Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

– The Circumcision of Christ – New Year’s Day – 1st January 2024 – J.S.Bach cantata BWV 171 – ‘Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm bis an der Welt Ende.’t

Jan 15, 2024

In this New Year’s Day cantata, from 1729, a  festive orchestra,
-with trumpets and drums, brings some considerable sense of awesomeness and power,
to the name of God.


‘According to you name, O God,
so is your praise,
-and to the ends of the earth.’

This fugal music,
-itself probably from an earlier and lost creation,
is certainly used, yet again, in the b minor mass, as a part of the Credo.

As the voices enter, progressively, differing intervals of ‘leap’,
-in subject and answer, can clearly be heard,
as the theme of the fugue,
-and the text, work’s its way in and through, into the tight fabric of this opening chorus.

Listen out for the same, at the first trumpet entry, bar 23.
-and also the different phrase lengths that lead up to that event.

At 63,
-and preceded by four bars of trumpet interest,
over a tonic pedal, the music slips into a subdominant feel.

Yet the day is saved by a lone soprano C#, which bends us back into a relieved and needed tonic,
where familiar fugal textures,
-with hardly a hint of subject, brings this arresting and ‘end-tie-ing’ movement, to a curt conclusion.


as far as the clouds extend,
so does the glory of your name.
Everything that still moves its lips,
and everything that still breathes,
shall exalt you,
in your might.’

This trio sonata,
-with an added tenor voice,
certainly starts with an extension, as the expansive upward scales
and shifting arpeggios of these two violins,
arouse immediate interest, as a musical ‘glory of your name’.

The introduction,
-long and beautiful, is notable for its over-lapping entries and uneven phrasing,
something that Bach
-and Haydn, among other’s, seemed to slip into, almost, as if by accident.

As the tenor joins in,
-with un related, new material, all four parts participate in the texture,
-and on equal terms.
Only the bass continuo has to be patient, rewards coming at 44, 56 and 64.

Moving lips, bar 34, bring nearly complete arpeggios to the voice,
and the contrapuntal density increases,
with extended vocal difficulties,
-changing tonal grounds and implications,
as those moving lips themselves, exult Him,
-and in Him.

This remarkable passage, 34, to 59, is brought to a close,
with a ‘recapitulation’ of the first tenor entry
and the extended opening ritornello to end.


‘You, the sweet name of Jesus,
in you is my repose.
You are my comfort,
here on this earth.
How then can I be fearful of bearing a cross?
You are my strong fortress and banner,
and there do I run when I am pursued and persecuted.
You are my life, light, honour and faith,
my help in danger,
and my gift, for this New Year.’

The sweetness of ‘the name of Jesus’,
is given suitable reverence and acknowledgement by Bach,
with his most graceful ornament, bar 1,
-and similar, bar 3, at ‘comfort’.
-and again, for somewhat different reason, at 5, and ‘cross-bearing’.

‘Fortress and banner’, seems musically ambiguous,
although it still appears the place to run to, in times of fear and persecution.

The mood lightens at 9,’… light and life…’,
but not so much at ‘honour’, it seems, bar 11.

There is a sense of ‘muddling-through’, 11 through 12, to the gift of New-Year.

is it tempting perhaps, to conclude that some of all this reflects the New-Year feelings, of the Kapellmeister himself…?


-this shall be my first word in this New Year.
Forever shall His name laugh on my lips,
and in my final hour, ‘Jesus’ shall be my last.’

No matter now…
all momentary doubts,
-New-year, or other, are dispelled along with the appearance, of this gigue.

This opening violin ritornello is difficult, exposed and reaching to the heights of the ‘E’ string.
And why?
Because this is a ‘pick-me-up-aria’, designed to dispel all of those new-year blues.

Has it much to do with faith?…
although surely these soaring arpeggios are those first New-Year-utterances?

However, in comparison to these, this soprano part seems laid-back, legato and expansive.

But wait-
It all becomes a little more seriousness, starting at bar 22,
where the singer seems to be finding the stoic text more and more challenging,
and meaningful,
-and in a spiritual sense.

The almost inappropriately placed vocal entry, bar 22 does sound impertinent and mis placed,
until we realise that each vocal entry in this aria has followed a similar off-beat impertinence,
-in every case, following a dotted crotchet rest-
and that Bach is elongating, in a rather simplistic way, the musical ‘length’ to make his point about ‘Fort und fort’…und fort, etc.

In this section, beginning at 22, Bach has not choice but to follow his precedent in this complex phrase structure,
although, as regards this phrase structure, in the return, 40, he does not hesitate for a moment, to diminish and truncate as he pleases.

Bar 46 is a good example.


‘And since, Lord, you say:
‘If you will only ask in My Name,
then all will be,
‘Yes and Amen’,
and it shall be given you’,
then we ask you,
Saviour of the world,
do not reject us by putting us away.
Protect us this year,
from fire, pests and war.
Let the bright light of your word,
burn, for us, pure and clear,
and let our government,
and the nations,
have knowledge of your saving grace.
Give to all,
-and at all times,
joy and health.
We do ask this Lord, and in your name.
Say ‘yes’ to it.
and then say ‘Amen.’

After the previous aria, this musical moment brings a musical and masterful shock,
to what would have been, so far a normal New-Year-Day event.

The shock comes in many and different ways,
-operatic, evolutionary, instrumentally and stylistically really,
each one proceeding to the next, quickly, breathtakingly in fact,
and before we seem to have has any time at all, to settle down into any sort of familiar listening territory, at all,
we are transported straight on, into something else.

The text seems straight forward; A simple bass voiced and operatic ‘bring-The-Lord-to-account’ secco-like opening bar,
seems to start off conventionally enough,
-and yet by the second bar,
or even the first sentence, last word, we instinctively feel the mood changing and instantly,
a dance-like arioso is in full swing, with high leaps,
-‘…in My name…’,
and high reach,
-‘…all will be Yes and Amen!’,

At 12, the continuo-only-accompaniment, turns, apparently, into ‘bag-pipe’ sounding and rasping organ reeds.

2 x oboes, imitating an organ,
-and a primitive, regal-coloured one at that, sustained and full.

Bars12, through 17, are prayerful, beseeching closeness and protection, from fire, pestilence and war,
these last two, punctuated, with un-sustained and detached crochets.

At 17, through 24, the mood lightens and changes, as the prayer turns from negative protection,
to positive request, pure and clear burning light, acknowledging government, fortune and welfare.

During the last section, 24,
-perhaps more quasi-arioso then the ‘middle’ section,
through to the end, the mood darkens and the music busies itself with a pleading and persistent quaver pulse,
rather than, by now an accustomed minim sustenance.

Darker colours underline serious petition.


‘Let us complete this year,
in the praise of Your Name,
so that we can sing it,
in the Christian community.
Let us make a humble living,
through your almighty hands.
Preserve your beloved Christians,
and our land,
and turn your blessing towards us.
Grant peace to all those around us,
and give us,
-and undamaged by our surroundings,
your saving word.
Bring all and every devil to ruin,
both here and all around us.’

The pull towards a flattened supertonic really hi-lights the difficulty,
-certainly for Bach and possibly for others,
of completing this present year, let alone another…

Yet, all is actually well and we do actually complete it,
and in the right key, bar 4.

If that was not enough of a surprise to us, what happens next, certainly is:

Trumpets and drums make a most spectacular and unexpected return,
punctuating and underlining, each line of the already sung text.

Notice the beautiful and carefully prepared suspension, in the alto and tenor voice,
bars 6, through 7, at ‘sing’ and ‘Christians’.

Bars 21, through 24 are fascinating:

A chromatic bass line, helped along by wavering and hesitant alto rise and climb,
-itself, eventually choosing A#,
means that we end up in b min,
‘…turn your blessing towards us.’, with crossed soprano and tenor parts.

The dissonance, last beat 22, is repeated, verbatim, on the first beat of 23,
but further enhanced,
-and coloured, with the bass f#, creating a fully prepared chord, C#,B,G,
with the added joy, of an accented passing note, F#, in the bass.

Pure joy!

At 25, in effect, the rhythm becomes gigue-like:

‘…and [grant] undamaged by our surroundings, your saving word’
along with,
‘Bring all and every devil etc…’,

is literally danced away, right up until bar 40,
a final ruination of devils, underpinned with stoic heavy bass writing,
and all garnished-off, with a final final brass full stop.

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