"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

January 15, 2012

Bach Cantatas (1): New Year Cantatas

A new year, a new project: listening to the complete cantatas by Bach.

Bach and his cantatas need no introduction, but here are a few useful urls:
And about Bach himself:
As I am living in Japan, where everything is seasonally oriented, I will listen to Bach's cantatas in a seasonal way, that is, by following the Lutheran Church Year.

Today, the New Year cantatas (January 1).

On 1 January, the New Year was celebrated as well as the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus.

Prescribed readings for this day:
Galatians 3:23–29, By faith we inherit  
Luke 2:21, Circumcision and naming of Jesus

The existing cantatas written for the service on January 1 are:
  1. Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 190, 1 January 1724  (BCW, BDECN, EVH, JNLSGWP, Text)

    Coro: Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied
    Chorale e recitativo (alto, tenor, bass): Herr Gott, dich loben wir
    Aria (alto, strings): Lobe, Zion, deinen Gott
    Recitativo (bass): Es wünsche sich die Welt
    Aria (tenor, bass, oboe d'amore): Jesus soll mein alles sein
    Recitativo (tenor, strings): Nun, Jesus gebe
    Chorale: Laß uns das Jahr vollbringen

    Did not survive intact, but lost music has been reconstructed. Festive cantata, starting with grand trumpets and drums. The text stresses praise and thanks for the gifts of the past and prayer for further blessings. Upbeat and vigorous, although the arias are more relaxed than the magnificent chorus.

  2. Jesu, nun sei gepreiset, BWV 41, 1 January 1725 (BCW, BDECN, JNLSGWP, Text)

    (Coro): "Jesu, nun sei gepreiset" for choir, trombe, oboes, tamburi, strings, and continuo.
    Aria: "Laß uns, o höchster Gott" for soprano, oboes, and continuo.
    Recitativo: "Ach! deine Hand, dein Segen muss allein" for altus and continuo.
    Aria: "Woferne du den edlen Frieden" for tenor, violoncello piccolo da spalla, and continuo.
    Recitativo & Coro: "Doch weil der Feind bei Tag und Nacht" for bass, choir, and continuo.
    Chorale: "Dein ist allein die Ehre" for choir, trombe, oboes, tamburi, strings, and continuo.


    Large-scale work, full of splendor and majesty. The opening chorus, starting off with a ritornello fanfare, is a joyful and mighty hymn of praise, one of Bach's best choruses, clocking in at more than 8 minutes. This is followed (without recitative) by a beautiful pastoral soprano aria, a prayer for blessings in the new year. The tenor aria, accompanied by a beseeching violoncello piccolo, is a very personal plea for divine blessings and the expressive heart of the cantata. The bass recitative, with one dramatic insertion by the chorus, is a request to crush evil. The final chorus is again a celebratory choral, quoting the opening fanfare and so bringing the cantata full circle.

  3. Herr Gott, dich loben wir, BWV 16, 1 January 1726 (BCW, BDECN, JNLSG, LVHWPText)

    Coro: Herr Gott, dich loben wir
    Recitativo (bass): So stimmen wir bei dieser frohen Zeit
    Aria (bass, tutti): Laßt uns jauchzen, laßt uns freuen
    Recitativo (alto): Ach treuer Hort
    Aria (tenor): Geliebter Jesu, du allein
    Chorale: All solch dein Güt wir preisen


    Another cantata that centers on thanksgiving (the first 3 movements) and a prayer for blessings (the last 3 movements). The opening chorus is a festive "archaic" choral melody, but shorter than in the previous New Year cantatas and more modestly scored. After the basso recitativo asks everyone to "sing a new song," the chorus immediately reacts with "Laßt uns jauchzen, laßt uns freuen." The basso also joins in the chorus, making for a quite experimental form, almost a basso aria accompanied by the chorus. Like in BWV 41, the tenor aria is again a tranquil and tenderly moving plea for divine blessings in the new year. It is the longest movement (about half of the whole cantata!) and is accompanied by an oboe do caccia. The cantata closes with a simple and direct chorus.

  4. Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm, BWV 171, 1 January ?1729  (BCW, CN, JNLSGWP)

    Coro: Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm
    Aria (tenor): Herr, so weit die Wolken gehn
    Recitativo (alto): Du süßer Jesus-Name du
    Aria (soprano): Jesus soll mein erstes Wort
    Recitativo (bass): Und da du, Herr, gesagt
    Chorale: Laß uns das Jahr vollbringen


    The lively, fugal opening chorus with an independent trumpet is both succinct and ebullient. This is followed by a tenor aria, with two obbligato violins, singing about Gods renown spreading as far as the clouds - and fast moving, Northern-European clouds they are! The alto recitative forms a reflection on the name of Jesus, close to the prescribed readings for this day. Then comes a joyous, pastoral soprano aria with virtuoso violin solo, about the sweetness of the Saviour's name. The final chorus was lifted from BWV 41.

  5. Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben, 1 January 1735 (Christmas Oratorio Part IV)  (BCW, CN, LSGLVHWP, Text)

    Chorus: Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben
    Recitative (Evangelist, tenor): Und da acht Tage um waren
    Recitative (bass), Arioso (sopr./bass): Immanuel, o süßes Wort / Jesu, du mein liebstes Leben
    Aria (soprano & 'Echo' soprano): Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen
    Recitative (bass), Arioso (soprano): Wohlan! dein Name soll allein / Jesu, meine Freud' und Wonne
    Aria (tenor): Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben
    Chorale: Jesus richte mein Beginnen


    This is Part Four of the Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248. It skips the usual thanksgiving and prayers for blessings, and instead focuses on the name of the Savior. The opening chorus is fine, but rather modest, with rustic horns but no trumpets. The tenor recitative introduces the theme of Jesus' circumcision, the following bass recitative about the transient nature of death is interestingly interspersed with a choral sung by the sopranos. This is followed by the beautiful echo aria for soprano "Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen." The echo stands for the voice of God, and would be sung by someone standing in an other part of the church, symbolizing the division between Heaven and Earth. The tenor pledges to lead a life to the glory of God, after which follows a fine choral finale.
In Japan, people try not to use negative words or expressions on New Year's Day, as they believe that might have a bad impact on the following year. They believe in the power of words and say as much as possible good things. Bach did the same in his New Year cantatas, which are invariably of a celebratory nature.

P.S. The Wikipedia article about the circumcision, linked to above, reveals that this used to be a feast celebrated in the Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran and other churches. It figured in Western art from the Renaissance on (as in the above painting by Durer, where, as was common in the synagogue, the high priest holds the baby, as he or a mohel performs the operation). The representation always focuses on the penis of Jesus to show that he had become human and sometimes looks quite cruel! The circumcision was also versified, as here by Milton. And, of course, at various times in history, relics of Jesus' foreskin, the holy prepuce, surfaced in precious reliquaries to entertain the gullible. Just as in the case of the Buddha's teeth in East Asia (which surfaced in incredibly huge quantities as far as Japan and which when put together would constitute a truly monstrous denture), there seems to have been an amount of foreskin around to challenge the (baser) imagination... Most of these relics now have disappeared, perhaps not by chance...