Chapter 82 BWV 71 Gott ist mein König
God is my King.
Chorus–aria/chorale (tenor/soprano)–chorus–arioso (bass)–arioso (alto)–chorus–chorus.
A cantata for council elections.
Of the five complete surviving cantatas for council elections, C 71 is the earliest. Indeed, as we shall see, there are a number of characteristics which would declare it to be from Bach’s earliest period even without the clear evidence that it emerged from the Mühlhausen year, 1708 (Dürr pp 722-3). It celebrates the establishment of the new governing regime and the unknown lyricist calls upon several metaphors of aging, growth, rebirth and renewal of the kind that recur in various of Bach’s later cantatas composed for such events as weddings, funerals and the paying of homage to individuals.
Three of the features which mark this as an early work are the sectional nature of movements, the lack of recitatives and the absence of compact, integrated arias. The orchestration, as with all surviving municipal cantatas, is large and includes trumpets and drums. Solo cello and bassoon parts are notated along with strings, continuo and pairs of flutes (or recorders) and oboes.
The sound must have been impressive and it would seem that the dignitaries of Mühlhausen thought so since they published the score, one of only two of Bach’s cantatas to be thus recognized within his lifetime. Ironically, the other, from 1709, has not survived.
The opening chorus asserts the conventional and concise declamation of religious allegiance—-God is my King. Bach begins and ends the movement with these words, set to much the same music; a trumpet fanfare figure and a controlled ‘trill’ on strings and continuo supporting the homophonic (chordal) punching out that four-word statement of commitment. The centrepiece of this movement is divided into two short sections, the first (from bar 8) led by the sopranos with a quasi chorale-like melody and the second emerging from bar 16.
Each of these sections ends with the reiteration of the original pronouncement God is my King, set to the same fanfare motive.
Thus, although Bach is subscribing to the practice of segmented movements, well established in the renaissance traditions of modal music, he is clearly making efforts to unify his material. One wonders if, when he wrote his letter of resignation affirming his ambition to compose a canon of ‘well regulated church music’, he had in mind a vision of fully integrated, economically constructed, extended choruses and arias fired by a fierce ambition to achieve a perfect union of words and music. Both were to become characteristics of his later mature work, and a particular hallmark of the second chorale/fantasia cycle.
The first component of the movement’s middle section (from bar 8) stresses that this is the God of ancient times and its main interest lies in the nature of the choral writing. The soprano intones the words in a chorale-like melody, supported by an entwining quaver figuration on the lower three voices. This pre-empts the writing later to be found in the second-cycle fantasias where the sopranos, with few exceptions, carry the chorale melody in long notes, contrasted against the supporting voices as they depict images and ideas rooted in the text e.g.
It seems that even at this early stage of his career, Bach was beginning to formulate practices which were to come to full fruition in his second year at Leipzig.
In the next and longer section, more closely imitative and flowing lines remind us that God contrives salvation for us here on earth. The strings continue to double the voices motet-like, and the wind and brass are held back in order to increase their effect when the principal cry is reprised—-God is my King.
But the movement ends with a whimper rather than with a bang as two recorders endorse the oboe statement, leaving us with only a fading echo of communal avowal.
The second movement is an example of Bach’s early experimentation with musical structures. It is a duet for soprano and tenor above a continuo line which allows the organ’s right hand to provide the slightly bizarre obbligato melody. There were times when Bach eschewed the organ as a solo instrument in vocal music; for example there are no such examples anywhere in the second Leipzig cycle. It may be that it was initially considered more appropriate to be heard, as here, in secular works; C 29, for example, begins with a splendidly virtuosic sinfonia with the organ as soloist.
However, the more likely explanation is simply that tastes changed over a period of time, thus allowing its solo use to become more acceptable. Certainly Bach seems happier to use the instrument in this manner in his religious music after 1725.
Another point to note is the merging of aria and chorale. Even Bach, at this time, could have had only a vague notion of the myriad of ways in which he was later to combine chorales with arias, choruses and recitatives. Here the soprano intones an embellished version of the hymn O Gott, du frommer Gott, although it is not the melody best known by this name, which may be found in Cs 45 and 24. This tune is much less familiar and was probably chosen because of the suitability of the verse to the cantata’s theme—-should I extend my life into bitter old age, then grant me patience, protect me from sin and let me wear my grey beard honourably.
The metaphor is of the ‘old’ regime retiring with distinction in order to make way for the ‘new’ youthful one. The tenor takes on the role of the aging entity—-I am four-score years old—-I relinquish my burdens as I return to die in my own city alongside my parents! The theme is very much one of community, loyalty and honour; nevertheless, the old must still make way for the new!
The skill and art with which Bach constructs this movement from its four basic elements is remarkable, and, in its expressive profundity, reminiscent of the Actus Tragicus which was also composed during Bach’s early period. It begins with a descending continuo bass line which gives the impression of a ground-bass, but after three statements it is developed more freely, though still retaining its stolid quaver tread. The tenor enters in the third bar with a wistful melody, the main component of which is the falling interval that is to dominate the organ obbligato melody shortly after its appearance in the seventh bar.
The fourth and final element (from bar 14) is the soprano with the embellished chorale.
Symbolic meaning is embedded everywhere within these musical components. The continuo suggests the burdensome but determined plodding of old age and the initial tenor line, abetted by the organ, the sadness of that condition. The very nature of his melody alters to suit the text, however; observe how the sustained notes suggest the ‘returning to die in one’s city’ (bars 30-36). The organ obbligato introduces flowing triplets from as early as bar 15, perhaps a symbol of youth and energy and, wholly appropriately, they escalate in authority and significance, finally dominating the last bars (from bar 42).
Throughout these textures the soprano intones the four lines of the chorale text, further divided into sub-phrases which allow it to mirror the poetic images it conveys. Note, for example, the falling chromatic line in bar 22 depicting the ‘bitter steps’ and the effort of pressing into old age (bars 25-6). The four musical components fit perfectly like an intricate jigsaw and the ultimate melancholy of infirmity and the passing of life’s baton to the young is expressed with the utmost delicacy.
A concise choral fugue, supported only by the continuo, separates the duet from the bass arioso. Whilst the emphasis in these municipal cantatas is usually upon the incoming government, here the lyricist and Bach spare a thought for the older members—-may your strength remain in your old age and may God be always with you. Perhaps this was one of the features that particularly endeared the work to the older influential dignitaries of the town!
It is a muscular movement, strong and vigorous in character as befits the text it conveys. Essentially fugal, though with little of the range and sophistication that Bach was to demonstrate in later works, it still carries the hallmarks of earlier traditions, particularly with relation to key. Although firmly rooted in Bm, a key from which it seems largely loathe to depart, it begins in F#m.
The voices enter in the order T, B, S and A and the initial emphasis on a rather staid crotchet and quaver movement is soon transformed into streams of flowing semiquavers. The notions of age and stolidity, youth and energy are firmly ensconced in the fabric of the writing.
And yet, despite the minor modes and serious nature of its theme, this movement still has something of the sense of fun of a family quodlibet. Bach’s apparent delight in expressing God’s presence, power and purpose seems so often to be present in his musical representations of them.
The bass aria/arioso is in strict ternary form, the middle section contrasting in every respect to the more staid outer ones that enclose it e.g. tempo, time, orchestration and texture. It begins and ends with a sarabande and a delightfully subtle orchestration, the theme initially divided between oboes and flutes which then unite to complete the phrase. Using the extreme range of the voice and disjunctive intervals, the singer’s first three words—-Tag und Nacht—-day and night (are yours)—-are announced over a compelling octave drop, fascinatingly different from Cole Porter’s setting of the same words over 200 years later!
The middle section informs us that God has created the light and sun and delineated the confines of the earth. Schweitzer would doubtless have attached significance to the incessant use of the Bachian three-note ‘figure of joy’ that pervades the continuo line, a melody that suggests human delight in His creations. The vocal line contains several examples of word painting which the reader can doubtless discover for him/herself.
There is a brief reference to the organ triplets from the second movement (bar 40) as, indeed, there will be in the final chorus (1st oboe, bar 26).
The alto arioso is as oddly orchestrated as it is structured; three trumpets, drums and continuo provide the singer’s support. As in the previous one for bass, it is formed (although more loosely) around a middle section in common time set within outer ones in triple time.
The opening ten bars deliver the first five lines of text—-though such strength protects our borders, within them peace must radiate, even as murder and war wage around us. This is precisely the sort of text which Bach looked for and relished throughout his life, one that contained opposing or seemingly contradictory ideas that required a unified form of expression. The trumpets and drums initially suggest God’s mighty strength but also the external conflict (bar 10). Peace is depicted by the more serene 4/4 bars (6-9) although the unexpected c naturals momentarily hearken back to thoughts of discord.
The final three lines of text are a tribute to the God that protects us—-when crown and sceptre shake, Your strength brings our salvation. This divine action is given emphasis through the ornamented rising melisma in bars 14-15 and the music moves seamlessly into an extended reprise of the initial martial expression of divine power.
The sixth movement, like the second, surely demonstrates the awesome potential that Bach was already developing as an artist and originator. The text has but the one line, a simple prayer that God should not allow the deliverance to the enemy of His dove’s soul. It is a scarcely concealed, customary request for Him to protect our souls from Satan and his hordes. But Bach makes something quite special from this oft repeated, conventional line. He produces a chorus of stunning depth and originality.
His use of instruments is quite unexpected, although we are not entirely unprepared for it. The main theme is carried by oboes, then flutes, thence by both, combined in the same way as in the bass aria. To this is added a continuous rocking Alberti-like cello theme and a bassoon line that ornaments the continuo, an early example of Bach’s later fascination with deep rich timbres (e.g. Brandenburg 6 and the Quoniam from the Great Mass). The choir and upper strings unfold themselves within this basic framework.
The essential effect is one of personal pleading a sincere and, at times, almost quietly desperate need to attract the Lord’s attention. The main motive, first heard on the oboes but soon to dominate the entire choral writing, is incredibly basic, consisting of just four notes based about a and b flat.
And if Bach had largely avoided the exploration of key relationships in the third movement, it was not because he did not know how to use them. Here the rising upwards from Dm through F, Gm, Am, Bb, C and returning to Dm hugely intensifies the force of personal expression. The ending is also as unexpected as it is dramatic, concluding on a D major chord but approached through one of Cm. The archaic Phrygian cadence leaves one with the feeling that Divine intervention is eternal.
The return of the trumpets and drums for the concluding chorus serves to remind us how economically they have been used throughout the work. Even here, they are employed for less than a quarter of the movement. Bach surely must have set out to attract attention with this cantata but not simply by making a big noise; his restraint is evident throughout.
Bach is given two six-line stanzas to set and the simplest way of doing it might have been in the form of a basic four-part chorale. However, he intends to end the cantata with a flourish and he does so with a movement which is both sectional and integrated.
The setting of the first stanza takes up barely one third of the movement and is largely madrigalian in character—-crown our government with blessing—peace and prosperity must always attend it. The choral writing is chordal throughout, doubtless a musical depiction of the united voice of the people. Bach continues to pit rhythms of threes and fours against each other and the verse ends with a gentle reminder of the organ obbligato solo from the second movement (bars 30-33).
The second stanza begins with a call for joy, good fortune and victory to please Kaiser Joseph the ruler of Mühlhausen. Bach sees this as a cue for racking up the musical tension and excitement in a number of ways; faster tempo, an entry on trumpets and raging semi-quaver scales. This quickly leads us, however, into a more benign fugue subject in which space and time are devoted to reflection upon the pleasure the King takes from all that is good in governance (from bar 40). Taking up virtually half of the entire movement, this may be viewed as a tribute and statement of homage to Joseph.
Bach completes the movement with a return to the established chordal vocal writing (from bar 88), extending the initial statement of the brass and scales of joy and victory from (bar 96). The movement, and indeed the cantata, is set to finish in a blaze of glory.
But it doesn’t. Instead it ends like the first movement, on a simple, recorder cadence. A moment of individual and corporate modesty perhaps? Certainly an instant which is both original and unexpected.
One final detail is the use of the sustained note with which the tenors penetrate the entire instrumental texture (from bar 90). The word—-bestàndig—- lays emphasis upon the very constancy of the good things that we seek.
We look upon this work today with hindsight, knowing what Bach subsequently went on to achieve. But it may well be that there were people in Mühlhausen at the time who glimpsed something of the genius they were temporarily privileged to employ.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.