Some scholars speculate that Cantata No. 131, which isn’t specified for a particular liturgical occasion, might have been commissioned as a work of musical healing following a fire in the town of Mühlhausen. Whatever its provenance, this work, based on Psalm 130, cries out to the Lord for deliverance, and Bach works mightily to offer a sound picture of that deliverance through the use of exceptionally beautiful music, and the interpolation of a chorale melody (and its text) in two of the movements as a cantus firmus above solo vocal lines. In an earlier post, I mentioned John Eliot Gardiner’s newish book on the life and music of Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven, and one of the repeated themes of that work is the ability of performers and listeners to find evidence of humanity in the compositions of one of our most “deified” composers. That humanity is richly abundant in the movements of Cantata 131, along with evidence of great empathy, faithfulness, and compositional craft.
In his excellent introduction to the piece, Emmanuel Music’s wonderful conductor, the late Craig Smith, spends some time pointing out the youthful precociousness of the 22 year old composer. Tracing Bach’s development as a composer, as well as the slight imperfections in his earlier technique, is also a window to Bach’s humanity – there is great temptation among Bach partisans to romanticize his skill to such an extent that he no longer seems recognizably human. One of the great gifts of Gardiner’s book was the frequency with which the shadows and contours of a living being, with many of the same passions, wants, and neuroses we all possess in various measure, but also an extraordinary sense of striving, haunt the pages. I found it an exhilarating read. With that in mind, I shall resist the temptation to over-romanticize the extraordinary accomplishment that is Cantata 131, if only because it resides on a program of extraordinary musical accomplishments (followed by more of the same on Friday evening, as well, as Saturday morning, and then there’s the Mass in B-Minor on Saturday afternoon…alas). There is a danger in overuse of superlatives: if applied indiscriminately, they begin to lose their meaning. Forgive me if I lose this battle in the following paragraphs.
We begin with the dark key of g-minor, and short phrases of an oboe and violin duet over a lovely basso continuo line. The choir enters on the opening words of Psalm 130, sometimes in duets, sometimes altogether. In one arresting moment, on the word “rufe” or “call” Bach stacks the voices in astonishingly close suspensions, intensifying the call for deliverance. The mood and tempo shift as the choir declaims text asking for God to listen to their pleas. As Smith notes, there’s some evocative melismatic singing on the word “flehens,” translated alternately as pleas or complaints. At the end of that section, the music morphs into an accompanied bass solo, with the first statements of the chorale sung as a cantus firmus by the soprano section. The bass questions the Lord, asking if we were to account for our sins, who could stand, and later reflects that forgiveness is from the Lord, which prompts our awe. In the midst of many repeated phrases by the bass, the sopranos offer a prayer for relief from the burden of our sin. Where Smith is not wholly convinced by the efficacy of this compositional approach, at least in the hands of the young Bach, I find the cantus firmus pierces the veil of gloom like rays of sunshine through a cloudy sky, particularly when sung with the great sensitivity we’ll be hearing on Friday.
Next, at the piece’s center, is a movement of extraordinary text painting. The choir enters in block chords from which brief vocal cadenzas arise, first from the altos, a repeat from the choir of the block chords, then from the tenors, after which a slow-moving and deeply evocative choral fugue follows. The theme of the movement is our collective souls waiting on the Lord, and Bach creates a sense of that waiting using suspensions, repeated patterns, and an extremely lyrical oboe obbligato. There’s an unhurried, yet expectant sense of stillness that pervades the movement. Then follows an aria for tenor, again with chorale interpolations from the alto section, again, on the theme of waiting for the Lord.
After the tenor aria, we reach the concluding movement, which begins by declaiming in block chords that “Israel hopes in the Lord” three times, each with gathering intensity. This is followed by a more active moment, as the choir repeats the words “hopes in the Lord,” followed by another section of block chords on the text “for mercy is with the Lord, and much redemption.” After this moment, another fugue begins as the text promises God’s redemption for the faithful. In this contrapuntal writing, which moves both up and down, to my ear, there seems to be a sense both of God entering the world (in the descending passages) and redeeming it (through the chromatic rising scales). The fugue eventually evolves into one last homophonic (or chordal) cadence, and ends with movement and decoration between the alto and tenor lines. Carol Traupman-Carr has a detailed analysis of Cantata 131 on our Bach 101 Page.
Like the other two cantatas on the Friday afternoon program, No. 131 journeys from a kind of despair to redemption – what I find fascinating is that this kind of journey is frequently undertaken in Bach’s music, but he never seems to chart the same musical route. Instead, with the text as his guide, and with his extremely sophisticated theological knowledge, he charts a path for believers, not from a distant remove, or with the prescriptive bromides of the pharisees of his day, but, rather, from the same ground upon which we all trudge, offering us all a sublime path, illuminated by some of the greatest music ever written. Incredible.