Chapter 65 BWV 143 Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele
Praise the Lord, my soul.
Chorus --chorale (sop)--recit (tenor)--aria (tenor)--aria (bass)--aria/chorale (tenor)--chorale.
For New Year’s Day.
This is a difficult work to write about. Its authenticity is extremely doubtful (Dürr p 160-161) and internal evidence drawn from the musical construction gives rise to additional uncertainty. For one thing, nowhere else in the cantatas does Bach employ the combination of three horns and drums. It is, of course, dangerous to assume, particularly with a composer as daring and adventurous as Bach, that a unique event is evidence of lack of authenticity. But it is a rousing and effective sound and having used and heard it once, why not again? However, the most telling evidence comes from the quality of some of the writing or, indeed, the lack of it.
It would be difficult to find a movement by Bach as lacking in invention at that of the opening chorus. It is very short, much more so than the large instrumental forces might imply. The ritornello theme is built upon an uninspired succession of chords 1 and V, a sequence based upon falling thirds and an unconvincing cadence. The vocal entries have none of the vigour we have come to expect nor, indeed, the invention. The four parts simply wobble, vibrato-like, around the notes of the key chord:
The composer seems keen on this idea, though, because he repeats it twice on the strings, yet again on the well trodden paths of chords V and 1. The ritornello theme is reprised in full to complete the movement, much to the relief, if would seem of everyone.
If, for the sake of argument, we pause to assume that this was actually composed by Bach, the question arises, when? It is inconceivable that he would have produced such a scant score at Leipzig so it must have been an early work. But all of Bach’s extant early cantatas are infinitely superior and usually conceived within the proportions of chamber music. This work has very little of the charm, for example, of Cs 152 or 161. Could it have been written even earlier, a possible contemporary of C 150, thought by some to be the earliest extant cantata? But even here there is an obvious mismatch of quality and innovation which is difficult to explain away.
Not every movement shows such signs of musical weakness as the two choruses and the bass aria. This prompts the suggestion that Bach may have written parts of it, or perhaps the score which has survived has been tinkered with, or had movements added by others. There are various examples of doubtful authenticity of this kind. Parts of the last movement of the keyboard concerto in A major, particularly the ritornello theme, are distinctly rococo in style and feeling and evoke Johann Christian rather than Johann Sebastian Bach. Similarly, the scholar Peter Williams has raised serious doubts about the authorship of the Toccata and Fugue in Dm, largely upon stylistic grounds. There seems to be little doubt that other composers copied Bach and/or adapted some of his works so that they might seem more congenial to audiences seeking a lightness of touch and a concentration upon melody in the style gallant years of the mid to late eighteenth century.
So perhaps the most reasonable conclusion that we can come to is that Bach composed some parts of this cantata, but that others were added and/or adapted by unknown hands.
The text of the opening chorus simply states----praise the Lord, Oh my soul. For those who would justify its brevity on the basis that there are only six words of text, there are plenty of examples that demonstrate how Bach could assemble impressive musical edifices from similarly short statements.
The second movement demonstrates a little more of Bach’s established prowess. The chorale tune is sung, for the most part unembellished, by the soprano supported by a violin and continuo (in a more conventional four-part version, this hymn also closes C 67 from the first cycle). The violin keeps up a busy semi-quaver counterpoint although there seems to be little connection between it and the text of the chosen verse----Prince of Peace, Man and God, You Lord Jesus help us in life and death and we cry, in Your name, to the Father. In fact, its jaunty nature seems rather at odds with the sentiment expressed, a genuine prayer for continuing Divine support. The last line is elongated, presumably to effect the act of appealing to the Father, but this too is not a typical Bachian gesture. He is often happy to embellish the chorale melodies, sometimes almost beyond recognition, but he rarely tinkers with only the closing phrase.
On the other hand, the structure of the obbligato melody is quite typical of Bach, beginning with an obstinate, rhytmically repetitive idea. This is effectively extended over a favourite harmonic progression, that of the circle of 5ths, a well plundered part of the armoury of all late baroque composers.
1 1V V11 111 V1 11 V
The double cadence before the voice enters is unexpected and charming. The composer, though wedded to the constraints of the chorale tune, achieves a considerable degree of tonal variety, passing through several related keys and creating a highly effective imperfect cadence in Gm in bar 25. A betting man would not do better than ‘evens’ when trying to establish the authenticity of this movement by means of stylistic analysis!
It is unusual, but not unique, for Bach to include an extremely short recitative, but it generally has some purpose. That for tenor merely states----he who has the help of Jacob’s God has his hope in the Lord God. It reinforces the message of the chorale but contributes little else.
The tenor aria is the first of two movements which, if we came across them in an authenticated work, would cause no concerns about authorship. The text provides Bach with the types of images which he revelled in----a thousand misfortunes, terror, fear, death enemies and distress are what other countries must endure----we, however, have a year of blessings. We do not, of course, know who the lyricist was and this catalogue of troubles is typical of the lists that often featured in the texts of Salomon Franck. But his verses were generally more integrated and often poetic, so again the evidence is ambiguous.
What is unarguable, however, is the expressive strength of the opening ritornello theme. The apposition of notes in groups of twos and threes is typical of Bach, particularly in minor keys (e.g. the opening movement of the keyboard concerto in Fm). This may have been intended to symbolise the tensions or misfortunes, alluded to in the text, in those places enduring the difficulties which we, in our ‘year of grace,’ manage to avoid. Likewise typical of Bach is the chromatic progression from the diminished to the 7th chord over the first bar line.
Similarly, the tenor’s first phrase is convoluted and angular, a reminder of the description in the Obituary of Bach’s melodies being ‘strange and like no others.’
The two places where everything pauses for moments of reflection upon our ‘blessed year’ are powerful and, particularly in the second case, demonstrate Bach’s perfectly judged use of the unexpected cadence.
This is a well crafted, highly expressive movement which deserves to be performed and heard. It is a pity that it lies buried amongst some dross.
With the bass aria we return to the combination of three horns and drums which, with a bassoon enhanced continuo, provides the instrumental support. Admittedly the sound is impressive, and there is a subtle and effective interplay between the horns on occasions (bars 8-9 and 30-31). But otherwise there is little arresting invention, the composer relying principally upon the bombast of brass and the constant repetition of an ornamented descending scale passage to propel the music forward.
Whether or not these scales are intended to represent Christ’s flock as referred to in the text is a matter of debate. If so, they are an energetic, almost frenetic lot; Bach usually depicts them in a more measured, often pastoral fashion. As in the opening chorus, the harmonic range is limited, and there is nothing in the way of chromatic variety.
The other movement which does engage the listener’s attention is the second aria for tenor. The bassoon takes on a solo role, an attractive feature of some of the early cantatas, and its engagement with the continuo line, throwing about the seemingly most unrewarding of scalic passages, provides a very good example of a composer making bricks from straw.
Bassoon above continuo.
The text is a prayer common to New Year festivities----Jesus, Saviour, continue to be our refuge----guide and watch over us and make the coming year good. It is now the turn of the upper strings to enunciate, in octaves, the chorale melody first heard in the second movement. It is an unusual way for Bach to present the chorale and once again the scale and structure of the aria is dictated by its six phrases. There is no elongation of the final line as in the soprano aria and closing chorus.
The insertion of the chorale melody into the texture of the aria is done with the subtlety and skill we would normally expect from Bach. The interlocking quaver figurations of bassoon and continuo, almost always descending, create a haze of Divine blessing surrounding and embracing both singer and chorale. The long melisma on Schar----[Christ’s] flock----appears to ascend to heaven itself although the lyrics request good fortune on earth rather than entry to paradise.
But this is a well wrought, expressive movement which can stand much re-visiting.
The closing chorus is something of a hotchpotch. It gets by because of its rhythmic energy and the power of the instrumental forces but its quality is variable. The opening ritornello theme is weak, a call to attention on repeated tonic and dominant chords leading to an unconvincing four-bar phrase culminating in a premature cadence. The overall movement structure is akin to that of the later chorale/fantasias of the second cycle but with little of the quality. The sopranos sing the chorale melody, to a different verse from that allotted to the singer in the first aria, and the lower voices punctuate it with a series of Alleluias. The chorale verse is a further prayer that we might continue to hear the Prince of Peace.
There is a glimpse of the skill and variety of writing for the three lower voices that Bach was to demonstrate in so many of the second cycle fantasias, but the overall impression is of a movement of some superficiality. Perhaps that is acceptable within the context of a simple plea for support in better times. It is, nevertheless, unusual when judged within the wider canon of Bach’s music.
So how do we ultimately appraise this work? Should it become a regular part of the performed Bach repertoire? Certainly not, one feels, if it is at the expense of a number of superior and equally less known cantatas.
Nevertheless, one would not like to be without the two tenor arias. Perhaps we are fortunate to live in an age where we can choose to select the tracks that are worth playing, drawing a discrete veil over those which might be found less satisfying.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012.