Chapter 3 BWV 137 Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren
Praise the Lord, Mighty King of Honour.
Problematic aspects surrounding the chamber work C 168, are outlined in the previous chapter. C 137 is a much more commanding work, one likely to have been composed for one of the more significant days of the church year. It is the first chorale/fantasia cantata written following the completion of the second cycle and appears to have been initially performed in August 1725. It is here listed as the second work of the third cycle but wherever it resides it remains a substantial composition. It is the first of only two chorale/fantasia cantatas in this group, the other being C 129 (chapter 16).
There are several problems that must be taken into account when cataloguing these cycles (see chapter 1). The first two each extended over a period of one year, commencing after Bach’s appointment from late May 1723. Although Bach re-arranged many earlier works for the first cycle, he nevertheless composed new cantatas at the rate approaching one a week over this twenty-four month period. The third cycle, on the other hand, stretches over approximately two years and contains less than forty new works, considerably fewer than before. Whether Bach was less interested in continuing to compose at such a rate or whether he simply wanted to introduce more works by other composers, we do not know. Wolff (pp 281/2) notes that in 1726 Bach performed no fewer than eighteen cantatas written by his cousin, Johann Ludwig Bach.
So Bach now appears to be producing new cantatas at considerably less than half the previous rate, giving some credence to the theory that he was losing interest in the genre.
We need to note that there was no cantata composed for the 12th Sunday of Trinity in the second cycle (1724). C 137, initially intended for this day in 1725 (note that C 35 was composed for the same occasion in 1726) might thus be considered as a late addition to the second cycle. That may well have been Bach′s intention because C 137 is structurally akin to it: a chorale cantata commencing with a fantasia built upon the closing hymn melody. In other words, it follows precisely the layout of the first forty cantatas of the second cycle and may well have been intended to reside there.
This strengthens the other well-rehearsed argument that, after C 1, Bach was interrupted in his ‘grand plan’ and always intended to ‘fill in the gaps’ at a later stage. If so, C 137 may be seen as the first of the works he required in order to complete a cycle that may have originally been conceived as consisting only of chorale/fantasia cantatas.
But, as always, Bach is never that easily pigeonholed. A glance at the movement structure confirms the lack of recitatives. This was a characteristic of his earliest cantatas and was most recently apparent in C 4, resurrected for the Easter celebrations of the second cycle and the first cantata to break the fantasia pattern. But whilst recitatives, often highly experimental, were a definite feature of the cycle two chorale cantatas, they appear less often in the later ones. Cs 112, 177, 100 and 129 all dispense with them (vol 2, chapters 54, 56 and 57; vol 3 chapter 16).
The text of C 137 takes the five stanzas of the original hymn, basing one movement upon each. There is no paraphrasing nor any additional lines or biblical references. An earlier model of this pattern is C 107, the seventh work of the second cycle (vol 2, chapter 8), although it does contain one recitative, immediately following the fantasia. Thereafter four arias follow each other closing, as usual, with the four-part chorale. Bach later returned to the practice of setting the hymn verses without additional lines in C 117, although there he uses a more balanced combination of arias and recitatives.
We cannot fail to recognise Bach’s obsessive use of the chorale melody in every movement of C 137, a process that may be recalled from many earlier works (e.g. C 93, vol 2 chapter 7 and C 4, ibid chapter 42). It is also worth comparing this cantata with Cs 69a and 35, also written for this day. Cs 69a and 137 both begin with magnificent choruses. C 35 is one of the solo alto cantatas which boasts no choruses but, most unusually, two powerful and ebullient sinfonias. Perhaps Bach felt the need to bolster its energy so that it would appear no less imposing than its illustrious chorus-led predecessors.
The first notable characteristic of the C 137 text is that the stanzas do not develop ideas to any extent. Each begins with the exhortation—-Lobe den Herren—-praise the Lord (Master, Almighty). There is no delving into different or opposing states such as doubt and certainty, fear of death, joy of salvation, faith and scepticism. Those who know the second cycle will be aware how Bach frequently plans the shape of an entire work around contrasting themes. The fact that he had far less opportunity to do that in this cantata was bound to create some structural challenges. However, the lack of specific nuance in the text would have made C 137 available as a ‘general purpose’ cantata, suitable for all sorts of ‘secular’ occasions: see also C117. It therefore comes as no surprise that the reinforced closing chorale is also to be found in the later Wedding Cantata, C 120a in the higher key of D.
Nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that with the chorale text appearing unaltered in every movement and its melody forming the basis of the musical invention throughout, this cantata has a claim to be the most perfectly unified of the entire canon (see also the other chorale cantata of this period C 129, chapter 16).
The structure of the chorale that ends C 137 is most unusual. It begins with a repeated five bar phrase followed by another of the same length and a final one of three.
Bach would have found this lack of symmetry stimulating; he was one of the great Baroque experimenters with variable phrase lengths. For the fantasia he further subdivides the penultimate phrase into two and three bar units and, as we shall see, sets them so as to differentiate them from the others.
Clearly, the text of repetitive praise of the Almighty demands pomp and grandeur and this is reflected in the instrumental forces chosen for the fantasia; three trumpets with drums, two oboes, strings and continuo—-praise the Lord with your instruments in your multitudes—-let the music sound!
And sound it does in a magnificent ritornello heard complete four times, though adapted so as to introduce some minor-mode colouring the third time around (from bar 66). Musically, the opening bars exploit a delicious rhythmic tension between 6/8 and 3/4 time i.e. the first two bars sound like two beats to the bar, the next three, an apposition exploited throughout the movement.
There may well be some additional symbolic reason for this. Was Bach distinguishing between the corporal and the spiritual? Or contrasting the power of the Almighty with the thronging of those offering up their hallelujahs to Him? Might a suggestion of the holy Trinity have been intended? It doesn’t matter because the musical effect itself is so striking, none more so than when the sopranos ultimately declaim their first chorale phrase in a magnificently sweeping three beats to the bar.
And, indeed, this powerfully articulated three-in-the-bar rhythm is significant because, unusually, every movement of this cantata is in triple time. This was almost certainly intended to be symbolic of the Holy Trinity. Furthermore, it strengthens the idea that this Bach was consciously seeking to create the most perfectly unified cantata structure in this work.
The splendid opening bars suggest a pageantry and spectacle entirely appropriate to the Powerful King whom we are mandated to praise. The 6/8—-3/4 tension resolves itself into waves of the three-note ‘figure of joy′ which in turn dissolves into streams of semi-quavers. The opening theme provides the material for the lower voice imitative entries preceding the sopranos′ first, second and final phrases.
These three sections are essentially fugal, the order of entry changed on the last occasion. The middle (divided) phrases are in solid blocks of four-part harmony entirely appropriate to the entreaty—-come in your multitudes, let psalter and harp awake! Readers will, by now, be well aware of how Bach frequently adapts his choral textures so as to reflect the meanings of individual lines of text. (They may wish to remind themselves of an earlier excellent example, the first movement of C 116 (vol 2, chapter 26) where three phrases are strongly chordal, two fugal and one declamatory).
Such is the certainty of Bach’s grasp of his material in this joyous movement that one might suspect that he returned to the challenges of the chorale/fantasia with an enthusiasm amounting to gusto. On the other hand, with the possible exception of C 129, it seems to have been some time before he again returned to this structure, another of those tantalizing contradictions we keep uncovering.
The alto aria begins with the obligatory command to praise Him since He protects us all. But it is probably the second-line image that Bach had in mind when devising the principal musical ideas. This is of the wings of the soaring eagles, the only imaginative image in the stanza. The violin obbligato circles and gyrates around the voice which simply intones a slightly ornamented, but instantly recognisable version of the chorale.
This is an uncomplicated ritornello movement which, despite the contrasting touches of minor modes that Bach manages to unearth in the middle, remains essentially all lightness and joy.
The image of wings, now extending over us for our protection, also underpins the third movement, surely one of the jewels in this particular crown—-praise the Lord who has given you health and guidance—-His wings extend above you. This magnificent duet for soprano and bass is accompanied by two oboes and continuo. The mode is, for the first time, minor but this does nothing to dampen the energy or infectiousness of the setting. The form is ritornello and the structural details are deliciously subtle.
Oboe 1, then 2, then bass.
The oboes and continuo bass all enter in imitation using a version of the first chorale phrase. Thus is the ritornello formed, an instrumental section which is then heard, with a degree of development, five times: at the beginning, end and between the four vocal blocks. This structure may be set out as follows:
rit—-vocal A—-rit—- vocal A1—-rit—- vocal B—-rit—- vocal B/A—- rit.
(rit = instrumental ritornello)
For block A the bass voice is imitated by the soprano using a less ornate version of the oboe melody, a consequence of which is that the chorale is now more clearly recognizable. Both lines are extended and the soprano melody transforms itself into a rising and wholly infectious sequence of ‘joy’ figures (from bar 17). Block A1 (from bar 31) uses much the same material as before but reverses the roles, the soprano now leading with the bass developing the ‘joy’ sequence.
Block B (from bar 53) heralds the bass, thence soprano with their version of the next chorale phrase transformed into powerful, rising chromatic lines. Perhaps it symbolizes a seeking upwards of God in heaven whilst yet remaining under the protecting wings of the oboes. Block B/A (from bar 81) combines the main elements of the first and third vocal sections.
The final chorale phrase is not used. Perhaps there is no true finality? Praise of God and His benign protection will both continue to extend forever. What is indisputable, however, is that this is extremely powerful, highly expressive music, the centre and structural keystone of the entire work.
The tenor aria dispenses with an obbligato instrument, the continuo bass performing that function while simultaneously providing harmonic support. In one sense this statement may be considered misleading because no one could miss the later entrance of the trumpet with its third melodic line. But the trumpet is not part of the opening or closing ritornelli; it does not enter until the tenor is well into his part and so cannot be considered a conventional obbligato. It emerges quite unexpectedly with an unadorned and complete version of the chorale. Is it a reminder of the last trumpet? Does it symbolize God in His heaven, showering, as the text suggest, his blessings upon those below?
Conjecture of course, but what is surely beyond argument is the fact that the image to have caught Bach’s attention is that of the cascading blessings, which the Almighty showers upon us. The continuo line portrays this picture very clearly; falling scales and other ideas constructed from the ‘joy’ motive infusing the movement with energy and imitating the physical actions described.
The movement is in ritornello form; as in the earlier arias, Bach’s reliance upon the chorale melody prevents the use of a da capo despite his efforts to suggest a middle section.
A final point of detail. The chorale is strongly major and this was reflected in the major modes of the first two movements. The duet transformed its melodic shape into minor motives, developed largely within the context of minor keys. But in the tenor aria Bach decides to have his cake and eat it!
The trumpet performs the melody unchanged in C major. But the movement is actually in the key of A minor! This does not produce the dissonances one might think would be inevitable because Bach cunningly moves the tenor and continuo harmonies into C major so as to be concordant with the chorale melody. But the third chorale phrase can be harmonized in a minor context and that is what Bach does.
This may sound complex when described on paper. But the careful listener will have no difficulty in following as the music moves effortlessly between C major and A minor. This produces a subtle effect of musical shading and it would surely have had symbolic significance. Might it have implications of the solemn voice of the Lord, heard from above, yet remaining outside the realms of mortals on earth?
Only once does the tenor imitate the trumpet (from bar 59), in the final phrase near the end of the movement; the Almighty’s blessings have eventually brought man and God together. Furthermore, God′s lofty words inspire the tenor to radiate the Divine outpourings of love through a stream of semi-quavers, including a long, final melisma on the word begegnet—-an encountering.
The closing chorale statement sounds quite magnificent, strings and oboes doubling the voices to the support of three trumpets and drums. The first trumpet soars above all to encapsulate the words—-He is your Light and Spirit and must be praised. And indeed He is! The final chord must have resonated magnificently around the rafters of the Leipzig churches.
It is a tribute to Bach’s pragmatism and universality that this cantata would resonate again a few years later but then to celebrate a wedding rather than religious observance!
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017.