Cantata BWV 128Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein
Aryeh Oron wrote (May 11, 2002):
BWV 128 - Background
The background below is taken from the following sources:
Alec Robertson: ‘The Church Cantatas of J.S. Bach’ (1972)
W. Murray Young: ‘The Cantatas of J.S. Bach – An Analytical Guide’ (1989)
David Humphreys, in ‘Oxford Composer Companion – J.S. Bach’, edited by Malcolm Boyd (1999)
The English translations are by Francis Browne, a member of the BCML.
Mvt. 1: Chorus
Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein
(On Christ's ascension [journey to heaven] alone)
Corno I/II, Oboe I/II, Oboe da caccia, Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo
The chorale in this first chorus is stanza one of Josua Wegelin’s hymn with the same title as the cantata, set to the tune of Nikolaus Decius’ ‘Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her’ (To God, alone on high, be glory).
Robertson: The text of Marianne von Ziegler leaves no doubt as to what Feast is being celebrated. The inclusion of two horns lends brilliance to the instrumental part. The main motifs in the orchestral introduction which are taken up by the lower vocal parts – the chorale melody being in the top one – are all pointed to the skies. With his love for pictorial illustration Bach might well have had St. Paul’s account of the Ascension in mind. He certainly ignored the doubt, anxiety, and pain mentioned in line three, overcome by joy of this supreme event.
Young: Actually, this is an extended chorale fantasia rather than a straight chorus. Since it has another chorale to end the work, this cantata should be classed as a chorale cantata. A stupendous joy-motif pervades the whole chorus in combination with a rhythm of felicity that the tutti instrumentation plays most impressively. It is one of the best movements in this cantata. The remarkable tone-painting in this movement enables the listener to visualise the splendour of heaven which awaits him.
Humphreys: The first movement, based on the eponymous chorale of the title, is in the normal chorale fantasia form, with the melody given out in the soprano. As usual, the entries of the individual lines of the tune are enriched with lively instrumental counterpoint and separated by ritornello material played by the instrumental forces. This largely based on a fanfare-like subject related to the first line of the chorale, giving rise to lively interplay between the prominent horns, which lend the required air of jubilation to the music.
Mvt. 2: Recitative for Tenor
Ich bin bereit, komm, hole mich!
(I am ready, come, gather me!)
Robertson: Here are the emotions Bach ignored, but the text continues in tune with St Paul's words 'For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face' and ends 'as to me His holy word promises'.
Young: He declares, secco, that he is ready for Jesus to call him from the misery of the world to Salem’s tent (paradise), where he will be transfigured. His last two lines paraphrase 1 Corinthians 13: 12: then he will see God face to face as promised in the Scripture.
Humphreys: A simple recitative.
Mvt. 3: Aria & Recitative for Bass
Auf, auf, mit hellem Schall
(Up, up, with shrill sound)
Tromba, Violino I/II, Continuo
Robertson: The trumpet does proclaim with no uncertain sound that the Son sits in glory at the right hand of the Father. In this splendid bass aria the long sustained notes at 'sits', as the trumpet fanfares blaze out, help one to picture the majestic vision. But it fades in the words of the second section of the aria 'Who seeks me to attack' repeated four times and followed by the unaccompanied words 'is He even from me taken?', a rush up the scale by the strings, and another after 'I shall one day thither come'. This runs into a recitative accompanied by the strings with all parts marked piano as the soul contemplates in hushed tones the vision of the Redeemer who dwells both in Heaven and earth, an unfathomable mystery to our finite minds.
Young: This is the other outstanding movement in this cantata. Amid the strings which accompany him, trumpet, fanfares are featured in the first section to portray a majestic picture of the Son sitting at the right hand of the Father. This aria then becomes a piano recitative, with strings only in a hushed tone, to depict the awesome mystery of our own transition from earth to heaven. The first aria section contains a lively joy-rhythm, while the second recitative part has a subdued serenity-motif befitting the text.
Humphreys: Bach sets the central bass aria in heroic style with an elaborate trumpet obbligato and accompanying strings. This unusual in form, incorporating an accompanied recitative which suddenly intervenes in the position of the expected da capo. It is followed by the closing instrumental ritornello to end the movement. Bach achieved this effect by inserting material from the recitative of Ziegler’s libretto (originally designed to follow the aria) into the middle of the aria itself.
Mvt. 4: Aria (Duet) for Alto and Tenor
Sein Allmacht zu ergründen,
(To fathom his omnipotence)
Oboe d'amore I, Continuo
Robertson: The thought expressed at the end of the recitative is dwelt on in this amiable but not very interesting duet.
Young: With oboe d’amore and continuo accompaniment, they sing, first in canon and later in unison, this commentary on the end of the previous recitative. Nobody can fathom God’s power; therefore they too will keep silent and not try to understand the source of His power. They are content to gaze through the stars to see Christ sitting at the right hand of God. The da capo reinforces their acceptance of this misery, but in general this duet is not very interesting.
Humphreys: This is a duet for alto and tenor with an obbligato line which Bach marked ‘organo’ in the composing score but, apparently changing his mind, entered in the oboe part (the compass a to a” indicates that an oboe d’amore is required). Dürr, however, does nor discount the possibility that the indication ‘organo’ could be a late addition. The duet, which is in da capo aria form, strikes a note of subdued tranquillity, which contrasts with the generally festive mood of the cantata as a whole. Most of the material is based on the opening subject, which features a characteristic drop of a 5th to depict the word ‘ergründen’ (to fathom). The ritornello theme was used by Max Reger as the basis of his Variations and Fugue on a theme of J.S. Bach op. 81, dating from 1904.
Mvt. 5: Chorale
Alsdenn so wirst du mich
(Since then you will place me)
Oboe I e Violino I col Soprano, Oboe II e Violino II coll'Alto, Oboe da caccia e Viola col Tenore, Continuo
This is the fourth verse of Matthäus Avenarius' 'O Jesu, meine Lust' (O Jesu, My Joy) (1673) set to 'Die Wollust dieser Welt' (1679).
Robertson: The horns have independent parts in this chorale. The rest of the text prays for a merciful judgement - an odd thing to ask by one who seems to consider his position assured - and for the joy of contemplating Christ's glory for all eternity.
Young: All voices and instruments are used for this chorale. This text pleads for a merciful judgement for us, so that we too may be placed to the right of God and behold His glory forever. Horn fanfares return to paint a scene of joyous splendour - the Father and the Son together on their thrones.
Humphreys: Four-part harmonised chorale verse with additional parts for the two horns.
Thomas Braatz wrote (May 14, 2002):
BWV 128 - Background
Dürr in „Die Kantaten“ (1971) explains that Christiane Mariane von Ziegler based her introductory chorale mvt. on the 1st verse of Ernst Sonnemann’s hymn (1661) based on an earlier hymn by Josua Wegelin (1636). Dürr summarizes the thoughts as follows: After Christ has ascended into heaven, there is nothing that will keep me here on earth, since I have God’s promise that I will see him face to face (Mvt. 2) [1 Cor 13:12] . Along with the joy experienced in knowing tJesus now sits on the right side of God, there is also the hopeless wish (“vergebne Wunsch”): “Könnt ich im voraus mir eine Hütte bauen!” [“I would like to set up for myself a tent/tabernacle right now“] , a reference to Christ’s transfiguration (Mat 17:4). But His power is not tied to a specific place, but rather is found everywhere. “Sie läßt sich nicht ergründen” [„There is no way to explain this“] (Mvt. 3) I will acknowledge this fact and accept it, since I can see “durch die Sterne, daß er sich schon von ferne zur Rechten Gottes zeigt.“ [“through the stars that he, off in the distance, is already sitting at the right hand of God.”] (Mvt. 4) – cf. Acts 7:55) Likewise Jesus will place me on his right side at some point in the future (Mat 25:33) and will pronounce his gracious judgment upon me – with these words from the 4th verse of Matthäus Avenarius’ hymn (1673) “O Jesu, meine Lust” [“O Jesus, my Joy”] the cantata ends.
Dürr then amplifies Schweitzer’s observation that the main motif is derived from the chorale melody, “Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr” by adding that Bach evolves an instrumental fugal subject from the entire 1st line of this chorale. Dürr also thinks that Bach attempted to create an even greater contrast than usual by including rather unexpectedly a recitative at the end of the 1st aria (bass – trumpet) after having established Christ’s newly acquired position of power with the shimmering trumpet playing extended melismas and with an authoritative bass voice commanding the attention of the listener. The entire form of this mvt. is quite unusual: Ritornello – Vocal section A – Vocal section B – Recitative – Ritornello. This is not a da capo aria of the usual sort.
The chorale melody used in Mvt. 5 is “O Gott, du frommer Gott.”
My own observations:
Eric Chafe has absolutely nothing to say about this cantata, perhaps because it does not fit his main theory about ‘anabasis’ and ‘catabasis,’ nor is there the usual clear progression from a problematical situation of mankind leading gradually throughout the inner movements of the cantata toward a solution or resolution in the final chorale. The choice of keys here is rather ‘stationary’ with the mvts. given as follows: 1 : G major; 2 : e to b minor; 3 : D major; 4 : b minor; 5 : G major. The choice of the key of b minor signifies that Bach considers this text to be very serious in nature. The 1st recitative refers to promises and hopes for the future, but the real emphasis here is a wrenching cry for help because in this world, in the here and now, one experiences “Jammer, Angst, und Pein” [“sorrow, fear, and pain”] The following recitative at the end of the 1st aria expresses a hope for something substantial to hold onto. But the reality of the situation is that such a wish is in vain. Jesus has been taken from me. (“Er ist von mir genommen.”) No one can point out the right direction to go and no one can or should try to give reasons for why this is so that Christ can be everywhere and yet not be anywhere specifically (“Er wohnet nicht auf Berg und Tal” [“He does not live on the mountains or in the valleys.”]
Bach is really working with a duality, a contrast between the promises that have been made that indicate a positive outcome and the current situation here on earth, where all the suffering, fear, and pain continue to prevail. It is important here to consider the absolute despair that the apostles felt at Christ’s ascension. The period after Christ’s crucifixion already provided a major shock because they thought they had really lost their leader. But Christ appeared to them on a number of occasions and they felt some comfort as they slowly learned to perceive his presence. Now, however, Christ was completely removed from them. No more visits in houses with all the doors closed. This is a dark, dismal period (despite all the promises that they had heard from Christ) because all contact with Christ seems to have been terminated at this point. From Ascension until Pentecost, the disciples felt completely deserted by Christ. In some way, Bach also wants us to experience this. This is not simply a holiday for singing hallelujahs and other happy music, but also a time to empathize with the disciples and also consider one’s own reaction to the dark and somber thoughts that are born out of fear and suffering with only a hope for future deliverance from this situation.
For me there is one section in the 1st aria (Mvt. 3) that begins four measures before the recitative and leads into it (ms. 57 to 60) that contains the essence of the entire cantata. The bass sings, “Ist er von mir genommen,” [“Has he been taken from me”] after which the 1st oboe and 1st violin have a smoothly upward-moving scale passage signifying Christ’s ascent. Then the bass sings, “ich werd einst dahin kommen” [“I will at some point in the future get there”] after which the two instruments continue their scale passage even higher than the first time (we are watching Christ ascend even higher), but the basso continuo has a jaggedly falling figure to indicate the low point of despair to which we fall at the same time since the separation is critical at this point. The measure leading into the recitative shows clearly this contrary motion with Christ ascending on the oboe and violin line and with mankind represented by the bc descending to an E #, a note that only occurs here twice in this recitative, and nowhere else in this mvt. (in Mvt. 2 the tenor sings the word, “Pein” [“Pain”], on this note.) Of course the # sign indicates the cross [“Kreuz”] (Bach’s use of this pun is possible in the German language) that mankind must bear until this situation is resolved in the future.
Cantata BWV 128: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3