The inspired work of a young man of twenty-two, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (also known as Actus Tragicus) BWV 106 is one of the very first cantatas composed by Bach, along with the cantatas BWV 150 and 131, following the time-honored German tradition and in the direct line of descent from Buxtehude and Schütz. It does not yet display an Italianate division into recitatives and arias, and its restricted instrumental forces are also archaistic, since they consist, aside from the continuo, of just two recorders and two violas da gamba, ‘old-fashioned’ instruments generally associated with the evocation of death.
This scoring results in an atmosphere of intimacy and meditation, imbued with gentleness, contradicting the apocryphal title ‘Actus Tragicus’. There is no tragedy here, but on the contrary, a feeling of serenity gained in the face of death. Bach makes considerable use of the chorale in this work: he utilizes no fewer than three, to conclude each of the three vocal sections of the work. In another nod to the old tradition, all three of those chorales date back to the early years of the Reformation. The text is a compilation of a number of sacred fragments, mostly from the Old Testament, and chorale verses. Beneath a heterogeneous appearance, it elaborates a meditation on the death of Christ surrounded by the two thieves, as well as a parallel meditation on our own death to come, race of thieves that we are.
This meditation goes through two phases, clearly signposted in the construction of the text and the music. First comes the affirmation of the ineluctable character of death for all humankind, with the need to prepare for it; then the certitude, no less great for the Christian, that, thanks to the Redemption, death is no more than the period of time that will lead to our resurrection. Thus we move from the Old Law to the New Covenant, centered on the vision of Christ on the Cross and therefore of the meaning his death assumes for humanity. The words of Christ to the Penitent Thief constitute the keystone of the work: ‘Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise.’
Another product of the composer’s earliest youth, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich BWV 150 is a song of hope. Its libretto paraphrases Psalm 25, an imploration of humanity in peril and an appeal for divine salvation. But the torments do not last, and one must not heed them, since the Word of God saves the faithful from danger, protects them, and constantly helps them to overcome evil.
Scored principally for vocal ensemble, the work calls for simple but subtly diversified instrumental forces and four vocal soloists. In conclusion, instead of a strophe from a chorale, the librettist places a further commentary in the mouths of the entire Christian community. The predominant key is B minor, rarely used at this period, and invariably reserved for the expression of profound affliction—here it evokes pains and torments on the one hand and ardent imploration on the other, as is emphasized, among other features, by the intense descending chromatic lines of the sinfonia and the first chorus. The final chaconne, for its part, may symbolize the permanence of divine succor and Heaven’s blessing. In its spirit, its overall conception and its musical realization, as well as its fervent spirituality, this original work by the young Bach attests to how much he owed to the heritage of Buxtehude.
In the winter of 1704, Bach walked the 250 miles from Arnstadt to the Hanseatic city of Lübeck to meet the famed organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude. On his return, Bach was reprimanded by his employers, having asked for four weeks’ leave but being gone—in the words of the superintendent’s report—‘almost four times as long.’ A figure associated with both the North German school and the impressive musical establishments at the Danish and Swedish courts, Buxtehude would have introduced the young Bach to a series of new musical ideas.
Buxtehude’s own biography is somewhat patchy. No records exist specifying the location or date of his birth, although a memorial printed after his death in 1707 tells that ‘he recognized Denmark as his native country, whence he came to our nation.’ His father had been organist of the Maria Kyrka in Helsingborg, moving across the sound to Helsingør (better known as Elsinore, the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet).
Like Bach, Buxtehude was educated at the local Latin school and probably trained in music by his father. By 1658, he had taken up his father’s former job in Helsinborg, but in 1660, he returned to Helsingør as organist at the Marienkirche, home to the city’s German-speaking congregation. On the death of Franz Tunder in 1688, the post of organist at the Marienkirche in Lübeck became vacant. Tunder had been one of the leading composers of the 17th century, founding the so-called Abendmusiken in 1664. These were a series of concerts of sacred music held at the beginning of the liturgical year and over the four Sundays of Advent. Lübeck thus presented an excellent base for Buxtehude to expand the scope of his compositional activities, and over the remainder of his career, he produced an impressive number of large-scale oratorios and vocal concertos (i.e. cantatas) for the Abendmusiken.
Jesu, meines Lebens Leben BuxWV 62 was probably written for one of these evening concerts. Scored for two violins, two violas, four voices and continuo, it sets a poem by Ernst Christoph Homburg (1607-1681). Buxtehude’s cantata opens with a richly scored sinfonia for the full string ensemble. After this captivating introduction, he sets up a beautiful ciaccona, a pattern based on a repeating bassline of just eight notes. Over the top, different combinations of voices sing Homburg’s verses—gradually evolving from a solo soprano to the full ensemble. The verses are punctuated by short interludes for the strings. This cantata serves as a simple but exquisite example of how Lutheran composers such as Buxtehude (and Bach) were able to use self-imposed limitations as a means of challenging their own creativity and invention.
Could the cantata Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir BWV 131 be the very first one ever written by Bach, in 1707? We do not know, nor do we know the purpose for which it was composed. Bach was then twenty-two years old and ready to assert his prodigious musical and spiritual mastery. The text is a compilation made from Psalm 130, the De Profundis, and two chorale verses. The theme it develops, that of penitence in affliction, is a recurrent one with the German composers of the century of the Thirty Years War, so deeply wounded by the disasters they had lived through or their consequences which they saw around them. The work is strictly speaking not a cantata, but falls into the category of the sacred concerto. It consists of five linked sections, following the venerable practice of the motet, which interpolate two strophes of an old hymn, Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut (Lord Jesus Christ, O supreme good). It is noticeable how, right from the start of his career, Bach is concerned with exegesis, commenting on the text of the psalm, going back to the Old Testament with the aid of a chorale poem of the Reformation. An intense prayer addressed to God by distressed humanity, weighed down by the burden of its sins but hoping as it waits for the Lord, this first cantata is his first masterpiece.
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