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What Bach gives us here is not so much a sermon as a portrayal of the complex psychological and emotional transformation of the conscience-struck individual. His overarching concern is to provide a lucid presentation of the text, or rather of the ideas that lie behind it. This he offers to the listener from several vantage points and in a highly individual style of his own devising. Not for him the mechanical patter of contemporary operatic recitative; instead, Bach develops a musical declamation flexible enough to burgeon into arioso at moments of heightened significance and always adjusted to the rise and fall of the verbal imagery. Each recitative acts as the springboard to the following aria and thus to each change and expression of mood. He weaves such an amazingly vivid atmospheric web for each aria that the words—even such over-the-top ones as those penned by the Darmstadt court librarian Georg Christian Lehms—are not really needed to convey the specific Affekt intended. You could almost remove them and remain confident that the inflections and emotional contours would still be understood as a result of Bach’s persuasive music.
Lehms based his underlying theological message on the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18: 9-14). A Christian consumed by self-horror and knowing that her sins have turned her ‘into a monster in God’s eyes’ is racked by grief (Bach’s opening accompanied recitative). Agony turns her dumb (‘A’ section of Bach’s first aria); tears testify to her remorse (‘B’ section); a momentary flash of self-observation (extremely unusual ‘C’ section interpolation in secco recitative) leads to a rhetorical outburst and a return to ‘silent sighing’ (‘A’ repeated). More self-immolation follows (accompagnato), culminating with the repentant cry of the publican in the parable: ‘God have mercy upon me!’. Next, with out a break, comes an aria of deep humility and contrition (‘A’), the confession of guilt (‘B’) culminating in a plea for patience (tempo slowed to adagio) prior to a renewed expression of repentance (‘A’ repeated). This is the turning-point (a two-bar recitative). Now the singer makes a further act of contrition, casting her sins into Christ’s wounds (chorale played by a solo viola). Henceforth this will be her resting place (accompagnato) whence she can sing an ode to joyful reconciliation (‘A’), blessing (‘B’) and renewed joy (‘A’ repeated).
Faced with a text for his first aria that postulates the limitations of verbal expression (‘my mouth is closed’), Bach shifts the expressive burden onto the instruments, so that the oboe expresses the turmoil of the sighing soul through its poignant cantilena as eloquently as the voice, arguably still more so. The emotional charge is then redoubled when the voice returns later to incorporate fresh material into the oboe ritornello, a technique known as Vokaleinbau. Again, Bach may have been subverting conventional operatic practice where the singer is the primary focus; the very fact that she is musically contextualised might have provoked religious criticism of such a secular convention. But if that was the case we hear nothing about it, and it turns out that Bach was sufficiently proud of the work that after its Weimar premiere (12 August 1714) he revived it in Cöthen and later in Leipzig. Similarly you do not need to know that the second aria begins ‘Bent low and full of remorse I lie’ when the melodic arch of the strings of this spacious sarabande suggests prostration so graphically and the stretching of its phrases across the barline conveys the gestures of supplication. The success of this strategy depends a great deal, of course, on the oratorical skill and empathy of the individual singer—the ability to touch and literally ‘affect’ the listener, and not by vocal pyrotechnics alone. This particular cantata, one of several outstanding works for solo singer that Bach composed during his years at the Weimar Court (1708-17), exhibits enough operatic know-how and sensibility to suggest that he may have had a particular opera singer in mind, one of a kind unknown in Weimar (where only falsettists were employed)—perhaps a diva such as Christine Pauline Kellner, who regularly trod the operatic stage in nearby Weissenfels as well as in Hamburg and Wolfenbüttel.
from notes by Sir John Eliot Gardiner © 2014
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