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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 7 Class of 1685 (II)
Richard Taruskin

For its chorale-concerto counterpart, Cantata BWV 4, one of Bach’s earliest surviving cantatas but also one of the best known, would make an appropriate choice. First performed at Muhlhausen—possibly on Easter Sunday (24 April) 1707 as part of Bach’s application for the organist’s post there—it consists of a set of variations on another venerable chorale, Christ lag in Todesbanden (“Christ lay enchained by death”), which Luther had adapted from the Gregorian Easter sequence Victimae paschali laudes.

The text of Cantata no. 4 is exactly that of the chorale, its seven sections corresponding to the seven verses of the hymn, with a diminutive sinfonia introducing the first verse. That first verse setting is almost as long as the rest of the cantata put together. The sinfonia (Ex. 7-8a), which serves a kind of “preluding” function, is cleverly constructed out of materials from the chorale melody. The first line of the tune is quoted by the first violin in mm. 5–7; the second line, minus its cadential notes, is played by the second violin in mm. 8–10; the expected cadence is finally made by the first violins at the end. The first four measures are built on a neighbor-note motif derived from the melody’s incipit (first in the continuo, then in the first violins). The obsessive repetitions, a seeming stutter before the first line of the tune is allowed to progress, effectively suggest constraint—“death’s bondage.”

The elaborate first chorus is an old-fashioned cantus-firmus composition in “motet style,” in which the successive lines of the unadorned chorale tune in the soprano are pitted against points of imitation (some of them “Vorimitationen,” pre-echoes of the next line) in the accompanying voices. Although adapted here to a more modern harmonic idiom, and further complicated by the intensely motivic instrumental figuration (often drawn from the neighbor-note incipit), the procedure dates back in its essentials to the sixteenth century. By 1707 such a piece would have been considered entirely passé (or at best an exercise in stile antico) in any repertory but the Lutheran. For the final Hallelujah!, Bach livens things up by doubling the tempo and shifting over to an integrated motet style in which the soprano part moves at the same healthy speed as the rest of the choir. Still, the whole piece, like the church whose worship it adorned, fairly proclaims its allegiance to old ways.

The Old Style

ex. 7-8a J. S. Bach, Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4, Sinfonia

And so does verse 2 (Ex. 7-8b), in which a somewhat “figural” version of the chorale melody in the soprano is shadowed by a somewhat freer alto counterpart, while the two sung parts are set over a ground bass the likes of which we have not seen, so to speak, since the middle of the seventeenth century. The style of verse 3, with its neatly layered counterpoint, is like that of an organ chorale prelude: the tenor sings the cantus firmus in the “left hand,” while the massed violins play something like a ritornello in the “right hand,” and the frequently cadencing continuo supplies the “pedal.” Verse 4 is perhaps the most old-fashioned setting of all. It is another cantus-firmus setting (tune in the alto) against motetlike imitations, with a very lengthy Vorimitation at the beginning that takes in two lines of the chorale. The continuo is of the basso seguente variety, following (in somewhat simplified form) the lowest sung voice whichever it may be, never asserting an independent melodic function of its own. This usage corresponds to the very earliest venetian continuo parts, circa 1600. Like the earliest Venetian “ecclesiastical concertos,” this verse could be sung a cappella without significant textural or harmonic loss. It is, in short, a bona fide example of stile antico.

The Old Style

ex. 7-8b J. S. Bach, Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4, Verse II, mm. 1–8

By contrast, verse 5 (Ex. 7-8c), with its initial reference to the ancient passus duriusculus (chromatic descent) in the bass, shows how the chorale may be recast as an operatic lament, for which purpose Bach adopts a somewhat (though only somewhat) more modern stance. For the first time Bach relinquishes the neutral “common time” signature and employs a triple meter that has ineluctable dance associations. With its antiphonal exchanges between the singer and the massed strings (in an archaic five parts), this setting sounds like a parody of a passacaglia-style Venetian opera aria, vintage 1640, or (more likely) of an earlier German ecclesiastical parody of such a piece, say by a disciple of Schütz.

When, toward the end (Ex. 7-8d), the textual imagery becomes really morbid (blood, death, murderer, etc.), Bach seems literally to torture the vocal part, forcing it unexpectedly to leap downward a twelfth, to a grotesquely sustained low E♯ on “death,” and leap up almost two octaves to an equally unexpected, even lengthier high D on “murderer,” while the violins suddenly break into a rash of unprecedented sixteenth notes. Comparing this tormented imagery with the jolly imagery we encountered in Handel’s Israel in Egypt (albeit equally grisly and violent, at times, in its subject matter), we may perhaps begin to note a widening gulf between the two masters of the “High Baroque.” It is an important point to ponder, and we will return to it.

The Old Style

ex. 7-8c J. S. Bach, Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4, Verse V, mm. 1–12

In verse 6, Bach expands the scope of his imagery to incorporate, possibly for the first time in his music, the characteristic regal rhythms of the French overture as a way of reflecting the meaning of So feiern wir (“So mark we now the occasion”), which connotes an air of great solemnity and ceremony (Ex. 7-8e). Later, when the singers break into “rejoicing” triplets, the dotted continuo rhythms are probably meant to align with them. (There was no way of indicating an uneven rhythm within a triplet division in Bach’s notational practice.)

The final verse (composed later for Leipzig, probably replacing a da capo repeat of the opening chorus) is set as a Cantionalsatz, or “hymnbook setting,” the kind of simple “Bach chorale” harmonization one finds in books meant for congregational singing. (The term was actually coined in 1925 by the musicologist Friedrich Blume, but it filled an annoying terminological gap and has been widely adopted.) Bach ended many cantatas with such settings (enough so that his son Carl Philipp Emanuel could publish a famous posthumous collection of 371 of them), and it is possible that the congregation was invited to join in. We do not know this for a fact, but it does make sense in terms of Leipzig practice as Bach once listed it, where “alternate preluding and singing of chorales” by the congregation customarily followed the performance of the “composition.”

The Old Style

ex. 7-8d J. S. Bach, Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4, Verse V, 64–74

The Old Style

ex. 7-8e J. S. Bach, Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4, Verse VI, mm. 1–5

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II). In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07006.xml