The unpleasant reading from Corinthians I itemizing the destruction of immoral people, combined with the difficult passage from Luke about the disloyal servant, had surprisingly produced from Bach two marvelous cantatas by the time he came to write Cantata BWV 94 in 1724. One of those previous works, BWV 105, is unarguably one of the great masterpieces of the genre. It is interesting to compare it with our cantata here. While BWV 105 is clearly the more successful of the two pieces as a work of art, BWV 94 is an ambitious and unjustly neglected work.

The rather peculiar proportions of the work are part of the problem. We are used to seeing the weight of the cantata borne by the opening movement. In the first Leipzig year most of the cantatas, including BWV 105, start with a biblical quote which is set in a grand fashion, followed by arias and ensembles, usually shorter and less ambitious. It is a satisfying formula. Our present work follows a different train of thought. The opening chorus of this long (almost thirty minutes) cantata lasts barely three minutes. The arias and, most importantly, the lengthy trope-with-recitative movements are much larger.

Bach almost always sets sin not as something ugly but something irresistibly and dazzlingly beautiful. In the first movement of BWV 54, "Widerstehe doch der Sünde" gorgeous suspensions pile one on top of each other to create a luscious sonority, all of it describing the danger of sin. The "Herzeleid" in the first chorus of BWV 3 prompts some of Bach’s most gorgeous chromaticism. Here the rejection of life’s "Schätzen"(treasures) sets off a jewel like movement with dazzling roulades and scales from the flute, oboes and strings. Bach makes it brief because it is characterized in the text as something that is immediately rejected.

Except for the German Magnificat in the Cantata BWV 10, we have with Cantata BWV 94 the use of the first chorale in the second Jahrgang that is not in Bar form. In "Was frag ich nach der Welt" there is no repeat of the opening phrases and the first phrase of text is repeated at the end. That repetition can casually look, in movements such as the alto aria #4, like a da capo. The form of an aria like this is actually much more unconventional. We find that even in the da capo arias, such as the tenor aria #6 or the soprano aria #7, the repetitions of the A sections are often ruthlessly condensed.

The bass aria #2 is also brief. Its precipitous falling arpeggio is surprisingly weighty for the text about smoke and shadow. There are virtually no sequences; it is the kind of detailed through-composed work that only Bach, among his contemporaries, was writing.

The first chorale with recitatives is astonishingly verbose. Instead of commentaries on the chorale phrases there are little narratives between each line of text. Bach finds an interesting solution to the problem of this text’s characterization. Oboes sing lyrically and the solo tenor sings, equally lyrically, an ornamented version of the chorale. The recitative portions are jagged, chromatic in language and harrowing. Each return of the chorale phrases is a relief.

In the period when Bach wrote this work there was in Leipzig a guest and evidently quite accomplished flutist. Certainly the series of arias and ensembles with flute written at this time are among the high points of the literature. The text for the alto aria with flute continues the self-flagellation of the previous verses, but the tone is softer and more forgiving. The eight lines of text are divided up irregularly. The first three comprise an extended slow section with poignant chromatic sequences in the flute. The next two lines are taken up with a tiny seven-bar allegro, over before you know it. Lines 6 and 7 are a kind of arioso resembling the beginning but not really a tempo. The last line is the faux da capo, using all of the opening material but very condensed.

The second chorale with tropes contains what it almost inevitable in the cantatas, a redemption. It is characterized by a change in direction of the chromatic bass line at the moment the sinner decides to take Christ as his savior. Virtually every cantata contains such a moment; this is one of the most subtle.

The text to the tenor aria #6 contains one of the most graphic metaphors in all of the cantatas, comparing vanity to moles gathering yellow rot in their burrows. The low scratchy unison string writing captures the image brilliantly. For all of its grittiness, the work has a kind of grandeur of release.

Bach again reverts to the child-like soprano to bring the work to a close, but instead of the innocence of the end of Cantata BWV 92, there is an exhausted quality to the aria #7, particularly the haunting repetition of the opening text with its droopy melody over a held bass note.

As with many of Bach’s great, lesser-known works, the difficulty and ambiguity of this piece have kept it from being famous rather than any lack of musical quality. It also must be said that Cantata BWV 94 is an example of a work that can have devastating effect in a liturgical setting and makes virtually no musical sense in a concert.

©Craig Smith

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