Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit, BWV 14
|Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit |
|Chorale cantata by J. S. Bach|
|Occasion||Fourth Sunday after Epiphany|
|Performed||30 January 1735 Leipzig:|
"Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit"|
by Martin Luther
Johann Sebastian Bach composed the church cantata Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit (Were God not with us at this time), BWV 14, in Leipzig in 1735 for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany and first performed it on 30 January 1735, a few weeks after his Christmas Oratorio. The cantata, in Bach's chorale cantata format, is based on Martin Luther's hymn "Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit". Its text paraphrases Psalm 124, focussing on the thought that the believers' life depends on God's help and is lost without it.
Bach composed the cantata as a late addition to his chorale cantata cycle of 1724/25. In 1725, Easter had been early and therefore no fourth Sunday after Epiphany happened. The text was possibly prepared already at that time. Ten years later, Bach wrote an advanced unusual chorale fantasia as the first section of it, combining elements of a motet with complex counterpoint. The hymn tune is played by instruments, freeing the soprano to interact with the lower voices. In the inner movements, sung by three soloists, Bach depicts in word painting terms such as flood, waves and fury. The closing chorale resembles in complexity the chorales of his Christmas Oratorio.
History and words
Bach held the position of Thomaskantor (director of church music) in Leipzig from 1723. During his first year, beginning with the first Sunday after Trinity, he had written a first cycle of cantatas for the occasions of the liturgical year. In his second year he composed a second annual cycle of cantatas, which was planned to consist exclusively of chorale cantatas, each based on one Lutheran chorale. As Easter was early in 1725, there was no fourth Sunday after Epiphany that year. In 1735, shortly after the first performance of his Christmas Oratorio, Bach seems to have desired to fill this void and complete his cycle of chorale cantatas. Bach scholar Christoph Wolff found it evident that Bach reprised the second cycle in 1735, performing the new cantata between Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit, BWV 111, for the third Sunday after Epiphany and Ich hab in Gottes Herz und Sinn, BWV 92, for Septuagesima.
The prescribed readings for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany were taken from the Epistle to the Romans, "love completes the law" (Romans 13:8–10), and from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus calming the storm (Matthew 8:23–27). The Neu Leipziger Gesangbuch, which was the standard hymnal in Leipzig since the late 17th century, specifies Luther's "Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit" as one of five hymns for the occasion. The cantata text is based on this hymn in three stanzas, a paraphrase of Psalm 124, published in Johann Walter's hymnal Eyn geystlich Gesangk Buchleyn of 1524. According to John Eliot Gardiner, this hymn "apparently, had been sung on this Sunday in Leipzig from time immemorial".
In Bach's typical format of the chorale cantata cycle, the text of the outer stanzas is retained unchanged, while an unknown librettist paraphrased the inner stanzas, in this case to three movements, two arias framing a recitative. According to Wolff, the librettist may have been Andreas Stübel, writing previously in 1724/25. The theme of the chorale is connected to the gospel in a general way: the believer's life depends on God's help and is lost without it. A connection is also provided by the image of flooding water that the psalm conveys, which begins "If it had not been the Lord who was on our side" (Psalms 124), and continues "then the waters had overwhelmed us, the stream had gone over our soul, then the proud waters had gone over our soul" (Psalms 124:4–5). The poet paraphrased it in the central recitative to "Es hätt uns ihre Wut wie eine wilde Flut und als beschäumte Wasser überschwemmet" ("Their fury would have, like a raging tide and like a foaming wave, flooded over us").
Bach first performed the cantata on 30 January 1735. It is one of his latest extant church cantatas. The only other extant Bach cantata for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany is his first cycle cantata BWV 81.
Scoring and structure
Bach structured the cantata in five movements. In the format typical for his chorale cantatas, the first and last movements are set for choir as a chorale fantasia and a closing chorale respectively. They frame a sequence of aria / recitative / aria which the librettist derived from the middle stanza of the hymn. Bach scored the work for three vocal soloists (soprano (S), tenor (T) and bass (B)), a four-part choir, and a Baroque instrumental ensemble: corno da caccia (Co), two oboes (Ob), two violins (Vl), viola (Va), and basso continuo (Bc).
In the following table of the movements, the scoring, keys and time signatures are taken from Alfred Dürr, using the symbol for common time (4/4). The instruments are shown separately for winds and strings, while the continuo, playing throughout, is not shown.
|1||Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit||Luther||Chorale fantasia||SATB||Co 2Ob||2Vl Va||G minor||3/8|
|2||Unsre Stärke heißt zu schwach||anon.||Aria||S||Co||2Vl Va||B-flat major||3/4|
|3||Ja, hätt es Gott nur zugegeben||anon.||Recitative||T|
|4||Gott, bei deinem starken Schützen||anon.||Aria||B||2Ob||G minor|
|5||Gott Lob und Dank, der nicht zugab||Luther||Chorale||SATB||Co 2Ob||2Vl Va||G minor|
The opening chorus, "Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit" (Were God not with us at this time), is a chorale fantasia on the hymn tune. Luther's hymn is sung to the same melody as "Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält" by Justus Jonas, which Bach had treated to a chorale cantata, Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält, BWV 178. The opening chorus is an unusual composition that does not follow the scheme of instrumental ritornellos with a cantus firmus, sung line by line by the soprano in long notes. In a setting resembling a motet, the strings play colla parte with the voices, and each line of the chorale is prepared by a complex four-part counter-fugue, in which the first entrance of a theme is answered in its inversion. After preparing entrances, the chorale melody is not sung but played by the horn and the oboes in long notes, creating a five-part composition, which is unique in Bach's cantata movements. The only other piece of similar complexity, also giving the cantus firmus to the instruments, is the opening chorus of Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80, but it is not conceived as a counter-fugue.
The first aria, "Uns're Stärke heißt zu schwach" (Our strength itself is too weak), is sung by the soprano, accompanied by the strings and the horn, which illustrates the text's "stark" (strong) and "schwach" (weak) in combination with the voice. Gardiner notes that the horn supports the voice "in its highest register (referred to in the autograph part as Corne. par force and tromba)".
The central recitative, "Ja, hätt es Gott nur zugegeben" (Yes, if God had only allowed it), is sung by the tenor as a secco recitative accompanied only by the continuo. The dangers of flooding waters are illustrated in fast passages of the continuo on words such us "Wut" ("fury"), "Flut" ("flood") and "überschwemmet" ("inundate"), making the movement almost an arioso.
The bass aria, "Gott, bei deinem starken Schützen sind wir vor den Feinden frei." (God, under Your strong protection we are safe from our enemies.), is accompanied by the two oboes. The middle section shows similar word painting, picturing "Wellen" (waves) in octave leaps and fast downward scales.
The closing chorale, "Gott Lob und Dank, der nicht zugab, daß ihr Schlund uns möcht fangen." (Praise and thanks to God, who did not permit that their maw might seize us.), is a four-part setting with "contrapuntally animated bass and middle voices", similar to the chorales of the Christmas Oratorio, first performed a few weeks before. Wolff summarizes the maturity of Bach's late church cantatas caused by "the experience accumulated by the composer between 1723 and 1729, which lends the later cantatas an especial ripe character".
|Title||Conductor / Choir / Orchestra||Soloists||Label||Year||Instr.|
|J. S. Bach: Das Kantatenwerk • Complete Cantatas • Les Cantates, Folge / Vol. 1||Gustav LeonhardtLeonhardt-Consort||Teldec||1972||Period|
|Die Bach Kantate Vol. 8||Helmuth RillingGächinger KantoreiWürttembergisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn||Hänssler||1984|
|Bach Made in Germany Vol. 4 – Cantatas III||Hans-Joachim RotzschThomanerchorNeues Bachisches Collegium Musicum||Eterna||1984|
|Bach Cantatas Vol. 19: Greenwich/Romsey||John Eliot GardinerMonteverdi ChoirEnglish Baroque Soloists||Soli Deo Gloria||2000||Period|
|Bach Edition Vol. 18 – Cantatas Vol. 9||Pieter Jan LeusinkHolland Boys ChoirNetherlands Bach Collegium||Brilliant Classics||2000||Period|
|J. S. Bach: Complete Cantatas Vol. 20||Ton KoopmanAmsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir||Antoine Marchand||2002||Period|
|J. S. Bach: Cantatas Vol. 54 - Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe, Cantatas · 14 · 100 · 197 · 197a (Cantatas from Leipzig 1730s-40s (III))||Masaaki SuzukiBach Collegium Japan||BIS||2012||Period|
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- Wolff 2002, p. 80.
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