A deep note sounds from the pedalboard of the organ, and over it a serene web of harmony builds up over it, wandering, sighing from key to key. It's not an improvisation; but it has that quality of searching and discovery. Each voice enters one by one and dances with the other in counterpoint; but instead of strictly repeating itself, the melody subtly changes. While the alto and soprano start with an interval of a fourth, the tenor leaps further, to a fifth, and the feeling of urgent search is heightened. It's as if the artist is trying to represent something that only he can hear, getting closer and closer to the form of perfection in his head. The words echo this arduous journey: “der schmale Weg ist truebsalvoll”, the narrow way is full of trouble. But out of all the chaos and uncertainly, the bass crystallises into a recognisable chorale melody. It's like a film of a glass breaking, run backwards: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nHN7ia1Dn3I . Reinforced by sombre horns, the melody rings out and gives direction to all the herzeleid- heart's pain- which ensnares the upper parts. So under this winding road is a firm foundation.
The next movement is psychologically fascinating. It starts off as just another accompanied chorale- vigorous, well-crafted and reassuring. All the singers join together to sing a familiar tune. But at the end of each line, the jolly rhythm pauses and we're left with one singer's own words, sung to a freer speech-rhythm and more emotionally anguished. It's as if we're zooming in on the thoughts of each one. Under the confident collective chorale, all the individuals are full of fears, frustrations and disappointment that their flesh and blood is only concerned with earthly and vain things.
(And for those of you who wonder why the man in the picture is distracted, just look at where his eyes are going.)
But the last person whose “thought-bubble” we see, the bass, takes the individual meditation forward. Although we experience Höllenangst und Pein- fear of Hell and pain- in our own fallen consciences, we can voluntarily push away this pain once we recognise how to defeat it: “Ich darf nur Jesu Namen nennen”- “I need only speak the name of Jesus”. It's almost reminiscent of a Buddhist attitude to suffering. To be liberated from mara, the pain of being attached to physicality, one just needs to look it in the eye, recognise it and let it go. And the freedom that results from the letting go is depicted in the bass's flourish on Freudenhimmel- “heaven's joys”- the melodic line goes up like a firework!
So after a brief triumphant recitative, it's those joys we hear in the duet for soprano and alto; both parts compete in exuberance, echoing each other on the words “Will ich in Freudigkeit zu meinen Jesu singen”- I will sing to my Jesus in joyfulness. And we close with a chorale melody “straight”, as it were. Those tormenting inward thoughts have been acknowledged and stepped away from- and, for now, they return no more.