Monday, 4 March 2013

Sodom's Apples and Devils in Music- Widerstehe doch der Sünde- Cantata for the Third Sunday of Lent

Lent continues, and Bach's cantata-workshop is still firmly shut up. Or is it? We do have one cantata that was possibly written for this Sunday. It's a little solo chamber work, short but intensely beautiful. The words for Widerstehe doch der Sünde were published in 1711 by Bach's librettist Georg Christian Lehms as being appropriate for the Third Sunday in Lent. But there's controversy over whether Bach actually might have saved it for the seventh sunday after Trinity. I'm going to claim it as a Lenten cantata. As Alan Bennett replied when asked about his sexual orientation, you don't ask a man crawling across the Sahara whether he prefers Perrier or Malvern water.

The opening is unsettling- a quick discord, followed by repeated stabs from the strings. Masaaki Suzuki's recording sets off at a fast lick, with a lithe, tense sound; John Eliot Gardiner's version is more insistent- more unnerving prodding than stabbing; it's less immediately exciting, but the more measured pace allows us to hear all the subtle little melodic turns from the lower strings. Suzuki's countertenor soloist, Yoshikazu Mera, has a honey-sweet voice where all the registers are perfectly integrated. No gear-changes into baritone voice here (of the sort that even the sublime Andreas Scholl occasionally indulges in). He calls us urgently; “Widerstehe doch der Sünde”- “Even so, stand up to sin!” As far as I can tell, doch has about a hundred meanings in German- but a crucial aspect of it is a quality of contradiction to what has gone before. And it makes perfect sense by the third Sunday of Lent: despite all the failures, the disappointments, the fallings-away- still keep plodding on, in the face of all temptations.

Sometimes Bach plays a really unexpected trick; here, on the words “ein Fluch der todlich ist”- “a curse that is deadly” he slips a tritone into the harmony. That most dissonant of intervals, the augmented fourth, breaks all the rules of classical harmony- the mediaeval theorists called it the diabolus in musica, the devil in music. And Bach does it twice, on exactly the same words: firstly with an F sharp clashing against a C natural:

(Movement 1, Bars 44-45)

And shortly afterwards, with an F natural- B natural clash. (You can imagine the horns and tail yourself in this one).

(Movement 1, bar 51)

And after those harmonic lurches, those repeated stabs or prods just keep coming back from an unexpected key- yet the singer has to keep going with his own melody. It couldn't be more appropriate for Lent. For me, Lent consists of excessive pride about being able to avoid the familiar temptations... and falling headlong for the exciting new unexpected ones.

But this cantata isn't a fist-waving denunciation of fallen humanity. The second movement is deeply sympathetic; it's a sort of Trading Standards lament for the people who have bought into the temptations of the world. “Von außen ist sie Gold; doch, will man weiter gehn,
so zeigt sich nur ein leerer Schatten und übertünchtes Grab.”
“From the outside it is gold; but if you go further, it shows itself to be only an empty shadow and a whitewashed tomb”. The librettist even compares the tempting sins of the world to Sodomsäpfeln- the apples of Sodom! These are slightly less exciting than they sound. “Sodom's Apples” refers to Calotropis procera. This looks bright green and inviting on the outside, but the fruit itself is disappointingly hollow, containing nothing but dust and a few shards of silk. Worse, the plant's flesh is actually packed full of very unpleasant heart-stopping digitalis poison. has everything you might want to know about this fruit, which seems designed to be a good sermon-metaphor, but not much use for anything else.

But we must go back to the cantata- we only have one movement left. John Eliot Gardiner's version catches fire here. Previously, it had been muted, measured, with only low tones on the organ accompanying the second movement. It works because of the extraordinary dark voice of his soloist, Natalie Stutzmann, who keeps the remarkable sense of intensity. She's a real alto, rather than a mezzo-soprano- the two voice-types aren't that different in absolute range, but an alto will have a lower centre of gravity to her voice. Suddenly at the end of the gorgeous quiet recit, there's a flourish, and we're rushed into the last movement.

Here, we see the strange duality of this cantata's attitude to sin- an apparently firm condemnation from the beginning: “Wer Sünde tut, der ist vom Teufel”- Who commits sin is from the Devil”. The word Teufel has a glorious flourish on it; Stutzmann and Gardiner make it sound terrifying (Mera and Suzuki make it sound merely exciting; Scholl and Koopman unfortunately make it sound like an exercise in careful fingering). Yet the whole cantata ends with confidence; “if you stand with confidence against its despicable mobs, sin has already fled away”. And we notice with surprise that the final fugue has itself come to an end on the word “davongemacht”- fled away. Bach's word-painting extends into the whole structure of the piece- just when we thought things were going to be difficult, complex and hard to listen to, it turns out that everthing is already over much more simply than we expected. And the whole cantata flies away like a puff of powder from one of Sodom's empty apples.

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