One of the most often-encountered concepts in Lutheran theology is the reliance on God’s will; the requirement to conform one’s own will and desire to divine intent. The nine cantatas that include either the chorale which concludes this week’s cantata, “Was mein Gott will,” or “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan” are ample demonstration of how central this stricture was to Bach. “Alles nur nach Gottes Willen” stems not from a chorale text, but from an original libretto by Salomo Franck. Franck was a very gifted librettist who also served as the head of the Mint in Weimar; many of Bach’s finest cantatas from Weimar are composed to Franck texts.
A striking feature of the libretto is the ‘litany’ – a short, repeated phrase that gains conviction and intensity through repetition. The litany is coupled with contrasting ideas – joy & sorrow, clouds and sun, good and bad – stressing the sense that the faithful believer should never stray from his one task of trusting wholly in God. What is startling about Bach’s treatment of these words is this furious tempest of an opening chorus. We are plunged into the midst of sweeping sixteenth-note roulades, punctuated by hammer-stroke chords on beats one and two. The energy of the figuration is overwhelming, and made all the stronger by the simple, transparent harmonic motion. When the chorus enters it picks up the same motives and uses the short chords to reiterate “alles” [everything]. There are also voices that chant the mantra on a single note against the roulades in other parts. When Bach is ready to bring the next lines of text in, they are treated as responsorial phrases in the soprano, while the lower three parts continue to chant the mantra. Only on the word “Traurigkeit” [sorrow] does any chromatic coloration enter the texture. The choral writing cannot be characterized as contrapuntal, although there are brief passages of fugato; rather the gestures are highly rhetorical and homophonic. A very brief instrumental interlude introduces the middle section of the text, “Gottes Willen soll mich stillen [God’s will shall calm me].” Here the storm seems to be easing; the short chords are played piano staccato, while the chorus sings a more lyrical and truly contrapuntal passage including floating suspensions. This passage in turn erupts into more turbulence on the words “bei Gewölk,” which rapidly turn back to the mantra and the material of the opening once more.
The next movement begins simply enough as a secco recitative for alto, directly addressing the faithful listener who has absorbed and accepted this teaching. But it evolves into yet another litany: “Herr, so du willt [Lord, as you will].” This becomes a continuo arioso; an intimate duet between the continuo and the voice, with the little rhythmic figure echoed in the cello continually after the singer. The libretto takes this new mantra – a more personal and active version of the first-movement text – and dissects it, juxtaposes it with every conceivable consequent, and even changes it from simple declarative antecedent into a quoted object at one point! The setting of this complex and beautiful passage is as fluid and inventive as the text; there are surprising harmonic shifts and contrasts of lyrical and angular intervals, inviting contrasts of dynamic and articulation from the singer to match. The climactic phrase of this mantra: “so sterb ich nicht [I will not die]” is set in an oxymoronic fashion with the word “sterb” winding downward chromatically over a pedal bass (a very common device used by Bach to characterize the concept of death) and then abruptly contradicted by the octave leap upward into a simplistic half-cadence. The surprises are not over, however. Instead of the movement rounding off, a new secco recitative is initiated which prompts yet another mantra: “mit allem, was ich hab und bin [with everything that I have and am].” At first, this sounds as if it will be a continuo aria, but after the voice finishes its phrase a pair of violins enter with more brilliant, contrapuntal figuration strikingly reminiscent of the opening movement. Then the voice re-enters and trades off motives with the two violins and the bass. Again the sense of sheer willpower, propping up the faithful’s determination, seems conveyed by the headlong energy. The voice does not participate in the sixteenth-note figuration except for one striking moment on the word “Dornen [thorns].” This remarkable sectional movement, sui generis in the repertoire, only seems to move away from the opening movement; by the end of the aria it seems as if we have come full-circle back to the beginning.
Only after this grand structure is over does the mood begin to shift for real. The bass recitative introduces a flash of God’s voice itself, and continues with imagery that truly expresses the comfort that God offers and provides to those that trust him fully. These words finally seems to lower the temperature and relax the obsessive focus on will and the individual that has dominated the piece so far. The soprano aria which follows is filled with sweetness, although the texture is surprisingly complex. A simple motive introduced by the oboe (and with the same eighth-four sixteenth note pattern we remember from the arioso) is developed contrapuntally between the violins and the oboe as three independent voices; even the continuo participates in the texture. The vocal writing is more rhetorical and direct than this, and carries several phrases on long floating suspensions. The energy continues to unwind as the new text is introduced, culminating in a supremely intimate and gentle image of resting in Jesus’ hands, which rolls to a halt on a fermata. The aria picks up its rich contrapuntal detail and wakes up after this moment, while the singer proclaims, this time without teeth-clenching fervor, “Mein Jesus will es tun! [My Jesus will do it!]” The final instrumental cadence is exquisitely, and surprisingly, enhanced by one last entrance of the voice murmuring these words again, caressing the stable cadence with soft subdominant inflections.
The final chorale, confirming all the litanies and mantras with a bedrock Lutheran hymn, is simple and calm, as we have reached a true resolution. The modal tune alternately stresses A minor and C major, the two central keys of the cantata, as if to show that the two aspects of relying on God’s power are complementary.