Pamela Dellal, mezzo soprano

 

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Bach Cantata Notes

BWV 77

The text for the Bach Cantata BWV 77 concerns the parable of the Good Samaritan, the theme being the love of God manifested in love of one’s neighbor, which involves recognition of human weakness. The cantata takes the listener/believer on a journey through the progression of God’s commandment to love as the summary of the Law, to humanity’s awareness that carrying out the commandments lies beyond humanity’s capacity.  In essence, the extent that man can emulate God’s love is inseparable from love of one’s neighbor. 

The opening chorus is overflowing with theological and musical numerology and symbolism.  Craig Smith asserts: “the opening chorus is conceptually one of the most brilliant things the composer ever achieved. Here he takes on an issue no smaller than the basis of all New Testament ideas on the bedrock of the Old Testament. The sung text is the new commandment, Christ's addendum to the Ten Commandments (“Thou shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, strength and will all your mind.”). The chorale tune, written by Martin Luther, representing the Ten Commandments appears in canon (which of course also means "law") between the trumpet and the continuo. This is only the beginning, however. The vocal parts are actually diminutions of the chorale theme turned upside down and backwards. Imagine a giant oriental carpet in which the front side is the choral music and the back side is the Old Testament underpinning.”  As if this was not enough detail, the continuo, in canon with the trumpet (moving twice as slow), provides the harmonic and symbolic framework for the “law” upon which the new commandment and humanity hangs. It is as if God’s is omnipresent, above and below. In addition, the trumpet plays ten phrases, the last being ten measures long while the continuo sustains a pedal G for ten measures as the chorus intones the second half of the text (“and love thy neighbor as thyself”). The more personal words of the choral passages, taken from the New Testament (Luke 27) represent an interpretation or summary of the law, departing from the strictness and giving a more human perspective.  Given, or despite, all of this academic and extra-musical baggage, the chorus is quite stunning and, as Smith states, “the total effect is of a gorgeous moving wave. The resultant harmony of the modal chorale melody makes for one of the most harmonically inventive and moving of Bach's great choruses.”

After the complexity of the opening chorus, Bach intentionally simplifies the texture.  In the recitative that follows, the bass prepares the soprano aria through “igniting the mind through the Holy Spirit.”  Gently escorted by two oboes representing the sweetness of God, the soprano aria is an emphatic prayer that the believer will be “enflamed” with love to attain eternal life.  The accompanied tenor recitative, a direct plea for a Samaritan heart, serves as the link from love of God to love of neighbor.   The unique alto aria uses as its obbligato a trumpet. Craig Smith writes: “This is the only time that the trumpet appears as a quiet, soulful instrument rather than as a military presence.”  Furthermore, the tromba di tirarsi,or slide trumpet, is called upon to play a series of pitches that are either not available, or out of tune on the instrument.  The alto lament parallels the trumpet’s imperfection (“unvollkommenheit”) in the believer’s inability to love adequately.  Bach continues this idea of human weakness with the final chorale. The setting of the Luther Chorale Ach Gott vom Himmel sieh darein ends “imperfectly” on the dominant.

© Ryan Turner


The opening chorus of Bach Cantata BWV 77 is conceptually one of the most brilliant things the composer ever achieved. Here he takes on an issue no smaller than the basis of all New Testament ideas on the bedrock of the Old Testament. The sung text is the new commandment, Christ's addendum to the Ten Commandments. The chorale tune representing the Ten Commandments appears in canon (which of course also means "law") between the trumpet and the continuo. This is only the beginning, however. The vocal parts are actually diminutions of the chorale theme turned upside down and backwards. Imagine a giant oriental carpet in which the front side is the choral music and the back side is the Old Testament underpinning. In addition the bass part which moves four times as slow as the trumpet becomes the harmonic underpinning for the whole piece. All of this sounds perhaps academic but the total effect is of a gorgeous moving wave. The resultant harmony of the modal chorale melody makes for one of the most harmonically inventive and moving of Bach's great choruses. The slim soprano aria with two oboes makes the greatest contrast. Here Bach seems to make a great effort to keep counterpoint to a minimum, to make the greatest contrast with the dazzling contrapuntal genius of the opening chorus. The alto aria is unusual. It uses as its obbligato a trumpet. This is the only time that the trumpet appears as a quiet, soulful instrument rather than as a military presence. An austere setting of the Luther Chorale "Ach Gott vom Himmel sieh darein" ends the cantata.

©Craig Smith