Chapter 30 BWV 63 Christen, ätzet diesen Tag
Christians, carve this day.
Chorus--recit (alto)--duet (sop/bass)--recit (tenor)--duet (alto/tenor)--recit (bass)--chorus.
The twenty-ninth cantata of the cycle for Christmas Day.
Bach’s first Christmas at Leipzig and what does he present? Not a work newly and especially composed for the occasion but yet another cantata which he had composed at Weimar almost a decade earlier. Does it tell us anything about his attitude towards church music?
Well, certainly it indicates that he did not expect that new works had to be produced for even the most important ecclesiastical events; if the existing music was good it clearly had potential for additional performances. Secondly, it may suggest that Bach did not see his own compositional development as a form of progression evolving to higher levels of perfection i.e.more recent works were not necessarily superior to earlier ones! Thirdly, it may indicate that Bach, a man whose confidence in his own judgement and abilities was of the highest order, may have had just a few qualms about his first Leipzig Christmas and retreated from the risks of presenting a new and untried work. There have been many professional performers who hang on to their ‘tried and trusted’ material, wary of introducing something new with all its potential for disappointment. C 63 was an established work which Bach may have preferred to put his faith in rather than risking untried material.
And finally it may well have been that C 63, an inspired piece that commenced and concluded with impressive choruses, was exactly the right work for the occasion and nothing new was likely to eclipse it. Bach’s constant revisions of his own compositions indicate that he was the best possible critic of his own music. Moreover, what other of his works to date boasted two stunning choruses, two duets and a pair of richly accompanied recitatives?
But whatever his reasons may have been, there is no doubting the scale of this cantata requiring, as it did, the biggest assembly of forces he had so far demanded in his new post; four trumpets, drums, three oboes, bassoon, strings, continuo and choir. Even assuming only two singers and two string players per part, almost thirty musicians would have been required, nearly three times the number called upon for many of the chamber cantatas.
The text of the opening chorus expresses two main ideas----Christians, carve this day in metal and marble----and----hasten to the crib and show your gratitude and duty, for there you may see the light of dawn revealed as the radiance of grace. The proportions of the movement tell us much about the emphasis Bach put upon these ideas. If we include the da capo repeat, the first statement takes up two hundred and forty bars and the second, the remainder of the stanza, just over forty! Clearly the accent is upon the fundamental call to mark the great day rather than a description of its significant details which, in any case, will be spelt out in subsequent movements.
The choral writing is effectively uncluttered, relying much upon a pattern of call and response; in the first instance the soprano leads the rest of the choir, latterly the basses (from bar 73). The middle section (from bar 120) is arranged in three easily discernable choral blocks, each dealing with a line of text----hasten to the manger and show your duty and gratitude----the morning light reveals itself----it is (to you) the radiance of Grace. Of these, the second is marked by close imitative choral entries and semi-quavers suggestive of the emergent dawn light showering itself across the world.
The massive ritornello theme, pitting oboes, trumpets and strings against each other before merging into a united heralding of the ‘engraved message’, is heard four times; at the beginning and end and abutting the middle section.
From the opening chord of the alto recitative the voicing of the low string chords conjures up a feeling of peaceful contentment, fully embracing the haunting beauty of the vocal line----Oh blessed, wonderful day [it is] on which the Saviour reveals Himself, just as has been promised.
The one shadow on the proceedings comes from the threat of Satan’s chains from which Christ seeks to deliver us; it leads to a moment of sinewy motion in both the continuo and vocal lines.
This is short lived but it provokes an instant of inevitable Lutheran doubt and self-loathing----what are we evil ones who still foresake You?
But despite our shortcomings, we are reminded that He condescended to take our shape upon Himself and become a Child in a humble stall. This reassurance leads to the final bars of arioso, again underpinned by an active but now entirely positive bass line, expressing the wonderment at this inexplicable happening. We are comforted even though we do not understand.
A number of Bach’s pre-Leipzig compositions demonstrate the extraordinary depth of expression he could extract from a single oboe line. The aria for soprano with oboe obbligato from C 21, the third of his cantatas to be presented in his new post, serves as an excellent example. Indeed, that and the melody from C 63/3 share certain characteristics, the most obvious of which are the unexpectedly incongruous cadences. The similarities between these two themes do, however, mask the fact that they serve quite different, although not wholly contradictory, expressive purposes. The aria from C 21 is about sadness, weeping and sighing, a troubled heart, alienated from God. The duet from C 63 is a simple, honest declaration of trust in the Lord, inextricably united with the deeply personal pleasure and satisfaction we derive from that unique relationship. Perhaps one of the many things that Bach teaches us is that the most profound of human emotions are not so very different from each other after all. In Bach’s world they are undoubtedly united through a bond of inexplicable and unfathomable beauty.
After the initial arresting ritornello theme the movement becomes a quartet for soprano, bass, oboe and continuo. The first section (to bar 27) luxuriates in that faith we have in the rightness of God’s ordinance as demonstrated by all that has come to pass. The middle section commences with a strong rising figure in all parts, a suggestion of our trust in Him and our building upon that which He has bestowed on us. But the oboe’s evocation of the heavenly strains is never far away and eventually the reprise of the complete first section reaffirms His aptness and our faith.
The tenor recitative touches upon historical perspectives, confirming the emergence of salvation from torment as narrated in the chronicles of Israel. The imagery is also Biblical, Christ’s victory compared with that of David, bow and sword ready with which to restore our freedom. The surges in the bass line at the mention of his weaponry can hardly be missed.
Bach only occasionally presents two duets in the course of a cantata. In this work they are finely balanced, one for soprano and bass and the other for alto and tenor. Bach also may have considered that the entreaty for all Christians to come together and rejoice would be most appropriate sounded communally rather than through an individual. The cantata already contained two extensive choruses so the obvious solution was to present the appeal by means of a second duet.
Many examples will be found in the cantata repertoire where Bach pictures the movement to Heaven, or the celebratory observance of it, in a dance form, most frequently the gavotte or minuet. In this case it is the latter, a three-in-the-bar dance of civilised grace and dignity. Indeed, for once the invitation to join the dance of celebration is explicitly referred to in the text----Come, Christians, join the dance and rejoice at God’s deeds----He has bestowed upon us more than we can ever thank Him for.
The aria is a guileless expression of ebullient joy, the prancing first violins doing much to encourage the physicality of the rhythms.
Melismas continue the emphasis on the dance ----Reihen----and, in the middle section danken----the gratitude we owe to the Lord. Trills abound in string and instrumental lines a suggestion, perhaps, of the joy to be found in His deeds, of which the provision of salvation may be considered the principal one.
Few recitatives in the church cantatas are as fully orchestrated as this one for bass, strings, three oboes and continuo; they are more commonly to be found in the secular works. The reason here is surely the need for emphasis; the wind and strings have no melodic individuality but unite to give the accompanying chords additional prominence. The pastor’s voice sounds, not in an advisory capacity, but rather commandingly----we should redouble the flames of devotion and, in all humility, rise upwards to Heaven to thank God for what He has done.
In the first half of the movement the accompanying chords are declamatory, giving weight and urgency to key words; the vocal line itself replicates the motion of 'joyous rising' with the suddenly emerging melisma (bar 5). The second half reiterates the instruction to thank God. Here the chords become more consistent but less aggressive, helpfully coaxing us along the pathway where our duty lies. Four final forte chords conclude the matter.
But not quite as we might expect, for the closing contemplative chorale is missing. In its place is a chorus of such scale and energy that we might well have expected to find it as an opening movement. The full instrumental resources are recalled in yet another conventional da capo construction (there are three of them in this cantata) masking its extraordinary ingenuity and originality. Like the opening chorus this is a movement conceived on the largest of scales, a truly breathtaking example of the imaginative vigour of which Bach, more than most of his contemporaries, was capable.
The ear is immediately captivated by the opening theme spread across the orchestral palette, an imperious trumpet call followed by a tripping rhythm on oboes, thence strings and rounded off by an ebulliently sweeping figure on first violins and oboes. All this has taken place in a mere four bars but nevertheless we have been presented with three of the main structural components. In turn they may even represent the three main thoughts expressed in the opening couplet, the majesty of God, His gazing down upon us and the fervour this engenders within us.
The choir enters to honour God with an adapted version of the trumpet theme but it very quickly dissolves into a contrasting texture. From bar 14 everything falls away, even the continuo line, as altos, thence sopranos and tenors (jointly) and finally basses introduce a flowing idea which encapsulates the ‘humility’ of mortal souls. Bach adds in the instruments to double the voices one by one, beginning with the lowest and working upwards to embrace the trumpet. The effect is quite extraordinary, strongly suggesting the expanding confidence of the lowly as God’s gaze empowers whereby even He Himself is rewarded with an upsurge of gratitude. This section returns us to the original celebratory flourishes of the complete ritornello theme.
The remainder of the text is dealt with in the contrasting middle section and it has two principal ideas----may our thanks please You as we ever walk within Your blessing----and ----never let it happen that Satan tortures us. The first thought is expressed in two largely homophonic blocks, not unreminiscent of the reflective chorale we might have expected.
However, the mention of Satan’s possible interest in our affairs provokes a passage of extraordinary intensity. The tempo slows, the harmony becomes tragic and chromatic and the whole feeling is that of deepest melancholy at the very thought of Satan’s embrace.
But this is just a moment of fleeting, if momentarily perturbing, concern not a matter that should be greatly reflected upon on this day. Bach makes this clear as the original wind and string figurations return, even before the reprise, to support the choir’s confident discarding of the very notion. Upon this note the middle section concludes and the cantata tends with a full reprise of the initial depiction of God’s empowering gaze.
Bach was, as always, correct in his judgement. Would he have been able to produce a more expressive, innovative or inspiring work than this for his first Leipzig Christmas? He had it on the books so why not make use of it again?
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.