Bach Cantata BWV 178 is one of the most obscure in all of the canon. It is a pity, because after penetrating its difficult exterior it is one of the best. The opening chorus does something that no other chorus does. While the orchestra remains consistent in texture and affect, the chorus lives in two different worlds. The opening phrase is presented in simple block chords. The next phrase is highly colored and ornamented in the bottom three voices. The simple block phrasing recurs in the third phrase. After this, the bottom voices ornament their lines for the rest of the movement. Obviously Bach is associating the simple block phrasing with God, and the wild, extravagant writing with the raging foes.

The next movement uses the chorale in its pure form sung by the alto with continuo. Each phrase is interrupted by “tropes” which here are recitative comments on the chorale. This is an old technique, more common in medieval music with comments on Gregorian chant, than in Bach. Next, a bracing aria for bass with strings uses its terrific energy to propel us into another chorale setting, this time for tenor and oboes d’amore. Tropes reappear in the next chorale setting for full chorus, with individual voices doing the recitative comments. The very intellectual text of the following tenor aria is portrayed as a marvelous and stormy seascape. It is an interesting and surprising take on these words. The chorale harmonization at the end brings us back to the block-like portrayal of the power of God.

©Craig Smith

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