Pamela Dellal, mezzo soprano


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Bach Cantata Notes

BWV 33

The parable of the Good Samaritan brought forth from Bach in his first Leipzig cycle one of the greatest of all his choruses (BWV 77) and one of the profoundest reactions to that parable in all of art. The second year’s piece is less reactive to the specific parable and more general in its sentiments. The chorale for this cantata is “Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ.” This is its only setting in all of the Bach cantatas and itwas never set by him as an organ chorale prelude. It is a long melody in nine phrases, in Bar form with a distinctively constructed Abgesang. Perhaps the most curious thing about this chorale is its unusual implied harmony. The very first phrase clearly goes from the minor key to its relative major. Throughout the chorale, although not really modal, major cadences play a heightened role. The peculiar penultimate phrase in the Abgesang, much shorter than all of the others, reverts to this modulation to the relative major. This kind of tonal ambiguity usually brings out in Bach a strong taste for chromatic writing. Here that is not the case. Rather, he gives the movement an unusual breadth so as to encompass these tonal peculiarities. From the beginning, the work has a kind of grandeur that is not immediately related to the words. Even the opening scale passages, adding instrument upon instrument, is something that we associate with grand trumpet and drum pieces like the first part of the Christmas Oratorio or the opening chorus of the secular cantata “Schleicht, spielende Wellen.”

The chorus’s rather chilly grandeur makes the astounding alto aria that follows even more personal and striking. Bach writes so many different kinds of music that we are accustomed to say that “this sounds like Brahms” or “this sounds like Schumann” but our aria here truly sounds like “the blues.” The melody, with its depressed flatted sixth and lazy rhythmic loping quality, is an uncanny prediction of that style. The pizzicato lower strings and the muted first violins only strengthen the resemblance. The aria is a very long full da capo, something needed to balance the breadth of the opening chorus. One notices that in the fifth line of text, the only bright spot, Bach uses the same sixths in the vocal line that we saw in the second theme of the first chorus.

The tenor recitative contains only a passing reference to the themes of the Good Samaritan. The duet emphasizes the closeness of God to man by the continual sixths that connect the tenor to the bass voice and the thirds that link the two oboes. There are moments in this wonderful and energetic duet that remind us of passages in the opening chorus. While there are no actual quotations from the chorale, the work obviously is meant by Bach to recapitulate ideas in the opening. The final chorale harmonization is austere, even harsh in its grandeur.

©Craig Smith