An Interpretation of Bach's "Ich folge dir gleichfalls"

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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, Donald J. Grout, and Edward T. Cone. Their articles also appear in SYMPOSIUM Volume 5.


Since a musical work is written in a social and cultural setting and is intended for an audience and for some particular occasion, it is generally able to fill its role in the world without explication or aid. Yet the necessity for interpretation or explanation repeatedly arises, either because the composer is following a train of thought that is not completely understandable to his contemporaries or because the lapse of time has transformed obvious meanings into obscure ones.

What interpretation seeks to make clear is the complex of feelings, associations, and ideas that were initially formulated in tone by the composer and produced by an adequate performance at the time the work was composed. The conceptions and feelings that are embodied in a composition are in large measure specific to music itself; they are essentially unknown in any other way. Meaning of this type nevertheless resides in a community of understanding and ways of feeling and in subtle departures from tradition; it is by no means inevitably attached to given acoustic patterns. The opening motif of "Ich folge dir gleichfalls," for example, reappears literally in Don Giovanni as an accompaniment to the serenade "Deh, vieni alla finestra," but the stylistic context gives it a meaning that is almost completely unrelated to its meaning in Bach's aria. Yet the social and cultural foundation of musical significance often escapes our notice, for we become familiar with style by an intuitive rather than a conscious process; we understand a particular repertory of tonal phrases and forms in an immediate way from the hearing of only a few representative works of the same idiom, provided these are not too distant from us in time. Indeed the spontaneous appreciation of musical expressiveness is possibly the best example of historical insight that can be found in any field of human activity. It is in spite of this susceptible of error, and we can readily discover instances of the flagrant misconception of older music. Interpretation undertakes to prevent or correct such errors in apprehension, to make the various symbols of past music, and the peculiar responses provoked by motifs and progressions again familiar.

In this process of reconstruction, performance and verbal explication are equally indispensable. Language can point to meanings that cannot be revealed at all in performance: it can explain the significance of individual symbols, and elucidate the import of the composition as a whole, defining whether it is subjective, spontaneous, liturgical, or pedagogical. But a third problem, putting us in intimate touch with the precise quality and the temporal course of musical experience, remains intractable to verbal description and is best approached through performance. Yet even this problem has seen solutions in language, first in the poetic criticism of the Romantic era, then in the Hermeneutics of Kretzschmar, which was inspired by Dilthey, and again in the writings of Ernst Kurth. What words and images can claim in respect of capturing the actual flow of musical experience, however, is doubtless no more than a limited pedagogical value which will be more instructive than a fine performance only for those who are musically insensitive.

In the case of Bach, explication in language has assumed an increasingly large share of the task of interpretation, for the 20th century has emphasized more and more the extra-musical meanings of his art. The almost graphic precision of his music has been shown to depend upon a remarkable synthesis of tonal imagination and external stimulus. This discovery started with the work of Schweitzer and Pirro, and achieved its greatest value with the articles of Schering in the 1920's, just when—in a curious paradox—the abstract properties of Bach's music became a major determinant of 20th-century style. Schering revealed the true nature and full extent of the external meanings of Bach's music, and demonstrated in particular that its significance is based on a rhetorical conception of music and on the use of rhetorical principles to produce effectiveness and specificity.

The most prominent symbolic device in the aria under discussion is doubtless canonic technique, or fuga, which is used as a musical simile of following. This rhetorical application of canon has a close parallel in Bach's Cantata No. 159, Sehet, wir geh'n hinauf, where the text is "Ich folge dir nach" (BG 32:160), and in his Cantata No. 12, Weinen, klagen, where the text is "Ich folge Christo nach" (BG 2:73). In all these representations of folgen, the imitation is at the unison or the octave, as it usually is also in the canons that symbolize adherence to law. Other metaphorical canons, however, that represent fetters or bonds, are at different intervals; the aria preceding "Ich folge dir gleichfalls" in the St. John Passion provides a striking contrast in canonic style: the text is "Von den Stricken meiner Sünden mich zu entbinden," and the imitation is at the minor second, with considerable friction created by dissonance and suspension.

In Handel's setting of the Brockes Passion, which like his St. John Passion was well known to Bach, canon at the octave is used at the very same point of the narrative that Bach selected for "Ich folge dir gleichfalls." The text Handel illustrates in this way is "Nehmt mich mit," which is sung by Peter. Presenting the individual protagonists of the story in scriptural words and in recitative, Bach could expand the idea of following neither for Peter nor for the other disciple who joins Peter in following Jesus, but assigned it in his regular fashion to an ideal representative of the Christian congregation of his own time. Unlike that of Handel, however, the canonic imitation of Bach's aria is a double one, since the word gleichfalls makes reference to Peter, who has similarly followed Jesus, and if we wish, to the other disciple as well. Directly after the vocal imitation of the continuo at the distance of a measure, the close following of the voice by the flutes is particularly graphic; it seizes our attention also because it entails a rhythmic displacement of the motif, which at the same time evokes the impression of eagerness.

Canons at the unison or octave with a triadic basis and in triple rhythm may have been conceived by Bach as containing a metaphorical reference to divinity, but in the present case there is much less speculation involved in tracing the individual musical features to the representation of joy and of footsteps, both of which are associated in the text with the activity of following. It is characteristic of Bach to connect an affection with a physical action, and also to prefer highly specific images of motion. Thus step motifs inevitably accompany the depiction of following even when the text does not call for them explicitly. Scalar progressions that represent purposeful stepping are found throughout "Ich folge dir gleichfalls"; not only in the canonic motif itself, but in the measure-by-measure progress of the bass and the flute figuration. The rising and falling sequences of the flutes that first appear in the ritornello are in fact a development of the important melodic step to which the word Schritten is set, and in the earlier version of the aria, this step was provided with the same ornamental treatment that is employed throughout its sequential development.

Bach's representation of joy consistently makes use of rapid scalar passages, and also of a triadic pattern or framework, perhaps in part derived from fanfare motifs. Scalar triadic runs are regularly connected with the word Freude in his secular cantatas, and the text "Freut euch" in a movement intended for the Magnificat even involves a triadic canon in the same key as "Ich folge dir gleichfalls." The affections of the Baroque were associated in general with the rhythms and melodic characteristics of various dances, and the reference to joy is undoubtedly responsible for the triple rhythm and the dancelike character of the aria we are examining. Frequent omission of the strong beat of the measure in the bass produces an appropriate lightness of rhythm, while at the same time, the change of chord on the second beat emphasizes the action of stepping and its purposefulness. The affection of joy is also conveyed by the choice of the soprano voice and especially of the concerting instrument, for the contemporary rhetorical analysis of joy found it to be expressed in a soft and light quality of voice; to this the flute is a peculiarly suitable complement, especially when it displays its characteristic agility, which adds, by means of the ceaseless sixteenth-note motion, an attractive feeling of effervescence to the affection. Finally the key of B flat major had a character in Bach's time that made it appropriate for affections that were joyous but at the same time not frivolous; it is described by Mattheson in his Neu-Eröffnete Orchester of 1713 (Part III, Ch. 2) as "sehr divertissant und prächtig; behält dabei gerne etwas modestes, und kan zugleich vor magnific und mignon passiren." Something of the character and the sixteenth-note figuration of "Ich folge dir gleichfalls" is also manifest in the B flat major aria "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein" of the St. Matthew Passion.

The repetition that is so typical of the aria we are discussing is due primarily to the word gleichfalls rather than folgen. Right at the opening of the ritornello there is an exact and immediate repetition of the first measure at the same pitch, and the vocal version of this phrase still more pointedly employs the repetition of a tone in the setting of gleichfalls. Tonal repetition is again used to capture the meaning of "Und lasse dich nicht," but its most general occurrence is really in the nature of a pedal point against which the progress of the stepping is measured and set off. The fact that such pedal points occur typically on the tonic reinforces the impression of simplicity that is associated with the basic affection of the aria.

The melodic treatment of the first line of text conveys the natural declamation flawlessly, and clearly defines the significance of the various motifs. Folgen is associated with the opening triadic passage, gleichfalls with tonal repetition, freudig with the brightness of the high point of the melodic line and with the scalar sixteenth-note motion in general, and Schritten with the eight-note step figure. The second line of text, "Und lasse dich nicht, mein Leben, mein Licht," is appropriately conveyed by another and more persistent repetition pattern. In the middle section of the aria, "Befördre den Lauf" is illustrated by the retention of the initial folgen motif, which becomes especially prominent during the second statement of this text, when the motif is ceaselessly carried to different pitches in its characteristic repeated form as heard at the opening of the ritornello. The next phrase of the text, "und höre nicht auf," is also repeated again and again, with the verbal repetition reflected in the use of the same melodic pattern although in different forms and at different pitches, a figure that obviously vivifies the sense of the words as well as enhancing the whole representation of persistence. The final phrase, "An mir zu ziehen, zu schieben, zu bitten," is fittingly presented in modified and more urgent step motifs, the more important of which conveys a sense of pressure by sixteenth-note motion, anticipations, and a startling change from diatonic to chromatic succession on schieben. Other deft touches also come to our attention. At one point schieben is vividly depicted by the introduction of a suspension that thrusts the regular stress forward from the first to the second beat of the measure (m. 100 f.). And in both statements of the text of the middle section, the rising sequence at the close comes to a halt with schieben, and a rest effectively sets off the more feelingful declamation of zu bitten (m. 65 f., 111 f.).

The middle section of a da capo aria can best be considered in general as revealing another facet of the single affection of the composition, since the Baroque affection was a general concept that comprised innumerable particular variants; but in the aria under discussion, the middle section really presents a distinct change of conception. The singer becomes troubled instead of joyful, and he appeals to Jesus to draw near and to urge him onward ceaselessly. Where the main section is set in B flat major and modulates to the dominant, the middle section moves rapidly to G minor and then to C minor, mirroring major with minor and the dominant with the subdominant. The symbolic problem is to project the continuance of the following but under changed conditions, and the solution of this problem turns the section into what is essentially a development of the original material. In addition to freer motivic treatment of the patterns of the main section, the last three-quarters of the ritornello appears intact at the end of the G minor passage and the whole ritornello becomes the background of the C minor passage. But the path is now difficult; it seems long and tortuous; sequences carry us restlessly through a variety of keys, and the step motif reaches its maximum extension in the bass, now—as in the inversion of mode and key relationship—moving downward instead of upward, and over a span so great that if it were not transposed upward in the middle of its journey it would cover nearly three octaves. A point of additional interest is the elimination of the first part of the ritornello in the G minor passage, so that the characteristic first line of the text is not represented; it is only with the repetition of the appeal to Jesus that the folgen motif is reinstated, as though in answer to the singer's request.

Although the rhetorical cast of 18th-century music has for some time provided an indispensable foundation for the interpretation of the particular symbols of Bach's music, it has been relatively neglected in respect of certain larger problems of significance. Yet rhetoric seems to have been responsible for transforming the individual musical composition altogether into a kind of oration, and we can often profitably interpret the da capo aria from this point of view, and perhaps ultimately the development section of the classical sonata as well. Thus the opening ritornello of "Ich folge dir gleichfalls" will take on the character of an exordium. The topic awaits verbal statement, but it is fore-shadowed, even with its insistence upon the step motif; the mood is set and the proper frame of mind evoked. Then the voice continues with the propositio by announcing the theme in the devise, and subsequently this is restated and the argument advanced. Confirmatio is followed by confutatio, as alternatives are set forth and examined in the light of the main theme. That the middle section will take on the character of a development under the influence of such an outlook is almost a necessary consequence. The final section can be construed as a peroration rather than a literal return to the beginning, a conception that is supported by the abridged but intensified character of the music, and its free departures from the previous forms of the material. The key word folgen in particular receives a new and striking melismatic shape, set to a typical figuration derived from the step motif, and again canonically.

In the middle of the 18th century Krause urges his contemporaries not to assign music too quickly to a place lower than poetry and rhetoric, for "a well composed and well performed musical work," he writes, "even a purely instrumental one, makes the same kind of impression as many an oration and many a poem, if not even stronger ones. . . . Often the most important effect of a speech as far as most of the audience is concerned consists not in an actual improvement of their knowledge but solely in forming their feelings and impelling them to a particular course of action, without their memory clearly retaining much of the substance that has been adduced" (Von der musikalischen Poesie, p. 107 f.). Such an outlook reasonably entitles us to regard the arias of Bach's Passions as protreptic or homiletic orations, with a hermeneutic intention that is directed towards the scriptural portions of the music, very much like the actual sermon that separated the two large divisions of the Passion. Indeed this rhetorical purpose becomes explicit in the very theme of "Ich folge dir gleichfalls," for the melody of the aria is clearly based on the preceding recitative; it faithfully follows and expands the musical phrase of the Evangelist that is heard immediately before, to the words "Simon Petrus aber folgete Jesu nach." Rhetorical motivation may also lie behind the change of attitude in the middle section of the aria; the feelings and reflections of the singer always act as an ethical model for the congregation, and serve the purpose of instruction and edification for the church-goer, but the appeal to Jesus superimposes on this general function the more obviously rhetorical task of direct persuasion.

"Ich folge dir gleichfalls" has been judged by Kretzschmar and others to be a poor piece, an opinion we may find supported mostly by the middle section, for the shift in attitude, based as it is on a continuity of the tempo and musical material devised for the expression of joy, is necessarily something less than convincing or well defined; in the chromatic symbolization of schieben, to cite a particular feature, logic easily seems to outweigh musical feasibility and expressive value. A still more fundamental consideration is that the aria grows out of an apparently unimportant turn of events in the Passion narrative, or in any case, an unemotional one. Indeed Smend has justified the existence of the piece purely on the basis of the formal symmetry of the whole Passion, which he explains by the theory that Bach was transferring the prevalent arch form of his Cöthen instrumental works to the new area of large-scale vocal works. On the other hand, the symmetry of the St. John Passion also provides an explanation for the key of B flat major, but that does not prevent the key from being appropriate musically at the same time, and we know in general that formal considerations need not override or vitiate expressive ones. It is obviously pertinent also that an aria occurs at just this point in Handel's Brockes Passion; formal symmetry could hardly have been the only basis of Bach's decision. As a matter of fact, he retained and adjusted details in "Ich folge dir gleichfalls" even when he substantially revised the St. John Passion, which argues that he thought well of the aria, although the changes he introduced in the text indicate that he was dissatisfied with the middle section.

But when Bach made these changes in the text towards the end of his life—possibly because the Passion arias were closely connected with his personal religious experience—there can be no doubt that much more was lost than gained. The substitution of "mein Heiland mit Freuden" for "mit freudigen Schritten" transformed the step motif on Schritten from a kind of simile to a metaphor which illustrated Freuden by purely musical steps that had no explicit counterpart. The symbolic value of the motif might then easily go unrecognized, with a serious loss to its changing significance throughout the aria. In the middle section the new text no longer appeals to Jesus to urge the singer onward, but instead describes the path as one of ceaseless longing until Jesus shall have taught patient suffering: "Mein sehnlicher Lauf hört eher nicht auf, bis dass du mich lehrest geduldig zu leiden." The musical setting of befördre is thus inappropriately applied to sehnlicher, while geduldig is never adequately treated, and sounds impatient rather than patient, especially when it takes the place of schieben. Equally unfortunate is the initial occurrence of leiden, which coincides with ziehen and schieben, and is thus projected in a hurried rising passage where we would reasonably expect a slow falling one. The unceasing idea remains common to both texts, but the replacement of urgency with longing and patient suffering could only have been accomplished with partial success. The adaptation is useful for our present purpose, however, for it furnishes a modest demonstration of the specificity of Bach's music and thus of the importance of determining its meaning accurately.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 14/11/2018

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