Another of the many chorale cantatas by Bach, Cantata 137 was written in Leipzig in 1725 for the 12th Sunday after Trinity Sunday. (Its premiere, therefore, occurred on August 19, 1725.) The joyful text, however, which lacks clear ties to a particular feast day, could have been used on many occasions throughout the year, especially in the Easter season and Ordinary Time (the time between Christmas and the start of Lent, and between Trinity Sunday and the start of Advent). It is a five-movement cantata scored for SATB choir, three trumpets, timpani, three oboes, violin I, violin II, viola, and continuo. The first movement is the broadest in scope, including the full orchestra and choir. The choir is silent for the middle movement (alto aria, soprano/bass duet, tenor aria), then reappears with oboes, strings, and continuo doubling the parts on a traditional four-part chorale setting. The entire text of the cantata employs the text of the chorale “Lobe den Herren”, without any interpolations of other texts or elaborations of the chorale text by Bach. This was something he did periodically, though some tinkering with the chorale text was more common. The work is also notable for its lack of recitatives, something not commonly seen in Bach’s chorale cantatas; the lack of recitatives is likely directly related to the lack of poetic interpolations in the chorale text.
The chorale tune is well-known to both German and English-speaking congregations. In English, this familiar hymn tune is known as “Praise to the Lord”.
Movement 1: Chorus. Verse 1.
As stated previously, this is the broadest in scope of the movements, employing the full complement of the orchestra. It is a chorale fantasy, with three primary divisions to the ensemble occurring simultaneously to create an intricate, polyphonic texture: a) the sopranos of the choir present the chorale tune in a relatively straightforward manner; b) the lower three voices of the choir perform very active, imitative lines; and c) the perpetual motion of the orchestral strings, which not only add another dimension to the imitative polyphony of the choral parts but also serve as the constant element, whether the choral parts are performing at the moment or not.
The chorale fantasia can be analyzed as having nine distinct sections, alternating instrumental and choir with instruments, usually marked by strong cadences:
- The opening orchestral introduction is infused with an anapest rhythm (two sixteenths, one eighth) which propel the music continuously onward. [16 measures]
- The altos, tenors, and basses enter with the opening line of text (“Lobe den Herren”) in an active, polyphonic texture. Shortly thereafter, the sopranos enter with the familiar hymn tune in long notes; both the length of the notes and the range distinguish the tune from the rest of the texture. [12 measures]
- An orchestral transition, based on the introductory material. [15 measures]
- A repeat of the first choral entrance, using the second phrase of text. In the hymn, these first two phrases are likewise musically identical. [12 measures]
- A transitional orchestral passage, again based on the introductory material, though shorter and with the inflection of the minor mode, previously unheard in this movement. [6 measures]
- The next phrase of the hymn is introduced. This time, the choral parts are set homophonically, perhaps to amplify the more insistent statement in the text:
Kommet zu Hauf, Come all in throngs
Psalter und Harfen, wachet auf! Psaltry and lyre, wake up!
This kind of textural change in the midst of a chorale fantasia is striking and unusual to me. Though I can’t claim to know even half of Bach’s chorale cantatas, I have not seen another similar textural transformation mid-stream. [6 measures]
- Another orchestral transition bridges the gap to the next choral entrance. [14 measures]
- The final choral statement. The alto, tenor, and bass parts are similar, though not identical, to the first two. Though there are many differences between this statement and the first two, the changes are not so striking because of the return to the polyphonic choral fantasia texture and the migration of melodic and rhythmic motives from the first two choral statements.
- A reprise of the orchestral introduction, this time to bring closure to the movement.
Movement 2: Aria for Alto. Verse 2.
Bach maintains the triple meter setting of the chorale tune, though he creates a more dance-like feel by transforming 3/4 into 9/8. The “three-ness” is enhanced by the presence of only three distinct members of the ensemble in this piece, the solo alto voice, solo violin, and continuo. This movement is in a sense another chorale fantasia, with the chorale tune appearing in the solo alto voice while a solo violin weaves a more complicated fabric throughout. In my opinion, the solo alto part is almost incidental to this movement, even with th addition of some ornaments to decorate the hymn tune. This movement is entirely about the solo violin, which plays almost continuous moving sixteenths with barely a break.
Movement 3: Aria (Duetto) for Soprano and Bass. Verse 3.
In this movement, Bach transports the well-known tune into the minor mode. The texture is more than just a simple vocal duet; in addition, two obbligato oboes play their own duet – all parts, of course, are accompanied by continuo throughout. Here, the hymn tune serves more as a general structural framework for the movement – the opening repeated quarters leaping up a fifth and 3/4 meter are the main ties to the original tune. The leap of a fifth is frequently transformed into a fourth; the phrases are extended through elaborations in the vocal parts; and the parallel phrase structure of the hymn has disappeared here. thus, the hymn tune is barely recognizable, except in scattered fragments. This duet does, however, set the tone for the subsequent tenor aria, also in the minor mode (this time, a minor).
Movement 4: Aria for Tenor. Verse 4.
Here, the hymn tune does not appear in the vocal line, but rather in an obbligato trumpet part. Each statement by the trumpet turns the music to major, even though the movement is otherwise overwhelmingly in the minor mode.
Rather than singing the hymn tune or a variation thereof, the tenor is used by Bach to emphasize certain words of importance in the text. These include:
- “gesegnet” (blessed), with both a long held note and a long melisma;
- “strömen” (streams), marked again by a melisma, and
- “geregnet” (showers), which together emphasize how God pours streams of love down upon His people;
- “denke” (think), stated five times in as many measures, to emphasize the people’s need to think about God’s love and remember His gifts to us;
- “allmächtige” (all mighty), with another lengthy melisma.
Like the previous movements in this cantata, this one, too, is marked “dal segno” at the end, returning to use the opening instrumental ritornello to close the movement.
Movement 5: Chorale. Verse 5.
At quick glance, the final movement appears to be a typical four-part chorale setting to conclude the cantata. However, while Bach has assigned the oboes and strings to double the voices, as is his norm in this situation, he has written independent parts for the trumpets and timpani, adding a welcome grand twist to this well-known tune; more importantly, Bach demonstrates his innovation and talent in using chorale tunes in many different guises, especially when we consider his chorale cantatas collectively.
This final movement was incorporated later by Bach in “Herr Gott, Beherrscher aller Dinge”, a wedding cantata. No doubt the simplicity of the scoring – even with seven parts – and the overall festive mood were part of its appeal.