Nach Dir, Herr, Verlanget Mich (BWV 150)
Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4)
Gott ist mein König (BWV 71)
Lobe Den Herrn, Meine Seele (BWV 143)
A year or so makes. After the emotional intensity of the cantatas written in Mulhausen we have a cantatas written in 1708 that seem to take a huge leap forward.
I have to admit that these cantatas as a whole didn’t grab me as much as those from 1707. Personally they didn’t have the emotional impact or scale – despite larger forces – of the cantatas of the previous year but there is a sense of experimentation.
It’s worth noting that these were the first orchestral works Bach wrote. The concerti that we all love came later and that there remains some debate as to the actual date of some of these early cantatas. Both Nach Dir, Herr, Verlanget Mich (BWV 150) and Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4) have variously been listed as being written between 1703 and 1707, but after some research I have placed them in 1708.
Following a short sinfonia, the chromaticism of the opening bipartite chorus of Nach Dir, Herr, Verlanget Mich captures the mood of the text beautifully, especially the focus on ‘zuschanden’. And listen for the rising scale from bass to soprano in the second chorus, Leite Mich In Deiner Wahrheit.
Indeed it is the choruses in this cantata that truly stand out. And as John Elliott Gardiner points out in his brilliant book, Music In The Castle of Heaven, dance was seminal to Bach’s music and here the final chorus is a finely crafted ciacona.
Written for Easter, again Christ lag in Todesbanden opens with a short sinfonia before launching into the first chorus – a choral in the sopranos, the alto, tenor and bass lines weave around almost Italianate string writing in well-crafted counterpoint, concluding with an impressive Hallelujah ending.
A chorus definitely to get the congregation’s attention. Indeed the entire cantata is for chorus – no soloists required – but Bach deploys the forces smartly.
The second chorus, Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt (Death no one could subdue) scales the orchestra right back to continuo and a seductively woven vocal line above, contrasted with the vigorous string writing for the tenor chorus, Jesus Christus, Gottes sohn that follows and made even more famous by the over-orchestrated and ponderous arrangement by Stokowski.
But it is the chorus in the middle of the cantata that is most notable. Unaccompanied, Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg is in effect a motet – a furious one – with the chorale in the alto.
The final two cantatas of this period – Gott ist mein König (BWV 71) and Lobe Den Herrn, Meine Seele (BWV 143) – use an orchestra that I would imagine that most audiences most associated with Bach – woodwind, brass – in this case horns – and timpani.
BWV 143, Lobe Den Herrn, Meine Seele opens with a suitably exultant chorus, but its brevity demonstrates that perhaps Bach still wasn’t completely confident in terms of the large-scale choral opening movements of his later cantatas. Of the arias, it’s the tenor arias Tausendfaches Unglück, Schrecken (A Thousand misfortunes) and Jesu, Retter Deiner Herde (Jesus, Deliverer of your flock)where you hear for the first time the inventiveness that Bach would achieve in later works, especially his Passions. In the former, a delicate obbligato, in the second a distinctive bassoon continuo and the strings delivering the chorale.
As with the opening chorus, the final Hallelujah is more interesting for the hope it hold for future choruses than in itself.
Gott ist mein König (BWV 71) is the only cantata that Bach published in his lifetime and written for the annual council elections and therefore a cantata of somewhat impressive scale.
The opening chorus alternates between the necessary pomp and sections that are more reminiscent of an earlier motet style. And indeed this cantata is built on this tension of styles. The third movement is another unaccompanied movement, a fugue entitled ‘quartetto’, sandwiched between a tenor aria featuring an organ obbligato and the chorale delivered by a soprano soloist and an arioso for the bass, Tag Und Nacht Ist Dein, with its scoring for recorders and oboes. But it is the penultimate movement, the chorus Du Wollest Dem Feinde, again featuring recorders and oboes, above a rippling continuo and declamatory chorus that is the most memorable moment in this cantata, and points directly to his later works.
And naturally the cantata ends with a suitably expansive chorus – Das Neue Regiment – heralding the new council. Again alternating grander moments for full orchestra and chorus with motet-style sections, but the last word goes not to the chorus or trumpets but to the recorders.
Almost a musical wink, tt seems that Bach wasn’t quite the curmudgeon the world would like us to believe.