Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan (The contest between Phoebus and Pan), as this wonderful cantata is also known, is one of the few secular cantatas not written in praise of an aristocratic patron or to other commission. So it's not inconceivable that here we see Bach expressing his own untrammelled aesthetic opinion. The libretto is by Picander after Ovid and concerns good art (represented by Phoebus) and bad art (represented by Pan). Subsidiary characters represent critics and Bach seems to have a lot of fun at their expense. It has been speculated that Bach was alluding directly to some of the problems that he had at Leipzig. The cantata is too early to be concerned with Bach's dispute with Johann August Ernesti (Rector of the Thomas-schule) but since it was repeated around 1749 when Bach was in another spat with the Rector at Freiberg, Johann Gottlob Biedermann over the role of music in education, this hypothesis is by no means untenable. The text can by no means be thought of as a great aesthetic reflection or even as good poetry, but it does provide the framework over which Bach writes some of his best music.
The opening chorus, with glorious swirling instrumentation, introduces us in the most attractive fashion to the scene. In fact, not much is actually said in the opening chorus but the first recitative shows us Phoebus and Pan (both basses) arguing away, Momus (soprano) acting as the voice of wisdom, and we soon get the message. Momus follows with an attractive, sparely accompanied, aria poking fun at Pan. Mercury (alto) joins in the fun in the next recitative, suggesting that each of Pan and Phoebus should choose a judge and that they should hold a context. Phoebus chooses Tmolus (tenor) and Pan Midas (also tenor). Battle commences! Phoebus starts with a gorgeous aria, Momus's recitative invites Pan to respond which he does with the excellent (but less refined) aria Zu Tanze, Zu Sprunge, the music of which was later parodied as Dein Wachstum sei feste in the Peasant Cantata, BWV 212. Momus invites the judges to have their say and, as one might expect, they each vote for the singer that chose them! Tmolus says that Pan has some pretty tunes but that Phoebus's melody was "born of grace herself". Midas, on the other hand accuses Phoebus of disorderlyness and that Pan is too harmonious for Phoebus. Also not surprising is that the musical characters of the judges' arias reflect that of their sponsors. Clearly Midas's judgement does not attract much acclaim since everyone promptly rounds on him, donkey's ears are handed out and Mercury ends the contest with a reflective aria warning those who know nothing not to judge. Most notable in this aria is the stunningly beautiful accompaniment from a pair of flutes. Momus's recitative dismisses Midas with a patronising pat on the back and calls on Phoebus to "Take up your lyre again". Proceedings draw to a close with a wonderful chorus extolling the virtues of "art and grace", "beguiling even the gods".
This is an outstanding work, probably my favourite amongst the secular cantatas and deserves to be much better known than it is. The cantata represents Bach coming close to the drama (even if the storyline is a little silly here!) that is opera.
Copyright © 1999, Simon Crouch.