In Matthew 22 we read of a trick the Pharisees attempt to play on Jesus. They ask him: "Is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar, or not?" They expect him to give an idealistic, spiritual, ultimately seditious answer. Instead, he crosses them up. Requesting a coin, he asks them whose image is on it. Then comes the famous "Render unto Caesar things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's" (which eventually became the doctrine for separation of church and state).

Franck's excellent text inspired this early masterpiece. The opening tenor lines have a dry, confrontational plainness that perfectly mirrors Jesus' answer to the Pharisees. There's a kind of "Well, this is how it is, let's live with it" feel, with just a hint in the middle section of where the cantata is going. The full orchestra plays, but like a neutral screen.

Then the bass establishes the key image-- the heart as a coin (Franck, the mint director, wrote about what he knew). But the coin must be tempered, purified. Here we enter one of Bach's most distinctive worlds. The smelting passage, followed suddenly by the new shine of the coin, is one of his great pictorial triumphs.

But we have not yet reached the heart of the cantata. The pitch rises, and the higher voices embody a journey of surrender-- a journey marked by hesitations and doubts, but ending in one of the most serene and transparent visions Bach ever achieved.

It is probably blasphemous to suggest that the next duet's closest cousin is the love duet at the end of Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea. But there is an important distinction: this duet is also a chorale prelude, with the choral tune, in the strings, constantly mingling with and transfiguring the vocal lines.

The alto and tenor parts of the final chorale were lost years ago, and their reconstruction has not ben much helped by the modifier in the score, "In simplice stylo." How simple? Since the tune is used nowhere else by Bach, we're on our own.

©John Harbison

Bach Cantata BWV 163 is one of his greatest works from the Weimar era. While at the sophisticated court at Weimar, Bach had access to probably the best poet of his career, the director of the mint, Salomo Franck. Franck's poetry often uses money as a metaphor. Here it is central to the bass aria. The work starts with a measured tenor aria with strings that restates Christ's rather heated replay to the questioning Pharisees. Both Bach and Franck ignore the passion of the charge by Jesus of hypocrisy. They are interested in the question of sacred versus secular issues. The cantata has an interesting scheme. The opening aria uses the whole range of the orchestra. The next aria exploits the bass and the lower instruments. The soprano-alto recitative and duet are predominantly high in range. The division of range subtly exploits the low range for things earthly and the high for thins heavenly. The opening tenor aria is almost academic in its metrical insistence on the declamation. The following bass aria uses two celli as the obbligati. The darkness of the two instruments combined with the bass voice produce a texture very like the descent into the earth in Wagner's Das Rheingold. It is one of Bach's most daring sonorities. The soprano and alto recitative is not only high and light but very complicated in its myriad of detail. The duet itself is gorgeously simple and songful with the strings playing the chorale "Meinem Jesum lass ich nicht" on top of the texture. The work ends with a four-part harmonization by our conductor, John Harbison, of the chorale "Wo soll ich fliehen hin."

©Craig Smith

Back to Bach Notes & Translations