Saturday, 2 February 2013

Nimm was dein ist und gehe hin!- Septuagesima

“Take what's yours and get out! Get out, get out!” Without any introduction, the congregation's ears are assaulted with a solid block of choral polyphony. It's dense, complex and chromatic; the clearest thing about it is the repetition of “gehe hin! Gehe hin!”, running incessantly through all the vocal parts. And suddenly it finishes as abruptly as it began; the door slams shut.

It's yet another moment of psychological genius. The tense, dark instrumental interlude that follows, with its repeated bass notes has the feeling of being left outside, stammering- we expected more than this! Give us what's fair! Yet the whole point of the cantata is that human ideas of what's fair are just that- human.

On this particular Sunday in February 1724, Bach's congregation would have just heard the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard. It's a wonderfully perverse story where an landlord insists on paying all his contractors exactly the same full daily wage, even though some have worked all day and others have only turned up an hour before home-time. Surely the people who were in work at nine o'clock in the morning deserve more than the people who were only hired at five in the afternoon? That would be fair, reasonable and completely in line with the fallen world of invoices, timesheets and payslips . Those who work harder and longer get more; the lazy ones who roll in late get their pay docked. Not in this vineyard, though. You've got your pay; now get out and don't grumble!

And the second movement is all about coming to terms with this odd, inhuman, unfair divine notion of reward that isn't deserved. Over a bass line that's still pulsating (frustrated rage?), the alto tells us “Murre nicht”- don't grumble. But it's not an insensitive fobbing-off; the text addresses us as “lieber Christ”, “dear Christian”, and the vocal line is tender, reassuring. Even so, it's a difficult message for modern ears; Er weiß, was dir nützlich ist- God knows what is good for you. And the chorale that follows just repeats the assertion: Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, Es bleibt gerecht sein Wille- What God does is well done, his will remains just. Without any complex accompaniment and foursquare in its harmonies, it feels like the sort of chorale that usually concluded a cantata. It may not be the end of the cantata- but it's certainly the end of the argument. Far better, says the tenor in the brief recitative that follows, to let contentment reign. And we see the flowering of that contentment next: the the soprano aria, lovely and serene again and again repeating the word genugsamkeit- “contentment, the treasure of life”.

And we end with another old familiar chorale for Bach's congregation. This one dates back to the sixteenth century, both in words and music; it's as if Bach is pointing out that fact that he's dealing in old wisdom, not anything new: “Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit, Sein Will, der ist der beste”; “What my God wills, that always comes to pass; his will is the best”. And the unexpected twisting harmonies on the very last line leave us hanging. We expected more than this!

So, an unexpected ending to a cantata that is literally unsatisfactory- it leaves us wanting more! So either Bach was having a rushed week- or he is playing a very clever theological-musical game. How can we say as listeners we expected more when we were given the glories of the Genugsamkeit aria, as beautiful as anything Bach wrote? How could the labourers expect more when they were paid a full daily rate? And how can the congregation shake their fist at God and say “we wanted more than this!” when he died for them? Take what has been given you and go and do something with it. Gehe hin!

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