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Cantata BWV 87
Bisher habt ihr nichts gebeten in meinem Namen
Discussions - Part 2

Continue from Part 1

Discussions in the Week of May 13, 2007

Julian Mincham wrote (May 12, 2007):
Cantata BWV 87 - Introduction to Discussion - Week of May 13, 2007

CONTEXT

The third of the three cantatas which begin with an aria. See the comments under this section for cantata BWV 85.

THE CANTATA OF THE WEEK BWV 87
Bisher habt ihr nichts gebeten in meinem Namen
You have not, until now, asked of anything in my name.

Aria (bass)--recit (alto)--aria (alto)--recit (tenor)--aria (bass)--aria (tenor)--chorale.

The forty-seventh cantata of the cycle for Rogate. Librettist Mariane von Ziegler.

Of the seven movements of this dark and austere work only one, the tenor aria (Mvt. 6), is in a major key. The first and last are set in D minor and the spiritual depths this tonality brings out in Bach may also be found in the opening movements of C 101 in this cycle, and C 109 from the previous one. It is, certainly, the most severe of the three works that commence with a bass aria, somewhat surprising since the text offers less than one might expect in the way dark and of powerful images

The words of Christ are set in the two bass arias (Mvt. 1 and Mvt. 5). With the exception of the tenor aria (Mvt. 6), the tone is serious to the point of pontification. Whilst there are a number of these works in which one cannot escape the feeling that one is being lectured to, even pedantically, this seldom comes across more strongly than in this work; and doubtless the congregation would expect to get more of the same from the ensuing sermon!

But Bach, even when at his most sermonising, has the saving grace of redemptive optimism.

In this cantata the denouement arrives through the tenor aria (Mvt. 6).

The theme of the work is repentance and contrition. The seriousness of these actions is conveyed in a number of ways, not least by the instrumentation; bassoon, oboes and oboe da caccia are added to the usual strings and continuo. No flute, trumpet or horns here to lift the mood!

The opening aria (Mvt. 1) is powerfully minor and sombre in tone, the three oboes doubling the upper string parts. The attitude is accusatory with Christ, the bass voice, complaining that until now nothing has been requested in his name. It seems as if we are to have a ritornello or even a da capo aria, but nothing so traditional for the words of Christ! Once the bass voice enters there are no instrumental episodes; nor is there a repetition of the 'ritornello' at the end.

Musically there are a number of points of interest in this short movement. Firstly, note the rising interval of a 6th (D to Bb) in the string and voice entries. This is a simple but powerful and authoritative statement which Bach also makes use of (in the same key) at the beginning of the chorus for C 109. Secondly, although the piece principally conveys a sense of stern admonition, the three-note joy motive is used throughout. The tone is severe but not hopeless. The Saviour seems a little like an experienced schoolteacher; strict but not unkindly.

Finally, the feeling of the melodic lines and harmony is of continuous upward stretching. The symbolism may be of a reaching towards Jesus or of the effort required from the good Christian to grasp redemption---or, indeed, both. Whatever the effort, it will be worth it; and this is exactly what the tenor will tell us later.

The alto aria (Mvt. 3) is a penitent hymn of repentance-------forgive us, speak to us plainly and help us to become more faithful. The repressive minor mode still dominates and the oboes (da caccia) accentuate the mournful poignancy through the reiterated use of the three-note figure of weeping or sighing. But, as so often is the case with Bach's music, it is not as straightforward as it seems.

The continuo has its own persistent figure of a rising arpeggio, giving the impression of firm rootedness combined with an 'upward seeking' as the instruments, on each utterance, strive to attain the upper octave. The words of the second line 'and bear with us even yet' is an obvious example of word painting as the singer tries, but seems unable to rise above the note of C (bars 14/16).

Similarly the text of the tenor recitative (Mvt. 4) mentions our guilt which 'Himmel steigt'---- to heaven climbs---and here the melodic line is characterised by upward leaps. The following twisted and tortuous line suggests the soul emerging from a condition of guilt and searching for the place of comfort which the final string cadence underlines.

Christ returns to address us in another arioso (Mvt. 5), now accompanied only by the continuo. His words are consequently clear and unimpeded by the complexities of contrapuntal texture. You have suffered, he tells his flock. But you should now celebrate and be happy because I have subdued the world! The sinuous writing for the continuo brings to mind Bach's portrayal of the devil in earlier works, notably the tenor arias in Cs 107 from this and 76 from the first cycle. There is no explicit mention of the devil in the text; but God's boast of overpowering the world implies a victory over Satan. The accompaniment is strongly suggestive of the bustling malevolence with which Bach often associates the devil.

The darkest of moods may be allayed by Bach's ability to convey different feelings simultaneously but it has to be admitted that so far this work has hardly been a hymn of jollity. However, everything changes with the tenor aria (Mvt. 6). It is still not an outpouring of pure joy; that would hardly be credible within the architecture of the whole piece. Nor would it adequately express the text which conveys a sense of balance; on the one hand we will expect to suffer, but on the other, Jesus will aid and calm us.

Schweitzer calls this aria 'one of Bach's most beautiful creations' (vol2 p334). Bach creates a pastoral mood generated by the dotted rhythms of 12/8 time (see also Cantata BWV 42 and the Christmas Oratorio). He takes the Italian ritornello structure as his model but he transcends it. He creates an impression almost of sublime improvisation as the violin and voice weave their gentle melodies around each other and the peaceful and unquestioning certainty of Christ's comfort is quietly celebrated. This is the keystone of the cantata, an expression of quiet acceptance rather than of extrovert jubilation.

The closing chorale (Mvt. 7) seems to have been one of Bach's favourites he used it on several occasions (Cs 66, 8) and the motet Jesu Mei Freude where it forms the opening and closing movements.

Here it returns us to the reflective mood of the minor key and an opportunity to consider the moral of the 'lecture'. Why should I continue to be careworn? If Jesus truly loves me, my worst sorrows will be turned to joy.

Clearly, a thought for the devout Eighteenth Century Lutheran to conjure with!

Link to the cantata page: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV87.htm

Douglas Cowling wrote (May 13, 2007):
Cantata BWV 87 - Opening Aria (Mvt. 1)

[To Julian Mincham] Here again we have another cantata which begins with a bass solo as the Voice of Christ, following the pattern of these Easter season cantatas drawn from the Gospel of John.

I was surprised that the opening aria concludes so abruptly. After that wonderful sinfonia introduction, I expected a repeat at the end. I can't think of a comparable aria which ends so bluntly -- is there a missing da capo here?

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 13, 2007):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
>>I was surprised that the openingaria concludes so abruptly. After that wonderful sinfonia introduction, I expected a repeat at the end. I can't think of a comparable aria which ends so bluntly -- is there a missing da capo here?<<
We have both the autograph score and the original set of parts for this cantata. They do not show a 'da capo' here. Part of the problem here could be that 'dicta' are not considered true arias.

Peter Smaill wrote (May 13, 2007):
The curt ending of BWV 87/1 (Mvt. 1), "Bisher habt ihr nichts gebeten in meinem Namen", discussed between Doug Cowling and Thomas Braatz, is indeed a puzzle. There are many dicta settings elsewhere in the Cantatas but IMO they do not terminate abruptly as this, albeit the normal da capo treatment of the arias is also absent as well.

Without contradicting in any way the observation that treatment of the arioso "vox Christi" is differentiated from aria settings, there is a clue to a possible further reason for the oddity of this setting. Ludwig Finscher observed:

"As in Cantatas 85 and 86, the words of Christ are set polyphonically, however , the style is not archaic and motet-like but rather in the completely free form of an instrumental quartet movement, into which the bass pours his pronouncements with constantly and ever differentiated composed repetitions".

This quartet -like quality and the meandering variability of the vocal line hint to me at any rate that this work may have originated as a purely orchestral number (now lost) from Cöthen. Further support is in the manifestly imperfect setting of the text to the music: "Bisher", the emphasis of the opening Spruch is subsequently gabbled in the lower register. All this suggests an original obbligato instrument was involved in lieu of the Bass line.

Entirely speculatively IMO - it wold be one played an octave higher, possibly a trumpet; try whistling the bass part at this pitch to feel the effect . Certainly the ending remains problematic but that is due to a truncation of the piece in its adapted form to fit the text, since further development of the instrumental theme is precluded by the ending of the dictum. The music is, despite the awkward setting, most attractive in the interweaving textures and the ascending pitch of the opening theme.

Reactions to this line of reasoning - pro or anti or with other ideas on the peculiarity of BWV 87/1- are very welcome !

Douglas Cowling wrote (May 14, 2007):
Peter Smaill wrote:
< Entirely speculatively IMO - it wold be one played an octave higher, possibly a trumpet; try whistling the bass part at this pitch to feel the effect. Certainly the ending remains problematic but that is due to a truncation of the piece in its adapted form to fit the text, since further development of the instrumental theme is precluded by the ending of the dictum. The music is, despite the awkward setting, most attractive in the interweaving textures and the ascending pitch of the opening theme. >
The opening does feel like a sinfonia but the vocal part is so integral in that range that I find it hard to envisage it an octave higher. I can't think of any movement by Bach which has a trumpet in a minor key in this type of polyphonic movement.

I also have to confess that I don't find this cantata dour and depressing at all.

Neil Halliday wrote (May 15, 2007):
BWV 87

In the first movement (Mvt. 1), I don't think the important motif that first appears in the violas (+ woodwind) has been mentioned - the `rolling' extended 1/16th note figure that thereafter alternately appears with increasing frequency in the 1st and 2nd violins. This movement is deeply felt because of the richness of its contrapuntal structure. Julian has mentioned the other two motifs, ie, the quaver plus two semi-quavers figure (not really a `joy' motif, in this movement), and the figure beginning with a leap of a sixth.

The alto aria (Mvt. 3) is very moving. In Richter's [2] (with Reynolds) 10 minute plus performance, the expression of guilt and contrition is almost oppressive unless one is in a sympathetic mood. Rilling [4] (8 mins. plus) is fortunate to have Julia Hamari, who is my favourite singer in this aria.

Robertson has reservations about the second bass `aria': "The sixfold repetition of the first clause and the rather close-knit vocal writing make this number a little disappointing".

I think I agree with him; the initial promise of the ritornello's interestingly chromatic continuo line seems to get lost in a somewhat convoluted vocal line.

Everyone seems to agree that the tenor aria is exceptionally beautiful, and there should not be a recording of it that fails to please. I like the rich strings in Richter's version [2], as well as Schreier's magnificent voice.

Werner has a lovely, gentle performance of the final chorale, one that is steeped in sorrow. I almost long for the music to end on the minor chord, in order to maintain the `tear-drop' minor-key tonality (D minor) right to the end.

Neil Halliday wrote (May 16, 2007):
BWV 87: second bass aria (Mvt. 5)

I expressed some reservations about it yesterday, but after studying the score and playing this aria a few times, I have come to appreciate it.

The continuo line in the ritornello (C minor) presents the basic thematic material of the whole piece, being repeated in a variety of keys throughout the movement - knowing and hearing this, I find the vocal line begins to make sense. After its second repetition, the ritornello theme in the continuo is extended and varied somewhat, but thereafter it is repeated (a further five times) unchanged in form but in different keys.

In the second section (after 6 repetitions of "In the world have you angst"), the words "but be comforted" (repeated 5 times) are set above the ritornello theme in a major key (Eb). The third section set to "I have the world overcome", has the ritornello theme in the keys of G minor and then finally twice in the original key of C minor; but the G minor and first C minor repetition are separated by a bridge passage consisting of a rocking figure in the continuo, to a repeat of the words "be comforted". Long melismas set to "overcome" accompany the ritornello theme, first in G minor, then finally in C minor.

The Werner recording inspired me to spend some more time with this aria. The continuo line is very clear (except that I would like to more clearly hear the "rocking" continuo figure referred to above), and I think the reason for the clarity is that Werner appears to have dispensed with the double bass (probably a smart idea in most continuo only arias), and makes do with cellos (at least two, by the sound of it) and harpsichord. Kelch has sufficient clarity of pitch to clearly articulate his `melody'.

From the samples, Harnoncourt [3] comes closest to this clarity (no violone), but I don't like van der Meer's weird trill on "Angst"; the BGA has no trill here but I believe Tom, in previous discussions, inferred the NBA has trills indicated. The tempo is faster than desirable, IMO.

Rilling [4] has a thick, shapeless continuo line (not unusual) with double bass; Richter [2] has a nice organ realisation which does however tend to obscure the vocal and continuo lines; Leusink's continuo string(s) [5] sound coarse (not unusual) - and while Rilling has too much legato, Leusink has too much staccato. Koopman's [7] continuo has the usual rattly noises with soft, unclear string pitch.

Those are my current impressions of the recordings, subject to change, no doubt.

Paul T. McCain wrote (May 16, 2007):
What cantata are we talking about this week?

What one was it that we are supposed to be discussing this week?

Aryeh Oron wrote (May 16, 2007):
[To Paul T. McCain] BWV 87. It appears at the Home Page of thBCW.

Peter Smaill wrote (May 19, 2007):
BWV 87, "Bisher habt ihr nichts gebeten"

Back to the drawing board on the peculiarity of BWV 87/1. Even though it ends on a major chord, and very occasionally Bach writes for the trumpet in the minor ( e.g, BWV 76/7,14, BWV 48/1, also ending on a major chord) , I can see there is force in Doug Cowling's scepticism that a trumpet line could have pre-dated the awkward Bass adaptation. Another wind instrument is possible, but as there already are two types of oboe at work, it is hard to see what could hold its own against the rest of the orchestration. And yet, is this piece entirely new?

There are two other aspects which suggest further that it is a reworking. Firstly, as Whittaker points out, the balance between the sinfonia-style opening and the rest of the movement is most odd; the orchestral introduction takes up one third of the movement. Secondly, the first bar (nine notes) of the counter-theme, which begins the Cantata before the main ( noble leap of a sixth) orchestral/vocal theme is heard is somewhat familiar. It is the same motif as the contrapuntal figure which forms the initial subject of Fugue 20 of Book 1 of the WTC.

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 19, 2007):
Peter Smaill wrote:
>>Back to the drawing board on the peculiarity of BWV 87/1....And yet, is this piece entirely new?... There are two other aspects which suggest further that it is a reworking....<<
The information contained in NBA KB I/12 (Alfred Dürr) establishes rather conclusively that no previous compositions served as a basis for any part of BWV 87.

1. The autograph score is a composing score throughout. If all or any portion were derived from an earlier source, this would be apparent because Bach's handwriting/notation would be more deliberate and there would be only few, if any errors.

2. The watermarks (there are two different ones for the score) indicate that it belongs to the group of cantatas based upon von Ziegler's texts.

-----

As Dürr also points out in his Bach Cantatas book, Bach added the text and music for the 2nd recitative ("Wenn unsre Schuld..."), a recitative which does not exist in von Ziegler's text. Dürr suggests that this might have been done to create a smoother transition from the previous aria to the following dictum, perhaps also to break or loosen up the rather strict sequence of aria - arioso - aria. Dürr also suggests (in the NBA KB) that by inserting this recitative, Bach establishes the cantata once and for all as being a unit, not as von Ziegler had suggested that her cantatas could be split easily into two parts with one part performed before the sermon and the other after. With von Ziegler's division, each part of the cantata would begin with a dictum and mvt. 5 "In der Welt habt ihr Angst..." would follow the sermon as part 2 of this cantata.

Peter Smaill wrote (May 19, 2007):
[To Thomas Braatz] Thank you Thomas for responding on BWV 87/1. I agree there is no support for a pre-existing work from what is stated about the manuscript ; and yet, the puzzle of the cramped word-setting and the curt ending remain.

The comparison of the opening motif with the theme of WTC Book 1 Fugue 20 came from notes I made some years ago. I find on checking that my source is Herman Keller who states :

"Its subject Bach used again later, slightly altered, when he made it the basis of the opening chorus [sic] in his Cantata , "Bisher habt ihr nichts gebeten in meinen Namen."

That much is the case in respect of the opening arioso, but of course the inclusion of a fugal theme from the past is not the same as an entire work having been adapted.

Douglas Cowling wrote (May 19, 2007):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< The information contained in NBA KB I/12 (Alfred Dürr) establishes rather conclusively that no previous compositions served as a basis for any part of BWV 87.
1. The autograph score is a composing score throughout. If all or any portion were derived from an earlier source, this would be apparent because Bach's handwriting/notation would be more deliberate and there would be only few, if any errors. >
Why must this response to a perfectly legitmate question be couched in such condescending and dogmatic terms? Why not express it as "The weight of evidence suggests that ..." rather than a rap on Peter's knuckles?

Nothing in your rebuke is it all "conclusive".

There is no surviving earlier work, but the style of the opening introduction does suggest an instrumental model. We will never know, so there is no harm it letting the hypothesis stand as speculation.

Why would Bach's handwriting be necessarily different if he was arranging from a pre-existing work? If anything, fiddling with an arrangement is more likely to produce errors. And again, why not present your opinion -- for that is what it is -- as a hypothesis rather than as a dictum from Sinai?

Back to the music, I'm still curious why Bach chose not to repeat the opening section. If it hadn't ended in the tonic major I would be tempted to say that there is a missing da capo. The abrupt ending is so unlike Bach. Are there any comparable models out there? Even Christ's ariosos in the Matthew Passion are shaped with short conclusions.

Is there perhaps a reason suggested by the text? I can't see one.

Curiouser and curiouser ...

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 19, 2007):
Peter Smaill wrote:
>>The comparison of the opening motif with the theme of WTC Book 1 Fugue 20 came from notes I made some years ago.<<
These correspondences between motifs used in Bach's keyboard music, normally not associated with the cantatas, I believe are quite important. They may yield clues to the possible thought or emotion (based upon the cantata text at that point) that Bach may have had in mind when reusing the motif. Knowing about such a text connection could serve as as additional aid to the keyboard interpreter.

There is, for instance, a strong resemblance between the motif beginning in m 23 of the fugue in BWV 882 (Book 2 of the WTC, #13) and a cantata mvt. which I am unable to recall at the moment. The latter was discussed in the first round of discussions. Perhaps a search for BWV 882 on the BCW will point to that cantata discussion.

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 19, 2007):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
>>Nothing in your rebuke is it all "conclusive".<<
Howver, hypotheses advanced by Bach experts who have contributed much to Bach scholarship carry more weight than those who have not examined the scores and parts more closely in light of more recent research. For all their valuable contributions to Bach scholarship, Whittaker, Terry, Spitta, Schweitzer, Schering, to name a only a few, had greater difficulties in distinguishing various forms of handwriting, in dating the watermarks, in determining the proper chronology of Bach's works, etc. From this standpoint, Alfred Dürr's conjectures, based upon a closer, more scientific investigation of the original sources, can be considered to have a higher likelihood of 'being correct' than those of others who have not worked directly with them using modern methods of investigation. Realistically, it is necessary to assess hypotheses which contradict directly Alfred Dürr's observations as being less likely hypothetically, not unlikely or impossible, but simply with a lower probability of being likely. This evaluation could indeed change in a split second, if you can specifiy the music from which Bach derived BWV 87/1. There will still remain the problem why Bach was having an extremely bad day working from one of his earlier scores so that it appeared that he was working from scratch.

Douglas Cowling wrote (May 19, 2007):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
>> Nothing in your rebuke is it all "conclusive".<<
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< Howver, hypotheses advanced by Bach experts who have contributed much to Bach scholarship carry more weight than those who hnot examined the scores and parts more closely in light of more recent research. >
I had no idea that you had actually examined the Bach manuscripts yourself! No wonder your opinions are so definitive.

Peter Smaill wrote (May 19, 2007):
[To Thomas Braatz] Yes indeed, the WTC: Cantata reference is to the wonderful duet BWV 154/7 , "Wohl mir, Jesus ist gefunden" where even a four note motif is on hearing a related device to the countersubject in BWV 882, the Fugue from Book II no.13. Thank you for this .

Keller, in his book ,"The Well Tempered Clavier of Johann Sebastian Bach" misses this Cantata connection but relates that figure to the suggestion of a gavotte. This apercu also suits the AT duet, which speaks of blessedness and glad time ("frohen stunden").

Neil Halliday wrote (May 20, 2007):
Peter Smaill wrote:
<"The comparison of the opening motif with the theme of WTC Book 1 Fugue 20 came from notes I made some years ago. I find on checking that my source is Herman Keller">
I noticed this too, but I wondered if it was better to regard the motif in 87/1 as one limited to five notes (rather than the 1st nine notes of the Book 1 A minor fugue) , since this 5 note motif appears straightaway successively in the violas, continuo and 2nd violins - and in the case of the 2nd violins, this 5-note motif, twice repeated, forms the cental section of the three bar `main theme', ie, the theme beginning with the upward leap of a sixth that /is first heard complete in this 2nd violin entry.

Using this scheme, one notices that the counterpoint between the 2nd violins and continuo, in the first three bars, is repeated between the 1st violins and 2nd violins, in the next three bars. At the same time, in the first three bars, the viola repeats variants of the five-note motif a total of four times, before presenting what turns out to be the second most significant motif in the whole piece, put to good use in the `upward striving' of the violin parts later in the movement.

For these reasons I tend not to regard the coincidence of the first nine notes of the WTC fugue theme with the first nine notes in the viola part in 87/1, as signifying an actual "quote" on Bach's part - as seen above, it is the first five notes in the viola part that form the significant (repeated) unit in 87/1.

Re a possible instrumental forbear for 87/1, I notice the bass (vocal) part moves in line with the continuo part in quite a few places, but beyond that I have no further clues to offer.

I love the increasing fervour in the vocal line toward the end, leading up to the bass adopting a melisma of almost continuous 1/16th notes on the word "(ge)-bet-(en)". The ending is certainly abrupt, but maybe the artistic effect remains intact?

Lex Schelvis wrote (May 20, 2007):
Peter Smaill wrote:
< Yes indeed, the WTC: Cantata reference is to the wonderful duet BWV 154/7, "Wohl mir, Jesus ist gefunden" where even a four note motif is on hearing a related device to the countersubject in BWV 882, the Fugue from Book II no.13. >
I always thought that the fugue of BWV 882 has strong links with the duet BWV 32,5 (Nun verschwinden alle Plagen). Cantate BWV 32 is also a cantata for the first Sunday after Epiphany, only two years later than cantata 154. This can't be a coincidence.

Julian Mincham wrote (May 23, 2007):
[To Lex Schelvis] Bach repeats himself explicitly so rarely that one is always tempted to believe that it is considered with good reason ,rather than accidental. I remember calling attention to a reference of this sort in two cantatas from early in the current cycle performed a fornight apart.

Another interesting one comes in BWV 16/3 where the rhythmic structure and certain phrases seem to refer specifically to Brandenburg 6/1.

Ed Myskowski wrote (May 23, 2007):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< [re BWV 87/1] I love the increasing fervour in the vocal line toward the end, leading up to the bass adopting a melisma of almost continuous 1/16th notes on the word "(ge)?bet-(en)". The ending is certainly abrupt, but maybe the artistic effect remains intact? >
The artistic effect certainly works for me, but how do we begin to suggest whether it was intended by Bach? For future discussion at some point, I especially enjoy the comparison with BWV 86 for the same theologic event (the approaching Ascension) from the previous yearly cycle in 1724.

It is as if Bach, after the interruption of the chorale cantatas for whatever reason, has gone back to last year's ideas and sought ways to tighten them up, add to the artistic intensity. The impending Ascension of Jesus is fulfilling for Him, but a bit abrupt for those left behind?

 

Continue on Part 3

Cantata BWV 87: Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | 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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