The chorale ”Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit” is also known with another set of words “Ich hab’ in Gottes Herz und Sinn.” It is something of a tour de force that Bach uses the same tune with different words on adjacent Sundays. His setting of “Was mein Gott will,” was, particularly in its chorale portions, militant, brimming with energy and straightforward. For Septuagesima, the use of the tune is ambiguous, even mysterious. Much of these qualities have to do with the new words. But there is also a feeling that Bach can do anything he wants with these melodies.

The first verse of the chorale speaks of the soul surrendering only to find the sure way to heaven. The opening orchestral statement has a submissive motive in the oboes d’amore. Its tonal answer by the violins is not only submissive but positively awkward in its melodic shape. All other musical material throughout the movement illustrates the climb back to heaven. With this simple group of opposing materials Bach builds a large and very impressive chorus. The mood is of quiet pleading and supplication. It couldn’t be more different than the military briskness of the Cantata BWV 111. The one interesting similarity of the two movements is that the repetition of the Stollen at the end of the Abgesang is again identical. It is a clever device for keeping the listener grounded as to where he is in this long and diffuse bar-form piece.

The second movement is one of Bach’s most difficult chorale-with-tropes movements. Here the distinction between chorale and recitative is blurred. For instance that bass coloration of the line of chorale “Wenn er  mich auch gleich wirt ins Meer melds into the tune underneath the following recitative. We have occasionally seen this in chorale tropes before, but not to this extent. The effect is of confusion and storminess. The one reference to the sea in this verse becomes important. Although both “stormy” arias that follow do not specifically indicate it, Bach clearly hears them as seascapes.

The tenor aria #3 is the first sea piece. Against regular but agitated string figuration, a wild and irregular line in the first violin gives a vivid picture of a storm at sea. The tenor sings sometimes isolated yelps, sometimes jagged lines related to the string parts. The brilliant part of this piece is the regular rhythmic underpinning of the lower strings. It would sound like pandemonium without these lines.In this cantata the chorale always returns as the voice of reason. In #4 two oboes d’amore play an expressive little motive in canon accompanying the simple alto statement of the chorale theme. The harmony is very much the world of the opening chorus. It is a kind of subtle chromaticism that is remarkably versatile. Look how Bach can color an opposing idea like “he knows when joy, he knows when sorrow.” In these brief bars, both joy and sorrow are fleeting. Neither is completely formed by the harmony. Each has an element of the other.

After a secco tenor recitative our second seascape, this time for bass with continuo occurs. It is a more orderly affair, more positive in outlook but nevertheless stormy. It is the kind of aria that could seem ordinary in its bluster if the phrasing and the juxtaposition of the bass to the voice weren’t so subtle and sophisticated. Again the chorale enters in to bring a sense of calm. The chorale-with-trope form is used a second time, but here with the full chorus and solo voices providing the tropes. Just as in the second movement in Cantata BWV 3, each voice is represented, this time starting with the lowest voice. The soprano then ends the number segueing into the aria #8.

It is important to hear the previous sections as sea music because the pastoral elements of the soprano aria are key to its impact. The oboe d’amore plays a naïve and heartbreaking shepherd’s tune over the pizzicato strings. The boy soprano announces: “I will always be true to my shepherd.” After so much music that is in every way “at sea” this simple pastoral piece is remarkably touching. Bach knows that after so much ambiguity and complexity, and make no mistake: this is one of the most psychologically complicated of all of the cantatas, this child-like faith is the only answer. As wonderful as this aria is as a separate piece, in its context it is overwhelming. Although the final chorale takes us back to the harmonic world of the opening, the sense of benediction in the harmonization is unmistakable.

©Craig Smith

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