Chapter 7 BWV 167 Ihr Menschen, rühmet Gottes Liebe
People, celebrate God’s love.
Aria (tenor)--recit (alto)--duet (sop/alto)--recit (bass)--chorale/chorus.
The sixth cantata of the cycle for the Feast of John the Baptist.
Bach’s second month at Leipzig presents us with another set of the perennial problems and questions of the kind that beset Bach scholars. For each of the first four Sundays the congregations had enjoyed lengthy ‘musical sermons’, either conceived in two parts or by coupling two cantatas together. Now they are presented with a short chamber piece consisting of a mere five movements, a chorale, a duet, an aria and two recitatives.
However, it is important to note that this cantata was written for a special Saint’s Day, a celebration which was additional to the normal Sunday services. Its chamber nature and the minimal use of the choir may very well be a direct consequence of this. Certainly the two later extant cantatas for this day C 7 (vol 2, chapter 4) and C 30 (vol 3, chapter 52) are much bigger works; both making considerable use of the chorus and the latter consisting of twelve movements. Is it possible that Bach initially underestimated the significance of this day in the Leipzig calendar?
It is tempting to suggest that he may have been primarily too ambitious in his expectations of what he and the performers could provide within a limited period. Although up until now much of his music had been composed before he arrived at Leipzig, it was still all new to, and had to be learnt by, his performers. But from now on Bach would be increasingly under pressure, admittedly self-administered, to compose music afresh. Was there feedback from his employers or congregations that they preferred shorter works? Was Bach refining his notions of the scale of the cantata and its place within the service, as a part of the process of establishing the more concise format that was to become the norm for the great chorale/fantasias of the second cycle?
Nevertheless, Bach continues with the large-scale bipartite cantatas for two additional Sundays before settling upon a more concise structure; C 147 contains ten movements and the following work, C 186, has eleven! But the next three only have six movements apiece and then comes C 199 where Bach makes a complete break with established practice by offering the first of his solo cantatas. It may be that this last innovation was itself too radical, or possibly too operatic for conservative Leipzig because the solo cantata did not become a relatively regular feature until the third and fourth cycles dating from 1726.
Perhaps the only reasonably secure conclusion that we can draw from all this is that Bach had not formed an exclusive view of the ‘ideal cantata' shape. Indeed, his self-proclaimed desire to produce a canon of ‘well regulated’ church music may well have referred principally to its quality rather than its structure. It seems that for a considerable period of time Bach continued to experiment with the different formal structures that cantatas might take.
C 167 commences with a lilting and graceful tenor aria accompanied by strings and continuo. The first two lines exhort all people to praise God’s goodness and rejoice in His Love. The mood is one of personal contemplation rather than of communal celebration; no trumpets or drums are required for this act of private communion. The flowing melisma on preiset----praising----underlines the point already made musically; it is, indeed, personally both alluring and entrancing to take part in the act of celebrating God’s good gifts.
The most significant of His endowments, as always, is the path to salvation and eternal life that He provided through His Son and this is the theme of the aria’s middle section (from bar 26). Whilst the gentle lilt of the music is unabated, the minor keys now add a touch of seriousness to the subject; our salvation and God’s providing of it are matters to be celebrated, certainly, but not to be taken lightly. These suggestions of gravity underpinning an essentially joyful expression of praise and observance are, perhaps, communicated more effectively, and certainly more subtlety, through the medium of music than through words.
The first section returns from bar 48 and the movement ends as it began. It is worth noting how beautifully wrought is its essential skeleton, the thirteen-bar ritornello. It is a complete binary form movement in miniature, moving effortlessly to the dominant key of D and back to the tonic of G. The solo violin obbligato line (from bar 17) is significant. It is not often that Bach requires one stringed instrument to emerge thus in the course of a movement; its function may well have been symbolic. It does, however, indicate that there must have been at least two players for each part, something that has been disputed by some scholars. As two string performers playing in unison tend to throw up intonation differences it seems more likely that Bach required three, though almost certainly not more than four musicians to carry the first violin line.
Bach seems particularly keen at this time, on the idea of merging his recitatives into flowing ariosi. Perhaps it was simply an expression of his exceptional and unparalleled gift for pure melody. Possibly he felt that the long tracts of text he was given to set could become somewhat wearisome if carried by an unvarying secco recitative line. Certainly he was anxious to experiment with different ways of creating variety in many of the early second cycle recitatives, a practice which Schweitzer abhorred. It seems likely that Bach actively sought out texts which gave him the opportunity of allowing a beautiful flowing line to emerge from the traditionally more idiomatic and rhythmically erratic recitative melodies.
In this case the alto begins by blessing the Lord, His Son and John who had paved the way for the Saviour. The recitative section ends with a blast of melodic chill at the mention of poor children and lost sinners (bars11-13) but with the return to allusions to the grace and Love that guides true penitents to God’s kingdom, the arioso materialises. It is slower and more measured with a semiquaver, quasi-Alberti figuration spelt out by the continuo.
The mood is warm and all-encompassing; a pure melody, gently stroked by the cello or gamba, revealing the full extent of the warmth in which we may bathe on the road to Paradise. The emotional contrasts encapsulated within this short movement (just under 20 bars) are extreme.
Soprano and alto aria.
The soprano and alto duet stands proudly as the keystone of the cantata and it is a mellow and moderate assertion of the central truth of this cantata’s text; the word of God does not deceive us and His promises are absolute, from the time of His initial pledges through the generations of mankind extending, indeed, to our very selves. The two voices are supported by the continuo and the doleful oboe da caccia perhaps, at first glance, an odd choice. It is an instrument with suggestions of sadness and despondency although it seems clear that here Bach thinks of it more as an expression of resigned conviction or even unquestioning certitude. Indeed, the continuo quavers are unrelenting in the opening and closing sections, and the two voices enter to announce their important message as one----God’s word does not deceive. The oboe encompasses the voices with a sense of great beauty and a certainty of faith. This is, of course, the sort of music which stirs the soul even if one is unable to follow the text but how much more endearing and personal it becomes when we begin to unravel the delicacy of the conjoined textual and melodic sense.
The middle section (from bar 58) is slightly unexpected since not only is there an immediate quickening of the tempo but the rhythm changes from three to four beats in the bar. This is a representation of those multitudes of generations for whom the Lord’s word has been both good and reliable. Long melismas stress both the enormity of past times and generations as well as the experience of receiving and understanding His word.
Most unusually, in the middle of the allegro B section the rhythmic structure reverts to three beats in a bar, occuring well before the da capo reprise. Is this intended to be symbolic? Does the 4/4 ‘common time’ represent the multitudes of humanity and the 3/4 the return to a focus upon the Holy Trinity? We cannot be certain; nevertheless the return to the original theme and tempo is assured and now seems inevitable.
It is with contemporary times and the people who live now that this cantata is principally concerned with, not those of past generations. Nevertheless, one suspects that in contriving the odd structure of this aria, Bach sought to underline the notion that contemporary Christians are blessed with the knowledge and certainty of faith that has been passed down from Biblical to present times.
The second of the two recitatives is for the bass. It returns us to the major mode and, finally, to the key of the concluding chorus. It adds little to what we have already heard; indeed it may be that one of the reasons for the conciseness of this cantata is the fact that the unknown librettist has chosen to empahise the rather bare themes of gratitude to John (even he only gets the one mention) and personal fealty to God. There must be a limit to how far such thin material can be stretched. We have here none of the dramatic representations of the River Jordan or the power of Baptism which make C 7 (written for this same day) such an arresting piece. Nor is there the interwoven narrative of threads of individual and communal rejoicing that allow C 30 to be developed as a quasi-theatrical operatic scene. C 167 is contained, reserved and personal.
The bass tells us of the prophesied seed that arrived like the sun’s very radiance and it ends with the pastors’ admonition (hence the bass voice)----consider, Christians, all that God has done for you and offer up to Him your hymns of praise. This last decree is set to the first line of the chorale which will conclude the cantata, the continuo latterly accentuating these obligations with an interjection of marching quavers.
The time has come, at last, for us to join together and praise the Holy Trinity. For this reason Bach gives us not a simply harmonised four-part chorale, but a more flamboyantly arranged version with busily insistent instrumental support. One further instrument is pressed into service, a single trumpet. But it is not here to blazon out God’s greatness nor the gratitude we owe him; it merely doubles and strengthens the chorale melody.
This must be one of the most joyous of Bach’s chorale settings, first violins and oboe joining to deliver an almost constant stream of invigorating semiquavers. The three lower voices are kept active with a great deal of quaver, and at times semi-quaver, movement. The Trinity is blest, our continuing reliance upon His word is proclaimed and we sing out our ‘amens’ with heart and soul. Complex though the counterpoint is, this movement has an air of simplicity and directness about it. We are, indeed, simple souls by comparison with Divine beings and there is a complete lack of guile or duplicity about this conventional act of prayer and petition.
It requires a master to compose music which is so apparently artless and ingenuous yet so obviously profound and satisfying.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.