Chapter 32 BWV 41 Jesu, nun sei gepreiset
We pray to you, Jesus.
This work has a particular place of interest because it is the first complete Leipzig New Year’s Day cantata we have. The corresponding composition, C 190 from the first cycle, has only partially survived, although a restoration has been made and recorded by Ton Koopman (box 6 of his complete cantata recordings).
Nevertheless we have enough of the earlier work to know that C 41 is a substantially larger and more ambitious piece, demonstrating Bach’s aspiration to make the cantata a significantly dramatic part of the Lutheran service. It may well be that he did not have the full support of the authorities in so doing but such was his reputation and command of music in Leipzig that, even when he had been in office for barely eighteen months, he was probably able to choose his own way.
The contrast between the introspective C 122, heard just the day before, and this ebullient work could not be more marked. The first movement of C 41 is awesome in both size and content. Even working from the incomplete parts of C 190, it is clear that this later chorus is almost double the length of the earlier one. C 41 uses one of the largest ensembles that Bach was able to command; a four part-choir with strings and continuo, three oboes, three trumpets and drums. The organ would officiate as the continuo instrument and it is quite likely that a bassoon, though not stipulated, would double the bass line. A solo piccolo cello provides the obbligato for the tenor aria.
Bach clearly intended to herald the New Year with a sense not only of infectious joyousness, but also with an extrovert expression of pomp, splendour and majesty. These qualities are less apparent in C 190 which, although still a splendidly celebratory work, lacks both the magnificence and range of musical invention of C 41. Bach is now pulling out all the stops in order to depict and celebrate the grandeur and glory of the Lord and Saviour and, indeed, following the muted end of the year encapsulated in C 122 only twenty-four hours previously, it may be that he felt it necessary to lighten the heart and rally the troops.
Before focusing upon the mighty opening movement, it is worth becoming familiar with the closing chorale and assessing its potential. Clearly, Bach would have sought a melody fully appropriate for the construction of the large-scale fantasia he must have had in mind. This chorale, praising the Lord for his goodness as the new year begins, is known to have been used by Bach on at least two other occasions, in the later C 171 and in the aforementioned 190, although in the latter case it appears in a more compact form. In C 41 it is extended to a full thirty-two bars and, for the final words of the stanza (when the Christian multitude sings out earnestly seeking a New Year of blessings), the metre is changed to a lilting 3/4 time.
However, in order to emphasise the message, Bach repeats these lines by reasserting, and closing the cantata with, the original 4/4 time.
The differences in harmonization are also worth noting. That of C 190 is colourful but unsurprising. That of C 41 takes us from C major to the relatively unrelated key of Bb in the very first phrase! This potential for suggesting movement to and from various keys must have attracted Bach since it gave him greater scope for the modulation and consequent tonal variety which the massive fantasia requires.
In both cantatas the chorale’s vocal lines are, as expected, doubled by the instruments and the phrases are punctuated by short trumpet fanfares, fewer in the later work but of a somewhat more grandiose character. Thus Bach chose a chorale he knew well and which offered the maximum of potential for his grand plan.
The orchestral ritornello of the fantasia bursts upon us with the (almost) inevitable three-note motive of joy on the strings and a fanfare figure from the combined trumpets, oboes and timpani. Joyous celebration pours out from every note, rapidly transforming into a rolling contour of semi-quavers, initially in the brass but soon to be taken up by strings and oboes. The twelve-bar ritornello dominates the movement, returning several times wholly or in part.
Opening trumpet theme.
This movement is, in fact, over two hundred bars long and in four sections, all of which are derived both from the text and the structure of the chorale. The first (just over one hundred bars) is a hymn of praise to Jesus. It sets eight phrases of the chorale, each one enveloped in swathes of complexities from the lower voices. The vocal counterpoint is extraordinarily opulent and seldom repetitive, conveying both the ebullience of the praises offered up to Jesus and the richness of His blessings. There is just one instant at the end of the fourth phrase (bar 45) where the minor harmonies remind us of our ‘troubles and fears’, a fleeting, but significant moment!
The instrumental counterpoints convey a fitting touch of nostalgia and the choral writing is simple, unpretentious and chordal.
The third section (from bar 120) takes the last lines of text in which the good Christians declare devotion to the Lord for the coming year and forever afterwards. This is energetically fugal, its subject based on the first chorale phrase.
Again, the lower voices encompass the sopranos as, almost disregarding the swirling enthusiasm encapsulating them, they declaim the final four chorale phrases. This completes the chorale melody and, for most composers, this would have been enough.
But not for Bach. He decides to emphasise the last two lines asking for the preservation of body and soul in the coming year. Perhaps Christ might not have heeded the entreaty amidst the swirling counterpoint of the fugue? More probably, Bach simply feels that this is an appeal that demands repetition. The fourth and final section fulfills this function whilst returning us to the material of the opening ritornello and ensuring a satisfactory musical completion. Nowhere does Bach allow the chorale, or its message, to escape our attention.
At one time, and in some German churches, musical utterances of this length might have sufficed as a complete cantata, but not in Bach’s churches! And there are still five movements to follow! Bach’s ambition to produce a canon of ′well regulated’ church music vaults far ahead of anything yet heard. But while the scale is stupendous, the clarity of structure and transparency of texture and musical ideas are such that, even on first hearing it is not difficult to follow the musical logic and be moved by its force.
One might have expected a recitative to follow if only to give the oboists a breather. But clearly Bach wants to sustain the impetus and high energy levels. Consequently he moves us straight into the first aria sung by the soprano and accompanied by the three oboes and the continuo. Bach’s wind players must have had considerable powers of endurance!
The emphasis is again on prayer—-may the Lord′s hand guide us so that the year ends as it now begins. The first six notes of the chorale form the initial motive which the oboes extend upwards into an attractive opening phrase. This idea shapes the entire aria which declares itself to be a familiar da capo/ritornello structure.
It is impossible to describe the lilting charm of this movement which establishes itself with a delightful, unexpected three-bar phrase. The 6/8 rhythm gives it a pastoral feel and, although Bach seems not to have given an indication of tempo, it appears to require a moderately fast speed more akin to a gigue than to a pastorale. The middle section is predominantly minor but the lighter accompaniment and semi-quaver flow of the melody both ensure that there is no diminution of the innocent allure which distinguished the beginning.
The text is simply a prayer for the Lord to steer us towards plentiful blessings in the ensuing year. The singing of the Hallelujahs is characterized by semi-quaver melismas, accompanied as lightly as possible by the ensemble.
Bach’s immense variety and control of his phrase lengths is a phenomenon worth a complete study in itself. This aria′s opening three-bar phrase is encountered several times throughout the movement and is part of the reason for the captivating nature of the principal theme. It leaves us slightly breathless, the phrase ending just before we expect.
Imagine extending Bach’s idea into the more conventional four-bar phrase. It kills it stone dead; but the exercise serves to illuminate his skill and unerring judgment in structural matters, the art that conceals itself.
The two recitatives lie on either side of the tenor aria, the only one of the main movements in a minor key. Bach’s decision to set the fourth movement as an aria and the fifth as a recitative is slightly puzzling; at first sight it might have seemed appropriate to reverse them. The text of the aria is rather bland, having little to offer in the way of stimulating imagery. On the other hand, the final bass recitative is full of strident imagery; enemies seeking to harm us by day and night, the destruction of the peace, the trampling of Satan under foot and the suffering on the cross. We have noted that Bach frequently changes mood or direction in the final aria; would not the text of the final recitative have offered him more scope? Perhaps for the sake of balance he didn’t, on this occasion, wish the mood of the final aria to be too contrasting and the text of what became the tenor aria suited his purpose. This is, after all, a cantata of supreme celebration and one should not dwell too long on the more negative emotions.
Whatever the reason, it cannot be doubted that the tenor aria has a tender beauty which slightly moderates, but does not undermine, the prevailing mood.
The alto recitative reaffirms God’s control and watching eye and contains some rather naïve imagery of hand and eye that Bach was probably wise to pass over. He could, when he chose, elevate the second rate. But his judgment was invariably sound when ignoring that which required, or deserved, no emphasis. In dealing with long texts Bach was often in the habit of combining contrasting musical elements in order to maintain interest and momentum. But here there is no inclusion of chorale or ritornello; this is pure secco recitative with not a little sense of the Italian opera!
The text simply comments upon God’s comprehensive powers to know and watch over everything and everyone. It ends with a prayer to be given that which His wisdom determines is best for us. There is, consequently, little opportunity or reason for those insertions of chorale and ritornello sections often to be found in several of the earlier cantatas of the cycle.
The second recitative is more provocative and begins with a stern warning—-Satan seeks to harm us by day and night. Then comes a direct quotation from Luther’s German liturgy which the congregation would be expected to recognize—-Let Satan be flattened beneath our feet. The choir declaims this in four-part harmony, a short but dramatic intervention using a strong crotchet rhythm over a bass line of trampling quavers. Listeners may find this reminiscent of the interventions of the multitude to be found in the St Matthew Passion and in this cycle they will discover other examples of choral interventions in recitatives in Cs 3/2, 92/7 and 178/5.
Following the choral intrusion, the bass voice returns to offer reassurance that we remain God’s children, aspiring to the magnificence of heaven.
The tenor aria, sandwiched between the recitatives, is supported by the continuo and a piccolo cello, an instrument Bach called upon on several occasions in this cycle. It is the longest movement of the cantata, even more lengthy than the opening chorus. C 41, therefore, is another that group of works in which one particular aria stands out both in proportion and significance.
A further point of distinction alluded to above is that, apart from recitatives, this is the only movement set in a minor key and it conveys a reflective seriousness nowhere else to be found in this work. But the mood is never sad or gloomy; it is somber and thoughtful, sober and formal, ideal for a moment of insightful reflection temporarily set apart from the more extrovert festivities.
The vaulting leaps and little runs on the busy cello maintain a feeling of lightness; it is possible that the flowing scales depict the images of the divine blessings which we both seek and hope will pour over and encapsulate us.
The text puts one in mind of an acquaintance who draws one away from the festivities of a party; can I have a quiet word in your ear? For a moment we turn aside from the celebrations and consider—-if Christ blesses our souls as He has our bodies, we are sure to be sanctified in earth and in Heaven. This is the expression of individual, personal prayer, not an extrovert outpouring of praise and celebration.
And its quiet, dignified beauty haunts us.
After the final warning of Satan’s threats (bass recitative) the chorale combines the twin themes of honouring and celebrating the Saviour whilst praying that we be taught and treated according to His will. The melody itself is simply harmonized, the basses expressing a solidity of quaver movement in the final phrase. The quotations from the opening fantasia suggest a sense of the work having been ′through composed′, the interjections of the trumpet motives of joy leaving us with series of concluding, celebratory, even triumphant gestures ringing in our ears.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017.