A Listener’s Guide to BWV 21. Ich hatte viel bekümmernis

Posted on 28/10/2012

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First Part

1. Sinfonia (c)
Ob, str, bc

The sinfonía, a movement added to the cantata for its 1714 premiere, works, as is usual in other Bach cantatas, to set the emotional mood the work begins in. Basically, it’s an adagio trio sonata for oboe, strings and basso continuo with ornated lines for the oboe and the first violin and a written accompaniment for the second violin and the viola that enriches the texture. The oboe, who plays often the role of the pathetic affects in baroque music, is undoubtedly the principal soloist of the piece and it will reappear with similar tone and melody in the aria that follows the first chorus. Throughout the piece, the dialogue between oboe and violin generates and resolves dissonances over a walking bassline.
Almost at the end of the movement, the oboe frees itself from the ensemble and ascends in a trill that seems to symbolize the soul trying to liberate from the tribulations, but it falls again and accepts in the last bar the melancholic and unavoidable tempo of the basso continuo.

2. Chorus: Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis in meinem Herzen (c)
SATB, ob, str, bssn & bc

In a way, this chorus contains the two-parts structure of the cantata. It begins with the repetition of the word Ich. Johann Matheson, who could have heard the work when Bach visited Hamburg in 1720 trying to get the a job as organist at the Jacobkirche, criticised the use of repetition in it, but these repetitions, that in this movement overlap in the gradual entry of the different voices express the obsesive nature and the troubles of the individual conscience.
This cyclic system is suddenly interrupted by an unison Aber and explodes again fastly with the Deine Trostungen erquicken meine Seele.

3. Aria (sopran): Seufzer, Tränen, Kummer, Not (c)
S, ob & bc

The first aria retakes the dread and obsesive mood of the previous chorus first half. From its title, the piece is a list of pathetic affects. This list and, again, the use of repetition -this aria hasn’t a proper second part- keeps us into the suffering atmosphere in which the cantata begins. The rythm recovers also the unavoidable slowness of the first movement. This aria can be counted among the most moving in Bach production.

4. Recitative (tenor): Wie hast du dich, mein Gott (c/f)
T, str & bc

The recitative divides in two the first part of the cantata, thus creating a symetric structure: (sinfonia)-chorus-aria-recitative-aria-chorus. Here the tenor voice -the transposition from sopran to tenor is one of the changes Bach made for the Leipzig premiere- raises and expresses the feeling of having been abandoned by God.
The piece is divided in two parts: one -still in minor c- formulates questions to God. In the second part -which progressively flattens until it reaches a minor f-, the soloist bitterly complains about his condition.

5. Aria (tenor): Bäche von gesalznen Zähren (f)
T, str, bssn & bc

The second aria of the first part is more conventional than the first and, maybe because of it, it almost supposes a relief after the previous movements, even if the subject is the same.

6. Coro: Was betrübst du dich (f/c)
SATB (+ SATB ripieno), ob, str, bssn & bc

If the recitative marks the center of the first cantata and its most intense attempt in expressing the tribulation and dispair of the soul, this chorus marks the inflexion point and begins the restauration.
The piece is organized in a motete-like structure as a fantasia e fuga. The fugue is a permutation fugue that grows progressively thanks to the brilliant entry of the different voices: choir, instruments, choir with ripienists and strings, oboe… The return to minor c signs the promise of restauration, but it is still just this, a promise of restauration and not the restauration itself, something clearly audible in tempo and mode.

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Posted in: English