Cantata 198, Lass, Fürstin, lass noch einen Strahl, is also known as the Trauer Ode (mourning ode). This secular cantata was written on the death of Christiane Eberhardine, Electress of Saxony, who died on September 5, 1727. The work was performed as the Paulinkirche at the University of Leipzig on October 17, 1727. Queen Christiane was particularly beloved by the people of Saxony for her devotion to her Lutheran faith, even as “her husband, Augustus the Strong, had converted to Catholicism in order to gain the throne of Poland” (John Butt, “Trauer Ode,” in The Oxford Companion to Bach).
Hans Carl von Kirchbach, a young nobleman, commissioned Bach to write the score and J.C. Gottsched to write the libretto for an ode of mourning. This is the only surviving work by Bach to use a Gottsched libretto. Bach completed the score, according to his own inscription on the manuscript, on October 15, only two days before the performance at Christiane’s memorial service. The text provided is set in nine stanzas of eight lines each. Bach used what was reported to be an “Italian style” in his composition, a sequence of choruses, arias, and recitatives, which had little to do with the original text submitted by Gottsched (Butt, “Trauer Ode,” in The Oxford Companion to Bach).
The instrumentation includes an orchestra of violins, violas, two flutes, two oboes, and the usual continuo bass and harpsichord, together with a pair of oboes d’amore, two violas da gamba and two lutes. This grouping provides a rich variety of possibilities for instrumental combinations and different timbres – especially given the oboes d’amore, violas da gamba, and lutes. For Bach, the violas da gamba are most often used in mournful texts, but the incorporation of lutes is unusual (Butt, “Trauer Ode,” in The Oxford Companion to Bach).
The cantata is set in ten movements divided into two parts, one of seven movements and the second of the final three movements. According to reports of the service, the first part of the ode was performed as a prelude to the actual funeral service, and the second part at the conclusion. The first and seventh movements were reused by Bach in a mourning cantata for Leopold I of Cöthen two years later. Much of what appears in the Trauer Ode appeared in some form in the St. Mark Passion. Indeed, more than one scholar has noted the similarity in character to Bach’s Passions, and as each of these works (the Passions and Trauer Ode included) deal with death and mourning, this should be no surprise.
The cantata begins with a choral movement in b minor, setting a somber tone. The instrumental introduction, ten measures in length, is replete with dotted rhythms, representing the regal status of the deceased to whom the cantata is offered in tribute. Personally, I’m a sucker for a good deceptive cadence, and Bach writes a “doosey” from measures 9 to 10. It’s not your “textbook” deceptive cadence in that we normally expect movement from V-vi (or VI), but the effect is indeed deceptive and unexpected.
The combination of the minor mode, the majestic dotted rhythms, the broken lines in the choir (few melismas, frequent “shouts” from the choir in rhythmic unison) really give a feeling that Bach and his fellow Saxons genuinely loved and now mourned their departed princess, who held fervently onto her Lutheran faith despite marrying Augustus I, who had converted to Catholicism.
The second movement is a brief accompanied recitative for solo soprano with strings and continuo. Lasting only fourteen measures, it disposes quickly of a long doleful text, relating the lamentations of the princess’s husband, Augustus, and the entire citizenry of Saxony. The frequent downward appoggiatura movement in the strings is appropriately reflective of drooping tears.
As if in response, the subsequent aria – also for soprano – dismisses the “holden Saiten” (sweet string), in a futile effort to move from grief to healing perhaps, or, more likely, as the text says, because no sound can truly express the country’s grief. More often, in this movement, the motion of the strings is ascending rather than descending (or, upward motion appears at least as often as downward). The movement shifts quickly from b minor to D major (and later to A major), to begin to point the grieving in the direction towards healing.
The fourth movement is another recitative, this one for alto. As the mid-point of the first half, this accompanied recitative features the tolling of the bells by the orchestra, including the flutes, strings, and lutes. This effect was not lost on the Leipzig crowd, as reported by Christoph Ernst Sicul in Das thränende Leipzig: “Then comes a remarkable example of pictorial expression, the tolling of the bells for the Queen. The ringing ceases by degrees, the final sound of the bass acting as cadence figure.” Beyond these bell-like sounds, I am struck by the very first pitch played by oboe I – a C-natural, which along with the A, F-sharp, and D surrounding it, creates an unstable major-minor seventh (frequently referred to as a dominant seventh).
Here begins a passage of instability that will last the entire movement, marked by a gradual slide downward from D major to F-sharp minor. The bass line alone demonstrates this quick descent.
The fifth movement is an aria for alto accompanied by violas da gamba, lutes, and continuo. This “undoubtedly represents the heart of the piece” (Butt), an interesting mixture of the mourning instruments (gambas), a heroic key (D major – complementing the textural reference to the heroine), and compound meter (12/8). After another accompanied recitative (tenor with oboes and continuo), a fugal chorus concludes the first part of the Ode. Initially, the instruments of the ensemble merely double the choral parts; after a brief instrumental interlude based on the same fugal subject, the fugue restarts with the altos. The two fugues are the same length (29 measures), and with the instrumental interlude, form a sort of ternary form (ABA’).
The second part is a mere three movements – a tenor aria, bass recitative with arioso, and chorus. The tenor aria is accompanied by flute, oboe d’amore, violins, violas da gamba, and continuo, with lutes specifically stated as doubling the continuo. The combination of violas da gamba, lutes, and oboe d’amore give a dark sound to the texture, despite the higher tenor voice. Most notable in the tenor line are three brilliantly elaborate and terribly long melismas, a challenge for even the best of soloists. These lengthy melismas are placed strategically on the words “Ewigkeit” (eternity) and “umsponnen” (surrounded, as though the many pitches sung encompass and enfold all that happens around them. The middle of the three, and the longest, can be seen below.
The bass recitative with arioso that follows is in three parts: recitative, arioso, recitative. The two recitative sections are clearly distinguished from the arioso in that they are simple recitatives, with no rhythmic or melodic interest to the continuo part. In the arioso section, the continuo is not only rhythmically independent but the vocal part is also more melodic than in the opening or closing recitatives. A dramatic, dissonant chord (d-sharp fully diminished) announces the sudden and unexpected return of the recitative. This sudden return is doubly surprising with the insertion of flutes and oboes into the texture, though their role is exclusively to fill out the harmonic structure.
Although a secular cantata, the Trauer Ode ends with a text that reminds the assembly of the promise of eternal life for their departed queen (“yet, O queen, you do not die…”). Although this textual snippet can be interpreted purely in secular terms – those who remain behind remember the queen’s goodness, and thus keep her alive in their memory – it no doubt had a double meaning for the Lutheran faithful, who themselves trusted in the queen’s fidelity to her faith and their own promise of eternal life in the Lord.