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Cantata BWV 121
Christum wir sollen loben schon
Discussions - Part 2

Continue from Part 1

Discussions in the Week of December 3, 2006 (2nd round)

Roar Myrheim wrote (December 2, 2006):
Introduction to BWV 121 - "Christum wir sollen loben schon"

Thank you to Alain Bruguières for introducing the discussions for the past 10 weeks. It's now my turn to write the introductions the next 5 weeks.

I'm a Norwegian, living a bit south of Oslo. I work both as a psychiatric nurse and as an organist. I have played the organ in church since I was 15 as a hobby. However, 5 years ago I was appointed organist in my local church, a job I am very pleased with. Since my teens, I also have been very fond of Bach's music, and especially the vocal works (although of course I love to play the organ works). I've been a list member a couple of years, but I have not been very active in the discussions, maybe because so many of you have so much knowledge, and English is not my native language.

I will try to do my best in writing these introductions.


Week of December 3, 2006

Cantata BWV 121, "Christum wir sollen loben schon", for 2nd Day of Christmas.

Second Annual Cantata Cycle, Leipzig
Composed for 1st performance December 26, 1724 in Leipzig.

Main Cantata page:
Previous Discussion:

Provenance: (Origin & Owner history):
Comentaries: (Dürr, Schweitzer, Chafe):


English, interlinear:
Other translations:

Score Vocal & Piano:

Listen to Leusink recording [5] (free streaming download):

Libretto: Unknown.
Based on Martin Luther's chorale (1524) with the same name as the cantata, which again is based on
Coelius Sedulius' (5th century) Latin hymn A solis ortu cardine

Chorale Text:
Chorale Melody:

Epistles: Titus 3:4-7
"God's mercy has appeared in Christ"
Acts 6:8-15 & 7:55-60
"Martyrdom of Stephen"
Gospel: Luke 2:15-20
"The shepherds at the manger"
Matthew 23:35-39
"Jerusalem kills the prophets"



1. Chorus SATB (1st verse of chorale)
Cornetto e Oboe d'amore e Violino I col Soprano, Trombone I e Violino II coll'Alto, Trombone II e Viola col Tenore, Trombone III col Basso, Continuo

2. Aria T (2nd verse of chorale paraphrased)
Oboe d'amore, Continuo

3. Recitative A (verses 3 and 4 of chorale paraphrased)

4. Aria B (5th verse of chorale paraphrased)
Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo

5. Recitative S (verses 6 and 7 of chorale paraphrased)

6. Chorale SATB (8th verse of chorale)
Cornetto e Oboe d'amore e Violino I col Soprano, Trombone I e Violino II
coll'Alto, Trombone II e Viola col Tenore, Trombone III col Basso, Continuo


Themes of the cantata:

Cantata BWV 121 describes the mystery of the incarnation, i.e. God taking upon Himself the nature of man, a nature capable of suffering, sickness and death ("Nimmt Knechtsgestalt und Armut an"), and how we should react to this mystery. We should not try to understand it intellectually ("Begreife nicht"), but rather be amazed ("nein, nein, bewundre nur") by the fact that God uses this union of the divine and the human in the infant Jesus as the foundation of our hope for eternal life. This should lead us to "raise a joyful song of praise and thanks" ("Ein jauchzend Lob- und Danklied hören!"). In the Bass-Aria, movement 4, we get a rather "extreme" example of an un-intellectual reaction in John the Baptist's leap of joy in his mothers womb when he "felt" the presence of Jesus - a representation of simple, unquestioning faith.


Short introduction:

Dürr and Chafe points out that the cantata consists of two parts: movements 1 to 3 is about the miraculous nature of the incarnation, while movements 4 to 6 emphasize the believers response.

The cantata starts and ends with a praise of Christ. In the first movement the point of view is the physical world ("an aller Welt ende reicht"). In the last movement the perspective is time ("von nun an bis in Ewigkeit"). These two movements are rather archaic in style, using the modal key of E Dorian - ending in F# Fhrygian. Both movements uses an unaltered verse from Luther's choral, verses 1 and 8, respectively. The first chorus is in motet style with the instruments playing colla parte.

The two arias, movements 2 and 4, are more modern in style.

The tenor aria, (Mvt. 2), has a nice obligato oboe d'amore.

In the bass aria, (Mvt. 4), Schweitzer sees the rushing instruments as representing the leaping of John in his mothers womb. Chafe describes the violins leaping upwards as Johns response to Christ's descending to earth,
represented by the bass shooting downward.

The turning point in the cantata, between the two parts, is the alto recitative (Mvt. 3). Towards the end of this recitative, there is a surprising harmonic change. A tritone between the voice and the bass (b and e#) dissolve, not into the most obvious F# major, but to the harmonically very distant C major, a most audible effect.

There is quite a lot of material already present about this cantata at the BCW, well worth reading, and covering many topics that could be further discussed.

There are also some new recordings since the last time this cantata was discussed, by


Peter Smaill wrote (December 3, 2006):
[To Roar Myeheim] BWV 121 is one of a small group of Cantatas where a Chorale is treated in motet-like style, the others being BWV 2, BWV 4, BWV 14, BWV 28, BWV 38, BWV 80 and BWV 182. Thus it has been analysed by Melamed in "J S Bach and the German Motet", as well as being a specific subject for Chafe in "Analysing Bach's Cantatas". So it is a work of particular interest to the scholars.

Bach's choice of this archaic chorale, for whatever reason, has the result that the burghers of Leipzig enjoyed a profound contrast of style, both within BWV 121, but also in contrast to the preceding BWV 91. "Christum wir sollen loben schon" , because of the powerful modal opening and close. This aspect of BWV 121 has a mystical aspect ( indeed "Geheimnis" is a key word), heightened by Bach's decision in both the opening Chorus and closing Chorale to close a Dorian melody in the Phyrgian mode.

This Chorale (which inexplicably does not appear to be in Reimenschneider even though it is one of the most interesting of all the settings) thus closes on a chord of F sharp major- all the sharps. Likewise the Chorale Prelude BWV 696, which is an early work, concludes in a surprising E major chord despite an opening key signature with no accidentals. The Prelude also displays the word painting of descending all the parts entirely to the bass clef, akin to the bass-driven descent techniques in several Christmas works by Bach, illustrating the descent of the Saviour followed by the raising of Man to a final major key and/or ascending final figuration.

The choice in the Chorale may be also to end on the chord of F sharp major so as to exhibit the maximum number of possible sharps of any key signature, as Thomas Braatz points out, emphatically prefiguring the Cross. In the case of this Cantata, Dürr agrees that the opening motet's choral polyphony is derived from the first chorale line.

Of BWV 121/3 he says:

"The third movement is marked as secco and would require no special mention if Bach had not illustrated the closing words "So that He may turn to mankind in a wondrous manner", with an exceedingly bold and surprising harmonic twist: a sixth chord of C sharp major is followed not by the expected F sharp minor but by an abrupt turn, via a diminished seventh, to c major. In Bach's instrumental works we hardly find unprepared progressions of this kind. Here it is justified by the text, which speaks of the "wonder" of the Birth of Jesus".

This detail is IMO difficult to hear compared with the raw power of the Chorale's tonality but is a further sign of the lengths to which Bach goes to create a subtle underplay of musical devices.

Thomas Braatz wrote (December 6, 2006):
Definitions & additional score samples

Primary and secondary source materials regarding the following terms recently discussed are found readily available on the BCW thanks to Aryeh Oron who has kindly set up a place for them:
A possible embedded reference to the CM for BWV 121 in BWV 121/2 might be found at:

Neil Halliday wrote (December 6, 2006):
The score of the opening chorus is both impressive and complex, which necessitates careful listening in order to hear the various vocal entries, and, if one wishes to listen intelligently, familiarity with the chorale melody as well, because at times the altos and even the tenors, all doubled by trombones, are singing at a higher pitch than the sopranos who have the cantus firmus.

The four c.f. phrases are introduced by the lower voices in the order; 1.TAB; 2.ATB; 3. TBA; and 4.ATB; and the incipits of the lower voices always adopt the shape of the associated c.f. phrase in shorter notes, as is common in this type of movement. There is, of course, another important figure (which first appears in the continuo) namely, the extended `shakes' based on repetitions of a `slow' 4-note trill at different pitches, this being the motif that enlivens and animates the whole chorus, reminding us this is a song of praise, despite the serious mood.

The first `trap' in listening to the choral lines occurs with the very first entry of the altos, where the tenors have an octave leap that takes them above the altos, thus masking to some extent the alto entry. Also, notice that the initial entry of the tenors is at the same pitch as that of the basses later on.

The subsequent entries are reasonably easy to hear, until near the end of the 3rd cantus firmus phrase - "so wide the dear sun shines", where the altos reach above the c.f.

Likewise, both tenors and altos are at a higher pitch than the c.f. at the start of the 4th entry of the c.f.; and toward the end, the altos, singing "reaches", rise above the c.f. and remain above for most of the final 14 bars.

In the last bars, the `shake' motif alternates between the continuo and vocal basses, on the one hand, and the tenors and altos on the other, producing the most glorious harmony in combination with the long held final note of the c.f. Overall, this is a most splendid chorus.
These impressions of the music were gleaned from Rilling's recording [3], which I have (along with Richter [1]), but most of the remarks will apply to the other recordings, samples of which are available at the BCW.

Richter's performance of the opening chorus [1] is tempestuous and powerful, perhaps too much so, with his large forces driven at a fast tempo. However, the clarity of the choral entries is remarkable, and the c.f., reinforced by a powerful trumpet, always rings out clearly; beyond that, the detail that can be heard in the slower Rilling performance (3.32) [3] is necessarily lost in the extraordinarily fast passagework in the lower voices in the Richter (2.30!). All the BCW samples of the opening chorus (I haven't heard Suzuki [9]) appear to be satisfactory.
The rhythm at the start of the ritornello of the tenor aria is interesting, if somewhat ambiguous - it's easy to count duple time - and I find that mentally counting the 3 beats of each bar is useful. The longer melismas are quite melodious and attractive. (Kraus manages these with minimal vibrato). This aria in Richter [1] and Rilling [3] is of the same high quality in both recordings, with excellent singing, though some of the newer recordings have a better sounding oboe.
In contrast to the ambiguous rhythm of the tenor aria, Bach gives an example of his most straightforward and powerfully engaging rhythm in the bass aria. The movement is the epitome of happiness and `Christmas high spirits', with its lively contrapuntal imitation in the vocal and instrumental parts; and the rising figure that occurs in all parts represents, it is said, the unborn John leaping in his mother's womb.

In Richter's bass aria [1], I can't help feeling DFD is past his youthful accuracy, with a sometimes-disturbing vibrato; in any case, I like Rilling's slightly livelier tempo [3] (8.09 versus 8.50). Schöne (with Rilling) is most enjoyable.

In the S recitative, Mathis hurts my eardrums on the high notes. Sopranos should really learn to caress these high notes, not scream them, but then sopranos of this sort should probably not be singing Bach at all. Reynolds is fine in the A recitative.
The final movement ends with the glorious harmony reminiscent of the end of the first movement.

Alain Bruguières wrote (December 6, 2006):
[To Neil Halliday] Thank you very much for bringing the list back to its central theme.

The initial chorale fantasia is indeed a- if not easy to grasp on a first hearing. You remark that the alto and even tenor voices sometimes reach a higher pitch than the soprano 'cantus firmus' [I trust Ed will provide the ACE translation for this]. This phenomenon also occurs in BWV 38/1. Is this a characteristic of the stile antico?

In BWV 38/1, I noted that this occurs precisely when the text refers to the idea of 'crying' - the word-painting explanation was rather obvious. What would be the motivation here? You suggest later on that at least one such episode may have to do with the image of the soaring sun.

This chorale melody sounds very unusual to me. In 'Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland', Luther transformed considerably the old original church song to make it sound well... 'Lutheran' - in any case very sober. Here the melody has retained a 'medieval' complexity which probably contributes to the difficulty of getting into this musical piece. Any idea as to why Luther treated this chorale melody so conservatively?

Neil Halliday wrote (December 6, 2006):
Alain Bruguieres wrote:
< The initial chorale fantasia is indeed admirable - if not easy to grasp on a first hearing. >
As an aid to finding my way through the complex polyphony of this chorus, I `conduct' it `left-right' or two beats (to a bar). You will find that the incipits of the lower voices always come in on the 2nd beat, whereas the c.f always begins on the 1st beat.

This CM is certainly one of the most difficult to memorize that I have come across. Access to a score is probably essential, at least initially.

Julian Mincham wrote (December 6, 2006):
Alain Bruguieres wrote:
< The initial chorale fantasia is indeed admirable - if not easy to grasp on a first hearing. >
This chorus is extraordinary in a number of ways which eminate directly from the ancient chorale melody (5th century according to Boyd and clearly Phrygian mode). I guess that Luther did not moderise it because it was essentially 'unmodernisable' without losing its distinct qualities. True Bach attempts to force it into a contemporary (for him) tonal mould by beginning it in E minor (but retaining the two sharps key signature)and passing through D and G majors before finally cadencing on the chord of F sharp major--the dominant of B

This presents Bach with a structural problem in the fantasia which inevitably follows a similar harmonic journey-- it too begins in one key and ends in another! There is only one other example of his doing this in major movements in this cycle and that is the last movement of BWV 68 towards the end of the cycle( leave aside the recitatives which are an entirely different matter). In the latter case the reason is almost certainly symbolic--in the case of Cantata BWV 121 it seems to be because of the natural modal structure of the chorale melody which cannot be altered without severe artistic consequences.

It is interesting to compare this with Cantata BWV 40, the first cantata written by Bach for this particular day in Leipzig. Cantata BWV 40 is a very different work the theme being that of Satan, bringer of sin and Christ's victory over him.

Do compare the two bass arias--both magnificent and highly operatic but very different------much slithering of strings and chopping off of the adder's head in the first. The second is much more complex and, as so often the case in my view, the keystone of the cantata as a whole. The extrovert and almost physical leaps for joy of the first section lie alongside the more serious middle section where we are invited to contemplate the universality of the human condition, the process of our own death and passing, no matter how ultimately welcome it might be, to the cradle of Christ. Note the change in the violin and vocal lines--the former become almost pleading and introvert.

But the da capo ensures the return of the joyousness which must ultimately predominate. Bach again at his most complex, expressing contrasting ideas and emotions within the same movement.

Peter Smaill wrote (December 6, 2006):
[To Neil Halliday & Alain Bruguieres] What may be the case is that Bach especially favoured the generally low-lying melody of the Chorale, "Christum wir sollen loben schon", as a basis for expressing unorthodox pitch contrasts, the hermeneutic message being the raising of man and the descent of the Saviour.

Thus , in the related Orgelbüchlein Chorale Prelude, BWV 611, the piece begins with what was I think indicated by Russell Stinson as the most far apart notes possible on an organ at that date. This chorale thus appears to have been the basis for even more than normal experimentation and hermeneutics, the furthest apart notes in BWV 610, and the maximum number of sharps in the conclusion especially of the Chorale of BWV 121, the end of the line extended over several additional bars to indicate Eternity.

Neil Halliday wrote (December 9, 2006):
BWV 121: Suzuki [9]

Bass aria: Peter Kooj has a pleasing bass voice; but the strings sound muted except in a few places where they are allowed to play `forte', and the tempo is too fast, resulting in music that sounds rushed and breathless.

Tenor aria: Gerd Türk's voice has a vibrato that is not altogether pleasing, otherwise tempo and instruments create an enjoyable account of the music.

(Saving the best to last): Suzuki's opening chorus features the trombones of Concerto Palatino adding to the splendour of the music; and the choir shows commendable clarity of line, once a sufficient legato establishes itself. This is a lively tempo (2.50), yet not as fast (and probably more appropriate) than Richter's tempestuous 2.30 [1].

Interestingly, the final chorale is played at the same tempo as the incipits of the opening chorus. Once again the trombones add much colour to the music.

Anyone care to briefly comment on other samples of BWV 121?

Ed Myskowski wrote (December 9, 2006):
Despite some of the apparently intractable issues regarding material posted re BWV 91, I will try to maintain the spite of the weekly discussions. For the moment, comments at random.

You could do worse than to select recordings based on the presence of Marcel Ponseele, oboe. He performs on the Herreweghe version of BWV 121 [8], especially notable in Mvt. 2.

I find the Herreweghe performance so powerful that I have not yet bothered to listen to others, I am sure there are some fine ones. I have not yet even bothered to check to see what I have.

Permanent request until it gets done: fix those BWV 91 score samples, an embarrassment to all thinking members (not to be confused with members who think with their member) of BCML. We have discovered many fine American and other English words for that condition. If anyone is curious to learn some of them, requests will be cheerfully, indeed eagerly, met.


Continue on Part 3

Cantata BWV 121: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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