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“[A] tautly constructed and thought-provoking new study.”
Those who heard Bach lead performances of his St. Matthew Passion during Good Friday Vespers at St. Thomas's in Leipzig in 1727 (and later, in 1729, 1736, and perhaps around 1742) probably had a printed libretto available to them. To be sure, this would have included neither the text of the gospel (Matthew 26-27) nor the words of the independent Lutheran chorales that Bach periodically interpolated into the evangelist's story. But it would have allowed listeners to follow the free poems that framed the story and occasionally punctuated it, as well as the chorale texts (and in the case of No. 30, "Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin," at the beginning of Part 2, a verse from the Song of Solomon 6.1) that Bach had intertwined with the free poems to form a single dialogical whole. No exemplar of such a libretto actually survives, but Carl Friedrich Zelter saw one from 1729 in Berlin a hundred years later, when his pupil Mendelssohn famously revived the work, and a libretto of this sort exists for Bach's Christmas Oratorio. Moreover, we can get an idea of what the St. Matthew Passion libretto must have looked like from its 1729 Leipzig reprint in a five-volume collection of poetry by the Passion's librettist, the Leipzig writer Christian Friedrich Henrici, who published under the pen name Picander.
In this reprint from two years after the première service-where Picander would have noticed that Bach opened his Passion with a concerted choral movement-the opening poem is labeled "Aria" and given a "Da Capo" direction at the end (Figure 11). Picander also gave the label "Choral" to the church hymn embedded in the aria (the first stanza of a 1531 song by Nikolaus Decius based on the Latin "Agnus Dei"), and he named the personages exchanging thoughts in the aria "Die Tochter Zion und die Gläubigen" (The Daughter Zion and the Faithful), marking their respective portions of the text with the abbreviations "Z." and "Gl." With these directives the poet invites composers of his text to set the opening movement as an aria for a female voice (or at any rate a voice of higher tessitura, since one assumes all public singers to have been male). Bach interpreted the invitation with some freedom, giving the words of the Daughter Zion not to a soloist but mostly to the first of his two four-part choirs (both choirs sing the last two lines of the B section, the first line of the da capo, and the Daughter's final response in the da capo) and not bothering to revise the singular "mir" (me) in the first line to a more appropriate plural "uns" (us). But he accepted the poet's suggestion that the Daughter's aria be accompanied by a choir of the Faithful-Bach gives the words of the Faithful to the second choir-and that another choir sing the chorale-Bach sets the chorale monophonically and gives it to a group of sopranists, labeling the autograph part for this group "Soprano in Ripieno." Rather than singing in duet with her, the Faithful accompany the Daughter's aria. In their conversation she has the essential text, takes the initiative, exhorts them. They merely respond to her insistent orders ("Sehet!" [See!] or "Seht ihn!" [See Him!]) with short questions ("Wen?" [Whom?],"Wie?" [How?],"Was?" [What?],"Wohin?" [Where?]). In short, in Bach's setting of Picander's opening aria the first choir assumes the main role of the Daughter Zion, the second choir the accompanying role of the Faithful, and a separate group of sopranists sings the chorale. Bach blurs this generally clear distribution of roles toward the end of the setting (where the second choir joins the first in the role of the Daughter) and in the instrumental ritornelli, where the separate orchestras that accompany each choir play together, though not always in unison.
The libretto is informative (especially considering that the intended audience might have had access to it, too) because it provides information missing even in the autograph or a carefully edited score. Because the libretto establishes the two protagonists, Bach needed two separate vocal forces to set the opening number. The libretto also clarifies why Bach gave the Daughter's text to a four-part choir rather than to a soloist. The Passion tells the story of the pivotal turning point of human history. From the start, therefore, the tone needs to be set high. The effect of epic monumentality that Bach undoubtedly sought to create here is not one that a solo, even one accompanied by a choir, could have provided. But does it then follow that allowing the Daughter to speak in the first person singular was an oversight? This is unlikely, for Bach elsewhere did not hesitate to revise the libretto when he thought necessary. In the opening number, for example, Picander's Aria is written in trochaic tetrameter, except for the last verse of the middle section; Picander shortens this to a trimeter ("Holz zum Kreuze tragen"), but Bach corrected it to regular tetrameter ("Holz zum Kreuze selber tragen").
There is even stronger evidence that Bach's decision not to change the Daughter's "mir" to "uns" was deliberate. The opening number is not the only one in which the Daughter Zion and the Faithful appear in Picander's Passion. They reappear, with the Daughter now called simply "Zion," at the end of Part 1 (marked "Vor der Predigt" [before the sermon] in the libretto); at the beginning and end of Part 2 ("Nach der Predigt" [after the sermon]); and once within each Part, for a recitative-aria pair. The numbers are as follows:
1. "Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen"
19. "O Schmerz! hier zittert das gequälte Herz"
20. "Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen"
27a. "So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen"
27b. "Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden"
30. "Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin"
59. "Ach Golgatha"
60. "Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand"
67. "Nun ist der Herr zur Ruh gebracht"
68. "Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder"
Nos. 19-20 are a recitative and aria for the tenor of the first choir as Zion, accompanied by the second choir as the Faithful. No. 27a is an aria for the soprano and alto of the first choir as Zion, accompanied by the second choir as the Faithful. This is followed in No. 27b by the two choirs singing together (though not always in unison) the text that Picander seems to give to both the Daughter and the Faithful: in the libretto, No. 27a is labeled "Aria à 1," and the words of the two protagonists are marked, as before, "Z." and "Gl."; No. 27b is marked simply "à 2" without any indication of who speaks the text, which suggests that whereas No. 27a is primarily Zion's aria, with the Faithful providing the customary accompaniment, the essential text in No. 27b is to be spoken by both protagonists. No. 30 is an aria for the alto of the first choir as Zion, accompanied by the second choir as the Faithful. (Originally Bach must have planned to give Zion's part to the bass rather than the alto: this is done in Altnickol's copy of the early version of the score and in the first twenty-eight measures, subsequently corrected, of the autograph score that preserves the revised version.) Nos. 59-60 are a recitative and aria for the alto of the first choir as Zion, accompanied (in the aria only) by the second choir as the Faithful. No. 67 is a recitative for the bass, tenor, alto, and soprano of the first choir, taking Zion's words in turn and accompanied by the second choir as the Faithful. No. 68 is an "Aria Tutti," as the libretto labels it, for both choirs singing the same text together, though again not always in unison. The libretto's "tutti" suggests that whereas usually Zion and the Faithful are given separate words in a dialogue, here at the end of Part 2, as in No. 27b at the end of Picander's Part 1, they join in speaking the same text.
Apart from the endings of Picander's two Parts (Nos. 27b and 68), which Bach set for both choirs singing the same text together (though not always in unison), he retains the distribution of roles established in No. 1. Zion always has the principal text and is always impersonated by singers of the first choir, though not always by all four voices singing together, as they do in No. 1. Rather, her words are given to a single voice-to the tenor in Nos. 19 and 20, to the alto in Nos. 30, 59, and 60-or to a soprano-alto duet (No. 27a). Even in No. 67, which calls on all four voices, they appear successively rather than jointly. The Faithful, on the other hand, always have an accompanying role and are always impersonated by the second choir. The blurring of clear role distribution that can be observed toward the end of No. 1, where both choirs together sing a common text, becomes a structural feature of the Passion as a whole when, in the numbers that end each of Picander's two Parts (Nos. 27b and 68), Bach again gives both choirs the same text. The last section of No. 1 thus anticipates the two protagonists' merging in the two endings. It is clear that Bach's decision to use two separate choirs was dictated by Picander's two protagonists, for the two choirs engage in dialogue only in those numbers that involve the Daughter Zion and her fellow Faithful. The remaining independent (that is, non-Gospel) movements of the Passion are either Picander arias (with or without preceding recitatives) or traditional chorales. The arias, which feature singular protagonists only, are set for voices from either the first or the second choir but never for both choirs at the same time; the chorales, with their plural protagonists, are always set for both choirs singing in unison (this is true even of the chorale fantasia No. 29 ["O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gros"], the number that Bach removed from the second version of the St. John Passion when he revised the St. Matthew Passion in 1736 to provide a suitably monumental ending for Part 1, where he doubled the cantus firmus-carrying sopranos by adding soprano in ripieno and the organs): none of these texts offers an occasion for the kind of genuine dialogue where the two choirs, whether complete or not, whether singing the same text or not, could, by not singing in unison throughout, mark their individuality as they do in the Zion-Faithful numbers.
The text of the opening movement clearly establishes that the Daughter Zion is a single person (she speaks in the first person singular) and that the Faithful are many (she addresses them in the plural ). This is confirmed in the subsequent Zion-Faithful numbers that provide verbal clues such as personal pronouns. There are two exceptions, two seeming inconsistencies: Nos. 19 and 67, where the Faithful speak in the first person singular. The first instance can be explained easily, for here the Faithful are singing a chorale, where such usage is common. The second instance I cannot explain, leaving us with one inconsistency in the Faithful's use of the first person singular. Zion, however, is always singular, even when her role is shared by two or four voices. It was clearly no oversight, therefore, that Bach did not revise Picander's text and accepted Zion's saying "mir" in the opening number.
* * *
Picander's labeling the opening number "Aria" consequently ceases to be a puzzle: this is indeed an aria of the Daughter Zion, accompanied by the Faithful and a chorale cantus firmus. But what did Bach do with the poet's directive to give the aria "Da Capo" form?
Bach's understanding of the generic conventions governing da capo form can be reconstructed. Recitatives aside, Bach set almost all of Picander's poetry, the basis for much of the musical substance of the Passion, in da capo form. Nos. 27, 30, and 60 are the only exceptions. The remaining fourteen poems, whether so marked in the libretto or not, are all set as da capos:
1. "Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen"
6. "Bus und Reu"
8. "Blute nur, du liebes Herz"
13. "Ich will dir mein Herze schenken"
20. "Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen"
23. "Gerne will ich mich bequemen"
39. "Erbarme dich"
42. "Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder"
49. "Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben"
52. "Können Tränen meiner Wangen"
57. "Komm, süses Kreuz, so will ich sagen"
65. "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein"
68. "Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder"
All of these poems, the fourteen set in da capo form and the three exceptional ones, are labeled "Aria" in Picander's libretto and almost all are also so labeled in Bach's autograph. The only exceptions are the opening and closing numbers of the Passion: No. 1, which is unlabeled, and No. 68, marked "il Choro finale." I shall return to these two exceptions, but the twelve labeled arias suffice for a preliminary reconstruction of Bach's conception of the generic norms of the da capo aria. (A full reconstruction would, of course, require an examination of all of Bach's extant da capo arias.)
At least one feature belongs to the da capo (ABA) form by definition: the opening portion of the poem must return at the end. But in Bach's Passion there are two kinds of the form. In the first, the return of the opening section is set to the same music as upon first presentation, a literal da capo that Bach never writes out; instead, he marks the repeat in the customary way with a "da capo" directive at the end of the B section of the aria-or, if he does not want the repeat to start at the top of the A section, with a "dal segno" directive where he wants the repeat to start-and a fermata that tells musicians where to end the A section; this applies to Nos. 6, 8, 13, 23, 52, and 65, as well as the exceptional No. 68.10 In the second kind the textual return is musically modified, a varied da capo, which has of course to be written out; this applies to Nos. 20, 35, 39, 42, 49, and 57, as well as the exceptional No. 1. The main difference between the two kinds is simply that in the literal da capo the A section must for obvious reasons not only begin but also end in the tonic key, whereas in the varied da capo it ends in the tonic key in the return but not the first time around.
In these two distinct types of the form, each is characterized by a set of normal procedures. The A section of the literal da capo form opens and closes with single-phrase instrumental ritornellos in the tonic key; these frame two vocal phrases, also in the tonic and both setting the complete A text, with the first closely reproducing the opening ritornello. In the B section two modulating phrases each set the complete B text. In the varied da capo form the opening A section presents a single-phrase instrumental ritornello in the tonic key, followed by a single vocal phrase that sets the A text and modulates from the tonic to the mediant or dominant key; in the return of the A section the order of the two phrases is reversed, and the vocal phrase either stays in the tonic or modulates back to it from the key in which the B section ended. The B text is set as a single modulating phrase. The difference between the way the central section is shaped in the two versions of da capo form corresponds to the difference between their outer sections. The literal da capo form is more spacious. Not only is its entirety circular but its outer sections create their own smaller circles. It follows that the central section should be more expansive, too. The varied da capo, on the other hand, is more concentrated; it forms a single circle, and, accordingly, its central section is also more compact. Each of these two basic patterns allows for a great variety of expansion, contraction, and other sorts of deviation from the norm, the variety being limited only by the composer's imagination. It is in considering the final and, especially, the opening choruses in Bach's Passion against these norms that their individuality will become most immediately apparent.
* * *
Let us begin by briefly considering how Bach adapted the norms that govern the A section of the literal da capo form to what he required for the final chorus, No. 68, "Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder," which, like the opening chorus, appears in Picander's libretto as an "Aria" with a "Da Capo." The opening ritornello (mm. 1-12) follows the norm in being a single phrase closed with a full cadence, but already in the first part (mm. 1-8) Bach exceptionally undertakes a modulation from i to III and punctuates the phrase with a half cadence in III before confirming the new key in the second part (mm. 9-12). He uses the same music again to set the A text (mm. 13-24), after which he rewrites the ritornello (mm. 25-36) so as to reverse its tonal relations: now the first part (mm. 25-32) modulates from III to i and is punctuated with a half cadence in the home key, whereas the second part (mm. 33-36) confirms the home key ending with a full cadence made memorably poignant by the leading-tone accented appoggiatura sounding against the minor tonic chord. The A section closes with the rewritten ritornello music set again to the A text (mm. 37-48). As a result the dissonant appoggiatura marks the final measure of the work: Bach never forgets that this is a story of suffering.
Excerpted from Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow by KAROL BERGER Copyright © 2007 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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