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Cantata BWV 27
Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende?
Discussions - Part 2

Continue from Part 1

Discussions in the Week of December 23, 2007

Uri Golomb wrote (December 23, 2007):
Cantata BWV 27 "Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende?" - Introduction to Discussion - Week of Dec 23, 2007

The cantata for this week is "Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende?" (BWV 27), a cantata for the 16th Sunday after Trinity, first performed on 6 October 1726.
A list of available recordings can be found on : http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV27.htm; previous discussions can be found on http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV27-D.htm, which also includes links to pages with notes on the work and its provenance. A notable point is that the final chorale (Mvt. 6) is not Bach's own, but a harmonisation by Rosebmüller.

This belongs to a group of cantatas that might be referred to as the "death-wish" cantatas -- works whose texts express longing for death, for release from the pains of life on earth in anticipation of the life to come. Bach usually responds with great depth and eloquence to such texts. In a commentary on cantata BWV 82 (http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Articles/BWV82-Golomb.htm), I wrote of "a certain Bachian paradox, wherein some of the most life-denying texts led to some of his most life-affirming music". This is also applicable here. To be sure, the music is sober, often mournful -- even the brightest aria here, the alto's "Willkomen! will ich sagen" ("'Welcome', I will say/ When death comes to my bed", to quote Richard Jones's translation in the English edition of Dürr's book) -- is tinged with melancholy. To judge from the text, the pain expressed here is the pain of life, rather than death; and, in a sense, neither life nor death seem to raise much hope here. (Francis Brown, in a previous discussion, wrote that the text "sometimes fall into absurdity". I think I can spot at least one example: the alto welcomes death because -- to quote Jones's translation again -- "All my plagues/ I take with me [to the tomb]". But surely, the reason to welcome death is that you're leaving your plagues behind -- what's to rejoice in taking them with you?). Yet the music, for all its sombre character and (in the bass aria (Mvt. 5)) dark drama, is truly uplifting.

I do find myself disagreeing with Dürr here, however. He writes that "The charm of this cantata lies in a certain simplicity, almost innocence, which -- surely by design -- stands in marked contrast to the earnest theme of death". I'm afraid I hear no such contrast: this cantata (with the possible exception of the alto aria (Mvt. 3)) has more earnestness and complexity than charm and simplicity. "Charm" is a word I associate with the Beautiful, in the narrow sense; this cantata is closer to the Sublime (I'm alluding here to a distinction promoted, inter alia, by Edmund Burke in 1757; see, for example, http://tinyurl.com/yrqyca).

So far, I've re-listened to two recordings: Richter's [3] and Gardiner's [8]. As often happens, Gardiner's Pilgrimage version is my favourite, both over Richter and over other versions I've heard in the past. I did enjoy listening to Richter's version: the grandiloquent monumentality, especially in the opening chorus (Mvt. 1), is not entirely inappropriate. But Gardiner's attentiveness, his keen attention to small details which merge into a coherent, dramatic whole is ultimately more moving and compelling.

What I would really like, however, is to hear this cantata sung one-per-part -- to judge from Aryeh's list of recordings, this has not happened yet, at least not on record. In all the recordings I know, the opening chorus (Mvt. 1) is split between two distinct groups: a choir that sings the chorale, and soloists who interrupt it from the outside. The contrast is especially glaring in Richter [3], but it can be sensed in other versions as well. Yet Bach's probable scoring had quite a different effect: the recitatives were sung -- and audibly so -- by singers who emerged from the group that sung the chorale: the dialogue is internal, within the consort of singers, not between two separate bodies. I can sort of imagine what this might sound like, but I would like to hear it realised -- with good musicians, of course. There's several groups active now who could probably do a very good one-per-part recording of this work -- hopefully, at least one of them will do it before too long.

Uri Golomb wrote (December 23, 2007):
I think I'll begin the discussion by disagreeing a bit with myself...
I wrote, with reference to Dürr's commentary on this cantata:
"I do find myself disagreeing with Dürr here, however. He writes that 'The charm of this cantata lies in a certain simplicity, almost innocence, which -- surely by design -- stands in marked contrast to the earnest theme of death'. I'm afraid I hear no such contrast: this cantata (with the possible exception of the alto aria (Mvt. 3)) has more earnestness and complexity than charm and simplicity. "
Well, I still believe that this cantata is more serious and sombre than Dürr seems to imply; however, I do understand the reference to simplicity, at least as far as texture is concerned. The opening chorus (Mvt. 1) alternates between homophonic chorale and solo recitatives; this alternation does represent a more simple texture than many of Bach's opening chorale movements, in which a chorale movement forms a part of a complex polyphonic texture (think for instance of BWV 78 -- as one of many examples; or, to take an even more intricate example, BWV 77, where the chorale is instrumental -- allowing it to be combined with a four-part polyphonic texture). This does create something of the simplicity and innocence that Dürr refers to. I stil believe, however, that the overall mood (here and in the rest of the cantata) meshes well (rather than contrasts with) the earnest themes of the text.

Robin Kinross wrote (December 23, 2007):
Uri Golomb wrote:
< What I would really like, however, is to hear this cantata sung one-per-part -- to judge from Aryeh's list of recordings, this has not happened yet, at least not on record. In all the recordings I know, the opening chorus (Mvt. 1) is split between two distinct groups: a choir that sings the chorale, and soloists who interrupt it from the outside. The contrast is especially glaring in Richter [3], but it can be sensed in other versions as well. Yet Bach's probable scoring had quite a different effect: the recitatives were sung -- and audibly so -- by singers who emerged from the group that sung the chorale: the dialogue is internal, within the consort of singers, not between two separate bodies. I can sort of imagine what this might sound like, but I would like to hear it realised -- with good musicians, of course. There's several groups active now who could probably do a very good one-per-part recording of this work -- hopefully, at least one of them will do it before too long. >
It was performed this way last month in London: http://www.thebachplayers.org.uk/diary.html (23 November)

You put the nature of that opening movement very well. Having heard this performance, I find it hard to like it so much any other way: the small forces match the intimacy of the text.

This group is due to do this programme again in 2008, unseasonally inlate spring.

Douglas Cowling wrote (December 23, 2007):
Uri Golomb wrote:
< Well, I still believe that this cantata is more serious and sombre than Dürr seems to imply; >
Two years ago at the Toronto International Festival, a scholar -- whose name escapes me for the moment -- spoke about the "cult" of death which was common among Lutherans at the time of Bach. He described young men writing hymn verses for their ineviitable funerals, teenaged girls embroidering their death shrouds even when they weren't ill, and a whole host of extreme devotional activities which struck the conference listeners as either laughably ludicrous or pathologically morbid. Given the popular fascination with death at the time, Bach's cantatas are notably restrained. I doubt we can ever enter the mindset of his listeners - or would want to!

Jean Laaninen wrote (December 23, 2007):
Uri Golomb wrote:
< What I would really like, however, is to hear this cantata sung one-per-part -- ... >
Listening, now for the second time, I agree that this would make a splendid offering with just four individuals performing. I've read through the comments in the books I have here. Chafe terms this one of the 'ascent' cantatas. The progression of theological ideas inherent in the expression of a simple childlike faith--even though the work does not end on the dominant makes for a complete and coherent totality. I found the structure of the opening section fascinating, and agree with Schweitzer's comments that the bass was left out of the independent sections in the opening as the bass is often playing the part of the voice of Christ. Then, the bass is picked up in Aria number 5 and with some considerable drama. This seems to create anticipation, musically.The exciting opening lines in the final chorus and the rhythmic change on the last two phrases seem to me to offer a cantata here with quite a bit of variety in the scoring.

Maybe the final chorus, however, would be best as a chorus, rather than with just four voices. Just a thought...

Neil Halliday wrote (December 24, 2007):
Jean Laaninen wrote:
> Maybe the final chorus, however, would be best as a chorus, rather than with just four voices.<
As it happens, this final chorale (Mvt. 6) is, according to Robertson, the only case in the cantatas where we have five part (S1S2ATB) vocal harmony.

It certainly creates the effect (to me) of being more like a concerted choral movement, with the initial alternation of material between the upper and lower voices, and the rich orchestral timbre - horn and oboes with S1, violins 1 with S2, violins 2 with alto, etc.

This is one of Rilling's most 'immediately beautiful' cantatas, IMO, with every movement a gem.

Note the regular pattern of continuo octave leaps in the 1st (triple time) and 3rd (4/4 time) movements.

The opening movement (Mvt. 1) (in C minor) is imbued with solemnity and sadness, with wonderful changing harmonies at the end of the chorale phrases (reminiscent of BWV 93, which has the same chorale melody). Descending phrases on the strings tie in with octave swings in the continuo.

The alto aria (Mvt. 3) (Eb major) is utterly charming, with its accompanying obbligato organ and oboe da caccia parts. As already noted, death was seen as the great liberator from earthly cares, so the easygoing, lighthearted mood of the piece is not incongruous to the text ("all my afflictions will disappear in the grave").

The accompanied recitative shows a lovely touch with the word painting on "Flügel her" - upward demisemi figures on the first violins.

The string orchestration in the bass aria (Mvt. 5) (G minor) is at first wonderfully fervent ("Gute Nacht"), giving way to agitated phrases on "Weltgetümmel".

Concluded by the richly harmonised final chorale (Mvt. 6), this cantats offers sheer listening delight (without a fugue in sight!).

Peter Smaill wrote (December 24, 2007):
[To Neil Halliday] BWV 27 was one of Gardiner's [8] most successful performances from the cantata pilgrimage of 2000, perhaps because the superimposition of solo voices and chorale in BWV 27/1 (Mvt. 1) and the dramatic "weltgetuemmel" of BWV 27/5 (Mvt. 5), plus the metre of the final chorale (Mvt. 6), all of which offer opportunities for vivid affekt.

It is unusual in many ways -apart from no fugues or canonic writing. The Dürr comment I find arresting is that the recitiative interpolations in BWV 27/1 (Mvt. 1) are the only instance in all Bach of recitative in triple time.

Overall the tendency in Bach to associate archaism with death is apparent. The use of the Rosenmüller chorale is a case in point, as are the quotation from Erdmann Neumeister in the aria BWV 27/3 (Mvt. 3), and the overall sentiment of the text, dwelling on preparedness for death at any moment. Although a fine example of the Baroque sentiment of the "ars moriendi", the origin of this form of contemplation lies in medieval mysticism. Perhaps the intensity of the emotional effect is the fact that the first daughter of Bach's second marriage to Anna Magdalena had died only a few months before the composition of "Wer weiss".

As previously mentioned, Bach also (largely) borrows a chorale for another Cantata for this Sunday, BWV 8/6, "Herrscher ueber Tod und Leben", by Daniel Vetter, I recall a Leipzig predecessor. The Rosenmüller chorale was originally composed for the early-deceased daughter of the Archdeacon of Leipzig, Abraham Teller in 1649, according to Schulze.

There are for me two other resonances. The use of alternating solo voices in BWV 27/1 (Mvt. 1) recalls the sublime "Nun ist der Herr zu Ruh' gebracht" , again a series of personalised meditations, which occurs towards the close of the the SMP. The dramatic alternation of wordly chaos and heavenly peace of BWV 27/5 (Mvt. 5) is reminiscent of the dialogue in BWV 67/6, "Friede sei mit euch".

This is a Cantata in which Bach is employing a diversity of texts and musical devices yet the theological message is remarkably unified and the whole so satisying in conception that one wishes that more had been written so as to achieve, as it were, such unity by inclusion. Although debated with some scepticism by Dürr, the proposition in all the circumstances that Bach himself arranged the libretto cannot be discounted.

Terejia wrote (December 25, 2007):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< As it happens, this final chorale (Mvt. 6) is, according to Robertson, the only case in the cantatas where we have five part (S1S2ATB) vocal harmony.
It certainly creates the effect (to me) of being more like a concerted choral movement, with the initial alternation of material between the upper and lower voices, and the rich orchestral timbre - horn and oboes with S1, violins 1 with S2, violins 2 with alto, etc. >
I enjoy profound and someln beauty of this chorale (Mvt. 6). Interesting that the last few sections have different rythm.

< (snipped)
The opening movement (
Mvt. 1) (in C minor) is imbued with solemnity and sadness, with wonderful changing harmonies at the end of the chorale phrases (reminiscent of BWV 93, which has the same chorale melody). >
If I remember BWV 93 correctly, I suppose its opening chorale, with the same chorale melody, was in C-minor, too, the skey with the closing chorale of St. Matthews Passion (BWV 244) and funeral chorale of St. Johanness Passion (BWV 245) "Ruht Wohl" ?

By the way, I wonder if BWV 27 is Doria key? Not sure...

< (snipped)
The alto aria (
Mvt. 3) (Eb major) is utterly charming, with its accompanying obbligato organ and oboe da caccia parts. As already noted, death was seen as the great liberator from earthly cares, so the easygoing, lighthearted mood of the piece is not incongruous to the text ("all my afflictions will disappear in the grave"). >
I concur. I personally find profound serenity of liberation in this aria.

< (snipped)
Bass Aria (
Mvt. 5), with two definitely contrasting sections is attractive for me, too. >
By the way this is one of the few I have collection to hand. I have Leonhardt version. I personally enjoy Boy's pure flavour of voices, though I think I could enjoy technically refined flavour of adult choir as well if I have access to such rendition...

Overall, I like profound serenity of this cantata, although serenity is not the only elements/factor in this gem masterpiece, IMHO.

peace of this holiday season be with you

Neil Halliday wrote (December 27, 2007):
Uri.Golomb wrote:
>I've re-listened to two recordings: Richter's [3] and Gardiner's [8]. As often happens, Gardiner's Pilgrimage version is my favourite, both over Richter and over other versions I've heard in the past. I did enjoy listening to Richter's version: the grandiloquent monumentality, especially in the opening chorus (Mvt. 1), is not entirely inappropriate. But Gardiner's attentiveness, his keen attention to small details which merge into a coherent, dramatic whole is ultimately more moving and compelling.<
I concur with this; my impression is that those recordings that treat the opening movement (Mvt. 1) as an 'adagio' ( or create that effect) are more moving than Richter's [3]. In the former category I would include Rilling [4], Leonhardt [2], Koopman [9], and Gardiner [8].

In the more lighthearted alto aria (Mvt. 3), I find Rilling [4] has the most attractive 'concertante' organ timbre; the others seem subdued by comparison - indeed (on a quick listen to the short mp3 sample), Gardiner [8] seems to have replaced the organ by a harpsichord, thereby losing much of the charm offered by the organ accompaniment, as heard in Rilling.

Richter [3] does shine in the lovely final chorale (Mvt. 6), with an expressive performance that features marked variation in dynamics - not easy to pull off successfully.

Neil H. (listening to a strong performance of a solo violin sonata on wkcr.com: thanks for the details, Teri).

 

Continue on Part 3

Cantata BWV 27: Details & Complete Recordings | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Recordings & Discussions of Cantatas: Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Cantatas BWV Anh | Order of Discussion

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