Pamela Dellal, mezzo soprano

 

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Bach Cantata Notes

BWV 26

BWV 26 is a short, yet compelling masterpiece with a strong sense of “last things.” The chorale tune, “Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig,” is unusual. In six phrases, the tune is boxy, limited to one melodic register and magnificent. There is something so eminently right about the character of the tune with its content. The first verse goes thus: “Ah how fleeting, Ah how nothing, is the life of mortals! Like a mist that quickly rises, and is quickly vanished. So is our life. Behold!” Bach is remarkably consistent in his treatment of this text. In the Orgelbüchlein setting, running chords punctuated by an angry and repetitive bass line underpin the short punchy phrases. Those same scales are found in the opening movement of the cantata, but are here made even more aggressive with the punched eighth notes of the winds and strings. Virtually no bar is without the scale passages. In addition another little figure is passed around, further punctuating the scales. The bass line is either limited to the scales or creates aggressive sequences that further underpin the anger. For all of its speed, this is an extremely weighty movement with three very active and honking oboes. The chorus part is equally impressive. The soprano punches out the little phrases in half notes the other three voices shout eighth notes underneath, sometimes in block chords, but as often or not in octaves. The whole chorus is about 2 minutes and 15 seconds long.

The tenor aria, as befits the text, is more liquid, but if anything, even speedier than the opening chorus. It is one of the most virtuoso arias in all of Bach. If the melismas in the A section seem fleet, look at what happens in the B section as rapid repeated sixteenth notes of the ‘separating drops of water plunge in to the abyss.’ The orchestra sonority is ingenious, solo violin with flute, often playing in unison, often playing in canon. The resultant sound is glassy and harmonically slippery. The secco recitative for the alto begins with an elaborate melisma, as if Bach has some compulsion to keep the speed going.

In the bass aria the first effect is of anger, not speed, although the voice part goes into hair-raisingly fast divisions. The ‘searing lusts’ and ‘earthly treasures’ of the text call to mind Jesus’ warning in today’s gospel reading from Mark. At the end of the B section there is a jackbooted, stomping quality to the three oboes tooting out their square theme. It is hard to think of any Bach piece that rails against its fate quite as much as this. The little soprano recitative tries to give a note of benediction, but the foursquare, loud harmonization of the final chorale effectively squelches that. Yet the final line of the chorale offers some thread of consolation.

©Craig Smith, adapted by Ryan Turner


There is a strong eschatological bent to the readings at the end of the Sundays after Trinity. Although the twenty-fourth Sunday’s reading is about the raising of the rich ruler’s daughter, in both of Bach’s cantatas for that Sunday there is a sense of “last things.” The cantata that Bach had written for this Sunday in the 1st Jahrgang< is one of his colossal small masterpieces , cantata BWV 60 “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort.” Our cantata here, BWV 26, is equally short and a very different type of masterpiece. The chorale tune, “Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig,” is unusual. In six phrases, the tune is boxy, limited to one melodic register and magnificent. The first two phrases are short, one bar each, the last four are a bit longer, two bars each. There is something so eminently right about the character of the tune with its content. The first verse goes thus: “Ah how fleeting, Ah how nothing, Is the life of mortals! Like a mist that quickly rises, And is quickly vanished. So is our life. Behold!” Bach is remarkably consistent in his treatment of this text. In the Orgelbüchlein setting, running chords punctuated by an angry and repetitive bass line underpin the short punchy phrases. Those same scales are found in the opening movement of the cantata, but are here made even more aggressive with the punched eighth notes of the winds and strings. Virtually no bar is without the scale passages. In addition another little figure is passed around, further punctuating the scales. The bass line is either limited to the scales or creates aggressive sequences that further underpin the anger. For all of its speed, this is an extremely weighty movement with three very active and honking oboes. The chorus part is equally impressive. The soprano punches out the little phrases in half notes the other three voices shout eighth notes underneath, sometimes in block chords, but as often or not in octaves. The whole chorus is about 2 minutes and 15 seconds long. We saw a chorus almost this brief and this fast in BWV 115, but here all the other movements are quick

The tenor aria #2 is, as befits the text, more liquid, but if anything, even speedier. It is one of the most virtuoso arias in all of Bach. If the melismas in the A section seem fleet, look at what happens in the B section. The orchestra sonority is ingenious, solo violin with flute, often playing in unison, often playing in canon. The resultant sound is glassy and harmonically slippery. The secco recitative for the alto begins with an elaborate melisma, as if Bach has some compulsion to keep the speed going.

In the da capo bass aria #4, the first effect is of anger, not speed, although the voice part goes into hair-raisingly fast divisions. At the end of the B section there is a jackbooted, stomping quality to the three oboes tooting out their square theme. It is hard to think of any Bach piece that rails against its fate quite as much as this. The little soprano recitative tries to give a note of benediction, but the four-square, loud harmonization of the final chorale effectively squelches that.

This is one of the most effective and distinctive cantatas in the whole repertoire. It is difficult to see how it squares with the theology of the time or for that matter any mainsream idea of Christianity. Clearly the ferocity of Bach’s vision carries it into a realm beyond any kind of theological orthodoxy.

©Craig Smith