Historical Approach: No. 13, "Ich folge dir gleichfalls" from Bach Passion according to St. John

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This article was originally part of a Round Table discussion entitled
Four Approaches to the Understanding of a Single Musical WorkThe Aria "Ich folge dir gleichfalls" from the St. John Passion of J.S. Bach, which took place at the seventh annual meeting of the Society held in Washington, D.C., December 28-30, 1964.

The other participants were Arthur Mendel, Edward T. Cone, and Edward A. Lippman. Their articles also appear in SYMPOSIUM Volume 5.


I suppose it is only fair that one who has been instrumental over the past few years in inveigling others into Symposia and Round Tables should finally get caught in a Panel Discussion himself. My assignment is to develop the "historical approach to understanding" this aria. The first question that comes to mind is, "understanding" by whom? By contributors to Perspectives of New Music? By the present distinguished gathering? By graduate or undergraduate students of musicology? By college students not specializing in music? By the general public? I have decided, not quite arbitrarily, to direct my remarks as though to an imagined (perhaps ideal) class of intelligent upperclass college students who, without being deeply versed in musical analysis or musical history, have yet sufficient knowledge of musical terminology and sufficient perceptiveness to make such an approach practicable. One consideration leading to this choice was that this is the kind of student with whom many of us in the College Music Society are concerned. Naturally, much of what I shall have to say is already familiar to the present audience; but we are interested not so much in historical facts per se as with the application of such facts toward understanding this particular composition.

By "understanding" in the present context I take it that we mean, among other things, a kind of relationship between the hearer and the music such that the content of the listening experience (actual or recollected) is in some way affected by the listener's knowledge of the processes or steps by which the music has been recorded in notation and hence transmitted to us, by his awareness of the structure of the piece and the semantic conventions exemplified in it, and by the realization that it was composed at a certain time in history: in other words, his listening experience is affected by his knowledge of philological, analytical, hermeneutical, and historical factors.

What is the particular role of the historical factors?

Let me begin by pointing out that all three of the other "approaches" have a historical dimension. Establishment of the correct text is a matter of reconstructing certain past events by means of discovering and interpreting evidence—a typical process of historical investigation. The structure of the piece is defined in part by relating its individual features to a certain pattern or class concept, which pattern in turn is constructed by abstracting certain features common to this and other pieces composed at various times; and moreover, this pattern itself has a history. The musical Figures in this piece are examples of a technique or method of composition that had been practiced and recognized for some two hundred years before Bach's time. In brief, the historical approach may be considered as one way of viewing all the other approaches—viewing them along the time axis, so to speak. Of course it is always possible to ignore the historical factors, and for some purposes it may be useful and even necessary to do so; but in the total concrete situation they must be taken into account. Even if we should profess to be interested solely in what this work means for us today, it may help if we can find out something about what it meant for listeners in Bach's day; and this is an historical question. More specifically, historical investigation may furnish us with materials for judging which things in this aria are Bach's original, individual contributions and which things are simply typical, representing the conventions of his time as applied to this kind of composition. Let us see whether we can isolate the most important of these conventional features.

In the first place, this aria occurs as a self-contained number in a well-defined type of musical setting of the Passion story, a type generally known as the "Oratorio Passion," of which there are numerous examples beginning from the later seventeenth century, especially in Germany. This kind of setting consists essentially of the Gospel narrative interspersed with appropriate meditations either in the form of traditional hymns or newly written poetic texts. The narrative is presented in solo recitative, with the chorus intervening for the words that are uttered by groups of persons. The chorus, in a different function, is also the vehicle for some of the meditative portions, particularly of course for the hymns but often also for special introductory and concluding meditations. To follow the changing role of the chorus in the history of the Passion and the Oratorio before Bach is not our immediate concern, except to note that by the end of the seventeenth century its functions had become clearly defined: it was restricted to dramatic representation and certain kinds of meditative texts. By Bach's time the meditative insertions (except for the hymns) were practically always entrusted to soloists, in the form of arias. The aria was the last element to enter the Passion, and its rise there coincides with the rise of independently written texts for the meditative passages. We may say that the chorus was taken into the Passion from the Oratorio, the recitative from both oratorio and opera, and the aria from opera. The arias in Bach's Passions are like the arias in contemporary operas with respect to their position and function, their textual and musical structure, and their musical style. The aria with which we are now dealing is a good example in all these respects.

One feature of the history of opera in the seventeenth century is the constantly growing distinction—fully achieved before the end of the century—between recitative and aria styles, and the emergence of the aria as a self-contained textual and musical unit with a definite position and function in the total scheme of the work. The action of the drama was carried on in recitative; at periodic intervals, the dramatic action completely ceased while an aria was sung. Essentially, the aria constituted a meditation on the state of affairs that had been reached at that moment in the action: what it said was either "the present situation reminds me of the following general maxim" or "my sentiments on the present occasion might be expressed as follows." That maxim, or that expression of sentiments, was formulated as a single idea under two aspects, so related that after the second aspect had been developed the first could then be reiterated. The second part was introduced with the implied words either "moreover" or "on the other hand," and ended with the implied words either "nevertheless" or "as I said before." (This is the well-known Da Capo aria of eighteenth-century opera.) Now look at the situation in the St. John Passion. The action pauses after the words "Jesus was followed by Simon Peter and another disciple." The soloist then says "My sentiments at this moment are that I also will follow you," etc.; "moreover, I beg you to speed me along my way," etc., "and, as I said before, I also will follow you." The two stanzas run in tripping dactylic metre, symmetrically arranged so that the first stanza has verses of 4 + 2 + 2 feet and the second 2 + 2 + 4.

The original convention of the Da Capo aria was that the first part was simply to be repeated entire, unchanged except for the addition of optional ornamentations by the singer. Operatic usage also required more or less elaborate, supposedly improvised, vocal cadenzas at the end of each part and sometimes also at inner cadences. In both these respects Bach in this aria departs from the operatic rule. Instead of indicating cadenzas, Bach signalizes important stopping-points by a broadening of the rhythm such that, in effect, two measures of 3/8 are replaced by one measure of 3/4. This was a common rhythmic device in baroque music. Less common, at least in the 1720's, was the modification of the traditional three-part structure by omitting the repetition of the first part (except probably for the opening ritornello), indicated by the specific direction found in some German opera scores "senza Da Capo." One of the essential features of the old Da Capo aria was the modified repetition of part one—modified, that is, not in the written score but in performance, by the use of additional or different improvised embellishments and cadenzas. Merely literal repetition, it is safe to say, was never intended. Probably Bach could not count on his soloists' ability to introduce the necessary variety in the repetition as opera singers were expected to do, and naturally there were other considerations as well; at any rate, of the eight arias in the St. John Passion only one (No. 32) is in the regular Da Capo pattern with a merely indicated repeat; two are not in Da Capo form at all; one (No. 58) has a slight suggestion of Da Capo; two others (Nos. 11 and 48) are in three-part form but without the clear division of sections characteristic of the Da Capo aria; and two (Nos. 13 and 63) are in an adapted Da Capo form, with the repetition of part one being written out and considerably changed from the first statement. Such variety of aria forms, as well as the ingenuity with which the modification of the strict Da Capo pattern is managed (as illustrated in No. 13) shows with what independence Bach could move within the bounds of the prevailing practice.

The use of introductory and concluding ritornellos, and the marking of internal subdivisions of an aria by means of ritornellos, were long-established practices in the baroque. Thematic relationship between ritornello and solo, however, had fluctuated during the course of the seventeenth century. Originally the ritornello (see examples in Monteverdi's Orfeo) was simply an instrumental passage, repeated without change alternatively with the strophes or other divisions of the solo, and with no thematic resemblance between the instrumental and the vocal portions. Later, ritornello and solo were brought together in a unified formal scheme which first reached perfection, apparently, not in opera or any other vocal medium, but in the instrumental concerto as developed by Italian composers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century—chiefly Corelli, Torelli, Albinoni, and Vivaldi. In such works, the solo might deal with essentially the same thematic material as the ritornello; or it might have different, more elaborate, sometimes non-thematic figuration, in which case the movement might be unified not only by periodic recurrences of the ritornello (either complete or shortened) but also by the insertion of motives or phrases from the ritornello in the accompaniment of solo sections. Typically, the ritornello would be heard in identical form at the beginning and end of a movement, and would recur (usually in shortened form) once, twice, or more times at inner cadential points; and as these inner cadences might be in keys other than the tonic, so the ritornello would start in the new key and either continue so or else modulate to still another key for the beginning of the next solo section. In any event the inner cadences and ritornellos would, by the end of the seventeenth century, outline a group of subordinate tonal centers clustering around the tonic—for example (in the case of a major tonic) dominant, relative minor, perhaps also subdominant or mediant (that is, dominant of the relative minor). As is well known, Bach was acquainted with much of the Italian concerto literature, especially the works of Vivaldi; the Brandenburg concertos show how he had mastered and enriched the form. It is not surprising, therefore, to find in the aria "Ich folge dir gleichfalls" a combination of Da Capo aria and concerto. Ritornello and solo have some motives in common (principally those from measures 1-4, but also once that from measure 5), but the solo has also a conspicuous motive first sounded in measures 29-30, which is independent of the ritornello; and motives from the ritornello pervade the accompaniment in all the solo portions. The key scheme is typical for a concerto movement: tonic, dominant, relative minor, mediant, and back to the tonic at the Da Capo, with marked allusion to the subdominant in this final section. The abrupt shift from the mediant to the tonic at the beginning of the Da Capo is found elsewhere in Bach and Handel.

Even more typical of its concerto background is the melodic style of this aria: the melodic line is instrumental rather than vocal in the Italian sense, and this irrespective of whether the melody is being sung by the voice or played by the flutes. In this matter Bach, while accepting Italian instrumental models, is departing from the customary Italian operatic practice of the time. Whereas the Italians, by and large, tended to write a different kind of melodic line in the instrumental ritornello from that in the vocal solo, Bach here assimilates the two styles to a point where they are indistinguishable. The strongly tonal character of the melody, with its emphasis on chord outlining, and the steady driving rhythm are reminiscent of Vivaldi; the frequent melodic and harmonic sequences are typical of late baroque style, as is likewise the technique of spinning out the melody by the repetition (often sequential) of motives. Bach avoids immediate literal repetition of motives or phrases, though this is a fairly common practice in Italian music of his time. Typically baroque are two other features: the passages of coloratura at the approach to cadences (see measures 61-66, 109-112, 153-156) and the texture of two intertwining melodic lines in the soprano register over a basso continuo.

In some important respects, however, this aria is far from typical. One of these is the astonishing continuity, what almost might be called the "moto perpetuo" quality of the rhythm. In part, of course, this is a function of the nearly unbroken flow of sixteenth-notes, but that alone would not be enough were it not sustained by the harmonic rhythm and the tension achieved by the length of the harmonic periods. The first sixteen measures make one period in which the harmonic rhythm in itself maintains the continuity with the powerful aid of the vol5id608 pattern in measures 5-11 and the alternation of vol5id608 with vol5id608 in the bass at measures 5-15; the cadences at measures 16 and 24 are bridged by the three-fold canonic repetition of the motif, and after this the harmonic tension is expanded by passing modulations, so that altogether the music "takes breath" for the first time only at measure 40. Similar techniques carry through the other long periods of this aria. There are plenty of examples of "rhythmic drive" in baroque music, but apparently very few examples of "moto perpetuo." As a rule, the movement either periodically comes to a halt and then starts up again, or else is sustained by a kind of melodic "busy work" over unimaginative or relatively static harmonies. So far as I know, Bach is unique in the ability to sustain an ongoing rhythmic flow over such long periods as he does here.

One element in the extraordinary rhythmic life of this piece is the prevailing regularity of four-measure phrases. If we like to use the word "progressive" for any exceptional feature of a composer's work that turns out to be common practice in the style of the next generation, we can call this regularity of phrasing "progressive." It is certainly not characteristic of baroque arias, nor of Italian vocal music generally in Bach's time. The arias of Benedetto Marcello's oratorio Gioaz (1726), for example, are much less regular in phraseology and have many more syncopations and other rhythmic complexities within the phrase than is the case with Bach's arias in general and the present one in particular. Bach shares with other baroque composers the tendency to make the phrasing more irregular as the music proceeds. On the other hand, there is one little device quite common in Italian baroque arias which is noticeably absent in Bach, namely the ending of a period with a short, compact phrase, a kind of brief "summing up" involving a release of tension; Bach, on the contrary, ends the period with a long phrase, maintaining the tension up to the very end.

Although the melody of this aria is instrumental in character, it is nonetheless closely bound to the words, not only by the perfect coincidence of verbal and musical rhythm but also by virtue of the musical-rhetorical Figures, as Mr. Lippmann has explained. This Figurenlehre has a long history, going back in practice to the fifteenth century and being set forth in numerous theoretical treatises from the end of the sixteenth to the end of the eighteenth century. Most of the treatises are by German authors, but composers of all nationalities used the Figures. Their original purpose was to make clear and vivid the meaning of the text by means of various devices in the music that gave a pictorial or metaphorical representation of the words. The Figures became so much a part of the musical language of the baroque that composers used them sheerly from habit, not only in vocal music but in instrumental compositions as well, where there was no text, either actual or implied, to be illustrated. The principal differences between Bach and most baroque composers in this regard are (1) that with Bach the figures are so completely absorbed in the music that one is hardly aware of them, and (2) that they do not appear arbitrarily, irregularly, or incongruously in response to successive nuances of imagery or meaning in the text, but are unified within the over-arching concept of "one basic affection"; that is, the pattern of the Figures has order and coherence, has the same qualities of unity and continuity as the music itself. In employing musical-rhetorical Figures Bach was doing what everyone else did; where he is unique is in his genius for fusing the pictorial and metaphorical—what we are tempted to call the external—elements into the complete musical idea.

I conclude with the platitudinous remark that we can best appreciate the originality of an artist when we realize how much he owes to tradition. Bach was not original in the romantic or modern sense of the word. It is perhaps difficult for us to realize—in an age that has dropped into the annoying habit of suspecting everything traditional merely because it is traditional—how a composer could work perfectly contentedly within a musical language and musical forms that he had inherited from his predecessors. But Bach apparently did so, and that not with resignation but gladly. He was not haunted by history, as we often are; I doubt that he ever gave a thought to his "historical position," either with respect to the past or the future. When he spent time analyzing music, it was the music of his contemporaries, not of some composer who had been dead for two hundred and fourteen years. We may envy the good fortune that permitted him to accept the present without itching to turn things upside down. Even on the wild supposition that he might have wanted to kick over the traces, what could he have done? He was writing under pressure, for the church, and within the patronage system—any one of which considerations would have effectually inhibited a tendency to radical experimentation. Bach's originality was of a different kind. In closing I should like to quote from an essay by Mr. William Ivins a passage which I have quoted before in connection with Handel. It applies equally to Bach:

"Originality" in art is very much like originality in sin, for we should always bear in mind that "original sin" is the sin, or at least the kind of sin, about which we poor mortals can do nothing at all. We have it simply because we are descended from Adam and Eve. In the same way, draughtsmen who are original are so no matter how much they may attempt to copy or emulate something that someone else has done before them. . . . "Copies" and imitations made by men who have this ineradicable quality of originality are infinitely more original than "original drawings" made by men who lack it. . . . The best way to find out how much originality a man has is to see what he can do with another man's idea. I believe it is something of this kind that explains why the great masters—the most original men, that is—have always come out of long lineages of other great artists, on whose shoulders and triumphs they stand.

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