Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Ich Armer Mensch (cantata for the twenty-second Sunday after Trinity)- Passion in the workshop

First thoughts aren't always best, in music or in life. Lawn tennis was originally called Sphairistike by its inventor, an Englishman with more eye to the Classics than marketing. Christopher Wren's original design for the dome of St Paul's Cathedral had an enormous golden pineapple on top. But Bach is different. His first thoughts are good enough to cherish. Cantata No.55, Ich Armer Mensch is a masterpiece in its own right. But it also shows how Bach's thoughts were working towards what is arguably the greatest piece of music ever written- the St Matthew Passion.

The cantata isn't easy to listen to- but great music usually isn't (be quiet, Mozart). We start off with self-condemnation. A single tenor voice at the extremes of his range confesses that he is an armer Mensch- a wretched, worthless man. Indeed, he is a Suenden-knecht. Worse than simply being sin's slave, the world knecht implies that he is sin's henchman, willing and helpful.

After a brief recitative, we're at the emotional heart of the cantata- a near desolate call on God. Erbarme dich, have mercy, heed our tears, soften your heart, only have mercy on us! The picture is only softened slightly in the last recitative, where the singer states that he will not be judged, but only by holding up the image of Jesus' own suffering will he be able to return to God's grace. And the closing chorale gives a communal counterpoint to the individual's anguish. But it's not a joyful expression of certain redemption; instead, we are all on the first step of a long journey of repentance:

I do not deny my guilt,
but Your grace and mercy
is much greater than the sin
that I constantly discover in me.

Not exactly cheery. So is this cantata hamstrung by an excess of gloom and an emphasis on God's wrath over God's love? It's impossible to deny there's an overall atmosphere of anguish. But this makes perfect sense if we look at the deep resonances with the St Matthew Passion. Bach wrote this cantata to be performed in St Thomas's, Leipzig on 17 November 1726. The Passion was first performed less than five months later in the same church. By comparing the cantata to the Passion, we can see Bach's thought processes as he honed and polished his material. And by looking at the cantata in the light of the Passion, we can understand that strange gloomy Lutheran theology.

At the very beginning of the cantata, we hear a repeated crotchet-quaver heartbeat pattern in the bass. (Ignore the slurring- Bach didn't write it, only a 19th century editor).

(Bass part of Ich Armer Mensch, First movement, bars 4-6)

This is rhythmically identical to the bass line of the Passion's opening chorus:
(Bass part of the St Matthew Passion, bars 1-3)

So from the very opening, Bach is creating a similar musical effect- a pulsating, nervous beat. Not all the recordings bring this out: it's very obvious in Fabio Biondi's impassioned reading with Ian Bostridge as the singer, but it's pretty much lost in Gustav Leonhardt's stern scholarly version. Either way, it's definitely there in the score. There's an even more obvious correspondence between the cantata and the Passion. We saw that the heart of the cantata was a desperate call to God: Erbarme dich, have mercy. A solo instrument weeps with the singer in music of unutterably sad beauty;

(Ich Armer Mensch, 3rd movement, solo tenor line, bars 6-7)

And, at the centre of the Passion is a desperate call to God, Erbarme dich, etc. etc., unutterably sad... I'm sure you get the picture, but there's no better evidence of the close correspondence between the pieces than the first vocal entries. (Apologies for the awkward break between "Er-" and "barme"- the page turn in the score flummoxed my rudimentary HTML skills!):

(St Matthew Passion, No. 47, solo alto bars 8-10)

It's not just that they have the same opening text and penitential tone. The melodies are almost identical! Both the cantata version and the Passion version start with that yearning leap from “er” to “bar” of a minor sixth. Then there's a downward movement on “bar” and a little turn of a semitone on “me” to “dich”- identical in both pieces.

Of course, Bach is too good to just copy things out completely. There are a few magical differences. Most obviously, the tune is given to an alto in the Passion rather than a tenor in the cantata. But this difference isn't as significant as it might seem. Bach used young men for both voice parts, although his alto's voice might not have broken yet. (Back in those good old days of malnutrition, it wasn't uncommon for 17 and 18 year old men to be singing high treble parts still. Now we feed choirboys up and cathedral choir directors suddenly find that they have a load of 12-year old baritones.)

Bach did put an extra flat on the second note of “bar” in the cantata version; that gives it a little more dissonant pain compared to the serenity of the Passion version. That Passion version also has some more passing notes and swings along in a lilting triple time. By contrast, the cantata melody is much starker in four-square metre. But the two melodies are sisters, even though the cantata version has an intriguing beauty spot and the Passion version has more sensual curves.

But there's yet another link between the cantata and the Passion. After the Erbarme Dich aria and a short recitative, the cantata closes with the chorale, Bin ich gleich von dir gewichen. And the same sequence occurs in the Passion: its own Erbarme Dich aria is followed immediately by exactly the same chorale as in the cantata. The chorale harmony is slightly different, admittedly- but the words, melody and theological message are carried straight over.

And from this we can read back the context that gives some explanation to the seemingly harsh words of the cantata. In the Passion, Peter sings Erbarme Dich- have mercy- and the chorus sings that chorale from the cantata at the very blackest depths of his desolation, when he has not only failed to protect Jesus from arrest but denied him three times. Peter realises that he is indeed the armer Mensch, the henchman of sin; he goes and and weeps bitterly. But it's actually a moment of hope. At this point, the trajectory of descent into self-hatred is arrested; Peter accepts his guilt, and his sin is accepted for what it is.

And so in the light of the Passion, we can see why the opening of the cantata is so terrified, so ludicrously self-abnegating to our twenty-first century ears. In the scene of Peter's denial and subsequent grief, Bach would delineate the darkest part of human conversion; the recognition that God loves sinners as they are and as a whole, with all the shame and baggage that we would like to lock away. So in late 1726, Bach is using the cantata as a sort of workshop to intimately explore a central theme he would bring out just a few months later when writing the St Matthew Passion in early 1727. The cantata clearly allowed Bach to turn his musical genius to that theme earlier.

But in the end, it would be a mistake to look at the cantata as an “out-take” or a dry run for the greater piece of music It has its own life and spiritual profundity. The fact that the cantata is sung by only one soloist allows us to identify with him as Everyman, speaking for a whole community. And the links to the Passion give every man and woman in Bach's congregation the opportunity to identify with Peter. Frightened by their own great unrighteousness, yes; but ultimately loved and saved through a greater grace.

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