One sentence, from Jesus’ last injunction to the disciples after his resurrection, before he ascends to heaven, from Mark 16:16, forms the complete text for the opening chorus of this cantata. In his other two cantatas for Ascension Sunday Bach provides Tintoretto-like representations of an impossibly radical action – horns, trumpets and athletic strings are engaged. Here drama is avoided. “Whosoever believes and is baptized shall become blessed”. The concentration is upon belief and baptism.
A single libretto decision determines the character of this piece. The text does not attach Jesus’ next phrase, “and he that believeth not…” and thus the piece is not about the endangered soul (as are many of the cantatas) but about a route to transcendence. Sonority, the glow of A major, the even flow of unremarkable elements in equilibrium is enough to set this cantata in motion. The oboes state the very elegant and plain principal tune, the violins add a more active motive which quotes the chorale “these are the holy ten commandments”, the basses play a descending scale pattern ending in a cadence, a generic pattern which is conveniently equivalent to the final phrase of the chorale used in the third movement of this cantata. From these ordinary ideas comes a limpid and unburdened music.
The brief tenor aria celebrates the gift, from Jesus, of faith. Most exceptionally it continues both the key and the character of the chorus, a personal version of the collective statement. It too is warm and devotional, not trying to impress. Unfortunately the violin solo part was lost (from a piece which survived only in parts). There are at least a dozen such situations in the Bach cantatas. It is possible (with varying degrees of difficulty) to replace all of them in an inevitably approximate way which nevertheless preserves continuity and proportion.
At the center of the cantata comes the ‘morning star’ chorale, presented as a vocal duet over an unexpectedly florid cello accompaniment. In the muted frame of the piece as a whole, this is the most eventful, colorful moment. The two singers trade off as leader and follower in a delightful way, and the over-exuberant cello is far more than a commentator.“Let Jesus deal with good works,” sings the bass in his recitative, “you must make yourself right with God through faith.” At this point in the cantata we wonder whether the baptism theme has been lost, in favor of making the full Lutheran statement about faith, but it reappears most striking at the end of a series of needlessly and brilliantly inventive passages for the singer. Each Noun has a slightly different figurative shape, jagged cursives for the Seal of Grace, upward thrust toward Heaven, at last a very long unwinding stream for Baptism. These lead into a chorale where for the first time, with suitable restraint, the text and harmony sound a darker tone.
Bach Cantata BWV 37 is one of the most lucid and gentle of all the cantatas. Particularly striking is the gorgeous and dancing chorus that opens the work. Almost exactly the same words were set in a very different and austere manner in Cantata BWV 68 which we performed in March. The tenor aria is missing its obbligato violin part. We are using a reconstruction written by our friend John Harbison. The beautiful chorale prelude for soprano and alto solos with continuo uses the chorale "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern." Here the dancing quality of the opening chorus is revived as the tune is traded liltingly between the two voices. The mood darkens somewhat for the bass accompanied recitative and aria. Here the sadness of the Ascension story becomes apparent. The text for the bass aria is full of the most interesting and potent iconography. The music has a powerful updraft to it matching the image of the pinions. The work ends with a sober harmonization of the chorale "Ich dank dir, lieber Herre."
© Craig Smith