All of Bach’s cantatas for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity relate the prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem (in Luke 19: 41-48) to its first Testament antecedents, the Lamentations of Jeremiah and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Our cantata today is the most direct of the three written for that Sunday. It opens with an impressive, one might say overwhelming, setting of the familiar passage from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Two recorders playing in thirds at the top of their range dominate the opening texture. The music for the opening was later arranged by Bach for the “Qui tollis” in the B Minor Mass. As impressive as that movement is, our version has a direct connection not only to the meaning of the text but the actual sound of the text. The slightly hooty sound of the vowels in the first word Schauet provides a haunting resonance to the string and recorder texture. The addition of the slide trumpet and the two tenor-range oboes da caccia to the texture later in the movement further increases the hollow, almost haunted quality of the movement. The second half of the chorus is taken up by a thorny and extraordinarily text-specific fugue. The theme of this fugue is one of the most harrowingly difficult, both to sing and to hear in all of Bach. Bach waits a long time before introducing the instrumental doublings in this fugue, almost as if to show that the people are alone to blame for their fate.
The two recorders continue their same wailing lines in the accompaniment to the tenor recitative. The recitative is divided into three parts; first is the description of the destroyed city of Jerusalem. The second part makes it clear that because of our sins it would be better if our city had been razed to the ground. The third section predicts God’s vengeance.The stunning, stormy bass aria with trumpet and strings is one of the most dramatic things in all of Bach. Trumpet fanfares vie and play in canon with the bass voice and the repeated notes of the strings. The igniting of the lightning of vengeance is palpable in the roaring of the orchestral texture. The cracks of lightning can be heard in the precipitous stops and starts in the rhythmic continuity.
The alto recitative personalizes the threat of destruction. The aria that follows is in shocking contrast to the bass aria. Recorders and the two oboes da caccia play, without a bass line, tortured and gnarly lines. The alto doesn’t so much sing as stammer her fearful part. Gradually we see and hear that the winds are a shield and protector against the devastation. The little miniature storm is like a Bonsai version of the bass aria. The recorders continue their wailing in the extraordinary harmonization of “O großer Gott von Treu” which ends the cantata. While there is some sense of resolution in the alto aria, this gesture makes it clear that the sense of lamentation continues to permeate the whole work.
© Craig Smith