Chapter 96 BWV 215 Preise dein Glücke, gesegnetes Sachsen
Value your good fortune, blessed Saxony.
Chorus–recit (tenor)–aria (tenor)–recit (bass)–aria (bass)–recit (sop)–aria (sop)–recit/arioso (tenor/bass/sop)–chorus.
A cantata of homage.
Once again the opening chorus will sound familiar to most listeners. On this occasion it is not because Bach derived it from an earlier work (as in Cs 207 and 207a) but because he used it for a subsequent one. This chorus, or a section of it, was to become the Osanna in the Bm Mass.
The cantata, in this form, was presented along with a torch-light procession by the students of Leipzig university on the occasion of a visit by Augustus the Third, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland in 1734 (Dürr p 834). The new monarch subsequently acquired little of the military reputation of his father, Augustus the Strong, who had ruled for over thirty years and was rumoured to have sired nearly four hundred children, almost all of them illegitimate. Augustus the Third kept a palace in Dresden and was more interested in opera and the arts, acquiring the soubriquet ‘Augustus the Fat’. The point of interest for us is that Bach almost certainly based the powerfully bellicose movements of this cantata upon the reputation of the father rather than that of the son.
It is thought that, with little time to prepare the work Bach probably made use of several existing movements from works now lost although, apart from the first movement, this must remain a matter of conjecture. The work stands apart from the majority of the cantatas of homage in that no use is made of allegorical or mythical figures, the emphasis being wholly upon the King, his heritage and assumed qualities and what they mean for his subjects.
The opening chorus is almost unique in that Bach does something that he did almost nowhere else apart from the motets; he employs a double choir. (One possible exception is the single movement C 50, thought to have been part of an otherwise cantata for St Michael’s day; see vol 3, chapter 55. However, doubt has been expressed about the authenticity of this piece,)
Familiar to most of us as the Osanna in Excelsis from the Mass in Bm, this movement retains the original orchestration (three trumpets and drums, flutes, oboes, strings and continuo), but, somewhat unusually, Bach there altered its structure radically so as to fit its new environment. He abandoned the middle section of what, in the cantata, is a traditional if greatly expanded da capo movement, and he also did away with the lengthy instrumental ritornello (although he retained it at the end). The reason for the first decision is surely dramatic, so that in the Mass the choir makes a theatrical, and unexpected announcement after the vigour of the Sanctus and Pleni Sunt Coeli. The second pertains to the scale of the movement related to its new setting where it follows a series of long and demanding choral movements and precedes the change of mood and pace of the final two arias. There are alterations of detail as well, particularly noticeable being the initial upbeat, a single quaver in the Mass, four demi-semi-quavers in the cantata.
It would be difficult to conceive of a more appropriate musical expression of direct praise to a lofty personage. The text of the outer sections declaims—-appreciate your good fortune, Saxony—-God himself supports the Monarch’s throne (there are numerous examples where Bach has taken a text and music which honours an elevated mortal personage and latterly applied it in the worship of God or Christ, as in the use of this piece in the Great Mass. He seemed less willing to reverse the process).The choral writing varies between the monolithic unisons and octaves of the opening statement to homophonic writing in seven parts (from bar 39) to close imitation (from bar 47). He also makes great play of the dramatic interjections of one choir, often using the initial motive, against the uninterrupted flowing counterpoint of the other (from bar 59).
The A section, nearly two hundred bars long, ends with a reprise of the full ritornello theme and for most composers this would have been enough. But Bach adds a middle section, much shorter at just under sixty bars, but substantial enough to carry the rest of the text and provide sufficient contrast for the entire A section to return. The text enjoins the happy populace to kiss the hand of the One who provides our welfare and defends us. Trumpets are silent (except for one rather forlorn moment just before the reprise) and Bach continues to play the two choirs off against each other before they unite, as the people are encouraged to do, at the end of this section.
Of the four recitatives only one, the second, is secco. The first is for tenor and two oboes and is clearly intended to be paired with the following aria; both are paeans of praise to Augustus. The recitative verse is obsequious in the extreme—-how may we express our love other than by prostrating ourselves at your feet?—-the blessings of heaven cascade through your hands in streams which both fulfil our hopes and reflect your father’s glory.
Just what the fluttering figure of the oboes is meant to represent is unclear. Despite their minimal extension after the mention of cascades, it hardly seems robust enough to suggest streams of blessing, something which Bach has pictured many times elsewhere. In fact, it appears more like the tremulous stammer or intake of breathe as the people prostrate themselves before the regal presence.
The fact that so much of it remains firmly in minor modes might also imply humility and lowliness. The music emerges into the major in the last few bars, however, in preparation for the positive assertions of the impending aria.
This is the first of two particularly vigorous arias that appear to depict something of the rage and aggression of war. The opening ritornello theme (violins doubled by oboe d’amore) is rhythmically complex, at times even suggestive of a sailor’s hornpipe (bars 9-11). However, the royal line is associated with military rather than naval based warfare, so this is probably coincidental.
Nevertheless, the energy and belligerence of this music cannot be denied. It is a long (260 bars) da capo aria, each section containing two vocal blocks and both ending in brief moments of relaxation and rhythmic easing. This allows the listener to reflect upon two ideas, firstly the assertion that the line from which Augustus has sprung defies mortality and secondly, the Golden Age which is seen to be a consequence of such virtuous rulers. Excessively long melismas on Same—-the royal seed or lineage—-and leben—-living (in the Golden Age) further emphasise the poet’s themes.
One might assume that Bach gave less attention to the setting of the bass recitative than to the others, since it employs only the essential continuo. But the shaping of the line is carefully crafted to reflect its three main sections. The first raises the question, why did the nation prefer you as their monarch? The second provides the answer—-it is not only the illustrious lineage, but the new king’s virtue before which all prostrate themselves. The third brings to mind the jealous and envious who rage against the king, although they are too weak to unsettle a national prosperity rooted on rock. Bach’s melodic line changes subtly but perceptibly as the sense of the verse progresses.
The interesting question here is, why does the lyricist bother to sing of those who attempt to rise against the throne if they are too weak to make any impact? The answer lies in the following aria.
It emerges from a tradition of the ‘rage’ aria which would have been heard in the opera seria of the seventeenth century and with which, in Dresden, the young monarch would doubtless have been familiar. This raises the fascinating possibility that Bach, aware of the tradition, may have requested his lyricist to concoct a situation that allowed for the inclusion of the sort of music that the king was bound to recognize. True, Bach does not adhere to the traditional key of such movements, Dm, but it is typical of the man to adopt a convention and then give it a new slant.
This splendidly vigorous and forceful aria acquires its character from its tempo and the sheer amount of insistent repeated notes. Oboe and first violins unite to deliver the ritornello theme with the latter playing most of the notes as repeated semi-quavers against the former’s quavers.
Oboes and violins supported by the lower strings.
When the voice enters, the violins resort to a resolute ‘drumming’ upon a single note. The effect is invigorating to the point almost of being mesmeric, and none of this abates in the ‘contrasting’ middle section. In fact a, particular point of brilliance (and originality) may be found at the end of the B section where Bach, eschewing the traditional pausing cadence, rushes headlong back into the reprise without pausing to take breath; the listener finds him/herself amidst it before s/he realizes it.
The text calls upon the envious in the most vituperate terms—-rage amongst your own entrails—-raise your arm in your chaste brother’s blood—-we are revolted and you are shamed and your wrath will harm you more than it will Augustus. This aria is the centrepiece of the cantata and, although the text may be peripheral to the main theme of the work, the music was surely designed to make an impact upon the new king.
Whereas Bach employed two oboes in the first recitative, he calls upon two flutes in the third. Once again Bach and his lyricist may have been very cunning in the choice of themes likely to appeal to the king. The first movements celebrated his lineage, thence his virtue. The ‘rage’ aria would have been a familiar format and now the king’s grace, mercy and love for his subjects are addressed. All bets are being covered and it is likely that Augustus, known to be more of an art lover than a war monger, may well have been flattered when the gentler aspects of his character were praised.
Augustus, we are told, prefers to win his subjects’ hearts more through love than by constraint. With hindsight, however, history might record that it may have been more a matter of idleness and indifference!
The soprano aria is the only movement to be paraphrased in the Christmas Oratorio (no 47) although it is there rewritten for bass and an oboe d’amore replacing the original flute obbligato. There is no doubling of the flute part and a conventional continuo line takes over the higher and lighter violin/viola bass. The cantata text continues the recitative theme—-to punish with weapons brings fame and honour, but the repayment of evil through virtue can only be achieved by heroes; and, of course, Augustus must be seen to be one of them!
The differences in character of the two versions of this aria are notable. The lack of a low continuo line in the cantata version evokes a spiritual or unworldly quality which, no doubt, was intended to apply to the King. In the Oratorio the verse calls for the divine word to illuminate heart and spirit and defend the soul from evil influences: consequently, the character is less ethereal and more positive.
It is also worth noting that the slowing of the tempo for the emphasis of Augustus’s name is omitted in the later version. Further notes about the movement may be found in the essay on the fifth cantata of the Oratorio in chapter 48 of volume 3.
The penultimate movement is a recitative in which the tenor, bass and soprano, possibly assuming allegorical guises, pay their tributes, individually then united. The full instrumental resources are called upon, the strings to provide a discrete accompaniment of sustained chords and the brass and woodwind to interject as appropriate.
The tenor begins with a sycophantic plea—-permit our choir to sing of that happy day when you were chosen king. The sustained string chords provide an atmosphere of dignified tranquillity. The bass transports us from Bm to D major, mainly for the convenience of the trumpets whose interjections, set against raging violins, serve to remind us of surrounding perils and images of battle. He concludes with a recognition of the peace that the Protector and his Queen have brought to the region.
The soprano offers brief support—-even the mountains are delighted with the prosperity we enjoy. The three voices conclude with an arioso over a persistent quaver bass, enjoining heaven itself to allow the proliferation of prosperity. This is a movement which, unusual though it might be in structure, does less to engage the emotions than much of the remainder of the work.
Some might say the same of the concluding chorus. Although in 6/8 time, it shares many characteristics with that of C 214 composed the previous year. The musical motives are much the same (compare for example the opening two bars with bars 49-53 of the earlier work) and the symmetrical structuring of the phrases has much in common. Even more to the point, neither movement is particularly engaging; both have the quality of a work ‘thrown off’ quickly in order to fulfill a commission. They provide cheerful but undemanding conclusions to works which had delivered more in previous movements.
Bach does insert two eight-bar contrasting sections which provide a modicum of minor-mode variety (from bars 17 and 41). They are sandwiched between the opening block of sixteen bars which is heard, in full, three times This is music which has little of the Bachian sense of development, expansion and argument; it makes its point through assertive repetition. And since the text does little more than call upon God to elevate the Throne and lineage of Augustus in order that he may protect us with due justice and mercy, we should probably be satisfied with that.
But we recall that one superior chorus and an aria from this cantata were thought good enough to be recycled in later, possibly greater, works and two other fine arias will, once heard, remain fondly in the memory. It would seem churlish to expect more!
Details of the description of the impressive celebration for which this music was composed may be found on pp 164-7 of the New Bach Reader; apparently six hundred students were involved in the procession. A shadow was, however, cast over the success of the event. Shortly afterwards, Bach’s commanding first trumpeter Gottfried Reiche died, possibly due to over-exertion and/or the inhalation of smoke from the torches.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017.