Chapter 28 BWV 91 Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ
We praise you, Jesus Christ.
Chorus/fantasia–recit/chorale (bass)–aria (tenor)–recit/arioso (bass)–duet (sop/alto)–chorale.
The title says it all. What else should the good Christian do at Christmas but acknowledge and praise his Saviour? This cantata was written for Christmas day 1724, the first that Bach composed anew for this important occasion at Leipzig. Scholars may wish to compare it with other examples of Bach’s celebrations of this occasion.
The earliest surviving is C 63 written in Weimar for Christmas Day 1714, exactly a decade earlier. That was certainly a work designed to impress. It begins and ends with choruses of mammoth proportions and an orchestra, including the relatively rare use of four trumpets with timpani, three oboes and bassoon. The oboe obbligato to the third movement, a duet between bass and soprano, demonstrates just how adept Bach, still in his twenties, had become at producing extended, organic melodies of entrancing beauty.
There was no new Christmas Day cantata for the first Leipzig cycle; Bach thought highly enough of C 63 to reuse it. C 110 fulfils the function in the third cycle. Like 63 it is written for large forces with three trumpets, flutes, oboes, timpani and bassoons adding to the strings. C 197a, probably composed for Christmas 1728, is incomplete and seems to have been written for smaller forces (flutes, oboes d’ amore and strings) but the opening chorus has been lost so it is possible that trumpets and drums may also have been called upon.
It seems that C 91 sits somewhere between the monumental and personal expressions of the Christmas message, both of which Bach was adept at portraying. It is not a long work; even the opening chorus is unlikely to last more than about three minutes in performance. By far the most extended is the penultimate movement, an exquisite duet for soprano and alto, which lasts for almost as long as the rest of the cantata! Nor does Bach call upon the ceremonial trumpets which he had done before and would do again. This time two horns, reminiscent of the first Brandenburg Concerto, suffice as the instruments of ritual grandeur and celebration. They are reinforced by timpani, three oboes and the usual strings and continuo.
As an aside, it is perhaps worth noting that Bach′s horns, usually appearing in pairs, are always used in major keys. Whether for technical or aesthetic reasons Bach never seems to use them in movements set in minor modes.
The theme of the work, as clearly explained in the soprano recitative, is the apposition of two views of Christ. He is the Son of God and we should praise and love Him for what He has achieved for mankind. However, we should always remember His humble birth and modest entrance into this world. The opening chorus deals with the obligatory, extrovert praises and the tenor aria with His unassuming and modest birth.
Both ideas, as we shall see, are ingeniously combined in the duet.
The words of the opening chorus begin with a hymn of praise to the Saviour and end, as does the closing chorale, with the traditional Kyrie Eleison. In between we are reminded of the Virgin Birth, news of which, we are told, brings great joy for the angels. And it is almost certainly the mention of hordes of angels that suggested the musical ideas from which the instrumental ritornello theme of the fantasia is constructed.
The first adjective that comes to mind when describing the opening musical statement is ‘sweeping’. While the horns sustain the third and fifth notes of a G major chord, oboes, then strings enter in a closely packed texture of rising semi-quaver scales.
Oboes, opening bars.
Much of the movement will be dominated by these scales, interspersed with the three-note figure of joy. Both ideas, according to Schweitzer, express elation, exultation and euphoria, additionally suggesting the multitudes of angels. The horns carry the semi-quavers along from the fifth bar, thereby adding an additional element of pageantry. And when the instrument groups are temporarily relieved of their bustling duties, they accompany the choir, either with block staccato chords or with arpeggio patterns that exploit a motive constructed essentially of two or three repeated notes, the genesis of which lies in the first three notes of the chorale melody.
The sopranos carry the cantus firmus and the other three voices support by continuing the semi-quaver scales beneath them; but not in two of the five phrases. The third reminds us of the truth of the Virgin birth and here the lower voices revert to an imitative quaver idea designed to emphasise this simple truth. It is still a matter for joy of course, and the strings and oboes continue to propel the exultant energy forward. But the voices, just for this moment, and again for similar reasons in the final ′Kyrie′ phrase, have become more declamatory.
Details of this kind remind us of the immense pains that Bach took in the setting of his texts, a source of continuing wonderment that inevitably grows out of assiduous study of his scores. It is, perhaps, the more miraculous when it is realized how little many of these details can have been consciously noticed by those listeners hearing just the one performance. Again, we are tempted to assume that Bach is principally writing for God rather than for Man.
Before turning our attention to the soprano recitative, let us glance at the structure of the chorale melody. It is short, just ten bars and five phrases long. The fourth phrase is extended by one bar, an oddity which would doubtless have attracted Bach’s interest.
But the important feature we can be certain that Bach latched onto, because he made so much use of it, is the group of three repeated notes in the first, fourth and fifth phrases. Mention has already been made of its presence in the opening chorus, but as we progress through the cantata we find that this is the structural glue that binds almost all the individual movements together. Only the bass recitative seems to have escaped it.
The second movement reminds us of the various experiments Bach made in the first half of the cycle with combinations of chorale, arioso and ritornello. The first four phrases of the chorale (omitting only the final Kyrie Eleison) are sung by the sopranos (presumably ripieno) and a soloist sings the lines of recitative that separates and encompasses them (concertante). The recitative phrases are, as we would expect, accompanied by the continuo; long bass notes and a minimum of chord changes. But as soon as the chorale enters, the continuo embarks upon a slightly jaunty version of the first chorale phrase. Again, it is the three repeated notes that immediately strike the ear, like the echoing beats of a far distant drum. This motive is heard twelve times in the twenty-four bars of the movement.
As always, Bach’s division of the lines of poetry is carefully considered. The chorale phrases remind us of Jesus and his potential power, originally disguised within the lowly manger. The sections of recitative further interpret this basic scenario for the congregation—behold, see what this has done for us! Were we not condemned before this time? Observe the power of Divine Love!
Once again we detect the presence of Bach the teacher. One would hardly be surprised to be told to sit up and pay attention!
Thus Bach draws a clear distinction between the statements of Christian fact of the Virgin birth, and the blessed implications it has for mankind. Musical form and texture are perfectly moulded in order to deliver these messages with the maximum possible emotional impact. The Church and the Leipzig authorities should have been delighted, had they sufficient insight into Bach’s immense subtlety.
There can be little doubt that Bach was fond of the sound of three oboes and solo voice above the continuo. Other examples can be found in Cs 20, 26 and 68 (chapters 2, 25 and 49). Each has its own particular charm and character though it is also interesting to study them as a group. This tenor aria provides us with yet another opportunity to hear this typically Bachian combination.
The text has little in the way of striking images, telling simply of a God who, although so mighty, yet chose a humble manger for his purpose. The one image that Bach might have made a particular point of is that of the illuminating beam of light from Heaven, enclosing us within its radiance.
Structurally, there are several points to note. The first is the motive of three repeated notes, here mainly heard as crotchets in the bass although the oboes also get to touch upon them (bars 47-9 and elsewhere). Another is the dotted rhythm that dominates the entire movement.
Oboe above bass.
Power, authority and stature are all suggested by this strong musical idea that has its roots in the French Overture (see chapter 2). The opening ritornello is constructed of phrases of different lengths, alternating two and three bar phrases. There are no predictable certainties here!
Thus the movement miraculously conveys a collage of opposing emotions. It is positive— yet still slightly uncertain. It is assured—but just a little hesitant. It encapsulates perfectly the contradictions of Christ the Son of God, and Christ the humble Child born in a manger. It thus pre-empts the bedrock duet in which Bach continues to explore these notions of paradox, albeit through very different musical means.
The bass recitative has little motivic connection with the movements that surround it, making use of neither the dotted rhythms nor the repeated note idea. It begins, conventionally enough, with a call to Christians to be prepared to meet their creator and warm string chords bathe these words. It ends with a reference to Christ’s agonies, something we should not ignore, even on this festive occasion of His birth.
It is, however, an image that Bach cannot resist. The vocal line strives upwards as the bass descends. The harmonies are tortuous and convoluted. There is, as we would expect, little in this cantata of celebration to remind us of Christ’s agonies. This is one moment when it is dramatically brought to our attention.
Mention has been made in several essays of Bach’s habit of composing one particularly long and especially significant aria; other examples may be found in Cs 62, 121, 133 and 41. In this work we find it is the penultimate movement, a duet for soprano and alto.
It is, of course, ridiculous to extract one area of Bach’s cantata output and claim that this was what he really excelled at. Whether it be his choruses, arias, ritornello themes or recitatives, he constantly proved himself to be master of his art and superior to his contemporaries. This said though, the author has to admit to a particular affection for the duets. There are nearly twenty of them in this cycle and they cover a vast range of musical expression that never disappoints. Simply compare those from Cs 78, 101 and 91 in order to appreciate the emotional range they explore. Then look at Cs 10, 113 and 33 so as to make further comparisons. Which appeals to you most?
It’s an impossible question, of course, because they are all superb movements. But such comparisons may cajole the reader into re-considering and appreciating the duet genre a little more.
The soprano/alto duet from C 91 is, without doubt, the key to the entire cantata. Here Bach has portrayed musically the two paradoxical aspects of Christ, described above. The string ritornello is woven from a repetitive dotted rhythm, making use of the three reiterated notes provided by the chorale.
This idea, again with echoes of the French Overture, had already been suggested, subtly, in the tenor aria. It conveys a sense of Christ’s stature and authority. After all, as the text makes clear, it is because of Him that we may traverse the heavens and join the angel choir. There is no variety of instrumental colour here, nor is any required. Authority is not diminished with the march of time, so the combined violins can continue to declaim their theme without inhibition above the solid marching bass.
But the singers play no part in expressing this idea, they represent the other aspect of Christ. Not once do they take up the dotted rhythms. They are preoccupied with the lowly, pauper aspects of His life and their repeated, dissonant suspensions express its poignancy. Christ’s humility reflects and provides a model for our own and it contrasts strongly with the grandeur and joy of the Lord and Saviour which Christmas traditionally celebrates.
But let it not be thought that the singers indulge in a self indulgent outpouring of tragedy. It could not be thus, because God chose this way for his Son and the consequences of His actions have proven to be entirely positive for all believers. The vocal lines convey something quite different, a most subtle emotion that combines a touch of sadness with an affinity with the privations Christ endured. Impossible to describe precisely in words, nevertheless Bach captures the feeling exactly in his music.
(Comparisons should be made between this and the second of the two duets in C 4 (chapter 42) constructed from a similar apposition of dotted rhythms and contrasting vocal lines, and also in the key of Em).
The imagery here is complex and multi-layered. The rising pitches suggest the achieving of higher things. But we need to recall that Bach’s use of a falling chromatic scale, particularly in this key of E minor, frequently suggests the Crucifixion (see, for example, Cs 4, 78 and the B minor Mass). Here we have the agonizing image of the Crucifixion reversed. Echoes of this momentous event remain, but its higher purpose is also revealed.
Another complex metaphoric image designed for the attention of God alone?
The chorale returns to the essential message and the celebratory major of the opening chorus. The text is simple and summatory—-God has blessed us and we should be eternally thankful to Him—-have mercy upon us.
It is a relatively unprepossessing melody; but we must remain grateful for the superb music it inspired.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.