Chapter 39 Bwv 171

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Chapter 39 BWV 171 Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm

God, as is Your Name, so is Your Renown.

Chorus–aria (tenor)–recit (alto)–aria (sop)–recit (bass)–chorale.

For New Year′s Day.

At first glance it would seem that Bach′s five extant cantatas for this day form a unique grouping of works upon which to base contextual analysis. Unfortunately the first one, C 190, has survived only in incomplete form and parts of C 143 are extremely unlikely to have been written by Bach (vol 1, chapter 65). C 248 forms part of the Christmas Oratorio (chapter 48). We are left with C 41 (vol 2 chapter 32, a chorale cantata from the second cycle), C 16 from the third (chapter 10) and, lastly, C 171. Additional contextual comment on the first two of these works may be found in chapter 10 of this volume.

The traditional texts for New Year′s Day did not allow for much in the way of subtlety. In general they formed an excuse to praise God and Christ, accompanied by an array of instruments, sometimes mentioned by name. The verses are likely to be statements of gratitude for the good things the passing year has brought and expressions of hope for a fruitful coming twelve months. Occasionally Bach and his librettist venture to express an image of some drama e.g. ′let Satan be crushed under our feet,′ (C 41/5), but in general the texts expressed are communal, formal, conventional, and lacking in nuance.

The miracle is that Bach continued to create such fine and inventive music from these hackneyed and repetitive libretti.


C 171 begins with a chorus of considerable stature, eschewing the ritornello principles that had formed the basis of several of the large opening choruses of the third cycle. The instrumental forces are large, two oboes and strings (doubling the voices throughout in typical motet style) reinforced by three trumpets and drums. The first trumpet has a significant role as we shall see, but the other two, along with the drums, play only a subsidiary part, doing little more than reinforcing the final cadences.

The lack of an opening instrumental section means that the first words of the text have immediate impact. Bach sets them—-Gott, wei dein Name—-God, as is Your name—-to a stark, unadorned rhythm of minims and crotchets declaimed by the tenors, doubled by the violas and underpinned by the continuo.

Tenor entry above continuo  bars 1-6


This turns out to be a fugal subject in what transpires to be the first of two fugato sections. The initial order of entries is tenor, alto, soprano and bass with the strings and oboes joining in to double the singers and buttress the texture. Once again the additive nature of the fugal exposition (voice adding to voice) is entirely appropriate, since the mounting of the lines of counterpoint, reinforced by the addition of the extra instruments, conveys a sense of God′s renown spreading throughout the entire world. His name is called at the beginning in the most unambiguous of terms, and the musical texture, instrumentation and dynamics all mushroom to depict the proliferating universality of God′s reputation.

A further detail is that, although the fugue subject is 6 bars long, the altos (and later the basses) enter on its fifth bar i.e. before the initial statement has been completed. This conveys a sense of urgency and resolve. The message is important and the good Christian will be eager, even impatient, to declaim it.

After the end of the first exposition (bar 20) there is a very short bridge to the first trumpet′s entry. Soaring above everyone else it begins with the initial fugato theme, thence dissolving into a series of almost continuous quavers. Thus does this most triumphant and regal of instruments metaphorically encapsulate the entire text: the statement of Name followed by the universal dispersal of His reputation. So carried away with this process is the trumpet that it continues into and through the beginning of the next fugato section.

This commences with the sopranos (bar 33) followed by alto, tenor and bass. The section culminates in a final statement of the oft repeated fugal theme by the sopranos (bars 58-63), now accompanied by block chords on strings and oboes, the trumpets alone carrying on with the rolling quavers. Bar 63 also marks the beginning of the coda, a 16-bar section that calls the remaining brass and drums into service, all ending in a blaze of D major glory.

This is a particularly succinct chorus proclaiming its textual and musical message in unequivocal terms. How then best to follow such a positively ebullient declaration?

Tenor aria.

Bach′s unfailing sense of balance would certainly have guided him in this respect and, accordingly, the first of the two recitatives is postponed until after an aria. This is for tenor, continuo and two obbligato violins, the figuration for the string instruments carrying forward something of the buoyancy and optimism of the opening chorus. The text speaks of God′s renown spreading as far as the clouds, while all lips and objects that draw breath continue to exalt Him. Bach′s depiction of clouds is usually rather dramatic; they tend to move quickly rather than floating about lyrically, perhaps a characteristic of the Leipzig weather in the 1720s? Another example of such atmospheric turbulence may be found in the chorus of C 72, chapter 13.

In the ritornello the two violins chase each other, semi-quavers predominating. The rising octave (first heard in bar 2) is also a characteristic of the imitative thematic material, later to be taken up in the vocal line.

Violin theme and octave leap in opening bars.

There are a number of musical motives, rising then falling, suggestive of the movements of cloud banks. The melisma on gehen—-moving—-(bars 20-22) further reinforces this image.

The structure of the aria is the ritornello/ternary shape with which Bach seemed so comfortable. The B section (beginning bar 34) concentrates upon the pervasive exaltation of God and both continuo and voice have their turns with the initial violin theme thus demonstrating, in musical terms, its universality. An adapted version of the A section returns at bar 60 and an unabridged statement of the original ritornello completes the aria.

It may be worth spending a moment exploring why Bach often came to relinquish the exact da capo repeat, substituting a revised rather than an identical version of the A section. It became a practice, established by late Baroque composers and further developed by the classical brigade, to move from the key of the movement (tonic) towards that based upon the fifth note of the scale (dominant). This became the norm, particularly with major keys because it induced a feeling of ′setting out′ or moving forward. The da capo aria was, structurally, an A B A shape in which both A sections were identical to the point that the second one did not need to be written out, an excellent time-saving device for hard-pressed composers. But, because both the convention and the musical logic of the time dictated that movements (other than recitatives) had to end in the key in which they began, the first A section, due to its inevitable reprise, also had to end in the tonic (home) key.

Bach obviously grasped the limitations of such a scheme. His later ternary form movements, of which this is an excellent example, make use of the technique of setting out to, and cadencing in, the dominant key; in this case he began in A major and the first section ended in the dominant key of E. This made a strict reprise impossible because the movement would have ended in the ′wrong′ key. Bach′s solution was to rewrite, instead of blindly repeating, the A section ensuring that it returned to, and fully established, the home key.

In summary, he begins in the key of A and proceeds to E. The middle section explores related minor keys and ends (bar 56) in F#m. A short segment of ritornello returns us to the tonic (A), remaining there until the end, the original vocal material adapted so as to accommodate the requirement to remain in the home key whence it had begun.

Students will recognise the incipient tonal scheme of the great sonata form movements written later in the century by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and others:

1)   tonic to dominant (exposition)

2)   contrasting keys, frequently mainly in minor modes (development)

3)   mainly tonic (recapitulation).

This simply serves to illustrate, yet again, Bach′s forward-looking approach to some of the most fundamental aspects of musical architecture.

Alto recitative.

The third movement is a secco recitative for alto. It begins in the key of F#m, slightly surprisingly since it opens with the sweet name of Jesus. Perhaps the minor mode suggests a more personal response to God′s renown and the stating of Jesus′s name; or possibly Bach wished to depict a feeling of the quiet, subdued comfort which the mention of the Saviour′s name brings. Or most likely of all, Bach planned a metaphorical tonal journey.

As a consequence, the movement ends in the bright key of D major as the singer declares—-You are my life, light, lifeline and gift of the New Year. The transition from minor to major reflects the process of evolution from introverted contemplation to confident assertion.

Soprano aria.

It also leads us to the key of the final aria for soprano. D major, 12/8 rhythm and a gently flowing bass line would suggest a conventional pastoral movement and, to a degree, this is what Bach provides. But the incessant violin obbligato melody determines the ultimate character of this charming movement.

The text speaks of Jesus—-His shall be the first name on our lips in the New Year—- and continuing until the moment of death—-when it shall even again be articulated. The violin begins its ritornello melody innocently enough, a gently lilting theme expressing the sweetness of the Saviour′s name. But from the second bar it assumes a wave-like motion of ceaseless rising and falling which dominates not only the instrumental ritornello section but the aria as a whole.

The two images which seem to have attracted Bach′s particular attention are, firstly the melodious delight of the very sound of His name and secondly, the fact that the articulation of it is unending; it will continue, from the first moments of the New Year ′on and on′ until death. The violin depicts both images, encapsulated within a motion which calls to mind the very action of breathing, a rising and falling motion suggestive of that most fundamental of life′s essential processes. Thus, the mere expression of His name becomes entwined with the very essence of corporeal life.

The form of the aria is predictable, a ternary structure combined with the reoccurring ritornello. The middle section begins in bar 22 with the words—-fort und fort—-on and on—-and it ends in bar 36.

Two points of considerable subtlety are worthy of mention. The first is the lack of any significant cadences in minor keys. True, B and E minors are touched upon, providing brief moments of harmonic variety, but they do not lead to cadences marking specific points of finality of significant musical sections. Consequently, the established mood of ′sweetness′ continues without interruption. Secondly, the middle section does not end; at least not with any degree of decisiveness. It merges back into the key of D major (bar 36) in order to prepare for the return to the A section (bar 40). The concept of continuing on or ′never ending′ is thus embedded within the actual formal design of what is otherwise, for Bach at least, a well tested musical structure.

The A section is not reprised as a da capo but in a slightly rewritten form and not for the same tonal reasons described above (tenor aria). Presumably it is principally to accommodate the last lingering melismas articulating His name (bars 50 and 52).

Bass recitative/arioso.

The penultimate movement is a hybrid recitative-cum-arioso for bass, continuo and two oboes. It commences with a single bar declaiming—-Since You, Lord did say—- whereupon the time changes to 3/8, the continuo announces one of its tripping repetitive figures, the mode becomes major and the voice declaims His words—-you need only ask in My name and all is affirmative and Amen. At this point (bar 12) the recitative returns and the singer proposes appropriate entreaties—-protection from fire, disease, war and (striking a particularly contemporary theme) the wish for good fortune and sound government! Sustained oboe chords accompany these requests, adding further weight to them.

But in the last two lines they become repeated notes, bestowing increasing emphasis—-say yes and Amen to what we ask! There is a pleading quality in the final statements detectable in both voice and instruments. Man has learnt that he must respond as the Lord requires, humbly and penitently. This point is encapsulated within the shaping of the melodic lines.


The concluding chorale has been taken, without alteration, from C 41 indicating that Bach must have looked back over earlier works written for the same days of the church year. It recalls the trumpets and drums, not heard since the opening chorus. They insert themselves between the opening phrases in such a way that might have led to the congregation if, indeed, it was in the habit of joining in, becoming temporarily mystified. The text makes the point of ending the year by praising God, additionally asking for peace and the ruin of miscreants. The 3/4 middle section, omitted from the earlier use of the same chorale in C 190, gives a celebratory, madrigalian feel to the ending of the Old Year and the celebration of the New.

By now we should have learnt that Bach reused previously composed music only if he deemed it to be fully fit for purpose. The resounding trumpets remind us of the first celebratory chorus, rounding off a cantata that, despite its lack of stimulating libretto, has its own character, integrity and agreeable structure. Bach did not cut corners; he simply knew, instinctively and through wide experience, what worked.


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