With Bach, some things are clear. Not just the feel of the music, but also the path of it, the organization of it. Six Sonatas and Partitas; Thirty-Two Variations; Twenty-four keys; Cantatas for the liturgical year; preludes, fugues, and infinite patterns. His global compositional systems are so uncanny that they can seem like systems of the world. Many a mathematician has turned numerologist in the investigation of them. One might best not look too closely; there are spirals in those spirals.
However, in the Cantata No. 32, Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen, two large-scale compositional patterns are plain to hear, fruitful to bear in mind, and bring a clear dramatic narrative.
The first system outlines a dramaturgical path from aloneness to dialogue, and then to collectivity and eternity. Even without much reference to specific words, the cantata can be seen to tell an ordered story of loss, absence, and reunification:
- The first aria is for soprano alone, seeking solace, with an elusive oboe in the air:
Wo find ich Dich? (‘Where can I find you?’).
- The following recitative and Aria bring the character Jesus, with a plain, bright answer:
Was ists, daß du mich gesuchet? (‘How is it that you sought me?’)
- The remaining recitative and aria bind the singers together in relief:
Nun werschwunden alle Plagen (‘Now all pains disappear’)
- The final chorale introduces an eternity of proximity:
Daß ich dich… wiederum umfang und Liebe und.. nicht mehr Betrübe (‘So that I may ever more… embrace and love you, and… no more be troubled’).
Bach’s choice of instrument, tempo, key and singer mark an ascending line, showing braiding, brightening, and embrace. Step by step, the cantata proceeds to surround and unite the two narrators in harmony. Text-coloration is not a matter of ornament and sensation, but of the entire dramatic scheme. This is a story to be felt.
A second pattern bearing narrative weight lies in Bach’s choice and ordering of text. The text of Cantata No. 32 contains two levels, which compete with one another for primacy. The initial story (an allegory from Georg Christian Lehms) tells of a soul searching longingly for Jesus. The back story is a quotation from the passage upon which Lehms had written: the Finding in the Temple, from the book of Luke. Jesus, Joseph, and Mary are on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They come to realize that the young Jesus is missing, and they find him at the temple, where he is engaged in learned discourse with scholars. (It is astonishing to remember that Jesus was away from his parents for three days. This is perhaps more emotionally impressive than the matter of the adolescent Jesus’ precocious knowledge, which is actually not very remarkable, considering who his Father is.)
The multiplicity of textual sources makes a dizzying set of meanings. In Bach’s setting, the narrator is simultaneously 1) the soul of the singer; 2) the soul of the listener; and 3) the soul of the characters in the Biblical pilgrimage (especially Mary). Alongside this, the singer of Jesus is simultaneously 1) a spirit capable of engaging in dialogue with a soul; 2) the young Jesus of the bible; and 3) a teacher in the Biblical temple and a teacher in the current church. This mix of identities is not a confusion: it is an intermingling of soul and flesh, of text and experience, of symbol and understanding.
There are plenty of mysteries about the life and works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Thin biographical information shows only faintest shadows of the man himself, and the cantankerous, feuding, and otherwise prosaic nature of what is recorded about him seems unhelpful. Set against the majesty of his musical output,(the majority of which has been lost – and much of that lost to the wrapping of fish), the paucity of information about Bach himself is downright confusing. But whoever he was, Bach’s facility with musical systems — indeed with systems of meaning and character in music — is a wonder like no other.