Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (Actus Tragicus), Bach’s first masterpiece in the cantata genre, may have been written for the funeral of his uncle. The work alludes to an older generation of compositions. Even the orchestration - two recorders, two violas da gamba, and continuo - gives the work a distinctly ‘ancient’ quality. The cantata is virtually through-composed, rather like a motet, with each line of text signaling a complete musical change of character, The chorale overlay (both instrumental and vocal) and interplay of scripture are of great sophistication throughout.
The opening Sonatina, warm and hushed, illustrates an important metaphor of the cantata, relating death to a peaceful and welcome sleep. The writing for violas da gamba is comfortingly linear, while the recorders wide pleading intervals, suggest the more yearning and restless quality pervasive in the piece.
In the first chorus (a motet, really) the passage of time is beautifully captured on the word ‘weben’ [move]: endless wavering eighth note motives are passed from voice to voice. The subject of death is introduced amid troubling chromaticism.
There is extensive solo writing for all four voice types in this cantata. The tenor asks for help in understanding death, again making use of pleading, wide intervals. Scurrying recorders (and continuo) are the sole accompaniment to the bass’ stark warning of impinging death (no reassurance from our gambas here!). The choral fugue on the words ‘Es ist der alte Bund’ [It is the ancient law] is severe in tone. The theme itself is remarkable, starting chromatically, then dropping precipitously by a tritone -Lutheranism at its most hard-edged. The childlike entrance of the solo soprano calling on Jesus would be striking enough without the unexpected instrumental overlay of the chorale tune (resigned and devotional in tone). At the end the voices and instruments drop out one at a time and the soprano is left desolately alone, without even continuo support - a heartbreaking moment and absolutely unique in all of the cantatas.
In the next section the recorders put down their instruments; the tone becomes more contemplative as the words of Psalm 31 (sung by the alto) bring us comfort in the face of death. The cello makes a difficult climb up the scale and plays the repeated wavering half steps associated with death – effortful, but somehow less troubled than before. The bass, who earlier had sung the most uncompromising text of the piece, sings of the arrival in Paradise (that word colored by an appropriately high tessitura). After the entrance of the chorale, the bass continues ecstatically, the gambas playing an antiphonal wafting accompaniment like angel’s wings.
The final chorus manages both intimacy and grandeur. In the instrumental prelude, the motive that has until now been marked by downward wavering half steps is now inverted, the upward intervals suggesting a sense of spiritual triumph. The chorus enters majestically accompanied by instrumental off-beats, like heavenly heart beats. A light, brilliant choral fugue ends the piece, with the final ‘Amen’ echoed by the instruments very softly – a sublime finish to a very great work.
© Michael Beattie
Bach Cantata BWV 106 is his first great cantata and remains one of his most touching pieces. Written for the funeral of his uncle, it has a personal and passionate quality unique in his output. It is scored for the unusual combination of two recorders two violas da gamba and continuo. This soft-edged instrumental combination produces not only instrumental but vocal writing of the utmost delicacy and refinement. As is usual in Bach early works there are not set arias and choruses but everything is blended together into a large arc.