Chapter 52 BWV 117 Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut
May praise and honour be offered to the Highest Good.
Both the exact date and original function for which this work was composed are unknown. It is generally thought to have been written between 1728 and 1731 (Boyd p 446) i.e. approximately five years after the end of the second cycle. It may have been intended to fill one of the second cycle gaps but internal evidence indicates that this is unlikely.
It is very possible that, due to the lack of specific liturgical references in the text, this was one of those ‘general purpose’ cantatas, suitable, with the minimum of adaptation, for a large number of different types of events (see also C 137, vol 3, chapter 3). Dürr (p 785) comments that the chorale used was customary at weddings and consequently it was very probable that such an event initiated the first performance.
Had Bach wished this cantata to fill a space in the second cycle it is almost certain that he would have ended it with a four-part setting of the chorale. True, he provides one, but it comes in the middle of the work, rather than at the end. The cantata closes with a repeat of the opening fantasia set to different words, something he never did in the cycle. This reinforces the likelihood that it was composed for a ceremonial occasion of some significance, a view strengthened by the structure which, with the chorale coming as the fourth movement, indicates that it might have been conceived in two parts performed before and after a wedding service.
Thus there are a number of mysteries surrounding both the music and origin of this work. The text, however, is less contentious, being another of that select group of cantatas in which all stanzas of the original hymn tune were set, as written, without paraphrases or additional lines. (NB a list of the nine cantatas which Bach set in this manner may be found at the end of the essay on C 97: vol 2 chapter 59).
Whether Bach adopted this procedure because of time constraints or problems with librettists is a matter of conjecture. It may, of course, have been an artistic decision through which Bach set himself another of the many stimulating challenges that he seemed to need. But whatever the reason, it is clear that in C 117 Bach had no problems in finding a suitably wide range of movement structures to accommodate the unaltered verses. In C 107 he seems to have found himself somewhat limited, since four of the verses were set as arias and only one as a recitative. In C 117 we find hybrid recitatives and arias for tenor, bass and alto, all with widely varied instrumental accompaniments. Bach clearly went to considerable lengths, employing his constructional skills for the production of work of satisfying balance and unity.
The simple four-part chorale setting is more or less the centre-piece of the cantata so let us begin with it. Readers may like to compare C 117 with the later cantata C 9 (chapter 58) based upon the same hymn. In that case, the text is somewhat more ambiguous than that of this work which concentrates principally upon honouring the Lord. However, even in the largely uncomplicated C 117 one notes that the message of this setting is somewhat at odds with the positive mood of the rest of the work—-in my distress I called to God, please take note of my tears.
These lines are identical in meaning to those of the fantasia for C 38 (vol 2, chapter 22) and this serves to make an important point. In that work from the second cycle it is, indeed, these tear-laden entreaties that form the basis of the movement. That fantasia is an arid and cheerless land from which the miserable cry out. The trio tells of the personal sorrows that come not singly, but yoked together in clusters and the entire cantata is suffused with the minor mode and its tragic overtones.
Not so C 117. This is a much more buoyant and optimistic piece with the majority of its movements firmly rooted in major keys. There is little sadness and none of the aridity of C 38. And the reason is, again, because of Bach’s particular perspective of the text.
Recall that in this work Bach sets each of the stanzas from the original chorale and places the four-part harmonization in the centre, not at the end. He would thus have been very careful to choose the most appropriate verse for the simple version of the chorale to carry. Much of the work is a hymn of praise to the Almighty; indeed, one only has to look at the lines of the opening and closing choruses. But the central chorale takes the least overtly optimistic lines and places them in the midst of this paean of praise.
The reason must surely be that Bach wants us to bear in mind a fundamental precept and to give us a moment to reflect upon it. Although we lift our voices in adoration of the all-powerful Lord who leads and protects us, we should still retain the confidence that our voices will be heard, for in times of sorrow we may feel deserted and abandoned. This is a moment of two-fold sadness for mortals; firstly because of the actuality of our inherent earthly sorrows and secondly, the feeling that we might be abandoned by the Lord to suffer them. Bach simply reminds us of this possibility. Of course God does not necessarily abandon us and the rest of the cantata reassures us of this fact; but the possibility remains, nevertheless, and it should not be disregarded.
So, despite the doleful text of the central chorale, the essential theme of this work is not one of sorrow, piteous weeping and feelings of abandonment. It is the simple articulation of God’s power to sustain us. Our inevitable duty, in return, is to praise and love Him.
Nevertheless, repeated notes often form a part of commanding statements and Bach uses them in a variety of guises throughout this work as a leit motive of unification.
The opening fantasia is simply a hymn of praise to the Almighty God who works every wonder, enhances our spirits and stills all sorrows. It is scored for two flutes, two oboes, strings and continuo and the sopranos have the chorale melody. The instrumental ritornello is long and complex and the opening bar is built around two repeated notes of d, a reference to the chorale melody. The oboes and flutes have little independence throughout, their main role being to double and thus reinforce the muscular string melodies. The continuo bass is kept particularly busy, possibly a reflection of the richness of God’s works and influence.
The three lower voices support the soprano melody, for the most part in homophonic chordal harmony, with the minimum of imitation. The reason is almost certainly a technical one. Bach had obviously planned to reuse the same music for the closing verse and the simpler the setting, the easier it would be to adapt it for a second set of words. In this case, only the occasional detail needs changing. However, it is worth noting how he sets the fifth line of text, which speaks of the richness of God’s powers of comfort and consolation (from bar 56). For a brief moment the basses imitate the tenors, but inverting their theme! For one instant God’s richness is reflected in the opulence of the counterpoint. A transient and particularly subtle moment, surely intended particularly for the attention of the Almighty?
The lavish ritornello concludes the chorus with panache, albeit apparently slightly abridged. Keener ears will have noticed that it begins four bars before the choir has finished, with a consequent overlap and conjoining of choral and instrumental statements, possibly reflecting He who fills our spirits with His comfort.
The bass recitative is interesting because of the emphasis Bach gives to the last line. After a conventional lyric giving thanks to the Ruler of all things, the final line of text exhorts us—-give all honour to our God. Bach moves seamlessly from the recitative into a short arioso in order to repeat the line four times.
But it doesn’t eventuate; Bach is only interested in ensuring that the key line, Give honour to God, is given emphasis. It does, after all, help to clarify the main theme of the cantata and, indeed, every verse ends by repeating it.
It is, however, the recitatives rather than the arias, which seem to make a particular meal of it!
The recitative begins and ends in the major mode but the tenor aria takes us to Em, two oboes d’amore and continuo supporting the singer. The text exhorts us to keep God’s creation safe within his mighty kingdom where all is fair and righteous.
If it is initially surprising that the choice of mode is minor, although there are a number of possible reasons for this. It may have been that, in such a relatively long cantata Bach felt that the contrast of major and minor harmonies was essential for variety. Perhaps he sought a moment of gravitas which the minor so appropriately expresses. It is also possible that, in the mentioning of God’s great creations, of which Man’s salvation through Christ’s sufferings on the cross is central, Bach is gently bringing us a reminder of this event. Em is, after all, the key he often associates with the Crucifixion and if the congregation was not attuned to this subtle point, both God and Bach would have been.
But the mood of the aria is neither tragic nor sorrowful; the four contrapuntal lines create a richly positive and encompassing texture appropriately espousing the thought—-whatsoever God has created, He will continue to govern and sustain.
Of note is the setting of the fifth line—-In seinem ganzen Königreich—-within (the Lord’s) far reaching domain (from bar 37). The phrase begins with the repeated d notes, another echo of the chorale. This is immediately followed by a melisma on König—-accentuating the extent of His Kingdom.
The final line suggests a recapitulation of the initial vocal theme but there is no formal da capo, a characteristic of all the arias in this cantata.
We have dealt with the following chorale so we now proceed to the alto recitative, another hybrid movement essentially based in the major mode. Apart from the full string accompaniment at the beginning, this follows a similar pattern to the earlier one for bass. We are told that the Lord has never been separated from us and, like a caring mother, continues to guide us.
The melodic material is formed from a version of the chorale’s first phrase, the repeated notes becoming predominant to such an extent that they are even echoed in the bass line (bars 14 and 19).
Even those not paying full attention must surely be in no doubt of the theme of the day and fully assured of His support and yet we still have two more arias, a recitative and a repetition of the opening fantasia to come! Bach’s era was, indeed, a more spacious age!
The bass aria, like that for tenor, returns to the minor and for similar reasons. But note that in the opening line, mention is made again of those times when our strength is likely to fail us. The fundamental moral remains positive, of course, in that we are reassured that at such times He will remain to help us. Nevertheless, the images of a strength which ebbs but may yet be lifted and ultimately sustained, are embedded within the three melodic lines, not least that of the obbligato violin′s reaching out and upwards.
There are numerous examples of word painting; the melismas on alle—-all or every—-emphasise the universality of a world of witness to His actions. The word Ruh— (finding) peace or rest—-is set on long notes, even terminating in a cessation of all movement (bar 32). And the inevitable final line of text is declaimed to the repeated notes taken from the first chorale phrase, with prominence in all parts (see bar 38 and elsewhere).
One often finds, or suspects, that Bach has reused movements from earlier works when time pressed. No such conclusion could be drawn from this work which has so much internal evidence of organic structural development and overt relationships with the chorale.
Bach’s final arias can appear illuminative of both his attitude towards, and desire to provide balance for, the cantata’s themes. The alto was the traditional voice of spirituality and the minuet an example of civilized courtliness. Combined, they form the seventh movement and the third and final aria.
The text gives a commitment to honour Him but it is expressed in personal terms—-my heart, soul and body will be stirred and shall rejoice. It is tempting, though dangerous, to interpret this as an insight into Bach’s personal feelings about his religion, essentially positive and, despite life’s inevitable sorrows, seemingly joyful joyful.
The accompaniment, strings with flute, is full and rich and the streams of triplets sweep us along with a sense of respectable gaiety. The repeated notes are now submerged in the middle strings during the ritornello and the flickerings of accompaniment triplets are suggestive of the palpitations of an excited heartbeat.
Flute melody above inner strings (from bar 5).
The positive and joyful spirit of religion now overwhelms any remaining thoughts of sadness or sorrow—-I shall honour and praise You for all my life and it will be universally heard.
The tenor is the traditional voice of narrator, although in the final recitative he appears to take on the role of pastor. Short but operatically declamatory, he addresses the congregation directly—-you who call on Christ’s name, put aside your false idols and give honour to the one true God. It begins powerfully in the minor but ends in G major, preparing the key of the reprised fantasia, a combined structural and symbolic function. It is a simple secco movement with none of the continuo activity of the previous recitatives. It is, after all, a stern admonition almost amounting to a rebuke,
The text of the final movement is essentially summatory—-come, dance and sing in honour of Him and all that He has so rightly done. There is a satisfying sense of completion about the repetition of the opening chorus music to these different words and one wonders why Bach did not do this more often. It may be that he felt that it would be inappropriate in a shorter work as, indeed, many of the second cycle works were. Of course it would have precluded the congregation joining in (if, indeed, they did) and some might see this as further evidence to suggest that C 117 was not written for liturgical purposes but for a wedding or other festive occasion. But whatever its original function may have been, it remains an academic point for most listeners today.
Finally, in comparing the fantasia from C 117 with that of C 9 (chapter 58) note that although sharing the same chorale melody, the different texts and functions produce such dissimilar compositions as may appear to have virtually nothing in common. Such a scrutiny reveals much of Bach′s seemingly endless powers of invention, as well as his acute sensitivities to the divergent ideas and images upon which he chooses to focus in different texts.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.