BWV 11, Ascension
Oratorio "Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen"
of three oratorios by Bach, the Ascension Oratorio was
first performed on Ascension Day in 1735 (May 19) in Leipzig. The
text mixes biblical and poetic material, though the exact librettist
is unknown. (Biblical passages come from Luke 24:50-2; Acts 1:9-12;
and Mark 16:19).
wrote several cantatas for the Feast of the Ascension (BWV 37, 43,
and 128), though none matches the musical scope of the Ascension
Oratorio (BWV 11, sometimes referred to as BWV 249a). Called
an "oratorio," this is, like the Christmas Oratorio,
really a cantata-style piece (the Christmas Oratorio, recall,
is actually a series of 6 cantatas).
in ABA’ form
major, hints of bm, A, G, em, f#m
moderate to fast
trumpets,timpani, 2 flutes,2 oboes, strings,continuo, SATB choir
of homophonic and polyphonic (phrases almost always begin and
end together in all parts)
minor to A major
solo with continuo
min to AM
solo, with 2 flutes and continuo
primarily, with more rhythmic activity in the accompanying parts
minor (hints of em, CM, dm)
solo, with unison violins and continuo
sonata (2 polyphonic parts with continuo)
min to f# min
solo with continuo
(hints of AM, em, bm)
choir, doubled by the orchestra
and bass solos, with continuo
solo, 2 flutes and continuo
homophonic (flutes mostly sustain pitches)
solo with continuo
solo, 2 flutes in unison, 1 oboe, violins and violas in unison
trumpets, timpani, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, strings, continuo, SATB
under a chorale melody
of the scope of this work, I will share various information in the
bullet list below, rather than in extended prose.
to other works by Bach
opening was probably borrowed from the lost secular cantata Froher
Tag, verlangte Stunden (of 1732)
alto aria "Ach, bleibe doch" was based on the aria "Entfernet
euch, ihr kalten Herzen" from the wedding cantata Auf!
süß-entzückende Gewalt (now lost)
same alto aria serves as a model for the Agnus Dei of the B
Minor Mass. (When you hear both works at this year’s Festival,
see if you can spot the similarity.) [For more information on
all the similarities, consult Christoph Wolff, Bach (Cambridge:
Harvard U. Press, 1991).]
use of an Evangelist links this work to the St. Matthew Passion
main key of the oratorio is D major, something it shares with
both the Easter Oratorio and Christmas Oratorio.
scoring of the large choruses is the same Bach uses in Cantatas
1, 3, and 4 of the Christmas Oratorio (3 trumpets, timpani,
2 flutes, 2 oboes, strings, continuo, and SATB choir)
use of a chorale ("Nun lieget alles unter dir," movt.
6) provides a link to numerous other works by Bach.
Ascension Oratorio can be said to be "in" D
major, because it is framed by two D major choruses. There are
other passages in D and in keys closely related to D major.
opening movement is very challenging to the singers, especially
to the sopranos, because of the prominent ornamental figures (check
out the 32nd notes in m. 7 below) and the runs. This
is much more like instrumental writing than vocal writing -- or
perhaps the kind of singing we might hear from a soloist,
but not from an entire soprano section!
this excerpt, with all the accompanying parts...
3 is an accompanied recitative, fairly uncommon in Bach’s time,
though in subsequent generations this type of recitative becomes
more popular in operas. Quite simply, the accompanying parts do
more than simply fill in the harmonies. The parallel thirds movement
in the flutes is quite poignant, perhaps reflecting the tears of
sorrow Jesus’ disciples felt as he departed from them in the Ascension.
(Surely, this must have been a highly emotional moment for them:
they watched him die, buried him, then heard he rose from the dead;
they spent days with him, with renewed faith, only to watch him
ascend from their sight into heaven, where they will see him again
only at the hour of their own deaths!) This is a powerful recitative,
even if it is only 11 measures in length. The sweet sound of the
flutes, the strong bass voice, chromatic writing in all parts, dissonant
intervals, minor tonality all contribute to the compelling effect.
Hear a portion of this
4 is essentially a trio sonata, with two melody parts (unison violins
and the solo alto voice) and continuo. The two melodic parts use
similar material, sometimes playing in parallel motion, sometimes
imitating each other, sometimes playing independent though complementary
lines. The piece is strongly rooted in a minor, again reflecting
the disciples sorrow at Christ’s departure. This work, in fact,
is even more somber than the preceding recitative; even the text
refers to "exceeding great pain" (das allergrößte
Leiden), clearly a step up in emotional intensity. Listen
6 is a simple chorale setting in SATB voicing, with the instruments
(except trumpets and timpani) doubling the choral parts. And I’d
be tempted to ignore any discussion of it, except that the tune
is familiar. It’s almost the same as the chorale (also in ¾) from
Cantata 43 "Du Lebensfürst, Herr Jesu Christ" and
the chorale from the Christmas Oratorio "Ermuntre
dich, mein schwacher Geist" (in 4/4). You might recognize the
English title as "Break forth, o Heavens, o bounteous light,"
or something to that effect.
three recitatives in a row, we reach Movement 10, an aria. This
movement is a minuet, a courtly dance. Though Bach wrote several
minuets for keyboard, we don’t normally associate this dance—or
many dances -- with sacred music. What I find interesting here is
that there is no continuo part -- a rarity in the Baroque, but a
link to the St. Matthew Passion’s aria "Aus Liebe."
Unlike that aria, "Jesu, deine Gnadenblicke" uses a part
for violins and viola in unison, which is clearly in a separate,
lower register from the voice or winds; it thus feels and functions
like a continuo part, though without a chordal instrumental to fill
out the harmonies. The lack of the continuo line reflects the fact
that Christ is no longer "grounded;" the interplay of
the four parts is delightful and lovely, enhancing our understanding
of the text:
Deine Liebe bleibt zurücke,
daß ich mich hier in der Zeit
an der künft’gen Herrlichkeit
schon vorus im Geist erquicke.
Thy love stays behind,
so that I can partake
here in spirit
of the future glory.
Thus, comfort is passed to the grieving; in the subsequent movement,
we shall see comfort supplanted by utter rejoicing.
to an excerpt...
and drums return for the finale. Actually, everyone -- all instruments
and voices -- are back for a triumphant, joyous ending. This is a lengthy
chorale fantasy, in which (as per usual) the sopranos sing the chorale
tune in long notes while the other voices and instruments fill in the
harmonies and activate the texture. The basses of the choir have some
of the most difficult passages here, with long, winding melismas in
the second portion of the movement: