Top 10 Word Paintings in Bach’s Cantatas

Me, in so far as the cantatas are concerned.

Hoorah! I’m done with the cantatas!

I have listened to all 84 of the ones that are in dad’s collection, some of them in duplicate, triplicate, or even, erm, quadruplicate. I have listened to them from my couch, my computer, my bed, the subway (once or twice while mariachi bands or hip-hop heads competed for my attention from outside my headphones), the street, the grocery store. I have hit roadblocks. I have stopped for a week or more at a time. I have dosed myself with interludes of AC/DC. But I am finally, finally, done.

It was worth it, I think. It will be easier going from here, even though there are still such things as 12-CD sets of Bach organ works lurking. Easier, not only because the cantatas were the single biggest hump to get over, the Wednesday of all Wednesdays, but because I have learned a little something about Bach’s technique that I think/hope/wish/pray/plead/beg will make listening to the rest of his stuff more fruitful.

The main thing is this. Bach frequently puts his music to work to support the words in these cantatas. (Or, as James Gaines puts it in “Evening in the Palace of Reason”: “His music follows text the way roses follow a trellis.”) And I’m pretty sure that I’m going to run into some of these images again in his music without words.

Herewith, I proudly present the results of these past weeks of cantata-pounding: my 10 favorite instances of word painting in Bach’s cantatas.

10. U.N.I.T.Y, THAT’S A UNITY

BWV 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Sleepers, wake)

This is essentially a wedding cantata, I am told by the liner notes of one of the recordings, “representing the union of Christ and the human soul.” There are two soprano and baritone duets in this work, the first before the union has occurred (“When are you coming, my lord?” sings the soprano), and the second, after (“O friend, thou art mine!”). Bach’s technique here is so simple – in the first duet, the soprano and the baritone sing separately, and in the second, mostly together, representing union – and so, so effective.

Wann kommst du

Mein Freund ist mein

BWV 67, Halt im Gedachtnis Jesum Christ (Hold in remembrance Jesus Christ)

Here, we have sort of the opposite idea. The second movement in this work is a duet between chorus, representing mankind, and bass, representing God. This time, Bach uses frantic, bustling overlays of string and voice when the chorus is singing, and a much calmer, slower backdrop when the bass is singing, “Peace be unto you.” The image I get is of man like a baffled herd of sheep, looking for its shepherd.

Friede sei mit euch

9. COOL, CLEAR WATER

BWV 132, Bereitet die Wege Bereitet die Bahn (Prepare the paths, prepare the road)

The next to last movement in this work is about baptism “washing all our sins away.” Julian Mincham writes at his epic Bach cantata Web site, which I have relied on heavily in all my listening, that “Bach seldom neglects opportunities of creating musical images of cleansing water when mention is made of the act of baptism.” This is a beautiful example, with the violin throughout the piece representative of the cleansing movement of water.

Wasserquelle

BWV56, Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (I will gladly carry the cross-staff)

This is one of several pieces Bach wrote solely for bass. As an aside, these cantatas are among the most beautiful that he wrote. In the first recitative here, as the bass sings that “My sojourn in the world is like a voyage in a boat,” the cello plays a simple melody evoking the rocking of a boat. As the bass finishes the line, “And when the raging foam has ended,” so too does the cello line end.

Sein Ende hat

8. YOUR BEAST OF BURDEN

BWV 31, Der Himmel lacht, die Erde Jubilieret (The heavens laugh, the earth rejoices)

BWV 129, Gelobet sei der Herr mein Gott (Praised be the lord my God)

Mincham writes that Bach frequently used broken melodies to symbolize Christ’s burden, and these two bass arias are excellent examples. The text in both of these works is about Jesus dying on the cross. The string stumble and stutter and gulp, and an image of someone carrying something very heavy up a hill comes easily to mind.

Kreuzes1

Kreuzes2

7. KNOCK KNOCK KNOCKIN’ ON HEAVEN’S DO-O-OR

BWV 61, Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland (Now come, savior of the heathens)

The bass recitative in this work starts like this: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” As the voice begins, the entire piece of music stands up and makes a knocking sound. Writes Mincham, “The pizzicato effect replicates the ‘knocking at the door’ referred to in the text. The string voicings, particularly with the addition of the two viola lines, create a four-part texture above the continuo, producing an eerie, almost supernatural effect. Even the vocal line briefly replicates the sounds and actions of ‘knocking.’”

Klopfe an

6. I CAN HEAR THEM BELLS, ARE RINGING JOYFUL AND TRIUMPHANT

BWV 73, Herr wie du willt (Lord, do with me as you will)

“Lord, if you will, though knell of death be sounding,” sings the bass, and surely that IS the knell of death, heard in the plucked strings.

Leichenglocken

BWV 161, Komm du susse Todesstunde (Come, sweet hour of death)

One of Bach’s repeated themes is that the righteous should not fear death, for it will be sweet. This is a premiere example of how he illustrates that idea. Just listen to that soprano line and string interplay as she sings, “Strike the hour when I may rest in piece.”

Schlage doch

5. THIS IS THE GLOAMING

BWV 4, Christ Lag in Todesbanden (Christ lay in death’s bonds)

The tenor uses his aria here to sing about Christ’s rising. “Nothing remains of death but a shadow,” he sings, as the violin line completely alters, and then stops.

Den Tods gestalt

4. QUICKER THAN A RAY OF LIGHT SHE’S FLYING

BWV 63, Christen atzet diesen tag (Christians, mark this day)

You know how light looks when there’s a gap in the clouds, and just one ray of sunshine has managed to poke its way through, and refract around like it thinks it’s mist? That’s what the chorus sounds like here, as it belts out this line: “See the ray from heaven darts, it’s a sign of grace and mercy.”

Der Strahl

3. CAN’T TOUCH THIS

BWV 201, Phoebus & Pan

As I’ve written elsewhere, Bach occasionally enjoyed himself a secular aria. Phoebus & Pan is one of them, based on the mythological contest between Apollo (Phoebus) and Marsyas (Pan). Mincham says this cantata is basically an attack on “low” art, as represented by Pan. And what a glorious attack! Pan cracks me up when, in his farce of an aria about dancing and singing, he belts out this line: “so wack-wack-wack-wack-elt das Herz” (“the heart happily sways”). The horrifyingly obvious minor key slide on “Wenn der Ton zu muhsam klingt” (“When the music sounds too laborious”) is also fun. And, as Mincham points out, Bach actually makes the violins sound like braying asses when the misguided Midas declares that “to both my ears,” Pan is the master.

Wackelt das Herz

Zu muhsam klingt

Braying of asses

2. DU, DU HAST MICH, DU HAST MICH GEFRAGT

BWV 76, Die Himmel erzahlen die ehre Gottes (The heavens are telling the glory of God)

Most of the time, the only way I could truly pay attention to these cantatas was to put them on, sit down facing the stereo, liner notes in hand, and *listen* to them. It was too easy, if I put them on and puttered around doing housework or what not, to entirely lose track of them as they burbled along, so much background noise. There were only a few exceptions. The tenor aria in BWV 76 is one of them. “Hate ye me, hate ye me well. Foul fiends of Hell,” he sings, and even if you were, say, watching kittens tumble around playing, this would still grab your attention. This was one of Bach’s first works to be performed at Leipzig, and Mincham writes that this aria, which creates a “weirdly tortuous quality of revulsion,” must “have alerted the congregation to the fact that with the appointment of Herr Bach, they were going to be startled if not shocked from time to time.”

Hasse mich recht

1. BUILD ME UP BUTTERCUP

BWV80, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott  

This translates as “A mighty fortress is our God,” and is based on the Luther hymn that anyone who’s ever been to church is familiar with. The entirety of the opening movement is Bach at his most epic word painting. As the liner notes put it, “The symbolic effect of the chorale resounding from top and bottom of the orchestra truly achieves the effect of ‘a mighty fortress.’” Have a listen.

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