Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (Actus Tragicus) (BWV 106)

COMMENTARY

1. Introduction

This cantata is considered the masterpiece of Bach's early cantatas. Like the other early cantatas, it is based on bible texts and church chorales and lacks recitatives and da capo arias. There are no original sources of this cantata, although the surviving copies were probably written from the original sources. The most important copy (Leipzig, 1768) also bears the name "Actus Tragicus".

This cantata was presumably written in 1707 for an unknown occasion. According to an unconfirmed tradtion, it was written for the funeral service of Tobias Lämmerhirt, Bach's uncle from his mother's side, from whom he had inherited the 50 guilders which contributed to his marriage in 1707. Tobias Lämmerhirt died on August 10, 1707 in Erfurt. According to Hermann Schmallfuss, however, the cantata was first performed on June 3, 1708, at the funeral of Dorothea Susanne Tilesius, the sister of Georg Christian Eilmar, the pastor of the St. Mary's Church in Mühlhausen and a friend of Bach's (Bach-Jahrbuch 1970, 36-43). The absence of a permutation fugue in this cantata might point in the direction of a pre-1708 origin, because it is assumed that Bach applied this kind of choral treatment for the first time in BWV 71 of February 4, 1708 (Ryuichi Higuchi in his Preface to the Study Score of the New Bach Edition).

It is not known who wrote the text of this cantata, although there is an obvious similarity with BWV 131, which was written by Georg Christian Eimar. Also note that the famous words Bestelle dein Haus in this cantata are, according to Isaiah 38, 1, addressed to king Hezekiah. King Hezekiah is the father of Manasseh, who is mentioned in the second choral stanza of BWV 131. Whoever the author, he or she did not have much to write because, apart from three lines in the first chorus section, this cantata is entirely based on existing texts from bible, apocrypha, and Lutheran hymns. Even Bach could have written these three lines (as was in fact suggested by Wilhelm Rust in 1876).

This is a cantata about death, one of Bach's beloved topics. In accordance with the Baroque taste for strong oppositions, it confronts death under the old covenant, the old-testamentic law ("der alte Bund" of section 2.), with death according to the Gospel (where Jesus' sacrifice is supposed to make the difference). Like in BWV 21, the opposition is worked out in a rather systematic way. The central section is 2d, in which death-old style ("Es ist der alte Bund", sung by the choir) and the beginning of death-new style ("Ja, komm, Herr Jesu!", sung by the soprano) are in direct confrontation. Alfred Dürr has pointed out that the various parts of the cantata are grouped around this central part in a near symmetric fashion (notated in organ pitch):

Sonatina (E flat major)
Chorus (E flat major - C minor)

Solo (C minor)
Solo (C minor - F minor)
Choral + Solo + Chorus (F minor)
Solo (B minor)
Solo (A flat major - C minor)

Choral (A flat major - C minor)
Choral + Fugue (E flat major)

Also as a whole, in other words, this cantata has a well-planned structure.

2. Individual sections

1. Sonatina [flauti dolci, viole da gamba, violone, organo)] (E fl/F, 4/4) (2'26)

This solemn, very beautiful introduction is the ideal music for one's funeral. The obbligato group consists of two recorders and two violas da gamba, while the continuo (organ) is reinforced by a violone.

2. Coro - Arioso - Arioso - Coro + Arioso [flauto dolce, viole da gamba, violone, organo] (8'24)

a. Coro [S, A, T, B] (E fl-c/F-d, 4/4, 3/4, 4/4)
The choir begins in a calm tempo (4/4), but after six measures there is a transition to a lively allegro (3/8), expressing humankind's "leben" and "weben". The text ("In ihm leben, weben und sind wir") is from the bible (Acts 17, 28). Note that the word "lange" (long) occupies more than three measures (31-34). In that respect, Bach's use of rhetoric figures is rather straightforward. In measure (41) the discourse changes to the topic of dying, which is expressed by a slow movement (adagio assai, 4/4).
b. Arioso [T] (c/d, 4/4)
This tenor arioso is about dying again, conventionally expressed by a slow movement (lento, 4/4). The text is from Psalm 90, 12.
c. Arioso [B] (c-f/d-g, 3/8)
The bass arioso marks the transition to a very vivid movement (vivace, 3/8), a magnificent expression of the text "Bestelle dein Haus" (set your house in order) from Isaiah 38, 1. The prophet announces King Hezekiah's death: there is very little time left to set his house in order because his hour has come. The suggestion of rapidly fleeing time, brought about by the restless semiquavers of the unisono of the recorders, is extraordinarily in this music.
d. Coro + Arioso [S, A, T, B] + [S] (f/g, 4/4)
This section is the center, the turning point of the whole composition. It starts with a text about dying under the old covenant based on the apocryphic Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 14, 18. It is a slow choir movement (fugue) in a, presumably, purposefully archaic style ("der alte Bund"). After 15 measures, it is answered by the solo of the soprano, which announces the new situation, which is characterized by Jesus' victory over death. The words "Ja, komm, Herr Jesu, komm" are the last of the bible (Revelations 22, 20) and have always been prone to mystic interpretation. In the mystic tradition, which happens to be so important for Bach, these words form one of the typical expressions of religious desire with its erotic imagery. This ouverture must lead to a union with Christ, which is brought about in the subsequent two sections. After five measures, the soprano solo is combined with a three-part instrumental citation of the hymn "Ich hab mein Sach Gott heimgestellt" by Johann Leon (1582/1589). Alfred Dürr has demonstrated the remarkable similarity between parts of the text of this hymn and the text of BWV 106. After this, the choral fugue is resumed in ever shorter and more repetitious phrases (with melismas on "sterben" (die)) and combined with the soprano solo ("Ja, ja, Herr Jesu, komm"), leading to a climax of incredible intensity.

3. Aria - Arioso + Chorale [viole da gamba, flauti dolci, violone, organo] (5'56)

a. Aria [A] (b/c, 4/4)
The text of this alto aria ("In deine Hände befehl ich meinen Geist") is from Psalm 31, 6 and also reminiscent of the last words of Jesus on the cross. Once again, old and new covenant are symbolically linked. The approaching moment of dying is expressed as a form of resignation to God: "in deine Hände", which has five syllables corresponding to (the equivalent of) five quavers (five fingers?). This phrase is echoed by the rising scale fragments of the continuo, which might suggest God's response (compare the echo aria in the Christmas Oratorio).
b. Arioso + Chorale [B] + [A] (A fl-c/B-d, 4/4)
Thanks to Christ's victory over death, dying has become a transition to paradise. The text ("Heute wirst du mit mir im Paradies sein") is from Luke 23, 43 and is sung by the basso as "vox christi" (voice of God). The word "Paradies" is repeated many times and accentuated by melismas. After 14 measures, the basso arioso is combined with Luther's deathbed hymn "Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin" (1524). Like in many later cantatas, Bach appears to be a master in this creation of a secondary semantic level by the introduction of a background chorale (see also the commentary on BWV 131). The last part of this section is truly breath-taking and contains one of the most impressive passages of all of Bach's oeuvre. The "vox christi" (basso) stops, while the deathbed chorale continues pianissimo (on the word "stille" (tranquil)). It continues, before the music comes to an almost complete halt in the second pianissimo passage on the word "Schlaf" (sleep) (measure 65). It is a moment of intense beauty which goes right down the spine.

4. Coro [S, A, T, B, flauti dolci, viole da gamba, violone, organo] (E fl/F, 4/4) (2'54)

The final chorus, praising Trinity, has a calm beginning, with nice instrumental echoes after each line. The text is the 7th stanza of the hymn "In dich hab ich gehoffet, Herr" by Adam Reusner (1533). After 19 measures, it is concluded with an energetic fuga on "durch Jesum Christum, amen".

3. Concluding remarks

This is one of the true masterpieces of Western music, written by Bach at age 22. It also shows that right from the beginning of his career, Bach was inspired by the idea of mystic union with Christ, by this odd combination of burning desire and death wish which arguably makes Bach the most impressive exponent of the rich tradition which has been such a prominent part of the Christian world since the days of Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153).

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