Composed for the third day of Christmas in 1725, Cantata 151 is a brief cantata of modest proportions, scope, and scoring. The author of the libretto is G.C. Lehms, a poet and court librarian in Darmstadt. The text draws on Hebrews 1:1-14, one of the readings of the day. The final movement sets the eighth verse of the chorale “Lobt Gott, ihr Christen alle gleich”, written in 1560 by Nicholas Herman.
The work is scored for flauto traverso, oboe d’amore, strings, continuo, SATB solos. Interestingly enough, the voices only appear together in the final movement, which could be sung by an SATB choir or by the solo quartet. The other movements are taken by the soloists and different combinations from the orchestra.
|Texture and notes
|12/8, Molto adagio (brief section in cut time)
|Flute, oboe d’amore, strings, continuo, soprano solo
|Homophonic, with obbligato flute part.
Note: da capo aria
|D Major to
|Bass solo, continuo
|Alto solo, oboe d’amore, strings, continuo
|B minor to
|Tenor solo, continuo
|SATB, doubled by orchestra and continuo
|4-part chorale setting
The first movement is a pastorale, at least in character. The lilting, slow, 12/8 meter reflects not only “Susser Trost” (sweet comfort), but also the gentle simplicity of the nativity scene. Bach marks the dynamics here “sempre piano” (always soft). We’re not used to seeing many dynamics written in the score by Bach (most are editor’s markings, added after publication), so it must have been very important to the composer to keep the festivities over the Christ Child’s birth restrained; perhaps this is in some ways a lullaby for the sleeping infant Jesus.
The aria is a da capo aria, with the B section contrasting in almost every imaginable way:
|Lilting, flowing, gentle
|More driven and marked
|Flowing triple groups dominate
|Contrast between steady eighths in the walking bass line and triplet ornaments in the soprano
|Full orchestra accompanies throughout
|Continuo throughout; rest of the orchestra in and out, usually as a group
|Elaborate, lengthy instrumental introduction
|No extended passages for orchestra alone
|Text and character focus on comfort, sweetness
|Text and character focus on being “filled with joy”
Next follow two recitatives for the solo male voices (bass, then tenor), as bookends around an alto aria. The alto aria is set in e minor, the relative minor key of Cantata 151. It is scored for oboe d’amore, strings, continuo, and alto solo. The violins and violas are surprisingly silent when the alto sings, speaking only between her statements. This movement is related to the first aria in a few ways:
- the key of e minor appears in the B section of the first aria;
- the soprano aria is, for the most part, meek and gentle in sound and character, and Jesus’s meekness is the focus of the text of the alto aria;
- there is a similarity in the bass lines of the B sections of both the soprano aria and the alto aria, if only because the keys are similar and both employ active bass lines; and
- the soprano aria is a da capo aria; the alto aria is not, but feels as though it is because of the clear double return of the melody and text for “In Jesu Demuth kann ich Trost” about two-thirds of the way through the aria
Cantata 151 closes with a four-part chorale, setting the eighth verse of Nicholas Herman’s “Lobt Gott, ihr Christen alle glerich”. The melody is also by Herman, though written a few years earlier (1554) for a secular text. The chorale returns the cantata to its original tonic key, and the text represents the feeling of hope that Christians associate with the birth of their Messiah.