As to the aria of Hercules the change is in manner, while the character, in the human sense of the term, is quite rightly the same. Both Hercules and the faithful Christian of the oratorio are renouncing pomps and vanities for the claims of a higher life; in the one case indignantly, in the other case inspired "mit zärtlichem Triebe." A change to a legato style, the substitution of a single oboe d' amore for tutti violins, the addition of delicate ornaments indicative of a slower pace, and the noble stream of melody preserve its identity while changing its aspect. Bach's larger designs react on their changing contents as a cathedral reacts on the impressiveness of the rites performed within it, or as nature reacts on a poet's thoughts; and in the same way Bach's melody is greater than any possible mood of the moment, not because of that vague and negative pseudo-classical quality misnamed "reserve," but because of its vital individuality. In their proper directions its changes are limitless; elsewhere change is inconceivable.
No amount of "Umarbeitung" could, for instance, turn the aria of Hercules into the Virgin's cradle-song, or Wollust's aria into the exhortation of Zion to prepare for the Bridegroom. In short, Bach's melodies are characteristic, not like a mask with a set expression, but like a living face that is the more individual for the mobility of its features.
Within these limits, that is, short of dramatic expression in just so far as "the end of drama is not character but action," there is nothing good that Bach's art does not express. He has plenty of humour, if the term may be applied to art which is, so to speak, always literal, - art in which a jest is a jest and serious things are treated with familiar directness, and all, whether in jest or earnest, is primarily beautiful. In Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan Bach answers the critics who censured him for his pedantry and provincial ignorance of the grand Italian operatic style, by making effective use of that style in Pan's prize-aria ("Zum Tanze, zum Sprunge, so wack-ack-ack-ackelt das Herz"), nobly representing his own style in Phoebus's aria, and promptly caricaturing it in the second part of Pan's ("Wenn der Ton zu mühsam klingt"). Midas votes for Pan - "denn nach meinen beiden Ohren singt er unvergleichlich schön." At the word "Ohren" the violins give a pianissimo "hee-haw" which is fully as witty in its musical aptness as Mendelssohn's clown-theme in the Overture to the Midsummer Night's Dream; and in the ensuing dialogue their prophecy is verified.
As with many other great artists, Bach's playfulness occasionally showed itself inconveniently where little things shock little minds. The hilarious aria, "Ermuntre dich," in the church cantata, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, is one instance, and the quaint representation of the words "dimisit inanes" in the Magnificat is another. This great work, one of the most terse and profound things Bach ever wrote, contains, among many other subtle inspirations, one conception with which we may fitly end our survey, for it strongly suggests Bach himself and the destiny of all that work which he finished so lovingly, with no prospect of its becoming more than a family heirloom and a salutary tradition in his Leipzig choir-school. In the Magnificat he sets the words "quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae" to a touchingly appropriate soprano solo accompanied by his favourite oboe d'amore. With the next sentence "ecce enim beatam me dicent" the tone brightens to a quiet joy, but Bach takes advantage of the syntax of the Latin in a way that defies translation, and the sentence is finished by the chorus. "Omnes generationes" seem indeed to pass before us in the crowded fugue which rises in perpetual stretto, the incessant entries of its subject now mounting the whole scale, each part a step higher than the last, and now collecting in unison with a climax of closeness and volume overwhelming in its impression of time and multitude.