The Sunday known as Sexagesima is one of the few in the 1st half of
the church year that has as its Gospel reading a parable rather than
an episode from the life of Christ. This parable, one of the most easily
understood, is also one of the few that is explicated by Jesus. While
its influence is obvious upon the other two cantatas for this Sunday,
the rather bloodthirsty Luther chorale seems unrelated. The whole cantata
seems conceived in a mood of paranoia and hatred. In those unpleasant
terms it is enormously impressive. Bach had not used a single trumpet
in his orchestral texture for some time in the 2nd Jahrgang and had
never used it in an opening chorus except as a doubling of the cantus
in this Jahrgang. This is somewhat surprising, because this is a common
orchestration in the 1st Jahrgang and in later years. The chorus has
a ferocity and aggressiveness unique in this season. The clarion D trumpet
leads the texture like a beacon.
There has not been a chorus of this kind of chaos and character since BWV 10. In that cantata the multitude of ideas was used to display the agitated, mixed feelings of a young girl. Here, there is a sense of danger all around. Where the military mode in a chorus like BWV 111 was organized and disciplined, here all is pandemonium. Bach carefully cultivates that quality, not only in jumbled presentation of the materials but also in the piled up entrances of the voices in the first chorale phrase. Notice too how the 2nd phrase starts piled upon the first phrase. In “Wachet auf!” we saw how the relationship of the lower voices to the cantus was planned and presented an orderly pattern. Here it seems chaotic and jumbled. When some kind of unity is achieved it is tenaciously held as in the long choral chord at the end of the piece. The last chorus phrase shows not only that tenacity but the rabble-rousing quality that precedes it.
The whole cantata is laid out like a battle. If the chorus is the opening attack, the tenor aria #2 resembles a regrouping. Here some semblance of calm is achieved in the prayerful stance of the tenor and the two oboes. There is still a sense of urgency in the materials and all erupts in a volley of 16ths and 32nds in the B section. One could read the text of the B section as a joyous thing. Bach reads it as vindictive and spiteful. This aria is nevertheless enormously impressive in its warlike fervor.
Perhaps the single most moving thing in this very strong cantata is the chorale with tropes 3rd movement. Here the pattern is different than we have seen before. The alto and tenor sing alternative recitatives, joined by duet performances of phrases from the chorale. Here the recitatives remain tormented and frightened, the joining together gives the impression of the tiny band fighting mighty hostile forces. Each of the chorale phrases is harmonized with ultimate art.
The bass aria text is the most bloodthirsty of all, but the roaring scales and arpeggios in the continuo are presented in an orderly fashion, like soldiers in a row. There is a sense that the battle plan is now complete. Again Bach is at the height of his powers to present something quite unpleasant.
This is the only cantata in the 2nd Jahrgang to use a different chorale at the end than at the beginning. It is as if Bach realizes that a sense of resolution is impossible with this chorale. Instead he presents the great double chorale “Verleih uns Frieden, Gib unsern Fürst’n.” Both chorales are also by Luther and had for at least a hundred years been associated with each other. There are two Schütz settings of the pair, one in the 1647 Symphoniae Sacrae II, one in the Geistliche Chormusic 1648. Schütz clearly associated the pieces with the final peace of Westphalia that ended the terrible 30 Years War. Bach uses them in the same way. Both harmonizations of these chorales are among the greatest things in the 371 chorales. Here the characterization of the subtle differences between the two pieces is remarkable. The dark, melancholy harmonies of the first transform themselves into something lighter and more transparent in the 2nd chorale. The radiance at the words about a calm and quiet life is perhaps the only benediction offered in the whole cantata. Cantata BWV 126 is a great, top drawer Bach piece that says unpleasant and unpopular things. It is one of the few pieces that almost demands some changes in the text for modern performance, especially in a church. Its power is not to be denied, however. It is an important part of the Bach repertoire and cannot be ignored.