Chapter 17 BWV 130 Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir
Lord God, we all praise you
Chorus/fantasia–recit (alto)–aria (bass)–recit (alto/tenor)–aria (tenor)–chorale.
The sixteenth cantata of the cycle for St Michael’s Day.
A deceptively simple and direct paean of praise to the Lord, specifically for his creation of the angel community; what could be more straightforward? As usual, Bach delivers more than his congregation might have expected. It is decidedly simplistic to say that he seems at his best with music of celebration as testified by numerous choruses from the Mass in B minor, the Magnificat and various secular and religious cantatas. Bach was superb whatever the substance or occasion of his given texts. Nevertheless, there does seem something rather special about his large-scale choruses employing, in addition to the usual strings and woodwind, trumpets (or horns) and timpani.
The Archangel or Saint Michael was a significant figure both in biblical history and at Leipzig where this day coincided with one of the annual trade fairs. Sometimes portrayed as the dragon slayer, he was the leader of God′s army of angels, a figure who inspired fortitude and ensured the soul′s safe passage to the Throne of God. He thus symbolizes the victory of righteousness triumphing over evil and it is not surprising that the one partial, and three complete cantatas Bach composed for this day all boast commanding opening choruses (Cs 19, 149 and 50, all in vol 3). Further contextual comment may be found in vol 3, chapter 25, devoted to C 19.
This is the third of three consecutive cantatas (Cs 99, 8 and 130) setting the chorale fantasias in major keys, the only time that this occurs in the cycle. Thereafter, until the end of the church year (C 116) Bach more or less alternates major and minor, the exception being Cs 115 and 139 performed in consecutive weeks. Nevertheless it is worth noting that this, the sixteenth of the cycle, is only the fifth to have the fantasia set in the major.
But it is the most lavishly scored chorus so far and certainly the most extrovertly festive in character. The addition of instruments not usually called for in the weekly services is a sure sign that the event for which it is written is both celebratory and significant this, Christmas Day and New Year being the most obvious examples. Its three trumpets and drums, augmented by oboes, bassoons and the usual strings and continuo are reminiscent of the opening chorus of the Christmas Oratorio or the Cum Sancto Spiritu from the Bm Mass. This is an uplifting of voice and soul to praise the Lord and His angels.
Those with a particularly finicky or overly pedantic ear might just quibble with the opening bars. These are formed from one of the oldest and most enduring of harmonic clichés, chords I, IV, V and I.
Bach used it on many occasions (e.g. the Bb major two-part invention) but here he seems to be pushing the progression directly into our faces!
But from a different perspective we could say that Bach is simply using these conventional opening chords as a ‘call to attention’. In this way he is pre-empting the ‘classical’ composers of the latter half of the century. Beethoven used the same chords (sustaining mini cadenza passages) in the same sequence to begin his fifth (Emperor) piano concerto. Bach is using them to similar purpose. It is not, therefore, until the fifth bar that the movement proper gets under way, underpinned by the rolling continuo semi-quavers, an idea which will soon be taken up by the three lower voices as they enter to support the soprano chorale.
From bar five the imposing ritornello has all the characteristics of Bach’s ebullient writing and familiar vigorous momentum, a powerful harmonic progression, energetic rhythmic impetus, a strong bass line, majestic trumpets and flashes of colour as the strings and winds imitate each other. The virtuoso first trumpet soon captures the listener′s attention and maintains the extrovert tone.
The chorale is one well known throughout the English-speaking world as the ‘Old Hundreth’ and exists in several versions using time signatures of both three and four beats within the bars. In fact Bach uses both in this work. The closing chorale is in triple (three beats a bar) time, the opening chorus in common (four beats). Bach may have deemed the latter more suitable for the expression of extrovert grandeur within the larger movement.
There is very little opportunity for key change in this fantasia. We find just the slightest touch of minor mode (A minor) preceding the third line of text, but this is a shading of colour only. It does not inhibit the blaze of C major brilliance, which suffuses the entire movement. The text is a simple statement of praise for God and his horde of angels who, Bach would have learnt from an early age, had the triple function of acting as messengers between this and the next world, fighting against the forces of irreligion and praising God in song and dance.
One notes that Bach generally uses trumpets in ones and threes, almost always scored with the timpani. The only exception in this cycle is to be found in C 175 (chapter 47) where the bass aria is supported by two trumpets without timpani. When Bach employs a single trumpet it is for colouring and/or melodic purposes. Presumably he liked the sound of complete triadic notes resounding on three trumpets, something that two cannot achieve.
The chorale is one of the shortest in this cycle, four simple phrases with no repetitions. Consequently, there are only four chorale interpolations in the fantasia. With the exception of the second phrase, the lower voices enter in imitation and they soar around beneath the sopranos, presumably suggesting the massing of hovering angels.
The alto recitative gives us a temporary respite between two celebratory movements. It describes the angels through their joint functions of honouring God and acting as a protecting phalanx against the influence of Satan.
Luther’s angels were not passive creatures. There was little of the later Romantic ′sitting on a cloud and playing the harp′ for him! His angels were an army in readiness to take the fight for goodness and redemption directly to Satan himself.
The recitative begins and ends in the major, as indeed, do all the movements with the single exception of the fourth. This is an excellent example of a ‘major key’ cantata and, as such, it stands in complete contrast to that which follows C 114, a relentless minor-mode work, as we shall see.
We have noted the extent to which Bach can be enigmatic and equivocal. Furthermore, the textural images he emphasises are not always the obvious ones, nor those which we might ourselves have chosen from our readings of particular stanzas. The bass aria is a case in point.
It is a verse about the devil. From his position of hatred he plots new evils by which he seeks to divide and pollute us. Bach’s depictions of Satan are seldom flattering. The tenor arias from Cs 76 (vol 1, chapter 3) and 107 (chapter 8) both bring to mind an unpleasant, squirming, somewhat diminished opera buffo figure, poisonous and dangerous certainly, but lacking a sense of stature or nobility.
But this aria is a completely different matter. The ritornello, blazing out a fanfare of trumpets and drums, seems to indicate that a second chorus may be under way. It is not often that Bach uses such forces to accompany an aria and it is a tribute to his bass soloist that he must have held his own against such competition. Was Bach simply tempted to make additional use of his brass and drums already amassed for the fantasia? In both style and orchestration this aria emulates the opening chorus as an assertive acclamation—-but of whom? Surely not Satan?
No, on the contrary, this is a statement of triumph over the devil and his wicked plots. It is an assertion of the ultimate victory which simultaneously trumpets God’s glory. It is not really about Satan; it heralds God’s conquest of his stratagems and the musical reference to Satan is only indirect.
In the middle section the opening words of the stanza return—- Der alte Drache brennt vor Neid—-the old serpent is aflame with envy. Here the twisting of the vocal line purports to give a transient image of the old fiend himself (bars 67-8).
Bach also employs a convoluted melisma to stress the word trennet—-the act of separating and isolating us (from bar 70).
But what remains in our ears following this triumphant aria is not the evil of Satan but the glorious victory, ringing out via the exulting and virtuosic first trumpet and reinforced by the insistent rumblings of the timpani.
The second recitative reflects Bach’s current interest in writing duets, although hitherto this has mainly been confined to arias. In this duo for soprano and tenor the text returns to the image of those angels who guard us and, furthermore, it provides biblical examples, the foremost being Daniel protected in the den of lions. The only slight mystery is why Bach chooses to begin in a minor key.
As stated above, no other movement in the cantata begins or ends in the minor, and even this recitative, perhaps symbolically, emerges into a mutedly triumphant G, the key of the last aria. The mystery deepens when we notice that the first word is Wohl—fortunate or inner well-being. So why the touch of minor-mode pathos at this point?
Any attempt to fathom Bach’s thinking here must be conjectural. Perhaps he felt the need for a touch of tonal variety in a work that is steadfastly major. He may have sought a brief moment of inner contentment. It could be that he intended the journey from minor to major within this short movement to be symbolic of the passage from a place of darkness and danger to one of safety and rest. Whatever his reasons, this little gem provides the only real touch of poignancy in what is otherwise a lively and cheerful cantata, it and the closing chorale affording essential moments of reflection. All other movements generate atmospheres of exultant celebration.
The final aria for tenor is obviously a dance. There are numerous examples in the cantatas where Bach falls back upon these secular structures of which the Partitas and the French, English and the four Orchestral Suites provide us with excellent models. Bach has no problems incorporating ′worldly′ structures within ecclesiastical works wherever he feels it appropriate. And here we have one of the most courtly and formal of these forms, a gavotte, initially from France and popular in the court of Louis XIV.
The text calls upon Christ, the Prince of Cherubim to allow his multitude of angels to serve the true believers and to bear them up to heaven in Elijah’s chariot. The celestial image is encompassed within the courtly nature of the gavotte and the movement to heaven is portrayed as a dance-like process. Here there is no plodding under heavy burdens of sin (see C 113, chapter 12).
This is a dance of simple ecstasy as one leaves earthly afflictions behind and moves upwards to encompass the promised heavenly rewards. Bach often portrays this process of the joyous ascent to heaven through one of the dance forms using, most frequently, the gavotte or minuet. Progressing through the cycle we discover numerous examples of both, used in the context of souls or prayers rising towards the seat of the Lord.
Bach’s expert flautist is again called upon and for the first time in this cantata. He provides a continuous counterpoint to the tenor and continuo lines, dancing exultingly above them. Schweitzer’s three-note motive of ‘joy’ is constantly reiterated. Thus does the flute enhance the tenor line to combine courtly formality with heavenly bliss.
Bach’s setting gives two words particular emphasis. Schar—-a horde or multitude—-is represented by long, rolling melismas (beginning in bars 30 and 41). Similarly, from bar 75, with tragen—-conveying the notion of being born aloft (to heaven). The three melismas are given clearly determined melodic shapes, either floating in the higher echelons or stretching ever upwards, although not without some effort. Thus do they impart unmistakable musical representations of the textual images. The very shape of the melodic line is wrought so as to encompass the meaning of the words.
The cantata ends, as expected, with the chorale sung in four-part harmony and accompanied by the full band. It is performed twice, the first verse praising God and his angels whilst the second is a prayer seeking their protection. The festive, celebratory air is continued as the trumpets and timpani emphasise the cadence, the first trumpet predominantly pointing the way up towards His throne. The basses underpin the harmony with confident marching quavers.
Thus does C 130 end as it began, with a doubt-free assertion of confidence in God, his army of angels and, by implication, their leader the Archangel Michael.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017.