The Gospel about the curing of the ten lepers elicited very different responses from Bach in his three cantatas for the fourteenth Sunday after Trinity. The first setting, Cantata BWV 25 written in his first Leipzig year, characterizes disease; and that its outward manifestation is of the diseased soul. The third setting, from the third Leipzig year, makes only passing reference to the leprosy, and emphasizes the joy of being cured. The second setting, our cantata here, has a somewhat more complicated response to the story. It concentrates on self-doubt and brings in the end of the Epistle from Galatians as an example of how to live.

Bach uses the chorale “Jesu, der du meine Seele” in only two cantatas; in both he grafts an artificial structure onto the form of the piece. In the first cantata, BWV 105, the chorale ends the piece and is accompanied by shuddering strings, which are gradually quelled by the end of the piece. In our cantata’s first movement a ground bass is played throughout the movement thus dominating the structure of the piece. The chorale is quite long and has not much melodic profile. One imagines that Bach feels that it needs an additional outward structure to sustain the architecture of a movement.

This cantata has always been one of the most beloved and most discussed of all the cantatas. Certainly the first movement is a tour de force. A ground bass combined with a sarabande character underpin the chorale tune. Writers have all noted how well the tune fits with the ground bass, but it seems that Bach could make this tune fit with the bass in any way he wanted. An example is the last phrase, a stunning moment where, for the first time, the tune enters not with the bass but a bar later. Bach could have easily made the tune fit the harmony starting with the bass. The decision to delay that entrance was made by him, not by the necessity of the moment. In a way, more interesting in this movement is the cohabitation of the dance theme with the ground bass.

Ground basses have always been used by Baroque composers to symbolize a certain inevitability of fate; the lament in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas being a good example. By wedding this bass with the most human of forms, a dance, Bach emphasizes the duality of nature, the human and the divine, an idea that dominates this text. Because of the sturdiness of its architecture Bach is able to characterize each phrase with an unusual amount of color and textural variety. Few of Bach’s chorale fantasias have as many changes of texture as this one. It must be said that few chorale verses are as colorful as this one, and demand such a treatment.

There is a direct reference in the Gospel about the lepers to the parable of the Good Samaritan, the reading used for the 13th Sunday after Trinity. Just as the two readings are joined, both chorale cantatas have references to the sinner treading with humble and stumbling footsteps. Bach’s treatment of the two texts could not be more different. In the cantata written the previous week, BWV 33, a hushed, very measured bass line accompanies a sinuous wide reaching melody, muted and sorrowful. Here the stumbling footsteps amble along in the bouncy bass-line with the voices burbling merrily. Writers love to call the striking contrast between the serious character of the opening chorus and this charming duet “dramatic” but Bach’s point is clearly that these two affects coexist in us all, and are not in opposition to each other. Although the bass in this movement is not a ground it functions in some ways the same as the ground in the opening chorus. Certainly its regularity allows very free phrasing to go on above.

The wandering in the tenor recitative #3 is characterized by remarkably ambiguous harmony. This recitative is as extreme as anything in all of Bach. The following aria with flute is surprising in its delicacy. Never has the word “streiten” been so unthreatening. The following accompanied recitative is one of the greatest in all of Bach. The sinner’s situation is brought face-to-face with the fact of Christ’s crucifixion and death. The last third of the recitative is treated in Bach’s most elevated arioso style. Only the BWV 140 recitative and, most importantly, the communion in the St. Matthew Passion, come up to this level. Much of Bach’s achievement is an accumulation of the best of what has gone before. Here he is genuinely prefiguring one of the great achievements of the 19th century, Wagner’s accompanied recitative style.

The bass aria seems at first glance to be on a lower level of achievement than the rest of this amazing piece; but the plasticity of its phrasing and the remarkable freedom with which its opening figure appears juxtaposed upon the text becomes more and more impressive as one looks at it.  Certainly, it achieves for this complex cantata the kind of resolution demanded by the text. The final chorale harmonization is unusually stately, even austere. It is as if Bach feels the need for normalcy after a cantata of such extraordinary variety.

©Craig Smith

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