Chapter 86 BWV 120 Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille
God, Praise awaits You in the stillness.
Aria (alto)–chorus–recit (bass)–aria (sop)–recit (tenor)–chorale.
A cantata for council elections.
N.B. This chapter should be read in conjunction with that on C 120a, chapter 77.
It is not known precisely when this cantata was composed; some parts of it may date back to Còthen (Dürr p 736). It was certainly used as the basis for the wedding cantata C 120a towards the end of the 1720s although that work has not survived intact. Nevertheless three movements, the alto and soprano arias and the chorus, are common to both works and readers should turn to chapter 77 for further detailed comments on them.
The first unresolved mystery surrounding this cantata is why Bach should have chosen to begin it with a rather sedate alto aria. Most of the municipal celebratory works began with a fulsome movement, usually a large scale chorus or, in the case of C 29, an ebullient sinfonia. The text of the opening stanza is not so different from the other cantatas, a statement that praise waits for God in the stillness of Zion, a conventional homage such as is paid to God in all these works.
But this departure from normal practice may have been a consequence of just one word, such was Bach’s sensitivity to text—-Stille—-stillness. References to chapter 77 will demonstrate to the reader a) the differences between this version of the aria and that for C 120a and b) the extraordinary lengths Bach went to in order to accommodate various shades of meaning. It is very probable that the notion of ‘stillness’ led him to begin this work with an aria that encapsulated that quality in a way that a chorus might not have achieved.
The sustained notes on Stille are contrasted with the extreme melismas on lobet—-the praise given to Him. Neither feature is apparent in the reworked version for the wedding cantata in which Bach altered not only details of this kind but, indeed, the entire movement structure. The restrained beginning of this cantata may possibly indicate that it had been composed before Bach’s appointment at Leipzig where, all the evidence suggests, a more rousing initial movement became the norm. But even so, there would have been nothing to prevent Bach from reversing the order of the first two movements for Leipzig patrons had he considered it to be appropriate.
Comments upon the differences between the chorus (second movement) and the later version in C 120a are also to be found in chapter 77. It was less radically reworked than the aria and it is highly probable that the arpeggio figures on strings and woodwinds were inspired by the text as a depiction of the steps by which we climb to paradise. The idea of eternal praise for God is, of course, an appropriate text for any number of generalized texts which would be suitable for such a setting—-sing for joy, climb to heaven—-praise and exalt Him whose kindness and mercy are limitless.
We have no way of knowing whether an earlier lost cantata formed the basis of C 120. What we can be sure of though, and this will be of great interest to students and scholars, is that we have three different versions of this chorus in the cantatas and the Bm Mass. That found in C 120a is only minimally adapted (see chapter 77). In the Mass the opening and closing ritornelli are omitted and, much more fundamentally, a fifth vocal line (a second soprano) has been added.
The bass secco recitative is the first of the three movements not considered in chapter 77. The reference to the city of Lindens (trees) certainly places the cantata in its Leipzig context. The text is as conventional as ever, causing one to wonder how the same mundane sentiments could be expressed in so many different ways. The answer, perhaps, is that they were not. Most of these verses acclaiming God’s our protector and our government as an extension of His authority, are virtually interchangeable.
One surmises that Bach may well have sighed when faced with another such text to set. The miracle is that he applied his sense of professionalism and seemingly infinite powers of invention to each successive challenge.
This recitative is a case in point. Despite the slow moving bass and harmonies, Bach contrives a perfectly cohesive tonal scheme such as might be found in any suite movement i.e. Bm, F#m, Em and Bm. The predominance of minor keys, whilst allowing no tonal light and shade is, perhaps, appropriate to the seriousness of the address delivered by the bass voice.
He begins with two boldly assertive phrases—-arise—-come and kneel before the Highest! Mention of God’s paternal qualities of support and protection then produce a softer quality of melody (from bar 5). The command—-come then and fulfil your vows to Him—-is again forceful, though moderated by the little run of semiquavers that suggests the singing of songs (of gratitude: bar 10). This is followed by a clear command to pray that He continues to vitalize this land and government (from the end of bar 12) and the movement ends, rising to the very top of the singer’s range in a confident expression of the divine approval which the government seeks and, no doubt by implication, deserves.
It is worth listening to this recitative more than once. A sensitive singer will communicate the many nuances of meaning and feeling with which Bach manages to invest his melodic line of fewer than twenty bars. It is the work of a man who clearly was never satisfied with the second rate, despite the uninspiring nature of his given material.
The jewel at the centre of this cantata is the soprano aria, later adapted with the minimum of change for the wedding cantata. In C 120 it is an additional call for health and blessing to attend our government so that justice and faith may follow. It is a deeply personal movement, in modified ternary form, made all the more expressive by the touch of chromatic movement in the continuo line of the very first bar.
The all-encompassing violin obbligato is endlessly inventive and, although richly ornate in its baroque decorations, is never intrusive. Further comment on this movement may be found in chapter 77.
We will discover that the closing chorale begins in the minor and ends in the major. The tenor recitative reverses this process and the sustained chords of the upper strings provide a discreet halo of sound encompassing the voice.
Beginning with an upward interval of a 7th, presumably a suggestion of the Lord’s lofty position, the tenor requests His consecration and blessing. The image of wickedness fleeing from us is painted momentarily (bars 3-4) and, as in the first recitative, there is a softening of the line at the mention of the Father (bar 6). And once again the singer has to rise to the top of his register, expressing the confidence with which we are bound to glorify His blessed Name.
The recitatives clearly have similarities of structure and purpose and it is difficult to believe that Bach did not conceive of, and create, them as parts of the same work. Once again his care and attention to detail over mundane, repetitive and uninspiring texts stands as a lesson for us all!
The cantata ends with a version of part 3 of the German Te Deum. In church this would have been sung by the choir and congregation in alternate phrases. Whether those attending the ceremony marking the institution of the new council members joined in with Bach’s choir can only be surmised; it seems very possible that they may have done so. Bach’s setting is plain and largely homophonic but its apparent simplicity disguises several surprising features.
It is, of course, an archaic modal theme which does not fit comfortably within a ‘modern’ tonal framework. Bach raises the g to g# in the sixth bar partly as a response to this difficulty. His harmonization of the opening phrase (the melodic shape of which contains virtually no inherent musical interest) is almost bizarre as he attempts to inject some harmonic interest into the barren chant.
But the thing that will strike most modern ears is the surprising fact that he begins in Bm and concludes in D major. Indeed, Bach contrives to end all but one of the eight phrases on major chords, a possible symbol of the optimism surrounding the celebrated event. The words are a prayer for Christ, by whose blood we are redeemed, to save, bless, tend and nurse us, eventually to raise us to all eternity.
Bach’s setting is unpretentiously optimistic, a suitable conclusion to the celebration of such an occasion and, presumably, acceptable to everyone, citizens and politicians alike.
Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.