The Cantata BWV 42 is one of the gigantic masterpieces of the genre. It is a piece sui generis unlike not only any other cantata but also any other sacred work in the repertoire. The “low Sunday” works, such as this one, present a very distinctive task for the composer of liturgical music. There a sense of having to make a new beginning, dramatically, after holidays such as Easter and Christmas. These days inevitably have an ambiguity and emotionally more charged feel to them than the unabashedly joyful feast days. It is interesting that the two cantatas for “Quasimodogeniti,” the Sunday after Easter, are infinitely greater than any of the Easter cantatas. There are two tasks to the composer. The meaning and sense of Easter must permeate the work; at the same time the very real fear and sense of “what happens next?” must dominate. In his two cantatas Bach comes to two radically different solutions.
In his other Quasimodogeniti work, the Cantata BWV 67, Bach creates two columns on each end of the piece; an opening chorus exhorts the Christian to hold on to the memory of the resurrected Christ; the final bass aria presents the climactic entrance of Christ in the upper room.Our cantata here has a very different shape. The events of Easter are represented by a large da capo sinfonia. Common wisdom has it that this is a first movement of a concerto grosso, now lost. While, of course, this may be true, the work is so perfectly suited to its task here, and has such an unusually warm and gentle demeanor, that it is hard to imagine that it wasn’t written for this spot. There is also a strong sense as one progresses through the movement that the obbligato oboes and bassoon represent the two Marys and Jesus on Easter morning. The movement opens with a soft-edged and lovely tutti. The opening quarter note by the violins has a wonderful ‘lighter than air’ lift to it that sets the tone for the whole movement. The two oboes and bassoon play rich obbligati, relating to each other in a vocal, human way. Sometimes the oboes are in opposition to the bassoon; sometimes one oboe will be alone while the other allies with the bassoon. The B section is even more rhapsodic. Against leggiero tutti strings the three winds each plays a cantabile melody, finally joining in a rapturous trio.
After such heavenly music it is almost painful to leave it, but Bach plunges us into the continuation of the story with a pulsing and ominous bass line that underpins the tenor’s narration of the fear and paranoia that plagued the disciples after Jesus’ death. The last line describes how, in this suspicious atmosphere and behind locked doors, Jesus was, all of a sudden, in their midst. In one of the supreme dramatic moments in all of Bach, the dark hollow texture of the pulsing bass reverts to the glowing strings of the opening sinfonia. The two oboes play at first a gorgeous cantabile imitative melody followed by a darting, almost playful, pattern that is an uncanny portrayal of the state of grace that Jesus provided for the disciples. The voice part is conversational, almost casual sounding. It is a kind of combination of the rhetorical and the lyrical that would dominate 19th century German operatic writing. Notice how the jagged and broken lines describing the “where two or three are gathered ” then meld into the ravishing cantabile on the words” in Jesus precious name.” The A section of this da capo aria is on a large scale, imbued with an expansive generosity of spirit. The B section is surprisingly tough and arid sounding. The warm, full orchestra is replaced by a vaulting and aggressive solo bass line. In the midst of this section there is an eccentric little bass figure that appears out of the blue. Its purpose is completely mysterious until we hear that it refers to the opening bass line of the following duet for soprano and tenor.
With the advent of the soprano-tenor duet #4 it becomes clear that Bach is using the maximum contrast to propel his story. The warm sinfonia was followed by the hollow recitative. The same warm opening texture was revived for the A section of the alto aria with the barren sound reintroduced in the B section. After the recapitulation of the A, the duet #4 reintroduces the continuo-dominated sonority. Here the spiky and bare-bones line of the cello and bassoon is intensified by a thumping and insistent independent bass line. It is clear that Bach had both a harpsichord, figured in the cello part, and an organ, figured in the bass part. Over this elaborate bass, the voices, pitched high and sounding somewhat hysterical, sing their jagged and paranoid line. All of the richness of the “Easter” harmony is replaced here by a lurid, twilight chromaticism. The lines are astoundingly jagged and awkward.
The transition from the glow of Easter to the fearful “what happens next” quality of the days after Easter, is here complete. The secco bass recitative speaks of fear of reprisals, and has one of the most distasteful examples of a kind of knee-jerk anti-Semitism in all of Bach. The aria for bass has brilliant obbligati for two solo violins. Here we have Jesus as the great military leader. The violins play striking and aggressive arpeggio figures against a marching bass line. All of the subtle rhetoric of the alto aria and the angularity of the duet are here replaced by straight-ahead virtuoso operatic writing for the bass. If this aria is more conventional in character than all that has come before, it is one of the great brilliant pieces of vocal writing in all of Bach.
Bach ends this gigantic and great cantata with one of the profoundest of all his chorale harmonizations. The large double chorale by Luther,”Verleih uns Frieden-Gib unsern Fürsten” was used several months earlier to close the cantata BWV 126. In that context it was a plea for peace after one of the most savage of all of the cantatas. Here it relates to the end of the cantata and reminds us how far we have come from the gentle grace of the opening sinfonia. The harmonization is of unparalleled richness. There are subtle changes in character between the two chorales. The bass line of the opening is almost always in a downward motion that is replaced in “Gib unsern Fürsten” by upward lines. The harmony of the 2 nd chorale gains a kind of radiance both by use of pedal points, and in the grand sweeping lines of the “Amen.”In Cantata BWV 42 we have from Bach a whole new kind of inward drama, a drama of the soul, that he virtually invented. The contrast of an inward state of grace with outward fear and danger is central to early Christianity; it has never been more profoundly characterized than in this cantata.