In his third year in Leipzig, Bach used single solo voices more frequently than in his earlier years.  Many of the most well-known of the solo cantatas including three of the great alto cantatas BWV 35, 169 and 170 as well as the extraordinary bass cantata “Ich habe genug” BWV 82 are from this season.  Whether the task of training a chorus for the big opening movements became onerous for Bach, or the inclination to encompass a whole spiritual journey with one voice was responsible for this, is not known.  What resulted are some of the greatest and most intense pieces for solo voice in the literature.

Today’s cantata BWV 56 has always been a bit in the shadow of the more famous BWV 82.  This is undeserved, for in this work we have Bach working at his profoundest level.  The reading for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity is an unusual and serious one.  Since Bach wrote no Lenten music except for the Passion settings, this intense work is very suitable.

For all of its austerity, the opening movement is remarkably and vividly descriptive of the text. The stumbling bass line is a remarkably realistic depiction of one dragging a heavy cross. The opening awkward line has an almost pictorial authenticity of a cross. The orchestration with strings doubled by three oboes is of unparalleled density and seriousness. The ungiving and oppressive atmosphere is broken by the vocal triplets that dominate the last two lines of text.  The da capo strangely only includes the opening tutti with no vocal line, giving the movement an incomplete and unfinished quality.

The first recitative makes clear that this first movement is meant to be a prelude to the reading from Matthew, which begins with the voyage across the lake. The seascape is vividly drawn with the simplest of gestures, a series of arpeggios in the continuo. The moment when Jesus steps onto dry land is one of the great magical moments in all of Bach’s recitatives. The lengthy aria with oboe obbligato that follows can seem repetitive if the extraordinary detail of overlapping phrases is missed. The palpable sense of relief from the weightiness of the first movement is essential to the message that Jesus gives to the scribes, that their charge of blasphemy is hypocritical. For the final recitative Bach makes a gesture unique in his cantatas:  he brings back the last two lines of the first aria in an expanded and more finished form.  The inconclusiveness of the first aria was necessary to complete the message of this cantata. The unusually poetic harmonization of the chorale, “Du, o schönes Weltgebäude,” brings the cantata to a personal and striking close.  

©Craig Smith