Chapter 38 Bwv 197a

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Chapter 38 BWV 197a Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe

Glory to God on High.

Aria (alto)–recit (bass)–aria (bass)–chorale.

[This is, according to Wolff (p 284) the first cantata of the fourth cycle. Regrettably, only a section of it has survived].

For Christmas Day.

Unfortunately the preservation of barely half of this cantata means that its complete performance is impossible and discussion is inevitably limited. Dürr (pp 100-101) gives the text of the missing verses and he notes what little is known of the work. He suggests that the three missing movements were a chorus, recitative and aria and he further speculates that there might have been a sinfonia. In addition, only the last 19 bars of the fourth movement, an aria for alto, have survived.

It is the case, however, that Bach parodied certain arias from this work, probably originally composed for Christmas 1728 (ibid), for a later wedding cantata, C 197, dating from the mid 1730s (see chapter 75 in volume 1).  Both the alto and bass arias from C 197a are to be found in this later work, allowing the first of these to be substantially reconstructed. Listeners may, in fact, find that their CDs only contain recordings of the later complete secular cantata.

Nevertheless, although incomplete, this work was composed for one of the most important days of the church year and consequently we should pay it due attention, albeit in its frustratingly truncated form.

An essay on the Christmas Day cantata C 110 from the third cycle may be found in chapter 6 of this volume and there readers will also find brief contextual comments upon the other cantatas composed for this day, C 63 from the first cycle and C 91 from the second. There are no new Christmas Day cantatas extant from 1726 and 1727 and, indeed, there is no absolute certainty that C 197a was initially written for the celebrations of 1728.

We do know, however, that Bach always made use of large choral movements to begin these works and it is a source of great regret that the one which must have opened C 197a (assuming there to have been no sinfonia) has been lost. The text was a simple paean of praise—-glory be to God, with peace on earth and goodwill to mankind. The aria which followed continues to proclaim His might, marking also the Divine love which guides us when we have ventured astray. The first recitative, quite possibly for tenor, told the traditional story of the Prince becoming a pauper in order to save mankind.

Alto aria.

At this point we arrive at the incomplete alto aria, performable only when reconstructed from the later parody. The text speaks directly to the baby Jesus—-You, beautiful treasure, arise from Your crib and come to my lips and heart.

Whilst the macro-structure of the movement is readily re-formable, the instrumentation is more problematic. The surviving bars indicate that the original aria was for alto, two flutes, bassoon and continuo. The later version was for bass, two violins, bassoon and oboe. Whilst it may be assumed that the bassoon part remains unaltered and the vocal line needs only a minimal adaptation to the different text, it is obviously not possible to incorporate all three remaining lines within the two flute parts.

The obvious solution, justifiable through a close study of the bars that have survived, is to allow the flutes to play the violin parts and largely ignore the oboe line. It can reasonably safely be assumed that this was added to the texture only for the later performance and had no place in the earlier score. There is, of course, precedence for Bach adding new lines to already seemingly complete textures (for example, C 169/5, chapter 28).

It would be a pity for this aria not to be performed in its proper ecclesiastical context. Bassoon obbligati are rare in the canon and this is a particularly fulsome one, its melody bringing together and contrasting the initial idea of the firmly rooted octaves (from the opening bars) with the swoops of pleasure that follow. The overall form is a combination of ritornello and ternary and it is almost certain that Bach would have set the opening two lines of text—-beautiful treasure, rise from Your crib—-in the two A sections. The minor middle section (bars 27-51) would then have concerned itself with the latter lines—-assume Your place on my lips and in my heart. It is not possible to say with certainty which of the key words Bach would have given emphasis to on the numerous long notes in the vocal line although strong candidates might be ′crib′, ′lips′ and ′heart′.

The mood is one of quiet assurance tempered with a childlike breathless anticipation at the Divine object of beauty, allied to an eager expectancy of union with it. Interestingly, Bach′s later (intact) setting of this movement is also a recognition of a thing of beauty (the bridal couple) and a call for salvation and union with God. There is not such a great difference between the essences of these two stanzas, a fact that Bach would clearly have recognised when choosing to reuse the music.

Bass recitative.

The last three movements from the original Christmas cantata remain intact. The first is a recitative for bass, paired with the aria that follows it.

The text of the recitative confirms the sense of ′one-ness′ of Soul and Saviour—-the Christ Child is mine as I am His—-through this union I am in no need of possessions for now He will lead, carry and sustain me—-when I die He will bring me to Heaven. Although accompanied only by the continuo, this is a forceful little movement marked by a robust melodic line. In C 197 the recitative was gentler and scored for the soprano. Clearly the powerful sense of certainty conveyed by the religious text was more suited to the authoritative bass voice.

The earlier movement is also much more harmonically adventurous, migrating through a number of keys in a short space of time, some quite unrelated to others e.g. Am, Dm, F major, Em, C major, F#m—-all within a mere dozen bars!

Bass aria.

The bass aria has come down to us complete although again, it demonstrates some marked differences when compared with its later parody. It is scored for bass, oboe d′amore and continuo only. The later version is for soprano, two oboes d′amore, solo violin and continuo, pitched up a fourth in order to accommodate the higher vocal range. The 6/8 rhythm is that of a jaunty, pastoral dance, the earlier version having been constructed around a solid three-part texture of oboe, voice and continuo. The form is ritornello/ternary with the A section reprised but with a number of changes of detail. The text for both of the A sections is based upon the confident assertion—-I will not release You but shall retain You in my heart. The middle section declares—-nothing, not even torture or hell itself shall rob me of You.

The long rising melisma on rauben—-to steal or rob [my heart]—- does not occur in the later version of the text, which is altogether gentler—-the eye and breast shall have their due portions of contentment. Did Bach feel that there was no word in the new text significant enough to warrant the emphasis given to the notion of being robbed of Christ′s attentions? Whatever the reason, this is clear evidence of Bach′s attention to detail when recycling his works. Far from choosing to do it in a slapdash way in order to save time and effort (as Schweitzer and others have occasionally implied) it would seem that Bach′s determination to make every element of the revised movement as effective as possible was wholly undiminished. Second thoughts had to be as good, if not better than the original formulations.

The ritornello theme begins with a rhetorical statement characterised by two marked melodic directions, initially rising then falling.

It encapsulates the sense of —-on the one hand—-but also, on the other—-. The crux of the text however, is not about letting go but of holding on, and enclosing Christ within a heart suffused with love and faith. Perhaps Bach had these two qualities particularly in mind and wished to suggest them through reverses of melodic direction. He may also have considered an all-inclusive process, an encompassing and completely surrounding love, emanating from all directions. The semiquavers which dominate the remainder of the ritornello, and indeed much of the movement, are suggestive of a comprehensive mutual love, binding and conjoining Soul and Jesus.

The oboes used in the later version are clearly an afterthought. Even so, they demonstrate a point of detail as the transition from off-beat quavers to sustained chords serves to emphasise significant aspects of the subsequent text (from bar 35).


The closing chorale is one of the sturdiest in the repertoire. It proclaims—-I will continue to cling to You, Oh Jesus, even though the world may fragment—-I live only for You. The inner two lines are simple and largely unadorned but the bass and continuo march along with assertive and confident quavers. The assurance and conviction of both the traditional tune and Bach′s setting of it, reminds us of the chorus we have lost. Might it have been a fantasia built upon this buoyant chorale melody? Or perhaps it was one of the double-fugal expositions preceded by a complex and ebullient ritornello, highlighted with three trumpets and timpani?

We shall never know. Perhaps some small consolation pertains from imagining what might have once existed. The poet wrote, ′heard melodies are sweet but those unheard are sweeter.′ Nevertheless, imagining what Bach might have done is a fruitless task. He usually manages to surprise us; and provide us with something much better than we could ever have envisioned.


Copyright: J Mincham 2010.   Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.