Cantata BWV 7Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam

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Translation

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German TextEnglish Text

Analysis

This cantata was written for performance on 24th June 1724, the Feast of St. John the Baptist -so, inevitably, a lot of baptism and water-based references follow! It was based on a 1541 hymn of Martin Luther’s, and the text from that hymn is included, verbatim, in the first and seventh movements of the cantata. The inner hymn verses were then paraphrased (by an unknown librettist) to make up the cantata’s other movements.

The first chorus is by far the most significant part of the cantata. The tenors hold the cantus firmus, surrounded by the other voices in free polyphonic harmony.The upper strings play a fairly spiky theme, interrupted by passages of ‘rocking’ between two notes. It’s been suggested (by Arnold Schering) that the spikiness might suggest ‘sharp rocks’ around which the water flows …metaphorically, rocks on which the sinner will flounder, no doubt.

Perhaps the most ear-catching thing about the first movement, however, is in fact the continuo! This little figure appears throughout:

To these ears, they sound like oars ploughing through waves (or, as an ex-Cambridge punter, a punt pole pushing through the river… Cam or Jordan, it makes no difference!) -and since the text speaks of the flowing waters of the River Jordan, this aquatic allusion is entirely appropriate. The second movement (bass aria) similarly has frequent falling demi-semi-quaver ripples tumbling through the continuo:

…which again sounds like tumbling flows of water to me: presumably, the waters of baptism that the bass is singing about. I will confess, however, that after about a dozen entreaties from the bass to ‘Merkt und hört!’ (i.e., ‘hear and mark well!’), I am usually ready to poke him in the eye in order to get him to shut up! It is very repetitive… and it’s not helped by that movement being a da capo aria, which means that just when you think he’s taken the hint, he starts from the beginning and repeats the dozen or so entreaties all over again! In short, regardless of what the continuo is doing in it, I find it a very annoying movement indeed!!

The tenor recitative and aria are much more satisfactory, however. The aria (movement 4) sees two concertante violins weave their 9/8 lines around the tenor, singing in 3/4 time. They therefore sound to be in triplets, with the tenor trying to cut a much ‘straighter’ line through them. The acoustic imagery is, perhaps, of flows of water going around an object in its stream. Given the text is all about the three forms of the Trinity -the Father who speaks, the Son who is baptised, and the Holy Spirit who appears in the form of a dove- it is also not too fanciful to notice that the aria is all based on the number 3: 3/4, triplets, and three ‘instruments’ (2 violins and the tenor himself).

The alto aria is strongly reminiscent of the tenor aria from BWV 2. Here’s that tenor aria’s opening (from the violins):

…and here this cantata’s alto aria opening:

Click on each music example to hear the relevant notes. The bits I’ve highlighted in red are the sections which share a strong rhythmic shape in both cantatas. Was this just a piece of inadvertent ‘self-borrowing’ by Bach? Probably not, because BWV 2 was written to be performed on 18th June 1724… and BWV 7 was performed on 24th June 1724, just six days later. The ‘family resemblance’ of the two pieces was probably not, therefore, an accident. Had Bach therefore merely run out of ideas, so just repeated himself for lack of anything else that sprang to mind? Again, probably not -because whilst the resemblance between the two pieces is unmistakable, their not mere clones of each other.

I think, rather, you need to see what the tenor in BWV 2 and the alto in BWV 7 are singing when they share this rhythmic element: in BWV 2, the words are: “As fire purifies silverA Christian must at all times bear his cross and suffering with patience”. And here in BWV 7, the alto sings, “Sin is innate: we are lost by nature. But faith and baptism make you pure…”. There’s a theological connection between the two wordings, in other words: the cross makes us pure as fire makes silver pure; faith and baptism makes us pure too. I suspect Bach was pointing out the dogmatic connection of the two wordings by making the two musics resemble each other also.

So this is deeply thought-out music, no doubt. But with all that said, I personally find the alto aria a bit dull. There’s remarkable chromaticism throughout, which means you can’t say it’s musically boring, exactly -but there’s not a lot to make it stand out, either… and that rather goes for the entire cantata as far as I’m concerned. In fact, I’ve found it difficult to characterise this cantata with a ‘mood’, let alone a rating. The text is rather narrative: it tells the story of Jesus’ baptism, points up some theological implications and comes to a moody B minor end. There is nice water imagery and effects in the orchestral parts throughout; but there are no emotional hysterics or depths to plumb. It’s all pretty straightforward stuff; and the end result is that it’s ‘serviceable music’ without being particularly memorable, in my opinion.

For a different approach to a St. John the Baptist cantata, see BWV 167 (which has an altogether more jolly and delightful closing chorale, to boot!)


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