Sunday, 18 November 2012

Ach, wie Fluechtig, ach wie Nichtig- Cantata for the 24th Sunday after Trinity

Bach goes all urban on Baroque good manners
The year accelerates toward its end. The few mocking green leaves tease us: it can't really be December in less than two weeks' time! Our human instinct to delineate time just serves to increase our anxieties. Now it's November, what has happened to all the plans we made in May? How transitory and meaningless it all is- or “Wie fluechtig! Wie nichtig!” as Bach set it for this week in 1724.

And how he set it. Just like last week, the first movement is a fantasia on the basic chorale tune. But this is miles away from the pleasant swinging hummability of last week's meditation on child-like friendship. Instead, we have two musical worlds violently colliding. The treble voices sing the chorale melody, and the orchestra supports them with exciting rising and falling scales, giving an impression of instability and tension. That, on its own, would make it beautiful and exciting, and all within the bounds of good taste and civilisation. But the lower voices of the choir break free at the end of the line. Altos, tenors and basses sing in blatant unison: “Ach, wie fluechtig! Ach, wie nichtig!”- and continue to offer their blaring commentary throughout the chorus.

Having almost the whole choir singing in unison octaves is rare in this sort of music- it overbalances the structure and makes the line stick out, rather like an graffiti in day-glo colours on a beautiful Baroque facade. To me, it feels like a commentary on the piece itself- a piece of self-criticism that strains at the edge of the music. How transitory and vain even this sort of human skill is in the face of eternity, it says. In a neat palindromic pun, what we think of as life (Leben) is declared to be nothing more than mist (Nebel). Like mist, human endeavour suddenly appears and just as suddenly it goes again:- “Wie ein Nebel bald entstehet / Und auch wieder bald vergehet”.

So the cantata is paradoxically denying the value of human skill- while using that skill to create a masterpiece. It's a fascinating tension. As human beings, can we acknowledge that we are always falling away from perfection physically and mentally?And at the same time use our imperfect powers confidently to strive for something better?

The second movement is all about- well, movement. The flow of semiquavers is almost ceaseless, passing from the lovely flutes to the tenor soloist, who sings that “as quickly as rushing water flies, so the days of our life hasten”. All the while, repeated notes in the bass serve to build up the tension. It doesn't start off despondent; but the darkness grows in the middle section of the aria, and we hear a wonderful depiction of the hours falling away like individual water-drops separating (“Wie sich die Tropfen ploetzlich teilen”). Are they raindrops, or tear-drops? It hardly seems to matter:“Alles in Abgrund schießt”- it all falls into the abyss. And when we return to the initial theme at the beginning, that unstoppable flow of time that we found beautiful before seems more ominous...

The flow of notes continues into the third movement, a little recitative for the alto, who starts singing about Freude- joy- but it is suddenly stopped by the word “Traurigkeit”- happiness turns into sadness. All the virtuosic exuberance is turned into a bare and stark sentence- knowledge, all human writings, everything ends up in the grave. The majority of Bach's cantatas are now dust- never to be heard again.

And the picture gets darker. The bass aria returns to the virtuosic flow when describing “irdische Schaetze”- earthly treasures. But instead of the carefree song we heard from the tenor, here the process of collapse seems to be a dark mocking inevitability, accompanied by sardonic oboes. There's even a moment where the melody seems to get completely harmonically lost. The bass soloist searches for the key-note amidst a slithering chromatic scale – appropriately enough, on the words “eine Verführung der törichten Welt”- “a deception of the foolish world”. And there's no comfort from the soprano recitative that follows sombrely accompanied on the lower strings to give a strange hollow emptiness.

The verdict comes in the austere and archaic-sounding final chorale. Only at the very last moment does Bach allow the harmony to slip into the major. The sun finally comes out on the last word of “Wer Gott fürcht', bleibt ewig stehen.”- he who fears God, will forever stand. And no doubt some in the congregation shivered slightly (although not as much as the Quivering Brethren at this link:

So what are we to make of this beautiful and skilful denial of the lasting value of skill and beauty? It's a troubling theme, but one the Church tends to play with as it leads up to Advent, both in Bach's time and now. You see it in the reading now set for this very week in the Church of England's lectionary ( Jesus slaps down a disciple for some innocent tourist-gawping at the Temple in Jerusalem, saying it'll all be knocked down in a few years time. Well, it was. And now tourists go and gawp at the one wall that survived the Roman onslaught in 70 AD. Plenty of scholars have pointed out that this suspiciously accurate bit of prophecy might actually have been inserted after the fact. But the point remains. No matter how much we love impressive architecture, or beautiful sculptures, or even Bach cantatas, it's all ultimately handfuls of dust- the epitome of fluechtig and nichtig.

Yet on the other hand, fluechtig doesn't just signify transitory dissolution into nothingness. It also means flowing, re-circulating, combining. And every piece of organic matter on Earth was originally dust too: star-dust, forged in the heart of a dying star and destined to circulate and re-combine across aeons of time. And if that image isn't enough to lighten the mood, one particular very noticeable star might point a way out of that cycle of death. But we have to wait a month for that, as we travel from the grey nothingness of November to the darkest heart of Winter.

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