By Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
Probably in no other area of his artistic production did Johann Sebastian Bach (1685- 1750) display the diversity of his talent and compositional skills so broadly as in his 206 surviving sacred cantatas. This genre of his works demonstrates most decisively his outstanding capabilities as a practical working musician called upon constantly to produce masterly crafted music demanded by the exigencies of his times, place, and position.
The prevailing liturgical cycle of the Lutheran Church at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig ultimately exacted from his pen five cycles of cantatas, each to the number of 59, for a total including works written prior to the Leipzig period of at least 295.
The cantata as developed by Bach evolved from prototypes of the Seventeenth Century or from the newly created form by Erdmann Neumeister, a clergyman-poet in 1700. Bach's specimens exhibit unlimited imaginative inventiveness in each of the several categories he adapted, refined and brought to perfection. This evening's program of three quite different Cantatas will demonstrate his compositional virtuosity.
Bach called the cantata a "concerto" because according to the common nomenclature of his day it combined vocal and instrumental music. Indeed these cantatas often embrace a sequence of movements similar to his orchestral suites and concertos. Moreover, as will become evident, for example, in the opening chorus of Cantata #110, Bach, clearly understanding the capabilities of the human voice, scores his vocal lines in an almost identical approach to his instrumental scoring. Voices and instruments are perfectly integrated to achieve completely harmonious balance and effect.
The church simply referred to the cantata as "the music", implying that it was the principal service music employing instrumentalists.
We must here note that the customary numerical designation of the Cantatas assigned them by the Nineteenth-century editors of Bach's works bears no relation to the correct order of their composition. Dating them has proved laborious and somewhat precarious. Of this evening's three Cantatas, the earliest composed, #63, Christen, atzet diesen Tag, was produced for his first Christmas, 1723, at Leipzig. Bach, anticipating his move to Leipzig derived it possibly while at Coethen (1717-1723) from an earlier Christmas Cantata composed before 1716 while employed at Weimar. Second in order of composition is #110, Unser Mund sei voll lachens, written for Christmas, 1725 with possible subsequent reworking after 1734. The Cantata #36, Schwing! freudig euch empor, appeared for the first Sunday of Advent, December 2,1731. It stems from a reworking of a secular cantata produced in November, 1726, to celebrate the birthday of the Princess of Anhalt- Coethen. Later between 1730 and 1734 Bach transformed it back into a secular cantata honoring the Rector of the Thomasschule, Johann Gessner. Cantata #36 thus falls among those several borrowing materials from secular sources. Bach, indeed, as is well known, habitually borrowed materials from his previous works, often transforming them brilliantly.
The three Cantatas on this evening's program furnish us with a pleasing demonstration in their structure and orchestrations of Bach's unendingly fresh musical sensitivity toward the liturgical occasion and the sacred text.
The text of Cantata #36 Schwing! ... Bach derived possibly from his frequently employed librettist Picander, though he may have as was often his custom here written his own text. No passage from Sacred Scripture appears. After the opening chorus accompanied by the small orchestras of two oboe d'amore, strings and organ (indicative of the restrained liturgical season) the Cantata's movements alternate between chorales and arias for a duet of soprano and alto and for soprano, tenor, and bass soloists. Each is cunningly scored with its own telling instrumental combination. The Cantata concludes with one verse of the chorale Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, a melody used elsewhere in the work along with the famed chorale tune Wie schoen leuchtet der Morgenstern. It is still a matter of dispute whether these concluding chorale movements were sung also by the congregation.
Cantata #63, Christen ... contains neither quotation from the Bible nor from any chorale. The wholly original libretto is Bach's. The Cantata frames with two impressive choruses three recitatives two of which are followed by duets, the first for soprano and bass, the second for alto and tenor. Here the orchestra is considerably enlarged to fit the festive Christmas spirit in calling for four trumpets, three oboes, bassoon, timpani, strings and organ. Some consider that Bach may have intended this cantata as a companion piece to the great latin Magnificat in D.
The listener's attention is again directed toward the exceedingly subtle nuances in the various movements especially of the recitatives, and to the variety of accompaniment. That of the Bass recitative particularly in the sixth movement is noteworthy.
Cantata #110, Unser Mund ... falls again among those cantatas utilizing borrowed materials. Apart from the three biblical quotations from Psalm 126 (Then our mouth filled with laughter and all our tongues with loud singing for the Lord hath compassed such things) in the opening chorus, from Jeremiah 10/6 (O lord, there is none like thee) in the recitative of the third movement, and from Luke 2/14 (Glory to God in the highest) in the duet for soprano and tenor in the fifth movement, Bach again provides the poetic libretto.
The most significant aspect of this Cantata is Bach's reworking of the Overture to the Orchestral Suite #4 in D as the Cantata's majestic and brilliant opening chorus. W. Gilles Whittaker has observed in his monumental study, The Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach "There are three most successful adaptations from purely orchestral sources to vocal and instrumental in the cantatas ... The most extraordinary of the three is #1 in 'Unser Mund sei volllachens' for Christmas day. The initial number of the fourth orchestral suite in D is commandeered in its entirety." Whittaker delineates the slight differences of the cantata's movement from the orchestral original stressing especially the superimposition of a choir on the Allegro section of the overture. Whittaker further describes this exhilaratingly merry music as follows: "The appropriateness of the Psalm verse to the music is quite startling; had the suite disappeared no one would ever have guessed that the setting was not wholly original." Indeed he feels that it is better than the original.
The soprano-tenor duet in the fifth movement is derived from the Virga jesse floruit (a branch shall spring from Jesse) of the Magnificat in E Flat.
This Cantata boasts the most elaborate orchestra of the three heard on the program. Festive celebration transfixes the listener with the sounds of three trumpets in D. two transverse flutes, three oboes, bassoon, strings and organ. In addition throughout the Cantata's various movements he employs with sovereign skill the particular tonal qualities of the mellow newly invented oboe d'amore matched to the alto's aria in the fourth movement and of the even more deep-throated oboe da caccia (English Horn) in the tenor aria summoning the soul to awake to the praises of the lord awake to the praises of the lord.
The Cantata's final Alleluia chorale derived from the Fugers' Wir Christen leut of 1593, jubilantly sums up the performance of three marvelous Cantatas so vividly demonstrating the art of this great master and so fittingly in augurating for us Christmastide.