Chapter 41 BWV 1 Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern
How beautiful is the Morning Star.
Chorus/fantasia–recit (tenor)–aria (sop)–recit (bass)–aria (tenor)–chorale.
In retrospect, this cantata takes on a special significance because it was the last of the unbroken sequence of chorale fantasia cantatas before Bach interrupted his grand scheme (see chapter 1). Wolff (p 278) quotes the theory that Bach’s librettist was Andreas Stübel who died on January 27th 1725. Because texts were prepared and authorized in advance and in batches, this meant that on Stübel’s death Bach would have received approved libretti for Cs 125, 126, 127 and 1 and had probably completed the composition of C 92. These five works complete the set of forty. Research into the questions about who Bach’s librettist may have been during the early Leipzig years is ongoing and the following link to a 2015 BNUK paper presents some tantalising new ideas:
But it is possible to make a different supposition as to Bach’s plan. Might his original intention have been to compose just forty chorale cantatas up until Easter 1725, thence leaving himself more latitude for the thirteen works required to complete his church year? Might he have tired of the self-imposed limitations of composing a large-scale chorale fantasia each week and positively welcomed the freedom of putting aside this stricture for the final two months of the cycle? There is evidence that suggests this as a possible or even likely scenario and several references to this matter are to be found throughout this volume.
C 20, which had begun the run of chorale fantasias, and C 1, which ended it, are both in F major. This may well have been coincidental of course; but there is also a possibility that it might have indicated a completion of events. The fact that the first cantata to break the pattern (C 4) could have adhered to the established pattern by dropping the opening sinfonia and rewriting the last few bars of the fantasia, further suggests that the forty initial cantatas may have been conceived as a cognate group.
And if a change of direction was Bach’s intention, the important Easter celebrations would be an appropriate time to make it.
It is the case that Bach latterly composed a dozen chorale fantasia cantatas, often presumed to ‘fill in the gaps’ (Wolff p 280) but this plan may well have been an after-thought. Certainly Bach was in no hurry to complete the cycle in this way as the composition of these later works was spread over at least a decade.
What we can state with certainty, however, is that none of the thirteen remaining cantatas in this cycle follows the exact format of the first forty. It is almost as if Bach deliberately went out of his way to break his established pattern. Additionally, it is only after C 1 that we find Bach borrowing from earlier works, most particularly the Easter Cantata C 4 (composed over a decade earlier and also resurrected in full for the first cycle) and parts of C 74. There is no evidence of parody or recycling in any of the movements of the initial forty chorale/cantatas.
But whatever the truth of the matter, we know that that Bach needed to provide six cantatas over the period of one month from March 30th 1725 (Cs 4, 6, 42, 85, 103 and 108). The usual cantata rehearsals and performances would have been ongoing in addition to those of the Saint John Passion (BWV 245) and the Easter Oratorio (C 249), and it is also likely that Bach was still revising the former work. Would it have been possible to have produced lengthy fantasias for each of these works of the complexity and standard of the first forty? Was it a case of Bach the pragmatist recognising his limitations and adapting to them?
Of course, some of the planning and composition would almost certainly have taken place in the musically sparse weeks of Lent during February and March. But April must still have been a particularly demanding and stressful period in Bach’s life and it would have been little wonder that, with all this pressure and in addition to the fact that he may have been seeking and advising new librettists, he abandoned his grand scheme.
C 4 broke the pattern and its history is briefly outlined in the next chapter. It is, however, instructive to examine C 1 in conjunction with C 4 because the comparison shows clearly interesting facets of Bach’s development as a composer.
It is, of course, entirely fitting that the joyousness of the Annunciation is reflected in the choice of major modes and they do dominate C 1. Only the two recitatives are set in the minor and even then, the second reverts to major. But it is really to the arias and choruses that we should turn when analysing Bach’s tonal planning.
Structurally, the recitatives are often quite free. They may begin and end in different keys and frequently migrate through remote and strident chromatic progressions without establishing the keys they imply. In fact the emphasis on the depiction of selected moments of imagery, particularly in the earlier works, is often enabled by a freedom from restrictive structural impositions. Consequently, one ought not to draw the same sorts of conclusions about tonal planning from these movements which one may do from the arias and choruses. In the recitatives the harmony’s main function is to support the melodic lines, the shapes of which are tailored to express the feeling and meaning of the words, with chords often doing little more than providing a supporting frame such as that which surrounds a painting. But Bach’s frames are organic, alive, dynamic and often surprising; they are never static.
The choruses and arias in C 1 are all in flat major keys, major to depict the joy which the blessing of the Lord brings and flat keys (F, and Bb) partly for practical reasons which suit the horns, but also because the joyousness of this cantata is personal and contemplative. It is not the rousing, communal, major, sharp-key joyousness of, for example, the fantasia of C 94 or the opening chorus of the Christmas Oratorio.
This fantasia is one of Bach’s grandest. It is long, averaging about eight minutes in performance, and scored for a large ensemble; strings and continuo, two additional solo violins, two oboes da caccia and, somewhat unusually in this cycle, two horns. The sopranos sing the augmented phrases of the chorale and the overall impression one gains is of disciplined grandeur and jubilation.
The long orchestral ritornello might lead the unwary listener to expect a sinfonia, although attentive members of Bach’s congregation would not have done so; he had not begun a cantata in this manner since C 12, from the first cycle, a year previously. The structure of this particular ritornello is, however, particularly noteworthy. It is, at the same time, both typical and untypical of the Italian tradition, of which Bach was a complete master, where the full band announces the main theme(s) as a precursor to the emergence of the soloist(s). It is typical because it presents a slab of orchestral material beginning and ending in the tonic key, parts or all of which are reiterated throughout the movement. It is untypical because of the distinctive character of the opening bars and the integration of solo and tutti sections.
Right at the beginning Bach presents us with two highly contrasting ideas, each one bar long. Firstly comes a ′solo′ theme played by one of the two violins accompanied only by continuo.
There is hardly time for this to sink in when the full orchestra presents its one-bar, contrasting ′tutti′ statement, horns and oboes emblazoning a fanfare figure around which the two solo violins ‘twinkle’.
It is relatively common to find themes constructed from a dramatic clash of contrasting characters of this kind in later music; see for example Mozart’s Symphony 41 and piano sonata in Cm and Beethoven’s piano sonata in Cm op 10 no 1 (in each case the opening bars of the first movements). But how often do you find this in baroque music?
This blatant contrasting of small and large forces is an inherent part of the movement’s overall conception. The text admires the beautiful morning star that brings with it the Lord’s blessing. The distant, glimmering beauty of the tiny star and the power and force of God’s mighty beneficence are both conveyed in the first two bars, the former by the twinkling violin and the latter by the horns and oboes.
Additionally, there is an implied metaphor of both communal and individual expressions of faith, love and salvation. Bach frequently underlines this point, giving particular emphasis to one or the other as the texts suggest.
Schweitzer, as we know (vol 2, p109) described Bach’s ′joy′ motives as a succession of rapid notes, or a repeated skipping rhythm —da-da–dah. In this ritornello we have both; the swirls of rapid notes built around the tonic chord of F (bar 2)
This is the language of joy, beset with a hint of the pastoral feel of the 12/8 time signature.
The plan of the movement is simple in concept if complex in execution. It comes as no surprise to hear the sopranos sing the cantus firmus, separated by statements of the ritornello. What will strike the listener, however, is the complexity of the counterpoint in the lower voices. They commence by underpinning the first soprano chorale phrase with canonic entries of a slightly adapted version of the very first violin theme.
But this is only the beginning!
Before the sopranos reach their second phrase, the tenors, followed by the altos, pre-empt it, singing the same line in notes of normal length but pitted contrapuntally against the adapted violin tune (bars 20-24). The very first melodic idea announced by the single violin transpires to have been conceived as the basis for counter-melodies to several of the chorale phrases. It is not immediately obvious to the listener; but Bach must have planned it before he wrote a single note. Every soprano phrase is enveloped in a haze of counterpoint, developed either from the chorale melody or the ritornello. The only chordal writing for the choir comes to accentuate the significant words Lieblich and freundlich—-lovely and friendly (bars 84-87).
One is left feeling warmly enveloped by the light and blessing which the Lord offers us beneath the constant twinkling of the morning star. This is a movement of overwhelming scale, power, joy and maturity.
The tenor recitative brings no surprises. We find in this simple movement none of the hybrid chorale-cum-arioso-cum-recit experiments from earlier parts of the cycle. The tenor is the traditional voice of the narrator appropriate for the reporting of historical background about the ancient patriarchs linked to us, we are informed, through our mutual faith.
This is an example of the use of uncluttered, unadorned melody that simply provides some background to the picture of the True Son of God and Mary, leaving any delving into the human condition to the arias and choruses.
The soprano solo with oboe da caccia obbligato is another joyous major-key expression of the elation that the love of God can bring to the true believer—-fill my faithful breast with Your divine flames so that we on earth may feel Your great love. Once again both joy motives, flowing semi-quavers and the skipping rhythm, form the bulk of the compositional material and Schweitzer (vol 2, p 362) suggests that the latter might have been intended to represent the flickering of the divine flames. That may well be the case although the darker sounds of the lowest oboe member suggest that this is not the primary image that Bach had in mind.
Oboe (sounding an octave lower).
It can, of course, be dangerous to seek out any one obvious textual image with the assumption that it has caught Bach’s attention. One finds that often, in his maturity, he forgoes the depiction of the individual word or nuance if there is a danger that it might interrupt the over-riding emotion, thesis or structural imperatives. One is sometimes surprised to find a strong physical or emotional image apparently missed by the master. The truth is that he has not missed it. He declines it in a way that he was not always able to do in his youth when he was sometimes tempted to underline the most obvious images, perhaps at the expense of deeper, more fundamental truths.
One will not miss, however the melismas on the words flammen—flames—- (bars 18 and 20) and verlangende—-(23-25) longing. Emphasis on such words buttresses the repetition of the first line of text—-fill [my breast] with divine flames—-an entreaty made at the beginning of four of the six vocal sections.
The bass recitative, like that for tenor, is a simple secco and images of light and flesh and blood are given no particular emphasis. The pervading mood is one of calm acceptance of the gift of God’s signal of joy—-it is God′s light, not earth′s, that refreshes my soul.
The obvious example of word painting is the melisma of the word Freudenschein—-(bar 3) a sign of joyousness, marking clearly both the significance of the holy sign and the surge of emotion it stimulates.
The penultimate movement, for tenor, contains some of the strongest poetic images. Voice and strings are called for in the text; and these are what we get. But this summon to uplift one’s heart and proclaim honour to the Lord is not extrovertly blazoned forth. It is set as a rather courtly minuet, a restrained and civilized proclamation, though none-the-less sincere for all its refined and urbane expression. There are numerous examples of Bach’s use of courtly dance forms such as the minuet and gavotte when setting texts dealing with the elevation of voice and soul to heaven.
Certain words are accentuated with virtuosic bursts of fast notes from the tenor e.g. Mit Gesang—- with song (bars110-114 and 147-151), loben—-praise of God (121-123) and König—the divine King (from bars 115, 152 and 169). Nevertheless, the overall flow is never disturbed by these flashes of word painting. The reiterated mood of gratitude and grateful acceptance of the word of God bubbles throughout, untroubled by any moments of sermonising directed at the congregation. The message is clear, uncomplicated and joyful and, indeed, long! The da capo repeat completes an aria which is little short of three hundred bars.
It should also be noted that the main theme (strings, bars 1-2) with its emphasis upon the third, fourth and fifth scale notes, echoes the initial solo violin motive of the fantasia, and in the same key.
Once again a structural leit motive reveals Bach’s planning of the cantata as an entity rather than as a collection of individual movements. It has the effect of leading the listener to feel, almost subliminally, that these movements really do belong alongside each other.
The final chorale is big and bold, with elements of fanfare, perhaps another signal that Bach was intentionally completing his sequence of chorale/fantasia cantatas. All of the instruments double the choral parts, as is traditional, with one interesting exception. The second horn has a florid, ear-catching counter-melody cutting right through the chorale harmony.
It is interesting to speculate as to why Bach did this. Possibly it was a playful challenge to the musician in the same way that Mozart was later to write tricky passages in order to test his friends. Possibly Bach, the most practical of musicians, felt that the horns, with nothing to do since the first movement, could do with a little waking up. The fact that the second rather than the first horn was given the challenge is probably also a practical matter. The first horn doubles the chorale melody, a striking sound which requires it to rise to the top of its tessitura and the baroque practice was for the individual brass players to specialize in specific ranges. Thus the first horn would naturally take the high chorale melody leaving the second with little to do; but as it transpires, he is given his own particular statement.
Whatever the reason, it makes an arresting finale to a cantata which, in its use of horns and oboes is reminiscent of the earlier, and equally magnificent first Brandenburg Concerto.
The text of this final verse expresses both a desire to join the Lord in Paradise and joy at that prospect. Bach used this chorale elsewhere, presented differently in each case. It may be found in one version of C 36 and in C 172, the latter with a florid violin obbligato. In C 49 it is subsumed into the final aria, a duet for soprano and bass.
A comparison of Cs 1 and 4 shows various degrees of subtlety which Bach had developed since his Mühlhausen days. This manifests itself in the delicate uses of keys and tonal colouring, complex and integrated structural planning, a restrained and more understated approach to the painting of individual images and a concentrated emphasis upon the depiction of the fundamental sentiments, values and ideas embodied within the text.
The miracle remains how often, and how quickly, Bach was able to produce such highly original and individual masterpieces, forty works in as many weeks. There is simply no equivalent in musical history to this canon of cantatas.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014 2017.