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Cantata BWV 127
Herr Jesu Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott
Examples from the Score
Mvt. 1 - The Chorale Melody and Text

It has been rather difficult for Bach scholars and commentators to pin down precisely where Paul Eber derived the music for this chorale, but he most obviously wrote the text to fit the melody with which it is usually associated. [The current hymnal of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in North Germany has assigned a Luther chorale melody “Vater unser im Himmelreich” to Eber’s text.] The date for Eber’s creation of the text is generally set as either 1562 or 1580 with Dürr (1971, 1995), Smend (1948), Whittaker (1959), Anderson (1999) the above-named hymnal (1965), siding with the 1562 date, and Wolff, Neschke, Wollny (all from the NBA I/8.1 & 2 – 1998) choosing 1580 as the possible date for the creation of text to suit a melody as having taken place.

The original melody is even more difficult to pin down:

Alberto Basso (1983) claims that Eber wrote the words as a funeral lament at the death of his own son and used a melody adapted (this implies some melodic changes) from a tune by Claude Goudimel that dates from 1565. Friedrich Smend (1948) states that the melody came from a French Psalter while Whittaker (1959) actually names the composer and the original title of the melody: “On a beau son maison bastir” by L. Bourgeois. This (naming of Goudimel and Bourgeois) also opens up the possibility for other Psalters such as the Genevan as having provided the source melody. Important Psalter books were printed, for instance, in 1542, 1544, 1547, 1551. I know of no source that would allow for a comparison of the supposed original with the adaptation by Eber. Another interesting fact is that the hymnal mentioned above has a different hymn (“Ich weiß, mein Gott, daß all mein tun”) with an incipit (after this point everything else is different) that matches the melody that Eber and Bach used. It dates from Dresden 1608.

Biographical material on Paul Eber

Eber was born, had lived and died in Saxony. His birthplace, in 1511, was Kitzingen in Lower Franconia. He was a pupil and friend of Philipp Melanchthon (Schwarzert) who was a close associate of Martin Luther. Eber’s first important position was as a Latin professor at the Wittenberg University, but this later was expanded to include physics and Old Testament. Eventually he held positions as the overseeing superintendent and city pastor of Wittenberg while teaching theology at the university. He died in Wittenberg in 1569. [Hopefully Wolff, et al, are referring to 1580 as the date when Eber’s hymn and text first appeared in print – this is not clear from their cursory reference to Eber’s efforts concerning this hymn.] Eber also wrote the chorale texts for the following hymns which are still in the hymnal mentioned above: “Helft mir Gotts Güte preisen” “Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir” [also based upon a Genevan Psalter, 1551 – could Eber have been using primarily this Psalter?] and “Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein” [based on Louis Bourgeois’ melody from 1547.]

What does the chorale melody which Eber used for “Herr Jesu Christ, wahr Mensch und Gott” look like?

It is quite apparent that Bach enjoyed working with the symbolism already present in Eber’s word-melody combination. His word-painting singles out the movement of Christ from heaven on high down to the depths of human suffering during the events of passion-week. In the very first 5 measures, Bach establishes Christ’s descent with an untexted musical reference to the famous Christmas chorale by Luther “Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her” [“From heaven on high, that’s where I come from.”] by having the highest-sounding instruments (recorders, in this instance) representing the heights of heaven begin in the very first measure with a vague attempt (the first interval drop is ‘tonal’ rather than ‘real’ – it is a full-step/tone down rather than just a half-step/tone down in the original melody. This seems to imply that a time of preparation (Advent) was necessary before the actual event/descent into the Christ-child occurs in mm. 3-5. It is interesting that Bach does not repeat this ‘Vom-Himmel-hoch’-motif at any time later on in this movement, an indication that this reference was quite intentional on his part because it is re-emphasized in the descending passages in the instrumental groups in mm. 14-16. Readers and listeners will be reminded of the use of this melody as one of the overlays demonstrated in the recording ‘Morimur’ [ECM New Series 1765 289 461 895-2 BK02] based upon the research of Helga Thoene who discovered/uncovered the ‘inaudible’ quotations of chorales like ‘Christ lag in Todesbanden’ and ‘Vom Himmel hoch’ in both the ‘Ciaccona’ from BWV 1004 and in BWV 1003. In the recording Bach’s solo violin version of the ‘Ciccaon’ is played at the same time that the implied chorales are sung by vocalists (Hilliard Ensemble.) Another recording based upon Thoene’s research is ‘De Occulta Philosophia’ with José Miguel Moreno playing the ‘Ciaccona’ on the lute and Emma Kirkby and Carlos Mena singing the hidden chorales [Glossa BCD 920107], including ‘Vom Himmel hoch.’

At the very same time that Bach continues to announce, by using a diminutive version of its incipit in almost every measure throughout the cantata movement, the main chorale which is still to present itself, he also intones, in an untexted fashion, Luther’s version of the Agnus Dei: “Christe, du Lamm Gottes” in long, drawn-out notes in the upper strings.

This simultaneity of motifs establishes Jesus Christ’s identity from the very beginning as it refers to the happy advent of Christ through the birth of the Christ-child while at the same time it reminds the listener of Christ’s suffering: the Lamb of God bears all the sins of the world and only through him can we hope for true peace. This is quite similar to Bach’s use of the Passion chorale in his Christmas Oratorio. Christ’s suffering and his cross form the backdrop for the more joyful events surrounding Christ’s birth.

By the time we reach measures 6 and 7, the full-blown descent of Christ is pictured in the score and can be heard by the listeners as well with descending passages in each of the separate musical groups: the recorders, followed by the oboes, and then the strings, while the basso continuo announces, also with a downward movement the incipit to the Passion Chorale “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” [“O sacred head, sore wounded.”]

Just before the entrance of the main chorale in the soprano part in m. 18 (the cantus firmus is suspended in longer note values over the faster-moving, fughetta-like or fugato entrances in the other voices), the tenors and the altos, continuing the preparation or anticipation of the cantus firmus which has already been announced in the various instrumental parts a dozen times without the text, finally sing the text to the main chorale. The sense of anticipation and climax has been skillfully employed to direct the focus of the listeners on the words which the congregation (or audience) has been reading and studying in the form of a printed text (or program notes.) When the first line of the cantus firmus has reached its conclusion, perhaps only holding on to the final long note, the other voices ‘chime in’ with a non-polyphonic, chordal exclamation which reiterates emphatically the ‘wahr’ Mensch und Gott’ [‘true human being and God.’] Similar repetitions occur after the ensuing lines of the chorale, but there are some noticeable differences between them.

With the single use of canons in Interlude 1, Bach, probably implies theologically some aspect of the Law which in this particular instance precedes the chorale line that states that Christ had to endure martyrdom, fear, and ridicule. The canons might represent older, stricter forms of composition that have more stringent requirements for a composer than ‘style galant’ which was becoming quite popular at the time. Perhaps Christ was following a strict universal law that required himto suffer physically in order to bring about the salvation of mankind.

Notice that with Line 2 the cantus firmus begins directly without the preceding imitative entries by the lower voices. All the other voices enter with motifs that differ, this in contrast to Line 1 where each one imitated the other with the same main motif. Now we have only the altos still holding onto the motif, while the tenors execute a very rapid, scale-lke descent, while the basses cry out with an octave jump only quickly to revert to the main motif along with the bc. After the sopranos reach their last note on ‘Spott,’ Bach reverses the procedure used directly before Line 1: he now has the lower voices each state the main motif after, instead of before the cantus firmus and still manages a short chordal reiteration of the final words in the line: “Angst und Spott.”

In Interlude 2, Bach introduces in the strings the ‘Trinity’ motif which consists of 3 repeated notes followed immediately by a long note of greater time value than the preceding three. Mattheson in his “Der vollkommene Capellmeister” [Hamburg, 1739, §38 of Part II, Chapter 6] refers to this poetic ‘foot’ [“Klangfuß” = a measure of poetic accents as used in poetry] as a “Paeon” which he interprets as appropriate for a song of praise [“Lobgesang.”] This pattern of 3 shorter, accented syllables/notes followed by a long one is quite familiar to most listeners today as ‘fate knocking on the door’ in the initial, unforgettable motif at the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In any case, Bach’s use of what can be considered a ‘Trinity’ motif is quite suitable in the presentation of a chorale which emphasizes one member of the Trinity, but refers to the connection with the Father. Bach is perhaps reminding us of the other, unmentioned member which is omnipresent, although not specifically referred to in the chorale verse. The bc accompaniment to all this is repeating the affirmation (mm. 21-22) ‘wahr’ Mensch und Gott.’

For Line 3 of the chorale, Bach once again has the lower voices enter after the cantus firmus has begun singing, but this time the imitative entrances of the main motif in diminution occur ‘top-down’ from the altos to the tenors and then to the basses in stretto fashion, that is, the following voice enters before the earlier voice has finished stating the short main motif.

When the word ‘Kreuz’ [‘cross’] is reached in the cantus firmus an interesting phenomenon takes place: the Bb is raised to B natural [this may or may not already have been part of Eber’s notation of the chorale melody he used] which symbolizes the raising of the Christ’s cross, but where is the actual cross [“Kreuz” may also mean the sharp sign in German]? Bach inserted it directly before this note as close as he could in order to alert the musicians (2nd violin and altos) with this instance of ‘Augen-Musik’ [‘eye’-music = music which can only be appreciated by the players involved and the readers of the complete score.] In order to accomplish this, Bach had break away from the usual ‘real’ image of the main motif to a ‘tonal’ one by not having the fifth note of the motif drop down by a third as it does in the choral, but rather dropping down by only a full tone/step from which he then moves upward again. The tenors continue, however, with the original motif since the effect that Bach wanted to create as eye-music already had been accomplished right where he wanted it to be. The basses also ‘suffer’ a modification of the main motif and it relates to the chorale text as well: their modification remains on the repeated note one time longer than it should and then, so that immediately after the word ‘starbst’ [‘you died’] in the c. f., they can drop down a third along with a drop of a sixth in the tenor voice. This ‘dropping down dead’ can be perceived musically by the listener as just one instance out of many where Bach uses word-painting. Quite effective is the manner in which Bach closes out this section in the lower voices by having the altos and tenors once again repeat this drop on ‘you finally died’ by descending by a third, but the basses continue on, while the others are still holding the final note, to repeat this motif fragment which this time drops by a seventh with the bc reaching its lowest note that becomes a pedal point.

At this point of death (Interlude 3) all the instruments remain in their lower ranges while the untexted chorale [Agnus Dei: ‘der du trägst die Sünd’ der Welt’ {‘you, Christ, bear the sins of the world’}] is sounded out in solemn, long notes by the recorders. But after this there is a change to the high register of the recorders and the other instruments follow suit. Bach is preparing us for the next line (Line 4) of the chorale which brings great hope to mankind because Christ, after his death, will now be able to procure his Father’s favor for us. An awe-inspiring touch occurs when the sopranos reach the word “Huld” [‘favor’] while the altos, on the word “erwarbst” [‘you procured {for us}], have ‘acquired’ for themselves (this is the only place in the entire movement where this happens) the unique ‘wave’ motif which belongs solely to the instruments. What a wonderful way to illustrate musically ‘to acquire or procure for mankind’ by showing that it has already begun to happen, even if it has not spread to all mankind (the remaining voices) as yet.

Just before the entrance of the main chorale in the soprano part in m. 18 (the cantus firmus is suspended in longer note values over the faster-moving, fughetta-like or fugato entrances in the other voices), the tenors and the altos, continuing the preparation or anticipation of the cantus firmus which has already been announced in the various instrumental parts a dozen times without the text, finally sing the text to the main chorale. The sense of anticipation and climax has been skillfully employed to direct the focus of the listeners on the words which the congregation (or audience) has been reading and studying in the form of a printed text (or program notes.) When the first line of the cantus firmus has reached its conclusion, perhaps only holding on to the final long note, the other voices ‘chime in’ with a non-polyphonic, chordal exclamation which reiterates emphatically the ‘wahr’ Mensch und Gott’ [‘true human being and God.’] Similar repetitions occur after the ensuing lines of the chorale, but there are some noticeable differences between them.

With the single use of canons in Interlude 1, Bach probably implies theologically some aspect of the Law which in this particular instance precedes the chorale line that states that Christ had to endure martyrdom, fear, and ridicule. The canons might represent older, stricter forms of composition that have more stringent requirements for a composer than ‘style galant’ which was becoming quite popular at the time. Perhaps Christ was following a strict universal law that required him to suffer physically in order to bring about the salvation of mankind.

Notice that with Line 2 the cantus firmus begins directly without the preceding imitative entries by the lower voices. All the other voices enter with motifs that differ, this in contrast to Line 1 where each one imitated the other with the same main motif. Now we have only the altos still holding onto the motif, while the tenors execute a very rapid, scale-like descent, while the basses cry out with an octave jump only quickly to revert to the main motif along with the bc. After the sopranos reach their last note on ‘Spott,’ Bach reverses the procedure used directly before Line 1: he now has the lower voices each state the main motif after, instead of before the cantus firmus and still manages a short chordal reiteration of the final words in the line: “Angst und Spott.”

In Interlude 2, Bach introduces in the strings the ‘Trinity’ motif which consists of 3 repeated notes followed immediately by a long note of greater time value than the preceding three. Mattheson in his “Der vollkommene Capellmeister” [Hamburg, 1739, §38 of Part II, Chapter 6] refers to this poetic ‘foot’ [“Klangfuß” = a measure of poetic accents as used in poetry] aa “Paeon” which he interprets as appropriate for a song of praise [“Lobgesang.”] This pattern of 3 shorter, accented syllables/notes followed by a long one is quite familiar to most listeners today as ‘fate knocking on the door’ in the initial, unforgettable motif at the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In any case, Bach’s use of what can be considered a ‘Trinity’ motif is quite suitable in the presentation of a chorale which emphasizes one member of the Trinity, but refers to the connection with the Father. Bach is perhaps reminding us of the other, unmentioned member which is omnipresent, although not specifically referred to in the chorale verse. The bc accompaniment to all this is repeating the affirmation (mm. 21-22) ‘wahr’ Mensch und Gott.

For Line 3 of the chorale, Bach once again has the lower voices enter after the cantus firmus has begun singing, but this time the imitative entrances of the main motif in diminution occur ‘top-down’ from the altos to the tenors and then to the basses in stretto fashion, that is, the following voice enters before the earlier voice has finished stating the short main motif.

When the word ‘Kreuz’ [‘cross’] is reached in the cantus firmus an interesting phenomenon takes place: the Bb is raised to B natural [this may or may not already have been part of Eber’s notation of the chorale melody he used] which symbolizes the raising of the Christ’s cross, but where is the actual cross [“Kreuz” may also mean the sharp sign in German]? Bach inserted it directly before this note as close as he could in order to alert the musicians (2nd violin and altos) with this instance of ‘Augen-Musik’ [‘eye’-music = music which can only be appreciated by the players involved and the readers of the complete score.] In order to accomplish this, Bach had break away from the usual ‘real’ image of the main motif to a ‘tonal’ one by not having the fifth note of the motif drop down by a third as it does in the choral, but rather dropping down by only a full tone/step from which he then moves upward again. The tenors continue, however, with the original motif since the effect that Bach wanted to create as eye-music already had been accomplished right where he wanted it to be. The basses also ‘suffer’ a modification of the main motif and it relates to the chorale text as well: their modification remains on the repeated note one time longer than it should and then, so that immediately after the word ‘starbst’ [‘you died’] in the c. f., they can drop down a third along with a drop of a sixth in the tenor voice. This ‘dropping down dead’ can be perceived musically by the listener as just one instance out of many where Bach uses word-painting. Quite effective is the manner in which Bach closes out this section in the lower voices by having the altos and tenors once again repeat this drop on ‘you finally died’ by descending by a third, but the basses continue on, while the others are still holding the final note, to repeat this motif fragment which this time drops by a seventh with the bc reaching its lowest note that becomes a pedal point.

At this point of death (Interlude 3) all the instruments remain in their lower ranges while the untexted chorale [Agnus Dei: ‘der du trägst die Sünd’ der Welt’ {‘you, Christ, bear the sins of the world’}] is sounded out in solemn, long notes by the recorders. But after this there is a change to the high register of the recorders and the other instruments follow suit. Bach is preparing us for the next line (Line 4) of the chorale which brings great hope to mankind because Christ, after his death, will now be able to procure his Father’s favor for us. An awe-inspiring touch occurs when the sopranos reach the word “Huld” [‘favor’] while the altos, on the word “erwarbst” [‘you procured {for us}], have ‘acquired’ for themselves (this is the only place in the entire movement where this happens) the unique ‘wave’ motif which belongs solely to the instruments. What a wonderful way to illustrate musically ‘to acquire or procure for mankind’ by showing that it has already begun to happen, even if it has not spread to all mankind (the remaining voices) as yet. Notice again the manner of the tag ending right after the sopranos (cantus firmus) reach their last note at the beginning of m. 48: Bach, reiterating in shorter note values, has the bass and tenor parts not drop down just a semi-tone after the three repeated notes in its restatement of the main motif (47th time, so far), but rather makes both parts drop down by thirds (major and minor) after which only a whole tone rather than another subsequent drop by a third occurs, thus allowing these parts to begin stepping up the scale in thirds, signaling an emphasis upon the upward-striving nature of these parts with momentum which continues when the altos join in also singing thirds with the tenors. Now the tenors move up to the highest note sung in this movement (it is reached only twice more with great effect.) This upward emphasis comes after the chorale lines describing Christ’s suffering and death. Here, in Bach’s explication of Line 4, we can already sense the feeling of hope as Christ communes with the Father on our behalf.

Interlude 4, with a reiteration of the Passion Chorale in the bc, prepares the listener for another return to the subject of Christ’s suffering, death, and crucifixion, however this time it is treated not so much as historical facts which are being related, but more as a personally felt response, one in which the listener must attempt to begin to feel the agony of Christ’s ‘bitter suffering.’ Only then can the personal plea for mercy at the climax of this verse of the chorale be truly effective. In order to bring home the sharp pain, Bach, as a master of the economy of means (‘getting the greatest bang for the smallest buck’ as it were), introduces with the help of the recorders the ‘Poignancy’ motif which consists of only five notes, the first three beginning like the main motif which is announced simultaneously for the 55th time by the altos and a chromatically sliding downward interval (a semitone) back to the same note which had begun this motif. This sounds almost like a written-out ornament/grace note with Bach making certain here that note raised by a semitone falls directly on a main beat, thus heightening the effect of dissonance. Add to this Bach’s orchestration which places the dissonant note near the highest range of the recorders (Eb, F, G.) In this high range the recorder players have to blow harder and create a louder, more piercing sound. Add to this the problem of half-holing while attempting to tune the Eb properly, which usually results (except in the hands of the most expert players) in an even greater effort of blowing harder than usual while ‘tuning’ the note. By means of a single note, Bach has created a musical effect which stabs at the heart – a stroke of genius. Bach now attaches this newly transformed motif at the end of each fugue-like entry by the lower voices preceding the entrance of the cantus firmus. By doing so, he has added additional length and the entries of the subsequent lower voices can be delayed longer than they had previously in Line 1. The attachment serves now as a counter-subject to the fugal entry of the next main motif that follows it. Each of the lower voices gets to sing the dissonant interval on the first syllable of the word “Leiden” [“suffering.”] In all, this motif, sometimes played only by the instruments [twice by the recorders,] sometimes colla parte (oboes and strings together with the voices), once only by the bass voice (not continuo), once by the oboes on the word “Leiden” sung by the sopranos (c.f.), and never at all by the bc, altogether a total of six times. This time the tag-ending (mm. 61-62), after the basses soar step-wise up to high Eb, ends with a series of parallel thirds between the tenors and basses.

Interlude 5, along with five iterations of the main motif, also has a restatement of the Passion Chorale in the bc. Then, with the final line of the chorale (Line 6), a fervent prayer that Christ would be merciful with the sinner on earth begins diwith the sopranos singing the cantus firmus after which the fugato entries of the voices begin in descending order, altos, then tenor, followed by the basses. This is comparable only with the delayed entrance and sequence of entries of the lower voices in Line 4. The reiterative tag ending once again moves upward (the tenors reach a high ‘A’) with hope as it did in the immediately preceding lines of the main chorale. The plea/request is being directed upward and before all the voices finish singing this line, the upper string section begins playing the words “gib uns deinen Frieden” [“give us your peace”] as an extension of the plea “be merciful upon me, a sinner.”

After Interlude 6 with the conclusion of the Agnus Dei in the violins, the movement should have found its conclusion, but Bach still wants to show musically how strong our prayer must be: it should be a cry from the bottom of our hearts. He does not simply repeat the last line once again with a cantus firmus, but presents us with a ‘super’ tag-like ending, one in which each voice engages in wide, upward interval jumps. The basses begin by jumping an octave, then the altos jump up a diminished seventh, after which the sopranos, having completely cast aside their role in singing the long, slow notes of the chorale, also jump from a Bb to the high Ab (the highest note the sing in this movement.)

The tenors conclude the entries with an octave jump, not as arresting as that which the sopranos have executed, but nevertheless completing the established pattern for all the entries in this section. The modified motif here is yet another derivative of the all pervasive main motif taken from the incipit of the main chorale. Thus the ending, despite its unusually fervently expressed interval jumps, still remains securely unified with all that has preceded it. The main motif is so solidly embedded throughout this movement (it is stated 78 times during the 80-measure duration of the movement) that it is remarkable that the listener might begin to think that this would be a case of excessive repetition, but it is not due to Bach’s ingenious technique of modifying the simple motif pattern by using variant forms that become very effective tools in helping to express the content of the text and engendering the appropriate feelings in the congregation for which this is an important part of the church service.

 

All snippets from NBA I/8.1
Contributed by Thomas Braatz (November 19-20, 2004)

Cantata BWV 127: Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Examples from the Score: Mvt. 1 -
The Chorale Melody and Text | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

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Discussions: Scores of Bach Cantatas: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Bach’s Manuscripts: | Part 1 | Part 2 | Scoring of Bach's Vocal Works
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Last update: ýSeptember 12, 2008 ý16:18:18