Chapter 6 BWV 110 Unser Mund sei voll Lachens
Fill our mouths with the sounds of laughter.
Chorus--aria (tenor)--recit (bass)--aria (alto)--duet (sop/tenor)--aria (bass)--chorale.
The fifth cantata of the cycle for Christmas Day.
Bach’s Christmas Day cantatas are always large-scale, ebullient works which never fail to invigorate and delight. That for the first cycle (C 63) contains not one but two extended choruses and one of the most sublime oboe obbligato melodies in baroque music. But then, that was the first Christmas for which Bach had been responsible for the music in Leipzig and he was doubtless keen to impress.
The equivalent work from the second cycle C 91 (vol 2, chapter 28) commenced with a swirling, breathless chorale/fantasia and contains one of his most subtle duet arias. Clearly he had set himself very high standards for the music of this most important day in the church calendar and doubtless the aficionados within his congregations would be looking for them to be upheld on the Christmas Day 1725.
Perhaps we can turn aside from the work for a moment to consider the pressure Bach must have felt on such occasions. His first two years at Leipzig had seen the unremitting output of upwards of a hundred new works which set standards never surpassed before or since. Admittedly his composition programme was, to a degree, self-imposed. Bach was under no obligation to compose all the required cantatas himself, a situation he took full advantage of early in 1726 when he, in effect, took a sabbatical and performed eighteen cantatas by Johann Ludwig Bach. But in June of that year he resumed the task of composing new cantatas regularly and produced twenty-two of them (Cs 39-84), again at a rate approaching one a week.
In fact, it is a moot point as to whether this block of cantatas should be considered part of the third cycle (Wolff pp 282/3) or the first part of a fourth cycle; it is to be remembered that the Obituary expressly lists the composition of five complete cycles. Bach did, after all, resume the regular composition of new works around that time of the year when both the first and second cycles commenced i.e. the First Sunday after Trinity.
If this was the case, then either there are a substantial number of missing works from what would now be considered the third, fourth and fifth cycles, or Bach used more works of other composers than is presently supposed or recorded (see further discussion of the structure of the cycles in chapters 1 and 3 of this volume).
However we might catalogue these works today, the fact remains that Bach would have been under pressure to produce another substantial and impressive work, the more so perhaps, because he would have been aware of the low-key nature of the offering for the following day, C 57, which must already have been composed.
The obvious question arising from all this is why, given the circumstances described, did Bach not write a new opening chorus for this important event? He seems not to have been under great pressure of time. The weeks of December leading up to Christmas were not the most demanding musically and there should have been sufficient time, particularly for a composer as organised and speedy at composition as Bach, to prepare fully for the busy Yule and New Year celebrations.
And yet Bach decides not to compose anew but to bring into service the French Overture from the Fourth Orchestral Suite, adding new parts for the choir!
It is not unusual for Bach to make use of the French Overture for important events in both his secular and ecclesiastical music. C20 is the first cantata of the second cycle and it begins with a massive movement combining this structure with that of the chorale/fantasia (C 97 does the same although it is not known for which liturgical date it was intended). Cs 61and 194 reside in the first cycle where the former is the work beginning the new ecclesiastical year and, equally significantly, C 119 had commemorated the election of the City Council in 1723.
The most likely answer seems to be that Bach simply thought that this particular movement was the best possible vehicle for both the text and the occasion. The imposing opening and closing sections (in which the choir does not appear) are appropriate as an expression of the significance of Christ’s birthday. The fugal middle section, with its rollicking 9/8 rhythms, seems ideally suited to convey the principal image of the opening stanza----make our mouths full of laughter. We are also told that our tongues will be full of praise for the Lord who achieves all great things, but it seems that it is the image of the sound of laughter which principally drove Bach’s thinking when he decided to resurrect and parody this work.
All of this would indicate that Bach did not only recycle works when he was under great pressure of time, although doubtless this would sometimes have been a motivation. The reuse of this suite movement, along with the reconstruction of a proportion of the later Bm Mass, jointly serve to indicate that when the music was considered fit for purpose, Bach was always happy to recall it, making such adjustments and/or improvements as were deemed necessary.
The intellectual challenge of adding choral parts to an already rich and complete texture must have been formidable but Bach does it in such a way that when one returns to the Suite after hearing the cantata, something appears to be missing. A full analysis of the complex contrapuntal writing is beyond the scope of this book, nevertheless one might note the representation of Lachens----laughing----near the beginning and several times thereafter. The melismas on this word, making capital of the dotted 9/8 rhythms, produce an effective depiction of this behaviour, thus illustrating the particular suitability of this French Overture from the four available in the orchestral suites.
The choral entries become more marked on the words----Denn der Herr----for the Lord [has done great things]. We are thus prepared for the bass solo, a relatively unusual event in such choruses although precedents may be found, notably in the opening movement of C 103 (vol 2 chapter 45). The weighty words of the Pastor remind us (yet again) of God’s great deeds and against the relatively light string writing there is little chance that his message will be obscured.
The structure of the remainder of the cantata is centred upon arias, one each for tenor, alto and bass and a duet for soprano and tenor. The first two are in minor keys, the others major. One of Bach’s shortest recitatives (a mere five bars) sits neatly between the first two arias.
Tenor aria and bass recitative.
The tenor aria encourages us to lift our thoughts and let them soar to heaven----we become heaven’s children just as Jesus became a Man on our behalf. Two flutes entwine around the vocal line and, indeed, each other, suggestive of the ether of paradise swirling around us as we make our ascent. When we reach the point where the traditional middle section of a da capo aria might be expected (bar 37) we are reminded of Christ becoming Man. Here Bach introduces a new figure into the flute parts; it only comes twice but it is one of those germinating ideas which he frequently plants in the subconscious from whence it later resurfaces so that we sense that we have heard it before. In fac, it is the four-note figure with which the upper strings caress the bass in the brief following recitative----no-one is as great as You oh Lord, as Your works prove.
Thus Bach conjoins two related points of text----Christ becoming Man and His great works on our behalf----with one modest figure which also has the function of providing a degree of musical unity. Dürr (p 99) describes the tiny bass recitative as ‘a little jewel.’
The figure as it appears on flutes in the tenor aria (bars 37-9) followed by its recurrence in the bass recitative (on strings).
Bach’s combination of the alto voice with one of the members of the oboe family (in this case the rich timbre of the oboe d’amore) frequently signals that we are about to hear something deeply expressive and possibly disturbingly poignant. The second aria, the central keystone of the cantata is no exception. The celebration of Christ’s birth is temporarily abandoned as Bach addresses the ‘text of antithetic’, so suited to his complex mind and inventive gifts----man surrounded by Satan is lost, no more than a cursed worm but Man infused with the love of Christ is redeemed. It is the former idea that Bach emphasises here for reasons of overall musical and dramatic balance. But there are still hints of the latter which shall be celebrated in the later movements.
The text enquires----what is a child of man who would seek redemption through such torments? He is no more than a cursed worm when surrounded by Satan, but through Your Son he receives his due inheritance. The oboe ritornello melody strives upwards as if seeking salvation and not without some difficulty. But from bar 6 the increasingly intricate rhythms seem to denote the pain of Jesus or the hovering of Satan’s devils; or even both. Just before the voice enters there is a writhing about the one note (f #, bars 12-14) which suggests the coiling and twisting of the lowly worm.
There is a constant alternation between 3/4 and 6/8 rhythms and the vocal line, perhaps representing the human soul, never partakes of the painful distorted meanderings of the oboe. Man’s soul, after all, need not necessarily experience the ultimate misery endured by the Saviour on the cross.
The final two arias form a complementary pair. Both are in major keys and both give voice to the Glory and Praise we should offer to Him. Ironically, it is the duet which proclaims the more personal expression of this sentiment and the solo bass who expresses the overtly communal message. Bach never delivers the obvious!
The ritornello theme of the duet is curiously restrained and sedate.
The voices imitate each other or move together in melismas of parallel thirds and sixths, almost sounding like two lovers entwined around each other. Jointly they come together to glorify God, mankind and the world in general. The melismas underline the message; those on Ehre----glory----and Wohlgefallen----goodwill----emerging as particularly significant.
But how much does it count for a few mere individuals to understand the message? It has to be proclaimed to the world at large and the bass, the voice of the Pastor, is the voice to do it; and what better instrument to reinforce it than the trumpet? And since strings are particularly mentioned in the text, it is certain that they too must play a significant role.
From these elements Bach has wrought the final aria. It is common for the bass solos to be set with martial themes and this is no exception. The expansive ritornello opens with the simplest of motives, based upon the notes of the chord of D major and declaimed by the trumpet.
In fact we hear very little harmony other than that of this one chord in the whole of the first four bars; it is the rhetoric rather than the argument that captures the composer’s attention here. The strings, first violins in particular strengthened by oboes, enter by swirling around and they continue to do so for most of the movement. They have been summoned and should not be found wanting!
The text calls upon mankind, body and soul, to rise up and sing songs of joy for the pleasure of the Lord. When, at the beginning of the middle section the strings are specifically called upon (from bar 31) the trumpet drops out and offers them no competition. Shortened versions of both the ritornello and the opening vocal section then return to complete one of Bach’s adapted ternary form movements; A B A but lacking a strict da capo. Nevertheless, the rousing ritornello returns in full at the end, leaving the sounds of missionary zeal ringing in our ears just as we enter the closing chorale.
This, both musically and with respect to its message, is uncluttered and elemental----Alleluia, we sing to praise God for the unforgettable joy He has given us. But it is, perhaps surprisingly, a subdued melody firmly rooted in the minor mode.
Bach ends the cantata of course, as it began, with songs of praise addressed to God. But while it commenced with the most extrovert and communal of expressions, it concludes with the quietly introspective fealty of the individual. A perfect balance between public and private worship has been achieved.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012.