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Cantata BWV 63
Christen, ätzet diesen Tag
Discussions - Part 2

Continue from Part 1

Discussions in the Week of December 25, 2005 (1nd round)

John Pike wrote (December 25, 2005):
BWV 63 - Introduction to the Weekly Discussion

As we proceed with our chronological survey of Bach's cantatas, in order of composition, the cantata for discussion this week (beginning 25th December) is Cantata BWV 63 "Christen, ätzet diesen Tag" ("Christians, engrave this (glad) day")

Readings: Epistle: Titus 2: 11-14 / Isaiah 9: 2-7; Gospel: Luke 2: 1-14

Event in the Lutheran church calendar: Cantata for Christmas Day

Composed: Probably Weimar, 1714-15.

1st performance: December 25, 1714 - Weimar; 2nd performance: December 25, 1723 - Leipzig; 3rd performance: December 25, 1729 ? - Leipzig

Text: Johann Michael Heineccius ?

The notes below are taken from sleeve notes to Suzuki's recording [11] (by Tadashi Isoyama, 1998).

BWV 63 was the first cantata Bach composed for Christmas Day. The orchestration, which requires four trumpets, timpani and three oboes, makes it one of the larger works of the Weimar period. Based in C major, it is a charming work, the expressive music evoking images of rejoicing in the Saviour's birth; it is a fine example of Bach's treatment of the Christmas theme.

It is all but certain that the libretto is by J.M. Heineccius, pastor of the Liebfraukirche in Halle. Bach visited Halle twice during his Weimar days; the first of these visits was in the winter of 1713 when he was applying for the position of organist at the Liebfraukirche, and the second was in the spring of 1716, when he went to examine the newly repaired organ at that same church. It has been thought that on one of these trips, Bach might have performed BWV 63 in Halle, but timing and the content of the cantata raise doubts about this suggestion. Recently, it has been thought that BWV 63 was probably composed at Christmas 1714/15 for use somewhere other than in Weimar. It has also been suggested that it was converted from a secular cantata. Bach liked the cantata and performed it for his first Christmas in Leipzig (1723); he used it at least 3 times during his lifetime.

The standard pitch for performance of cantatas at Weimar was, in accordance with the organ, the high Chorton, a'=ca. 465. However, in BWV 63, from the tuning of the solo oboe, it would have been impossible to perform the work unless the strings were tuned to Kammerton (a'=ca. 415 or 392).

The surviving source material for BWV 63 is in the Staatliche Bibliothek in Berlin. According to this material, the organ, oboe, and strings are all written in the same key, from which we deduce that the strings must have been tuned to Kammerton (since there is no such thing as a Chorton oboe).

The layout is: Mvt. 1. Opening chorus, Mvt. 2. Alto recitative, Mvt. 3. Soprano and bass duet, Mvt. 4. Tenor recitative, Mvt. 5. Alto and tenor duet, Mvt. 6. Bass recitative, Mvt. 7. Free-form chorus.

Useful information

Link to texts, translations, details of scoring, references, provenance, commentary, vocal score, music examples, and list of known recordings:
Link to previous discussions:

Streamed over the internet, it is possible to hear Leusink's version of
the whole cantata [16]:

I look forward to reading your comments about this cantata and about the available recordings.

Neil Halliday wrote (December 29, 2005):
BWV 63

The final chorus perhaps holds the most interest in this cantata, though the first does have a similar impact and appeal to that of the XO (BWV 248) opening chorus, for example.

In the final chorus, the initial brilliant homophonic section for the entire ensemble is followed by a fugue, at the beginning of which Bach reduces his forces to the sopranos and altos only. Tenors come in, followed by the basses with continuo, and thereafter more and more instruments are added as the fugue develops, until the 1st violins and second oboe enter with the sopranos. This section is crowned by a stretto-like entry on the 1st trumpet doubled by 1st oboe - stretto, because this last entry occurs before the sopranos have completed the fugal subject. The repeat of the brilliant opening section leads to a second section which is concluded by (a) a short adagio, to the words "but never let it happen", and (b) an `a tempo' section with strong chromatic writing, to the words "that Satan might scare us". A `da capo' gives us a repeat of the first section.

Rilling [5] is superb in both choruses. He most effectively expresses the gradual increase in the size of the orchestra in the final chorus. Richter's orchestra [4] is fine, with brilliant trumpets and timpani, but the choir, especially soprano section, sounds too large, and we have the usual problem of a squealing organ accompanying the choir. Harnoncourt's trumpets [6] sound crude at the start of the amazon sample.

Those who find Augér's voice (Rilling) [5] too overbearing in the SB duet may enjoy Harnoncourt [6] or Koopman [9] in this movement. I found the vocalists in Herreweghe [17] and Suzuki [11] to be too mannered with the pronounced `messa di voce' technique, which always sounds unnatural to me. Mathis with Richter [4] destroys this duet with an overbearing vibrato.

I agree with Schweitzer that the AT duet is a most tuneful affair. The rich writing for strings is splendidly captured in Rilling's performance [5], along with the vocalists who give a pleasing account of their parts. I notice a tendency on Richter's part [4] to make too large a contrast in the loudness levels of the orchestra, as far as comparing the ritornellos with the orchestra's accompanying role (with vocalists) is concerned.

Along with two fine accompanied recitatives, this is a cantata not to be missed.

Peter Smaill wrote (December 29, 2005):
By happy coincidence the Christmas Cantata BWV 63 coincided with the festivities to which it is appropriate and offers cold turkey to those who have been indulging to the full in BBC Radio 3's Bach Christmas!

It is a specially accessible Cantata through the fact of the 2000 ArtHaus DVD of John Eliot Gardiner in rehearsal [14], which gives enormous insight into the technical challenges and the special structure of "Chri, Aetzet Disen Tag", - the symmetry being even more obvious than BWV 4 or the SJP (BWV 245), the chiastic arrangement of:

Chorus, accompagnato recit, Duet, recit secco, Duet, accompagnato recit, Chorus.

being a palindrome based round the central word "gnaden" ("mercy"), which is contrived to lie right in the middle of a seven-line recitative, BWV63/4 (Mvt. 4). The number of lines may be liturgically significant and seems, on a random sample of other cantata recitatives, to be rare.

All agree that the work was first performed at Weimar in 1714 (or 1715). However, the attribution of the text has had a convoluted history and the debate seems to be open-ended - we can all form a view on this - was this cantata fundamentally a Christmas Cantata at all? The doubt is in the text and its associations. The progression of thought is as follows:

Spitta: "the image of a festal procession mingling in sacred dances..approaches the style of oratorio, and this is what makes it specially remarkable." Observes that there is no chorale. Sanctus in C played at same service.

Whittaker: One of two wholly original libretti (other is BWV 181); text possibly by Bach; observes that there are no biblical quotations; BWV 63/3, a "dance of unbounded joy".

Robertson: libretto "thought to be by Bach". BWV 63/5 "a dance movement in Bach's most beguiling manner".

Schweitzer: "noble and animated piece of festival music". He notes that BWV 63/7 has however a descending chromatic passage, normally indicative of grief, at the words, "Aber niemals lass geschehen, dass uns Satan moege quaelen" ("Never let Satan molest us").

[This is the same sequence as the tenor line opening in BWV 150, Nach dich
where the sentiment is of longing]

Daw: Links BWV 63 to Sanctus in D. BWV 238. Detects application of Corelli trio-sonata style and parallels with the Sinfonia of BWV 21.

Boyd: libretto is an earlier variant of a text that J.M. Heineccius provided for the bicentenary of the Reformation in 1717.

Unger and Stokes, in their works on the texts, say Heineccius (?) was the author.

However, the attribution to the pastor-poet of Halle, Heineccius, is called into doubt by the updated English language Dürr, which reflects scholarship up to 2000:

"there is no solid evidence to connect him with the text".

Dürr also goes on to debate the origin as a Reformation cantata text:
"further support for this rather vague hypothesis has not so far been found."

And yet is very odd as a Christmas piece-no Shepherds, no Magi, no Mary or Joseph, no Christmas hymns; only a passing reference to the crib ("krippen"). From BWV 63/3 to the end, the text can be read as a celebration of the Reformation (or maybe the end of the Thirty Years war)?

There is no direct Jesus reference and the finale chorale ends with a swipe at Satan! Even the first Chorus focuses on an odd image: is there a precedent for erecting a sort of Xmas Denkmal, a monument with etched "marble and iron," an activity more appropriate to a military victory; but here, in celebration of the birth of Christ?

The division of the orchestral parts in BWV 63/1 (Mvt. 1) is reminiscent of the approach to instrumental grouping in BWV 71, "Gott ist Mein Konig "; Eliot Gardiner also notes the civic aspect, the fanfare at the commencement of BWV 63/7 (Mvt. 7). BWV 119, for the Leipzig Council, was the only other Cannot to use four trumpets. All of this hints at a prior application of the music and an adapted text to an entirely different event from those appropriate to Christmas Day.

Whatever the origin, the result is full of rhythmic invention, (lovely hemiolas in the opening chorus for example), orchestral brilliance in contrasts and imitation, wonderful canonic developments, and the demands for virtuoso technique from the soloists and trumpeters alike.

John Pike wrote (December 29, 2005):
[To Neil Halliday] I agree with Neil that this is a cantata not to be missed. I think every movement is a gem. I would love to get the DVD showing Sir John Eliot gardiner rehearsing this cantata [14], a snippet of which is incuded on the DVD of cantatas BWV 199, BWV 179 and BWV 113, in the section on hte Bach Cantatas Pilgrimage.

I have listened to CDs of Gardiner [13], Suzuki [11], Leusink [16], Rilling [5] and Harnoncourt [6]. I enjoyed them all, especially the first 3. I found Rilling less well articulated than the others in the opening movement, and the intonation of the brass in Harnoncourt's opening movement spoilt my enjoyment of it.

Douglas Cowling wrote (December 29, 2005):
BWV 63 - Chiastic structure

Peter Smaill wrote:
< the special structure of "Christen, Aetzet Disen Tag", - the symmetry being even more obvious than BWV 4 or the SJP (BWV 245), the chiastic arrangement of:
Chorus, accompagnato recit, Duet, recit secco, Duet, accompagnato recit, Chorus. >
Bach was fond of chiasm, using its symmetrical mirror structure the Magnificat, Credo of the B Minor Mass (BWV 232), Christ Lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4) and Jesu, Meine Freude.


Continue on Part 3

Cantata BWV 63: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Recordings & Discussions of Cantatas: Main Page | Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Cantatas BWV Anh | Order of Discussion
Discussions of General Topics: Cantatas & Other Vocal Works | Performance Practice | Radio, Concerts, Festivals, Recordings


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