One of three oratorios by Bach, the Ascension Oratorio was first performed on Ascension Day in 1735 (May 19) in Leipzig. The text mixes biblical and poetic material, though the exact librettist is unknown. (Biblical passages come from Luke 24:50-2; Acts 1:9-12; and Mark 16:19).
Bach wrote several cantatas for the Feast of the Ascension (BWV 37, 43, and 128), though none matches the musical scope of the Ascension Oratorio (BWV 11, sometimes referred to as BWV 249a). Called an “oratorio,” this is, like the Christmas Oratorio, really a cantata-style piece (the Christmas Oratorio is actually a series of six cantatas).
|1||Chorus in ABA’ Form||D Major, hints of b minor, A, G, e minor, f-sharp minor||2/4, moderate to fast||3 trumpets, timpani, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, strings, continuo, SATB choir||Mix of homophonic and polyphonic (phrases almost always begin and end together in all parts)|
|2||Secco recitative||b minor to A Major||4/4, free||Tenor solo with continuo||Simple homophonic|
|3||Accompanied recitative||F-sharp minor to A Major||4/4, free||Bass solo, with 2 flutes and continuo||Homophonic primarily, with more rhythmic activity in the accompanying parts|
|4||Aria||a minor (hints of e minor, C major, D minor)||4/4, slow||Alto solo, with unison violins and continuo||Trio sonata (2 polyphonic parts with continuo)|
|5||Secco recitative||e minor to f-sharp minor||4/4, free||tenor solo with continuo||Simple homophonic|
|6||Chorale||D Major (hints of A Major, E minor, B minor)||3/4, moderate||SATB choir, doubled by the orchestra||4-part chorale (homophonic)|
|7||Recitative duet||4/4, free||Tenor and bass solos, with continuo||Trio Sonata|
|8||Simple recitative||Cadences in b minor||4/4, free||Alto solo, 2 flutes and continuo||Simple homophonic (flutes mostly sustain pitches)|
|9||Secco recitative||Cadences in G||4/4, free||Tenor solo with continuo||Simple homophonic|
|10||Da capo aria||G major||3/8, moderate||Soprano solo, 2 flutes in unison, 1 oboe, violins and violas in unison||Polyphonic|
|11||Chorale fantasy||D Major||6/4, moderately fast||3 trumpets, timpani, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, strings, continuo, SATB choir||Polyphonic under a chorale melody|
Because of the scope of this work, below are some informative points about this work, rather than extended prose.
Connections to other works by Bach
- The opening was probably borrowed from the lost secular cantata Froher Tag, verlangte Stunden (of 1732)
- The alto aria “Ach, bleibe doch” was based on the aria “Entfernet euch, ihr kalten Herzen” from the wedding cantata Auf! süß-entzückende Gewalt (now lost)
- That same alto aria serves as a model for the Agnus Dei of the Mass in B Minor.
- The use of an Evangelist links this work to the St. Matthew Passion
- The main key of the oratorio is D Major, something it shares with both the Easter Oratorio and Christmas Oratorio.
- The scoring of the large choruses is the same Bach uses in Cantatas 1, 3, and 4 of the Christmas Oratorio (three trumpets, timpani, two flutes, two oboes, strings, continuo, and SATB choir)
- The use of a chorale (“Nun lieget alles unter dir,” Movt. 6) provides a link to numerous other works by Bach.
Other Ascension “tidbits”
- The Ascension Oratorio can be said to be “in” D Major because it is framed by two D Major choruses. There are other passages in D and in keys closely related to D Major.
- The opening movement is very challenging to the singers, especially to the sopranos, because of the prominent ornamental figures (check out the 32nd notes in m. 7 below) and the runs. This is much more like instrumental writing than vocal writing – or perhaps the kind of singing we might hear from a soloist, but not from an entire soprano section!
- Movement 3 is an accompanied recitative, fairly uncommon in Bach’s time, though in subsequent generations this type of recitative becomes more popular in operas. Quite simply, the accompanying parts do more than simply fill in the harmonies. The parallel thirds movement in the flutes is quite poignant, perhaps reflecting the tears of sorrow Jesus’ disciples felt as he departed from them in the Ascension. (Surely, this must have been a highly emotional moment for them: they watched him die, buried him, then heard he rose from the dead; they spent days with him, and renewed faith, only to watch him ascend from their sight into heaven, where they will see him again only at the hour of their own deaths!) This is a powerful recitative, even if it is only eleven measures in length. The sweet sound of the flutes, the strong bass voice, chromatic writing in all parts, dissonant intervals, minor tonality all contribute to the compelling effect.
- Movement 4 is essentially a trio sonata, with two melody parts (unison violins and the solo alto voice) and continuo. The two melodic arts use similar material, sometimes playing in parallel motion, sometimes imitating each other, sometimes playing independently through complementary lines. The piece is strongly rooted in a minor, again reflecting the disciples sorrow at Christ’s departure. This work, in fact, is even more sombre than the preceding recitative; even the text refers to “exceeding great pain” (das allergrößte Leiden), clearly a step up in emotional intensity.
- Movement 6 is a simple chorale setting in SATB voicing, with the instruments (except trumpets and timpani) doubling the choral parts. It would be easy to ignore any discussion of it, except that the tune is familiar. It’s almost the same as the chorale (also in 3/4) from Cantata 43 Du Lebensfürst, herr Jesu Christ, and the chorale from the Christmas Oratorio “Ermuntre dich, mein schwacher Geist” (in 4/4). You might recognize the English title as “Break forth, o Heavens, o bounteous light”, or something to that effect.
- After three recitatives in a row, we reach Movement 10, an aria. This movement is a minuet, a courtly dance. Though Bach wrote several minuets for keyboard, we don’t normally associate this dance – or many dances – with sacred music. What I find interesting here is that there is no continuo part – a rarity in the Baroque, but a link to the St Matthew Passion‘s aria “Aus Liebe”. Unlike that aria, “Jesue deine Gnadenblicke” uses a part for violins and viola in unison, which is clearly in a continuo part, though without a chordal instrument to fill out the harmonies. The lack of the continuo line reflects the fact that Christ is no longer “grounded”; the interplay of the four parts is delightful and lovely, enhancing our understanding of the text:
Deine Liebe bleibt zurücke,
daß ich mich hier in der Zeit
an der künft’gen Herrlichkeit
schon vorus im Geist erquicke.
Thy love stays behind,
so that I can partake
here in spirit
of the future glory.
Thus, comfort is passed to the grieving; in the subsequent movement, we shall see comfort supplanted by utter rejoicing:
Trumpets and drums return for the finale. Actually, everyone – all instruments and voices – are back for a triumphant, joyous ending. This is a lengthy chorale fantasy, in which (as per usual) the sopranos sing the chorale tune in long notes while the other voices and instruments fill in the harmonies and activate the texture. The basses of the choir have some of the most difficult passages here, with long, winding melismas in the second portion of the movement: