A daily dose of Das Wohltemperierte, during many years, has not quite cured me of a mild bachophobia. As much as I enjoy playing Bach, and less frequently, to listen to his music, it still leaves me with a feeling of discomfort.
Awe inspiring perfection and complexity may be part of the explanation. But more particularly it is the burden of christian religiosity, that seems to put a mark even on the secular works. Though no doubt Bach had a sense of humour (and a high sensitivity to other human sentiments), there is a kind of righteousness (Rechtschaffenheit) about the man and the music that puts me off.
A stern father figure, maybe.
The worst about this religiosity is its cult of death. And this is most explicitly present in one of the most popular, moving, and absurd cantatas, Nr 82, Ich habe genug/genung. Bach cannot be held fully accountable for the texts he set, not even for their general meaning, but inevitably the text is part of the work, and the music gives expression to the text.
Ich habe genug is a solo cantata for bass (in its first version) which consists of three arias and two connecting recitatives. Aria 1 is a free paraphrase of the Canticum Simeonis (Luke 2:25). Simeon was an old Jerusalemmer whose claim to biblical fame was being righteous and pious, and having received a personal promise from the Holy Ghost that he would live to see the Messiah. Having seen him (the infant Jesus), he “has enough”, and wishes “joyously to depart from here even today”.
Despite a coloratura on Freuden, the music of this aria has an elegiac quality — it is almost a lamento, in fact (the bass descends two steps instead of three), and one of the most heartbreaking, and at the same time comforting pieces in all of Bach.
In the context of the cantata this aria functions as a reading from scripture. What follows is a commentary upon this reading, applied to an anonymous “I”, the average Good Christian. Together with Simeon I behold the joy of that life-to-come … Ah! I wish I could take leave right now …, it says in the following recitative.
In the second aria the speaker is trying to prepare his body for death, as if it were sleep. Fall asleep, my weary eyes (Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen). If dying were like this, it would not be so bad.
But simulating death by sleep seems not enough. The next recitative voices impatience: My God! When will it come, this lovely: Now! When I will dispatch myself in peace and rest in the cool ground and there in thy bosom? — I have made my farewell, goodnight to you, world!
The final aria is a lively bouncing dance, a celebration of death. I rejoice about my death, ah, would that it had come already. (Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod, ach, hätt’ er sich schon eingefunden). The wavering coloratura in the bass voice and the throwaway gestures in the instruments almost suggest a state of drunkenness. A grim minor-key comedy that seems to undercut everything that precedes it.
In the first two aria’s, a text which implies a certain affective state or action — contentment in the first, putting to sleep in the second — is coupled with music that suggests a slightly different attitude. A lament in the first aria, gentle persuasion in the second. It creates an ambiguity that leaves the performer and the listener interpretive space. Maybe the words aren’t quite right.
But what about the final aria? Bachian humour? Did the composer wish to expose the perversity of the text? I doubt it.
I was reminded of this cantata while reviewing a recent book by the musicologist Lawrence Zbikowski, Foundations of Musical Grammar (OUP 2017). The cantata is repeatedly discussed in this book, that attempts to forge a closer relationship between music theory and musical experience.
Zbikowski’s interpretation is skewed somewhat by his mistake of putting all of the text into the mouth of Simeon, even though the old man has clearly left the stage after the first aria. Quite baffling I find the characterization of the second aria, Schlummert ein, as a “lullaby” (p. 57). The text evidently makes it a “sleeping song” (or “slumber aria”). In that sense it shares the basic function of a lullaby, or cradle song: putting to sleep. But lullabies are for babies, baby music. As Zbikowski notes, they typically have “melodies with a simple contour” and contain a lot of repetition (p. 87). I doubt that anyone who for a moment thinks of typical lullabies — a folksong such as Schlaf, Kindchen, schlaf, or Brahms’ Wiegenlied, will apply the term to this curiously ambigous, restful-restless aria. Or listen to Schlafe, mein Liebster, genieße der Ruh’ from the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248/19). More aria than song, but very much a lullaby in its harmonic stasis and repetitiousness (ironically, it was originally sung by the allegorical figure of Lust in Cantata BWV 213).
Zbikowski does conclude that “the emotional range of the aria exceeds that typically accorded lullabies” (p. 58). But the characterization is wrong from the very beginning: a syncopated melody, a leap of a seventh, and a bass that immediately moves into instable regions. Even the short-long accentuation is “unlullabilike”.
Calling this aria a lullaby has a history — it goes back at least to Albert Schweitzer, who called it “the superb lullaby of death” (“das herrliche Todes-Wiegenlied”, J.S. Bach, 1908, 632; in the original French, “cette admirable berceuse”, J. S. Bach le musicien-poète, 1905, 167). It shows how a stereotype, even an absurd one, may keep echoing around and colour perception. Even the renowned Alfred Dürr speaks of “the cradle rhythm, for which the syncopation is responsible” (The Cantatas of J. S. Bach, OUP 2005, p. 665). “Pulsating rhythm” seems more appropriate.
Looking for other slumber aria’s, I hit upon the hauntingly beautiful (and nearly unsingable) Ruhe sanft from Mozart’s unfinished Singspiel Zaide. There are a few striking similarities between this and Schlummert ein, which become obvious when we put one below the other.
The mi-re-do beginning is, not coincidentally maybe, that of Schlaf, Kindchen, Schlaf — a quieting melodic “gesture”. So maybe a bit of a lullaby after all. The harmonic changes on these beats are also the same. The la-sol-fa continuation of the melody is similar too, though the correspondence is less obvious here.
Are the similarities significant? Yes and no. Music of the eighteenth century is full of patterns, formulas, schema’s. Sometimes, as seems to be the case here, one pattern lends itself particularly well for a certain expression or mood. But most fascinating is how one opening schema may be elaborated in very different ways.