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Chapter 83 BWV 119 Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn
Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem.
Chorus–recit (tenor)–aria (tenor)–recit (bass)–aria (alto)–recit (sop)–chorus–recit (alto)–chorale.
A cantata for council elections.
This was Bach’s first cantata composed to celebrate the council elections in Leipzig, performed on August 30 1723 (Dürr p 728). The fact that he had not yet been in office a full three months may account for the particular grandeur of the work, his biggest essay in orchestration so far in his new position: four trumpets and drums, two flutes, three oboes, strings and choir are all supported by a continuo which includes cellos, basses, organ and bassoon(s). With nine movements, three of which called upon the choir, it would have lasted in the region of twenty-five minutes.
It may have been that Bach began with the idea of constructing the piece around paired recitatives and arias for all four voices, as seems to have been the case in C 198 (chapter 81). However, in that case time constraints may well have been a factor in his abandonment of the scheme whereas the dates of the council festivities would have been known well ahead. Nevertheless, Bach was heavily involved in producing new (at least for the Leipzig congregations) cantatas for the weekly services and it may be that he could not devote as much time as he would have liked to additional commissions. In the case of C 119 he writes paired movements only for tenor, although the three other voices do have solo roles.
He cuts no corners in the two major choruses though, the first of which is in the form of an imposing French Overture. This was the structure he was later to choose to open the second cycle of chorale/fantasia cantatas (C 20, chapter 2, vol 2) and also to be found, sometimes modified, in Cs 61, 110, 194 and 97. In C 119 the dotted rhythms of the opening section form an impressive introduction to the cantata as a whole and are latterly adjusted to provide the coda. The choir is not called upon in the outer sections (as it would be in the later C 20).
The initial theme reminds us of the first Orchestral Suite which is in the same key (C major) but much less powerfully orchestrated. In C 119 Bach makes a point of pitting the brass quartet against the rest of the band, the former making three assertive interjections before the double barline (six when we include the repeat). We should remember that Bach’s use of four trumpets is usually confined to ceremonial music and here it may also have had symbolic purpose. The text which the choir is shortly to deliver is a praise of God, the defender of Zion’s gates and the protector of its children. It is likely that the pitting of the trumpets against the rest of the orchestra suggests the powerful bulwarks of the Lord’s shielding of humanity within. Indeed, the setting of weaker against stronger forces remains a feature of the faster, 12/8 middle section.
The basses deliver what would seem to be the first statement of a fugue subject
to be answered by the sopranos delivering the same theme but at the same pitch and supported by the full choir and orchestra; clearly this is not a typical fugal answer. Two bars later the process is reversed, the sopranos leading with the same theme (bar 46) but now in the dominant key and the basses answering. The imagery is clear as is the call to praise the Almighty, the supreme protector of the otherwise defenceless.
The second main musical idea has the voices entering in pairs, alto and tenor followed by soprano and bass (from bar 52)—-for He strengthens your gates.
A short instrumental episode leads us to the centre-piece of the movement—-He has blessed your children (from bar 59). A return to the ‘paired’ theme completes the text—-He makes peace in your borders (from bar 64) and the middle section of the movement is rounded off with both the words and music which originally called for praise of the Lord (bars 67-71).
Described thus, this may seem ponderous in the extreme, masking the perfect musical equilibrium of the architecture of the music. The following may be helpful:
Slow introduction bars 1-42 also adapted as a coda 71-88.
Fast middle section comprising
Theme 1 bars 43-52 and bars 67-71.
Paired theme bars 52-6 and bars 64-66.
Central theme 59-64.
It is a masterpiece of musical symmetry which, doubtless, underlines the balanced union of God and Man.
The tenor secco recitative has no surprises, being a gentle and affectionate statement affirming God’s blessing and favour bestowed upon a town of righteousness and peace. To twenty-first century ears the text sounds somewhat archaic and self satisfied, a town somewhat sanctimoniously revelling in its own blessed state of integrity. Praise of God in bringing about this happy state of affairs scarcely conceals its priggishness, something of which Bach may well have been aware in giving the minimum of attention to the setting of the words.
Nevertheless, there is a quietly contented quality about the melodic line and Bach underlines moments of significance—-nicht müde—-not tired (bars 11-12) and the final extolling of the blessed, happy town (bars 15-18).
The tenor aria has a slightly different slant, still extolling the fortunate people of Leipzig, the town of the Linden tree, but here the emphasis is firmly upon the introspection required of us in order to appreciate our debt to the Lord. Two low oboes da caccia move in close consort to present the ritornello theme, one of quiet dignity and gently swaying dotted rhythms.
The character is thoughtful and personal throughout and no real middle section eventuates. Significance is given to two main images, the first being God’s benediction and gift of abundance (bars 21-2 and 38-41) and the second the citizens of the fortunate town: note the extended melisma on Volke—-the citizens (bars 44-8).
But the moment of freshness and innovation not to be missed is the tenor’s first entry, a sustained note on wohl—-an expression of contentment. He enters before the cadence which ends the ritornello theme, an indication of the individual’s emotion emerging naturally from general expressions of corporate pride.
Tenor above continuo.
Cadence of V…….I over the second and third bar under the tenor’s held note of d.
Bach used a similar technique in the first movement of the wedding cantata C 202 (chapter 72) where the oboe emerges from the mists of the string patterns at an entirely unexpected moment.
The trumpets and drums interrupt the moments of introspective reverie to begin (and end) the bass recitative—-you stand in glory, great city, which God has chosen as His place of inheritance. The figuration is that of a ceremonial fanfare, as indeed, is the bass’s opening line. But the middle section is set against sustained chords held by flutes and oboes, providing a somewhat objective feeling to a text which makes the first references to ‘wise government’. This is heralded as being only second to God in providing prudence of authority for which we should give thanks.
Trumpets and drums conclude the movement with the sort of flourish which we might expect to accompany a typical procession of pageantry and municipal office.
The fifth movement is an aria for alto, a pair of flutes joining to provide the single obbligato melody. Standing centrally in the cantata, it is the only movement cast in a minor mode and it serves to remind us of two important features of this work. The first is the perfect sense of balance between quiet introspection and extrovert celebration expressed over the nine movements. The second, which is related, is the view that the lyricist and composer appear to take about what many might consider to be a rather mundane matter of local elections. In this cantata they are depicted as being of supreme significance; manifestations of God’s benefice. Further, they are a matter of individual duty and a provider of good and fair governance.
But these significant events also present an opportunity for personal contemplation about one’s place in the religious and political milieu of the time. Bach clearly viewed the cantata as something more than a conventional expression of pageantry for the populace.
The quiet dignity of the alto aria makes the point well. Written for almost the minimum number of instruments, it provides a thoughtful, meditative moment, musing upon the nature of God—-authority is both His gift and image and he who does not understand this must forget Him—-this is how He fulfils His word! The opening thirteen-bar ritornello theme is dignified and serene but not without its edge or complications. It passes through two keys (Bb and Cm) before returning to Gm, its phrasing becomes more complex as it proceeds, whilst the rhythm of any one bar is rarely repeated. Austere but appealing, dignified yet complex, it perfectly encapsulates the notion of what good citizens should comprehend, though not, perhaps, without a degree of personal effort.
The repeated notes first heard in bar six become a feature of the obbligato melody throughout and the fact that they are played on the flute may imbue them with added significance.
Elsewhere Bach uses such twinkling figures in the upper registers to suggest the morning star or a figure in the heavenly firmaments, and it is very possible that here he had in mind a similar image of the Divine presence in the heavens.
The aria has no defined middle section and is based fully upon the ritornello principle, the initial instrumental theme providing all the musical material, opening and closing sections and two short episodes.
The soprano recitative provides us with the sort of verse that must have caused a composer like Bach’s heart to sink; what does one do with a text that tells us—-we acknowledge all this with thanks, Oh God, and especially on this day when you, worthy fathers, are released from your burden of sleepless hours brought about by the impending election! Can Bach really have taken this seriously? Well, at the very least he was a professional and his setting, though lacking the richness of meaning and subtext that we find in many other recitatives, still shows signs of dutiful care.
The opening phrases, extending just over the octave, immediately arrest attention—-but, we acknowledge this! The unexpected c # in the bass (bar 4) emphasizes Zumal—-especially. This important day—-der Tag—-is set to a rising 7th interval (bar 5) after which the moving, ascending harmonies sustain attention until the final phrase—-thus do the loyal ones sigh with mouth and heart—-leads us directly into the second chorus.
Except that when called upon, they do not sigh; they proclaim loudly in communal offering—-the Lord has done great things for us, for which we rejoice! The trumpets and drums return with a rising sequence that leads into one of those assertive and seemingly inexhaustible Bach melodies, exuding maximum confidence and energy.
So captivating is this long ritornello theme that one is almost lulled into believing that it is the beginning of an instrumental sinfonia until the entry of the basses in bar 17 disabuses us. In fact, Bach has every intention of making the most of his imperious melody; it is heard four times, at the beginning and end of the A section of what transpires to be a conventional da capo chorus.
Furthermore, it is the only movement of this cantata in which Bach turns to his beloved fugal techniques. The subject is clearly wrought from the opening phrase of the popular chorale melody Nun danket alle Gott—-now thank we all our God—-which everyone might have been expected to recognize.
The voices enter in the conventional order B, T, A and S, bottom to top, a clear symbol of God’s expanding might and benefice. The brief tutti section encompasses several repetitions of the short subject, not only by the voices but also on flutes, oboes, strings, continuo and finally trumpets. The musical texture is saturated with this theme, the significance of which must be apparent to all.
After the reprise of the complete ritornello theme we arrive at the middle section (from bar 52). The choral writing here is more homophonic, initially in short phrases separated by brief instrumental episodes making good use of the ritornello material. The text now moves from a position of praise to one of entreaty—-if He keeps our elders in governments for many years, we will praise Him gladly. The energy established in the A section scarcely abates, although Bach cannot resist the musical picturing on the ‘long and countless years’, with the sustained chords (from bar 68) leading to a general pause for a moment of reflection (bar 71).
The ritornello theme heralds the reprise and we may pause to consider its significance in the structure of this chorus. Heard four times, it accounts for over half of the complete movement.
Alto recitative and closing chorale.
In one sense the chorus would seem to provide the perfect ending to a work of municipal pomp and ceremony but there are two additional short movements to come. The first is the briefest of the four recitatives (of which there has been one for each voice). Now it is the turn of the alto—-finally, having appointed your people, allow them one prayer and listen to the entreaties that come from mouth, heart and soul. In eight bars Bach makes an extraordinary tonal journey, beginning on an unresolved chord in F, moving to Bb, with suggestions of C, Bm, Em and ending on the dominant of Am. Perhaps nothing has really been fully resolved and Man relies not on his own judgments but only on the support of God.
Indeed the final chorale, a version of the German Te Deum, is quietly muted in tone, lacking in any sense of assertiveness but given an edginess by the bass chromaticisms. It humbly petitions Christ to tend His flock and raise them into eternity. It ends with the subtlest touches of flamboyance as the basses and tenors imitate the amen of the sopranos and altos.
A work of extremes and not without its enigmas, this cantata has many fine moments, despite the conventionality of its theme and lyrics. As always, Bach sees beyond the obvious. Politics are not just a matter of personal pride and public display; they also provide opportunities for us to consider corporeal and spiritual matters reflectively in our own individual ways.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.