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CHAPTER 77 BWV 120a Herr Gott, Beherrscher aller Dinge
God, who rules over everything.
Chorus–recit/choir/recit (bass/tenor)–aria (sop)
Sinfonia–recit (tenor)/chorus—duet (alto/tenor)–recit (bass)–chorale.
A wedding cantata.
N.B. This essay should be read in conjunction with that on C 120, chapter 86.
This composition, dating probably from the late 1720s, has survived in fragmentary form but, due to the abundance of borrowing possibilities, it can be reconstructed from other works. The text is less specific than that of some of the other wedding cantatas, making several references to the betrothed couple but giving little in the way of clues as to their position in society. All that can be assumed is that they must have been a couple of some substance as indicated by the scale of the work and the large instrumental forces called upon.
Three of the movements (1, 3 and 6) are taken from the earlier C 120, a secular cantata probably composed at Còthen (Dürr p 736) and a fourth , the sinfonia, may be retrieved from the later C 29 for which it must have served as a model. Reconstruction of this work, however, is not quite as simple as reclaiming these movements, for there is evidence of some radical reworking on Bach’s part, particularly in the duet. One can do little more than examine each movement against its model, pointing out the main revisions.
Listeners may find the opening movement somewhat surprising if not actually disappointing. It forms the model for the much superior reworking, the Et Expecto from the Bm Mass. There Bach dispenses with the opening and closing ritornelli and adds a fifth (second soprano) voice. The many implications this has for other adaptations of the score is beyond the scope of this essay but it provides a salutary lesson for the student in the art of ‘paraphrase’. Listening to the earlier versions of this movement in Cs 120 or 120a and comparing them with the Mass movement is a little like seeing a photograph of the great pyramid of Giza, giving, as it does, a general outline, whilst lacking the ultimate sense of scale, drama and awe of the final version.
This movement is ideal for students wishing to make a study of Bach’s reuse of his own material because it has survived in three versions. In the majority of cases Bach does not alter the basic structure of recycled movements, making only such alterations of key, instrumentation and word setting as are necessary. One reason for this is may well have been the constraints of time; another is that he seemed mostly to be satisfied with the original macro-structures of his compositions. But on occasions he did alter the configurations of movements when he thought that they could be substantially improved. (See, for example, the discussion of revisions of the Agnes Dei in the Great Mass alluded to in C 11, chapter 50, vol 3).
The rendering of the chorus for the mass is, without doubt, the most assured of the three versions, but there are also some important differences between the two cantata versions.
The transmitted score of the chorus beginning C 120a retains the viola, second trumpet, continuo and vocal parts. The missing string, brass and timpani parts can all be reconstructed from the earlier version, although not without the need for some creative decisions. For example, the first imitative bars of each of the initial choral entries (bars 15 and 34) were added in C 120a presumably in order to give greater urgency and impact to the words—-Lord God! The bars following bar 35 have been substantially rewritten, producing a less transparent texture. This vocal section leads to bar 53 where there is a complete reprise of the instrumental ritornello, leading to the contrasting middle section (from bar 67).
Here again, Bach makes a number of adjustments to the vocal lines, seeking a more cohesive texture and omitting the second bar. It should not be thought that these changes would have been made lightly; the chopping out of even a few bars and the alterations of the vocal parts (which sometimes requires changes in the continuo line) would have necessitated a re-copying of the individual parts for the later performance. This is a perfect example of a master craftsman whose attitude was never ‘it will do!’ If he saw the possibility of improvements, whether to suit new texts, circumstances, or simply because they made superior music, he made them happen.
The brass, fanfare-like figurations were presumably inspired by the original text (movement 2 of C 120), a paean of praise to God through voices that soar directly to heaven! The verse from the later cantata is similarly laudatory, with a subsidiary theme of humility and unworthiness (middle section). The generality of both stanzas makes them appropriate for setting to the same optimistic music.
In the central section the choral writing is perhaps even more appropriate for the later wedding verse. It has a personal quality and a more homophonic and chordal texture befitting the admission of the unworthiness of Man to receive God’s kindness and mercy.
In a number of the chorale cantatas from the second cycle, Bach demonstrates the skill and imagination with which he sets long slabs of text. In the second movement of C 120a he has been presented with over thirty lines which he divides thus: bass recitative, four-part choral intervention, tenor recitative. The solo sections are accompanied only by the continuo.
This movement, although latterly composed, follows the opening chorus most effectively. There we detected a contrast between the extrovert praising of God and the meekness of Man, a disparity which now becomes even more explicit. Both recitative sections have an endearingly personal quality in the writing, picturing an individual musing on God’s inexpressible greatness and goodness and how we should be ever-mindful of them. The melodic writing is conjunct and serene, the perfect medium of expression for solitary contemplation. Whereas the bass articulates these sentiments as a general expression on behalf of Mankind and the human spirit, the tenor relates them directly to the betrothed couple—-full of devotion they step before You—listen to, and reward them with those things which are blessed and good.
Between these segments are two dozen bars of chorus—-we thank You, God for the good things You have done for us in every circumstance. The bass had completed his recitative by reminding us of our duty to praise and thank Him and so Bach contrives that we do precisely that—-Nun danket alle Gott—-now thank we all our God—-is sung by the choir. This well-known chorale was popular at weddings, although normally sung after the blessing. Bach seems to have made no use of the melody or material derived from it, satisfying himself with the reference to the opening lines of text and freely composing the music.
Certainly, this majestic and flowing choral intervention lifts and enlivens the mood whilst demonstrating the emotional force of corporate acclaim. The surviving string parts indicate that the continuo doubled the basses and the viola the tenors. It makes sense, therefore, for the violins to support the upper two lines similarly.
The first aria of C 120a is directly adapted from the fourth movement of C 120, retaining the same key and voice (soprano). The missing violin obbligato parts may be taken without change from C 120, and this is important because the florid solo line plays such a crucial role. Somewhat reminiscent of that from the Laudamus Te from the Great Mass, the violin melody encompasses the voice in a series of splendid arabesques and rapid scale passages.
The original text called upon health and blessing to attend our secular authority as justice and faith coalesce in the administration of good government. That for the wedding cantata carries much the same theme but is more specific, addressing the bridal couple’s relationship with God—-guide them and instruct them in Your word, that which promises Your support for all who love You. There are some modifications to the solo line, particularly around bars 31 where the prayer for divine guidance is made more melodically expressive. But the work required to adapt this splendid movement for its wedding context remains minimal.
The form is that of modified ternary, the middle section beginning at bar 43 and the A section returning from bar 65. This is, despite the energetic motion of the solo violin, a gentle and deeply personal movement, seeming to fit better in the context of a wedding than that of municipal elections. The two features which remain in the memory are the endlessly inventive and spiritually supportive obbligato line and the theme from the very first bar. This little idea, made movingly expressive by the rising chromatic movement in the bass, conveys a strong personal sense of commitment to the Lord.
The sinfonia which would later, and with considerable flourish, begin the council election celebratory cantata C 29, is here used to introduce the second part of the wedding observance. Much has been written of Bach’s pragmatic ability to choose a composition initially designed to fit a particular instrumental or vocal medium perfectly and to transform it so that it becomes equally effective in another.
The original model for this movement was the prelude from the unaccompanied partita for violin in E major. In the version for C 120a, the virtuoso violin part is adapted for organ solo, transposed down one tone to D major. It is supported by strings and continuo with oboes doubling the first and second violins but, except for the last eleven complete bars, only the bass and viola parts have survived. But this is sufficient to indicate that the string parts of the later version were unchanged, making the reconstruction no more than a copying task.
In C 29, however, Bach added a trio of trumpets and drums and this imposing version is the one most popularly known today. However, while the celebration of marriage nuptials can be achieved quite effectively without additional brass bombast, the question is certain to be raised as to why, when Bach had the trumpets and drums available for the outer movements of C 120a, he did not use them here? The probably answer is that it was an afterthought that only occurred to him when composing C 29. (See chapter 85 for further comments on this movement).
It would be hard to imagine a more joyous way to begin married life than with this sinfonia, even without trumpets and drums. Bach completes the cantata with four movements all of which, in their different ways, combine praise of the Lord with requests for His blessing.
Lord God, hear our pleas—-bless and make prosper this union, and guide the fortunate couple. After a declamatory call to the Lord God of the Sabbath and of our Fathers, the vocal line affects a devoted, almost romantic quality, the tenor assuming the role of broker in his requests for a productive relationship between God and the marriage pair.
The choir enters for the final line quoting, in four part harmony, from the Litany—-Hear us Dear Lord God. The harmonic progression raises the tonality up one tone in the space of just three bars (from B to C#m), a symbol, surely, of our voices uplifting towards heaven.
The sixth movement is the third and final one to be borrowed from C 120. There it was an alto aria which opened the work; now it becomes a latterly placed duet for alto and tenor. There it proffered an affirmation of the praise and commitment given to God on earth, now it is based around a prayer requesting Him to bless His servants’ house whilst allowing them to walk in hallowed fear of Him.
The instrumentation remains the same, two oboes d’amore, strings and continuo but the new text, and addition of a second vocal part, persuaded Bach to make more radical alterations in the macro-structure of the movement than one might normally expect. Fortunately, the score has survived in full so no reconstruction is needed for the wedding version.
The rewriting reveals much about Bach’s supreme sensitivity towards his texts. That for C 120 is based upon the contrast between the dynamism of the praise for God and the stillness of Zion (the Lord’s place in this world). Bach marks the latter image with unadorned, sustained notes (from bars 19-22 and elsewhere) and the former with the most flamboyant of melismas on lobet—-praise (e.g. bars 11-18). Clearly, he did not consider such writing to be suitable for the expression of the new text and much of it, including some of the ornate oboe line (bars 19 and 21), is abandoned.
The prayer for God’s support and blessing is expressed through much simpler melodic shaping, alto and bass conjoining as a metaphor of husband and wife, together seeking God’s approval. There is a moment of general pause for reflection at the mention of God’s servants’ house (bar 38), shortly after which a reprise of the original ritornello theme ends in the tonic key of A major (bar 52).
The original version from C 120 was in ternary form but not da capo because Bach had ended the slightly shorter A section in the dominant key of E. Consequently the reprise had to be rewritten in order to conform to the structural convention of ending the aria in the key in which it began. In the wedding version, Bach allowed himself the luxury of the da capo which, considering the time and effort that must have been extended on the various bits of re-composition, might have been simply a labour saving mechanism. Certainly, this provided him with the opportunity of producing a markedly contrasting middle section in which the two voices, united in both marriage and music, sing together in parallel motion.
Mention might also be made of the repeated bass notes which are first heard in the opening two bars. Bach retained them in both versions, presumably judging that the quietly insistent extolling of God was equally appropriate in either setting.
The penultimate movement is a secco recitative for bass, taking the part of a Pastor rather than that of God Himself. The mood throughout is friendly and paternal, perhaps unsurprisingly so, as specific mention is made of our fathers and parents. It is astonishing how Bach can capture the essence of a particular mood through nothing but carefully moulded melodic shaping.
This is Bach at his most avuncular—-may the Lord always remain with you and wisdom in your thoughts and actions—-in return we, through song and praise, bring to Him our offerings of gratitude and tribute.
And this is what the final movement delivers, musically prepared by the recitative ending on a chord of A, the dominant of the closing chorale. Two verses of the hymn Lobe den Herren—-Praise the Lord—-complete the cantata.
Bach had used this melody in C 137 (vol 3, chapter 3), the first chorale/fantasia cantata that he wrote after the completion of the second cycle. The arrangement used in C 120a is virtually unaltered and seems to have been appropriated from the earlier work; even the choice of the two verses remains the same.
The only difference is that Bach uses the trumpets and drums only for the second verse of the wedding version, presumably to postpone his ‘glorious finale’ until the very last bars. The effect is to differentiate between the two stanzas, allowing the first to have a more reflective role (despite the naturally extrovert nature of the melody), thus contrasting with the imperial pageantry of the second.
Perhaps too, as in the sinfonia, this was no more than ‘second thoughts’ arising from a later consideration of the chorale tune.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.