CHAPTER 54 BWV 191 Gloria in excelsis Deo
Glory to God in the highest.
For Christmas Day.
There is little point in spending much time on the analysis of this work except to place it in context. It is the only Latin cantata written, or at least surviving by Bach and, apart from its clear designation for Christmas Day, it is not known when or where it was performed. Its three movements are adaptions of movements more widely performed as the Gloria of the Bm Mass and those wishing to explore the historical details, in as much as they are known, should read John Butt’s concise but informative and readable book Bach: Mass in B Minor (see bibliography).
It is well known that Bach, after experiencing some difficulties in his employment around 1730, began looking around for the possibilities of other positions. In 1733 he petitioned the Elector of Saxony for a court title, submitting parts for the Kyrie and Gloria of the Great Mass. (Existing documents and such details as are known are set out in Butt’s book and the New Bach Reader). Where and when they may have been performed remains a matter of great speculation.
It is possible that Bach extracted these three movements and adapted them with different words for a church performance somewhere, possibly for a special event at Leipzig, but equally likely to be elsewhere. On the other hand, it could be that he composed these movements originally as part of a Latin cantata and, at some later stage, reused them as part of the mass.
These brief notes are based on the, possibly erroneous assumption that the versions for the mass predated those for the cantata.
The first chorus required very little in the way of adaption although there are a few minor changes. Bach retains the five-part choir (only once used elsewhere in the Lutheran cantatas), the instrumentation and the text----Glory to God on the highest, and peace on earth and good will towards man. Most listeners are unlikely to notice the minimal alterations.
The duet is today best known as the Domine Deus for soprano and tenor. Again Bach maintained the same instrumental and vocal resources but the text is different, now a simple tribute of glory to the Father the Son and the Holy Ghost. This constraint, plus the requirement to change the ending so as to finish in the tonic key, led Bach to shorten the model from the Mass by about 30 bars. In fact, the vocal section becomes even more truncated, almost by a factor of fifty percent when you realise that he reprised the opening 16-bar ritornello theme, rewritten to complete the movement in the tonic key of G major. Few who know the version from the Mass will find the abbreviated version satisfying.
The Cum Sancto Spiritu from the Mass is also set to a new biblical text----as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen. It is difficult to imagine how the raw energy of this chorus could be diminished by any form of competent adaptation and this proves to be the case. Most noticeable amongst the changes are the extra bars at the beginning and the addition of wind and string accompaniment to the vocal middle section (from bar 41). But the magnificent ending is virtually unchanged, the triumphant first trumpet ringing out to end the proceedings just as Bach had originally conceived.
It must be born in mind for this paraphrase and, indeed many others by Bach, that in most cases his audiences would not have heard the original versions and thus could not make the sorts of comparisons that we are able to do today. In fact, it is questionable that such comparisons have any real value to anyone apart from the dedicated student who wants to understand something more of the mind and technique of a master craftsman. The real point to consider is this: apart from its curiosity value is there much point in performing C 191 today, out of its better known context and very likely to attract unfavourable responses from listeners who know the original versions well?
Recordings are available and rightly so; listeners are thus afforded the opportunity of making up their own minds. It is a reasonable bet, however, that most of them will not return to C 191 as often as they to will the Mass or , indeed, most of the other cantatas.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.