Chapter 15 BWV 99 Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan
Whatever God does is done well.
Chorus/fantasia--recit (bass)--aria (tenor)--recit (alto)--duet (sop/alto)--chorale.
The fourteenth cantata of the cycle for the fifteenth Sunday after Trinity.
This cantata takes us into the second quarter of the cycle and it would be difficult to
imagine a more joyful and ebullient beginning than the opening chorus. God does
nothing without good purpose, it proclaims, and we would do well to remember this----He
upholds us even during the most difficult periods of our lives and we are wise to accept
His rule and wisdom. One is tempted to think that Bach himself held to a philosophy of
this kind, and he expresses it here in the most cheerful and urbane manner.
Although this is the fourteenth cantata of the cycle, it is only the third with an opening
fantasia set in a major key. Of the twenty-five cantatas from C 20 (the beginning of the
cycle as determined by the date when Bach had begun his duties in Leipzig in May
1723) to C 116 (the twenty-fifth Sunday after Trinity and the end of the ecclesiastical
year) only ten are in major keys. A quick glance at the chronological listing shows that
most of these appear in this second quarter of the cycle.
So Bach begins and ends the first half of the cycle with major key fantasias (Cs 20 and
116) but clearly he is seen to lean more towards the major modes only when the canon
is well established. Of the last twelve works comprising the church year, eight are major
(Cs 99, 8, 130, 96, 180, 115, 139, and 116) and only four are minor (Cs 114, 5, 38 and
26). This is a complete reversal of his tonal policy since of the first thirteen fantasias of
the cycle (Cs 20-78) only two (Cs 20 and 94) are major. Clearly this imbues the first two
quarters with very different characters.
Nevertheless it is illuminating to note the degree of expressive variety Bach achieves by
using major modes, ranging from the quiet, personal introspection of C 8 to the spirited
effervescence of Cs 94 and 99. Of these last two cantatas, the former would seem, in
many ways, to have been a practice run for the latter.
In both works, Bach's excellent flautist is the instrumental star. Here he makes his
appearance as soloist in three movements (first, third and fifth) exhibiting a high degree
of virtuosity. The opening chorus is a flute concerto in all but name and inevitably leads
one to speculate whether it may have been adapted from a lost work, possibly one of the
missing violin concerti. There is, of course, apart from some internal structural detail, no
external evidence to support this contention. The fact that Bach seems to have borrowed
nothing from earlier works for the block of forty fantasia cantatas of this cycle would
indicate that it was newly composed. Additionally, some critics have suggested links
tying the opening string melody to the first chorale phrase but it must be said that these
are rather tenuous.
Not that any of this really matters. Whatever its ancestry, this fantasia is a splendidly
joyous piece, lifting and engaging the human spirit and thus fulfilling its function
Conjecture about the possible concerto legacy is fuelled particularly by the structure of
the ritornello. It begins with a robust, almost conventional orchestral statement played by
the strings and continuo (even temporarily setting aside the single oboe d’amore),
ending with a perfect cadence in the tonic key of G, in the sixteenth bar. Here the solo
flute enters and the string and oboe accompaniment is markedly light, another typically
concerto-esque quality. It is only on the entry of the sopranos four bars later that the
expected chorale/fantasia model is confirmed.
It may seem a strange idea but this movement would still work perfectly well if the vocal
parts were entirely removed. The chordal progressions would continue to be supplied by
the continuo organ or harpsichord and there would be no distortion of structure or
inhibition of drive. The vocal parts seem almost like an after-thought and, indeed, the
very simplicity of the writing for the voices could well indicate that they were a later
addition to an existing piece.
God is the eternal, ever-present guide whom the radiant instrumental writing depicts; the
choir may well represent the individual who stolidly observes and dutifully follows,
always subservient and never dominating. A sense of isolation may also be implied by
the way in which the chorale (soprano) phrases always enter alone, ahead of the other
voices. Schweitzer's three-note figure of joy, present from the very first bar, becomes
ever more persistent as the movement progresses. We are encouraged to rejoice,
without inhibition, in the fact that God has reason and purpose for all his actions, part of
which is his role as a true guide in difficult times.
There are two recitatives, both of which end with a short arioso section set in
counterpoint above a moving continuo line. Otherwise neither of them demonstrates the
interest Bach exhibited in ‘hybrid' structures at this point in the cycle. The first, for bass,
asserts the authority of God's word as a symbol of divine guidance. The text reminds us
of His power, which can turn disaster into good fortune, a form of alchemy in which one
state of mind, or circumstance, may be transmuted into another. Bach represents this
process through a form of musical alchemy in which he converts bare recitative chords
into arioso-like two-part writing for the last phrase. The long melisma on the word
'wenden'----turning into----underlines these thought processes. The music transforms
itself into something quite different as, indeed, do our adversities when touched by the
word of God.
The later alto recitative presents us with the metaphor of God's shining light. This will
surely reveal His great design, alluded to in the first movement. Once again the simple
recitative structure transforms itself into two-part counterpoint in the final bars. Here the
melisma is on the word 'erscheinet'----the very manifestation of the Divine Being Himself
with suggestions of both shining upon and revelation. Tonally the point is further
enhanced by the harmonic progression in the last bars, from minor modes to that of a
radiant D major. The similar structure of the two recitatives marks them as having been
conceived together as unifying parts of the same work.
One notes that despite the effervescence of the opening chorus and the generally
positive theme of this cantata, only the outer movements begin and end in major modes;
between them the mood is more muted. The tenor aria is a fine example of Bach's
ability to conjure feelings of searing intensity. True, some people have found it
'wearisomely long' (Schweitzer, vol 2, p 243) but typically lasting between five and six
minutes in performance it comes nowhere near the eight or nine minutes of some of
Bach’s most extensive arias. As always, it depends to a large degree upon the
performers; but there is always plenty which the keen listener can observe, admire and
be moved by without becoming 'wearied'.
The text explores the imagery of the 'bitter cup of sorrow'. God is pictured as a
combination of wise physician and miracle worker. He will never dispense medicine that
is actually toxic to his flock, although we must accept that, at the time, we might not find
it pleasant. These images are powerful and whilst at other times Bach may take a more
optimistic view of such a text, here he concentrates principally upon the image of 'bitter
There are almost certainly over-riding structural reasons for this. The aria is more or less
at the centre of the work and its pensive sadness balances the major-key positivity of the
outer movements. Additionally, we know that Bach has a tendency, sometimes almost
an obsession, to portray two sides of a given subject. In this case the joy and affirmation
of God's ultimate purpose depicted in the fantasia is counterpointed against the bile of
earthly wretchedness in the aria.
The ritornello/da capo form is crystal clear as is the opening flute theme stated over the
continuo bass. This melody depicts an image from the first line of text, the ‘shaking of
the soul’ and as early as bar three Bach introduces the falling chromatic scale, a symbol
of the bitterness of Christ's blood spilt upon the cross. Thereafter (bars 5-8) the flute
arabesque is continually striving upwards as if towards the guiding light of the Lord. The
phrases are balanced, symmetrical four-bar structures suggesting a sense of the
steadfastness of God, our physician. The continuo bass takes little part in the
counterpoint other than to provide the foundation for the harmonic structure; it is the
delicious interplay between flute and voice that captivates the ear.
Two long and convoluted melismas demand attention. The first (bars 88-92) is on
'einschenken'----the pouring out of the deadly draft, something we might not necessarily
have expected from the Lord. The second (bars 107-115) is even more tortuous, on
'verborgan'----hidden----a reference to the disguised benefits of God's beneficence. Here
the vocal line is composed of long notes and falling phrases set against the ever-upward
striving of the flute. This disjunctive movement presumably represents the opposing
aspects of the Lord's medication; it will eventually do you good, but initially it tastes bad;
a common human experience which the younger members of the congregation are
particularly likely to recognize!
Immediately preceding the closing chorale is another of those duets which much
occupied Bach's attention at this time. Again, the continuo line performs its dutiful
harmonic function without intruding into the contrapuntal dialogue of the upper voices. It
still, however, represents the weary trudging of the cross’s bearer. There is just the one
moment where the pattern is broken, the ascending semi-quaver scale underlining the
central assertion ----what He chooses to do, is rightly done----‘Ist es dennoch
Otherwise the texture of the movement formulates itself into two complimentary pairs,
the one flute with oboe, the other soprano and alto. The text contrasts opposing types of
individuals, those who bear their burdens without complaint, struggling with and
surmounting the weaknesses of the flesh, and those who do not. These latter sinners
can only look forward to a miserable future. This idea of dualism clearly caught Bach's
attention as the entire structure is one of imitation between the upper lines above the
bass’s plodding steps representing those carrying their eternal burdens.
The movement begins with a one-bar flute theme immediately imitated by the oboe. This
short idea is worthy of attention because it encapsulates two of the main textual images.
The first is five repeated quavers, accentuating the idea of plodding heavily laden and
also echoing reiterated notes that have been clearly derived from the chorale’s middle
phrases. Just before the oboe entry (first beat of bar 2) we hear the second motive, a
two-note falling figure suggestive of the sighing of the weary and deluded sinner.
Two long melismas are shared by the singers and they only slightly ameliorate the
cheerless trudging dominating the movement. They stress (bars 18-21) the words
'streiten'----enduring (one's frailty) and secondly 'ergötzet’----the ultimate fulfillment which
the deluded ones may not be permitted to enjoy (between bars 36 and 47). But the
predominating mood of this movement is one of a wretched, enduring trek. A pervasive
image for contemporary listeners is the dreadful one of columns of displaced refugees.
The chorale must have been a favourite of Bach's. He used it several times with minimal
alterations to the harmony. It was also called upon as a wedding chorale and it appears
in C 144 from the first cycle, there stated in the middle of the work. He also recycled the
entire first movement of C 99, with the same words for C 100, thought to have been
initially prepared for a wedding in the 1730s (Dürr p 792). On that occasion Bach
provided a particularly flamboyant arrangement for the closing movement eschewing the
simple four-part setting and adding ostentatious parts for woodwind and two horns
But most interestingly, Bach also used it as the basis for the chorale fantasia which
opens the ebullient C 98 from 1726 (vol3, chapter 31). It is there transformed into triple
time and the lower voices remain relatively uncomplicated, the main interest again
residing in the orchestra. This offers us a rare opportunity of comparing different
fantasias wrought from the same chorale. Another such pairing is C 128 (chapter 46)
and C 112 (chapter 54)
The chorale closing C 99 could not be less pretentious. The text restates God's sense of
purpose and guiding spirit----some of our pathways may be strewn with thorns but the
essential message is one of faith and trust in a Lord who deals justly and fairly. Once
the uninhibited joy of the recognition of this truth as expressed in the opening chorus has
abated and any lingering doubts have been resolved, a quiet sense of trusting, calm
This chorale encapsulates these emotions precisely.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010.