Chapter 53 BWV 192 Nun danket alle Gott
God, we thank You one and all.
This cantata surrounds itself with mysteries. When, precisely, was it written? For what purpose? What is the reason for its peculiar structure? Are some movements missing?
Certainly, the original score and the tenor part have not survived and this raises the possibility that other instrumental parts and even complete movements may have been lost. As to the former, it has been suggested that there may have been original parts for horns and some recordings (e.g. Ton Koopman, the Complete Cantatas, box 20) do add them.
However, the result lacks conviction. Invigorating though it is to hear a pair of Bachian horns rallying the troops, here they endanger the delicate instrumental texture. There are several places where the writing for wind and strings is in the lower or middle registers and this can be difficult to hear clearly against the ebullient horns. Besides, it is hard to see, apart from a contrasting colour of which there is already plenty, just what additional instruments can add to what is already a full and busy texture.
As to additional missing movements, this still remains a possibility. On the other hand, although structurally unique in the cantata repertoire, this work has a well-established musical format. The imposing opening chorus and concluding gigue (both in the key of G) enclose a contrasting duet in the key of D. This is precisely the three-movement format of the concerto, which Bach had established long before this work was composed, probably around 1730. It is, therefore, perfectly possible that Bach, a master of extracting principles from one format and transferring them to another, conceived this as a large and imposing choral concerto. It is about the right length and although Dürr claims that it is ′one of the shortest [cantatas] that Bach ever wrote′ (p 781), it is still slightly longer than some he had composed, possibly under pressures of time, in the latter part of the second cycle.
However, it should be noted that this is not the only ‘concerto-structure’ cantata that Bach produced.The reader’s attention is drawn to C 54 (vol 1, chapter 66) one of his earliest solo cantatas, in this case for alto. There the three movements take the form aria-recitative-aria. But the principle of the tri-partite structure is the same.
Stylistically the movements are strongly suggestive of Bach′s instrumental works. Despite the lack of triplets and a minor-mode setting, the staccato chords of accompaniment in the wind bring to mind sections of the first movement of the triple concerto for harpsichord, flute and violin in Am. The last movement of C 192 is highly reminiscent of the closing gigue of the Third Orchestral Suite. There is little doubt, however, that these three movements were conceived as a cognate group because, as Dürr has pointed out (p 782/3) there are thematic inter-connections. The work, as it stands, is one of nine which Bach composed setting the chorale verses with no inserted text. (A list of these cantatas may be found at the end of the essay on C 97: vol 2, chapter 59).
As with most other aspects concerning this work, its function is also obscure. It has no clearly discernible liturgical date and may well belong to that group of ′general purpose′ cantatas of which Bach composed several. It could have been used for a wedding; equally Wolff (notes for Koopman′s complete recordings, box 20 p 25) has suggested the Feast of the Reformation.
It is, therefore, impossible without a considerable degree of speculation, to establish any real sense of context for this work. Better then, to turn our attention to what has survived of the music itself.
The first and last movements are scored for a pair each of flutes and oboes supporting the usual strings and continuo, another indication that they belong together as parts of the same work. There is, however, no individual wind writing in the gigue where the flute and oboes simply reinforce the strings. The top line of the duet also calls for the first violins to be doubled by one each of oboe and flute.
The most unusual characteristic of this work is that it contains two chorale fantasias. Bach composed different fantasias constructed from the same chorale only occasionally: C 112, discussed in the next chapter, shares the same chorale with C 128 (vol 2, chapter 46). C 98 from the third cycle (chapter 31) shares with C 99 from the second (vol 2, chapter 15). Also in the second cycle, two adjacent cantatas are similarly conjoined, Cs 111 and 92 (vol 2, chapters 36 and 37). Cs 117 and 9 from this volume have been compared in the previous chapter.
But a single cantata containing two fantasias built upon the same chorale is rare, the one other work falling into this category being C 100 (chapter 57).
C 192 has an uncomplicated text, a simple hymn to the Lord, thus making it adaptable for various purposes, both secular and ecclesiastical. The first movement opens with an impressive ritornello, flute and violins swirling above a hint of the chorale melody in the oboes. But the expected chorale, traditionally carried by the sopranos, does not immediately appear. First there is a sixteen bar dialogue between the four voices to emphasise the thanks given to God in all manner of ways: through spirit, singing and good works. Even after producing nearly fifty chorale/fantasias, Bach is still finding new and inventive ways of constructing them!
After their initial heraldic declamation of praise with musical material adapted from the chorale melody (from bar 25), the sopranos withdraw as if to prepare for their later entry, the first chorale phrase proper appearing, traditionally, in long notes from bar 41. The lower voices enter in a series of imitations, accompanied by staccato chords from the orchestra. The whole scene is thus set, the complexities of the musical texture encapsulating the density and involvement of the adulation of the Christian throngs. The text goes on to praise the countless examples of ′goodness′ which the Lord provides from the moment of our birth.
The richness of texture never abates and it surrounds and encompasses the sopranos on each of their choral entries. So significant does Bach consider his initial sixteen-bar paean of praise that he repeats it after the completion of the second chorale phrase. The ritornello sections are long and highly developed and the energy is never allowed to slacken.
Even the ending of the movement is original, the four voices coming together, as at the beginning, to reiterate the opening words in strongly marked rhythms of clearly acclaimed assertiveness (bars 166-169).
A little known movement, but one of considerable originality and innovation.
Some respite is clearly needed after such a forceful and commanding declaration of our praise of the Lord and His benefice. The duet for bass and soprano is lightly orchestrated, strings predominating with the available woodwind colouring (one each of flute and oboe) attached to the first violin line. The textual theme is much the same as before, a praise of God and gratitude for that which He offers us in return. The mood, however, seems much less communal and more personal, a reflection of the proper response of the individual upright Christian, rather than that of a formal congregation. This is a distinction which Bach makes, in purely musical terms, time and again.
The ritornello theme begins rather tentatively, with a double hiatus suggestive of modesty or diffidence. The feeling is akin, but not rhythmically identical to, that of the gavotte. Nevertheless, the impression of a courtly dance pervades the entire movement.
Schweitzer′s three note ′joy′ figure emerges as early as the third bar and the instrumental support is largely forged from a combination of this and the hesitant opening rhythms. Is this the slightly apprehensive, but still joyous manner in which we, as individuals, are wont to approach the awesome power of the Lord?
The strategy of the vocal writing is simplicity itself. The bass begins with a longish melody taken up by the soprano, ten bars later. A section of mutual contentment about the joy and the peace that He may provide carries us seamlessly to the dominant key of A. There, following a short section of the ritornello, the roles are reversed (from bar 60). Now the soprano leads with the original theme, the bass joining in the shared acclamation, both thence returning to the tonic key and a concluding statement of the ritornello. It is almost like a da capo aria without the middle section, conveying a cultivated but appropriately unassuming acceptance of the Christian creed.
The text of the gigue removes any mention of what the Lord does, has done or may do for us. This message is a simple hymn of praise directed to God, His Son and the Holy Ghost, the ′Three in One′ which probably explains the compound (12/8) time signature.
It has the immediate, infectious joy of an ebullient dance with the constant symbolic reiteration of notes in groups of three. Glory, acclaim and honour are bestowed in equal measures upon Father, Son and ′Their Equal′ on the throne of heaven. The rollicking gigue melody is, as suggested above, reminiscent of that from the final movement of the Third Orchestral Suite in D. Because there is no closing four-part chorale, this unabandoned delight in the extolling of the Holy Trinity is what will remain, echoing in the listeners’ ears and minds.
Structurally this is a ritornello/fantasia movement with the reinforced upper strings largely leaving the choral entries to be accompanied only by the continuo. The three lower voices swirl around the sopranos′ chorale melody, continuing the joyous energy of the strings but without any obvious symbolic connotations. The tenor line, of course, requires reconstruction and consequently we must be wary of commenting upon the nature or symbolism of the vocal writing.
The original ritornello theme moves from the tonic key of G to the dominant D. Consequently it needs to be adapted when it returns at the end so as to complete the movement in the key in which it began.
An interesting and unique cantata, bringing with it a number of puzzles, but we would be the lesser without it. What remains of it, even if it has only been partially preserved, is a splendid example of the composer at the height of his powers.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017.