Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Demon Chickens from Hell- Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister- Cantata for the Second Sunday before Lent

Firstly, there's the polysyllabic obscurity of the title, wonderfully translated as “Frivolous Flibbertigibbets” or more soberly as “frivolous fluttering souls”. Then there's the disjointed clucking of the first movement; and a courtly, brassy finale that seems to come from an entirely different world. What's going on here? Is it just twelve minutes of oddness? 

The key is the reading that Bach's congregation would have heard on this Sunday in 1724, the parable of the Sower. More specifically, Bach is taking his inspiration from the section where the seeds sown have a range of different fates. Firstly, some seeds fall on the path and get snapped up the birds; this symbolises those people who are weak in faith (the leichgesinnte flattergeister, no less) getting snapped up by the biggest sharp beak of all- the Devil. It's a strange analogy- but the Man who originally came up with it had a tendency to come up with rather strikingly odd metaphors- planks in eyes, camels squeezing through eyes of needles and the like.

So Bach brings it to us in musical form. The first movement clucks away happily, with a motif that John Eliot Gardiner brings out in all its chicken-ness. But suddenly the tonality shifts and the text moves from the flighty souls to "Belial und seiner Kinder"- Belial and his children, who seek to obstruct the divine word.

Who is Belial? Literally in Hebrew, it means something like “worthlessness”, and by Bach's time, he was one of a vast panoply of demons with juicy names and attributes. Milton talks about him in Paradise Lost: BELIAL came last, than whom a Spirit more lewd Fell not from Heaven, or more gross to love Vice for it self”. As ever with the devils in Paradise Lost, he sounds more interesting than the rather dull angels on the side of good. And here, he's the dark side of those faintly ridiculous chickens, seeking to snap up the seeds of the word of God before they grow.

The alto recitative that follows has some wonderful moments of tenderness. The theme is stone- some of the seed in the parable falls on stony ground. The music turns from dry declamation into rich aria-style singing when lamenting the sad fate of the “Felsenherzen”- the people with hearts of stone who “scoff at their own salvation and are brought down”.

But the message quickly hardens. The tenor's aria that follows depicts another part of the original parable, the seeds that fall among thorns. The score for this is unusually bare, with only a bass line and vocal part. Various conductors to try to reconstruct a middle part for another solo instrument. However, I think it works equally well with a virtuoso improvised keyboard part, as per Helmuth Rilling's recording. It's full of spikiness, appropriate for those schädlichen Dornen – tearing, choking thorns . Possibly it would have been Bach himself at the keyboard, and hence he felt no need to write his own part out.

And the soprano gives us the final choice- either we allow our good seed to be smothered by earthly cares and allow it to lie useless: or we send it onto the guten Lande, the good earth. The glorious final chorus is the depiction of the heavenly joy, where the seed has come to full growth. It's full of trilling fanfares and feels like music the entrance of a great prince at Court. The orchestra is significantly expanded from the previous austerity. Some people have suggested that this last movement must be a re-used part of a lost work and that that doesn't quite fit with the rest of the cantata. But I think the contrast works perfectly; at last, we hear the seed that bears fruit a hundredfold in musical form. Bach paints us four perfect little pictures in the cantata: the devilish birds snapping up the seeds, the tragically rocky hearts, the choking thorns- and ultimately the joy of a flourishing princely kingdom.

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