Cantata 76 was written for the Second Sunday after Trinity and received its first performance on 6 June 1723. It was the composer’s second Sunday in Leipzig. The librettist is unknown but is presumably the same as the librettist of Cantata 75. There are numerous connections between Cantata 75 and 76, since they were the first two works of the first Leipzig cantata cycle, and the first two works written by Bach for his appointment in Leipzig.

For more information on the genesis of Cantata 76, as well as Cantata 75, see Stephen A. Crist, “Bach’s debut in Leipzig: Observations on the genesis of Cantatas 75 and 76” (Early Music, May, 1985). While there are strong parallels between these two cantatas, there are also numerous striking differences between the two. Some of the highlights of Crist’s article include:

  • Unlike the manuscript for Cantata 75, the manuscript for Cantata 76 indicates heavy corrections. What does this mean? Was this manuscript Bach’s “working score”, on which he was composing and revising at the same time, while the score the survives from Cantata 75 is more of a final version?
  • It was Bach’s practice to work on one composition at a time, so he likely composed this work after arriving in Leipzig. It may have been the first work he actually composed after his arrival, and without preparatory sketches.
  • The corrections may also indicate that the work was prepared rather hastily, especially in comparison to BWV 75, where there is some evidence that Bach worked on the score prior to his physical move to Leipzig.
  • The fact that the manuscript shows significant revision and correction should not cloud the fact that the work was probably composed in haste and in a short period of time. Indeed, the fact that Cantata 76 contains 14 individual movements, almost none of which appear to be re-crafted from earlier Bach works, should make us consider Cantata 76 as a rather impressive feat.

Bach scholar Eric Chafe has also studied Cantata 76 in depth; in this case, he analyzes the cantata not in terms of its origins, but rather of its meaning (see Eric Chafe, Analyzing Bach Cantatas, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, especially pp. 27-28). Chafe sees Cantata 76 as an excellent example of the “purpose of music in the Lutheran tradition”. According to Chafe, this cantata:

interprets ‘heaven’ in three senses, the first purely physical, drawing on an Old Testament text, the second in terms of the church on earth, and the third eschatologically. The key to recognizing God’s proclaiming His presence is hearing the voice of God in Jesus Christ, the ‘light of reason’ (part 1), while loving and giving honor to God (part 2) involve loving one’s neighbor (or one’s ‘brother’…in the language of Cantata 76). The overall progression of ideas is from the Old Testament God and the glory of God the creator to His revelation in Jesus (part 1), the community of the faithful, and the anticipation of the afterlife (part 2). Ultimately, the…goal of Cantata 76…was that of praising God in his own sphere.

There are many clear parallels between this cantata and Cantata 75 in terms of the musical and textual choices. For example:

  • both are two-part cantatas
  • both are set in fourteen movements
  • both begin with a first movement text drawn from the Book of Psalms
  • both set a chorale tune in movements 7 and 14
  • both begin the second half with a sinfonia, a purely instrumental movement
  • both employ soprano, alto, tenor, and bass soloists
  • both have one aria for each solo voice, using the keys a minor, e minor, C major, and G major (though the keys are employed in a different order in each cantata)
  • both employ an ensemble using strings, continuo, oboes, and a single trumpet
  • both have an aria with oboe d’amore
  • both first movements employ imitation to a large degree, though in different contexts and fashions

The first movement is an unusual choral movement, beginning with a triumphant orchestral introduction featuring the brilliant trumpet; this sets an appropriate tone for the text: “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes” (The heavens are telling the glory of God). It is a solo bass voice that we hear first, in a high register – perhaps focusing on “die Himmel”? – but in an otherwise somewhat static phrase. When the full choir enters a few measures later, this same bass line is placed in the basses of the choir, but we barely notice it, with the full choral sound, and active orchestral accompaniment. The choral sopranos, in fact, begin in parallel tenths with this bass line, but our ears are naturally accustomed to that higher register as a melodic line. In the first statement (solo bass), Bach strips away most of the “distractions”, eliminating all parts but the soloist and the continuo. In the second statement, it is the busy-ness of the full, contrapuntal texture which prevents us from hearing the connection between these two statements which are separated by a mere four measures.

Once the second sentence of text begins, the music changes dramatically, moving from full choir to soloists, and moving from full orchestra to a continuo-only instrumental accompaniment. This serves to provide minimal harmonic and rhythmic support to the soloists, who begin a fugal exposition. In an ironic twist, the text indicates that “one cannot perceive their voices”, and yet without the full orchestra, the focus is entirely on the voices. Once the fugal exposition is completed, the various parts of the orchestra gradually return, but only in order to double the choral voices as they continue the fugue.

The recitative and aria which follow are more subdued and modest. The recitative is an accompanied recitative, marked “arioso” in the fourth measure. As God gives motion to the soul and the body (as described in the text), the activity increases in the strings and solo tenor line. This is no easy recitative to perform; it is as vocally demanding as some of Bach’s arias. In fact, looking at the passage below, one could scarcely tell the difference between this arioso passage and some elaborate movements from an aria.

For the subsequent aria, Bach returns to a favorite texture, the trio sonata. Here, the scoring is for solo violin, solo soprano, and continuo. The continuo plays an active role in promoting the rhythmic development of the work, and in creating the imitative texture. In this dal segno aria, the B section employs a different text and turns towards the minor mode, but the imitation and simple three-part texture remain.

The solo trumpet returns in movement five, a bass aria, contributing to the majesty and joy of this movement. After another recitative (one preceded the bass aria as well), the first part of the cantata concludes with a chorale movement. In a fashion similar to the chorale movement closing the first half of Cantata 75, this one is sort of chorale fantasia, in which the orchestra weaves a complicated texture around a traditional four-part setting in the choir. The prominent continuo part hearkens back to the previous soprano aria, in which the continuo was a driving force in the rhythm and textural development of the work. The chorale employed here in Luther’s Es woll uns Gott gnädig sein. It is a Phrygian-sounding chorale, with a lot of emphasis placed on the half-step between B and C-natural.

“The sinfonia to Part II is a trio for oboe d’amore, viola da gamba, and continuo that was taken over into the composer’s Trio Sonata in E minor BWV 528, although it almost certainly derives in turn from a chamber work dating from the period before 1723” (Christoph Wolff, from Ton Koopman recording, Antonie Marchand Records). Bach includes an indication in the score that this half of the cantata was to be performed “nach per Predigt”, or after the sermon. it is a two part movement, with a slow, almost morose opening, which lasts four measures. Immediately then, the tempo picks up to vivace, meter changes to 3/4, and texture becomes contrapuntal.

A short accompanied recitative follows, in which the strings flesh out the harmonic accompaniment, but do little otherwise to expand the texture or propel the music forward. The subsequent aria (for solo tenor) is another movement in which the entire accompaniment is provided by the continuo alone. It is a fierce movement nonetheless, set in a minor, with numerous large and/or dissonant leaps, and with a furious little turn motive at the end of many measures in the continuo line. The tenor sings “hasse nur” (hate me now) numerous times, often with ornamentation and/or an extended melisma for emphasis. The “hostile race” of the text is portrayed well in the angry marriage between continuo and tenor soloist.

After a short recitative (movement 11) – another recitative employing both orchestral accompaniment and arioso texture – the scoring of the sinfonia returns for the alto aria. The combined sound of the oboe d’amore and the viola da gamba, with the more luxurious alto voice, provide a “gentle meditation on the love of Christ” (Konrad Küster). Like the preceding tenor aria, this is a through-composed aria with extended instrumental passages to introduce and close the movement. The shortest recitative in the cantata then separates the alto aria from the final chorale, a musical reprise of movement 7, though this time employing the third verse of Luther’s chorale text.