6 movement cantata, opening chorale fantasia chorus, 2 x recit, -the first of these, in combination with a chorale tune, 2 x arias, -the first for tenor and the second, a soprano/alto duet, followed by closing chorale.
A standard orchestra, two oboes, strings and continuo, with organ + chorus, is pumped up, for the occasion, with an extra oboe and a bassoon, to strengthen the bass line. The festive occasion is highlighted with the addition of 2 x horns, with timps.
The opening chorale fantasy, first movement and the closing Choral, last movement, use the same tune and words, from the classic Lutheran Christmas-hymn of the day.
‘All praise, to you, Jesus Christ, that you were born a man, from a virgin.
This is the truth.
At all of this, the angels rejoice:
Kyrie eleis. Lord, have mercy.’
Bach uses, as do other composers, -e.g Mozart, ref piano concertos and operas, groups of instruments, as choirs, in blocks, alternating and juxtaposing, between each and every one, as the fancy takes him. And the chorus itself, becomes a forth body of sound, to add to the mix.
Bach’s thematic orchestral material, is entirely independent of the chorale melody quoted, -beginning at 13 and provides material for episodes, between the chorale lines and accompanying motives, of the vocal passages.
Leaving aside any analysis, concerning motif or theme, this opening chorus, contains two characteristics: that of a sustaining choir, of horns, initially achieved with long, held notes and a sustenance choir, -energized, of oboes and strings, where intermingled and overlapping scale passages, invigorate the moment, -all of course, reflecting this incarnation text.
The whole section, 1 through 4, is, in-effect, bar-less, or a 1 bar phrase, made up of 4 written bars, in effect, one long 4/1 bar, a layering accumulation of sound, energy and expectation, each running instrument’, -oboe or violin, joining in, two crochets and a semiquaver after the previous, building sound, intensity and most importantly, that expectancy.
This is then followed by two bars, each of two mins, 2 x 2/2 bars,
and then, again, 4 bars, -or one phrase of 4 x 1 semibreve, ending with a short coda, of 4 x 8 quavers, finishing, just as the sopranos begin.
This has the desired effect, of a long, sustained, -if you like, wait, perhaps for the Messiah, followed by a very sudden and maybe unexpected, arrival of the same.
The chorale falls into its phrases, 3 lots of 2 x 2 bar phrases, followed by one long phrase, of 5 bars.
The overall impression, of this opening and so much a feature of many these cantata opening choral preludes or fantasies, is one of envelopment, the congregation, being caught-up, in a musical representation of a text and a chorale melody is then bedded into that opening.
There is, more-times-than-not, an ambiguity, between the meter, of the two, as in this case, where a relationship, between then, especially on a first hearing, is sometimes difficult to assimilate and appreciate. A closer study of Bach’s chorale preludes will facilitate this assimilation, understanding and appreciation.
The kyrie eleis, Lord have mercy, is set with long ‘g’s’ and then an extremely long ‘g’, during which, a repetition, of the opening 4 bars, of the movement.
Maybe this is, ultimately, a musical representation, of the rush of the Holy-Spirit.
‘The splendor, of the highest glory, the very image and nature of God, has, at this appointed time, chosen, for Himself, a dwelling place.’
[C] ‘The Eternal Father’s only child,’
‘The Eternal Light, born of Light,
[C] ‘is now to be found in the crib.’
‘O mortals, look at what the power of love, has done here.’
[C] ‘within our poor flesh and blood.‘
‘-and was it not cursed, condemned and lost?’
[C] ‘The Eternal God is clothed’.
‘and so is chosen for blessing.’
This recit is troped, the chorale text added to an interpolated text, recitative passages, alternate with chorale quotations, which are arioso in style and feel, as opposed to secco.
The introductory bass line, to each arioso section, 5/9/14/19 is of a similar pattern.
Notice the ornamented line, at ,itzt man in der Krippe findt’ and the thoughtful parenthesis, ‘…was it not cursed, condemned and lost?’
‘God, for whom, this earth’s orbit, is so small, that neither world or heaven can contain, would now lie, in this narrow crib.
Since this Eternal light now shines, on us, God, from now on, will not hate us, as we are now, the children, of this light.’
The tenor voice and continuo, are joined by three oboes.
The thoroughly reedy, raw and screechy rustic raucousness, is deliberate and organ-esq, in the sort of sounds it conjures. This is helped along by a very reedy bassoon in the bass line. With the over emphasis on the dot, a French ‘gothic-feel’ makes this aria a thoroughly grotesque experience indeed.
Bach wants us to not only picture the scene, of cattle stall and manger, but he also, wants us to smell it, as well.
There is a dominating dotted rhythm throughout, reflecting perhaps, a stoic determination, God’s strength, initiative and power, in making this bold move of incarnation.
The opening bars, -phrases in two’s, and repeated, 4 times, is crowned, in its last bar, by a rough, triplet.
The second and third beats, are reinforced, -alternately, bar by bar, with 2nd/3rd oboe and bassoon, further emphasizing this extremely rough and ready background.
The score is littered about, with pianos and fortes, allowing Bach to limit, a little, the force of, what is, in effective, collective bag-pipes.
Notice the held ‘d#’ at 23/4, at:
and the longer held ‘d’,
‘…this Eternal light…’
over the beastly, bombastic behavior, of the world of mass humanity.
At 47, ‘bagpipe’ crochets, eerily staccato, make is re-think these words we are hearing now for a second time,
‘…since this eternal light now shines, etc..’
and perhaps, as they are hi-lighted, by Bach, we begin to understand what is actually going on, during this, ‘musical-in-a-manger’.
‘Christian world: make yourselves ready, to receive your creator.
The mighty Son of God, comes to you, as a guest. Let your hearts be moved, by this love.
He comes to you, to lead you, before His throne and through this vale of tears.’
The utmost importance and seriousness of this text, warrants some serious, sustained energy and to provide this, Bach uses a bass voice, Vox Christe, with violins and violas, with that resulting serious and sustained effect. A halo of sound introduces this secco movement.
Look out for a hint if a fanfare at 3, ‘…receive the creator…’
At 9, an adagio marking in the score shows a change, to arioso.
And what a change.
Bach’s vale of tears is certainly arresting, a stark, cold and isolated place. Certainly, harmonically speaking, there are few points of reference.
Why might we think ours could be any different?
‘The poverty, that God takes, upon Himself, has obtained, for us, an eternal salvation, -that abundance, of heavenly treasures.
His human nature, allows you, to be like the glorious angels, to appoint you to, that angels choir.’
The previous recit/arioso, formed a prelude, to this movement, the heart of the cantata.
Here we have three ideas:
-poverty and abundance,
-the angelic choir,
ingredients that Bach, -as he read through this text, must have relished with his spirit, as much as he did, with his quill.
Whilst the two sections of this aria are concerned, broadly speaking, with different colors and devices, -the first, with the suspension, used in all and every way, prepared, unprepared, up, down, pain and pleasure, etc, ,etc, -the second, with the chromatic, step-wise-rise, with and increasing agility of vocal rise and coloratura, something similar is to be seen in the fugue of fantasia and fugue in c minor for organ, BWV 537, it is clear, that Bach is attempting to show us, that poverty and abundance, can never be reconciled, -ref the pains of the opening counterpoints, and that only God’s ingenious use, of humanity, within the divine nature, of The Christ, -ref the pleasures of those opening counterpoints, can.
The resulting polyphony, does, in-fact represent a reconciliation, but one that is only achievable, through, and in, Christ, that resulting polyphony giving us all, some idea, of what that angelic choir might sound like.
All this takes place over a troubled and turbulent background, dominated by a tight and persistent, dotted rhythm.
This is extremely beautiful, yet tortured music and certainly Bach at his very best.
‘All this, He has done, for us, to show, His great love.
Let all Christendom rejoice, at this and eternally thank Him.
Lord have mercy.’
Listen out l, for the independent horn parts, as they return to the musical mix and the final phrase, three-bar, of the german text.
The tonic-dominant timp parts, which sound, -when they harmonically fit, unwittingly, bring new and vital energy, to those words, with which they, by musical chance, coincide.