Tuesday, May 19, 2015

BWV 197: The Movie

So it's a rom-com (movie lingo for romantic comedy).

Listening to and writing program notes last week for Bach's Cantata #197, Gott ist unsre Zuversicht, I couldn't help thinking about it in the context of a little domestic comedy, 18th century style.

It's a wedding cantata, and rather a long one, for a lot of musicians--a couple oboes and three trumpets, as well as bass, alto and soprano soloists, choir, and the usual strings and continuo group.

(Continuo group: in baroque music, the folks who play the basic bass line, i.e., cello, string bass, bassoon, and keyboard. The harmony rests on that bass line. It's the glue that holds everything else together.)

There's a particular sweetness about this cantata. The jovial bass is like the host of the festivities, not proposing toasts, exactly, but getting up three times to sing detailed, conversational recitatives with advice about trusting in God as the foundation of a happy life together. The alto has an aria about falling asleep in the comfort of God's care. The oboe plays too, and it's like their two lines fall asleep in each other's arms. They awake for some lively activity in the B section (with a text about God being awake and watching all the time) and then "schlummert ein" again, settling down to sleep when the A section returns.

The cantata is divided into two parts, to be sung before and after the vows. And oh my, the bass has such fun teasing the newlyweds with the aria that opens the second part:
O du angenehmes Paar,
Dir wird eitel Heil begegnen,
Gott wird dich aus Zion segnen
Und dich leiten immerdar,
O du angenehmes Paar!
O you charming couple,
you will meet only with pure good,
God will bless you from Sion
and lead you evermore,
O you charming couple!
The teasing comes from the way the "Oh, you charming couple" text is repeated over and over again, and the little musical figure it's sung to is echoed each time in the violins. Clearly the bridal couple were people everybody liked! Bach couldn't have gotten away with this if this were just a wedding of two people important and rich enough to pay for a lot of music. Nope--there's a great beaming smile and even a couple of winks in that bassoon obbligato chortling away underneath it all. Could be the bass is a little, um, over-served at this point (or Bach is anticipating that happening later).

Anyway, the soprano takes over, and it's nice to finally hear a treble voice. The alto aria was low--not exactly something with the woman's touch, and the bass aria was accompanied by low sonorities in the orchestra. So the brightness of the soprano recitative and aria is a noticeable change of pace.

It was at this point during the performance last Sunday afternoon that I began to think there was a movie here. Women didn't sing in Lutheran church services in Germany in the 18th century. Or at least, they almost never did--there might have been exceptions. Bach's second wife, Anna Magdalena Wilcke, had been a court singer in Cöthen  before she married the widowed Capellmeister Bach in 1721. After their marriage she stayed involved with music--she was pressed into service as a copyist now and again and surely continued to sing in family at-home music-making.

So what if she was the one who stood up to sing this aria? And what if Bach, an accomplished violinist as well as a keyboard player, had stood next to her and played the lilting solo violin part? Isn't that a pretty picture?

The cantata dates from 1736/37. They would have been married 15 years by then. They'd had several children together, some of whom had died. They'd been through the big move to Leipzig in 1723 and the flurry of Bach's intense composing in the early years there. They'd launched a couple of sons from Bach's first marriage into careers and they'd probably had their share of unrecorded domestic dramas with servants and students. Anna Magdalena had also endured Bach's endless disputes with colleagues and the Town Council.

Was he a contentious man, who needed to win every argument? Or just (just!) an artist who fought hard for what he needed to make the very best music he could? Did he bring it all home with him? Or leave it in the composing room? There's a lot a writer could do with that, in comedy and drama, and a lot that could be resolved in that moment where Anna Magdalena stands to sing, smiling at that stout, serious German husband of hers, who proceeds to dance a sweet 6/8 Siciliano on the violin to a text about God (and spouses) remaining the best of all friends to the end.

Who exactly was getting married at that first performance of Cantata #197? That's the subplot of the movie, and since there's no historical information about that, you could just make it up. The couple could be music-lovers, or even musicians. Maybe a Leipzig-educated lawyer who studied composition with Bach. Maybe a performer, or maybe just a listener--but someone who has some favorite moments from past Bach performances. Because there is evidence that the bass and soprano arias in this work are parodies of earlier works--old music adapted and reworked for a new purpose. It's quite possible that the chorus and the alto aria are parodies as well. So maybe the engaged couple had some ideas about what they wanted. Or maybe Magdalena had some ideas about how the cantata should go--because these were her friends, too. Maybe there was a reason these two young people needed a reminder that God was their Zuversicht, their confidence.

There are possibilities here. J. S. Bach in a romantic comedy. It could happen.

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