The Overlooked Richness of the Recitatives of Bach's Cantata 78
In "Expressivity in the Accompanied Recitatives of Bach's Cantatas," George J. Buelow writes that although many of the distinguishing properties of Bach's music have been studied over the years, few scholars have examined Bach's recitatives or have given them proper credit. He notes that these recitatives generally either are ignored by musical scholarship or are briefly discussed with "general errors" or "confusion." 1 For example, he cites Jack Westrup as stating that Bach's recitatives are "basically an adaptation of the idioms of Italian opera" (19), and he mentions others who term them "improvisatory" or unrelated to the text. Buelow asserts that "informed observations" about Bach's recitatives would lead to different answers; he agrees with Martin Ruhnke who writes that Bach's recitative style is "original," its melody not "subservient to the texts as practiced by Italian composers" or as "promulgated by German theorists" but "independent and richer" and also "more excited and dramatic" (19). Indeed, a closer look at Bach's recitatives discloses fascinating devices of text and narrative illustration.
In his article, Buelow explores these neglected recitatives of Bach's cantatas and discusses aspects of their originality, including their relationships between music and text. He notes how Bach chose for some of his recitatives to be accompanied and for others to remain "simple." Buelow writes that it seems likely that Bach often employed the accompaniment style because it required the singer to remain slightly more measured. He quotes Scheibe who writes in his Critischer Musikus that accompanied recitative "is more suited to rousing and increasing devotion" in church, moving the listener more and "penetrat[ing] deeper into the heart" (21). This form does seem more fitting to devotion, "guided more by the beat of the measure" (21) just as churchgoers wish to be guided by God and not left to stray about like free improvisatory gestures! Some of these instrumentally guided recitatives even contain arioso segments, melodious passages that may seem out of place in a standard recitative. Two such recitatives that Buelow does not mention are the intriguing movements 3 and 5 of Cantata No. 78. In the first of these two examples, the arioso section lasts for the last four and a half bars of the piece and helps show the shift from the sinner's inner monologue to an outward presentation of his grief to Christ. In the second, the arioso spans the last dozen "andante" bars of the piece and illustrates a similar shift from the text's discussion of Christ's strengthening of mankind through his suffering to an individual's placement of his own suffering heart before Christ.
To most Baroque theorists, recitatives were simply a form of sung speech, an "oration in tones" (25). Buelow points out that while Bach is a skilled rhetorician, he is also unusually sensitive to words in his...