Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret (BWV 31)
O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad (BWV 165)
There is some debate about Bach’s first cantata for 1715 – Alles, was von Gott reborn (BWV 80a). Some of the music is lost and Bach later expanded it into Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott in 1730. Therefore I shall return to it when – and hopefully not if – I reach that decade.
Therefore the first extant cantata of the year is Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret (BWV 31) for April 1716 and Easter. Despite the innocently sounding Sonata title for the first movement, it is anything but a quiet affair. Opening with timpani and trumpets but scored for an orchestra including oboes and strings and including some delightful interplay with the trumpets, its moto perpetuo rhythmic drive must have had them literally tapping their feet, if not wishing they could dance down the aisle of the church. The first chorus, Der Himmel lacht! continues the joyousness of the opening movement and yet Bach conveys a sense of frantic, almost raucous, joy as the chorus sing of rejoicing and laughter. But this is suddenly and dramatically cut short at Der sich das Grab zur Ruh erlesen (He who chose the grave for rest) before an earnest canonic section brings the movement to a close.
Following a recitative for the tenor, the first aria s in contrast to the opening movements, is written for bass and continuo only but remains a intensely rhythmically driven both in the vocal line and the continuo. The tenor returns for the second recitative and the second aria accompanied by strings only. The final aria, preceded by a recitative for the soprano, features an oboe obbligato. There is an almost pastoral feeling to Letzte Sunde, brich herein (Last hour, break forth) which is only tempered by the interjection of the strings with the chorale melody Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist.
Here is an example of what I will be calling Bach’s “Cantata psychology”. The aria, on the surface, urges the congregation to prepare for Jesus’ “gleam of joy”, and as they sat there listening to the first time to this beautifully crafted aria, they would have been surprised to hear the melody of a hymn they would have known well from singing in the church as well as at home – If the hour of my death is at hand. Bach, himself an incredibly religious man by all accounts, would have realized the power of music to remind the congregation of their own – and his – mortality. And Bach reinforced this message in the closing chorale by using the same melody.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Bach had a clear intention in mind when writing this cantata. It was to celebrate Easter and the glory of God, but to remind the congregation – and himself –that no matter how great their rejoicing should be, ultimately they should remember their mortality.
O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad, (BWV 165) – first performed in June 1715 – is much more modest both in terms of the forces Bach employed by also scale. The first movement for soprano – no introductory instrumental piece – with its weaving counterpoint in the strings and the melismatc vocal line convey the flowing water of the text. An aria for alto, post a simple recitative for bass, is scored for continuo only. The compound time signature reinforces the sense of quiet confidence of the text, of a belief in Jesus’ love for the celebrant. The succeeding recitative, scored for strings and arioso in nature leads into an aria for tenor with unison strings. I can’t help but think that the moto perpetuo of this movement – so different from the opening movement of the preceding cantata – refers to the Heilschläglein of the text before bringing the cantata to an end with a simple chorale.
Despite being very different in structure and nature, in these two cantatas we continue to see Bach flexing his musical and thelogical muscle, increasingly finding ways to bring his congregation closer to God – through both grandeur and contemplation – through his music.