TBC Ep 8 | "Was die Welt in sich hält," BWV 64/5


Tiny Bach Concerts Episode 8: Remarks by Michael Marissen; performance by Maria Keohane, soprano; Fredrik From, violin; with Concerto Copenhagen, directed by Lars Ulrik Mortensen.


Bach: now there’s a composer who knows that “gilded tombs do worms enfold.” As his parishioners learned already soon into his tenure as music director for the Leipzig churches, he was prepared to see to it that even the most festive liturgical occasions had their relatively grim moments. Consider Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget, BWV 64, a Christmas cantata whose soprano aria gives powerful expression to a cheerless view of the world that is encountered often in the poetry from Bach’s vocal music. Its text reads (with my emphases, to highlight the biblical allusions):

What the world
Must, like smoke, fade away.
   But what Jesus gives me,
   And what my soul loves,
   Remains, securely and eternally.

Even the casual listener can readily hear how this aria’s elegant courtly dance rhythms serve to represent “the world,” and how its occasional upwardly trailing off violin and vocal lines convey wisps of “smoke.” But Bach’s compositional engagement with the aria’s poetry is deeper and much more interesting than this.

As background, it’s important to know that several verbal conceits are closely based on passages from Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible. To begin with, there is 1 John 2:17, “The world, with its delight, fades away; but whoever does the will of God, he remains into eternity.” And then there is also Psalm 37:20, “Like smoke fades away, the enemies of the Lord will fade away.” These sentiments from Psalm 37 may, correspondingly, put one in mind of James 4:4, “Whoever wants to be the world’s friend, he will be God’s enemy.”

Our aria from Cantata 64 opens with the orchestra’s performing a textbook example of a specific dance’s phrase structure, which is made up of a two-beat + two-beat “call,” followed by a four-beat “answer.” This dance is called a “gavotte.”

Here, to provide a basis for comparison, is what a Bach piece that he specifically labelled a “gavotte” sounds like, the Gavotte from his Third Orchestral Suite, BWV 1068.

And here, clearly featuring the very same underlying rhythmic scheme, is the main theme in the aria from Cantata 64.

The vocal and instrumental lines of the aria fall in with the melody-and-accompaniment textures of French-style gavottes, as opposed to the more complex textures of Italian-style gavottes. And the smaller pulses of both of the two-beat “call” melodies yield two short-short-long gestures (such that the short is exactly half the length of the long), which is also a highly conventional gavotte formula: namely, ta-ta-DA / ta-ta-DA.

A second phrase divides in the same way, and here the melody’s surface rhythm, strikingly, is a flurry of running sixteenth notes all the way through the phrase. Even so, one can hear from the accompaniment that this music proceeds from an underlying ta-ta-DA gavotte gesture directly into the section’s closing material.

What we have, as it happens, within this gavotte section is a virtuoso violin line of conventional “Statement,” “Spinning-forth,” and “Closing” segments that are frequently found in the ensemble refrains of Vivaldian concertos. Group refrains in baroque concertos are called “ritornellos.” So, in Bach’s Cantata 64 aria, “the world” of the stately French gavotte “contains” several key elements of the hyperkinetic Italian concerto.

The opening two phrases constitute the aria’s instrumental ritornello (mm. 1–8a, for those consulting a score [aria begins on p. 121]). Intriguingly, both of these phrases subdivide into 2+2+4 beats. That is to say, the beat patterns in this particular phrase structure are in fact a quadruple augmentation of the underlying ta-ta-DA rhythm of the conventional gavotte-gesture in the aria’s very opening melodic snippet. So, in the relative lengths of its internal phrasings, the whole of Bach’s ritornello acts as a sort of “super-gavotte.”

The way baroque arias work is that some or all of the segments of an instrumental ritornello are performed before and after sections that feature the singer. The singer’s sections are called “episodes.” The first episode (mm. 8b–24a) consists of two “super-gavotte” internal phrasings, followed by a third configuration of double this length. That is to say, the respective lengths of the three large subsections in this episode — 8+8+16 beats — are a quadruple augmentation of the already quadruply augmented ta-ta-DA rhythm in the phrasing of the “super-gavotte.” Thus, by means of this still higher-level structure, Bach’s first episode acts as a sort of “mega-super-gavotte.”

In the second episode (mm. 28b–42a), however, these broader gavotte levels fall apart. Though this aspect of the aria’s structure is far from obvious in casual listening, it amounts to the initial nail-in-the-coffin for the aria’s eventual wide-ranging “fading away” of “the world.” Not only the surface puffs-of-smoke in the virtuoso violin line and in the vocal line, but also the very framework of the aria’s layered gavotte-world itself “must fade away.”

On top of all but one of the singer’s long-note utterances of the words “stehen” and “fest” in the aria’s extended middle section (mm. 50b–92a), the instruments curiously perform fragments from the aria’s ritornello segments in harmonically and melodically distorted versions.

The effect of these passages comes close to the surreal. Let’s listen to the most striking examples. For context, here is the way the singer and instruments had presented their gavotte-world straightforwardly in the main section.

And here, by contrast, is how the singer and instruments interact in the middle section of the aria, where the ritornello’s opening segments are fragmented and distorted.

Bach appears, indeed, in this middle section to have put a subtle degree of musical enmity between the singer and the instrumentalists. It’s only the singer’s own long-held chanted notes that will “remain securely” — each of the Italian concerto elements that “the world” of the French gavotte “contains” will be disfigured or dismembered, or both, and their melodic intactness will have “faded away” by the end of this extended section of the aria.

These gavotte and concerto disfigurements and their enmity with the singer’s single-pitch chanting in the middle section of the aria do of course provide marvelous aesthetic variety, but their creative inspiration may have been just as much biblical as musical: the aria’s earlier-mentioned main source-text, 1 John 2, specifies that “the world, with its delight, fades away”; and, furthermore, Psalm 37 clarifies that “the enemies of the Lord will fade away.”

So, in conclusion, what might this all mean more generally? In its public exhorting, our excerpt from Cantata 64 calls attention to several key themes in a premodern Lutheran viewpoint that was continually pitted against what conservative Lutherans like Bach took to be the undue and indeed dangerous optimism of Enlightenment thinking. (By the way, for Bach’s private endorsement of the anti-Enlightenment ideas often found in his public vocal works, we can read, for example, his subsequent handwritten annotations, entered mostly during the 1740s, into the margins of his personal Study Bible.)

Bach’s aria forcefully proclaims that

  1. the present world is fundamentally not good (it must fade away);
  2. humanism and its attainments ultimately add up to nothing (they cannot fundamentally or reliably make the world better; only what Jesus gives will remain);
  3. only Eternity, not problematic Time, is cast-iron (the temporal world, with its ephemeral delights — just like the enemies of the Lord — will fade away).

Bach’s aria setting went well beyond any call of duty in underscoring these conservative Lutheran sentiments, and what even more generally speaking marks his achievement as premodern is the fact that his brilliant artistry gave expression not to rationally or emotionally discovered personal truths, but to what were believed to be biblically revealed communal truths.

Thank you for your time and attention. After this extended talking, I hope you will enjoy, all the more, this magnificent video performance of the aria by Maria Keohane, soprano, and Fredrik From, violin, with Concerto Copenhagen, directed by Lars Ulrik Mortensen.

Text and Translation

“Was die Welt in sich hält,” BWV 64/5 “What the world contains,” BWV 64/5
Was die Welt
In sich hält,
Muss als wie ein Rauch vergehen.
   Aber was mir Jesus gibt
   Und was meine Seele liebt,
   Bleibet fest und ewig stehen.
What the world
Must, like smoke, fade away.
   But what Jesus gives me,
   And what my soul loves,
   Remains, securely and eternally.

(transl. D. Melamed and M. Marissen)