Chapter 54 Bwv 51

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Chapter 54 BWV 51 Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen

Shout joy for God in every land

For soprano solo
For the fifteenth Sunday after Trinity.
This work is known to have been performed around 1730 but was probably composed some time earlier. Drr (p 540) notes that the designation for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity was added at a later time. Consequently comparisons with the two earlier cantatas for this day are likely to be meaningless. There is little that relates C 51 to the discursive and embryonic chorale cantata C 138 from the first cycle or the fully established chorale/fantasia, C 99, from the second. Even the traditional four-part closing chorale is not to be found in C 51; the chorale melody is sung by the soprano to the accompaniment of rousing strings, concluding with a series of rolling Alleluias.
What the original function of this work may have been therefore remains conjectural. Whether, as Drr and others have suggested it was composed for a female rather than a boy soprano and whether that person may have been Anna Magdalena Bach herself continues to be a teasing puzzle. Certainly the joyousness of the cantata precludes its use at a funeral, celebratory events such as weddings or birthdays being the most probable source of the original inspiration.
This remains one of Bach’s most enduringly popular cantatas as well as being one of the more difficult to perform. It requires an exceptionally good soprano with a wide range as well as a very able trumpeter. It must have sounded extraordinarily exhilarating to Eighteenth Century audiences and it has lost none of its vitality or animation today. Indeed, most Bach lovers will know it even if their general familiarity with the cantata repertoire is scanty. Consequently there is little new to be said about it.
The opening movement begins with a typically masculine fanfare figure played, in octaves, on trumpet strings and continuo. As early as bar 2 it diffuses into harmony, trumpet and first violins carrying the extrovert repeated note idea supported by the lower strings and a striding quaver continuo. Much use is made of both figurations to support the vocal line, itself less focussed in its motivic development than is usually the case. It contains much flowing, scalic movement serving joint functions of conveying the joy of shouting God’s praises and the virtuosity with which the musicians revel in so doing.
Bach’s setting of this text is somewhat idiosyncratic. When the music has clearly definable structural divisions it is usual to find him allocating particular lines of the text to each. Thus in a da capo movement the A section may deal with the first 2-3 lines and the B section with those that remain. In this case the A section has only the first line to declaim—-Shout joy for God in all lands. The B section emerges from bar 39 taking us, as expected, through related keys of Am, Em and Gmaj and carrying the next seven lines of text—-all creatures in heaven and earth must, as we now do, present our offerings to the God who protects us in times of trouble. But before this segment is complete Bach returns to the opening line, having it emerge mid phrase from bar 63. There is a reprise of the A section of sorts from bar 68 but by now the soprano is in mid flow, her elegant line unimpeded by the constraints of traditional formal structuring! There is no obvious distinction between these two sections; the inevitable surging of the music simply transcends conventional configurations.
The recitative also has its surprises. Initially it is an expression of worship of God’s house from which place His ever refreshed fidelity continues to reward us. Despite the upbeat nature of this sentiment, Bach sets it in the minor mode against a distinctly plodding string accompaniment. There is, perhaps an earnest and resolute message here, perhaps of daily ritual and dreary, but essential repetition.
The second part of the verse is set as an arioso over a resolute quaver continuo bass line—-our voices, weak though they may be must still stammer and mumble of His wonders—-even that puny response will please Him! Bach sets these lines twice (from bar 10 and thence from bar 16) and on each occasion the melodic shapes suggest utterances of weakness and the waywardness of stammering. The latter is pictorially represented by the two rhythmically disjointed melismas on ‘lallen’ (bars 12-13 and 19-20).
The third movement is the least extrovert of the three arias, still minor and using only the continuo to support the voice. The 12/8 time signature has little of the idyllic pastorale character which it often implies. Lacking an obligato instrument, the steady quavers of the continuo line are particularly evident as they imply a steady confidence and assurance—-Children of the Lord that we are, we demonstrate, through the leading of pious and dutiful lives, our gratitude to Him as He daily renews His goodness. The opening ritornello has the distinct feeling of a ground bass but Bach extends it with a greater degree of freedom.
The form of this movement is appropriately conventional for the expression of conformist and traditional notions—an A-B-A ternary structure is encased within a ritornello template. The B section begins in bar 18 and the reprised A recommences in bar 37.
Several details are worthy of notice. The vocal line begins with an octave drop articulating the word ‘Hchster’—-Highest—-heard only twice in the whole aria (bars 3 and 37).The continuo line bears a sense of continually rising as if to suggest the eyes of the pious fixed towards the Highest Throne. It breaks its pattern of continuous quavers from bars 12 and again from 46. At these points the three-note figure of joy is adopted into the melody as a reflection of the delight which may be gained from the daily renewal of the Divine goodness—-‘Gte’ The two extended melismas (bars 22-23 and again in 30) lay stress upon the fact that we are named or designated as the children of the Highest one, something to be both acknowledged and thankful for.
There is a quiet certainty of faith underpinning this movement. No rejoicing trumpets or horns are required for the most profound expression of commitment to God. Three instruments and two melodic lines are all that Bach requires for this moving and insightful depiction of personal devotion.
The standard division of violins into two groups returns for the fourth and final movement, the trumpet reappearing about half way through. The overall shape of the cantata is clear, the outer, boldly extrovert movements encompassing two which are more thoughtful and introspective. The closing chorale is not dispensed with but, possibly because of a lack of available singers at the original performance, it now becomes an integral part of this final aria. The melody dictates the proportions and shape of the movement but not its character. That task is given to the violins and continuo creating, with the voice, a fulsome four-part texture.
The text continues the theme of praising and honouring the Trinity, God, Son and Holy Spirit almost certainly determining the symbolic time signature—-we trust in Him, build upon and cling to Him and sing both of these things and of what might be achieved through continued faith. The mode is major, the mood ebulliently joyful, violins imitating each other in their depiction of blissful eulogy. Did Bach think of the four melodic lines as representing the three parts of the Holy Trinity encompassing the human soul? Perhaps the soul is specifically represented by the chorale melody and its text, surrounded, one might almost say even engulfed by the highly active strings!
The structure is much akin to that of the chorale fantasia but with just one vocal line instead of four. The chorale phrases are separated by the continuous instrumental currents which never appear inhibited by the actuality of having to encompass a refrain which is melodically, tonally and rhythmically restricted. Bach typically turns this to his advantage as the chorale shines through the general euphoria with a simplicity and constancy that had been originally suggested, through different musical processes, in the previous movement.
The cantata was, however, conceived as a vehicle for a virtuoso soloist who cannot shine if allotted only the barest of melodies. Consequently, instead of completing the movement as might be expected at bar 118 Bach adds a coda of Beethovian proportions, extending 118 bars to a total of 226! He changes the time signature (and possibly the tempo) and the full upper string complement (including the violas) returns. The one word set is Alleluja, not a part of the chorale text and obviously grafted on so as to provide the singer with his/her stunning virtuosic conclusion.
The trumpet now imitates the singer’s opening four-bar phrase soon to be thrown back and forth amongst the upper strings. The effect is fugal without Bach needing to feel inhibited by the formal constraints of that form. The long flowing melismas leave one literally breathless with the sheer pleasure in, and energy generated through, the relationship with God. The general structure of this exhilarating movement reminds us of the first chorus from C 4, a similar exposition of a chorale melody also erupting in a cascade of Allelujas.
Students might like to look back on C 110, the opening chorus of which has a text very similar to that of the opening movement of this cantata—-let our mouths be charged with laughter and Praise for the One who has done so much for us. There these sentiments are conveyed through the medium of a large orchestra and full four-part choir. In C 51 Bach creates an equally ebullient but smaller scale, more personal expression of fundamentally the same convictions using as few as only seven or eight musicians.
The medium becomes almost irrelevant; Bach delivers his message with total conviction whatever the resources available to him at the time.