Monday, 10 December 2012

Wachet! Betet! Betet! Wachet!- Cantata for the Second Sunday of Advent

Sometimes Bach's message is subtle and obscure. Sometimes he stands at the end of your bed shouting “Oi! Get up, you lazy heretic!”. That was my experience yesterday. I had overslept, but was woken up by the opening chorus of this week's cantata on BBC Radio 3. Brass, strings and chorus hammered the words “Wake! Pray! Pray! Wake! PrayWakePrayWakePray” etc into my ears. Sometimes you can't argue with the greatest musical genius the world has ever seen, so I did as I was told and hauled myself into the shower.

After doing the waking-up thing (and indeed the praying thing), I had another listen. It's a two part cantata, extended for its second performance in Weimar. I apologise for concentrating on the first part alone, but I think it has both the meat of the message and the best music. The opening is a wonder. The music rises through the keys, building up more and more harmonic tension- then, just when you think it's going to release, Bach leaves us teetering on the edge of the cliff. Handel does a very similar thing with the opening of the coronation anthem Zadok the Priest- and the delayed choral entry here is just as exciting. A rising figure on “Wachet!”- “Awake!”, appropriately enough, is mirrored by a calmer “Betet”- “pray”. But the intensity is maintained. John Eliot Gardiner's recording from his 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage puts a crescendo on Betet , making it all the more exciting. The words of command dance from one side of the choir to the other in a stereo effect that makes it all the more riveting. But amidst the fireworks, there's an unnerving line- “Bis der Herr der Herrlichkeit dieser Welt ein Ende Machet”- “until the Lord of Lordliness makes an end of this world”. There's no time to reflect on that abrupt shift (which is backed up by a quick darkening of the harmony); we're immediately back to the beginning of the chorus.

But the theme of the End Times grows ever stronger. After the first chorus, the bass soloist crashes in with “Erschrecket!”- “Be afraid!”. But there's more than just terror here. There are two sides of the Day of Judgement. Firstly, the tumults of earthly powers being overthrown: Bach depicts that brilliantly in with the earthquake-like tremors in the bass line and the rushing motifs from the strings. But the other side of judgement is consolation, the hope for freedom. The nineteenth-century slave spiritual Steal Away tells us that “the trumpet sounds within my soul”. No terror there, just a hope of vindication. So Bach sets Freude in the phrase “Ist er ein Anfang wahrer Freude”- “it is the beginning of true joy” to an overflowing melisma of joy. And the section leads with a gentle trumpet call fading into the distance, to the alto's wish to depart “from the Egypt of this world”.

But here we see an interesting shift. Rather than talking solely about slavery imposed by earthly aggressors, the libretto starts to focus on an internal slavery- mind-forged manacles, as William Blake has it. The alto aria calls us: “Wacht, Seelen, auf von Sicherheit”- “wake up, souls, out of your security”. It's an interesting image. Usually security is seen as a good thing, but here it's talking about the complacent satisfaction that can chain the soul in slavery to itself.

And I think this concept of self-slavery is at the root of the cantata. The tenor recitative that follows laments the eternal cry of the lazy would-be do-gooder- the spirit is willing, yet the flesh is weak. But all that can result from this is ein jammervolles Ach!- a sorrowful Alas! It's all the more painful as the soul realises its agony is caused by its own internal conflicts.

Yet Bach has a remedy for the dualism of body and soul that causes that Ach. It's summed up in the very first line of the cantata: awake, to activity; then pray. Praying without activity leads to nothing more than an ever- more gorgeous series of interior mental states; activity without prayer becomes exhausted. Only a proper integration of external and internal activity can lead to unity. Those ever-more interlaced and overlapping commands in the first chorus, “WachetBetetWachetBetet” are not just a diverting bit of musical-showing off; they express a soul-reviving truth.

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