The twenty-fifth Sunday after Trinity has for its readings a dual and very different image of the last judgment. The Gospel is a harrowing vision of a descent into Hell. The section from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is one of the most radiant passages from all of the Epistles, a vision of paradise that comes to the blessed. Bach chooses the perfect chorale to illustrate these two points of view, for the text of “Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ” is remarkably of two minds about the Last Judgment. In the very first verse the joyful and positive picture of the Prince of Peace degenerates into a cry for help. Is there something disappointing about this chorus? It is a musically euphonious and wonderfully energetic piece. There is great profile and an interesting shape to it, with simple block statements of the chorale phrases alternating with fugal settings of the bottom three voices underpinning the long notes of the sopranos in the 3 rd and 4 th phrases. All of this would seem fine if the rest of the cantata didn’t live up to a much higher standard. In fact with the trio at the end we have one of the loftiest peaks of Bach’s inspiration, a major theological statement that separates him from virtually all other artists. Why does this opening chorus not measure up? One possible answer that the character of the opening chorus is not what it seems. If one sees those block chorale phrases and the general energy as militaristic – Christ as the soldier, not always the comforter – then the progression of isolation in the alto aria to supplication in the trio becomes more understandable.
The alto aria, with oboe d’amore obbligato, begins with a tortured, jagged melody all the more painful because it is circular and seemingly in a never-ending series of sequences. The continuo seems to ratchet up the thumbscrews. When the voice enters with “Ach” it is unable to finish its sentence. Gradually the horror is spoken and the first 2 lines of text are declaimed. It is interesting that Bach keeps the same kind of declamation for the next lines of text, as if the “Ach” was always in the back of his mind.
Bach reminds us that the chorale described the “Prince of Peace” by using the first phrase as a bass in the tenor recitative #3. It has the inadvertent effect of reminding us of the “traveling” music that Mozart often introduces into his Italian recitatives to denote a passage of time. This has the same effect here, for there is an enormous spiritual gulf between the stuttering, horrified alto aria and the unearthly calm of the trio.
All three of the trios written for the cantatas in the 2 ndJahrgang have a special quality. They are obviously ensembles, but they have no sense of dialogue or love duets that we find in the duets. At the same time they are more personal than the choruses. Our trio here begins calmly, six rhythmically identical phrases each without a downbeat, each like a soft breath of air, followed by a cadence. The three voices enter one by one. One notices that the tenor part is actually identical to the continuo introduction except that it provides downbeats. It actually makes phrases out of a neutral pattern of notes. The imitation of the three voices is very sophisticated. The text underlay is interesting. Bach seizes upon the word “Geduld” ‘mercy’ and repeats it over and over. The third line of text intensifies the longing and the melancholy of the music and makes a modulation to the dominant. After a relentlessly contrapuntal texture, the very personal and heartbreaking confession that our sins broke your (Jesus) heart, and that the pain of Adam made you come into this world, is set in blocks. Very close and rich faux bourdon harmony personalizes this whole middle section. The work is in a very complex da capo form. The whole first 39 bars are repeated and a long section using the third line of text is newly composed to end the work in the tonic. The emotional distance traveled from the alto aria to this point is almost unequaled in all of Bach. The renewed ferocity of the string entrance in the alto recitative almost makes the trio seem like a circumscribed event. The effect is very like the renewing of the action after the soprano aria “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” in the St. Matthew Passion. The final chorale has the same strange emotional neutrality of the opening chorus.