Thomas Braatz wrote (May 16, 2001):
BWV 108 - Of ancient Greek armies advancing into battle; Of finding the 'middle ground' between Pietism & Lutheranism; Of the Holy Spirit controlling you as a puppeteer would a puppet; Of God as a hammer smashing rocks into bits; Of Bach's wife 'embracing' the Air used as the basis for the Goldberg Variations; Of Picander's 'meaningless pile of word-rubbish;' -- I never thought that this short cantata with only one of the three arias being really worthwhile, according to Simon Crouch, would lead into so many different directions. I hope you will find all this material as thought-provoking as I did.
One of this cantata's most interesting aspects, besides the great music that it contains, is the text on which it is based. When Spitta (1873 ff) wrote his comprehensive two-volume work on the life and compositions of J.S.Bach, he still had no idea (nor did anyone else) who the poet was, but he sensed that here was a poet of a different, higher caliber than Picander, whose texts Bach was to use later for numerous cantatas. It struck Spitta, that the manner in which the texts are written is quite noteworthy: the Bible quotations are more frequent, the poet returns again and again to unusual, graceful forms of poetry, the depth of feeling is greater and purer, and the thoughts expressed are more uplifting. Spitta mused, "One would like to know, if this is a new poet whose text Bach is now using, or if Bach, after having set to music and elaborated on the church chorales, had expressed his dissatisfaction with the "doch leeren Wortkram Picanders" (Picander's, after all is said and done, useless, meaningless pile of 'word'-rubbish) and as usable as they might have been, simply tried to improve on Picander's meager talent by ennobling the cantata text with his own more serious version of the text. In 1892 Spitta identified the book of poems by Christiane Mariane von Ziegler, the daughter of Franz Conrad Romanus, a former mayor of Leipzig, the existence of which book proved that Bach used her texts for the following cantatas: BWV 68, BWV 74, BWV 87, BWV 103, BWV 108, BWV 128, BWV 175, BWV 176, BWV 183. These cantatas become an exception to the rule, since they do not have an introductory choral mvt. Because Bach was given more freedom here in applying his talent than in the more restrictive cantata text based directly on the church chorales, these works belong to a category of compositions of unusual beauty. These are all thoughts paraphrased from Spitta's book. Modern scholarship attempts to reverse this harsh criticism of Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici) who supplied texts for a later sacred cantata cycle than the one for BWV 108. His most successful effort was the SMP (BWV 244). Christoph Wolff (2000) subscribes to the theory that a superintendent emeritus of the Thomaner School, Andreas Stübel, had been the 'librettist' for the 2nd Leipzig cantata cycle, Bach's first cycle of cantatas having been based on a similar libretto type much like von Ziegler's. But Stübel died before completing the cycle, and Bach was forced to look about for a replacement. Finally with Easter and the weeks that followed, he used von Ziegler exclusively. Bach's collaboration ended just as suddenly as it began, even though she even had the book printed which contained more texts, that Bach could have used. This was also the time when Bach no longer regularly produced full yearly cycles as we saw in the discussion of BWV 146. Perhaps there was criticism on a theological level: were the texts too pietistical, too revolutionary for the church hierarchy that remained more firmly on the side of strict Lutheranism?
Schweitzer (1905) sees a rejuvenated Bach as a result of being able to use these texts by von Ziegler: "Now Bach had opportunity to write fine ariosi and motet-like choruses" He reiterates Spitta's evaluation: "The texts are greatly superior to those of Picander." "As we read through the score, we fancy we can realise the delight with which Bach set to work on these new texts. He undoubtedly composed them all in one sequence."
Nicholas Anderson (1999) [Oxford Composer Companions: J.S.Bach - Boyd] calls von Ziegler, "a Leipzig poet and gifted amateur musician." And he says, "Bach departed from the chorale-based cantata with unifying theme [I assume he refers to the 2nd Leipzig cycle here], reverted to the more heterogeneous patterns of the previous Leipzig cycle [meaning, I believe, the 1st Leipzig cycle.] He also says, "Bach may have adjusted the texts to his own needs."
Some things that Bach changed were insignificant, others rather substantial. Here is what Bach changed:
1. Dictum 'hingehe, kömmt' becomes 'hingehe, so kömmt' The 'so' comes from the Luther Bible. Bach corrected the poet or needed an extra syllable.
2. Aria 'an gewünschten Port' becomes 'an erwünschten Port' not significant
3. Recit a major change from three lines compressed into two!! Originally:
Dein Geist wird mich indessen schon regieren, Daß ich , so lang ich hier die Wallfahrth muß verführen, Nicht von der rechten Bahne gleite;
Becomes under Bach's hand:
Dein Geist wird mich also regiren [sic] Daß ich auf rechter Bahne geh; (Bach has removed the idea of our pilgrimage here on earth and changes a negative ' so that I won't leave the correct path' to 'I will be guided so that I will stay on the correct path.'
And Bach also changes 'ängstiglich' to 'sorgensvoll' (changed from 'fearful' to 'worried or anxious'')
4 Dictum 'Wann' to 'Wenn' (a grammatical change that was beginning to take place at that time- not important)
5 Aria 'von mir' to 'von dir' this may have been a printer's error that obviously had to be corrected 'Leite' becomes 'Führe' (synonyms) and 'einst in Ewigkeit' becomes 'in der Ewigkeit' ('what will at a future time be in eternity' to simply 'in eternity')
6. Choral 'Der Geist' becomes 'Dein Geist' ('The [Holy] Spirit' becomes 'Your Spirit, [speaking to Christ and referring to one part of the Holy Trinity]') 'Auf wohlgebähnten Wegen' becomes 'Auf wohl gebähnten Wege' (Change from plural to singular - not very significant) 'unsern Fuß' becomes 'unsren Fuß' (very unclear as to whether this changes the meaning from singular to plural)
Looking at the entire cantata from the standpoint of tonal allegory (an idea first stated by Bukofzer), Eric Chafe (1991) [Tonal Allegory in the Vocal Music of J.S.Bach] refers to BWV 108 as a 'catabasis' cantata. The word, 'catabasis' , if I am not mistaken used by analogy to the more famous 'Anabasis,' ['a marching upward, a military advance') refers originally to a historical description by Xenophon of a wartime army movement in ancient Greece. Catabasis, its opposite, simply means 'a going down.' So Chafe describes the downward movement in key signatures as "anticipation of the Spirit's descent and the relinquishing to it of all self-determination. He maintains the descent is from A major (Chorus) [This must be a mistake on Chafe's part. He must be referring to Mvt. 1 which is in A major, but only for bass, not for the usual chorus.], to F# minor (aria) [tenor] to D major (recit. & aria) [here he must mean the main chorus which is in D major] to B minor (aria & chorale) [alto aria + chorale]. [I hope this is no indication of how careless Chafe is with checking his references and reading his proofs!] Elsewhere Chafe says this cantata, with itsdownward movement by thirds, indicates "a shift from divine to human." He also states about this cantata, "the Spirit controls the individual being," and "God's spirit sinks into man." [I do have a serious problem with the idea of the Holy Spirit controlling me like a puppet! Mvt. 3 states: "Der Geist wird mich regieren" ("The Holy Spirit will rule over me.") As I understand this, this is a fervent wish or desire that only happens, if I allow it to be so; otherwise I may need to reconsider my lifelong commitment to Lutheranism.]
Mvt. 1 Basso Solo
Schweitzer discovered a 'step' motif in the bass while the 'noble arabesque of the oboe expresses a 'sublime consolation.' He says, "the strings accompany the vaporous arabesques of the oboe d'amore with tender staccato quavers, representing the passing away of the transfigured Saviour." He hears a connection between this mvt. and the section in the SMP where Jesus says, "But after I am risen again, I will go before you into Galilee." [I have not checked this reference to the SMP. Anybody reading this who agrees with Schweitzer on this and knows what he [Schweitzer] is talking about, simply write to the BCML and elaborate on what he means here.] Dürr tells us that whenever the bass (here as Vox Christi) sings alone the words from the Bible, Bach does not provide a caption such as 'Aria' or 'Arioso.' Here the oboe d'amore has very long phrases of exceptional beauty. Although the string accompaniment tends to be homophonic, simply supplying the chordal structure, there are, nevertheless, hints of the motifs present in the voice and oboe d'amore. Anderson states that the oboe d'amore and 4 pt. string support 'suffuse this piece with radiance, though its dance-like character is counterbalanced by expressive intensity and melismas in the vocal writing.'
Mvt. 2 Tenor Aria
Schweitzer perceives the word, "Zweifel" ("doubt") as a springboard for Bach's musical painting: "the semiquavers wandering aimlessly, as it were, in the solo violin, symbolize the doubt, while the firmly moving bass represents immovable faith." Because of the powerful, widely ranging figures of the solo violin placed above an ostinato bass, Dürr senses the expression of confidence. This is particularly true in the second section of the aria, where Bach uses an ascending, upward-moving scale of notes on the words, "gehst du fort" ("if you go away") and a long, held tone on the words, "ich glaube" ("I believe, trust.") Anderson adds that the voice enters the key of A major on "glaube" and remains on this sustained note for 3 measures and then once again for 2 measures.
Mvt. 3 Tenor Recitative
Listen how differently each tenor on the recordings sings the final question, "Ach, ist er nicht schon hier?" which should be expressed with genuine concern. A very beautiful moment in this recitative that points directly at the chorus which follows it.
Mvt. 4. Chorus
Spitta indicates that the words, although spoken by Jesus before his crucifixion, are here now spoken/sung in the way the disciples would express it on Pentecost: in an enthusiastic and overpowering manner. "All the barriers are being broken down with the fugal theme." You can almost sense, Spitta says, the words from Jer. 23:29: (Luther translation: "Ist mein Wort nicht wie Feuer, spricht der HERR, und wie ein Hammer, der Felsen zerschmeißt ?" KJV: "Is not my word like as a fire? saith the LORD; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?" or NLT: " Does not my word burn like fire?" asks the LORD. "Is it not like a mighty hammer that smashes rock to pieces?")
Schweitzer points out that this chorus is really a motet, since there are no independent orchestral parts. Here the instruments simply double the vocal parts to provide an orchestral accompaniment.
Dürr has us examine the fugal structure, the first fugue beginning with a double entrance (bass and tenor) in what he calls "Comesgestalt." [I really do not know what point he is trying to make here, but sounds erudite, so I included it for those who can make something of this.] The second fugue on the words, "Denn er wird nicht von ihm selber reden" (NLT Joh 16: 13 "He will not be presenting his own ideas" is followed by a third, "und was zukünftig ist, wird er verkündigen" ("He will tell you about the future,") which makes use of thematic material from the first fugue. Thus we have a free da capo form: A, B, A'. This creates an arch or a framework around the center section.
Anderson states that this is a fugal motet having a tripartite structure (3 Fugues), "the first is striking in its originality and affirmative in its declaration of faith." [How about Anderson's choice of the word, 'striking' and a possible connection with Spitta's 'hammer of the Lord.'?]
The Wolff-Koopman misguided foray ("The World of the Bach Cantatas') into an attempt to state something worthwhile for those interested in Bach cantatas comes up with this statement about this mvt.: "Among the genuine choral mvts. as middle mvts. in a Bach cantata, there are some motet-like compositions based on abstract spoken texts which can be seen as traditionally connected with this style of composition that is "affektneutral" ('neutral in creating an emotional response in the listener')." [We have gone from one extreme, Spitta's 'Hammer,' to the other, where the music has become placid and non-committal because people are no longer able to comprehend the words that Bach set to music. Listen to the recordings, and you will hear both extremes and everything in between! ]
Mvt. 5 Alto Aria
Schweitzer states that "the first violins give out the "joy" motif in every possible form. The first violin has a prominent, virtuosic part. There are examples of word-painting here also."
Dingeman van Wijnen in the notes for the Brilliant Classics cantata series states: "A solemn alto aria expresses how the blessings of Christ are poured out richly, with a beautiful run on "überschütte" ("pour [over me your blessings.]")
It is the extremely beautiful melodic phrase on these words "überschütte mich mit" which occurs twice, the second time being a variation of the first, that reminded me of a similar phrase I had heard elsewhere in Bach: it occurs in BWV 508, a secular love song, "Bist du bei mir" ("When/If you are with me") on the words, "zum Sterben und zu meiner Ruh" ("to death and my eternal rest") and again on the words, "es drückten deine schönen Hände" (your beautiful hands closed [my faithful eyelids after I had died.] This song, most likely composed by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel, is found in the second "Clavierbüchlein vor Anna Magdalena Bachin" (1725) ("The Notebook of/for..") [the other one, also for Anna Magdalena was from 1722.]. These were her private collections of compositions that she treasured. Most of the music was in her own hand (she was an excellent copier of music.) For this air and another, "So oft ich meine Tabackspfeife" ("As often as I take my pipe into my hands,") she wrote out the melody line and the words, and Bach filled in the basso continuo - a very touching co-production, particularly when you consider that she would be the one to close the eyelids of her husband when he died. Another unusual aspect (it may simply have been an oversight, or coincidence) to all of this is that she began the air on the right side of one page and continued on, not the next page (left side) but skipped two blank pages before completing the other half. OK, perhaps the pages (of this book) occasionally were not cut, or she may have turned two pages instead of one in a book so important to her at a time when paper pages were relatively expensive, or she deliberately left the two pages blank with two halves of a love song 'embracing' what was to be in between: an untitled piece that we now know as the main theme or air on which the Goldberg Variations are based! Did she copy it into this space after she , how important this was to her husband? Since Bach supplied the figured bass line for the airs, he, at least, must have known about the 'skipped' pages - a family secret?
Mvt. 6 Chorale
The melody of this chorale is "Kommt her zu mir, spricht Gottes Sohn.", a chorale whose setting Dürr calls 'simple' or 'plain,' but Ludwig Finscher (1980), in his notes for the Teldec cantata series, calls it a 'richly harmonized four-part chorale,' which I think is closer to the truth. This chorale melody has a different setting as mvt. 8 of BWV 74 "Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten," that text also by C. M. von Ziegler (see list above.)