later First Brandenburg Concerto, a triumph in instrumental music as well!As for BWV 198 of 1727, Alfred Dürr, Hans-Joachim Schulze, Martin Geck, and Christoph Wolff variously suggest that its significance in Bach's creative effort is of an uncontested stature, involving masterful music adapted to a text by a leading poet for a significant occasion while leading directly to Bach's "ambitions in the realm of secular music in all its facets," says Geck (JSB Life & Work, P. 161f). To which I would add the culmination of Bach's major sacred music in the final version of the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) of 1729, the Oratorios of 1734-35 and the B-Minor Mass (BWV 232).

These are just two reasons why I spent a could deal of effort this summer to produce an extensive BCW article "Bach's Dramatic Music."

We still have a long way to go to fully understand and appreciate all of Bach's music from the widest possible perspective and with the greatest generosity of spirit. Where Bach's parodies historically were treated as step-children, or bastards, and the worst kind of plagarism (self-plagarism), the secular cantatas are still caught in much of that same Germantic, Romantic mentality. They are fine examples of invention, reinvention and transformation. Amen.

 

Continue on Part 3

Cantata BWV 206: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements| Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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