Chapter 16 BWV 129 Gelobet sei der Herr
Praised be the Lord.
Bach completed his second cycle with C 176 (vol 2, chapter 50) also composed for Trinity Sunday. It is a short, enigmatic work opening with a choral fugue of great intensity. Dürr (p 379) suggests that C 129 may have been written to replace it so as to complete that cycle, as it began, with a chorale/fantasia cantata. On the other hand, this work is also listed as the fifteenth cantata of the third cycle, performed for the Trinity Sunday of 1726 and is thought to have been brought back into service for the October Reformation Festival (Wolff p 282).
It is difficult to imagine a greater structural contrast between these two works, even though they were written for the same liturgical day. C 176, beginning with the terse and almost aggressive choral fugue has two arias built upon suite forms, each preceded by a short recitative and the usual four-part chorale concluding. C 129 begins with a richly scored celebratory fantasia, proceeding to set the unaltered chorale text (without paraphrases) in three arias. It ends with an extrovert ritornello-type setting of the chorale exhibiting individual instrumental parts. (Students might care to study this work in conjunction with C 137 (chapter 3) the other chorale cantata of this period and one which also uses only the chorale stanzas, eschewing interpolations).
The earlier work, C 176, was the last text Bach set by Mariane von Ziegler. It is particularly personal and tends to concentrate upon human fears, doubts and uncertainties. C 129 is a much more overt offering of praises to the Almighty; in fact every verse, except the last, begins with the words—- Gelobet sei der Herr—the Lord be praised! The text refers to ‘my God’ who has given me ‘flesh and heart’ and the uses of the personal pronouns might suggest a more introverted setting. Bach, never one to bow to the obvious, apparently views this as a metaphor for universal acclamation and praise of God. The opening chorus is not a personal expression of faith; it is a universal proclamation!
If we notice nothing else, we should at least be aware that these comparisons demonstrate that Bach was not tied down to specific, conventional responses for particular liturgical events. Just as he could take texts exploring similar themes and set them quite differently according to the particular emphasis he chose (see C 177, vol 2, chapter 56), so does he apply the same principle to the liturgical days. In a sense this is further evidence of the man′s all-encompassing perspective, enabling him always to take a wider, unexpected and, at times, quite surprising perspective.
Comparisons may be made with Cs 194 and 165, presented for this day in Bach′s first year at Leipzig. The latter work is the least commanding of these three cantatas containing no large choral movement, although it does provide an example of experimentation with a more complex recitative accompaniment in the fourth movement. However, its sister work, C 194, is truly massive, the last two-part work that Bach was to present for some time and consisting of a dozen movements! (See vol 1, chapters 61 and 62).
It is conceivable that Bach had not composed a longer fantasia/cantata for the day of Trinity 1725 because he simply did not have the time. In April and May of that year he produced no fewer than twelve new cantatas, the last eight within one month! Is it any wonder that some were a little short and all but two dispensed with the opening fantasia? It is possible that Bach did not complete that cycle as planned, not because of some external crisis thrust upon him but simply because the pressure of deadlines precluded the immense intellectual effort required to produce one or more massive chorale/fantasias every week?
One glance at the opening page of the score of C 129 is all that is needed to recognize the festive, celebratory nature of this work. Three trumpets, timpani, flute, oboes, strings and continuo combine to make this one of his largest forces. The use of the triumphant key of D major completes the picture of adulation, blazoned out by strings and woodwind in the opening bars with relatively modest brass interjections. The joyous sweeping of semi-quavers continues unabated throughout the lengthy ritornello and, indeed, thereafter; it never really ceases throughout the entire movement.
There are eight phrases comprising this chorale; the first two, unusually, are not repeated. A couple of points of interest arise about the use of the lower voices. Firstly, in all but two phrases they continue on after the sopranos have reached their last notes, sometimes for just a couple of words—-der Herr—-the Lord (after phrase one) and sometimes to repeat the entire line (as at the end of phrase two). Clearly this is a matter of emphasis although it is not entirely apparent why Bach avoids it in the third and fourth phrases, unless it is to shun predictability. Each of the succeeding phrases ends with extensions in the lower voices.
The second point to note is the range of different ways in which the lower voices enter in support of the sopranos′ phrases. No two sets of entries are the same and whilst the ideas are almost certainly derived from the textual images, the precise relationship is not always obvious. Illustrations of the first four sets of entries are given below; readers can make their own observations of, and deductions about, the latter four.
Phrase 1 close imitation in rising semi-quavers suggesting soaring adoration.
Phrase 2 punctured motives accentuating ′my God,′ ‘my Light′, ′my Life′.
Phrase 3 rising imitative quavers suggesting the Lord′s encompassing protection.
Phrase 4 sustained inner parts above a marching bass—the very substance of ′flesh and heart′, or conjoined body and spirit.
The ultimate theme of this stirring chorus is that God, my Creator, has given me all good things and, as an inevitable consequence of this, it is my duty to praise Him.
The following bass aria is for voice and continuo only. It could have been set as a recitative and at first one wonders why Bach didn′t do this. The answer is very possibly that he detected an image in the text which required time to develop in purely musical terms such as is not always possible within the more immediate recitative format. But in recalling that this is one of those few cantatas which Bach set with no interpolations of text or readings, we note that in these works Bach displayed a marked preference for arias over recitatives.
(NB a list of the nine cantatas which Bach set in this manner may be found at the end of the essay on C 97: vol 2 chapter 59).
This verse moves the focus away from God to that of his Son, He Who gave Himself, and His precious Blood in order to redeem us. The image, then is of Christ carrying the cross, one which Bach often associates with dotted rhythms because He walks unsteadily, stumbling from time to time (note the most famous example from the St Matthew Passion). In this aria the rhythm is apparent from bar one and it pervades the entire movement.
The solo line is allotted to the bass, not here the voice of God Himself but certainly a figure of authority.
Bach′s approach to the text now becomes clear; the events of Christ′s sacrifice are alluded to but not dwelt upon. The mode is major, the mood calm, resigned and almost carefree, especially when expounding upon the Goodness of the Lord; by no means could it be considered tragic.
This is not the time to dwell upon the more sorrowful events of the past; it is, after all, a cantata of proffered praise and thanks.
The centre-piece and keystone of the work is the third movement, placed between two arias. Written for soprano and two obbligato instruments (flute and violin) it is the only movement set in the minor mode. And although most of the keys Bach takes the music through are also minor, the music is less sad than reserved and quietly self-possessed.
After the obligatory two lines praising the Lord, the text describes the Spirit that came, from the Father through His Son, refreshing, guiding and strengthening us. Bach seems to have been attracted to two fundamental images, the Spirit of the Lord and the individual who receives and is uplifted by it. The first is spiritual and ephemeral, the second physical and concrete. Bach combines and integrates them.
The laudable Divine ′Spirit′ would appear in Bach′s eyes to be organic, in constant movement and eternally surrounding us in swathes of mystical ectoplasm. It is represented by a skirl of swift notes immediately heard in the continuo line, soon to be taken up and developed by the two obbligato instruments.
Significantly, nothing like it is ever heard in the vocal line, which it constantly encompasses in wafts of fluid movement. This conveys a sense of spiritual envelopment, something that can be felt but not physically perceived. It may seem arrogant to attempt to invoke the Spirit of the Almighty but Bach is undaunted.
But an invocation of Divine mysticism requires something more down-to earth with which it can be contrasted. Bach finds this in the opening flute melody with supporting violin. This tune is foursquare, stolid and almost rustic in feeling, a complete contrast to the fluid figurations described above.
It acts as a ′motto′ theme, occurring seven times (which, in itself, is surely significant) and it doubtless represents some element of corporal, physical entity. Is it intended to portray me, the living, mundane sinner? Or is it some more enigmatic symbol of the earthly world fully encompassed by God′s all-pervading spirit?
The movement remains as inscrutable as it is charming. One can only glimpse a little into the complex mind of its creator, but whatever our insights, or lack of them, the music remains to enchant and tantalize us.
If the soprano aria leaves us with a sense of mystery, that for alto is far less puzzling. A return to the major mode combines with a jolly 6/8 time signature creating a feeling of lightness and dance. It begins with the obligatory conventional expressions of eulogy of the Lord, but then the poet spreads himself a little more widely. Even those things which float in the sky are expected to join in this universal paean of praise. Whether this refers to physical birds or spiritual angels (or both) is not clear but that is unimportant. The point is that a metaphorical image has been created by the librettist and Bach has seized upon it in order to stimulate his musical imagination.
One oboe d′amore fulfils the obbligato role and it fashions a long ritornello theme of even phrase lengths. The alto takes up the same melody and transports us to the dominant key of D major. A reprise of the complete ritornello takes us to the point at which we would expect to find a middle section emerging. But there is no variety in the verse and no imperative for a section of contrast so Bach, doing the best he can with a relatively uninspiring, and by now repetitive libretto, takes us through the relative minor key simply for musical contrast. He feels he has done enough by this time and a rapid return to G allows the ritornello to complete the movement.
It is likely that Bach planned this structure before he wrote a note of music. The text offered little in the way of contrast of images or ideas, the variety has to be found through purely musical terms. The mention of the Holy Trinity might have suggested a three-part structure but as it is, the Lord must be satisfied with the two groups of three notes to the bar that comprise the 6/8 time signature. Or must he? I am grateful to Thomas Braatz for pointing out that in bars 89-90 Bach does something quite remarkable. For these two measures oboe, voice and continuo bass proceed together in unison/octaves. Surely this a musical representation, possibly for God’s eye only, of the coming together of the three entities specifically mentioned in the text i.e. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
The treatment of the final chorale emphasizes the festive nature of the work. It is seldom that Bach departs from the practice of presenting it in four-part vocal harmony doubled by all available instruments. Opinions vary as to whether this was to allow the congregations to join in, as they could have done, at least in most cases.
Here the full orchestra begins and ends the movement as well as separating the chorale phrases. This is a chorale fantasia in miniature and students may wish to compare it with the last movement of C 100 (vol 2, chapter 57) with which it has a number of points of comparison.
The trumpets dominate with a figure taken from the opening movement and the oboes and strings have their own independent parts. The chorale is sung by the sopranos, doubled by the flute an octave above so as to ensure it will cut through the full and expanded texture. The chorale harmonization is simple and direct, a marching bass line of considerable solidity underpinning the upper parts. The text could not be more conventional—-the joyful exclamations of ′Holy, Holy′ sung by the combined forces of mankind and the angel hordes.
The members of the congregation may not have been able to join in with the hymn on this occasion. But they must surely have been stirred by it!
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.