In Leipzig, cantata performances were suspended during the last three Sundays of Advent, so the Advent cantatas that we have all predate his tenure there. BWV 186a is a reconstruction from a later piece written for the 7th Sunday of Trinity, but an existing wordbook of Bach’s wonderful librettist Salomo Franck confirms the original date of its first performance (1717) in Weimar. In the Gospel for that day [Matthew 11 :2-10] John the Baptist sends his disciples to see if Jesus is indeed the prophesied Messiah. BWV 186a radiates great intensity though a curiously muted and melancholy tone. Bach was clearly responding to the many thematic dualities throughout this great text, perhaps the most important: the idea of God’s brilliance and image humbly reflected in the form of a servant.
In the opening chorus the bass line marches patiently, supporting winding counterpoint from the upper strings. The viola (the most melancholy of instruments) is often the principal voice, asserting itself even when orchestra and chorus are fully engaged. The sustained notes of the chorus (on staggered entrances) produce a truly ‘confounding’ harmony, but they immediately relent and become part of the string counterpoint. The remaining lines of text are set motet style with only the support of the inexorable bass line. The bass (accompanied by continuo alone) speaks the words of John in a deceptively simple, almost jolly, tune. The wiry, angular melismas on the words ‘zweifelsvoll’ [doubtful] and particularly ‘bestricken’ [entangle] are surprising and among the most tortured in all of Bach. In the chorales and choruses the viola usually doubles the tenor line, so it is interesting that Bach chose these two ‘partners’ as vocal and instrumental soloist for the next aria. Craig Smith felt that Bach’s re-scoring in the later version of this piece for violins and oboe up the octave was ‘one of his few mistakes’ The viola’s sparkling figuration shines brilliantly through its inherently covered sound, matching the text perfectly. The gorgeous aria for soprano with its soulful, chromatic violin accompaniment is both embracingly comforting and heartbreaking. The duet for soprano and alto once again responds amazingly to the duality of the text: faith does not erase sorrow, it simply makes it more bearable. Bach chooses a crazed, joyous dance in a minor key; the effect is ultimately more disturbing than comforting. The chorale is a bright, bracing and determined setting of Von Gott will ich nicht lassen, verse 8.
In his last season in Weimar Bach wrote three cantatas for the last three Sundays in Advent to texts of Salomo Franck. Since these three Sundays had no concerted music when he moved to Leipzig, Bach adapted these three works for other purposes. This week we perform BWV 186a in a reconstruction of the original Weimar version. All three of the Weimar cantatas have no recitatives and are of the same pattern, with a chorus followed by four arias and a chorale.
Our cantata opens with a tortured chorus instructing the soul not to be confounded by the anomaly of Christ’s coming as a servant. The vexation is characterized in two ways, first by a grinding dissonance and then by an elegant, almost dance-like motif. The chorus very purposefully does not clarify the anomaly.
The bass aria asks its difficult questions in a rolling triple meter. The doubtful spirit is subtly characterized by a winding and tortured line on the word “zweifelsvoll.”
The marvelous tenor aria with viola obbligato is like a slowly unfolding flower, which reveals its beauties and state of grace only gradually.
The soprano aria is more poignantly direct, with its chromatic lines illustrating the Lord’s embrace of the poor. The gigue-character duet for soprano and alto is a surprising take on the text, After three slowish pieces it adds a tremendous lift to the end of the cantata. A beautiful four-voice setting of “Von Gott will ich nicht lassen” ends the cantata.nan