Chapter 44 BWV 149 Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg
They sing of the victory joyfully.
Chorus--aria (bass)--recit (alto)--aria (sop)--recit (tenor)--duet (alto/tenor)--chorale.
For St Michael’s Day.
Dürr (p 703) suggests that this cantata was first performed in 1728 or 1729. The opening chorus is a paraphrase of the closing chorus from C 208, Bach’s earliest known secular cantata written at least 25 years previously. It is likely, but not absolutely certain, that the remaining movements were composed specifically for C 149.
Contextual comments on the cantatas for St Michael’s Day may be found in the essays on C 19 (chapter 25) where the common feature of imposing opening choruses is noted, and C 130 (vol 2, chapter 17). C 19 stands alone of the four choruses in that the text of the first verse specifically mentions the challenge to St Michael, the raging serpent and dragon, the hellish Satan himself. But, as duly noted in that essay, Bach diminishes Satan’s significance by devoting the majority of the music to his vanquishing rather than to his stature.
In C 149, as in Cs 130 and 50 (fragment only), mention of the enemy’s name is generally avoided. The emphasis is entirely upon the victory and the appreciation of, and praise for, God and his principal lieutenant. Satan’s name is only articulated in the first aria of this cantata and nowhere else in the other six movements.
Let us remind ourselves of the large forces required for all four choruses: three trumpets and oboes, timpani, strings and continuo, with an essential and significant solo bassoon in C 149. This would seem to indicate that Bach was able to draw upon these additional instruments when he considered them necessary. Certainly, some celebratory days were of greater significance than others and would have required more impressive musical observance, and it would seem that on these occasions the resources were at hand. Presumably issues of cost were factors precluding large forces for every Sunday service.
Of these four choruses two (19 and 50) begin with the choir and two (130 and 149) with a long instrumental ritornello. There is a common feature in the choral writing in that Bach contrives the entries generally to begin with the lowest voices and rise upwards towards the highest. This is clearly manifest in Cs 19, 149 and 50 and even in C 130 the opening statement sees bass, tenors and alto imitate each other in turn on their first entry. There may be some significance in this writing, depicting those on earth looking and reaching upwards in order to praise and glorify the Lord.
Otherwise the bustling characteristics of the close imitation depict the activity and energy of the battle with which the text principally concerns itself.
The opening four bars of the C 149 chorus announce two musical ideas simultaneously, a simple victory fanfare led by the first trumpet and a syncopated rising figure on the three oboes.
Trumpet above oboes.
Both motives, and particularly the latter, are used extensively in the form of accompaniment for the choral sections. The movement is a combined ritornello/da capo and the initial twenty-bar instrumental statement is heard, in full, four times; at the beginning, the end and separating the A and B sections.
The choir introduces itself with an intensified massing of voices employing a semi-quaver figure derived from the rolling continuo idea in bar 2. Basses enter first, followed at one or two -bar intervals by the tenors, altos and sopranos. By the 25th bar of the movement the sound is a paean of uplifting and exalting song of victory. The oboes and bassoons simply double the vocal lines and the repeated pedal notes in the continuo break their pattern only to march triumphantly to the exultant cadence (bars 31-2).
For the remaining two choral blocks comprising the first A section, the four voices of the choir do not enter imitatively but (as in C 208) en masse, the sopranos having the main melodic line emphasised and punctuated by the lower voices. The effect is one of power and solidarity, characteristics no doubt, of a victorious and tuneful army. However, note that Bach is too subtle a composer to rely upon the most obvious image. There may well be the suggestion of a triumphant platoon but there is no specifically rhythmic representation of it. This chorus is set in triple time, not the 4/4 rhythm of the military march.
The text of the middle section deals with the victory and consequent exaltation of God’s right hand and the modes are more predominantly minor, taking us from the relative Bm to a forceful cadence in F#m prior to the da capo.
Useful comparisons may be made with the original model for this work from C 208. The more military trumpets replaced the horns, making the triumphant key of D major both technically and aesthetically more suitable than that of the original F. The texts are not dissimilar, the first a song of praise for an earthly prince, the latter addressed to the Divine Personage. St Michael is the celebrated leader of God’s victorious army which is suggested by the busy imitative writing of the first vocal entry replacing the essentially block scoring of the original. Bach intends to convey, early in the movement, a sense of massing crowds, a swelling army of celebrating multitudes. The close contrapuntal imitation achieves this effect with a sense of immediacy and any potential problems of the balance in this first section Bach addresses by the extension of both the first and second vocal blocks.
The opening words, Kraft und Stärke----power, force, robustness----set the mood and scene of the following bass aria. A further quality of darkness, or at least a lack of light, comes from the scoring for all parts in the lower registers. Below and around the bottom voice are two melodic lines, one for continuo and bassoon and the other for string bass. The initial laconic melodic idea, only one bar long, itself descends over an octave to be repeated and succeeded by a series of rumbling bassoon semi-quavers.
The text sings of the power given to God and the Lamb. They have ensured salvation for the faithful by driving away Satan here mentioned, for once, by name. This in part explains the character of the music. Bach’s depictions of Satan frequently have an opera buffo quality about them, a sense not of grandeur but of buzzing malice (see tenor arias in C107, vol 2, and C 76, vol 1).
Here Bach has the task of depicting both the strength of the conqueror clearly articulated in the text and the relative weakness of the devil. Bach probably intended the solid quavers of the string bass to represent the former and the scuttling semiquavers of the bassoon the latter. If so Satan appears, at least from his musical depiction, to be a persistent and aggressive opponent. His constant attempts to rise again are well portrayed through the melodic shapings. After all, the more relentless and determined he proves to be, the greater must be God’s and St Michael’s victory over him!
The secco alto recitative is another example of the fine craftsmanship of melodic construction which seamlessly encapsulates the feeling of the text. The positive, rising first phrase expresses the notion ‘I am unafraid’. The picture of ‘all falling and breaking’ is sung to descending phrases (end of bar 4, beginning of bar 5). The recit pauses and even seems to end temporarily----when I am at peace (bar 7)----and the question----how might I possibly despair?----rises to an incomplete c# (bar 8).
The melodic line carries and enhances the words with the minimum of harmonic support or contrapuntal complexity.
The soprano is joined by the full string ensemble and this aria has the rhythmic structure of a confident minuet. The dance-like implications of this courtly suite movement are enhanced by the regular two and four-bar phrasing.
The text tells of the Angels who are always surrounding and protecting us whether we come or go, stay or sleep. The musical character is one of peaceful acceptance of the unquestioned security given to us. Word painting abounds, the two most obvious examples being the melisma on Händen----the hands that uplift us (bars 96-100) and the long note on stehe----to stay (beginning bar 112). The violin repeated-note idea initially comes as early as bar 10 of the ritornello (in the continuo) and is used frequently as a counterpoint to the soprano in section 1. But when the mode changes to minor (in the B section, from bar 76) its ‘meaning’ appears to alter as it suggests the shades of falling night. The rapid skirls of notes (first violin, bar 21) are similarly used as a suggestion of the surrounding angels.
The form is once again ritornello, imposed upon an adapted ternary structure. There are clear A and B sections but the former is substantially revised when it returns.
The tenor recitative is as lightly accompanied as that for alto but the melody again breathes life into the simple lines of text. It begins with a simple expression of appreciation for God’s gifts but proceeds to request the strength required to repent one’s sins----this, so that an angel might carry us from the moment of death directly to Heaven. The final phrases ascend in a musical representation of that very action.
The major mode of the recitative not only affirms the positivity of its message but also pre-empts the key of the duet. This is an odd movement, partly because of the rare appearance of the bassoon as an obbligato instrument. It is strange that Bach used it for solos so seldom but when he did, he demonstrated not only its surprisingly wide expressive range, but also the fact that some excellent players must have been available
The text calls upon the sacred watchmen (i.e. the angels) to be vigilant. The night (i.e. a metaphor of our earthly lives) is almost over and we cannot rest until we can gaze upon the very face of the Father. Various commentators have suggested that the rolling bassoon quavers suggest the vigilant watchmen, although why Bach chose the quirky tone quality of the bassoon for this purpose is not clear. Nevertheless the melody, suffused with the three-note ‘figure of joy’ is ebullient and uplifting.
Constant canonic writing conjoins the alto and tenor as one; we are all united in this journey to meet our Maker. In the A section the tenor leads the soprano, both lines melting into a stream of quavers (borrowed from the ritornello) accentuating wachsam----vigilance. In the rewritten A section (bar 85) the vocal roles are reversed. (The reasons for the adjustments to the reprised section are fully discussed in chapter 39, C 171/2).
The restless yearning for the day of death is forcefully depicted in the middle section (from bar 52).The predominant direction of the canonic lines is now downward, the quality of craving intensified by the chromatic harmonies from bar 69. A particularly delicious touch may be found in the repeated interrupted cadence (bars 33-4 and 101-2). Is it intended to remind us that the night is not yet over and there is more to come? Or is it a musical representation of the moment of death, a dramatic but temporary hiatus in the journey between this world and the next?
The chorale has two verses and so is sung through twice. In short, it is a continued prayer for the angels to bear one’s soul gently and painlessly to the appointed place at the allotted time. In return, our clear duty is to praise God eternally.
It was noted in chapter 25 that each of the three complete cantatas for this day ends with a four-part version of a chorale, trumpets having a degree of independence. This is strong evidence that Bach refreshed his memories of the earlier works when composing the latter ones. However, it is the case that in the first two of these chorales the brass is more integral to the conception than in C 149. Here they seem no more than an impetuous afterthought and one has to wonder as to their purpose. Was it thought that the congregation, or indeed the players themselves, might require a little rousing? Were the seven trumpet and drum notes merely intended to underline and highlight the promise of eternal praise? Or was it a bizarre Germanic joke on the part of the Cantor?
Very little of Bach seems purposeless but one wonders if anything would have been lost were these few notes to have been omitted.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012.