Composed originally in 1716 in Weimar, Cantata 147 was revised by Bach during his Leipzig years, and premiered in an expanded version in 1723 for the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is the feast which commemorates the visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, who would become the mother of John the Baptist. Like so many of Bach’s texts, this is an original poetic text; the Weimar poet Salomo Franck provided the entire text for Bach’s first setting, to which two chorale verses and recitatives were added in Leipzig by an unknown author. These recitatives paraphrase Mary’s Magnificat, which links this cantata quite directly to the Feast of the Visitation, something not obvious in the Weimar original. In Weimar, the earlier version of the cantata was intended for the fourth Sunday of Advent. It was traditional, however, in Weimar to perform cantatas only on the first Sunday of Advent, so we have no real knowledge of the performance history of that work. Though the Feast of the Visitation of Mary occurs in July, in modern times we associate this feast with Advent as immediately anticipating the birth of the Christ Child.

It appears that Bach wrote cantatas for three straight Sundays in Advent (the second, third, and fourth) in 1717 in Weimar. In Leipzig, Bach’s re-crafted version was included in his first annual cantata cycle (Jahrgant I), 1723-1724.

The cantata is set in ten movements divided into two parts (1-6 and 7-10). It is scored for SATB choir, trumpet, two oboes, bassoon, strings, and continuo. Soprano, alto, tenor, and bass solos are used. It is a bit surprising to discover the trumpet without timpani, but this trumpet plays a different role than in other cantatas we’ve seen with three trumpets. In the other cases, the trumpet trio, accompanied almost always by timpani, reinforces the strongest points of the text or music and provides timbral variety in the texture. Here, the trumpet is a far more virtuoso part, treated not as a reinforcing part, but as a vital melodic component. In movements 6 and 10 the trumpet doubles the soprano voice, giving extra brightness to the chorale setting.

Although in the present form this cantata includes two chorale movements (set to the same music, known to modern audiences as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”), this is not a chorale cantata in the usual sense. It is not unusual for Bach to incorporate chorale tunes or even verses into a cantata, but here the poetry outside of these two movements (no. 6 and 10) does not find its origin among chorale texts.

There are numerous ties between the poetic text and biblical verses. Consider, for example, the opening line (and title) “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben muss von Christo Zeugnis geben” (heart and mouth and deed and life must give witness of Christ); this is a virtual paraphrase of Mary’s words, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Here’s another example from the bass aria of Part II:

“Ich will von Jesue Wandern singen
und ihm der Lippen Opfer bringen.”

(I will of Jesus’s wonders sing
and him my lips’ sacrifice bring.)

This passage again draws directly from Mary’s statement (in Luke 1:49-47, 49) “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” as well as from Hebrews 13:15: “Let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge His name.” There are numerous other such connections between the poetic text and its biblical inspiration, which are shown in great detail in Melvin P. Unger, Handbook to Bach’s Sacred Cantata Texts (Landham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1996).

The movements contained in this cantata are summarized in the table below.

Movt. Meter Scoring Key Tempo Special notes
1 6/4 Trumpet, oboe, strings, continuo, SATB choir C major Quick Imitative
2 4/4 strings, continuo, solo Tenor F major to A major Free Recitative
3 3/4 oboe d’amore, continuo, solo Alto A minor Moderately slow Opening instrumental section reprised to close the movement
4 4/4 continuo, solo Bass D minor to a minor Free Recitative
5 4/4 (triplet sub-division) Solo violin, continuo, solo soprano D minor Moderate Opening instrumental passage is reprised to close the movement
6 3/4 (9/8 indicated in violin I) Strings, trumpet, (doubling sopranos), continuo, SATB choir G Major Moderately fast Chorale setting No. 1
7 3/4 (triplet sub-division) Continuo, solo tenor F Major Moderate to fast Very active continuo part
8 4/4 Oboe da caccia I, II; continuo, solo Alto C Major Free Accompanied recitative
9 4/4 Trumpet, strings, continuo, solo Bass C major Moderate to fast, joyful Opening instrumental passage is reprised to close the movement
10 3/4 (9/8 indicated in Violin I) Strings, trumpet (doubling sopranos), continuo, SATB choir G Major Moderately fast Chorale setting No. 2 (same music as in No.l 7, different text)

Looking at the chart above, I am surprised by a few items.

  1. Three movements include a “dal segno” marking, an indication of a return to previous material. This is derivative from the da capo form and style, though in no case here do these movements follow da capo form. that is, none is in ABA form in the traditional sense, for the soloist does not participate in the reprise. In each case, the reprise is purely instrumental. The instrumental reprises do, however, bring strong closure to each movement, as well as forming ‘bookends’ to each movement.
  2. There is a preponderance of moderate to fast tempi. Even the slowest movement (no. 3) has an active obbligato instrumental part, which creates a feel of more motion than the beat alone can do. The predominance of quicker tempos enhances the overall joyful mood of the text.
  3. There are also a lot of triple meters or triple subdivisions in the music of Cantata 147. It is not a stretch of the imagination to see this as the presence of the Trinity – God the Father, speaking through the archangel Gabriel; God the Son, who will be born of the Virgin Mary; and God the Spirit, who will descend upon the nubile youth and cause the miracle of conception within Mary’s body.
  4. You’ll also notice how varied the instrumentation is. The only constant throughout is the continuo, which is to be expected, but even this varies. Sometimes, as in no. 7, the continuo acts almost like an obbligato solo instrumental part, as it is such an active ‘melodic’ partner throughout. In other cases (such as the recitatives no. 2 and 5), the continuo is very static, providing only the most fundamental harmonic support for the voice above.

The first movement of Cantata 147 begins with a leap downward, filled in by an ascent through a C major triad. One can argue that arpeggiated figures (the playing out of a triad) are a standard component of music from all eras, including the works of Bach, they in addition can bring about numerous other associations. For one, the triad is considered, in mid-17th and mid-18th century music theory, the chord of nature – perhaps the most naturally occurring sound there is, as the sound exists in nature through the harmonic series (the natural resonance pattern of a string, a piece of metal, a column of air, or a human vocal chord). By beginning with the triad, Bach gives the chord of nature special prominence and provides the link between nature (God) and man (Bach, and his musicians). Second, the triad is composed of thirds, and we already know the importance of three in Bach numerology.

The fact that in this movement the voices enter in imitation from highest to lowest (SATB) indicates the ascent of the archangel Gabriel to visit Mary below on earth. Bach immediately employs word painting in this first vocal entrance, writing an extended, flowery melisma on “Leben” (life), as if to give life to this word.

BWV 147 Example 1

This imitation continues for many measures, until a sudden and dramatic change occurs with a change of text. At “ohne Furcht und Heuchelei” (without fear or hypocrisy), the music turns suddenly introspective and almost fearful – despite the statement “without fear”. All instruments in the ensemble drop out except for the continuo, which doubles the bass voice but nothing more. The mode changes to minor, and with the turn to minor the music becomes more chromatic and unstable. The imitative texture is replaced with a highly ornamented chorale-style setting reminiscent of a late Renaissance motet.

BWV 147 Example 2

The minor mode continues for a while, ending with a longer passage in this stile antico style, before breaking back into the joyful C major. Another set of imitative entrances brings back this more blissful music, with the voices entering in a mirror image of the beginning (BTAS).

For the next aria (movement 3, followed by a recitative), Bach introduces the oboe d’amore. Ulrich Prince, who wrote his dissertation on Bach’s instrumentation, states that Bach introduces this instrument for the first time in Cantata 23, written in 1723 in Leipzig. (J.S. Bach [Oxford composer companions], ed. Malcom Boyd [New York: Oxford University Press, 1999]). Although cantata 23 doesn’t appear in the Jahrgant I until February 20, 1724, it was one of Bach’s audition cantatas a full year earlier.

The warm sound of the oboe d’amore contributes to the intimate feel of this aria, as does the lower, warmer timbre of the alto soloist. The a minor tonality (the relative minor of the C major which opens the cantata) also enhances the introspective, contemplative feel of the aria. Bach makes some minor use (no pun intended) of word painting in this movement, most notably by adding a melisma on “Herrlichkeit” (glory) near the end of the text, and shortly before the instruments return to the opening passage to close the movement.

BWV 147 Example 3

The recitative which follows, meanwhile, is surprisingly enlivened by abundant imagery in both the text and accompanying continuo. Consider the many examples:

  • The opening dissonant chord immediately precedes the word “Verstockung” (stubbornness), which is then sung on a descending diminished seventh, a dissonant interval itself; this non-conformity reflects the stubbornness in striking fashion. (1)
  • The arm of the Lord thrusts the stubborn ones from their throne in the next phrase, as the vocal line descends, followed by a tumbling line dropping two octaves in the continuo. (2)
  • That arm subsequently causes a quake, which is demonstrated by a trembling line in the continuo. (3)
  • Next, he exalts the lowly, moving downward to collect the lowly ones, then elevating them (Eleden) through an ascending vocal line. (4)
  • From here to the end of the recitative, we find the most consistently high vocal writing (it’s not really that high for the singer, but it avoids jumping into the lower register, and includes more high tones than the previous passages). This enhances the text’s reference to the ‘most favored Christians’, telling them to ‘arise’, and then calling this the ‘time of gladness’. (5)
  • On “brünstigem Verlangen” (fervent longing), chromaticism enters again, turning up the heat in the harmonic support of the voice.

BWV 147 Example 4

Beyond this imagery, it is useful to note that much of the text of this recitative is an elaboration of Mary’s Magnificat. Note the connections between this text and the Biblical one from Luke 1:

Cantata 147 Luke 1
Until the arm of the Lord thrusts them from their throne; yet this arm, t hough the globe may quake before it… He hath showed strength with his arm
Stubbornness can blind the mighty until the arm of the Lord thrusts them from their throne He hath put down the mighty from their seats
Exalts the lowly whom he redeems And hath exalted the humble and meek

The next movement (no. 5), a soprano aria, sets perhaps the most famous message of Advent: prepare the way of the Lord. The moderate-tempo walking bass line gives a strong sense of movement, perhaps of Christ walking on his path of life. The movement can be viewed as a trio sonata, with two independent melody parts in the solo violin and solo soprano. The two melody lines are simultaneously both complimentary and completely independent of each other, more even than one would normally see in a trio sonata. Is this Christ and mankind walking together?

The first part of the cantata ends with one of two similar chorale settings (the other comes at the end of Part II of the cantata). Bach produces one of his most famous creations here by drawing on sources not originally his. The text is a verse of Martin Jahn’s hymn “Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne” (1661), using a melody by Johann Schop (which set a completely different chorale text). This is the tune known in English-speaking lands as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”. Listeners accustomed to hearing this weddings may be surprised at the effect in a quicker tempo, which Bach almost certainly intended. (He did not indicate tempo, but performance practice would dictate a quicker tempo.) It becomes dance-like, in the very least reflecting the joy of the text, which is clear. It is indeed not a sentimental one, which is how most modern performances generally come across:

Happy I am that I have Jesus;
O how firmly I shall hold him,
Then he may refresh my heart
When I am ill and grieving.
I have Jesus, who loves me
And entrusts himself to me;
Ah, thus I shall not leave Jesus,
Even if my heart should break

The second part begins with a declamatory aria for tenor with an active continuo line which continues the joy set forth in the previous chorale. The lively continuo part is the highlight here. Bach ensures that the bass line comes through by not over-ornamenting the tenor solo. Bach specifies violincello and violone on the continuo; organ is also indicated by the presence of figured bass notation. The violone was specified in only about 50 of Bach’s continuo parts. This is the lowest-sounding string in Bach’s ensemble, and originated in the viol family.

The accompanied recitative which follows extends Mary’s story by turning to her visit to her cousin, Elizabeth. Elizabeth greets her younger cousin with the famous text “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Elizabeth reveals that her own unborn child (who will be known as John the Baptist) leapt in her womb at Mary’s presence.

In the recitative, Elizabeth, John, and Mary are all mentioned by name, but the emphasis is on the wonder of the Lord’s work. Accompanying are two oboes da caccia, the tenor member of the oboe family. The two oboes almost always play in parallel thirds or sixths, tying them together – perhaps this is Elizabeth and John (who, as an unborn child, is completely dependent upon his mother, and moves where she does).

The cantata ends with a chorale setting which is musically identical to movement 6, though sets a different verse of the chorale text.