of Bachs motets (BWV 225-230) survive, all from his time in
Leipzig. These are long works, far longer than the Renaissance ancestor
of this genre. Four, including Singet dem Herrn, were written
for double chorus without instrumental accompaniment, although in
Bachs day he sometimes doubled the voices with instruments
for additional support. (Instrumental parts in Bachs hand
do survive, but Bach himself indicated that he preferred to use
them only as a "crutch.")
dem Herrn was likely written in 1727 for the Leipzig city and
university festival celebrating the birthday of King August, who
visited the town after having survived a grave illness. There is,
however, a good deal of dispute over the original intention for
the work, as well as for the actual date of origin. Handwriting
analysis (by Alfred Dürr) reveals that the work clearly comes
from 1726 or 1727. The watermark on the paper, however, is consistent
with those seen on Bachs Cöthen instrumental music, which
makes scholars wonder whether Bach actually wrote the work earlier,
or whether the paper was simply left over from an earlier time.
Steven Daw places the work in late 1727. Daw believes that Bach
wrote Singet dem Herrn for a memorial service for the Queen
of Poland. Awfully cheerful piece for such an occasion? Yes, but
consider the circumstances of her life: she spent the last thirty
years of her life in exile from the Polish court after she, unlike
her husband, refused to renounce Lutheranism for Roman Catholicism.
She was seen by many German ProtestantsBach includedas
a Lutheran martyr. Bachs use of a chorale tune (the actual
source is unknown) may be the hint here, as well as his insistent
repetition of the words "Wohl dem, der sich nur steif und fest
auf dich und deine Huld verlässt" (Happy the man who firmly
and steadfastly puts his trust in You and in Your grace). Is this
a message for the congregation to follow the queens lead?
Of course, we might still see this as Bachs personal message.
Whether the motet was written in celebration of the Kings
recover, the Queens steadfast belief in the Lord, or some
other event unknown to modern audiences, Bachs own unflappable
faith is evident in that text, and in throughout the entire motet.
text for Singet dem Herrn is derived from Psalms 149, Psalm
150, and Johann Gramanns hymn Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren.
Bach divides the motet into four clear sections.
first is vigorous, and clearly focuses on the word "singet,"
stating it more than 50 times. The multiple repetitions of this
word, the energetic rhythms, and the use of the two choirs independent
of each other create the feeling of singing echoing throughout the
world in praise of the Lord. There are wonderful moments of word-painting
here, most notably
long active melisma on "Reigen"
many repetitions of "singet," which constantly create
the feeling of the start of a new song (get it? Sing a new song
timpani-like movement through a triad on "Pauken" (drums)
amidst otherwise flowing music.
interesting musical twist gets somewhat lost in the shuffle, so
to speak; this is the fugue on "die Kinder Zions sein
fröhlich über ihren König," which begins in
choir one (SATB entrances) while choir two returns to the opening
material. After a time, the two choirs switch roles, with the fugue
beginning again in choir two, this time in reverse order of voices
second section is reflective. The two choirs are still treated
as independent entities, but choir 2 takes on a distinct character,
is performing a chorale. Although I dont know exactly the
source, it reminds me very much of the famous setting of Psalm 100,
known as "Old Hundredth" or "Praise God from Whom
All Blessings Flow." Here are both are:
Singet, Bach actually writes a measure rest between the
two phrases, where Choir 1 sings, but I took that out here so
you could see the similarity in the chorales.)
chorale melody is presented by Choir 2 homophonically,
alternating with Choir 1, which sings a completely different text,
melody, and texture.
third section is spirited and dance-like; here, the two choirs are
used antiphonally, with
the second choir imitating the first
final part is a mighty four-voice fugue
(so the two choirs sing as one), which is closely related to the
fugue in the Sanctus
("Pleni sunt coeli") of the B minor Mass.
As a comparison, lets see these two fugue subjects side by
are in 3/8 meter; both contain sixteenth-note melismas; both
use some syncopation
and both create a lively, festive mood.
Amadeus Mozart was reportedly deeply moved when he heard a performance
of this work in 1789, so much so that he requested permission
to see the music and proceeded to copy out the parts. Could
this have been the inspiration for some of the grand fugues
that appear in Mozarts late works, for example, the Requiem
and the final movement of Symphony No. 41 in C major?
One can only wonder
2003 Carol Traupman-Carr