Notes on BWV 150

Probably the earliest surviving cantata we have, BWV 150 was likely given in Arnstadt sometime around 1706-07. Written after Bach’s famous journey to Lübeck (a distance of over 200 km – which he covered on foot!) to hear the legendary organist, composer and scholar Dietrich Buxtehude, this cantata might represent the young Bach as he absorbed and internalized the techniques and ideas learned from the venerable old master.

Not written for any specific occasion, the text is partly taken from Psalm 25 (Verses 1, 2, 5, 15), and augmented with free verse (that some even attribute to Bach himself). Somewhat remarkable is the virtuosic treatment of the Bassoon, an instrument that usually doubles the cello and bass of the continuo group – and the fact that there are no violas.

The opening Sinfonia, for two violins and basso continuo, features a gripping chromatic descending line – a portrayal of longing – which is alternately taken up by all three instrument groups at various times. The somber key of b minor will stay with us for most of the 17-minute work.

The first chorus uses the same chromatic idea from the Sinfonia, but Bach now precedes it with an upward-reaching octave – lending even more to the feeling of longing and despair, as the vocal lines enter one after another. A rough-and-tumble section follows, as the chorus begs “Lass mich nicht zu Schanden werden” (don’t let me be disgraced) which is interrupted by a very short, pleading Adagio on the same text. Bach concludes this number with a lively fugue.

The short Aria for soprano, which follows, contains a large variety of musical ideas, none of which are explored very deeply or developed (something which the mature Bach would later take to staggering heights). However, there is some vivid word-painting to be found, notably illustrating “Kreuz, Sturm” (lit: Cross, Storm) whereby the continuo sounds the musical image of the cross while the violins smash away at the storm, and the downwards leap of a diminished seventh in the vocal line for the words “Tod, Höll” (Death, Hell).

The next chorus opens with one of the most illustrative and ingenious ideas in this cantata: While the text reads “Leite mich” (lead me) a continuous scale rises upwards from the depths of the basses, through every voice of the chorus to end in the uppermost registers of the violins. This is doubly clever in that the German word for scale is also Leiter (or Tonleiter), thereby the chorus’ incantation of “Leite mich” serves as a compositional directive – which Bach follows admirably! This introduction gives way to a small, fleeting digression very reminiscent of the first outburst from the first chorus. After a slow middle section, an ornate conclusion follows with many imitative entries. Though strikingly similar in form, this number never attains the complexity of the opening chorus.The Terzett for alto, tenor and bass is in refreshing D-major, and compares Christian steadfastness (evoked by the marvelously calm and stoic vocal lines) to tall cedars enduring storm and wind (that we hear in the non-stop commotion of the cello and bass). After the voices finish, the bassoon is given the last word in a gleeful descending arpeggio.

The penultimate chorus is in binary form, the opening majestic and confidant, still in D- major, declaiming: “Meine Augen sehen stets zu dem Herrn” (my eyes always look to the Lord) with quite a lot of fanfare in the violins and the bassoon. The second half suddenly plunges us back into b-minor, as we begin an allegro fugue on a very complicated rhythmical figure set to the text “denn er wird meinen Fuss aus dem Netze ziehen” (for he will pull my foot from the net) and as performers it is all we can do not to get caught in this web of complications ourselves! The concluding phrase has one of the most wonderful chromatic passages (again descending!) that we hear in the entire piece, and abruptly ends in B-major.

The last chorus may be in silent homage to Buxtehude, using one of his favorite devices – the chaconne, where a steady, repeating bass-line forms the foundation upon which the upper voices combine in ever-different ways. As the dramatic tension builds, so does the intensity of the violin and bassoon writing, culminating in a driving, insistent figuration that suddenly gives out to the simple yet resounding conclusion of the work.

One of the subscribers to the complete Bach edition in the 19th-century was Johannes Brahms, who used this bass-line as the principal thematic element in the last movement of his fourth symphony (altered with the addition of a chromatic half-step before the second-to-last note).

J. Kuerti Boston, January 2008

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