Chapter 5 BWV 79 Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild
The Lord God is both our Sun and our Shield.
Chorus--aria (alto)--chorus--recit (bass)--duet (sop/bass)--chorale.
For the Reformation Festival.
Also associated with this festival is C 80, one of the last chorale/fantasia cantatas that Bach wrote. Both begin with imposing choral movements but C 80 is based upon the splendid Lutheran Hymn, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott----Our God is a mighty stronghold (Vol 2, chapter 60). C 79 makes do with two chorales: Nun danket alle Gott----now thank we all our God----and, to conclude----Erhalt uns in der Wahrheit----preserve us in true ways. The opening chorus was conceived, as we shall see, to form a particular affiliation with the former.
Although the original cantata dates from 1725, early in the third cycle, it was reused later with flutes added to some movements, a flute also replacing the oboe obbligato in the soprano aria (Wolff’s notes for Ton Koopman’s recordings vol 16 p 14). Either instrument may be heard on different recordings.
The texts are similar in that they both praise and exalt God as our protective shield. However, this earlier work also makes particular use of the metaphor of God our Sun with consequent images of His Word shining brightly down upon us.
The opening chorus opens with one of the grandest and longest ritornello statements in the canon. The original version was scored for strings, oboes and continuo with the addition of an extremely festive pair of horns underpinned by timpani. The horn writing is largely in parallel thirds, a particularly forthright and celebratory effect.
The instrumental section is a tripartite structure virtually complete in itself but acting as the precursor to a lengthy chorus. The movement concludes with choir and orchestra triumphantly conjoined, the original horn theme erupting through the already opulent texture. Obviously Bach had planned right from the start to have the horn theme return triumphantly not only here but also in the third movement. It is difficult to conceive of having too much of this melody, one that was widely popularised by the American organist E. Power Biggs in the mid twentieth century.
The tripartite structure is constructed from:
A the ebullient horn melody, spikily supported by the oboes and first violins
B a fugato, wrought from a repeated note idea heard on strings then oboes, horns absent (from bar 13).
A/B horns returning and combining their theme with the string melody (from bar 34).
All of which sets the mood for a magnificent surfacing of the choir, basses, sopranos, altos and tenors entering in quick succession on the word Gott----He who is our Sun and Shield, blesses and honours us. From this point there are four short chorale passages delivering this message, each separated by fragments of the established horn melody. The first part of the tripartite choral section of the movement ends at bar 79.
The middle section dispenses with the horns entirely. It is, perhaps, a remarkable fact that simply noting when the horns do and do not play, in itself tells the listener much about the macro-structure of this mighty movement. Here the choral writing begins simply enough (bar 82) but very soon develops into an imitative discussion of a simplified version of the string theme from the ritornello. Complex contrapuntal texture is used as the vehicle to convey the important and ultimately optimistic message----He will hold back nothing of value from the faithful. The driving rhythms infusing the intricate swirling counterpoint produce an effect that is totally infectious.
And still this movement has not finished. The horns return to herald the third and final choral section, a recapitulation of the focus on God the Lord, the Sun and Shield. The music is evocative of the opening choral segments but has been recast in order to produce a rousing climax, sopranos even quoting an affirmative moment of the horn theme in the third bar from the end.
The structure may be represented thus:
1 Tripartite ritornello section
A bars 1-13
B bars 13-35
C bars 35-45
2 Tripartite choral section
A bars 45-79
B bars 82-117
C bars 117-147.
The alto aria is accompanied by the continuo and an oboe (or flute) obbligato. God is both our Sun and Shield, it proclaims----and we praise Him for His protection from the sharpened arrows and baying of our enemies. As so often in these cantatas we find ourselves turning from an extrovert communal declaration of praise and faith to one that is more personal, tranquil and individual. The mood of this aria is hardly introspective but it is certainly less overtly public than the choruses abutting it.
It seems that Bach, whilst clearly seeking to ensure musical variety, here strove to avoid too much dilution of the fundamental mood of overt celebration. The structure of the aria serves to illustrate the point. The last two lines of the stanza----though our enemies sharpen their arrows whilst the hounds of hell bay at us----would, in other circumstances, offer Bach powerful images which he could use as the basis of an extended middle section of tortuous melody and chromatic harmony. Not so here. The lines are dispensed with in a mere four bars (35-38) and there is no underlining of the graphic images! There is no middle section of any proportionate dimension and, after these words Bach returns to the first lines of the verse and a reconstituted section A.
This is surely an excellent example of Bach’s self discipline. He eschews the tempting moment of drama in favour of the overall shape and strategy of the cantata. It is not appropriate for the mood to become overly meditative or reflective at this juncture.
And this point is further demonstrated by the third movement, an unadorned four-part harmonisation of a chorale melody, oboes and strings doubling the vocal lines as in most closing chorale statements. Here the choir is supported by the horns and timpani playing their dominant theme from the first movement! This is a rousing hymn, now given the most extrovert of settings! Would the congregation have been expected to join in? It seems unlikely, although it must have been tempting.
In any case, we clearly have returned to a reaffirmation of the communal, collective expression of praise for the God who has done, and continues to do, all things for us throughout our lives.
The little three-note falling idea (two quavers and a crotchet) which dominates the horn melody is another version of Schweitzer’s motive of ‘joy’. More significantly its melodic shape (d, c, b) also forms the opening shapes of the oboes and soprano entries in the alto aria. It is very likely that Bach conceived these three movements as an entity, the extrovertly communal expressions of faith encompassing and enfolding the personal and private.
The one recitative is for bass and its narrative nature makes it somewhat surprising that it was not written for the tenor. There are no tenor solos in this cantata; might there have been a problem of availability? Or did Bach feel that this particular sermon on the importance of understanding of, and offering contrition to the unbelievers, needed to be stated with particular authority? This is not the voice of God speaking: it is the voice of the Pastor addressing himself to God. The recitative conveys no graphic images or dramatic surprises. Nevertheless, the tenderness of the vocal line entreating us to have mercy on the faithless is noteworthy.
Apart from the recitative, the one minor-mode movement in the cantata is the duet for soprano and bass, all of the violins providing a vigorous obbligato. But this is not a delving into the depths of misery or despair. This is a forceful, almost ebullient expression of entreaty and appeal----do not forsake Your people but let Your Word illuminate us even in the midst of our enemies.
It is another of those movements that demonstrates clearly Bach’s practice of adapting a conventional musical structure so as to vividly illustrate a point embedded within the text. If we omit the first four-bar entry of the voices, we have a textbook ritornello movement. The eight-bar violin melody (from bar 5) is heard in full five times, at the beginning and end in the home key of Bm and elsewhere in the related keys of D major, F#m and Em
But a conventionally anticipated structure such as this might not have provided the emphasis or significance that Bach sought----God, do not forsake Your people, ever! The movement opens with the two voices singing these words in parallel harmony. There is no entwining counterpoint and no possibility of obscuring a single syllable! Furthermore, this musical four-bar theme is heard eight times in the course of the music and it carries these words, unchanged, on four of these occasions.
Apart from setting this text as a sparsely accompanied secco recitative (which would not have sat well in the overall balance of the cantata) it is difficult to see what more the composer could have done to convey the message in all its stark clarity!
The ritornello melody (from bar 4) has the first and second violins playing together, another sign of emphasis. It has two main characteristics, the marked falling intervals (octaves then 7ths) in crotchets followed by an insistent figure making much use of repeated notes.
Schweitzer uses the latter idea as an example of a ‘motive of tumult’ (vol 2, p 91) and doubtless had in mind representation of the raging of enemies. Further evidence to support this view comes from the fact that this repeated-note figuration only occurs in the strings when the singers tell of the enemies surrounding us (from bar 64).
It is likely that Bach attached some other symbolic meaning to the strongly marked crotchet motive but we cannot be sure what it was. Perhaps it is the clear, unambiguous words of the Lord, shining out from heaven and beaming down upon us. This idea, detached from the rest of the string theme, is used as a counterpoint to the vocal lines particularly when stating their insistent entreaty.
This is a gem of a movement, carefully crafted with a strength of passion and a keen eye for proportion. It assumes that place in the Bachian cantata structure, just before the chorale, where the most significant message is so often conveyed. Here, for a moment, the mandatory praises offered to the Almighty take second place to Man’s awareness of his own vulnerability and his entreaties for protection.
The text of the closing chorale redresses the balance slightly. It asks for the gifts of Truth and Freedom; but principally in order that they may free us to praise Him. If the Lord had been offended by the apparent self-centered attitude of the duet, He may now be mollified.
The choice of the chorale raises some interesting questions. The vocal lines are, as we would expect, doubled by the strings and oboes although the horns have some independence albeit rather modest. The melody itself must surely rank as one of the most unimaginative and tedious that Bach set. It has four predictable four-bar phrases and a vocal range of only half an octave. The real puzzle is, why should Bach choose to end such a rousing work with such a tedious tune? Would not a reprise of the third movement have ended the cantata more effectively?
Much is still unknown about the selection of the chorales for the weekly services. It is generally assumed that they had to be approved some weeks in advance in order for the booklets of texts be prepared for publication. We do not know what freedom Bach himself had in choosing them; the supposition one might draw from this cantata is, possibly not much! Even the harmonisation is basic, perhaps a sign in itself of Bach’s general disinterest in the melody.
But he was certainly not disinterested in the remainder of the work. It stands as one of the best and certainly most elegantly structured of the early works of the third cycle.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012.