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Chapter 85 BWV 29 Wir Danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir
We give thanks to You, O God.
Sinfonia–chorus–aria (tenor)–recit (bass)–aria (sop)–recit (alto)–aria (alto)–chorale.
A cantata for council elections.
Performed in 1731, C 29 was presented eight years after C 119. It is a more concise work with only one extended chorus, any apparent omission of this kind being fully compensated for by the vigorous opening sinfonia. This is, somewhat surprisingly, the only surviving municipal work which begins thus, Bach’s normal practice being to commence with a chorus although even here he was not entirely consistent; C 120 begins with an alto aria.
However, judging by the sheer force and vigour of the opening movement of C 29 one is bound to wonder why Bach did not repeat the practice elsewhere.
Connections between this ebullient movement for trumpets, drums, oboes, strings, continuo and organ solo and its model for unaccompanied violin (BWV 1006) are not immediately apparent. Certainly the original had all the impetus and energy of the later arrangement but it obviously lacked the decibels and ultimate impact. Bach had already arranged this movement to provide a sinfonia to open part 2 of the wedding cantata C 120a two or three years previously but there he had not called upon the trumpets and drums (see chapter 77). Nevertheless the continuo, upper strings and doubling oboes would appear to have been retained, the trumpets now marking the rhythm and important cadence points.
The organ becomes a concerto soloist carrying the main melodic line, as it was originally conceived for the violin, throughout. In fact, apart from the first and last bars it is an uninterrupted flow of semi-quavers creating the effect of an unstoppable moto perpetuo. Whilst it follows the expected Bachian processes of sojourning through a series of related keys (principally Bm, G major and Em: unusually there is no early establishment of the dominant key of A major), there is no opening or closing ritornello such as one expects from Bach’s concerto movements based upon Italian models. He could have provided one, of course, and there is precedence for this in the final movement of the triple concerto for flute, violin and harpsichord in Am. But that was a much longer, more intense movement. In this cantata Bach obviously felt that there was no need to extend the dimensions of a piece which already lasted for a little over three minutes.
The initial violin composition was in E major but both arranged versions are transposed down to D, the better to accommodate the wind instruments. However, the fingerprints of the idiosyncratic string writing remains e.g. the cavorting around the (original) open string (bars 13-16 and 63-6) and the bowing across the strings (from bar 43). Nevertheless, the transformation of material conceived for a single string instrument into a fully orchestrated concerto-type movement is so successful that it is unlikely that anyone hearing the latter for the first time would suspect the existence of the former.
The expected chorus will be familiar to all as the concluding movement from the Bm Mass. The texts of all the municipal celebratory works traditionally revolve around praise of and thanks to God for providing us with the means of effective government. In this cantata there is not one verse that neglects to mention God and our relationship with Him, a clear sign of the ways in which religion permeated all aspects of life in Bach’s time, including the politics of the day.
But whereas most of the main choruses from the other council cantatas were vigorous, energetic and ebullient, that from C 29 is dignified and restrained. The text simply declares—-we thank You God and declare Your works of wonder. Perhaps it is the natural sense of awe and humility with which Christians may view His great works that inspired Bach’s imagination in this case.
It has been suggested that Bach took this chorus from an earlier lost work but as there is no evidence one way or the other, there is little to be gained from pursuing the point. Students will find the comparisons of the C 29 version with the later one for the Mass, illuminating. The essential structure is unchanged and the sense of architectural grandeur arising from the layering of one part upon another undiminished. One does, however, need to note the enhanced bass countersubject (bars 5-6 of the alla breve adaptation) which imparts a sense of natural flow and elegance lacking in the cantata version. Bach’s use of the instruments, however, remains the same, oboes and strings doubling the voices in motet style and the restrained use of the trumpets: first one, then two, then all three building to a climax of awesome intensity.
Bach latterly viewed this movement as an appropriate ending to the most commanding religious work in his output, so he must have thought highly of it. It would seem that in the context of the municipal cantata he saw it as a means of depicting God’s great works on earth and in heaven. No doubt if some of the local politicians interpreted it as a reflection of their own value and reputations, Bach would have kept his counsel. Satisfied customers may well generate further well paid commissions!
The contrast of styles between the second and third movements of this work borders upon the extreme. The tenor aria is entirely Italianate in spirit, style and technique, its three melodic lines (violin obbligato, tenor and continuo) bringing to mind some of the major-key sonatas for violin and keyboard. They obviously share the same three-part texture but there is also an equivalence of style and character, despite the fact that the sonatas almost certainly predated the cantata by several years. (This is to assume that there had been no earlier, lost version of the latter).
The fecundity of invention of the twenty-bar ritornello theme is remarkable, another example of Bach’s ability to create a melody by allowing it to grow like an opening flower. It consists of five four-bar phrases, each of which intensifies the musical expression as the new ideas unfold. It may be worth spending a few moments analysing Bach’s approach to melodic structuring in this case.
The first eight bars consist of a somewhat declamatory rising theme (1-4) answered by a slightly more active phrase which also has the feeling of stretching upward.
Phrases 1 and 2.
Note that Bach reverses the usual open-closed configuration of the question and answer phrase; here the first statement leads to a perfect cadence, the second imperfect.
The third phrase makes use of continuous quavers (as a two-bar repeated sequence) the fourth, a reiterated four-note pattern over a stolidly rising bass scale and the last a broad, idiomatic idea striding across the strings and suggesting a codetta.
Phrases 3,4 and 5.
The technical advantage of such a structure is that virtually any of the phrases may be extrapolated and developed as episodes to separate the vocal sections, thus allowing for the maximum of flexibility in the construction of a lengthy movement.
How this melody might relate to the words is less clear, although we know from much of his cantata output from the mid to late 1720s that Bach often derived his musical shapes directly from textual images. Here the verse begins with an Alleluia followed by the extolling of the strength and power of the Almighty and these two ideas form the basis of the A section of a conventional da capo aria. The B section, from bar 93, reminds us of Jerusalem (Zion, or in this case a possible metaphor for Leipzig itself) where He still dwells, keeping our forefathers’ covenant. The middle section commences with a striking new vocal phrase, but the violin obbligato replicates the material from the ritornello theme, albeit now largely within the context of minor keys.
It appears that Bach was inspired more by general images of might and protection on this occasion. Certainly the music, despite the minimal resources required to perform it, has a power, authority and drive that commands attention. Bach apparently thought highly of this aria for reasons that will become apparent.
The secco bass recitative praises God further as our shield, light and comfort. It is a conventional sentiment set in minor modes, perhaps in order to lend it authority and to prepare for the coming aria. There is a brief moment of quaver movement in the continuo line at the mention of His buttressing our walls (bar 6) but otherwise Bach simply allows the narrative to unfold.
He does, however, contrive to end with an unambiguous musical question—-where else might be found such a nation of people whom God so abides and graces?
The recitative aside, the soprano aria is the only movement which is predominantly minor-mode. Set in a gently lilting 6/8 time, the dotted rhythms almost suggest the rocking of a lullaby. It is a personal, almost pensive piece moving the focus, as Bach so often does, from the extrovert communal acts of faith and devotion to the personal and private world of the individual.
But whilst being genuinely reflective, the music is neither sad nor gloomy. Indeed, it moves confidently to the relative major key even before the singer enters adopting the established ritornello melody. It is a conventional da capo structure, the A section a universal calling upon the Lord to remember and embrace us lovingly and with compassion, the B section becoming more explicit—-bless those who govern, guide and lead us as well as all who follow obediently.
The oboe has a rather curious and quite unique role in that it doubles the first violins in the ritornello section and elsewhere the vocal line, except in the last dozen bars of the B section where it has its own independent melody, partially mirroring that of the voice. Bach’s reason for doing this is unclear. It is unlikely that the oboe is intended to be viewed as a light which the obedient should follow; it seems to trail rather than guide the soprano. Might the interaction of voice and oboe symbolize those of us who follow both God and his elected political custodians on earth? It does suggest a musical representation of an interaction between leaders and those led.
The other unusual aspect of this movement is the removal of the continuo line under the voice, except in those last bars of the middle section when the oboe gains its independence. Again, this is too much of a coincidence not to be significant. This practice of suspending or removing a strong bass line occurs only occasionally in Bach and may have been adopted from Vivaldi slow movement models. It has also been suggested that it symbolizes an unworldliness or spiritual dimension. It is possible that Bach intended to evoke both the mystical aspects of the relationship between God and Soul and the consequent unity of spiritual and worldly realms under the auspices of God-protected good governance.
This may seem to be an improbable scenario; but Bach’s mind was certainly complex enough to have encompassed and conceived of it.
The alto recitative is noteworthy for the entry of the choir, in octaves, to pronounce the closing ‘amen’. Bach very seldom writes for his four-part choirs in octaves or unison and the impact must have been powerful. In this movement the singer prays, on behalf of us all, for God to remember to dispense prosperity whereupon the city, and indeed the country, should respond with praise, sacrifice and amens!
This gives Bach the perfect opportunity to proceed, without break, into the Alleluiahs of the following alto aria. Furthermore, he does something which is unique within his canon of cantatas. Instead of composing a new movement, he repeats the A section of the tenor aria but dispenses with the opening ritornello. Whether this was a time-saving device cannot be determined but one is inclined to think not. There are plenty of opportunities for Bach to cut corners in his commissioned works and weekly cantata programmes but he seldom does so. Furthermore, the text of this aria is the same as the first two lines of that for tenor, the A section of whose aria had begun and ended in the tonic key. Thus it became perfectly possible to hijack the section and repeat it in a way that made musical, textural and dramatic sense.
But now Bach does not make use of the original repeat, another indication that his principle motivation was not labour saving. The truncated aria is transposed from A to D major and the violin obbligato part is given to the organ, virtually unaltered but for a few of embellishments. Thus he contrives to make it sound different from the earlier aria but the general theme of praise for the might and power of the Lord is, nevertheless, reinforced.
The cantata concludes with an exceptionally long chorale of twelve phrases. A simpler and lower (in pitch) version may be found concluding C 17 (vol 3, chapter 24). In C 29 the first four and last two phrases are reinforced by the addition of trumpets and drums.
Some of the chorales ending municipal cantatas are low-key and contemplative e.g. C 119. This, however, is assertive in its pledge and petition—-praise the Father, Son and Holy Ghost that we may receive mercy from, and trust in, Him—-let us sing—-for we shall receive it if only we believe.
This is a work of confidence, not only in its mature compositional procedures but also in the expression of municipal pride. The text is conventional and lacks inspiration; nevertheless Bach takes us on a journey which celebrates both divine and secular authority.
It also allows us a few moments in which to meditate upon our own responses to the spiritual and physical worlds that govern us.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.