All of Bach’s motet-style choruses in the 2nd Jahrgang are set to Luther chorales. There is a sense of bedrock theology to these works that makes them different than any other chorales. The conscious archaicism of these settings gives them a weight and seriousness unlike any others. The chorale “Aus tiefer Not schrei’ ich zu dir” is a work that always brings out his most heavily contrapuntal style. The two chorale preludes on the tune in the 3rd part of the Clavierübung contain some of his most ingenious contrapuntal wizardry. The large setting with pedals is unique in Bach in that it has a double pedal part. Every note of the work derives from the melody, but the actual long-note statement of the tune is in the top pedal part. Bach doesn’t hesitate to make a stretto of the theme right at the very beginning. The contour of the opening of the tune is so highly profiled that it is easily recognizable in even the densest counterpoint. Even the smaller setting for manuals only in the Clavierübung immediately jumps into a dense contrapuntal world with the theme appearing in inversion as a countersubject in the 2nd bar of the piece. Most of the pieces for manuals only in the Clavierübung are much more casual than this, so that it is clear that Bach throughout his career sees this tune as a special case.

All of the chorale movements in the cantata are profoundly different from the two organ chorale preludes in one important sense: in the organ pieces there is a generalized chromatic language, not only prompted by the melodic contour but also the Phrygian basis for the melody. The half step that occurs between the first and second degrees of the scale in Phrygian melodies always has great harmonic consequences in tonal works. But by 1739, the year of the publication of the 3rd part of the Clavierübung, Bach was less interested in coloring the meaning of the words in his chorale settings. Thus the kind of specific, harrowing harmonic language that appears in the second phrase of the Abgesang, that occurs more or less out of the blue, is clearly generated from the words “Sünd und Unrecht.” This kind of specificity is simply not relevant in the organ pieces, which are clearly not geared to any particular verse of the chorale. At the same time, there is a simplicity and openness to the counterpoint in the cantata that is replaced by something much more dense in the organ pieces.Both of the readings for the 21st Sunday after Trinity are concerned with the steadfastness of faith against all odds. Certainly Psalm 130, the basis for this chorale, tests that faith. Both the secco alto recitative and the tenor aria #3 with oboes refer directly to the Epistle reading from the 6th Chapter of Ephesians. In all of the concerted music the motives are derived from the chorale tune. This is actually achieved in a fashion rather different than Bach’s usual manner. One sees the leap of the fifth, first down and then up, followed by the upward half step imbedded in the opening oboe melody. Its construction is almost Beethoven-like in its rigorous classical outlook. Similarly in the trio #5, the opening motive clearly refers to the opening of the chorale. The character of the tenor aria is melancholy rather than stern, and its gentle rhythmic motion actually is a relief from the austerity of the opening.

The soprano recitative #4 is unique in Bach, a recitative in which the bass line is a chorale. In addition Bach does something unusual in that the opening phrase of the chorale (in a minor) is repeated in d minor. The rest of the chorale is then finished in the new key.The trio is one of three trios in the Leipzig cantatas. It has an unusual character, nervous and flighty. The piling up of the three voices in tight counterpoint increases its agitation. The change from worry to sudden redemption is astoundingly achieved with the vertiginous harmony at the cadence, hair-raising in its intensity. Notice how the rising of the sun is the opening of Aus tiefer Not turned upside-down. We have shown how the transition is made back to Phrygian e minor of the final chorale harmonization. The ringing modality of the harmony is almost heroic in its cast.

©Craig Smith

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