Cantata BWV 9Es ist das Heil uns kommen her
Discussions - Part 2
Continue from Part 1
Discussions in the Week of August 31, 2008
Stephen Benson wrote (August 31, 2008):
Introduction to “Es ist das Heil uns kommen her” BWV 9
What a difference a week makes!
Textually, we're on familiar ground. The issue this week, as it was last, is justification by faith alone. The "No one can inherit/Or acquire/Through deeds Your grace" of last week's BWV 177 becomes the "Good deeds no longer help us/They cannot protect us" and the "Lord, rather than at good deeds, You look/At the heart's strength of faith/ Only faith is acceptable to You/Only faith justifies us" of this week’s BWV 9. Works are meaningless. Only faith counts.
Musically and structurally, however, we enter another universe.
Last week's cantata opened with the usual chorus before proceeding through three arias to a closing chorus. There were no recitatives -- not one! This week's cantata opens and closes with the usual two choral movements. However, they are separated here by two arias and THREE recitatives -- three recitatives whose function may encompass, according to Eric Chafe, nothing less than "a complete summary of Lutheran doctrine regarding the roles of Law, Gospel, and faith in salvation." Moreover, the recitative which constitutes the very center of this cantata -- "Doch musste das Gesetz erfullet werden" ("Yet the Law had to be fulfilled") -- again according to Chafe, "deals with Jesus' [sic] incarnation and fulfilling of the Law, the message of the Gospel."
"Es ist das Heil uns kommen her" BWV 9 is another of those cantatas written after the fact, composed sometime in the early 1730's with the express intent of filling a gap in the 1724-25 chorale cantata cycle, a gap caused by Bach's absence from Leipzig for the 6th Sunday after Trinity in 1724. The text is based on a 1523 hymn consisting of 14 verses by Paul Speratus, the subject of which is justification by faith alone. Whoever prepared the text for "Es ist das Heil" condensed those 14 verses into 7, some commentators suggesting a numerological significance in the fact that the number 7 was associated with Jesus in the Book of Revelations. Verses 13 and 14 of the hymn, metrical versions of the doxology and the Lord's Prayer, were eliminated altogether. Verses 1 and 12 were incorporated intact as Mvt. 1 and Mvt. 7 of BWV 9. Verses 2-4 of the hymn were condensed into the first recitative (Mvt. 2), verses 5-7 into the second recitative (Mvt. 4), and verses 9-11 into the third (Mvt. 6). A paraphrase of verse 8 became the soprano/alto duet (Mvt. 5). The tenor aria (Mvt. 3), an extension of the hymn's fourth verse, reinforces the picture of degradation dominating the first recitative.
Durr points out that the three recitatives are all given to the bass, and suggests the analogy of a preacher's sermon interrupted by two interludes (the Mvt. 3 aria and Mvt. 5 duet) for contemplation. Melamed suggests that the assignment of all three recitatives to the bass voice perhaps represents the voice of God and is a reflection of the theme of the recitative texts, i.e., the Law and its fulfillment. All three are secco recitatives except for the arioso last line of Mvt. 4.The work is scored for an unusual combination of SATB chorus, two different woodwinds (transverse flute and oboe d'amore), strings, and basso continuo.
The relevant texts for BWV 9 are the Gospel text for the day, Matthew 5: 20-26, whose theme is Christian fulfillment of the law, and the Epistle, Romans 6: 3-11, which stresses the freedom from sin afforded by the crucifixion.
Setting aside the recitatives for the moment, the remaining movements, the ones on which most listeners seem to focus, have their own attractive characteristics.
The choral first movement (Mvt. 1) is typical of Bach’s chorale cantatas -- a cantus firmus melody in the sopranos, imitative lower vocal parts, and independent instrumental writing. The woodwinds play in concertante style against the strings, although, at times, they bend a little and include the first violin in the concertante group.
The tenor aria (Mvt. 3) -- "Wir waren schon zu tief gesunken" – represents the depravity of humankind. Its "…downward striving figures on the violin and syncopated rhythms symbolize the reeling plunge into the abyss of sin" (Alfred Durr) or, as Daniel Melamed in the Oxford Composer Companions "Bach" suggests, it "…presents its anguished text in a particularly tortured melodic line."
The melodic contours of the flute and oboe opening of the fifth movement (Mvt. 5), a duet for soprano and alto, evoke thoughts of the first movement's opening ritornello. Running semiquaver passages abound, chasing each other around in reckless abandon. Here, in the duet, flute and oboe play canonically, the voices enter with their own canon, and a succession of vocal and instrumental canonic exchanges ensues, at times resulting in a complicated, but delightful, double canon, demolishing once and for all the myth that counterpoint has to be academic and dull. As Alfred Durr states in his liner notes to the Leonhardt recording : "What is so amazing about this movement is the ease with which Bach solves all the problems created by this strict counterpoint without the listener's even being aware of the strictness of form." Or, in the words of Chafe, "…the covering up of the learnedness with an unusually appealing intertwining of the melodic lines is the foremost 'message' of the movement, breathing life and warmth into what might otherwise appear as abstract theological dogma."
Along with commentary from the usual sources, our understanding of BWV 9 is enhanced by its selection by Eric Chafe for examination in his "Analyzing Bach Cantatas". Intent on demonstrating the inherent link in the cantatas between Lutheran scriptural text and music, between the religious experience and the aesthetic, Chafe subjected several cantatas to intense scrutiny. Among those was "Es ist das Heil uns kommen her", which he placed squarely in the context of "satisfaction" theory, the Lutheran doctrine that man's inability to satisfy God's just demands -- the Law -- resulted in the crucifixion by which Jesus offered himself as sacrifice, thereby 'satisfying' his Father's demands and allowing the faithful to go free. In other words, man does not have it within himself to justify himself by his works, but only by his faith. As Chafe points out, the first recitative (Mvt. 2) of "Es ist das Heil" focuses on Man's inability to fulfill the Law:
God gave us the Law,
but we were too weak
To be able to keep it;
We walked only in the ways of sin,
and the second recitative (Mvt. 4) outlines the fulfillment brought about by the crucifixion and man's subsequent reliance on faith:
Therefore the Savior of the earth came…
And stilled his Father's anger.
Through His innocent death…
Whoever, then, trusts in Him,
Whoever builds on His sufferings,
He will not be lost.
The third recitative (Mvt. 6) "summarizes the roles of Law, Gospel, and faith in the believer's hopes for the afterlife." It is in the central placement of the recitatives, then, that the core of this cantata may be found. The arias provide amplification and reinforcement of their theological foundations. The tenor aria (Mvt. 3) intensifies timage of the weakness of man, and the soprano/alto duet (Mvt. 5), addressing God directly, reinforces the insufficiency of works and the primacy of faith.
Musical factors providing greater reinforcement to the text lie, according to Chafe, primarily in the progression of keys throughout the cantata and in the utilization of modal characteristics to emphasize specific textual references. The flatted seventh of the Mixolydian mode, for example, on the word 'uns' ('us') in the first phrase of the cantus firmus suggests man's humility. The tonal plan centers on the setting of the cantata in E major, the sharpest of the keys Bach uses in any of the cantatas. This enables him to construct a progression of keys in a descending/ascending sequence. Beginning in E major, the cantata modulates downward through B minor to E minor before turning around and heading upward through B minor and A major until arriving back at E major, mirroring the descent of man into sin before his ascent to salvation through his faith in the redemptive power of Jesus's crucifixion. The combination of modal writing with what was then a 'modern' major scale went hand-in-hand, as well, with the modal origins of the chorale hymn and its transformation into an eighteenth-century scale-centered work. That Bach employed these stylistic relationships to accentuate the scriptural message can be seen in the manifestly different incarnations of the D's and the D-sharp's in the cantata. Chafe outlines in fascinating detail the affective implications of the appearances of those tones in both their Ionian and Mixolydian modalities -- the subdominant 'flattening' of the Mixolydian used in the 'descent' versus the 'ascending' leading-tone function of the major-scale D-sharp (Ionian), particularly in re-establishing the fundamental E major key at the conclusion of the cantata. The subtle but immediate shift from D to D-sharp in the bass after the first fermata of the closing chorale encapsulates this dichotomy perfectly.
All of this was designed, according to Chafe, to facilitate reaching the "goal…of bridging the gap between scripture and faith" through aesthetic means. Bach's incorporation of modal techniques in a cantata such as "Es ist das Heil", at a time when a relatively modern scale-centered tonality was being refined, is an example of his "probing every musical parameter for its capacity to increase the expressive subtlety of music."
As usual, links and much information with respect to the texts, recordings, musical examples, and provenance of "Es ist das Heil" can be found from the first round of discussions at: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV9.htm
As an archetype of the chorale cantata, BWV 9 merits close attention for its musical values, its theological content, and for the ways in which they work together. I hope many of you will contribute to this week's discussion. Comments and observations on all aspects of the music and/or noteworthy performances are encouraged.
Douglas Cowling wrote (September 1, 2008):
"Es ist das Heil uns kommen her" BWV 9 - Violin solos
Stephen Benson wrote:
< "Es ist das Heil uns kommen her" BWV 9 is another of those cantatas written after the fact, composed sometime in the early 1730's with the express intent of filling a gap in the 1724-25 chorale cantata cycle, a gap caused by Bach's absence from Leipzig for the 6th Sunday after Trinity in 1724. >
The opening chorus in E major (Mvt. 1) asks for a very high register for both the flute and the first violin. The flute goes up to a hgh f# - higher than even the B minor Brandenburg. And the first violin to a high E. That's not as high as the Laudamus Te which asks for the super high a, but that's still unusually high.
What struck me is that the violin part in the tenor aria (the BG full score does not mark concertate or solo) is so LOW, including such novelties as double-stopping on the G string. There are other "low" string parts (such as "Zion hört" in "Wachet Auf",) but they are often marked 'tutti' for all the violins and violas.
It's very unusual writing for the violin - along with the 12/16 time signature! Are there any violinsts among us who can analyse what Bach is doing technically in regards to positions and string placement?
On another note, Bach's most extensive theological meditation on the Law and the Gospel is probably the motet, "Jesu, Meine Freude" in which the chorale verses alternate on verses from Romans, which is the nexus of the
theology. The motet may be Bach's most "theological" work.
Jean Laaninen wrote (September 1, 2008):
Stephen Benson wrote:
< The tenor aria (Mvt. 3) -- "Wir waren schon zu tief gesunken" – represents the depravity of humankind. Its "…downward striving figures on the violin and syncopated rhythms symbolize the reeling plunge into the abyss of sin" (Alfred Durr) or, as Daniel Melamed in the Oxford Composer Companions "Bach" suggests, it "…presents its anguished text in a particularly tortured melodic line." >
Of all of the selections in this cantata, Mvt. 3 particularly caught my ear.
The opening sequences rising and falling in variation (I have not pulled the score, but this apparent to my ear) build tension wonderfully for the text. I have listened to this particular movement three times with the Rilling, and find it engaging and exciting...dramatic to say the least. Melamed's comment calling this a particularly tourtured melodic line is an excellent description. Bach was often a genius at capturing the emotion of the struggle of life. This seems more and more apparent to me as I continue week by week to listen to these extraordinary works.
Peter Smaill wrote (September 2, 2008):
[To Jean Laaninen] Stephen Benson rightly draws attention to the doctrinal outlook of the Chorale behind this Canata. It is one of the most Lutheran of all, not only insistent on "sola fide", justification by faith as distinct from salvation by good works, but also in the final verse introducing the Lutheran interpretation of the divine as a hidden God.
In these late and temporally separate Cantatas it would be surprising to find any common thread, most being infills in the existing cycles. Indeed some contend that, despite the statements after Bach's death that there were five cycles, in practice there are only three.
In these late works it is perhaps not just coincidental that features recur. The use of very high and very low registers is an example , as observed by Doug Cowling, a feature also of the soprano writing in the outlier BWV 51. We have the remarkable high trumpet writing in the final Chorale of BWV 120, arguably the last choral setting created by Bach.The high pitch and octave override to "Wachet auf" is another example, with the curious doubling of bar lengths. Higher, lower, slower, more mystical, more absolute than what has gone before.
It is as if Bach on these rare occasions for further composition is still extending the impact of the Cantata form (of course not often described thus by him) , creating these final statements at the end of Trinity, for the Council,and in other forms too- in the B Minor Mass (BWV 232) and the Art of Fugue (BWV 1080). In this Cantata the theological position is likewise highly defined. As previously mentioned, where Bach composes a cantata around a Chorale per omnes versus he only ever sets a given author once, as if creating a representative collection. Paul Speratus' chorale may well have been a vital gap in his programme due to absence from Leipzig on the 6th Sunday in Trinity many years before.
This Cantata may well have influenced Johannes Brahms for he sets (very attractively IMO) it in motet style with canonic entries rather in the style of Bach himself.
Continue on Part 3
Cantata BWV 9: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3