Bach wrote six surviving complete motets. Bach’s first biographer, Forkel, refers to “many single- and double-choir motets”, implying that there are many others, though only six complete ones and a few scattered movements survive today. Among these, there is some doubt for Bach scholars as to whether or not Lobet den herrn, alle Heiden is actually by Bach. This work was first published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1821, rather early as a publication of Bach’s works go, too early to have been part of the Mendelssohn revival; the publisher claimed that the manuscript was in Bach’s hand. Still, it could have been a copy made by Bach of another unknown work. The fact that the vocal writing is unusually virtuosic for the choral parts, even as Bach goes, has lead Bach scholars to claim that the work is really more instrumental in character, and thus not really Bach-like. This is particularly true of the many leaping passages – even when the voice leaps through a triad, this is not as idiomatic for a voice as it is for any instrument; the voice prefers stepwise writing. Lacking any indisputable evidence either way,the work will continue to be published, recorded,and performed as a work of J.S. Bach.
Lobet den Herrn is one of only two motets by Bach in which the entire text comes from the Bible, in this case, Psalm 117. Despite the more than six minutes of music, only the first two verses of the Psalm are set.
The work is scored for SATB choir and continuo. The norm for Bach’s motets is for a continuo group to perform as support for the choral parts, even where continuo is not explicitly indicated in the score. In the case of Lobet den Herrn, however, the continuo part is written separately in the score, and often independent of the other parts. This has led some scholars to believe that Lobet den Herrn may actually be a part of a larger Bach work, perhaps a cantata. While there are only two clear divisions to the motet in the score, there are other subdivisions indicated by changes in text, texture, and character.
|Part 1||“Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden”|
|Fugue, with subject entering voices in SATB order; subject based on an arpeggiated figure.|
|4/4 meter (actually 4/2)|
|C major primarily (F, G, a minor, e minor tonicized)|
|Part 2||“und preiset ihn, alle Völker”|
|New fugue, with new subject, an undulating descending scale passage; the order in which the subject enters is again SATB|
|No change in meter or tempo|
|C major (G, F, e minor, a minor also tonicized)|
|Texture initially lightens, because when the new fugue starts, the texture is reduced to a single voice, then gradually builds again|
|Continuo is entirely independent until the bass voices enter, then it is mostly similar to the bass vocal line|
|Fugue contains some very close stretto|
|Part 3||“Denn seine Gnade und Wahrheit waltet über uns”|
|Clear cadence delineates this section from the preceding one|
|Begins with chordal section, after so much fugal and polyphonic writing. Develops into women vs. men texture, with the women singing more sustained music over moving parallel lines in the tenors and basses. Later, more independence of parts develops|
|Tempo feels slower, even if the beat does not actually change, because there is far less activity than in the three preceding sections|
|Clear phrases, delineated by obvious cadences, rather than the numerous phrase elisions in the fugal sections|
|Tonality not immediately established, but goes through G, a minor, d minor – overall minor feel|
|Numerous suspensions contribute to making this section distinct from the others|
|Part 4||“seine Gnade und Wahrheit waltet über uns in Ewigkeit”|
|Really building to a climax, and the end of the Psalm text|
|Long held notes in reference to “Ewigkeit” (forever) are the main feature here|
|Imitative texture, though strictly speaking, not a fugue|
|Continuo part again begins independently, until the bass voice joins; later similar to bass voices, though often rhythmically simpler, sometimes an octave lower|
|New fugue, because of the meter and text, but similar to the second fugue because of the undulating eighth-note figure|
|C Major, with G, e minor|
|Continuo part mostly supports and reinforces the voices|
Compared to the other motets, there is little written about Lobet den Herrn in the Bach literature. This is likely because of the somewhat doubtful authorship of the work. As a result, scholars are unable to provide a likely date of composition or a performance history during Bach’s lifetime.