Chapter 9 BWV 28 Gottlob! nun geht das Jahr zu Ende
Praise God! The year draws to a close.
Aria (sop)--chorus--arioso (bass)--recit (tenor)--duet (alto/tenor)--chorale.
For the Sunday after Christmas.
This work provides us with an opportunity of comparison with two other cantatas written for the same day, C 152 and C 122. C 152 (vol 1, chapter 68) is a charming, relatively early work, originally written in Weimar for the Christmas period of 1714 and sharing some characteristics with the even earlier Easter cantata C 4. Both begin with an instrumental sinfonia, a practice Bach largely eschewed in the second cycle but was to return to in the third. Furthermore, C 4 has no da capo arias or recitatives and all of its movements are in the same key, E minor. C 152, unlike some of the earliest cantatas, does contain two recitatives, the inventiveness and imagery of which would indicate that Bach took to this operatic device with an enthusiasm amounting almost to gusto!
C 122 (vol 2, chapter 31) is a chorale/fantasia having the distinction of containing one of only three splendid trios in that cycle. All three cantatas begin and end with movements in minor modes although, unusually, C 152 lacks a closing chorale. Following two cantatas that make no use of the choir apart from in the simple chorale setting, C 28 contains a fine motet but it comes as the second movement rather than, as one might expect, at the beginning. Cs 28 and 122 are united in having the same scoring: three oboes, strings and continuo whereas the instrumentation for C 152 is exceedingly idiosyncratic. Although enchantingly effective, it may have been driven by either availability at the time or Bach’s continual quest for novel soundscapes.
The three works take differing views of the New Year, traditionally a time for looking back over the past year and forward to the next. C 152 is principally concerned with faith and C 122 with sin and refuge from it through the offices of the Baby Jesus. C 28 more overtly concerns itself with a review and expression of gratitude for God’s bounty over the previous year with the clear expectation that it should continue in the future.
The three oboes (the third a haunting oboe da caccia) create an impressive foil to the three upper string parts, although for the most part they are only used as doubling instruments in this cantata. However, Bach does exploit the potential of these two instrumental ‘choirs’ to the full in the ebullient opening soprano aria. So infectious and commanding are the first bars of the ritornello that we are initially tempted to expect a chorus, possibly even a return to the fantasia format of the second cycle.
Opening theme, oboes.
The text for this aria begins with the command to praise God as the old year fades away and the new is about to begin. But there is more to this than the traditional and oft repeated requirement to honour the Almighty. We are also enjoined to consider how much God has done for us and we do this for two related reasons; firstly so that we may be truly and appropriately grateful to Him but equally important is a practical self-serving element, the wish to ensure continued rewards in the months to come. A bargain has been made and we are duly reminded of the obligations on both sides.
The aria begins with four declamatory phrases played by the oboes, each one joined and reinforced by the upper strings. Perhaps this signifies a coming together of all people to praise God as duly instructed. The roles of the instruments are later reversed, strings leading and oboes reinforcing (from bar 17). Soprano and instruments play this idea off each other until the stern warning is given, Gedenke----consider! (bars 25-8). The soprano intones the word twice on longer notes, then twice more with added urgency.
The opening of this cantata is principally a dance of celebration and gratitude but we are not just here to enjoy ourselves; there are more important matters to which we must give our attention!
The placing of the one choral movement following the soprano aria is explained through an observance of the text. The soprano has emphasised the obligation placed upon the individual to celebrate----reflect upon this, my soul. But now is the appropriate time for all good people to gather together in order to express these sentiments collectively----Praise the Lord who has given you good things and forgiven your sins----He saves the wretched, makes strong the young and protects those who continue to endure earthly tribulations. The modern Italianate ritornello soprano aria is directly contrasted with the more archaic motet suggesting that this work contains a message for everyone; the one conveys individual, the other communal expressions of praise and reverence.
Those familiar with the second cycle will recognise the motet structure from, amongst others, the chorale/fantasias of Cs 2 and 38 (chapters 3 and 22). One of the voices, usually the sopranos, sings the chorale phrases in long notes (although it will be recalled that in C 2, unusually, the altos took this role). The instruments (including a cornet and trombones usually brought in for this and the last movements only) double the four vocal lines whilst the hymn tunes dictate proportions; in the case of C 28 the chorale melody about which it is based is a particularly long one of twelve phrases.
It is not, however, the chorale which closes the cantata.
The lower three voices are wide-ranging in the discussion of the melodic material. For example, the tenors begin the movement with a statement of the first phrase of the chorale, immediately taken up by the sopranos in notes of double length. The altos imitate the basses with a rising crotchet scale derived from the closing chorale melody, later to make appearances in the bass arioso. This structural principle continues unchanged; lower voices usher in the soprano's intoning of the twelve chorale phrases, culminating in an extended final note marking the King’s protection for all who have suffered in His Realm (bar 169-end).
The text dictates the manner of writing for the lower voices. For example, in the approach to phrase 5 the harmonies have become dark and chromatic, an obvious allusion to the ‘forgiven sins’ (bars 49-61). Other examples of the text subtly colouring elements of the music may be found approaching line 6----my weakness (68-74), line 7----a wretched life (80-90), line 10----make young with the strength of the eagle (125-134) and line 11----a brief canon representing the Almighty’s all-encompassing powers of protection and justice (141-148).
The motet may be an archaic structure but Bach infuses it with an energy and imagination that ensures it remains relevant and attractive even in the twenty-first century.
Bass arioso, tenor recitative.
Movements three and four are complementary, an arioso for bass leading to a recitative for tenor. The bass relates the words of the Lord, the tenor describes His qualities. The traditional roles of authority and narrator are thus retained and balanced.
The bass informs us that the Lord has already expressed His pleasure at helping the faithful and establishing them ‘in this land’. There is a direct musical link with the motet in that the repeated rising-scale motive of three or four notes (heard in the continuo in most bars) is an echo of that originally heard in the lower voices and first declaimed by the basses (bar 2).
Opening bars, continuo.
God’s people have praised Him and their words have been heard; now we learn that they have pleased Him, a simple point most subtly made in purely musical terms. The high sustained note and melisma on pflanzen----God’s establishment [of man within this land]----emphasises the main point of this stanza (bars 15-16).
This tender arioso is accompanied only by the continuo but in his following recitative the tenor has the additional support of the upper strings. God is a stream, a light and a store of blessings----faith in Him deflects us from evil and gives us all that we require. The images are explicit and one muses how Bach might have represented them had he written this cantata a decade earlier. In fact, there is nothing of the graphic painting of these tempting metaphors such as we find in the embellished recitatives of the earlier C 152. A mark of Bach’s maturity as an artist is his ability to decline the moment for the sake of the whole.
The sustained string chords envelop the vocal line and suffuse it with a halo-like compassion. But this is not the extrovert hallelujah of communal honour; it is the quietly personal expression of faith in God’s limitless powers and His merciful support of the devoted and committed. The movement begins and ends, appropriately, with tender major harmonies.
Not all of Bach’s cantata texts are as neatly constructed as this. The librettist, Neumeister, begins with the recognition of the passing of the year and the need to acknowledge God’s part in providing all that is good. It goes on to affirm the need to praise God for His great powers and continuing beneficence. It now comes to the specific entreaty, placed in the penultimate verse just where Bach would have considered it to be best situated for maximum effect----we now beseech Him explicitly to provide us with another happy and fruitful New Year. Of course we continue to extol His compassion; after all, there cannot be too much praise offered if it helps to fulfil our expectations. But the nub of this verse is the specific request for a prosperous future.
Alto and tenor combine above the continuo ritornello theme, the melody of which has two sections, a dance-like succession of quavers interspersed with a shower of falling semi-quavers. Are the latter a suggestion of the cascades of blessings which we clearly anticipate will rain down upon us in the coming months?
This concise and highly focused movement contains just three vocal blocks encompassed by four statements of the ritornello, the third of which is shortened by two bars. The first vocal section begins with the soprano, imitated by the bass, extolling God’s blessings that had been provided for us in the year gone by. Each voice enters with the dance-like quavers of the ritornello, merging into semi-quaver runs suggestive of God’s benefice and goodwill.
The second block reverses these processes, bass leading and soprano imitating, this time commencing with the semi-quavers, and moving towards the slower quaver movement. Here we have the nub of the text, further praise leading to the all-important request that we be granted our due, a happy and successful New Year.
In the third block, bass leads soprano in another imitative entry but with the voices following each other in much quicker succession, perhaps indicative of a greater sense of urgency. The musical motive is a rising one, suggestive of prayers and hopes for Divine goodness as they are offered up to Heaven.
Compared with so many of Bach’s extended duets, this one is remarkably succinct and concentrated. Much praise of the Lord has already been given and the self-seeking aspects should not, ideally, be given too much emphasis. The comparative dimensions of the movements of the cantata are, therefore, in just proportion to the weight given to the tributes and aspirations expressed in the text.
The closing chorale returns us to Am the key of the opening aria. But in neither case does the minor convey any sense of tragedy or misfortune. These movements may cast a brief shadow of nostalgia for the passing of the old year, but they are essentially muscular and positive. The text of this final verse is a neat summary of all that has gone before, beginning with the praise of the Father whose compassion has been clearly demonstrated through the Son He gave to us. But the basic human needs are not to be forgotten. The verse ends with the repeated petition to nourish us with kindness whilst freeing us from affliction. It is an admonition which will be repeated in two days time when the same chorale concludes C 16.
The good eighteenth century Lutheran knew his obligations to his Lord. But this did not deflect him from looking out for his own requirements. As a consequence, we find that there is an engaging pragmatism about this cantata!
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.