Monday, 12 November 2012

Wohl dem der sich auf seinen Gott- 23rd Sunday after Trinity

When a friend of mine was about ten years old, she went to a new school. Rather nervously, she went up to some other girls and asked if they could play together. “Oh no,” they replied. “We don't play. We socialise”. It sometimes seems a bit childish to have friends. You can have partners, work colleagues, drinking mates, people who you make a cursory nod to in the bus queue. But saying “you're my best friend” to someone seems a bit playground-like. But as the brilliant cartoon at says, being grown-up means getting to decide what being grown-up actually means. And here we have Bach fighting for our right as adults to put aside so-called grown-up things- and just to say “God is my friend”.

The first movement of the cantata is another one of those flowing pastoral accompanied chorales. Everyone loves them- and that's why Jesu bleibet meine Freude (or Jesu, joy of man's desiring, if we're being English) from Cantata 147 regularly turns up on Soooooothing Classics compilations. But there's a difference here; the melody is strongly led by the treble line, as sung by the youngest boys in Bach's ensemble. The lower parts sing a more complicated harmony, following a beat or two later; but it's the children that lead the way, musically speaking. And this is perfectly in line with what the cantata actually says in the first sentence “Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott recht kindlich kann verlassen!”; good for him, who can rely on God truly like a child. (And good for him too, who can write less rubbish translations than I do...)

And so the second movement gives us a wonderfully naif illustration of this. Last week's cantata had a tenor's anguished lament of self-doubt. This week, Bach gives us an almost laughably simple repetition: “Gott ist mein Freund”, again and again, declaimed with the clarity and directness of a road sign. God. Is. My Friend. Underneath the soloist, there is a simple chugging bass line, of the sort that Bach wrote for his amateur viola da gamba playing boss in the sixth Brandenburg concerto, a sort of eighteenth-century equivalent of letting the manager win at golf. Everything about the music implies simplicity until Bach sets the tenor free to indulge in a little vocal gymnastics on the words “Was hilft das Toben?”. Toben is a wonderful word, meaning bluster, raging, clamour. What good is all this musical showing-off, in the face of a child-like faith? And so we return to that mantra: God is my Friend, repeated enough to embarrass a twenty-first century audience.
But being recht kindlich- truly child-like- doesn't just mean being simple and unaffected. It also means being able to grow into true maturity and complexity. After a brief alto recitative with bare harpsichord accompaniment, it's the bass soloist's turn to show the contrast between the simple and the complex. But here, it's the opposite of the tenor aria.. The tenor contrasted a simple faith statement with a melismatic depiction of the bluster of the adult world. Now, Bach uses a stentorian, almost clumping setting for the words “Das Unglück schlägt auf allen Seiten um mich ein zentnerschweres Band”- “Misfortune, on all sides, winds me up in a hundredweight of chains”. Yet suddenly the music breaks free on the words erscheinet die helfender Hand- “the helping hand appears”. The brakes come off, and the music has the freedom to run virtuosically! All the vigour of a child prodigy is combined with the poise and beauty of an adult craftsman. And the conclusion of this quick flourishing? It's our old theme- daß Gott allein der Menschen bester Freund muß sein, that God alone must be the best friend of Man.

From here, it's a quick run to the end of the cantata. There's another quick interjection of recitative, but not accompanied austerely on the harpsichord alone any more; this time it's given a halo of strings around it. It's the same trick that Bach uses for the words of Jesus in the St Matthew Passion. The higher-pitched accompaniment gives it a more exalted feeling; but there's also more emotional intensity as, unlike the harpsichord, the strings can sustain and even increase their volume after the notes are initially played.

Finally, the chorale brings us to a close. The word Trotz- usually translated “defiance” appears three times in successive lines:

Trotz der Höllen Heer!
Trotz auch des Todes Rachen!
Trotz aller Welt!”

“Defiance to the army of Hell! And defiance to the sting of Death! Defiance to all the world!” would be a perfectly good translation. But Trotz can also have a connotation of sulkiness, rudeness, naughtiness. In the context of the child-like values of the rest of the cantata, I like to think of it as sticking one's tongue out at the Devil. So ner-ner-na-ner-ner to the hosts of hell, 'cos my best Friend's bigger than you.

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