The striking humility of Paul in the 15th chapter of his letter to the Corinthians, and Jesus’ promise that the humble will be exalted and that the mighty will be laid low, give this cantata a ferocious rejection of pomposity and of self-righteousness. The marvelous motet-style movement that begins Cantata BWV 179 calls for only string doubling of the voice parts. The first line of text warns of hypocrisy; the second warns not to serve God with a false heart. Hypocrisy is portrayed in a tantalizing colorful manner, warm and tempting. The “false heart” is chromatic and harrowing. There is an inner, complex emotional life to this movement that goes beyond the words. Certainly the various musical and verbal combinations give the piece a dramatic trajectory that cannot be seen by a mere reading of the text. For instance, the restatement of the theme against the “false heart” bass, leading down to a frankly thrilling dominant pedal point, gives the piece a thrust and passionate surge not found in the biblical ideas. One must quickly say that Bach’s arrangement of this music as the Kyrie of his G major mass is no more specifically suited to the words. The situation is reminiscent of certain Brahms songs where the words seem to be a jumping-off point for the composer’s considerable fantasy, rather than organic to the musical form and content.
The tenor secco recitative has a kind of heightened emotion and hysterical quality that both sets up the aria and relates tot he thunderous Lutheranism of the text. The orchestral introduction to the aria has two main motives: a slashing appoggiatura figure that appears in four sequences and a more sedate, almost monotonous, figure that has the effect of moderating the opening. It is curious that the voice only takes up the first idea. The second appears only in the opening and closing passages of the orchestra. Again, once senses a hidden, purely musical agenda. The aria is full of wonderful things. Notice the sweet, almost saccharine, turn to the major at the “outward fairness” of the hypocrites, music as unctuous as Ted Haggart’s smile. For all of its power the aria is quite short, almost condensed in its feeling.
The secco bass recitative turns the attention from the hypocrite to the tax collector. The two major ideas of the text, the example of the tax collector and the assurance that we too will be forgiven, are skillfully set out with similarly active continuo cadential figures. What can read like a jumble on the page becomes here very clear.
Up to this point, the cantata has been a collection of marvelous but rather confusing music, highly characterized but mysterious. The soprano aria is so direct and deeply felt that it sweeps away all doubts. Two dark and burnished oboes da caccia (here played by English horns) play, mostly in tight overlapping sequences, figures fraught with suspensions and harrowing harmonic turns. The beginning tutti is one of the most exotic and gorgeous things in all of Bach; but it is also specifically suited to the anguished outcries of the soprano begging for forgiveness. The whole aria is dominated by the downward motion of the beginning lines. That motion not only illustrates the extreme contrition of the text but specifically the last line “I sink into the deep slime.” Up to this point in the cantata the text has moved along quite quickly, in the aria, chorus and also the recitatives. Here there is a slow-motion quality to both the declamation and the musical ideas. There is a kind of grandeur to the stately sequences at the words “My sins sicken me.” What was condensed, almost epigrammatic in the tenor aria and the chorus becomes here broad and expressive.
The setting of the chorale, “Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten” is unusually rich. The inner voice writing is as detailed and independent as almost any in all of the cantata chorales. Particularly, the appearance of the two-sixteenth plus eighth figure in the alto at the beginning and in the tenor at the beginning of the Abgesang functions almost like a leitmotif. This technique is particularly appropriate to the density of meaning of the whole cantata.