Chapter 31 BWV 122 Das neugeborne Kindelein
The Newborn Child.
Chorus/fantasia–aria (bass)–recit (sop)–trio/chorale (sop/alto/tenor)–recit (bass)–chorale.
Perhaps the first thing to notice about this work is its compactness. It is likely to last under fifteen minutes in performance and the longest movement is not, as we might expect, the opening chorus but the second, an aria for bass and continuo. The fantasia is one of the shortest in the cycle, a fact that reflects less upon the importance of the theme than on the choice of the unusually brief chorale. It has only four phrases, each four bars long.
Consequently there will only be four choral entries in the fantasia, something that clearly limits its scale. To an extent Bach compensates by giving us a sixteen-bar opening and closing ritornello and using its material for lengthy episodes between the choral entries. The result is a concentrated movement of perfect proportion; it just happens to be more concise than usual.
The theme of the work is that of the Baby Child, brought into the world to protect and offer us salvation. Consider for a moment how this iconic image might be reflected musically; perhaps through traditional ‘pastorale-type’ scenes of peace and goodwill? Or through the gentleness of the Infant Child, carrying with it the mercy of God and all hopes for the salvation of mankind? It is worth giving some thought to these themes and what cultural significance they have for us personally because when we examine Bach’s interpretation, we may discover it to be nothing like our expectations!
But then Bach continues to surprise his audience, so often producing the unforeseen.
A second observation may have little significance; nevertheless it is striking how similar the very first ritornello motive is to that of C 93, the sixth of the cycle. Both are in minor keys, both in triple rhythms and both use an idea which takes the same three notes of the scale (the 5th, 6th and 5th) thence proceeding to an upward leap. The earlier fantasia develops the idea of complete trust in God—-he who does so will not build his house upon sand. The fantasia from C 122 places the emphasis upon the Child Christ, renewing the year for Christians upon the earth. There remains a common underlying theme of trust in Divinity and the protection to be gained from it.
Whether Bach intended to link these movements musically across the six-month period or if it was simply a coincidence must be a matter of conjecture. But there remains the assumption that Bach was writing just as much for his God, who knows and recognises all things, as he was for man whose capacities and observational powers are rather more limited!
Considering the enormous output of composition and performances required from Bach over the Christmas period, one imagines that he might have been grateful to be faced with a less than usually demanding opening chorus. The text simply reminds us that the Christ Child has once again renewed the year. There is no overt call for celebration, no immediate requirement to offer praise or adulation. What we have is the simple statement of Christian fact which Bach sets seriously and earnestly, with a minimum of imagery and embellishment.
He could, had he wished, have expanded the scale of the movement by having the lower voices enter a few bars before the sopranos. He does this often enough elsewhere. But in this case, and possibly lacking much in the way of stimulation by the rather bland text, he opts for precision rather than for expansion. There is no elegiac enhancement here.
In each case the three lower voices accompany the sopranos in imitation, the order of entries being
Phrase 1 A, T, B.
Phrase 2 B, A, T.
Phrase 3 A, T, B.
Phrase 4 B, T, A.
For the first three entries Bach constructs the imitative material used by the lower voices from the very chorale phrases they accompany. But he departs from this practice for the last phrase, which he extends with a rising figure of swirling semi-quavers, working upwards from the lowest voice. This creates a powerful image of the ′thronging Christians′ which, surely, all would recognise.
The instrumentation is basic with oboes doubling the upper strings throughout, perhaps a further indication that Bach spent less time than usual on the composition of this cantata. He presents us with a formal, restrained and almost official version of events, with music that is pleasing and appropriate but hardly passionate. It is difficult to escape the feeling that his emotions may have been less engaged in the construction of this fantasia than in many of the others from this cycle
But things change with the bass aria. This seems to be one of those movements where Bach has been inspired by a single word of text, seizing attention from the very first line—-sündigt—-sinning. Never mind that the remaining lines exhort us to share both the joy of the angels and the shouts for joy that proclaim reconciliation with God. Bach chooses the one strong image, combines it with the voice of authority and sets it against a tortuous and chromatically convoluted continuo line.
The contours of this line have implications of sin and Satan (see also the tenor aria from C 107) and, although Schweitzer’s ‘joy’ motive is abundantly developed, here it is a grinning mockery of itself.
The bass enters as if it is the wrathful voice of God himself addressing us—-O Menschen, die ihr täglich sündigt—-O you mortals who sin every day! The octave drop, followed in the next two bars by the three repeated notes from the beginning of the chorale, makes a particularly powerful rhetorical statement. This is the stern voice of the preacher, the teacher or even God himself.
The first and last sections of this aria give dire warnings of what the daily sinner may look upon but not attain. It is true that Heaven′s and the angels′ joy for the sinner who repents is described in the slightly less aggressive middle section. But the stern Calvanistic tone never really disappears. Who has not heard the teacher who admonishes his student, ‘You could go home early and receive a gold star. But your behaviour simply does not warrant it!’ This is fundamentally the message of this movement! And if a degree of passion was missing from the fantasia, there is plenty of it here. The stern warning has been given. If we heed it we may still reap the benefits of salvation.
One of the slightly odd characteristics about this cantata is the significance and distinctiveness of the two recitatives. The first, for soprano, is accompanied by three flutes, an unusually transparent and evocative sound, seldom used by Bach. This could indicate that Bach had little difficulty in obtaining the services of a range of instrumentalists for the Sunday services. However the lack of technical difficulty of these lines might also suggest that they may have been second or third instruments played by the St Thomas students normally specializing on strings or oboes.
Clearly this particular timbre is inspired by, and intended to evoke, the aura of the angels. We are told that although they once shunned us because of our sinning, they now sing happily of our salvation. The bass’s dire message seems to have been regarded; God also has forgiven us and the coming New Year is an appropriate time to offer Him praise. The top flute plays a slightly adapted version of the complete chorale melody, reminding us of the main theme of the day, the renewal of the year heralded by the Infant Child.
Familiarity with the canon might lead us to presuppose that this is the point where we could expect an extrovert expression of the joys of salvation and blessedness. A good example may be found in C 8, a work preoccupied with thoughts of impending death. There the last (bass) aria is spectacularly jolly and positive with major keys and the 12/8 time signature combining to dispel fears and concerns.
But that is not what Bach does in this work; there is no obvious change of mood or direction. The text of the fourth movement is not pessimistic—-if God has forgiven us, who can harm us? The Child Jesus and the Lord himself provide our shield against all that the devil and our enemies can throw at us. This might well have given good reason to raise our voices in a song of rejoicing.
But Bach eschews this approach.
The reason is partly his decision to retain the dominance of the minor-mode chorale, now transposed into D to better accommodate the singers. The layout is for a trio of voices, but it differs from that of the other two trios in the canon (Cs 38 and 116, chapters 22 and 26). This is, more accurately, a duet for soprano and tenor, the alto, until the final bars, simply doubling the upper strings in a virtually unembellished statement of the chorale melody. This produces a very particular and possibly unique sound in Bach’s output, one he would not have chosen without good reason.
But we are still left with something of an enigma; why is there no overt sense of joyousness expressed in anticipation of the New Year? Are there clues to be found in other cantatas written for the same event?
Unfortunately the calendar for Bach′s first Leipzig year fell such that no cantata was required for the first Sunday after Christmas, although one does survive from the third cycle, C 28. The texts for the two works are similar in that they praise God in anticipation of a peaceful and bountiful New Year. But C 122 has nothing like the festively merry duet for alto and tenor of the later work, nor the jaunty opening aria for soprano. A tiny clue may possibly be found in the C 28 chorus where mention of sins, albeit forgiven, elicits grinding chromaticism in the harmony. This seems, for Bach′s congregations, to have been a time in which to contemplate our sinning and resolve to do something about it in the coming year!
This may be part of the answer. In C 122 Bach seems to have chosen to concentrate principally upon the calamity of past sin and its implications for individuals. And there is a second difference between the two texts. That for C 28 makes no mention of the Infant Jesus, an image that dominates C 22. Might it be that Bach deemed this iconic image so momentous and significant that it had to be celebrated in tones of dignified and reverent awe rather than extrovert salutation? The fact that all movements are dominated by minor keys with no single one set fully in the major supports this contention.
Returning to the trio, it should be noted that the alto, the voice of the spiritual, joins the soprano and tenor as an equal partner only in the final few bars which link the end of the chorale with the closing ritornello. The text here states that God remains to protect us. The musical structure thus encapsulates a symbol of unity. The chorale has finished, the angels are absent, but Christians remain united under the shield of the Baby Jesus.
The penultimate movement is a recitative for the bass, having been given some respite after his taxing aria. Again Bach provides a richer than usual accompaniment, this time for strings. The violins and violas sustain translucent chords above the voice and the continuo supports below it. But the settings of key words which normally suggest the more uplifting emotions—-faith, love and joy—-are still given slightly uncomfortable melodic twists. The movement begins, uniquely in this cantata, in the major mode, but returns us to G minor, the key of the closing chorale.
Taken at a fast tempo the chorale is over in a flash, but it may still cheer us up a little—and why not? The text proclaims that there should be no mourning for the coming of the New Year—-Jesus protects us and that is a very good reason for song! But whatever ebullient song there may be is over very quickly. We are still left with a disheartening sense of our sin and a powerful reminder of the seriousness of the Christ Child’s mission.
We must wait until the cantata for New Year’s Day before we can allow ourselves to rejoice in the midst of uninhibited harmony! But Bach′s congregation did not have to wait long. In this church year it arrived the following day.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017.