Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget, BWV 64, while originally composed for the Third Day of Christmas, sets as the opening chorus a direct quote from today's Epistle lesson: 1 John 3: 1; "Behold, what love has the Father shown to us, that we are called the children of God." As is often the case, Bach views the incarnation through the lens of the crucifixion and resurrection.  It is the third in a trio of similar cantatas (BWV 40, 64 & 153) that were performed within a week over the Christmas and New Year period of 1723/24. At this time Bach is experimenting with constructing cantatas around a group of three chorales presented in plain four-part harmonizations. All of the chorales in this cantata would have been familiar to Bach’s Leipzig congregation. If we view the three chorales as the backbone of the cantata, we discover that the first one is a hymn of gratitude for what God has done for us, the second a questioning of worldly values and the third a positive farewell and departure from all things material. There is an ensuing progression about which Bach interposes two arias and two recitatives.

The opening chorus is set in a traditional German fugal motet style wherein the four voices are doubled by strings, with no independent instrumental parts. The text has just one line – “see what love the Father has shown that we may be called his sons.” The fugue theme is directly derived from the initial two ideas expressed in the text, which begins with a call to attention – Sehet: “see, behold, take note!” The first two notes of the theme bolster this mandate and Bach reinforces them by having all voices unite in the opening bar. The second part of the theme, in flowing eighth notes, depicts the cascading streams of God’s love. As in the forthcoming soprano aria, the meaning of the text is fully embedded within the structure of the melody. The chorale that follows, the least ornate of the three, expresses a tender affirmation of the faithful at the manger.

The alto recitative brings us to the heart of the paradox of Christ’s incarnation in poverty and the polarity between the rich and the poor. Thus Bach interprets this musically in terms of ascent and descent. While the alto sings of worldly things, the continuo line promotes an ascending figure heavenly. This figure leads us, without break, directly in to the second chorale.

The ascending figure is transformed in the soprano aria, a gavotte, to an evaporating figure in the first violins. Meanwhile there is an ominous, serpentine like figure in the bass line underpinning the dissipating of smoke in the text. The focus shifts, in the middle section, from the ephemeral to the eternal nature and warmth of Jesus. Musically, this is depicted through the use of major mode, a more encompassing string texture, and the sustained notes of the soprano. However, the da capo quickly reminds of the ephemeral world.

The bass recitative turns from the ascent-descent symbolism of the incarnation to faith itself. The final aria is for alto with oboe d’amore obbligato. Over a steady beat in the continuo, the alto and burnished tone of the d’amore mark out a complex rhythmic structure. This shifting beat emphasis conveys the difficulty of staying on the path to heaven. At the end of the B section, there is a subtle rhythmic rivalry between the voice and continuo that is resolved in the cadence. The cantata closes with a farewell to the corporeal using the fifth verse of the chorale Jesu meine Freude. Bach’s bass line constantly repeats a three-note figure, which Bach scholar Schweitzer isolated as a 'figure of joy'. Bach uses it here as a symbol of perseverance.

© Ryan Turner

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