Although numbered amongst the church cantatas, the Funeral Ode is more properly classified as a secular cantata as it was not written for any of the regular church services. To confuse the matter, though, it was written for the commemoration service of Christiane Eberhardine, Queen of Poland and Electress of Saxony and was performed in the University Church at Leipzig. This location also led to one of Bach's famous demarcation disputes, this time with Johann Gottlieb Görner, director of music at the University. Cutting a long story short, Bach won this one and hence we have this wonderful cantata!
The Trauerode may not be one of those pieces of music that immediately strikes you as "great". There is little of the exuberance of some of Bach's other masterpieces. The mood is dignified, quietly contemplative, restrained even. But every one of the movements is a little gem! From the point of view of the body of the other cantatas, the scoring is unusual, including lute and viola da gamba. Bach uses these more diverse forces, in what is a long cantata, to give a beautifully varied musical perspective on mourning.
The opening chorus is not a great outpouring of grief but delicate, almost dancelike movement beseeching the late princess to look down and observe the sincerity of the tears shed for her. After a scene setting recitative comes the beautiful soprano aria. There's a lovely symmetry between the rising figure right at the start and the later helter-skelter tumbling down on the violins. The next recitative talks of the clangour of bells while all the instruments play staccato in imitation! The following aria introduces the viola da gamba and a wonderfully lyric alto line. By the time that you've got through the chorus that concludes the first half of the cantata you may start to feel that the style of the music is more in keeping with the great Passions than the other church cantatas. It would come to you as no surprise to learn, then, that Bach later adapted some of the music from this cantata for his (lost but frequently reconstructed) St. Mark Passion. The second half starts with a beautiful line from the flute, supported by oboe d'amore leading into the equally appealing tenor aria. The following bass recitative and arioso leads into the final chorus which concludes the work with gentle wistfulness: Until this world's final demise, you live on in posterity.
Copyright © 1995 & 1997, Simon Crouch.