BWV 111 The story of the Centurion who has faith that Jesus will cure his servant brings forth from Bach in Cantata BWV 111 first a meditation on steadfast faith and finally martyrdom. The Cantata begins with a bracing and energetic chorale fantasia on the melody "Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh' allzeit."

This chorale has an interesting and important history. Beginning as an elegant chanson by Sermisy, it is prominent in both the Lutheran and the Catholic liturgies. There is a Lassus mass based upon the tune, and many 17th Century German settings including a marvelous extremely contrapuntal one in the appendix of the Geistliche Chormusik of Heinrich Schütz. The melody is in Bar form but interestingly repeats the whole Stollen (first half repeated section) as the last two phrases of the Abgesang (second half). This complete recapitulation is of course useful in large settings of the chorale. Bach uses it to great advantage in both of his chorale fantasia versions. Strangely there is no extent Bach organ chorale prelude based on this melody.

The melody has another distinctive feature. Although it is solidly in the minor mode, the first phrase is in the relative major. Bach turns this into a wonderful moment in the chorus of BWV 111. The chorus entrance is in A minor and he modulates to a brilliant and assertive C major at the cadence. Even by Bach's standards the energy of the piece is remarkable. The opening motive, first in the oboes then the strings, virtually explodes over a striding and purposeful bass. The choral parts remain in quarters and eighths, never going into the sixteenths that dominate the orchestral texture. This is straight-ahead battle music absolutely riveting in its strength and purpose.The bass aria continues the aggressive, straight-ahead kind of writing. The declamation is unusual though. The phrase "Entsetze dich, mein Herze nicht" is always broken with a pause after "entsetze" and a leap up to the word "nicht." This could be construed as a peculiarity of the moment but the words are declaimed in this fashion without exception. The effect is not halting or stumbling as Bach would sometimes set his text, but stubborn and considered. It is as if the soul is considering every possibility. The line of chorale is so subtly included into the texture that it can be easily missed.The aria is in an extremely sophisticated, written-out da capo form.

The secco alto recitative introduces the first signs that the theme of martyrdom will dominate the last half of the cantata. Is there any piece in all of Bach like the duet #4? The great striding melody with its volcanic eruptions of arpeggios and the thunderous dotted bass line all give the piece an heroic cast that is astonishing. Even the harmonic turns that propel us through the middle section of the opening section have a breadth that is overwhelming The choice of alto and tenor as the solo voices once again brings out the Janus-figure quality to the piece.The cadential heroic cries over the wild arpeggios in the violins have to be heard to be believed.

Bach seems to know that he must calm down before the end of this cantata so he gives the soprano recitative added weight of two obbligato oboes. The arioso of the last line with the calm oboe figuration is marvelous in its soothing effect. As if to emphasize structural intricacy of the chorale, Bach harmonizes the end of the Abgesang identically with the Stollen.

©Craig Smith

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