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Chapter 84 BWV 69 Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele
Bless the Lord, my soul.
Chorus–recit (sop)–aria (alto)–recit (tenor)–aria (bass)–chorale.
A cantata for council elections.
(This should be read in conjunction with the essay on C 69a, chapter 15 of volume 1).
This essay is necessarily short as all the main movements are discussed in that based on its model C 69a. Dürr dates the original church cantata as part of Bach’s first Leipzig cycle (although a lost version is very likely to have predated it) and this municipal use of the bulk of the same work may have emerged as late as 1748 (p 739).
There is a fascinating question regarding Bach’s constant re-usages of his own material. The fact that he did so continuously reveals the pressures placed upon him, especially when unplanned and unforeseen commissions came his way. The bringing back of established works was obviously a time-saving device, although the evidence is that it was never done lightly; Bach was scrupulous in his choices about the suitability of his music for any new purpose and, as a consequence, he very seldom re-used existing works without tinkering with them, sometimes in quite substantial ways. The question is, did he do this just because particular circumstances demanded it, or did he, in looking over scores that he may have produced at great speed even decades before, see areas where the quality of the music could be enhanced or approved? Very probably both.
C 69 provides us with an interesting example of this dilemma. The chorus and both arias of its church model were deemed to be suitable, both in text and music, for revival as a work of municipal celebration. Bach incorporated both the chorus and the bass aria into C 69 without adaptation, thus ensuring that the performing parts were immediately ready for use, requiring no revision.
But the tenor aria of the earlier work became one for alto in the later version with violin and oboe replacing the original flute and oboe da caccia obbligati. This entailed a complete revision of the score, since it needed to be transposed into a key comfortable for the alto voice, in this case G from C major. The vocal line (and words) could remain unchanged but the instrumental parts required careful revisions, again for reasons of tessitura. Note, for example, how the violin takes the original oboe da caccia part in the opening bars but then swaps over to the original higher flute part in bar three. Such editing decisions would have required a considerable degree of musical sophistication i.e. it was not simply a matter of delegating the transposition and recopying of parts to prefects and students.
Might the reason have been that there was no tenor available capable of singing the aria in the later version? This seems highly unlikely. The same individual would almost certainly have sung the demanding tenor line in the opening chorus and if he was capable of that, he would surely not have baulked at the aria.
A more likely explanation is that Bach did not have a capable flautist available. It is known that in his early Leipzig years he enjoyed the services of at least one virtuoso flute player, the evidence of which is to be found in many arias and choruses, particularly in the second cycle. If he could not call upon an adequate player for C 69 he would have had to rethink the whole layout of the aria: which is precisely what he did. This argument is strengthened by the fact that nowhere else in C 69, not even in the opening chorus, are flutes called upon. (Dürr does, however, assert that this aria had been revised for earlier performances although this does not substantially alter the arguments: p 739)
Further comments upon this movement, the unaltered aria for bass and the opening chorus may be found in chapter 15 of volume 1. All three texts are of a general nature, praising God and what He has done for us and, furthermore, requesting His protection in times of suffering.
Given the wholesale adoption of these three general stanzas, it becomes obvious that any specific references to the council elections must be made in the three added movements, two recitatives and a chorale (nos 2, 4 and 6). Even so, Bach and his librettist were in no hurry to do so. The first (secco) recitative is for soprano (as it was in the earlier model) and the text continues to extol God’s kindness and the benefits we receive from Him. It concludes with a Uriah Heep-like humility—–if only I were able to sing of my thanks, but lacking the strength I can only talk of Your fame.
The new stanza is half as long again as the original which clearly demands a new musical setting. Nevertheless, Bach begins with the same melodic line and harmony and the opening bars provide us with a relatively rare example of his parodying his own recitative. It will be noted that Bach alters the ending, not only to accommodate the additional text, but also to take us to the key of G major, that of the transposed alto aria.
Following which, there emerges the newly composed tenor recitative, supported by strings. The Lord’s accomplishments are still praised but now within a more specific context relating to the cantata’s new function—-whilst He protects and rules the world, He grants our governors wisdom with which to punish evil and uphold the good—-call to Him that He defends and delivers us, punishing only through suffering rather than by death.
This is an example of Bach’s highly emotional recitative melodic line at its most mature and expressive, seemingly so simple but essentially deeply moving. Bach withholds the upper strings until mention is made of God’s gift of wisdom to our leaders, and for the next few bars the sustained chords suggest a divine, encompassing presence. Violins and violas provide a quaintly unexpected punctuation mark in bar 15, pointing the cadence.
From bar 18, however, the writing alters markedly. A series of appoggiaturas on the upper strings produces a succession of momentary dissonances supported by a newly chromatic framework, all emphasizing the notions of death and affliction, albeit within the context of the Lord’s succour. This is a miniature masterpiece, reminding us that in his last years Bach was still unwilling to take short cuts when he saw the opportunity of infusing his given texts with a deepened and more profound artistic meaning. This passage leads into the oddly rocking rhythms of the bass’s aria of misgivings more successfully than had the flowing semi-quavers of the last bars of the alto recitative from C 69a.
Clearly, the very simple and undemanding chorale that had ended that work was not considered suitable for the conclusion of the municipal celebration. Bach replaced it with a verse of one of Luther’s hymns of which he has left at least three harmonisations. Two of them (one in Am and the other in Bm) begin and end on the dominant chords of those keys. Here, and quite possibly symbolically, he begins in Bm but ends triumphantly in D major. This may have been partly for practical reasons to suit the trumpets (always happier in major keys) and the drums (tuned to the notes a and d).
In fact, all but one of the cadences are in major modes. This underlines the positivity of the municipal theme, and it should be remembered that all of the existing cantatas for elections show a strong bias towards the major. This is an excellent example of the practical composer turning a necessity into artistic advantage.
At first the trumpets and drums simply reinforce the endings of the phrases but from the eleventh bar they make a more continuous contribution—-the council has been elected, and the land is fruitful, so the people sing to praise and thank Him—-the world pays homage to Father, Son and Holy Spirit as is duly appropriate.
This cantata is one that should be performed in both versions, for each has its own integrity and ultimate character. The author must, however, admit to a slight preference for the secular version. The reader will make his/her own choice.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.