Both cantatas for the Sunday after Easter are masterpieces. The earliest that we have is Cantata BWV 67, written for the 1st Jahrgang in Leipzig. The ambiguous and difficult situation – doubting of the verity of Christ's resurrection and hoping it was true – is perfect for a musical treatment. Contrapuntal music is perfect for expressing conflicting emotions, and there are several classic examples of that technique in this work.
The cantata begins with a representation, or rather a memory, of the Resurrection. For all of its vitality, the chorus that opens this work is remarkably static. The fugal chorus is almost always used by Bach to promote conflicting and lively ideas. It almost inevitably leaves us in a different state than where we began. Here the chorus is a monolithic thing which provides a foil for all of the doubt and fear that follows. The chorus begins with a marching and grand motive in the winds and trumpet against sustained string textures. Three major motives emerge: a marching theme, a long held note associated with the word "hold", and a rising melisma associated with the resurrection. Bach achieves rhythmic and emotional liveliness without real thrust by limiting himself to a diatonic harmonic language. One can hardly think of a comparably impressive and rich chorus in all of Bach that is this uncomplicated in harmony. There is a glorious and moving breadth to the piece with the richness provided by the "resurrection" melismas rising against the "hold" long notes. The harmonic and dramatic shape of the cantata, with an important segment dipping into the relative minor of the tonic A major, is reflected by the shape of the opening chorus.
The tenor aria with oboe d'amore and strings begins with a confident striding theme that immediately degenerates into a stuttering and doubtful cadence. It is the perfect setting for the first line of text "My Jesus is risen, why am I afraid?" One is reminded of Pedrillo's aria, "Frisch zum Kampfe" from Mozart's Entführung with its similar combination of assurance and doubt. The next segment of the cantata is marvelous. In animated secco recitatives the alto leads us in and out of a performance of the great modal Easter chorale, "Erschienen ist der herrlich Tag." The chorale here has the congregational function of reminding us of our goal, but also reassuring the individual of his community.
These two ideas, the individual doubt and the communal experience of the Resurrection, are the background for the great bass aria with chorus that is the climax of the cantata. It begins with agitated and blustery string textures in 4/4 time. They gradually wind down and a trio of flute and two oboes d' amore begin a graceful and piquant little dance melody in 3/4 time, which is the accompaniment for the bass voice of Jesus singing the words "Peace be unto you." These two radically different characters alternate throughout the movement. With the first reappearance of the agitated music the sopranos, altos and tenors of the chorus enter, begging Jesus to help them in their battle against Satan. Gradually the two kinds of music insinuate themselves into each other. In the last 4/4 time segment Jesus is heard "agitato" singing his "Peace be unto you" above the fray. In the final quiet section, the strings enter quietly under the wind trio, giving us the first tutti in the movement. The work reminds us of the middle movement of the Beethoven 4th piano concerto, with its "Orpheus quieting the furies" quality.
The gorgeous harmonization of "Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ" is unusually simple and pure. There are almost no passing tones and it is the most harmonically simple of all of Bach's versions of this chorale. This cantata is one of the most extraordinary examples of Bach's ability to make a dramatic statement that is at the same time interior and profound. The sense of being in a new place by the end of the cantata without having made any outward journey is characteristic of his best pieces.
©Craig Smith, with edits by Pamela Dellal