The Last Sunday after the Epiphany in the 20th century Episcopal Church is known as Quinquagesima, the last Sunday before Lent, in the 18th century Lutheran church. It was the last time in which any concerted music was heard in Leipzig until the feast of the Annunciation about five weeks later. The appointed readings for this Sunday in Bach’s time are both important documents and central to Christianity. The epistle is the great 13th Chapter of Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians, the familiar chapter about love. It is perhaps the profoundest thing in the Epistles. The Gospel is from the eighteenth chapter of Luke. It begins with Jesus announcing “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem.” The disciples do not understand the significance of that statement. On the way a blind man cries “Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me.” Jesus cures him of his blindness and they all continue their journey. There are several significant events here. Today’s cantata BWV 127 is mainly concerned with the dual human and divine identity of Jesus. The significance of the journey to Jesus’ final fate is always present, albeit here somewhat in the background.
BWV 127 has always been recognized as one of the finest of the cantatas. The scholar Arnold Schering even went so far as to call it the greatest of all of the cantatas. There is a sense that Bach knows that this will be the last music parishioners will hear for many weeks. All of the Quinquagesima pieces go to great lengths to set up the important issues that will be confronted during Lent. That sense of abundance is projected from the beginning: two and maybe three chorales are represented in the opening chorus. The chorale “Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott” both appears motivically throughout the orchestration and is sung by the chorus, led by the sopranos singing the melody in long notes. The chorale tune “Christe, du lamm Gottes” is played in the orchestra in long notes, first by the strings, then at various times by the oboes and recorders. A third chorale, “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,” has been spotted by some scholars buried in the continuo line near the beginning. It is the kind of thing that you hear after it has been pointed out to you. The texture of the chorus is high, bright and dense. The dotted rhythms that dominate the piece are like angel wings, rather than aggressive. They are both static and they travel. The two main chorales so permeate the texture that one can hardly see any bar in the piece without them. Inherent in the combinations of both chorales and other materials is the possibility for great variety of phrase length. There are of course, many things that are sui generis about this chorus. One of the most remarkable is the associative way that an idea is begun and passed through the texture and then discarded. The ideas are always begun by the words. An example is in the fifth phrase of the chorale. The second statement of the text in the alto part introduces an expressive little half step. This is passed around all of the vocal parts and then to the instrumental parts. It disappears at the end of the choral phrase. The final phrase of the chorale is repeated at the very end with the sopranos leaving the tune and joining the commentary. It ends not with a long note but an almost unresolved quarter note. There is no orchestral postlude.
The tenor recitative and soprano aria describe a sinner’s last moments on earth. The tenor with great horror and vividness enumerates the last terror, the chilling sweat of death, and the stiff limbs. He begs for repose. That moment of repose is the soprano aria. Two recorders play little repeated bell tones over a pizzicato bass. An oboe sings a melody of heartbreaking sadness and repose. The child soprano sings of the soul resting in Jesus’ hands, when earth covers the body. The B section begs for the death bells to call one soon. At this point all of the upper strings join in with the continuo pizzicatos. At the end of the line of text on the word “unerschrocken” the pizzicatos stop and the oboe like a tiny “last trumpet” plays a flourish up to high Bb announcing the awaking of Jesus. The gesture is so amazingly dramatic that one feels Bach has to undercut it by giving the aria a full da capo. A drama so profound needs distance from this kind of realism.
The last large piece in the cantata is a complex and formally advanced vision of the last judgment. The distinction between recitative and aria is here blurred to the breaking point. The trumpet enters in fanfares over repeated note string passages as the bass in recitative announces the last trumpet. The motion gradually becomes calmer and the voice with continuo introduces an arioso utilizing the first notes of the main chorale tune “Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott.” This arioso passage rather abruptly cadences into a vivid 6/8 picture of the last judgment with full strings and trumpet. What is surprising here is that the chorale arioso makes an entrance two more times in the last judgment music. Any semblance of recitative followed by aria is gone in this movement. Like the opening chorus, the bass aria comes to an abrupt close and the brilliant harmonization of the chorale ends the cantata. Cantatas such as this are so removed from the norm of either religious or operatic music of the period that it is hard to understand where they came from. Even such masterpieces as the St. John and St. Matthew Passion have identifiable precedents in the German Lutheran tradition. There is a way in which Bach would never reach this level again.
© Craig Smith