Thomas Braatz wrote (July 8, 2002):
BWV 10 Meine Seel erhebt den Herrn [Bach’s own spelling of the title]
It is amazing that many of my commentary sources on the Bach cantatas have so little to say about this splendid cantata. This begins with Spitta, who has only a short comment on the text and continues with Schweitzer’s analysis of a motif or two and continues with nothing significant in the Wolff/Koopman, “The World of the Bach Cantatas,” or in the Eric Chafe books. Dürr has his usual comments in his book that were also the basis for the commentary included in the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt series .
For this cantata I wish to submit as a historical perspective a summary of the discussion by Woldemar Voigt, a Bach scholar who was well-read at the beginning of the 20th century (I know that Schweitzer does refer to this work.) Voigt’s book is a practical primer directed at primarily church choir directors who might be considering a performance of a cantata. I am almost always surprised by the ‘cut and slash’ methods that Voigt recommends for the Bach cantatas, this at a time when audiences were listening to Bruckner and Mahler symphonies and went to the opera to experience Wagner!
Voigt begins his discussion of BWV 10 by calling this cantata “an excellent work, that seems to have been neglected,” but in the bass aria Bach overdoes the attempt to illustrate with word painting the words, “hinunterstoßen” [“to thrust down”] and “erhöhen” [“to raise up.”] Because this treatment is ‘of such a lower niveau’ [“auf einem niedrigeren Niveau”], the entire mvt. can easily be removed from the cantata without doing any damage to the composition as a whole.
There are few soprano arias in the Bach cantatas that are as powerful as this aria, but, nevertheless, it is possible to jump from measure 13 on p. 289 to ms. 9 on p. 291 [I am including these numbers although I do not know which edition he is referring to – this is done mainly to give you an idea of what Voigt is recommending.] If necessary, drop the introductory ritornello when repeating this section.
The beautiful duet is somewhat boring because the same figure is used over and over. It will be necessary to work carefully with phrasing and dynamics to overcome this deficiency.
The tenor recitative is splendid, particularly after the entrance of the string orchestra, and the expansive final chorale is impressive as well.
The 1st mvt (introductory chorale mvt.) has a somber splendor and the change of voice part of the cantus firmus [from soprano to alto] is very effective as well as the canonic section which introduces the coda that expresses with celebratory harmonies the “Seligpreisung” [“glorification.”]
In summary: a work of the highest caliber, which I heartily recommend for performance.
So much for the Voigt analysis and recommendation.
In addition to the Dürr discussion in his book on the Bach cantatas, I also recommend reading Robin A. Leaver’s article on this cantata found in “The Oxford Composer Companions: J.S. Bach [Boyd]”
My own theory, based on my observations, is that no commentator that I know of has gone beyond simply pointing out that the cantus firmus changes from the soprano to the alto in mvt. 1. Why does Bach do this? I think this is quite unique in the Bach cantatas. This leads me to suspect that there must be a special reason for this. Yes, it has happened that Bach would shift the c. f. to a voice part other than the usual soprano c. f. for an entire mvt.: in BWV 3 (1st mvt.) it is in the bass and in BWV 7 (1st mvt.) it is in the tenor part. But just what is Bach doing here by shifting the c. f. in mid-movement from soprano to alto? He is illustrating Mary’s submission to God’s will as a handmaiden of the Lord. This lowering of the chorale melody from a higher part to a lower one demonstrates genuine humility. Bach lowers the entry level of the voice by a fifth, and yet you can hardly notice that this has happened. This movement downwards adumbrates the fall to the deepest point in the bass aria (mvt. 4.) Actually, you can think of this cantata moving down from the top of one mountain into the deep valley below and then gradually ascending again to the top of another mountain. Here is how Bach moves in and out of the valley below:
Mvt. 1 The soprano carries the c. f. beginning with ms. 13 and the alto takes over the c. f. a fifth lower at ms. 46. This is the beginning of the descent.
Mvt. 2 This soprano aria is at its highest point (the 1st section) a strong praise of God’s power, but in the middle section things begin to change in a downward direction as there is a recognition of one’s lowly state.
Mvt. 3 In the tenor recitative, God’s mighty arm will scatter the lukewarm believers and disbelievers (a further weakening of those who have set themselves against God. Those with pride and arrogance are knocked down.)
Mvt. 4 The bass aria: With the cello (b.c.) reaching the lowest string and the bass voice its lowest notes on “Schwefelpfuhl” [“Sulfur pit or pool”], we have now reached the lowest point in this cantata. [“Note the word-painting on “bloß und leer” (“bare and empty”) where Bach inserts the emptiness (rests) between these words.]
Mvt. 5 The duet: notice the contorted musical lines. Mankind is still in misery while God is contemplating “Barmherzigkeit” [“mercy”] which is yet to come in the form of Christ.
Mvt. 6 The tenor recitative lifts our hopes ever higher, particularly in the accompagnato section with the announcement of the birth of the Christ child (ms. 13) [“der Heiland wird geboren”] and “aus lauter Liebe” (ms. 18) [“out of pure love”] and finally in ms. 20-21 “daß Gottes Wort voll Gnad und Güte sei” [“that God’s word is full of grace and truth.”]
Although this mvt. ends with a minor third, in measure 20, the G major chord with which the entire cantata will end is already attained.
Mvt. 7 In the final chorale, Bach illustrates the final ascent to the top of the mountain (ms. 15-22) on the words, “und von Ewigkeit zu Ewigkeit. Amen” [“from eternity to eternity. Amen”] by using staggered entrances of ascending scale patterns beginning in the bass, then tenor, and finally alto. The final G major chord is the crowning achievement that the listener has been waiting for.