Chapter 89 BWV 173a Durchlauchtster Leopold

Illustrious Leopold.

Recit (sop)--aria (sop)--aria (bass)--duet (bass/sop)--recit/arioso  (sop/bass)--aria (sop)--aria (bass)--duet (sop/bass).

A cantata of homage.

NB This essay should be read in conjunction with that on C 173, chapter 59, vol 1.

Dürr states that this cantata was composed in haste for the birthday celebrations of Prince Leopold in 1717 (p 816). The first five of its eight movements were adapted for use in the religious cantata C 173 six years later and the final duet expanded into a chorus. The original cantata was for soprano and bass only and, presumably for the sake of musical variety, Bach adapted the later version so as to make more use of the other two solo singers. However, in order to make life a little easier, he chose the equivalent voices i.e. tenor replacing soprano in the first two movements and alto replacing bass in the third so that the essential vocal ranges were retained, albeit an octave apart. But in practical terms this meant that he did not need to transpose the movements into more suitable keys and could, therefore, make use of the original performing parts.

The essential musical structures of the six reused movements are all described in vol 1, chapter 59 and will only be commented upon minimally in this essay.

Soprano recitative.

When he turned his attention to the later C 173, Bach retained almost every detail of the opening recitative e.g. the key, harmony and instrumentation, indeed, even the melisma of the penultimate bar. This is unusual, since both the text and the voice have been altered, the latter from soprano to tenor. Bach makes a few adjustments to the vocal line but the beginning and end are unchanged.

The original text praised the great Prince of Còthen and (the principality of) Anhalt, the spectacular single melisma standing out to emphasise his fame. (In the later version Bach contrives to make use of the same device to depict the exalting of flesh and blood through Christ).

Soprano aria.

The soprano aria is supported by the strings referred to in the text and the flowing triplets suggest the emitted light of the suns that illuminate the Prince's fame. The rhythms throughout are dotted and jocular and the interplay of voice and strings in both versions (bars 26-7) is a delight.

Bass aria.

Bach's librettist (could it have been himself?) was fully aware of the earlier text when preparing that for the later version; the mention of strings in the second stanza and the line bringing together 'mouth, heart and ear' in the third proves this conclusively. The stalwart string interjections reflect our activity which, we are told, is a consequence of the good fortune which surrounds the Prince. This is an extremely concise movement with no instrumental introduction and only one bar of coda.

Bass/soprano aria.

The unusual structural characteristics of the fourth movement are fully described in chapter 59. In fact, unsurprisingly, they make rather more sense in the original version than in the paraphrased one. In both cases homage is being paid, in the first to a prince and in the second to God; in musical terms Bach does not differentiate between them. It is a minuet, a well recognized expression of refinement and decorum, set in three verses which emphasise the paternal nature of the one who provides for us and retains the support of his servants.

The fact that it ends in a key one tone higher than that in which it began is in itself manifestly symbolic, as is the uninterrupted flow of semiquavers in the third verse.

Soprano/bass recitative/arioso.

The following recitative was also adopted, almost without change, for the later version. However, a tenor replaced the original bass which required some reconstruction of the vocal part; the secular version actually makes more sense of the text.

The soprano and bass begin singing in parallel (as with one voice), offering their hearts which are aglow with devotion to the Father of the Province. It is only in the final line of the stanza that Bach finds an image he feels he can indulge----an outpouring of our sighs will soar up to the very heavens. The action of rising is depicted by imitative quaver passages (bars 7-9) followed by an idea suggestive of sighing (from bar 10). Even the closing continuo coda figure is a scale rising over nearly two octaves before settling back to the final, earthbound cadence.

It is noteworthy that Bach and his librettist retained this last line in the later cantata, thus making perfect sense of both settings.

It is at this point, after the fifth movement, that we discover two additional arias that Bach did not use in the later version, one each for the soprano and bass voices. The cantata then concludes with the duet which becomes, in the latter version, a four-part chorus. It is worth noting that all three movements are in major keys (in fact, apart from the second recitative, there are no movements set in the minor in the entire cantata) and they are all dances; two bourrees and a minuet (or possibly polonaise).

Soprano aria.

The metaphor of sunlight is continued in both arias, that for soprano referring to the happy light of this perfect day reflecting forth as a future memory of present contentment. Strings support the singer with two flutes doubling the first violins; but not always. From time to time Bach enriches his palette of orchestral colours by the simple expedient of temporarily removing doubling instruments and he does this here throughout the middle section. The phrases are generally balanced and symmetrical, another indication of the dance-like humour.

The movement is dominated by the opening two-bar theme and it falls neatly into a ternary/ritornello structure, section B beginning in bar 58 and the shortened reprise of A from bar 100.There are a number of significant melismas stressing key words which the reader should be able to pinpoint for him/herself.

Bass aria.

Although an equally joyous affair, the bass aria exploits a richer, more sonorous soundscape. A cello and bassoon combine to provide a busy obbligato theme for singer and continuo.

The dance characteristics of the previous movement are as clearly apparent here, as is the sense of forward drive and momentum. The singer is stretched to the top of his range, high f #s and e-s abounding in the opening phrases. But perhaps the most obvious characteristic, unduly stressed by the lyricist despite the sense of excessive fawning which rather grates upon modern ears, is the repetitious bawling out of the Prince's name----Leopold! May his name move with the sun, dwell amongst the stars and shine famously within the borders on the province! This, and the melismas on Grenzen----the very limits of his domain and----glänzen----his gleaming fame----all unite to push the expressions of homage past the limits of polite patronage. The aria is a splendidly invigorating one which can still be widely enjoyed today. Some listeners may, however, prefer to turn a blind eye (or ear) to the words.

Even so, it is not easy to ignore those cumulative, obsequious ejaculations of the Prince's name!

Soprano/bass aria.

The closing duet is an entreaty, expressed yet again through dance rhythms, giving the impression of unsophisticated rustics seeking their Prince's favours. There has been much speculation over the past century about what Bach really thought of some of the leaden and repetitious religious texts he was given to set. Equally, one might speculate as to what he, a man who seemed, perhaps unusually for the time, fully aware of his own strengths and capacities, really thought of these fawning, unimaginative and ultimately demeaning lines. Here the Prince is asked to accept those who humbly pay tribute to him and to bless them as they come to honour his crown.

Perhaps a clue might lie buried in the rather minimal treatment Bach has given to this text. The singers are heard in only forty-eight of the ninety-six bars and the vocal writing is both undemanding and lacking in compositional sophistication. Much of the movement is taken up with the sixteen bar-ritornello theme at the beginning and its exceptional use as a thirty-two bar episode in the middle! Of course, it may well be that Bach did not give this movement the attention he might have wished due to pressures of time. It might also be that he was not entirely enthusiastic about the sentiments or the doggerel through which they were expressed.

Bach expanded the duet into a four-part choir in the later version, perhaps to give that shorter cantata a slightly more substantial ending. He does this on a number of occasions, one notable example being the opening chorus of C 74 (vol 2, chapter 48) expanded from a duet in C 59. The fingerprints of the earlier two-part writing are seldom fully disguised, however, and it is reasonable to assume that such practices were usually associated with pressures of time.

This cantata is not the only one with lyrics that might grate on the sentiments of later listeners less patient with the sentiments of eighteenth century patronage. But that is no reason not to enjoy the music.


Copyright: J Mincham 2010.   Revised 2012 and 2014.
Download in Microsoft Word format