As there are no cantatas during Lent, I have chosen this one, a Reformation Day, (31/10) example. This Protestant-Christian-religious-holiday, is a celebration of the onset, of The Reformation, itself.
This is a fine example indeed, a 6 movement work, with large orchestra, -the usual strings, oboes, chorus and strengthened continuo, + bassoon and double-bass, are joined by 2 x horns, with timps and a pair of ad lib flutes, which double the oboes, only in the opening, third and final movements. Their presence is vital ingredient, contributing, towards the flavour and colour, of the orchestration.
1/ (opening chorus)
‘The Lord is our sun and shield. He will give grace and glory. No good thing will He withhold, from them that walk uprightly.’
A ceremonial attitude and atmosphere is apparent, not least from the enthusiastic timpani, which beat out their arresting and persistent quavers, a living heart-beat, energising the whole and contributing much as well, to the second main musical idea.
The Honour, that is and must be, accorded to The Lord, is certainly in the forefront of Bach’s inspiration, and he sets a striking tone, horns set against cutting strings and windy wind, giving a rather unique blend of fullness and sustenance, so much more an understatement, than would be a pair of high trumpets. This allows for much subtle and really ear-catching music, as this cantata unfolds.
Listen for the ‘on-beat’ continuo chords, extending onwards, downwards initially, then upwards, right on, until 13, which further bring a ceremonial march-like taste, to the whole.
Two thematic ideas are worked out in this long, grand and splendid ritornello.
The first is the opening ‘third-sixth harmony’, horn unit, with its accompanying timpani quavers, ably supported, twice ove,r by string and wind embellishment and harmony. Then, at 13, a fugue-like idea, closely related to that timp quaver-repetition, is announced, by strings and wind. This, combined with the opening accompaniment, to the heroic- horn opening, leads on, to the restatement, of the opening, at 34 and the end of this impressive opening ritornello, and the first, of the choral entries.
The opening tempo must be just right, so that the semiquavers, are not heard as gabbled, garbled or rushed. The meter is a managed 2-in-a-bar, the Basses setting off, on the first beat, of the two beat bar and the soprano top G, arriving, on the second, with an inversion of the first three bass part.
All this sets the pace, for this 2-in-a-bar attitude, a musical feature, of this ‘choir’ of sound, right up to 82, where, at ,…er wind kein Gutes,’ Bach raises the energy levels, with the application of those semiquavers, this section, becoming generally, more fugal and active, and we realise that ‘up-right-walking’, brings good things.
This intensity calms at 117, with opening restatements, the ending, with participating chorus, bringing this spectacular movement to its triumphant but inevitable, end.
‘God is our sun and our shield. Our grateful spirits, praise His goodness, which He shows, for His little band. He will protect us even more, even though our enemies, sharpen their arrows, and the blasphemers, bark at us.’
A dance, with the emphasis, on the the first beat, of the two, a sort-of Loure, without an up-beat.
This trio sonata movement, -with oboe…or flute, is all gratefulness and goodness, all sweetness and light.
Listen for the long and sustained ‘A’, at ,…Häuflein hegt‘, or, ‘cherished heap or ‘band’, ‘group’, the implication being, that this particular group, is here to stay.
Even the arrows and the blasphemy, 33 through 38, fail to really upset the moment, -or the dancing. On it goes, ending with the normal repeat of the opening.
‘Now thank, The God, of all, with heart and mouth and hands. He who does great things for us, -wherever, we may be. From before birth and in our infancy, He has helped us, so many times, -and continues to do so.’
This chorale-tune, so well known by english protestants, is expended, with independent horn descant music, taken directly from the opening chorus, and that, complete with its attached timpani heart-beat, and the, this time, continual, ‘on-the-2nd-3rd-beat’, bass line.
The resulting episodes, created between the phrases, as a result of the imposition of this musical quote, elongates and deepens the spiritual impact on us, the listeners, of these words, with their splendid tune and equally splendid descant.
‘Thank God, we know, the right way, towards salvation, because Jesus, has shown it to us, through his word, so His name is to be praised, at all times.
Because many, from blindness, still bear a yoke of separation, please have gracious mercy, on them, that they may recognise, the right path and call upon you, as their helper.’
The unexpected and slightly agitated start, to this secco setting of these quite positive words, is redeemed by the announcement, bar 3, that Jesus has shown us this right way, towards salvation.
That early unease returns, unsurprisingly, during the remarks and observations, on the yoke of blindness and separation, among unbelievers.
The cry, of ‘ach!’, seems almost disingenuous, almost judging and proud-full and this attitude, seems to prevail, right to the bitter end.
‘God, Ahh, God, do not ever forsake your people. Let your word shine brightly, for us.
Even though our enemies, greatly rage against us, our mouths, shall still praise you.’
This superb and masterly Mozartian aria, without an opening ritornello, continues, rather, in the same vein of the previous number.
Duet in description, really, it passes through many lives, as it proceeds towards its end: an accompanied duet, it transmogrifies into an accompanied trio, 35 and at 88, a quartet, with independent parts, although, in reality, all organically related to those opening vocal parts, with firstly, a continuo bass accompiament and then joined, by the important thematic store, the combined fiddle material, bars 4 through 11.
A closing ‘episode’, 113, through to the end, reverts to type, 2-voiced, but is, in reality, an accompanied solo.
The real impact, of 88,
‘…let the word shine brightly,
is truly ecstatic, in its musical and textual impact, both aspects combining, to ‘out-shine’ and ‘out-do’, in physical terms, even themselves, creating an ‘out-world’ experience.
Listen for ,…Nimmermehr..’, the ‘wrong’ entry at 42, and at 55, an upward vocal rise, in a positive preparation, towards those raging enemies, at 64, pre-prepared, again, with a great soprano leading cannon, at 62.
And as if 88 itself was not enough, just in itself, Bach manages, to squeeze a bit of a canon, 90, between top and bottom, and then, between, bass and soprano, culminating with a bi-part vocal rant, 101 through 107.
‘Sustain us, in the truth, grant us, eternal freedom, to praise your name, through Jesus Christ, Amen.’
This chorale and its texture, -so reminiscent, and prophetic, of nineteenth century British composers, and their theoretician counterparts, Prout and Kitson, et al, see especially the first full bar, second/third beats, seems so perfect in really every way, as to negate anything I might care to say.
The step-wise melody, is possibly obscured, by some superbly musical alto and tenor part writing, that we may be so side-tracked, by these, into thinking, that parts of them, may, in-fact, be the tune?
Bach has blown that one, right away, by not forgetting his horns and timpani, and in so doing, has, as if, by magic, expended 4, into 6, and wrapped the tune, in and with, musical and a highly sustained support, and rhythm, that raises, the whole, to much much more, than it might have remained, had he not done so.
Two very small observations, from the final moments:
listen-out, for two consecutive horn moments, the sustained ‘D’, bar 13, which moves, at 14 and is immediately imitated, in the second part,
and an unobscured timpani part, in the penultimate bar, that gives our player a very small, yet vital opportunity, to re-live his heady-moments, from the first movement.