Chapter 15 BWV 69a Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele
Bless the Lord, my soul.
Chorus--recit (sop)--aria (tenor)--recit (alto)--aria (bass)--chorale.
The fourteenth cantata of the cycle for the twelfth Sunday after Trinity.
This cantata is not to be confused with C 69 which was latterly derived from it. Dürr gives the known history of the two works, 69a surviving as it was presented for this Sunday in 1723 and adapted as C 69 to celebrate council elections of 1748 (pp 502-3 and 739). In fact Dürr surmises that the cantata was reused by Bach on a number of subsequent occasions.
If indeed C 69a had no predecessor and was composed especially as a part of the first Leipzig cycle, it would seem to be a rare example of Bach’s reusing a religious work for secular purposes; in most cases the process was the reverse. But the scale and festive scoring of the opening movement would suggest that it had originally been conceived for a more celebratory event than one of the Sundays following Trinity. However, there can be no doubt that the ebullient opening chorus lent itself well to such occasions, be they of an ecclesiastical or more worldly nature.
But the question remains, what prompted Bach to write or reuse such a triumphant movement for this twelfth Sunday after Trinity? It was not an isolated event; C 137 (vol 3, chapter 3) also composed for this day but two years later, similarly employs three trumpets and drums. C 35 (vol 3, chapter 23) however, although conceived in two parts and employing an unprecedented two large sinfonias, requires only oboes and strings. So what prompted Bach to set the solitary line of text of the sort to which he elsewhere devoted much less resource, so loudly and flamboyantly here?
So far in the presentation of over a dozen cantatas in Leipzig he had had little opportunity to assail the ears of his congregations with the most extrovert available forces. The Sundays following Trinity are not packed with events that require the sorts of celebrations associated, say with Christmas, New Year or St Michael’s day. Perhaps Bach simply felt that it was time he made something of a splash and wake his audiences up, both literally and figuratively.
The scale of the setting is also somewhat out of kilter with the conventional and conservative nature of this cantata's text which praises the Lord throughout, whilst bemoaning our inability to sing His praises with sufficient fervour. Perhaps Bach is making a particularly subtle point: we say that we are inadequate to the task but musically, at least, we can make a jolly good attempt at it! And what better way to begin than with declamatory trills and rising motives on the trumpets supported by fanfare-like figures on oboes followed by strings! The opening ritornello, also heard in full at the end is, despite its emergent power, very delicately orchestrated, the flashes of strings, oboes and bassoon (from bar 11) reminiscent of parts of the French Overture that begins the third orchestral suite; and in the same key.
‘Bless the Lord, my soul and do not forget what He has done for you.’ That is the entirety of the text for this massive movement. The structure is complex, but the way to navigate through it is firstly to recognise that Bach uses two distinct fugal themes, and secondly that he latterly combines them. The next step is to chart the several choral entries.
1 from bar 24: The voices enter in pairs (A, T, thence S, B) with a sweeping laudatory idea derived from the first trumpet theme.
2 from bar 46: first fugal exposition, with similar busy theme entering in the order S, A, T, B.
3 from bar 64: second fugal exposition of same theme B, T, A, S.
4 from bar 78: exposition of new theme also derived from initial trumpet melodyT, A, B, S.
5 from bar 95: the two themes are combined firstly with S and A, thence T and B.
Bach continues to play with various combinations of these subjects until the final homophonic entry that heralds the coda; an unmistakable bellowing from the soul of praise and gratitude to the Lord (from bar 131).
It should not be impossible for the non-music reading listener to chart the shape of the music by listening for these entries, seeking to recognise them from the brief descriptions given. The skill with which Bach uses the same material in the orchestra to link the choral sections together should also be noted, admired and enjoyed.
Most of the musicians receive a short breathing space during the following secco soprano recitative. The text maintains the affectation of having insufficient tongues with which to lavish His praises----idle words are of no use----given the whole of eternity, I could not thank Him sufficiently. The movement is workmanlike, the melody expressive and its main character might be described as having a moderately theatrical sense of unease perhaps, indeed, a presentiment of the mild apprehension which will be detected in the later bass aria.
In one sense the purpose of the recitative is structural; it separates the abundance of direct choral praise from the central keystone movement, the tenor aria. This is a rallying cry to the faithful----rise up and parade what God has shown you, praise His deeds and let agreeable song emanate from your lips. But if this is a call to action, it is a modest and restrained one. If the chorus suggested the communal expression of praise and honour, this aria evokes something more intimate; a twinkling recorder and sombre toned oboe da caccia support the voice over a bassoon-lead continuo. This music is joyous; but it is also personal and restrained. This is the intimate pleasure the individual may gain from extolling the Lord’s gifts and attuning one’s own soul with His.
Both arias are relatively long, matching the scale of the opening chorus. That for tenor is in 9/8 time, the archetypal ‘three within three’ rhythm. Additionally, it has the character of a gigue, though not, in this case, one of hedonistic delight; here it has a more pastoral character. The recorder leads, immediately imitated by the oboe, with a theme that the voice will also take up. The ritornello lines become increasingly skittish, moving from quavers to semi-quavers, possibly a suggestion of words being formed and tumbling out in praise of God. The word erzähle----tell the story----is given emphasis in a number of ways, by vocal trills, held notes and melismas.
A return of the unaltered ritornello completes the first section at bar 53. The emphasis on the need for one’s songs of gratitude to ring out is given musical weight by the melismas on dringen----to surge, penetrate or entreat.
There is one brief and unusual moment where the voice persists alone as the instruments fall away (bar 36). Is this the precise instant when the faithful Christian rises and finds his own voice ‘ringing out in joyous song?’
The alto recitative is more colourful than that for soprano. The poet calls upon us to recognise that we can never count nor appreciate all that He has done for us, even since our earliest days. The images of the weak voice and silent tongue evidently appealed to the anonymous poet and Bach gives them a degree of attention with a low c # emphasising the weak mouth (bar 12) and the concluding arioso-like expression of a mouth now brimming with thanks. In these final bars the bass line underpins the alto with scalic passages of a type that formed so much of the melodic writing in the tenor aria.
With the exception of the first recitative, the only movement to be set solidly in the minor mode is that for bass, supported by strings and one oboe d’amore. At first sight this seems to be an odd, even contrary decision since the text is clearly affirmative; any lingering doubts that we may properly laud the Lord seem to have been assuaged. But this is a personal prayer, a private appeal to the Redeemer to protect and support us in difficult times, and in return our mouths will sing joyfully of God’s eternal goodness. So Bach sets the text in the key of Bm to gently rocking, but slightly uncertain, dotted rhythms.
This is an important prayer offered directly to a solemn divinity. It is not to be spoken of lightly because the personal consequences, should they be disregarded, would be ruinous: a withholding of redemption! Is it any wonder that we approach Him with a degree of trepidation? A sense of apprehension and unease is perfectly captured in this unusual and somewhat unexpected aria.
This indescribable feeling of misgiving is musically created in a number of ways. The oddly disjointed rhythm is one, as are the dissonances as the oboe and violins stretch upwards, an e # clashing against the low bass f # (bar 13 and elsewhere). The clashes between low notes and the upper melodies are, in fact, a feature of the aria throughout. The mention of the cross----Kreuz----intended both in its literal sense as well as intimating the afflictions we have to bear in life, produces some convoluted vocal writing (from bars 38). This is, however, balanced almost immediately by a melisma on Freuden----joy (from bar 43 and 61). The oboe, which doubles the first violins in much of the movement, has its moments of liberation with two little bursts of semi-quavers, presumably reflecting the gladness of singing His praises.
It would be difficult to find a chorale more simply harmonised than that which ends this cantata. There is very little embellishment of parts and the harmony avoids most chromatic opulence. This would seem to be the prayer of good but unsophisticated yeomen of the soil; at least that is the impression it leaves----whatever God does is well done and whatever afflicts me on my path through life, He shall hold me and I will have Him govern me.
A simple, uncomplicated statement of unquestioning faith. What better way to communicate it than though a well-known hymn tune, beautifully, simply and honestly presented? Bach’s judgement in these matters was unrivalled.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.