Pamela Dellal, mezzo soprano

 

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Bach Cantata Notes

BWV 166Wo gehest du hin?

Our cantata can only be understood, as Craig Smith explains, through the “ambiguous and strange reading from the Gospel of John 16:5-15.  In Jesus’ speech to the disciples about his going away, he announces that they would all be stuck if he were not to leave them and that the “Advocate” (the Church) were not to replace him.” Today’s cantata begins with Christ’s question to the disciples.

Bach, not constrained by any set movement structure, abandons the opening chorus, choosing rather to start the cantata with a bass aria – the voice of Christ.  The reduced forces express the uncertain, disjointed character of the text. The singer ends in the dominant posing a sort of musical and rhetorical question, leaving the orchestra to find its way back to the home key. The elegantly crafted tenor aria lays out the choices – Heaven or Hell, to go or to stay. The violin part is lost but has been reconstructed by Alfred Dürr from a version of the piece as a violin trio sonata. The sopranos sing the simple, unadorned chorale tune  “Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut” above an upper string obbligato line of wide reaching intervals and unrelenting energy.  The juxtaposition of the unwavering chorale tune against the wandering string lines might suggest the inherent struggle between doubt and salvation. The lecturing tone of the bass recitative reminds the believer to prepare now for the spirit, for you don’t know when it will arrive. The alto aria, the only movement in the major mode, is wrought with ironic imagery.  As Craig Smith writes, the aria “manages to smile and yet contain the undertow of the last judgment that is implicit in its text.”  A transparent and straightforward harmonization of “Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten” harkens back to the uncertainty of the opening movement.

© Ryan Turner




After Easter, Bach’s first cantata cycle included several large masterpieces such as last week’s Cantata BWV 104. In addition there are several exquisite smaller-scale works, including today’s cantata BWV 166. The strangeness and ambiguity of all of the readings from the Gospel of John after Easter come to a climax with Jesus’ speech to the disciples about his going away. Jesus announces that they would all be stuck if he were not to leave them and that the “Advocate” were not to replace him. It becomes clear by Pentecost that the advocate is the Church. The superb text for today’s cantata begins with Christ’s question to the disciples. The gentle questioning music for oboe and strings manages to be both ambiguous and deeply profound. The sweet expressive melismas for the voice of Christ are laid across the caressing and gentle strings and oboe. The piece rightly ends with a question mark. The profound tenor aria lays out the choices – Heaven or Hell, to go or to stay. The piece is in the form of an elegant sonata à 4. The violin part is lost but has been reconstructed by Alfred Dürr from a version of the piece as a violin trio sonata. The Chorale “Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut” appears in an arrangement with all the strings playing a wide-reaching and melancholy line against the tune in the sopranos. The alto aria manages to smile and yet contain the undertow of the last judgment that is implicit in its text. A rich harmonization of “Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten” ends the cantata.

©Craig Smith