Pamela Dellal, mezzo soprano

 

uncommon intelligence, imagination and textual awareness...
PDme

 

 

Bach Cantata Notes

BWV 123


“Dearest Emmanuel (God with us), Prince of the believers, salvation of my soul, come, come soon!”
The text, and its setting, with the constant presence of the initial motive, “Liebster Emmanuel,” insists on the bestowal of a name, Emmanuel.  This naming – “God with us” – combines the anticipation of Advent along with its official designation of Epiphany, the journey of the wise men.
Only two cantatas from the Feast of Epiphany survive by Bach. In addition there is, of course, the sixth part of the Christmas Oratorio. Both the Christmas Oratorio and Cantata BWV 65 are directly related to the story of the wise men. For some reason in the 2nd Jahrgang, Bach's libretto has hardly a reference to the Epiphany. There certainly is a touch of Orientalism about the opening chorus, but otherwise the text and character is firmly ensconced in the world of self-denial and rejection. The opening chorus is one of the most insistently monothematic pieces that Bach ever wrote. This initial movement is like the designs on the walls of the Alhambra, the name of God woven into a constant, all-over design, so omni-present that it forms, along with the constantly circling melodic line, a tapestry without foreground and background. Every single bar is permeated with the repeated note bell-like figure that opens the cantata. Bach goes to great lengths to introduce variety in both the phrasing and the harmonic underpinnings of the one theme. But the chorale tune is very long, and one has a feeling that this is a very daring and resourceful experiment that didn't quite succeed.
After a secco alto recitative, first aria with two oboes d'amore finds us making the hard journey of the cross, replete with a sudden jarring storm, all of which, the tenor assures us in a rather nervous way, doesn’t scare him. Here the long, arching chromatic phrases of the oboes create a perfect picture of the “Kreuzesreise.” The form of this da capo is unusual. The first phrase of the B section is a fiery allegro, the last two are in the opening Lento tempo, but rather free, almost recitative-like in their character.
The secco bass recitative introduces harrowing new dangers remarkably uncharacterized. The aria is interesting. The bass claims he is willing to accept the world’s disdain “in melancholy loneliness” (notice the wonderful little twists of melody and harmony that suggest this state, in a generally brave and optimistic context).
Clearly the solo flute for Bach implies a lonely Pastorale element. The tune itself is folksy, but its development and combination is resourceful. The chorale is block-like, so extreme in its lack of internal counterpoint that Bach must have had something in mind, but it is a mystery what it was. It falls to us performers and listeners, to pursue this question, and the other fascinating ambiguities and curiosities found in Cantata 123.

©Craig Smith & John Harbison


Only two cantatas from the Feast of Epiphany survive by Bach. In addition there is, of course, the sixth part of the Christmas Oratorio. Both the Christmas Oratorio and Cantata BWV 65 are directly related to the story of the wise men. For some reason in the 2nd Jahrgang, Bach's libretto has hardly a reference to the Epiphany. There certainly is a touch of Orientalism about the opening chorus, but otherwise the text and character is firmly ensconced in the world of self-denial and rejection. The opening chorus is one of the most insistently monothematic pieces that Bach ever wrote. Every single bar is permeated with the repeated note bell-like figure that opens the cantata [#1 Bar 1,2 oboe d'amore 1]. The chorale is irregular in form: four phrases that are then repeated. The second section has three phrases that are also repeated in the four-voice version at the end but are not in the opening chorus. Bach goes to great lengths to introduce variety in both the phrasing and the harmonic underpinnings of the one theme. But the chorale tune is very long, and one has a feeling that this is a very daring and resourceful experiment that didn't quite succeed. Another problem is that nothing in the text or the readings for the day really supports the notion of bell-ringing of this magnitude.

After a secco alto recitative, the tenor aria with two oboes d'amore comes as a complete contrast. Here the long, arching chromatic phrases of the oboes create a perfect picture of the “Kreuzesreise.” The form of this da capo is unusual. The first phrase of the B section is a fiery allegro, The last two are in the opening Lento tempo, but rather free, almost recitative-like in their character.

The secco bass recitative introduces harrowing new dangers remarkably uncharacterized. The aria is interesting. Clearly the solo flute for Bach implies a lonely Pastorale element. The tune itself is folky, but its development and combination is resourceful. This aria is also a da capo, perhaps a bit unvaried for its length. The chorale is block-like, so extreme in its lack of internal counterpoint that Bach must have had something in mind, but it is a mystery what it was.

©Craig Smith


“Dearest Emmanuel (God with us), Prince of the believers, salvation of my soul, come, come soon!”

The text, and its setting, with the constant presence of the initial motive, “Liebster Emmanuel,” insists on the bestowal of a name, Emmanuel.  This naming – “God with us” – embodies the anticipation of Jesus’ coming, making the cantata more appropriate for Advent than for its official designation, Epiphany, the journey of the wise men, who are never mentioned in the text.

The initial movement is like the designs on the walls of the Alhambra, the name of God woven into a constant, all-over design, so omni-present that it forms, along with the constantly circling melodic line, a tapestry without foreground and background.  Craig Smith, who once characterized this cantata as ”a string of interesting failures,” remarks that “this chorus is a very daring and resourceful experiment that doesn’t quite succeed.”  Emmanuel’s season began with half of Bach’s top ten cantata masterpieces, it will be interesting for our listeners to react for a few weeks to some of the least visited cantatas.  Are they failed experiments, are they hidden treasures?

The first aria finds us making the hard journey of the cross, replete with a sudden jarring storm, all of which, the tenor assures us in a rather nervous way, doesn’t scare him.

Then the bass claims he is willing to accept the world’s disdain “in melancholy loneliness” (notice the wonderful little twists of melody and harmony that suggest this state, in a generally brave and optimistic context).

So a hard personal journey, sad isolation, war with the world – aren’t these frequent Advent problems, justification for locating the piece in this time of year?

About the final Chorale, Craig Smith again demurs: “The Chorale is block-like, so extreme in its lack of internal counterpoint that Bach must have had something in mind, but it is a mystery what it was.”  It falls to us, performers and listeners, to pursue this question, and the other fascinating ambiguities and curiosities found in Cantata 123.

© John Harbison