Pamela Dellal, mezzo soprano

 

uncommon intelligence, imagination and textual awareness...
PDme

 

 

Bach Cantata Notes

BWV 119

In addition to Bach’s basic responsibilities of musical aspects of the services on the Sundays and feast days of the church year as the Cantor of St. Thomas, he was expected to compose and perform pieces for special occasions such as academic festivities at Leipzig University and political celebrations.  Among the recurring municipal events was the council election and the associated festive service in the Nikolaikirche as the outgoing council took its leave and the new one was welcomed. Such a service must have taken place 27 times during Bach's time in Leipzig, but only five of the cantatas wrote for this purpose have survived (BWV 29, 69, 119, 120 and, in fragmentary form, BWV 193).

Bach's first Leipzig council election cantata, Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn, BWV 119, was composed for performance in 1723. Like all of its companion works, it declares its festive character by means of an extremely rich complement of instruments: four trumpets (instead of the usual three) and timpani, two recorders and three oboes, later on joined by two English horns, strings and continuo. Bach chooses to start his cantata with a French overture, regarded as the epitome of a festive opening, with the more animated, fugal middle section as a choral movement with the instruments playing an essentially supporting role. Bach's use of the French overture as a formal type can also be understood symbolically: in the same way that overtures were originally used in the era of Louis XIV as festive pieces to accompany the entry of the King and his entourage. Bach’s cantata was performed to mark the entry of the new mayor and council, and to open the new term of office. Likewise and fittingly, today at Emmanuel Church we celebrate our annual meeting and welcome new lay leaders.

The opening chorus comes from Psalm 147 (verses 12-14a), originally sung by the people of Israel with reference to Jerusalem. In Bach's cantata, however, Jerusalem represents Leipzig. The poetry of the cantata is also reminiscent of Psalm 16, verse 6: “My boundaries enclose a pleasant land; indeed, I have a goodly heritage.”

The first aria with two English horns and tenor not only praises Leipzig as a great town, but as the chosen place of God. The streets of Leipzig were (and still are) lined with linden trees, thus their mention in the text. After the very grand and unusual recitative for bass, with its noisy fanfares at the beginning and end and the gentle woodwind sonorities of recorders and English horns in the middle section, two recorders in unison accompany the alto in an aria of great intimacy and refinement.

A soprano recitative leads us into the highlight of the cantata: a grand chorus, which is, unusually, not the finale. The outer sections are set as a fugue: the words Der Hen hat Guts an uns getan' ('The Lord has done good things for us') are linked to a striking theme that rises from the bass all the way to the soprano and is then gradually taken up by the instruments until the entire orchestra participates in a majestic climax. By contrast, the vocal parts in the middle section are predominantly homophonic, while the orchestra develops themes and motives from the opening ritornello, among them the famous fanfare derived from the beginning of the First Brandenburg Concerto and the trumpet part of the aria 'Großer Herr, o starker König' from the Christmas Oratorio.

Another brief recitative ushers in the very simple and humble chorale setting of the ninth strophe of Martin Luther's German version of the Te Deum. The tone of humility is all the more striking after what has come before.

© Ryan Turner & Craig Smith


For election day, we perform Bach’s great election-day cantata “Preise Jerusalem.” This grand work was written in Bach’s first year at Leipzig. It opens appropriately with a magnificent chorus with the full orchestra of 4 trumpets, tympani, 3 oboes, two recorders, and strings. The first aria with two English horns and tenor, not only praises Leipzig as a great town, but as the chosen place of God. The streets of Leipzig were (and still are) lined with linden trees, thus their mention in the text. After a very grand recitative for bass, with all of the wind and brass instruments, the two recorders accompany the alto in an aria of great intimacy and refinement. A soprano recitative leads us into a grand chorus, which is, unusually, not the finale. Another brief recitative ushers in the very simply and humble chorale setting. The tone of humility is all the more striking after what has come before.

©Craig Smith