Today’s cantata, Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit, BWV 14, is Bach’s latest extant work in the cantata genre, dating from January, 1735. The outer movements employ Martin Luther’s texts based on Psalm 124 (a hymn of deliverance and communal thanksgiving) while the inner movements are concerned mainly with heavy-handed metaphors for sin: war and natural disaster from which God’s protection is required. Bach responded to this somewhat exasperating text with a work both learned and quirky.The apparent academic severity of the opening chorus belies a dense and fascinating compositional interior. The entrance of each theme (an embellished choral phrase) is followed almost immediately by its inversion – with the eventual appearance of the augmented chorale tune in the oboes and trumpet. This is merely the starting point for an almost exhaustive exploration of contrapuntal possibilities. Extraordinary concentration is required of both listener and performer - as well as an acceptance that much will be missed on first hearing.
The virtuoso soprano aria comes as a startling contrast and clears the air with its delightful orchestration (trumpet fanfares and busy string figuration) and an almost humorous setting of the text. Bach consistently sets the word Schwach [weak] in the lowest (weakest?) part of the soprano’s range. The writing seems a nod to the pre-classical style in its harmonic simplicity and rhythmic playfulness. This seems appropriate given that the battle imagery (so prevalent in the orchestration) suggests an ‘enemy’ blustery and impressive, if somewhat shallow.With the tenor recitative, we turn to water imagery to describe the snapping jaws of sin. The singer’s line is fantastically disjunct while the bass line roars like a Nor’easter.The bass aria is a showpiece for the singer, two oboes and a very active bass line. The three note motive heard in the oboes mirrors the first three notes of the chorale tune and (like the opening chorus) is often inverted. The bass enters with ferocious confidence. Careful listeners will discern the oboe’s material in the second part of the phrase: "...sind wir vor den Feinden frei" [...we are safe from our enemies]. The ubiquitous water imagery is found in the second part of the text, perhaps explaining florid instrumental writing. The chorale is remarkable mainly for its interesting suspensions and syncopations in the inner voices.
© Michael Beattie