The great chorale Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut is the basis for Cantata BWV 113, written for the 11th Sunday after Trinity. The tune is used prominently in one of Bach's earliest cantatas, BWV 131, and appears in many guises throughout the mature cantatas. Our cantata here is, however, a problematic work, with magnificent things next to inexplicable elements.

After several weeks of the most self-flagellating texts, the readings for this Sunday are beautiful and uplifting. The Corinthians text contains in the tenth verse perhaps the most heartfelt statement of the ability of one to forgive oneself without lame excuses in all of the Epistles. The Gospel, about the Pharisee and the Publican, is one of the clearest and most unproblematic of the parables. Because the thrust of both readings is forgiveness, the change from self-doubt to faith that we have come to expect in these cantatas happens fairly early. We have seen in some of the previous chorale cantatas that only the last chorale contains any kind of resolution to the anguish of the sinner. Here, after the first two chorale statements, all of the numbers are charged with elements of forgiveness and love.The opening chorus is superb. A motive of supplication combines with an elegant and flowing sixteenth note figure to produce a texture of richness and beauty. The chorus writing is block-like rather than contrapuntal. The tone of this chorus is lighter and more graceful than we have seen in many of the other choruses so far in the cycle.

The second movement based upon the same chorale has an independent melody line (here, all of the upper strings) accompanying the alto voice, which sings the tune in long notes unadorned. Bach usually comes up with one of his great “whistling” tunes in a spot such as this. Here, the melody is crabbed and quite structurally complicated. Instead of giving the movement direction and shape as in the three previously sited examples, the obbligato needs the chorale tune to clarify its direction. It is hard not to think that these two adjacent movements, based upon the same chorale tune, are not like the adjacent supplicants in the temple. One, the Publican, open honest and full of remorse, the other, the Pharisee, haughty, brittle and cold.

The bass aria #3 with obbligato oboes d'amore is ambiguous in tone. On the surface quite jolly, in a dancing 12/8 meter, the work has passages of chromaticism that give it an uneasy quality. Its harmonic language is eccentric enough that one does not quite believe it. Maybe this, too, is the Pharisee speaking.The chorale with tropes (#4) is unusual in that the musical character is diametrically opposite the meaning of the words. The tropes all describe the anguish of the past but the music is very much in that mode rather than the joy referred to in the chorale text. That joy is not characterized until the beautiful and lighthearted tenor aria with flute (#5). Again the guest flutist is given a remarkably virtuosic part. Although the text is a transcription of the chorale verse a phrase of the chorale appears twice in the B section of the aria.

A magical moment in the cantata is achieved in the following accompanied recitative for tenor (#6). After four movements without the full string texture, the violins and violas enter in the second bar of this recitative at the words “Wie lieblich klingt das Wort in meinem Ohren!The richness of the texture followed by the beautiful string cadence is like a balm. This cadence continues to be used and reimagined throughout the movement always in a different key. At the only reference in the cantata text to the Gospel, Wie der bussfertig Zöllner treten,” the strings play a gorgeous pulsing figure that sounds as if the cantata has truly made a transition to something transcendental.

It is doubly disappointing that the following duet (#7) is perhaps the single most unsatisfactory piece in the whole 2nd Jahrgang. Much of the problem is its unperformability. Bach is often accused of not giving the singers any place to breathe, and it is true that many of his demands on singers are considerable. But the long double melismas in this work go beyond the level of any other vocal work. Even the longest-breathed adult professional singer will find herself gasping throughout the duet. There is no choice but to make either ugly pauses in the line or to leave out groups of notes, thus breaking up the continuity. There are other Bach pieces with this problem, the St, Matthew duet “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen,” and the soprano aria from Cantata 132, Bereitet die Wege.” But this is by far the most extreme case. Unfortunately there is no redeeming reason or sense of inspiration in the piece and one can only see in the long passagework a sense of pointless fortspinnung. The beautiful four-voice final chorale reverts to the wonderful rich harmonic language of the opening chorus.

©Craig Smith

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