Pamela Dellal, mezzo soprano


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Bach Cantata Notes

BWV 139

The Weimar cantata for the Twenty-third Sunday after Trinity, BWV 163, used Christ’s metaphor about money in the reading from the 22nd Chapter of Matthew as its central theme. In Cantata BWV 139 the Gospel is less directly influential upon the text. The Epistle from Philippians particularly the rejection of earthly things for the world of heaven, is the main argument. Much of the cantata text although verbally quite emphatic is rather gentle in tone, even the alto recitative that speaks of the wolves’ anger is fairly mild in tone. The last aria finally takes up the tone of the words and is something indeed very violent.

The chorale tune is, like “Liebster Gott’ and”Mache dich mein Geist bereit,” a rather recent chorale. It is a nice melody but rather bland in character. Bach makes up for the lack of profile by writing an orchestration of unusual richness. This richness is achieved not by a particularly colorful combination of instruments but by the fact that all of the lines are almost without exception never doubled. The scoring is for two oboes d’amore and strings. It is likely that a flute, probably doubling the chorale tune is lost. In any texture like this Bach almost invariably will double the oboes and the strings, with occasional passage of independence for each set of instruments. Here from the outset, there is a five voice (2 oboes, 2 violins, and viola) texture above the continuo. Even with the entrance of the chorus, the orchestral parts usually remain independent. This gives a lush rich singing texture. The chorale tune itself is pitched rather low in the sopranos. Not only a flute at the octave, as in BWV 101 and 78, would help it be heard, but maybe a horn doubling is missing also. The cantata survives only from an incomplete set of parts in Leipzig, no score has been found. The clue to the warm and gentle character can be found in the opening two lines that plead for the soul to abandon himself with childlike trust. All of the later lines about sin and the devil go uncharacterized.

From the outset it has been known that one obbligato is missing from the tenor aria #2. The Bach scholar Robert Levin thinks that there are two missing obbligati and has written a reconstruction with two additional parts, The work as it comes down to us is a light-hearted da capo aria with much agreeable fortspinnung in both the voice and the one remaining violin part. It may seem unfair to judge the work in its incomplete state, but it doesn’t seem to go very deep. The alto recitative declaims its rather hair-raising text with a strange calm. The explosion that happens in the bass aria is therefore all the more surprising.

The aria #4 is one of the most structurally inventive things in all of Bach. In fact in every way the work is sui generis. We are used, in this Bach’s most creative period, to startling innovation, but nothing before has prepared us for this piece. The orchestration is unusual. The two oboes d’amore play a clangerous and jarring dotted rhythm figure in unison against that the solo violin plays agitated arpeggios. The continuo plays a dotted rhythm figure but twice as fast as the oboes. The oboes in unison create a special wailing sound that is almost like a human cry. The violin clearly is illustrating the “hundredweight chain” of the text. As unusual as the scoring is it is the structure that is unique. There are three tempi. The first is an allegro 4/4. This goes segue into a vivace 6/8 with the eighth note unit remaining equal. The third tempo is a 4/4 andante approximately half the speed of the allegro. There are eleven tempo changes in the aria. The overall effect is that of a da capo with the andante with allegro interludes functioning as the B section. But the actual da capo is quite irregular and containing many more vivace episodes than the first A section, creating a sense of chaos and pandemonium. The racheting of up of the tempo in the transition between the 4/4 allegro and the 6/8 vivace is terrifically exhilarating. This is an aria that got the notice of the very first Bach scholars, Spitta writes excitedly about it. The soprano recitative reverts to the beginning strange calm, and the cantata ends with a rich, unusually beautiful harmonization of the chorale melody.

©Craig Smith