Cantata BWV 57Selig ist der Mann
Discussions - Part 3
Continue from Part 2
Discussions in the Week of May 10, 2009
Francis Browne wrote (May 9, 2009):
BWV 57 Introduction
BWV 57 Selig ist der Mann : Introduction
Faute de mieux
Everybody on this list who has appreciated Kim's introductions and earlier contributions will share my regret that personal circumstances have made it too difficult for him to do the introductions for the next few weeks.
I harbour no illusions that I can match what he might do either in insight or in technology. But to avoid disruption in the weekly discussions I'm happy to fill a gap -and would-be equally happy to stand aside if any other member of the list should want to introduce any of the cantatas which are coming up .
(BWV 248/2; BWV 64; BWV 133; BWV 151; BWV 248/3)
There is as always, thanks to the indefatigable industry and enthusiasm of Aryeh, a wealth of information and resources about the cantata conveniently available at: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV57.htm
This week's cantata may seem surprisingly sombre for the 2nd Day of Christmas. There is no reference at all to the birth of Christ. It is in fact a cantata for St Stephen's Day and from the very beginning is concerned with the theme of martyrdom. Previous discussions dealt thoroughly with the place of St Stephen in the Lutheran tradition, and therefore I shall not discuss the topic here. The text dates from 1711 and is by Georg Christian Lehms, the court poet of Darmstadt. The cantata was performed on 26 December 1725 It takes the form of a dialogue between Jesus and believing soul. Bach himself described the two solo parts -base and soprano - as Jesus and Anima.
There is a strong tradition in Christianity in portraying the relationship between Jesus and the believer in terms of a love story, often using erotic language and imagery. Much of the symbolism is taken from the Song of Songs and is common in many mystical writers. It is perhaps a tradition with which many people today no longer feel easily comfortable, but for our purpose what matters is that this tradition enabled Bach to write music that is close to opera with agitated recitatives and passionate arias.
Members of the list who are not familiar with this cantata will find it very worthwhile getting to know this music. This is one of those cantatas where each individual movement is excellent and contributes to a unified whole.
I have made extensive use of John Eliot Gardiner's excellent notes  which are available on the internet at :
Mvt. 1: bass aria or arioso
This is setting of words from the Epistle of James : 'Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life' (James 1:12). As Dürr points out stephanos is the Greek word for crown, and so this alludes to Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose fest is being celebrated.
Commentators remark that this movement is more like an extended arioso than an aria. Dürr says :
No doubt quite intentionally, the introductory ritornello lacks a firm thematic profile. And the three vocal sections that follow exhibit textual and musical correspondences that do not coincide but rather overlap:
Text: I 2 2
Music: A Al B
The dominating impression, however, is made by the expressive voice part, with its broadly swinging melodic line and its long-held notes, whose falling or rising sequence creates the effect of repose (`blessed', `crown') and enhancement tested') respectively.
John Eliot Gardiner gives a helpful description :
It begins with a weaving quaver motif after a silent beat which is passed between the top three instrumental lines and then appears in inverted form to the continuo, one detached quaver then the next four under a slur suggesting a second beat emphasis. It recurs in one voice or another in almost every bar, often in association with a heart-wrenching falling chromatic figure strongly suggestive of the physical affliction of the martyr over a pedal point representing his unflinching faith in God's support. At one point Bach silences his instruments to reveal the martyr pursuing his solitary course in a measured rising scale, despite his persecutors and on the way to receiving the 'crown of life'
To give a more personal reaction : in its measured, restrained beauty this wonderful music seems to express both the sorrow and difficulties of existence and at the same time a fundamental reassurance.
( Before dismissing this as sentimental exaggeration I would ask you to listen with full attention to Barry McDaniel's performance with Fritz Werner.)
Mvt. 2: soprano recitative
The text -with a worm writhing in its blood and a lamb surrounded by a thousand [!]savage wolves -may seem today bizarre or even comic in its exaggeration, but it draws from Bach a powerful setting Dürr perceptively observes : "In accordance with the dialogue character of the text, the dramatic component is more clearly evident than in other church cantatas. This applies to, Bach's setting no less than to the libretto. The recitatives are closer to their original function in opera, namely that of advancing the plot. Each is a plain secco that forms a transition to a new affect, spaciously treated in the next! aria."
.. Again Gardiner comments:
Now we are offered another chance to savour Bach, with never an opera to his name, as the best writer of dramatic declamation (recitative in other words) since Monteverdi. The soul (soprano) responds to Jesus' words via extravagant harmonic progressions and with mixed emotion: relief at the comfort He offers, then identification with the martyr ('endless suffering in pain... [my heart] writhes like a worm in its blood') giving way to vulnerability, pathos and trepidation ('I must live like a sheep among a thousand savage wolves'
Mvt. 3: soprano aria
This moving aria is in my opinion the finest movement in the cantata. The soul makes a plea for death sooner than the withdrawal of Jesus' love. The aria is cast as a dance in C minor . Gardiner comments that it is "even slower and more sarabande-like than the preceding bass aria, and is one of those tragic triple-time dances at which Bach excelled (one has only to think of the closing choruses of both Passions). So closely woven are the clusters of expressive motifs shared between the upper three parts that it is sometimes quite hard to identify the individual lines. These are the gestures of genuinely tragic utterance and show a passing affinity to Handel's writing in the same vein ."
Again I am not ashamed to confess that when this music is well performed -as it is by Agnes Giebel with Werner and Arleen Auger with Rilling  - I find it inexpressibly moving:
Only I discern
Infinite passion, and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn.
Probably I have quoted Browning's words before - and no doubt I shall do so again - but they are less inappropriate than any formulation of my own.
Mvt. 4: Bass/ Soprano recitative
In a brief dialogue Jesus reaches out his hand to the soul who accepts his 'pledge of love'
Mvt. 5: Bass aria
Gardiner imagines the good burghers of Leipzig, who were intent on celebrating Christmas, feeling great relief at the drastic change of mood in the bass aria, where Jesus,possessed of divine energy, promises to 'schlagen' the soul's enemies.
Again Gardiner's analysis is helpful : he describes this aria "If still not exactly festive, it is a show-stopping battle cry, reminiscent of the fifth Brandenburg Concerto (first movement) in the way the first violins' repeated semiquavers propel the action forwards purposefully. Thesee pass to the continuo as Jesus refers to the soul's enemies 'who always accuse you before me', and Bach finds magnificent swordslashing gestures for the upper strings to make: downward-chopping sixths and sevenths in the violins, upward-cutting diminished chords in the bass line.
Gardiner's own performance  is splendid here. Whereas McDaniel and Werner,for example, do their 'schlagen' decorously and with deliberation, Gardiner and Peter Harvey clearly leap on their enemies like a whirlwind and rapidly shake them to bits. A great contrast -and great fun.
(You can hear this at: http://www.solideogloria.co.uk/shop/shop_item15.asp)
Mvt. 6: Soprano /bass recitative
Mvt. 7: Soprano aria
Another powerful, operatic declamation. Again the text reads strangely today - Wohl denen , die im Sarge liegen - but as Dürr remarks : "This love of the hereafter (`Blessed are those who lie in their coffin'), with which we can scarcely sympathize any longer today, also pervades the following aria, no. 7, whose words `Swiftly I end my earthly life' are clothed by Bach in music of aching, passionate bliss. The first bars of the violin solo depict this `end' as a wild gesture of letting oneself fall into the arms of, Jesus.....In Bach's setting of the words `Mein Heiland, ich sterbe' ('My Saviour, I die' from the second half of the aria, the mystical love of Jesus and of death finds perfect artistic form such as it very seldom achieves. Logically, the aria lacks a da capo, ending in the relative major, B flat, with the question `What will You grant me?', to which the following four-part chorale, no. 8, gives the response for the Christian, faith signifies deliverance from death .
Gardiner comments :The rapturous aria (Mvt. 7) which ends this fine cantata calls for a singer with considerable acrobatic agility. It is an allegro movement in 3/8 in G minor with a fiery gypsy air for the violin obbligato, celebrating the soul's yearning to leave earthly life by means of wild gestures of abandonment - three-fold octave drops, syncopations and profligate melodic invention. The aria ends abruptly with no forewarning, no da capo and no closing ritornello, just a plain question ending with a rise of a sixth, the soul asking Jesus, 'What dost Thou give me?'. It is like a child demanding to know 'Where is my Christmas present?' - yet without petulance.
Mvt. 8: Chorale
Having arranged the sudden stop at the end of the last aria Bach answers the question by adapting Lehms text : the chorale chosen by Lehms was from the hymn Gott lob, die Stund ist kommen by Johann Heermann (1632). Instead Bach uses words of the sixth verse of the hymn Hast du denn, Jesu, dein Angesicht gänzlich verborgen-described as a `Seelengespräch mit Christo', a `Conversation of the Soul with Christ'-by Ahasverus Fritsch. The believer is promised eternal life in heaven after the pains of martyrdom).
[I have been unable to find this chorale text to translate in my usual sources. If any one has the text, I would be very grateful if they could send me a copy]
I think this alteration of the text indicates clearly that Bach conceived the cantata as a whole and carefully planned the emotional progression of the music from beginning to end.
It is idle speculation and of course we would not want to be without the works Bach did produce but a cantata such as this leaves me wondering what Bach might have produced had circumstances been different and he had the opportunity to compose operas. The whole history of the genre might have been quite different.
The rest is silence ...
Since I last introduced a cantata for the BCML the list has continued to grow and now stands at 870 -ie it has trebled in size since I first joined and it is possible to foresee the day when Aryeh can announce that membership has reached a thousand. Yet there are still only half a dozen or so members who contribute regularly to the weekly discussion. Although I greatly appreciate the commitment and insight of these regular contributors, I cannot help thinking that the list would be richer if a wider range of people, some of the silent majority, joined in the discussions. If you have heard this marvellous cantata before or get to listen to it this week, or if you have performed this music, why not share your reaction with others?
(With so many new members it may be worthwhile mentioning again that it is possible to listen online in full to three recordings of BWV 57 - Rilling , Koopman  and Gardiner  - on Naxos Music Library. It may be worth checking if you have access in any way - my local council Liverpool cannot be the only public library which subscribes to the service )
Douglas Cowling wrote (May 10, 2009):
BWV 57 Why St. Stephen?
Francis Browne wrote:
< This week's cantata may seem surprisingly sombre for the 2nd Day of Christmas. There is no reference at all to the birth of Christ. It is in fact a cantata for St Stephen's Day and from the very beginning is concerned with the theme of martyrdom. Previous discussions dealt thoroughly with the place of St Stephen in the Lutheran tradition, and therefore I shall not discuss the topic here. >
Has there been any scholarly discussion of why Bach chose to write this cantata for St. Stephen's Day rather than the 2nd Day of Christmas which is celebrated by the other Dec 26 cantatas: BWV 40, BWV 121 and BWV 248/2? It's clear that in 1725 St. Stephen was commemorated not the 2nd Day of Christmas. Who determined which set of readings was used? Was St. Stephen celebrated on certain years and not on others? It couldn't have been Bach's choice alone as the cantata and sermon had to be linked.
It makes a huge difference for us commentators: the Stephen cantata is a Christ/Soul dialogue which springs from the account of the martyr's death, whereas the Christmas cantata take the Incarnation and and the praise of the Shepherds at Bethlehem. The two themes could not be more apposite. There's a tradition in play here that even Dürr doesn't address.
Ed Myskowski wrote (May 10, 2009):
BWV 57 Introduction (weekly discussion)
Francis Browne wrote (in conclusion):
< there are still only half a dozen or so members who contribute regularly to the weekly discussion. Although I greatly appreciate the commitment and insight of these regular contributors, I cannot help thinking that the list would be richer if a wider range of people, some of the silent majority, joined in the discussions. >
This point has been made by more than half a dozen of us (I believe, without checking the archives) from time to time! OTOH, in any given week, six folks is quite wide participation. From time to time, in my experience (three years or so), encouraging participation has had positive results, so I second (or more?) Francis entreaty.
For the ultimate beneficiary of thinking, and writing your thoughts, about the music, try a search of BCW for Browne and Apuleius, and ponder the result.
Ed Myskowski wrote (May 10, 2009):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< It makes a huge difference for us commentators: the Stephen cantata is a Christ/Soul dialogue which springs from the account of the martyr's death, whereas the Christmas cantata take the Incarnation and and the praise of the Shepherds at Bethlehem. The two themes could not be more appos. There's a tradition in play here that even Dürr doesn't address. >
It also makes a significant difference for those of us who only ponder the issues (OK, occasional (informal) commentary): the Incarnation (with Crucifixion already predestined), and subsequent veneration of martyrdom, is not simple stuff for a 21st C. (09 ECE) science-oriented dude (Oldish Dude, to boot) to apprehend, let alone comprehend.
I stand by my previous comment: by the 2nd Day of Christmas, the bloom of the rose is not quite so fresh as yesterday. OTOH, the entire cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, is harmonious with earlier religious traditions, as well as the 4.56 BY record of (tilted, wobbly) Earth Circuits. Ongoing, thanks be to nobody yet screwing it up completely. Not to say we should not keep trying.
Neil Halliday wrote (May 10, 2009):
Francis Browne wrote:
> BWV 57 Selig ist der Mann : Introduction <
Thanks to Francis for this introduction, and the comments on the music's emotional impact - an aspect that is sometimes ignored on this list.
Indeed the cantata might be seen, in modern terms, as a mini opera about the reconciliation of two lovers; or alternatively, listening to Rilling's fine recording , I imagined the music of the first movement as the funeral music of a beloved king, such is the nobility that tempers the deep sorrow.
Francis Browne wrote (May 10, 2009):
Doug Cowling wrote:
"Has there been any scholarly discussion of why Bach chose to write this cantata for St. Stephen's Day rather than the 2nd Day of Christmas which is celebrated by the other Dec 26 cantatas: BWV 40, BWV 121 and BWV 248/2? It's clear that in 1725 St. Stephen was commemorated not the 2nd Day of Christmas. Who determined which set of readings was used? Was St. Stephen celebrated on certain years and not on others? It couldn't have been Bach's choice alone as the cantata and sermon had to be linked."
The same question more or less was asked by Doug in the previous discussion:
"This appears to be the only time that Bach used the St. Stephen's Day readings as a basis for a cantata. Do we know why? Who made the decision which set of readings was used?"
The earlier discussion established that St Stephen was indeed part of the Lutheran tradition, but no reason for the choice of alternatives on this particular day in 1725 emerged from the discussion. Perhaps all we can do is conjecture that in most years the day would be celebrated as part of Christmas , but in 1725 whoever was responsible -and that could not be Bach by himself- chose the alternative . In consultation with Bach ?- no evidence seems to exist , unless we see the alteration of the last movment as a sign that Bach was actively involved and not a passive recipient of somebody else's decision. It is a very subjective argument but the quality of music in the cantata suggests to me that this was music Bach wanted to write.Perhaps having written BWV 40 and BWV 121 in previous years and being attracted by the possibilities of Lehms text -which had been available for some years- he welcomed or even suggested the choice of Saint Stephen.But all this is merely speculation. It would indeed be interesting if anyone knows of scholarly discussion of this topic.
Neil Halliday wrote (May 10, 2009):
It's interesting that Gardiner sees an affinity with Handel in the 3rd movement; Auger (with Rilling ) certainly reminded me of Upshaw in Theodora's aria (which I posted to the list some time ago), specifically because of the powerful emotion of both arias. But whereas Bach's music expresses a deep longing (which implies the possibility of a positive outcome), Handel present a bleakness that is total, similar Dido's lament in Purcell's opera.
Did Bach's devotion to his God preclude him from expressing such total bleakness as we hear in the Handel and Purcell arias?
Fortunately, Bach as always wanted to convey to his listeners the advantages of a relationship with a loving God, hence the change in mood in the remainder of the cantata. This was Christmas, after all.
John Pike wrote (May 10, 2009):
[To Francis Browne, in response to his original message] Thanks, Francis, for a superb introduction and for stepping in when Kim so sadly had to pull out. I join others in thanking Kim for his excellent introductions.
One of my early encounters with this cantata was during the BBC Bach Christmas Celebrations. I will never forget hearing this music coming over the air waves one morning as I was shaving before going to work. When it ended, my wife and I just looked at each other in almost total disbelief at how beautiful was the thing we had just witnessed. The cellist in my string quartet later remarked to me that he, too, had found the experience particularly extraordinary. It was probably due to a combination of factors, including the quality of the music and of the recording. The recording in question was by Helmut Winschermann,  on this page (http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV57.htm) and I went to some length to acquire this now deleted recording. Unfortunately, it has never had quite the same impact on me since as it did on that morning. However, I look forward to listening to it again, and other recordings, this week. It is certainly a very beautiful piece of music.
Aryeh Oron wrote (May 11, 2009):
Thomas Braatz provided for this discussion a section from From Friedrich Smend’s J. S. Bach Kirchenkantaten, Berlin, 1947, V. 46:
»Nach dem Heiligen-Kalender ist der 2. Weihnachtstag dem ersten Märtyrer, Stephanus, der 3. dem Evangelisten Johannes gewidmet. Luther wollte zwar, daß diese beiden Tage stets allein als Weihnachtsfesttage gefeiert würden; die lutherische Kirche aber hat sich nicht immer und nicht überall danach gerichtet. Zu Bachs Zeit galt auch in Leipzig der 26. Dezember gelegentlich als Stephanstag: das sehen wir aus der dem 2. Weihnachtstag gewidmeten Kantate Nr. 57 „Selig ist der Mann, der die Anfechtung erduldet". Das ganze Werk bezieht sich auf das Martyrium, weihnachtliche Klänge fehlen vollständig. Ähnlich steht es mit unserer Kantate [Kantate Nr. 64 „Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget"] In ihr erklingt zwar die Schlußstrophe von Luthers Weihnachtslied „Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ" aber der Gedanke an den Evangelisten Johannes, den Apostel der Liebe, beherrscht gleichwohl das Ganze.«
[According to the calendar listing all the saints’ days, the 2nd Day of Christmas is dedicated to the first martyr, St. Stephen, and the Third Day of Christmas to the evangelist, St. John. To be sure, Luther did want these two days of Christmas to be celebrated only as Christmas feast days; however, the Lutheran churches did not always comply with Luther’s wishes (sich richten nach = to keep to or follow rules) in all places or at all times. In Bach’s time, also in Leipzig specifically, December 26 was occasionally celebrated as St. Stephen’s Day, as can be seen from Cantata 57 “Selig ist der Mann, der die Anfechtung erduldet” which was dedicated or devoted to the 2nd Day of Christmas. The entire work is related to the martyrdom of St. Stephen and any musical associations with Christmas are missing entirely. The same is true with the cantata under discussion here (Cantata BWV 64 “Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget”). Yes, you can hear in this instance the final verse of Luther’s Christmas chorale “Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ”, but ththoughts focusing on the evangelist St. John, the apostle of love, nevertheless dominate the entire work.]
Douglas Cowling wrote (May 11, 2009):
Aryeh Oron wrote:
< In Bach’s time, also in Leipzig specifically, December 26 was occasionally celebrated as St. Stephen¹s Day, as can be seen from Cantata 57 ³Selig ist der Mann, der die Anfechtung erduldet² which was dedicated or devoted to the 2nd Day of Christmas. >
I asked a Lutheran historian on another list, and he was also unable to provide a rationale for the switch between St. Stephen's Day and the 2nd Day of Christmas. I suppose an examination of the verger's records would
list which day was celebrated during the years of Bach's tenure and might reveal a pattern.
Jean Laaninen wrote (May 13, 2009):
Francis Browne wrote:
< BWV 57 Selig ist der Mann : Introduction >
Quoting Francis: To give a more personal reaction : in its measured, restrained beauty this wonderful music seems to express both the sorrow and difficulties of existence and at the same time a fundamental reassurance.
...The depth of the first movement draws in the listener. I am always amazed after all this time at the manner in which Bach builds his contrasts from the text to his musical forms, as he does here. To the thinking mind there is always delight in the fact that Bach does not oversimplify in his process.
(Francis) The soul (soprano) responds to Jesus' words via extravagant harmonic progressions and with mixed emotion: ...
....Here again Bach continues the elements that pull within, simply and beautifully, continuing to draw in the listener.
Mvt. 3: The underlying rhythm in this movement reminds me of a heart beat. This is another indicator for me of the intensity of the emotion of love of the soul and the desire to please Jesus.
I love this aria, and the power of it. Martyrdom is something we don't know a lot about in this day and age--a topic we'd most likely have trouble seeing having any point in this day and age for many, and yet as Bach tells the story through notes and words there is an up side to the whole matter. The da capo feature of this movement makes a nice reinforcement. It simply wants the listener to dance within, if not without.
I love the uplifting scalar passages and Auger's interpretation in the Rilling edition. These bespeak hope to my mind.
A well known chorale, even today, brings this work to completion with a quality of reassurance.
Thanks Francis for informing us so that we can listen better.
Neil Halliday wrote (May 13, 2009):
John Pike wrote:
>Unfortunately, it has never had quite the same impact on me since as it did on that morning.<
Changing impressions are difficult to explain, sometimes.
Take three period SMP's I have heard.
Listening now (via the CD) to Butt's SMP, I find the interminable recitative to be completely boring, because of the uniformly gentle tap of the short accompaniment - no variety in expression at all. OTOH, I recall being impressed by Mc'Creesh's recitatives, but I'm not sure I want to check that impression right now (I don't have the CD).
Butt's chorales seem uniformly quick and expressionless, whereas I recall being impressed by Veldhoven's SMP chorales.
Butt's "Give me back my Jesus" comes accross like a quick, happy little dance, period - absolutely no demanding or desperation.
Overall impression: a work of small stature, totally reversing my impression of the recording from the amazon samples. Maybe a different impression is possible on another day.
Francis Browne wrote (May 13, 2009):
BWV 57: Mvt. 3
Neil Halliday wrote:
". whereas Bach's music expresses a deep longing (which implies the possibility of a positive outcome), Handel present a bleakness that is total, similar Dido's lament in Purcell's opera.
Did Bach's devotion to his God preclude him from expressing such total bleakness as we hear in the Handel and Purcell arias?"
When I read Neil's words, I remembered a remark made by a member of the choir in the documentary about John Eliot Gardiner's Bach pilgrimage to the general effect that living intensely with Bach's music for a year he found that whatever the mood he might be feeling there was some music of Bach which gave expression to that feeling.
But where does Bach express complete despair? I have in mind the sort of utterly bleak outlook to be found in - to add to Neil's examples - the final song of Schubert 's Winterreise, Der Leiermann or the final movement of the fourth Symphony of Sibelius .Certainly Bach expresses sorrow and suffering - eg out of so many- Erbarme dich or the final chorus from the SMP- and the opening chorus of BWV 20 expresses fear of damnation very forcefully, but not despair as such.
But in all the depiction of sorrow and suffering I can think of in Bach -besides the beauty of the music -there is always an element of prayer and supplication which means there is a counterpoise to the suffering and what else might be despair.
I suspect Neil is right but I wonder if anyone can suggest music where Bach expresses unmitigated despair.
Peter Smaill wrote (May 13, 2009):
Francis Browne wrote:
"Can anyone suggest music where Bach expresses unmitigated despair?" is an very interesting question.
Until the very last bars of BWV 48/1, "Ich elender Mensch", Bach sets the words "O miserable man that I am, who will release me from Death?" to a profoundly sombre, even grim, funeral march. But at the end , even though the vocal line slows by way of an almost excruciating augmentation, a solitary trumpet enters as if to answer the question from another world. It is at once the most harrowing and the most exhilirating settings of all Bach's many reflections on Death. But even here the gloom is arguably ?relieved by virtue of this interpretation.
Neil Halliday wrote (May 14, 2009):
Peter Smaill wrote:
>Until the very last bars of BWV 48/1, "Ich elender Mensch", Bach sets the words "O miserable man that I am, who will release me from Death?" to a profoundly sombre, even grim, funeral march.<
Yes, this chorus is a powerful expression of despair, especially in the Suzuki and Gardiner examples; both are 'adagio's around 5.55 min. [Rilling's fast tempo (4.09) sucks the emotion out of the piece, in contrast to his 75/3 where Rilling/Auger have one of the strongly emotional examples].
Thanks for mentioning this chorus.
As far as arias are concerned, BWV 114/2 "Where will in this vale of tears", in the outer sections, comes close to expressing total despair (Rilling/Equiluz, 9.05), though the sheer beauty of the music transcends the despair (like "Erbarme dich"), and the mood of the central section changes with the promise of Jesus' assistance.
Hmmm. Now I'm not sure if conclusions - whether Bach has expresssed the total despair that some other composers have expressed in music - can be drawn one way or another.
John Pike wrote (May 14, 2009):
Francis Browne wrote:
"Again I am not ashamed to confess that when this music is well performed -as it is by Agnes Giebel with Werner and Arleen Auger with Rilling - I find it inexpressibly moving:
Only I discern
Infinite passion, and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn.
Probably I have quoted Browning's words before - and no doubt I shall do so again - but they are less inappropriate than any formulation of my own."
And while on the subject of poets and despair, I wonder how Bach would have set these lines by that great poet and troubled Catholic priest Gerard Manley Hopkins:
NO worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother ous, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief 5
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing-
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked 'No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief'.
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap 10
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
Francis Browne wrote (May 14, 2009):
BWV 57: Bach and despair
John asked how Bach would have set one of Hopkins' sonnets of desolation. I find it impossible even to imagine. Circumstances sometimes meant that I have translated a canata text without having heard the music. When that happened I would try to imagine how Bach might set the words - but invariably when I came to listen to the music I would find .Bach's setting would show imagination and insight utterly beyond anything I could conceive.
For that reason it is impossible to know what Bach would have made of Hopkins, but I think also that Hopkins' distinctive style, his wrenching English by force is quite unlike any Bach text I have ever come across. It simply does not lend itself to being set to music -has any composer ever done so?
But John's questions set me thinking about how Bach might have set a poem nearer to his time (1774) and one that I have often regarded as the saddest, most despairing poem in English - the sapphics that William Cowper wrote in his insanity :
Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portion,
Scarce can endure delay of execution,
Wait, with impatient readiness, to seize my
Soul in a moment.
Damned below Judas:more abhorred than he was,
Who for a few pence sold his holy Master.
Twice betrayed Jesus me, this last delinquent,
Deems the profanest.
Man disavows, and Deity disowns me:
Hell might afford my miseries a shelter;
Therefore hell keeps her ever hungry mouths all
Bolted against me.
Hard lot! encompassed with a thousand dangers;
Weary, faint, trembling with a thousand terrors;
I'm called, if vanquished, to receive a sentence
Worse than Abiram's.
Him the vindictive rod of angry justice
Sent quick and howling to the center headlong;
I, fed with judgment, in a fleshly tomb, am
Buried above ground.
I wonder also what music Bach might have made of Andreas Gryphius' despairing view of Germany during the Thirty Years War :
Wir sind doch nunmehr ganz, ja mehr denn ganz verheeret!
Der frechen Völker Schar, die rasende Posaun
Das vom Blut fette Schwert, die donnernde Karthaun
Hat aller Schweiß, und Fleiß, und Vorrat aufgezehret.
Die Türme stehn in Glut, die Kirch' ist umgekehret.
Das Rathaus liegt im Graus, die Starken sind zerhaun,
Die Jungfern sind geschänd't, und wo wir hin nur schaun
Ist Feuer, Pest, und Tod, der Herz und Geist durchfähret.
Hier durch die Schanz und Stadt rinnt allzeit frisches Blut.
Dreimal sind schon sechs Jahr, als unser Ströme Flut
Von Leichen fast verstopft, sich langsam fort gedrungen.
Doch schweig ich noch von dem, was ärger als der Tod,
Was grimmer denn die Pest, und Glut und Hungersnot,
Daß auch der Seelen Schatz so vielen abgezwungen.
(WE are now wholly - nay more than wholly - devastated! The band of presumptuous nations, the blaring trumpet, the sword greasy with blood, the thundering cannon have consumed everyone's sweat and industry and provisions. The towers are on fire, the church is cast down, the town hall lies in ruins, the strong are maimed, the virgins raped, and wherever we look there is [nothing but] fire, plague, and death that pierces heart and mind. Here through the bulwarks and the town ever-fresh blood is running. Three times six years ago the water of our rivers slowly found its way past the corpses that almost blocked it; but I will say nothing of what is worse than death itself, more dreadful than the plague and fire and famine - that so many have been despoiled of the treasure of the soul.
Penguin Book of German Verse)
But I have long supected that poems of real literary merit are rarely set successfully to music- they do not need it- and it is often poems that by themselves are second rate that are enhanced by being set to music -see the song cycles by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Mahler -and -alas! -the texts of most cantatas.
Many thanks to Neil and Peter for their interesting examples of Bach's music expressing despair and perceptive comments.
(If anyone finds this thread too depressing, I suggest they might listen to the sinfonia and alto aria from next week's cantata :they are consolation for many sorrows)
Thérèse Hanquet wrote (May 14, 2009):
[To Francis Browne] I will just disagree with you on this
"But I have long supected that poems of real literary merit are rarely set successfully to music- they do not need it- and it is often poems that by themselves are second rate that are enhanced by being set to music"
Debussy, Fauré and Poulenc have composed marvelous music on poems of real literary merit (Ronsard, Mallarmé, Appolinaire, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Eluard, Max Jacob, ...).
Ed Myskowski wrote (May 15, 2009):
Francis Browne wrote:
< For that reason it is impossible to know what Bach would have made of Hopkins, but I think also that Hopkins' distinctive style, his wrenching English by force is quite unlike any Bach text I have ever come across. It simply does not lend itself to being set to music -has any composer ever done so? >
The Cantata Singers of Boston recently (May 8, 2009) performed a Britten radio cantata from 1937, and a premier, commissioned composition by Andy Vores. The Vores text includes the Hopkins poem Pied Beauty, and the program notes suggest that the text to the Britten, assembled by Richard Robert Ellis, also includes Hopkins, altough I do not see a specific citation.
I agree that Hopkins style is distinctive (unique?!), wrenching English, but some of the texts Bach set are also quite wrenching, as well. For example, Todenschweiss is imprinted on my memory, chilling my every pore.
Therese wrote (in reply to Francis);
< I will just disagree with you on this
<< But I have long suspected that poems of real literary merit are rarely set successfully to music- they do not need it- and it is often poems that by themselves are second rate that are enhanced by being set to music" >>
< Debussy, Fauré and Poulenc have composed marvelous music on poems of real literary merit (Ronsard, Mallarmé, Appolinaire, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Eluard, Max Jacob, ...). >
I see Francis point, in considering all the mediocre texts (not least some of those set by Bach) that have achieved immortality by piggy-backing the music. I agree with Therese that the counter examples are numerous. One of my favorites:
Walt Whitman, When Lilacs last in Dooryard Bloomed, set by Roger Sessions
Giving the sideways carets in the thread my very best effort,
Francis Browne wrote (May 15, 2009):
BWV 57: alchemy (was: Bach and Despair)
Thérèse Hanquet wrote :
"Debussy, Fauré and Poulenc have composed marvelous music on poems of real literary merit ."
There is not strictly a contradiction between this and my statement that poems of real literary merit is are rarely set successfully to music But Therese of course is making a perfectly valid point , which I can fully understand. One could add that there are excellent settings of Goethe, Heine and Schiller and other good poets among the songs of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms.
But among the 700 +lieder of Schubert, 246 of Schumann and 213 of Brahms how many of the texts would be read today without the music? I do not know the songs of Debussy and Poulenc well, but I have greatly enjoyed hearing Elly Ameling and Gerard Souzay singing the songs of Faure - yet I would be surprised if poets set by Faure such as Charles Grandmougin, Charles van Leberghe, Baronne Renee de Brimont and Jean de la Ville de Mirmont are still widely read.
But what I had in mind particularly -pardon my insularity! - was the contrast between the immense riches of English poetry and the paucity of successful settings of the best poetry. It may be my ignorance but I feel I have to scrape around for examples: Handel (Milton's L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, Dryden Ode on Saint Cecilia's Day) some of the settings by Vaughan Williams, Britten and Finzi - but they often succeed best with minor poetry ;a few songs by Barber......
To return to Bach: the experience of translating all the cantatas leads me to the conclusion that the géneral level of literary excellence of the cantata texts is not high, and with some of the secular cantatas it seems abysmal : trying to translate such texts into reasonable English was a truly penitential task.
Yet out of such dross Bach so often makes gold.
Thérèse Hanquet wrote (May 15, 2009):
Francis Browne wrote:
< [...] I do not know the songs of Debussy and Poulenc well, but I have greatly enjoyed hearing Elly Ameling and Gerard Souzay singing the songs of Faure -and yet I would be surprised if poets set by Faure such as Charles Grandmougin, Charles van Leberghe, Baronne Renee de Brimont and Jean de la Ville de Mirmont are still widely read. >
You sure got a point there, I never read one poem of those poets you mention before listening to Faure...
What I did not agree with was the "rarely" in your sentence ("But I have long supected that poems of real literary merit are rarely set successfully to music").
Of course it depends how you define "rarely"... In the CD of Mélodies of Fauré sung by Barbara Hendricks, more than half of the texts are by poets which we studied in high school (I agree that does not make them all first rate! but still...).
As far as I can judge, Poulenc and Debussy generally chose beautiful texts to set in music, most of them by known poets or writers, and in a range of different moods (I love Jean Nohain's hilarious text "Nous voulons une
petite soeur" for Poulenc!).
I also agree with you about the texts of many secular cantatas... Bach had merit to do what he did!
Douglas Cowling wrote (May 15, 2009):
Francis Browne wrote:
< To return to Bach: the experience of translating all the cantatas leads me to the conclusion that the géneral level of literary excellence of the cantata texts is not high, and with some of the secular cantatas it seems abysmal: trying to translate such texts into reasonable English was a truly penitential task. >
It's interesting that we still feel compelled to rank poetry as good or bad, rather than viewing it as an historical artifact. A hundred years ago, Tennyson was idolized and anthologized for innumerable pupils to recite. Today he barely squeaks into college histories of poetry.
So too with the Bach librettos. Why do commentators feel obliged to sniff at the cantatas, reserving special opprobrium for the secular texts? In fact, the pastoral poetry of a work like "Phoebus and Pan" would probably be held in higher esteem today by students of 18th century literature than all the church cantatas put together.
Let's be blunt about the facts. Bach chose the texts himself, often working with the poets personally to create the libretti. They were texts which expressed his deepest philosophical and artistic ideas: he was "inspired" by them, to use a Romantic term.
He was an artist shaped by his historical context, and there is little to be gained by scouring his works to find existential angst and despair and thus assert his "modernity."
He's Bach not Camus.
Kim Patrick Clow wrote (May 15, 2009):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< It's interesting that we still feel compelled to rank poetry as good or bad, rather than viewing it as an historical artifact. A hundred years ago, Tennyson was idolized and anthologized for innumerable pupils to recite. Today he barely squeaks into college histories of poetry. >
The very can be said about baroque music I suppose, with Bach's peers always coming out the poorer for the result? I believe Tennsyson was pretty much a staple until very recently (Robert and John Kennedy quote him in their speeches); Tennsyson was certainly required reading in my high school and college.
< So too with the Bach librettos. Why do commentators feel obliged to sniff at the cantatas, reserving special opprobrium for the secular texts? In fact, the pastoral poetry of a work like "Phoebus and Pan" would probably be held in higher esteem today by students of 18th century literature than all the church cantatas put together. >
Over Klopstock? Really?
Graupner's secular cantata texts are pretty bad, for what its worth Francis, but if you wish, I can send you some PDFs of the SACRED cantatas though!
Interesting thread ;)
Ed Myskowski wrote (May 16, 2009):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< He [Bach] was an artist shaped by his historical context, and there is little to be gained by scouring his works to find existential angst and despair and thus assert his "modernity." >
It is not so much seeking his modernity (this is in fact the first mention of that descriptor?), as seeking the universality of the human condition, which cuts across big chunks of space and time. Big, that is, from the human, not geologic perspective, I hasten to point out. We are the only critters who are aware (as best we can tell) of the inevitability of the death of the body.
Statements of what might survive from that body (mine, and yours) are indeed as much a matter of alchemy as theology. For a wonderful description of the need for Purgatory, once we have invented Heaven and Hell, I highly recommend the early chapters in <Last Things: Death and the Apocalypse in the Middle Ages>, ed. Caroline Walker Bynum and Paul Freedman, especially the paper by Peter Brown: <The Decline of the Empire of God: Amnesty, Penance, and the Afterlife from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages.>
Academics, even the best of them, are not noted for catchy titles? Rather than <Bach and despair>, I would suggest <Bach, the optimist>. Always finding a little wiggle room toward eternal bliss, no mater how bleak the immediate, Earthly, prospects. Todenschweiss, indeed!
>Let's be blunt about the facts. Bach chose the texts himself, <
Do we know this as fact, or even generally accepted scholarely opinion?
Ed Myskowski wrote (May 17, 2009):
BWV 57 Introduction (Bach and despair)
John Pike wrote:
< And while on the subject of poets and despair, I wonder how Bach would have set these lines by that great poet and troubled Catholic priest Gerard Manley Hopkins >
I am curious as to the source, that Hopkins was troubled. The same description occurs in the program notes to the Cantata Singers concert I recently referenced. Andy Vores describes Hopkins as a troubled Jesuit priest, in notes to his new composition (Natural Selection, just what that implies).
Is there biographic detail which confirms that Hopkins was troubled, or is that a euphemism for a personal characteristic which is not compatible with the priestly image? I did not turn up any dirt, on a quick google. Not exactly relevant, but just to head-off any specualtion: I have many Jesuit friends, via academic affiliations. Some are less troubled than others; all are intellectually precise, and all have treated me with spiritual respect. That respect is mutual, and spontaneous.
As to Francis accurate description of Hopkins language as wrenching, indeed it is. So is Bach's language, at its best. So is any language which looks deeply into the human condition (we know we are not immortal, as constructed for Earth - flesh is passing). What endures?
The Hopkins poem Andy Vores set is <Pied Beauty>, which begins:
<Glory be to God for dappled things -
For skies of cocolour as a brinded cow,
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim>
I speculate, imagine, that Bach would have loved the opportunity to set those words. I doubt that Hopkins was much troubled when he wrote them (but who of us know, with certainty?).
A bit (but only a bit) OT, I would also suggest the poetry of the (late) Bill Holm, recommended on these pages (and to me off-list) by Paul Farseth. Especially <Playing the Black Piano>, with respect to death and despair/humor. It is no small irony that Bill passed away after Paul recommended his words to us, but before I got around to following up.
The language is powerful: concise, precise, eloquent, and with a unique sense of humor. Informal and elegant simultaneously. Perhaps some future (or present?) Bach will set a few words to music? Even a Coltrane would suffice. If we should be so blessed, yet again.
John Pike wrote (May 17, 2009):
Now OT (Was Bach and despair)
[To Ed Myskowski] Thanks, Ed. I really enjoyed reading your e mail.
There are several poems by Hopkins that do suggest a very tormented mind. I have never studied English formally beyond the age of 16 but I always enjoyed reading Hopkins's marvellous poetry while a medical student, particularly poems such as the one you mentioned. I get the impression that his faith contributed to the torment he felt in his mind but I couldn't give any hard information on exactly why. Maybe he struggled to cope with feelings of sinfulness that many deeply committed Christians feel.
My original e mail was not meant in all seriousness, but I do think Bach would have made a very good job of setting poetry of such distinction to music.
Ed Myskowski wrote (May 18, 2009):
Bach and texts (was Now OT)
In order to avoid the jeapordy of continuing an OT thread, I have chosen a new subject line. I will be brief, in any case.
I appreciate John's response to my post, re the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Bill Holm, which was itself partly a response to Francis original mention of Hopkins. That was about the time when he referred to the task of translating Bachs texts as penitential. Francis has certainly earned my indulgences, and I was releieved to find that I am not alone in finding some of the poetry Bach set less (much less!) than poetic. Whether or not he was, indeed, responsible for the texts in most cases, seems to me to be an important (or at least interesting) and unresolved question.
I thought to simply let the thread expire, but as part of a radio program of complete Bob Dylan, I heard, from: [Come in She Said, I'll Give You] Shelter from the Storm:
<She promised me salvation, but she gave me a lethal dose>
Perhaps a drug reference, or a religious reference? Not always easy for me to distinguish, with certainty. The ambiguity is arguably intentional.
Because the Dylan radio show is arranged alphabetically (a unique approcah), Simple Twist of Fate soon followed, as I write. No question as to whether Dylan chose his own texts! His musical genius remains to be tested by time. Exactly the oppostite of our position re Bach.
John Pike wrote (May 19, 2009):
[To Ed Myskowski] Dylan is a master librettist. I just love those songs you mentioned.
I also love those lines that begin "I started off on Burgundy and then I hit the harder stuff"
Jean Laaninen wrote (May 19, 2009):
BWV 57: alchemy (was Bach and Desspair)
Francis Browne wrote:
< But among the 700 +lieder of Schubert, 246 of Schumann and 213 of Brahms how many of the texts would be read today without the music? I do not know the songs of Debussy and Poulenc well, but I have greatly enjoyed hearing Elly Ameling and Gerard Souzay singing the songs of Faure -and yet I would be surprised if poets set by Faure such as Charles Grandmougin, Charles van Leberghe, Baronne Renee de Brimont and Jean de la Ville de Mirmont are still widely read. >
---I am inclined to agree with Francis that the French poets are probably not widely read--at least among people I know. Among my music friends who love the French Art Song (I am included) I have friends who own the books of poetry (I do), but only during one year have I given these older poems much time. However, when the music is added, the richness is allowed to come out, and for those of us who love the recital venue there is an excitement to be found.
Bach certainly worked with texts that had meaning, and with those that did not as much, but his glorious ability to imbue the words with emotion as Francis suggests, did create gold.
Cantata BWV 57: Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3