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Bach Cantata Notes

BWV 13

Today’s cantata uses a text by J.C Lehms, of which Bach had set two texts in his Weimar tenure, the solo cantatas BWV 54 for alto and 199 for soprano. These two texts are among the most mannerist in style in all of Bach. Both of them engage in a kind of extreme self-flagellation that is more reminiscent of Brockes, the poet of the St. John Passion and, in English, the poetry of Andrew Marvel. While most of the Lehms texts that Bach set in 1725 and 1726 are less violent, one of them, our cantata BWV 13, is rather like BWV 199.
Lehms, in the best Pietistic manner, personalizes Christ’s struggle. The opening tenor aria is a vivid picture of the sinner’s painful struggle. It would seem that Bach consciously undercuts the most extravagant aspects of the text by the interesting and cool orchestration. Two recorders pitched quite high play a poignant duet above a meandering and expressive oboe da caccia line and an active bass. It is one of the most distinctive and strange orchestrations in Bach. By having this warm oboe da caccia line in the range of the tenor underneath the two recorders, a kind of haunting twilight character is projected. The aria is large, a full da capo with a generous B section. Bach seems to be aware that a continuously chromatic harmonic language in a text as long as this cantata could become tedious. He thus limits it to certain expressive moments and for the most part keeps a kind of melancholy minor mode as the primary harmonic color.
The secco alto recitative is also kept at a relatively low temperature except for a striking passage on the word “flehen.” The chorale for alto with strings is amazingly poised. Lehms has chosen a particularly breast-beating verse of the chorale “Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele.” The scoring is interesting. The strings play a rather warm and emotionally neutral tutti. The voice is doubled by both the oboe da caccia and at the octave by the recorders. This doubling amounts to emotional baggage from the 1st movement. It is again not a sound one would expect and puts the listener on guard for something unusual.
After a secco soprano recitative comes one of the strangest pieces in all of Bach. Again for the third time Bach comes up with a very distinctive orchestration. Here a solo violin is doubled by the two recorders, to produce a whining, whistling kind of sound for what is probably the most torturous chromatic line in all of his music. The two recorders and violin most resemble a theremin, that odd early 20th-century instrument that is now inextricably associated with science fiction movies. By choosing an obbligato that is heavily colored by recorders, the most dynamically inexpressive of instruments, Bach puts a certain distance between the listener and the intensity of the chromatic line. Almost as strange as the harmony is the use of large sweeping gestures by the obbligato, which must by definition sound miniaturized, almost humorous. A gorgeous, euphonious harmonization of “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen” ends the cantata. As fascinating as this work is, and the editors of the old Bach Gesellschaft clearly found it interesting (it is the first chamber work that they included in their edition), it must be counted as a peculiarity. Bach goes to such extreme lengths to save an unsaveable text that he has written something in the end that is more odd than touching.

©Craig Smith


Around Christmas in the 3rd Jahrgang Bach began using the texts of J. C. Lehms for his cantatas. He had set two texts of Lehms in his Weimar tenure, BWV 54 and 199. These two texts are among the most mannerist in style in all of Bach. Both of them engage in a kind of extreme self-flagellation that is more reminiscent of Brockes, the poet of the St. John Passion and, in English, the poetry of Andrew Marvel. While most of the Lehms texts that Bach set in 1725 and 1726 are less violent, one of them, our cantata BWV 13, is rather like BWV 199. The reading for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany is the description of the Wedding at Cana in the Gospel according to John. While this is basically a joyful event, the moment when Jesus tells his mother that he is not ready to go on his journey has been interpreted as a prediction of his torturous journey and passion. All three cantatas use this theme as their primary theme, and as a group they are among the most somber of all the cantatas.

Lehms, in the best Pietist manner, personalizes Christ’s struggle. The opening tenor aria is a vivid picture of the sinner’s painful struggle. It would seem that Bach consciously undercuts the most extravagant aspects of the text by the interesting and cool orchestration. Two recorders pitched quite high play a poignant duet above a meandering and expressive oboe da caccia line and an active bass. It is one of the most distinctive and strange orchestrations in Bach. By having this warm oboe da caccia line in the range of the tenor underneath the two recorders, a kind of haunting twilight character is projected. The aria is large, a full da capo with a generous B section. Bach seems to be aware that a continuously chromatic harmonic language in a text as long as this cantata could become tedious. He thus limits it to certain expressive moments and for the most part keeps a kind of melancholy minor mode as the primary harmonic color.

The secco alto recitative is also kept at a relatively low temperature except for a striking passage on the word “flehen.” The chorale for alto with strings is amazingly poised. Lehms has chosen a particularly breast-beating verse of the chorale “Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele.” The scoring is interesting. The strings play a rather warm and emotionally neutral tutti. The voice is doubled by both the oboe da caccia and at the octave by the recorders. This doubling amounts to emotional baggage from the 1st movement. It is again not a sound one would expect and puts the listener on guard for something unusual.

After a secco soprano recitative comes one of the strangest pieces in all of Bach. Again for the third time Bach comes up with a very distinctive orchestration. Here a solo violin is doubled by the two recorders, to produce a whining, whistling kind of sound for what is probably the most torturous chromatic line in all of his music. The two recorders and violin most resemble a theramin, that odd early 20th-century instrument that is now inexticably associated with science fiction movies. By choosing an obbligato that is heavily colored by recorders, the most dynamically inexpressive of instruments, Bach puts a certain distance between the listener and the intensity of the chromatic line. Almost as strange as the harmony is the use of large sweeping gestures by the obbligato, which must by definition sound miniaturized, almost humorous. A gorgeous, euphonious harmonization of “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen” ends the cantata. As fascinating as this work is, and the editors of the old Bach Gesellschaft clearly found it interesting (it is the first chamber work that they included in their edition), it must be counted as a peculiarity. Bach goes to such extreme lengths to save an unsaveable text that he has written something in the end that is more odd than touching.

©Craig Smith