Pamela Dellal, mezzo soprano

 

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Bach Cantata Notes

BWV 101

The plea for the use of diverse gifts in the passage from Corinthians, that is paired with the prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem from Luke as designated readings for the tenth Sunday after Trinity, seems to bring from Bach an unusual variety of treatments of the chorale tune ”Vater unser im Himmelreich.” It is one of the chorales that play a major role in Bach’s creative output. Two significant organ settings are in the so-called Kirnberger collection, one of a strict fugal variety. The other is more interesting in the manner of the first”Nun komm” or ”Schmücke dich” from the Leipzig chorales. It is a surprising piece, with a treatment that we don’t expect from this austere melody. The two other organ chorale preludes are in the third part of the Clavierübung. The larger setting is one of the mightiest of all the chorale preludes in the literature.

Bach was, in his first Leipzig year, intensely interested in presenting chorales in elaborate canonic guise. In the 2nd Leipzig year, a much more direct treatment is used. Thus the kind of canonic intricacy characteristic of the 3rd part of the “Clavierübung” from 1739 and the cantatas from 1723-24 is virtually absent from the cantatas of 1724-25.

The opening chorus of Cantata BWV 101 is one of the mightiest and grandest of all of Bach’s choruses. It is unique in that trombones and cornetto are used to double the voices not in an austere neo-Renaissance type piece, but one with elaborate independent orchestral parts. The beginning texture before the entrance of the chorus and brass is, in fact, unusually thick with a seven-part texture above the continuo line. An aggressive, marching theme is played surrounded by rich wind chords. Winds and strings trade places throughout the introduction. A little “sighing” theme is used to introduce the cadence. It will become more significant throughout the movement. The actual entrance of the chorus is played against this 2nd theme and produces some of the most dissonant passages in all of Bach. One must emphasize the use of this word, as opposed to the kind of smooth chromaticism that we have become used to in Bach. Here the clashes are aggressive and unresolved. One of the most striking things about this chorus is the many changes of texture that occur. We might expect, particularly after the density of the opening tutti and the harrowing dissonance of the choral entrance, that this will be sustained throughout the movement. While these ideas are pursued, there are two startling spots after the 3rd and 5th chorale phrases where the texture in the orchestra thins out to a bare bones, almost minimalist statement of the “sighing” theme, accompanied by a continually descending bass line. The second of these episodes in particular is so extended that the dense entrance of the voices and bass at 213 is almost a relief.

The tenor aria is with flute or violin obbligato. There are quite a few arias in the cantatas where either of these two instruments can be used. Like many of them the violin is preferable, the flute being too sweet for these uncompromising words. The tenor and the instrumental obbligato never play the same material, and the aria has the disquieting quality of two people in a conversation talking past each other, something perfectly suited to these words. As with cantata BWV 93, there are two recitative-with-trope movements. The first, with soprano, is accompanied by a bare-bones dotted-note figure in the continuo. The harmonic language keeps up the dual nature that we saw in the tenor aria. The chorale setting is solidly in d minor, with the recitatives keep trying to move to the major mode.

The bass aria #4 is structurally distinctive. It seems to change its mind in mid-stream on what it is about. The three oboes play a fiery Vivace introduction , laden with close imitation among the three oboes. One imagines that this will be another chorale verse with tropes, for the bass voice sings the first line of the tune, then takes off in a torrent of sixteenth notes against the same oboe material as the introduction. This pattern is repeated, but rather far into the piece the motion comes to a halt. The voice sings what at first sounds like recitative material, and the three oboes begin to play in quarter notes the complete chorale tune. This is the real body of the aria, and we realize that all that came before was introductory material. Bach seldom keeps the listener in the dark for that long. This is the very center of the cantata and one has a sense that Bach has reached the core of what he wants to say about this chorale.

The next movement is another chorale with tropes. The continuo plays a winding sequence based upon the chorale as the tenor sings the tune followed by recitative interjections. It is most interesting in the complete unpredictability of the juxtaposition of the tune upon the sequence. Its very unpredictability is another unsettling way that Bach wants us to hear this tune. One would think that the cantata is about ready to end but Bach has reserved the greatest section for last, and writes one of the profoundest duets in all of the literature. We have shown how Bach in this work wants the chorale at all times to be very clearly delineated. Unlike the intellectualism of several of the organ versions, the idea of the melody as the main communicative device with the congregation remains paramount.

In the extraordinary duet for soprano, alto, flute and oboe da caccia, the melody remains intact but is always played in tandem with a gentle and heartbreakingly melancholy Siciliano. The chorale never appears unless this figure is played in another voice. After so much unremitting harshness in the characterization of the chorale tune, the extraordinary sad beauty of this movement is intensified. Each of the Bach cantatas contain some kind of resolution of the tension resulting from the argument, but none is more welcome or more moving than this movement in BWV 101.

After such extraordinary variety in the various movements of this cantata Bach ends with a four-voice chorale setting that is emotionally neutral but granite-like in its solidity.

©Craig Smith