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My Bach Pilgrimage – 1714 (Part Three) – Three Part Invention

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, JS Bach on April 29, 2015 at 6:46 pm

After all this time we remain, I am afraid, both 1714 and in Weimar but with three cantatas that underline Bach’s enduring inventiveness.

And we start with a joyous cantata, that in many ways presages his later – and some would say – grander works.

Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten! (BWV 172) (Resound, you songs; ring out, you strings!) was written in May as part of his original contact when joining Weimar. It opens with a jubilant chorus complete with trumpets and timpani in celebration of the seligste Zeiten – blessed times – and is, in miniature, the kind of opening chorus that most people associate with Bach’s cantatas. Think, if you will permit, a shorthand version of the opening chorus of the Christmas Oratorio. Following a short recitative, the subsequent bass aria, Heilige Dreieinigkeit (Most Holy Trinity) continues this celebratory tone with its unusual scoring for trumpets and continuo only. Without another recitative, the mood becomes more contemplative in O Seelenparadies for tenor and unison strings. The simplicity of this aria is further heightened by the sense of moto perpetuo in the strings by which Bach creates the sense of God’s Spirit literally wafting through – Gottes Gesit durchwehet – with some further word painting in the second section at Auf, auf, bereite dich (Rise up, get ready). Before the final chorale, Bach writes a duet but it is effectively a quartet for soprano, alto with oboe d’amore obbligato and elaborate continuo line. The vocal and solo instrumental lines intertwine in what can only be described as an almost sensual rapture as the soprano beseeches the Holy Spirit to “waft” through her heart, with the said Spirit responding with “Ich enquicke dich, mein Kind” (I will refresh you, my child).

Reading up on this cantata, it seems that it was particularly loved by Bach – he revised it for Leipzig, making careful and suitable alterations on at least four different occasions. With its change of mood so effectively negotiated, and the contrast of the jubilant opening movement and the sensuousness of the duet, this cantata is a real gem.

With Advent being the start of the liturgical year, the opening chorus of Nun Komm, Der Heiden Heiland (BWV 61) couldn’t be anything but “mighty”. And that is exactly what Bach gives us – a grand chorus in the style of a French overture. I can’t – at the moment – think of another example in his cantatas, and considering that he only employs strings and no wind, trumpets or timpani, the effect is overwhelmingly sonorous and grand. The fugue at Des Sich wundert alle Welt quite literally gives the sense of the whole world marveling.

There follows a recitative and aria for tenor. The recitative ends with some delicate arioso writing which is reflected in the aria’s gentle, dance-like gait. But it is the subsequent recitative for bass that would have had the congregation sitting up in their seats. While only ten bars in length, this is the crux of the cantata – Jesus himself knocking on the door of the penitent. And Bach underlines the significance of this with the use of pizzicato strings to underline the word klopfe. Simply but incredibly emotive. The final aria, for soprano and continuo only is again deceiving in its simplicity. Bach unwinds a beautifully expansive vocal line. And the cantata ends as grandly as it began, with an exuberant chorus

In complete contrast is the more intimate Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn (BWV 152) originally performed on December 30 1714 and therefore Bach’s last cantata of the year. However, with its use of recorder and oboe, it some ways it feels in some ways richer and opens with a two-part sinfonia, the second part being a fugue. The oboe provides the obbligato for the first aria for bass, and its easy to hear in the scales of both the instrument and soloist the path of faith (Glaubensbahn).

In the next recitative, Bach again employs arioso, before a more contemplative aria for soprano with recorder and viola d’amore obbligato. Despite its brevity, the interplay between the vocal line and two instruments makes this aria remarkable. A perfunctory recitative leads into a closing duet for soprano and bass – Jesus and the Soul – with the ritornello in the orchestra contrasting with the imitative writing in the vocal lines.

By the end of his first year in Weimar, it must have been evident to the people of the town that in Bach they had a exceedingly creative and inventive Konzertmeister.

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