Aus der Tiefe rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (BWV 131)
This is probably one of Bach's oldest surviving cantatas (only BWV 150 is
said to be older), probably composed in 1707 in Mühlhausen. It
combines the complete text of Psalm 130 with two stanzas (2 and 5) of
Bartholomäus Ringwaldt's hymn Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes
Gut (1588). This cantata is another example of an
artful opposition, this time between the Old Testament
of the psalm text and an allusion to the unravelment of the human drama in
the New Testament in the choral stanzas. The Old Testament text's misery
leads to hope and expectation that are fulfilled in the New Testament by
Christ's sacrifice. This kind of dramatic juxtaposition is typical of
Baroque poetry and is masterfully exploited by the 22-year old Bach. In
2. and 4., the choral stanzas are sung as a cantus firmus background to
the main text, which, in this case, is musically expressed in a form that
is reminiscent of the 17th century Geistliches Konzert (Alfred
Dürr). This intermingling of a main text (in aria or arioso) with a
choral melody at the background, which creates a secondary semantic level,
is one of Bach's favorite procedures. According to Peter Wollny, it goes
back to the North German practice of older composers, like Dietrich
Buxtehude, Nikolaus Bruhns and Johann Valentin Meder.
Traditionally, it has been assumed that this cantata was performed (or even
composed) in connection with the catastrophic fire that devastated more
than 300 houses in Mühlhausen on May 30, 1707. Even if this is true,
it should be noted that this cantata has a general theme that both fits
the Christian tradition and the Baroque taste for dramatic juxtaposition
of motives (human misery next to Jesus crucification as God's answer). In
that respect, this cantata is a work of art with an applicability that
goes beyond any specific occasion.
The texts of this cantata were probably selected by Bach's friend, the
pastor of St. Mary's Church in Mühlhausen Georg Christian Eilmar.
According to a note left by Bach, the cantata was commisioned by Eilmar.
2. Individual sections
1. Sinfonia + Coro [S, A, T, B, oboe, fagotto, violino, viole, violone, organo] (g/a, 3/4, 4/4) (4'18)
Both the calm tempo (adagio, 3/4) and the minor tonality set the stage for
this penitential service cantata. After the slow introduction of orchestra
and chorus (expressing human misery), the tempo changes to vivace (4/4)
to express humankind's restless attempts to draw God's attention for its
miserable state. The musical expression of the text is most remarkable
at the word Flehen (supplications). This form of expression culminates
in the measures 88-90, with echo effects which sound like the change of
manual (forte-pianissimo) in many compositions for church organ.
2. Aria [B + Choral, oboe, violoncello, organo] (g/a, 4/4) (4'20)
The bass arioso is artfully "mixed" with the second stanza of Ringwaldt's
hymn. The bass part expresses fear of the Lord (on the word fürchte)
with special emphasis and "trembling" semiquavers.
3. Coro [S, A, T, B, oboe, fagotto, violino, viole, violone, organo] (E fl-g/F-a, 4/4) (3'35)
The first measures of this section must have sounded archaic at the beginning
of the 18th century. Waiting for the Lord (harren) is musically symbolized
by prolonged melismas (more than one note per syllable).
4. Aria [T + Choral, violoncello, organo] (c/d, 12/8) (6'05)
The tenor aria is mixed in this section with the fifth stanza of Ringwaldt's
hymn. This time, the word wartet ("wait") is musically expressed by
melismas. Like the preceding section, this one is somewhat repetitious, but
one might say that this serves an expressive purpose (repeated complaints
5. Coro [S, A, T, B, oboe, fagotto, violino, viole, violone, organo] (g/a, 4/4) (3'57)
The final chorus begins with three measures of three times repeated notes.
This is no doubt a form of number symbolism ("trinity"), which is well-documented in Bach's music. It also reminds the listener of the masonic symbolism
in Mozart's Zauberflöte, which exploits the same number three. Very
few of Bach's later Leipzig cantatas contain such elaborate chorus sections.
It is composed in accordance with the 17th century motet style, in which
each part of the text receives a different treatment. The different parts
have different tempos and form a kind of chain:
(adagio) Israel... (un poc'allegro) hoffe auf den Herrn... (adagio)
denn bei dem Herrn is die Gnade... (allegro) und viel Erlösung...
(adagio) allen seinen Sünden (last three measures).
This section ends with an impressive fugue (und er will Israel erlösen).
3. Concluding remarks
This is a typical early Bach cantata, without recitatives or free-verse
arias, and with several archaic, 17th-century stylistic elements (motet
style). In style and composition, it is related to the famous "Actus
Tragicus" (BWV 106), which stems from the same period.