Chapter 10 BWV 16 Herr Gott, dich loben wir.
We praise you, Lord God.
Chorus--recit (bass)--aria/chorus (bass)--recit (alto)--aria (tenor)--chorale.
For New Year’s Day.
There are probably as many extant cantatas for this special day as for any others in the church calendar, so comparisons are of particular interest. The first one presented at Leipzig (C 190 for Jan 1st 1723) is, as we would expect, a work intended to both uplift and impress. Even in its partially transmitted form, the richly scored opening chorus shows itself to be both ebullient and energetic. The second (also incomplete) movement contains one of Bach’s earlier experiments with combining recitative and chorale phrases and the final statement of the chorale is emblazoned with independent trumpet parts, thematically linking it to the magnificent tripartite fantasia.
The chorale/fantasia C 41 from the second cycle (chapter 32) seems to have been constructed upon a similar plan, suggesting that Bach looked back over the earlier score to refresh his memory. He certainly used the same chorale, but a longer version with a few bars added in triple rhythm. Furthermore, he retained the trumpets and timpani in the final statement of the chorale, employing a motive that also thematically links it with the fantasia.
The later C 171 (vol 3, chapter 39) possibly composed for 1728 or 1729 (Dürr p 155) begins with an impressive choral motet and ends by borrowing the chorale arrangement from C 41, proving conclusively that Bach did, on occasions, look back over earlier compositions he had produced for the same events. It is noteworthy though, that in re-using this version of the chorale, the connections with the first movement which had provided a clearly recognisable sense of structural unity in C 41 were abandoned in the later cantata.
Two other cantatas must also be mentioned because of their association with this day. C 143 (vol1, chapter 65) is a slight and possibly very early work of highly doubtful authenticity (Dürr P 161) and C 248/4 is Part 1V of the Christmas Oratorio (see Part 2 of this volume).
If then, we look at C 16 within the context of Cs 190, 41 and 171, what do we discover?
Firstly, although it does begin with an opening chorus, it is both short and modestly scored. It contains just the one aria and the closing chorale is of the type most often found, a simple four-part harmonisation with doubling by the available instruments. There is a second and somewhat unusual combined chorus and aria. But in general this cantata does not challenge the premise that Bach’s contributions to the Christmas/New Year celebrations of 1725/6 were of a more muted, personal and less overtly triumphant nature than those of the previous two years.
The tonal planning of this cantata is worthy of particular attention and appears to demonstrate the composer’s developing interest in progressive tonality. The opening of the first chorus is ambiguous; is it Am or C major?
The ending does not help us because it closes on a G major chord. This is, however, the dominant chord of C which takes us naturally to the first chord of the C major recitative. The tonal process is then repeated since the recitative also ends on a G chord, thus leading to the key of the second chorus, again C major.
It does seem that Bach may have been using harmonic processes in order to link the first three movements together as a cognate, integrated group, conjoined by these subtle tonal connections. Might he have viewed these as three sections of one large movement? He had done something comparable with the opening chorus of C 103 from the second cycle where two choral sections are divided, again by a bass recitative. He had also sought an arch of over-riding unity with the opening three movements of C 79, although there they are more connected through theme and motive than by tonal means.
Bach does, at times, set himself a challenge when he chooses, or is presented with, an archaic melody that has modal rather than tonal implications. Such difficulties are to be noted in the closing chorale of C 176 (vol 2 chapter 50) and the fantasia for C 7 (vol 2 chapter 4). In the case of C 16 it is the use of Luther’s Te Deum, the first two phrases of the traditional melody which are also intoned in long notes in the opening chorus of C 190. In C 16, however, the treatment of the theme is quite different, aligning it more to the concept of the chorale fantasias from the second cycle.
The text of the opening chorus consists of only four lines, each of which is allotted to the sopranos with a phrase of the Te Deum melody.
When the last of these is complete so is the movement, compelled to end on a chord of either C or G because of the final g thematic note. As described above, Bach chooses the latter option for the reasons given.
The lines progressively praise God, thank Him, note his Eternal Presence and offer Him reverence from the world at wide. The imitative lower voices employ ideas from the ritornello, suffused with Schweitzer’s three-note ‘joy’ motive, entering (bars 5-6) with an additional four-note figure which is loosely derived from the beginning of the given melody.
As mentioned above, the scoring is modest, strings and two oboes, the horn doubling the sopranos.
The bass recitative speaks of raising our song and presenting our sacrifice in gratitude for what God has done for us. Bach, somewhat oddly, declines the temptation to paint the images of a 'ringing temple' and the 'sounds of psaltery and harp' in what is a stolid but authoratative melodic line. The use of the bass implies the voice of the Pastor leading his flock to musical acclamation. The fact that ‘we’ must do this communally suggests that a chorus is to follow.
Thus the recitative leads neatly, textually as well as tonally, into the third movement, an unusual and imaginative combination of aria and chorus.
‘Let us rejoice and be happy’ declares the Pastor twice, and each time he is answered by the choir. The musical figuration is extrovert and somewhat suggestive of joyous laughter (see also, in this context, the opening chorus of C 110, chapter 6).
Four bars of strings and oboes follow, clearly alluding to the sounds resounding in the temple and referred to in the previous recitative. Thence (from bar 9) there is a slightly longer development of the same theme, joy in the recognition of God’s goodness renewed every day, instruments and voices joining in perfect communal harmony, yet each with their individual parts. A fugato, both here and in the final choral block, is also symbolic of individuals coming together as a group for the purpose of worship.
The Pastor has not yet finished with his flock, however, and the middle section is a bass solo, lightly accompanied by echoes of the instrumental rejoicings. He instructs his flock that since God encircles and blesses us, we may believe that our good fortune will continue unceasingly. The homily given, the chorus (representing the congregation) returns with an adapted version of the opening section.
Thus Bach completes the third of his conjoined opening movements (two choruses and recitative) with a configuration that takes conventional formal structures and adapts them to the particular textural demands. This is both a chorus and an aria. It is also a ritornello and a ternary form movement. Furthermore it is a sermon and a communal expression of rejoicing for the great goodness God has bestowed on us.
The alto recitative has few notably outstanding features, listing, as it does, those things which we require from the Almighty e.g. church, school, peace, water for our lands and so on. In a sense it is reminiscent of some of Salomo Franck’s ‘accountancy’ lists! Bach colours the mention of Satan’s evil with one chromatic chord (a Neapolitan sixth in bar 5) and there is a passing rhetorical gesture on the words Ah, God (bar 11). But otherwise he is content to tell the story competently without the distractions of colourful images or additional instruments.
The one free-standing aria is for tenor with an obbligato provided by either oboe do caccia (1726) or viola, possibly played by Bach himself in a later performance (Boyd p 217). Noteworthy has been the contrast which Bach increasingly stresses between the communal/group expression of values such as faith, hope and loyalty and their personal/individual articulation. Bach was always aware of the musical possibilities of such contrast but seems to have been even more sensitive to them at this stage of his career. We have observed examples already in this cantata within a single movement and the opening aria of C 151 serves as a further such model. Now we reach a point where the sole aria explores those tranquil, private emotions arising from the simple acceptance of Christ into our beings.
The text states that Jesus alone will nourish our hearts and souls, most particularly at the time of death when the links with life are broken. One is tempted to suppose (although in reality one should not) that this simple, unquestioning faith may have reflected Bach’s own credo if only because such movements are so tenderly moving. But it is usually a mistake to assume anything about artists’ beliefs and values from their works, no matter how enticing that might be. Nevertheless the reader may find the author tentatively reaching conclusions of this kind in the essays on Cs 201 and 204 (vol 1, chapters 103 and 104).
But the significance of this aria within the cantata cannot be ignored. For one thing it is almost as long as the rest of the movements put together. It is situated just before the closing chorale, a place of particular importance in many of these works. It employs a traditional da capo structure, one that Bach, at this stage, tends to return to when he wants to communicate a message of conventional solidarity. And finally, the marked quaver movement of the continuo line evokes a sense of certainty and assurance.
The long ritornello is heard three times, at the beginning and end and also preceding the middle section. Bach does not reprise it before the da capo repeat, perhaps because he judges the movement to be long enough without it. Its theme has two main characteristics, a drooping figure of two quavers (bar 9) and groups of flowing semi-quavers.
The drooping figure does not convey the sense of unremitting sadness that its more sustained use evokes, for example, in the slow movement of the second Brandenburg Concerto (also, incidentally, underpinned by an inexorable quaver bass line). Here it is a calmer expression of the tranquil and serene acceptance of True Faith. The character of the melody conveys this feeling throughout.
Nevertheless, there is a subtle change of mood at the beginning of the middle section (from bar 71).This is the ultimate statement of personal conviction, the commitment to hold Christ firmly within our hearts now and throughout the process of death itself. Minor modes colour this feeling, suggesting both the natural sorrows associated with death as well as that personal and private comfort of eternal faith.
The final chorale is simple and direct----we praise Your goodness, Father, and what You have taught us through Your Son----bestow upon us a year of peace and continue to protect and nurture us. The tune is sturdy and the harmonisation strong and uncomplicated. Rather oddly, it is the same verse and melody used to close C 28 heard only two days previously. Yet the decision to use the same chorale in the space of a couple of days cannot simply have been due to pressure of work because Bach has altered the harmonisation in a number of subtle ways. It would seem that he sees the repeated chorale as conjoining these two very different works.
Nevertheless, the fact that even the same verse of this hymn tune is retained conveys a strong message for the Leipzig congregations about which there must surely be no possible ambiguity.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012.