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Cantata BWV 151
Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt
Commentary

Alfred Durr | Philipp Spitta | Woldemar Voigt | Albert Schweitzer | W. Gillies Whittaker

 

Thomas Braatz wrote (June 25, 2003):
Commentary by Dürr:

Lehms’ libretto does not show a direct connection with the Epistle or Gospel reading for this special holiday, but it does generally express the joy felt at the blessing received through the arrival of the Christ child. Several times the libretto points out the paradox contained in the humiliation/lowering of God’s position while humanity is being raised up. The final vs. of the concluding chorale expands the listener’s viewpoint by pointing out the original Fall of Man (a falling from grace): The paradise, out of which Adam had been driven, is once again open for mankind.

Out of consideration for the considerable demands being placed upon the Thomaner choristers and instrumentalists, Bach chooses the modest instrumentation of a smaller chamber-music ensemble: the choir sings only in the final chorale and the instruments used involve 1 flute, 1 oboe d’amore, strings and continuo. At the same time, Bach makes the music fit the intimate character of the text which utilizes almost exclusively 1st person forms which serve to emphasize God’s act of salvation (of healing) of the individual.

The introductory aria, the best-known mvt. of the entire cantata, is one of Bach’s most inspired creations. From the text, Bach selects and isolates the (relative) contrast between “Trost” [comfort] and “Freude” [joy] which is represented musically by the contrast between a main section with the time indication “molt’ adagio” and a middle section entitled ‘vivace.’ Quite unique are the broadly conceived melodic phrases in the introductory ritornello which are developed from the ornamental passages of the flute and are accompanied by the oboe d’amore and strings ‘piano sempre’ [always at a soft dynamic level.] The soprano then begins with a simplified vocal version of this, but then after only 2 ms., the flute picks up the melody again and continues with a repeat of the ritornello in an expanded form while the soprano sings a peaceful, cantabile melody, but then, just before the end of the main section, it once again states the main motif which it had previously relinquished to the soprano. The instrumental bridge to the middle section repeats the ritornello which has now been reduced to half of its original size. The faster-moving middle section is dominated by the motif “Herz und Seele” sung first by the voice but quickly picked up and expanded by the instruments, then interrupted by the melismata consisting of triplet figures on “freuet sich,” a figure then picked up and further developed by the flute. A ‘da-capo’ repeat rounds off this mvt.

After this unusual aria, everything else that follows fades in importance. 2 secco recitatives surround an alto aria designated ‘andante’ but with a time signature of cut-time! All 3 instruments (oboe d’amore, violino 1 & 2, viola) play the obbligato part in unison! Bach creates dynamic levels [Terrassendynamik] by indicating ‘piano’ when the voice is singing. This means that only the oboe or 1st violin would be playing at that time while the other strings would not be playing at all.

The final chorale is a plain, 4-pt. setting.

Thomas Braatz wrote (June 30, 2003):
Spitta:

The normal innocent, blessed state of Christmas has here taken on its own special characteristic of being transfigured. The silvery-toned soprano voice hovers like an angel of peace over the night-enshrouded town below as it produces its long drawn-out, simple and blissful melodies through which the oboe d’amore tenderly entwines itself. The middle section of this introductory aria has a very different time signature and rhythm, a technique which Bach uses rather frequently in his Leipzig cantatas. The 2nd aria gracefully sways back and forth in a rocking motion in a lower region/range. This short, beautiful cantata concludes with a vs. from the Christmas chorale “Lobt Gott, ihr Christen allzugleich.”

Voigt:

The aria, with which this cantata opens, belongs (particularly in the main section of it) to the most beautiful of all of Bach’s arias. With a solemn, yet effusive melody line, the soprano voice goes on its way while the flute weaves garlands around it. Since the main section surpasses in many ways the middle section in beauty of sound as well as poetic profundity, it is recommendable to repeat the 1st section entirely. At the most, the introductory ritornello can then be skipped if it is deemed necessary to do so.
In the following alto aria, the opposite situation prevails: the middle section elicits warmer sounds and emotions than the main section which can be shortened in its reprise by playing only the initial 8 ms. and stopping at that point. Voigt recommends replacing “schlechter” [bad] with “schlichter” [simple] in accordance with modern usage since “schlechter” [understood in Bach’s time with the meaning ‘simple’ among other things] no longer means ‘bad’ in German today. [See below]

Schweitzer:

The cantata for the 3rd day of Christmas consists, apart from the recitatives, simply of 2 arias and the final chorale. In the 1st aria the strings (‘piano sempre’) sing a lullaby over the infant Jesus (ms. 1 & 2 of mvt. 1 in the strings) to which the flute adds exuberant runs and figures (ms. 1 & 2 of mvt. 1 in the flute part only.)

The theme of the alto aria is constructed on the same lines as that of “Gerne will ich mich bequemen” in the SMP (BWV 244). It represents humility (“Demut”); it sinks, rises again, again recovers, and in the final cadence quite goes to pieces, as it were. The ties that Bach has marked for the instruments here are particularly instructive. The indications in the orchestral part as to the cooperation of the strings and the oboe are interesting in themselves, and no doubt applicable to many other scores. They play ‘unison’ until a ‘piano’ comes, when the violins cease, leaving the oboe to continue alone.

The alto aria is accompanied by the oboe d’amore; in the ‘tutti’ passages, however, this part is played by the whole of the violins and violas.

W. Gillies Whittaker:

Whittaker, who seems to do his own English translation of the cantata texts, translates the 3rd mvt., the alto aria, from the German as follows:

In Jesu Demut kann ich Trost, in seiner Armut Reichtum finden.
[In Jesu’s humility can I comfort, in His poverty riches find.]

Mir macht desselben schlechter Stand nur lauter Heil und Wohl bekannt,
[For me makes of the same poor state only healing and wellbeing known,]

ja, seine wundervolle Hand will mir nur Segenskränze winden.
[yea His wonderful hand will only blessings-garlands weave.]

I want to call your attention to Whittaker’s translation of ‘desselben schlechter Stand’ [of the same poor state], a phrase referring back to Jesus’ birth which has been variously translated by others as follows:

“Mir macht desselben schlechter Stand | nur lauter Heil und Wohl bekannt,“

Z. Philip Ambrose:
“To me doth this his poor estate | Nought but pure health and wealth reveal,”

Francis Browne:
“This same mean condition of his makes me | aware of real health and prosperity,”

Pamela Dellal:
“This same miserable state | acquaints me with pure salvation and well-being,”

Jean Pierre Grivois:
« Et sa si basse condition | me font voir un très grand bonheur, »

Francisco López Hernández :
« Aun eu mi misero estado | no me promete sino salud y prosperidad, »

What we have here as a rendering of ‘schlecht’ is a ‘low, miserable, mean, poor’ condition referring to the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. All of this is clear from other descriptions from the Bible and even from the surrounding text which Lehms provides. However, a closer examination will reveal that another meaning is intended here.

Whittaker, in his Apologia, admits that ‘even Germans are often puzzled by these [cantata] texts,’ and that ‘most of the translare in thoroughly bad English, but the writer’s plan has been to make them as literal as possible, however crudely they may read.’

The DWB indicates that the words ‘schlecht’ [bad] and ‘schlicht’ [simple, plain] are doublets [Examples of doublets from the English language are ‘dole’ and ‘deal’ or ‘raison’ and ‘ration.’] Historically these German doublets were, to a certain degree, interchangeable. Luther, for instance, could use ‘schlecht’ in the sense of ‘bad’ as the opposite of good, but could just as easily use the same word ‘schlecht’ in the sense that ‘schlicht’ has come to mean. The change (not being able to use these words with both meanings interchangeably) gradually began to take place during the 18th century. By the 19th century, ‘schlicht’ had assumed the specialized meaning of only ‘plain, simple’ and ‘schlecht’ retained primarily its pejorative sense which it had had from its earliest documented use and lost the other wide-ranging meanings that it once possessed.

Since Lehms, the librettist for this cantata, would be steeped in the Luther’s use of the German language and would be writing for an audience quite familiar with Luther’s wide-ranging use of the word ‘schlecht,’ it is not at all surprising that Lehms would also use this word the same way that Luther did.

Here are some examples from all the libretti of the cantatas (I am excluding those examples where ‘schlecht’ does really mean ‘bad.’ A rough estimate would have about half of the examples being in this latter category. I want to point out the others where problems in translation might occur.)

BWV 35Du machst es eben, daß sonst ein Wunderwerk vor dir was Schlechtes ist
[You simply do it in such a way that what otherwise would be considered a miracle is, for you, SOMETHING BAD – no, ‘bad’ is impossible. Here ‘schlecht’ means ‘a plain & simple & ordinary thing’]

BWV 36cso steigt der sonst so schlechte Wert so hoch” [in this way the value, otherwise considered to be a BAD value increases so much/high. ‘schlecht’ here simply means a plain, ‘normal’ value.]

BWV 51So kann ein schlechtes Lob ihm dennoch wohlgefallen” [God will also find pleasure in an act of BAD praise {as that which the singer offers in this marvelous cantata.} Here ‘schlecht’ means ‘simple, unadorned’ praise.]

BWV 446verschmähe nicht das schlechte Lied, das ich dir, Jesus, singe.“ [Jesus, do not scorn (or reject contemptuously) this BAD song which I am singing to you. Here ‘schlecht’ is very similar in meaning to the notion expressed in BWV 51: This is a simple, unadorned song which I offer and sing from my heart.]

BWV 25Öffne meinen schlechten Liedern, Jesu, dein Genadenohr!” [Jesus, open your merciful ear to listen to my BAD songs!] Very similar to the above instances where heartfelt, but simple songs are being offered with the concern that they may not be ‘good enough’ for a heavenly ear.

BWV 65Gold aus Ophir ist zu schlecht” [Gold from Ophir is simply too BAD] Heavenly splendor pales in comparison to plain gold from Ophir, but plain gold from Ophir is still among the best things that one can possess here on earth.

BWV 201Allein, die Götter zu vergnügen, ist deine Flöte zu schlecht“ [But to entertain the gods, your flute is too BAD-sounding] Pan’s flute was notably of a very ‘simple’ construction with a limited number of notes, but Pan could still play beautifully upon it.

BWV 212Du hast wohl recht. Das Stückchen klingst zu schlecht; Ich muß mich also zwingen, was Städtisches zu singen.“ [You’re probably right. This little piece sounds BAD; I’ll have to force myself to sing in a style more befitting of that which is heard in the cities.] The ‘simple’ folk-style of singing heard in the countryside is quite different compared to the more highly contrived songs heard in the cities. To translate this as ‘BAD’ is a value judgment on the part of city folk. The true difference lies not in ‘what is good and what is bad,’ but rather only in the style or level in which the ‘simple’ can often be purer because of its directness and lack of complication.

BWV 476Weil du denn die schlechten Hütten, Jesu, nie verschmähet hast” [Because you, Jesus, never rejected with contempt the BAD houses] This does not mean that Jesus also went into houses of ill-repute, because there were souls to be saved there. No, here it means that he visited the houses of the ‘plain,’ normal, ordinary people - a fact which offers hope to ordinary human beings (as well as, of course, to the ‘fallen’ which are not necessarily referred to here.)

BWV 7Es muß zwar hier Wasser sein, doch schlechtes Wasser nicht allein” [To be sure, water must be present (for the baptism), but not alone BAD water] There is no BAD water involved here in this paraphrase of Luther’s chorale “Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam” In the original Luther had:

Gott spricht und will, daß Wasser sei, | doch nicht allein schlecht Wasser | sein heiligs Wort ist auch dabei.“ [God speaks and wants water to be present, but not only BAD water is there, no, his holy Word is also present] Again, and here we have Luther’s language which influenced greatly Bach’s librettists, ‚schlecht Wasser’ refers to simple, plain, ordinary water which must be present as part of a baptism.

Another very famous Luther chorale text with which to conclude this philological digression because it takes us back to the Christmas text of the current cantata is:

Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her [From heaven on high I come to you]

So market nu das Zeichen recht: | Die Krippen, Windelin so schlecht
[Now take note of the sign(s)/characteristic(s)/description: {you will find/see} the crib and the swaddling clothes which are in the WORST condition imaginable] Never mind the artistic representations where you can see the dilapidated condition of the cloths with obvious holes in them and not necessarily in a clean condition, here Luther is describing them as ‘plain,’ ‘simple,’ and ‘unadorned.’

So, in light of the above, what could “desselben schlechter Stand” mean? It could be a reference to the various classes of society. At the time of Jesus’ birth, it would have been very important to know into which societal group he had been born as this would determine the rank that he (in the minds of most mortals) would have within such a society. I read this application of ‘schlecht’ to mean ‘not of the higher ranking classes or professions.’ But this does not imply that being ‘plain’ or ‘simple’ is bad. Actually, the Gospels make it quite clear, that with the exception of the Three Wise Men who seem to have arrived some months later (or is it even as much as 2 years later?), it was given to the simple shepherds to make the most immediate and direct contact with this great event. Their value in the scheme of things that went beyond the class structure of a society was far ‘higher’ or ‘greater’ than that of a king such as King Herod. Perhaps it was the ‘open-mindedness’ of these ‘simple’ shepherds toward all of nature that made it possible for them to be the first to receive the great news. Spiritually the shepherds ‘ranked higher’ in this regard than their normal (according to worldly considerations) categorization would indicate.

 

Cantata BWV 151: Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Commentaries: Main Page | Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Other Vocal Works BWV 225-524 | Sources

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Last update: ýSeptember 8, 2011 ý15:49:25