The music of Herkules auf dem scheidewege (Hercules at the Crossroads), as this cantata is better known, is very familar since the opening chorus and all of the arias were later parodied in the Christmas Oratorio BWV 248. Bach originally intended to use the final chorus there as well but changed his mind. The work was composed as a homage cantata for the birthday of Friederich Christian, son of the elector of Saxony in 1733 and was performed in Gottfried Zimmermann's coffee garden in Leipzig, scene of many of Bach's Collegium Musicum concerts. The libretto, by Picander, is a wonderfully sycophantic piece of kitch! The eleven year old prince is compared to Hercules as he makes his decision choosing between the rugged-but-right-way and the smooth-but-wrong-path.
The lovely opening chorus (later to appear as BWV 248/36) sets the scene with the council of the gods praising the future of the prince. Hercules (alto) is introduced in the first recitative puzzling over the dilemma facing him. Lust (soprano!), in a gorgeously seductive aria entreaties him to "follow the allurement of lustful thoughts". It's astonishing, perhaps, that this seductive music became the wonderful "sleep" aria in BWV 248/19. The next recitative sees Lust being challenged by the Virtue (a tenor, would you believe?) and then Hercules shares his thoughts on Lust's and Virtue's paths with Echo in another fine aria (later to become the "echo" aria of BWV 248/39.) Virtue then has another go, preaching the glory of virtue and the deception of lust in a recitative, an upbeat aria that later became BWV 248/41 and a further recitative. Hercules is won over in the fine and energetic aria (later BWV 248/4) and the following recitative sees them firmly wedded together. Things get a little steamier in the following duet: "I am yours, you are mine, kiss me", etc etc. This was later parodied in BWV 248/29. A pompous recitative glorifying the dedicatee fades into the excellent final chorus, itself a parody of the final chorus of BWV 184a.
This is a very fine work that is, perhaps unfortunately, overshadowed by the work for which most of it's music was borrowed. Knowing the Christmas Oratorio well makes it difficult to appreciate the completely different use to which that music was put.
Copyright © 1999, Simon Crouch.