Saturday, November 5, 2011

J. S. Bach - Cantata Actus Tragicus 'Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit' BWV 106

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750) wrote over 300 sacred cantatas for services in the Lutheran Church, about 195 survive. It is known that he composed three complete sets of cantatas consisting of one for every Sunday of the year and one for every church holiday. They are written for almost every kind and blend of instrumental groupings imagined, from solo cantatas to cantatas with a large performing group.

Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, (God's time is the very best time) also known as Actus Tragicus was written for performance at a funeral, possibly for one of Bach's uncles. It is composed for the unusual combination of continuo, two viola da gambas,  two alto recorders,  bass viol, Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass soloists, and choir.  The instrumentation of this cantata gives a nod to the sound of the music of Bach's predecessors.

The viola da gamba is a type of viol, a stringed instrument used in the Renaissance and Baroque era. It is similar to a cello, except it generally has six strings and frets like a guitar.  It is strung with gut strings and has a more mellow sound than  cello. 

The recorder is a type of whistle flute made of wood that was also popular in the Renaissance and Baroque eras. It was especially associated with music of a pastoral nature.

This cantata is thought to be an early work, written when Bach was twenty two years old. It remains one of his popular cantatas, not least of all because of the short instrumental Sonatina for recorders, viols and continuo that opens the work.
The text is a combination of bible passages and excerpts from Lutheran Church Chorales that would have been familiar to the church congregations where the cantatas were given.

The cantata is in 4 parts:
1st Part - A gently moving instrumental sonatina.

2nd Part - 
a) Chorus - God's time is the best of all times. In Him we live, move and are, as long as He wills.In Him we die at the appointed time, when He wills. (Acts 17:28)
b) Tenor solo - Ah, Lord, teach us to consider that we must die, so that we might become wise. (Psalm 90:12)
c) Bass solo - Put your house in order; for you will die and not remain alive! (Isaiah 38:1)
d)Chorus and soprano -
Chorus - It is the ancient law: human, you must die! (Ecclesiasticus 14:17)
Soprano - Yes, come, Lord Jesus! (Revelations 22:20)

3rd Part - 
a)Alto aria - Into Your hands I commit my spirit, You have redeemed me, Lord, faithful God. (Psalm 31:6)
b) Bass aria and alto chorus
Bass - Today you will be with Me in Paradise. (Luke 23:43)
Chorus - With peace and joy I depart in God's will,
My heart and mind are comforted, calm, and quiet.
As God had promised me: death has become my sleep. (Taken from Chorale Mit Fried und Freud, by Martin Luther)

4th Part Chorus -
Glory, praise, honor, and majesty
be prepared for You, God the Father and the Son,
for the Holy Spirit by name!
The divine power makes us victorious through Jesus Christ, Amen. (Taken from chorales In dich hab' ich gehoffet, Herr, by Adam Reusner, and Ich hab mein Sach Gott heimgestellt, by Johann Leon )

1 comment:

  1. The climax of the work - "Der alte Bund" indicates that the power of the Geist (soul), which is created by God, is bigger even than His laws and at the same time shows that both can be in unisono. The fugue in the three low voices starts heavily, on a walking bass, with a characteristic interval - the diminished seventh, and "is sure of the victory of the "old law". The voices continue in "Mensch, du musst sterben" (Human you must die). And suddenly appears the soprano (often a solo) - the hope, that there might be salvation (Ja ja , komm , Jesu komm! - yes, yes, come, Jesus, come!) as Jesus is a symbol of the ascended spirit and the connection to God. After this solo the fugue starts with renewed force on its text. At some time the all four voices sing together. By the end of the part the choir makes a crescendo and stops, the soprano ends before the end of the last takt (bar) without finishing the phrase (Komm, Jesu...) as dying. The end on the dominant appears as the unsolved conflict between the choir and the soprano. By the beginning of the next part (In deinen Haenden befehl' ich meinen Geist, see above) becomes clear that the "both sides have won" - the person is dead, but the soul ascends into the eternity. So is it - what God makes, is united, is one, because He had created everything. There are no real conflicts by God and God is without enemies.

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