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Cantata BWV 79
Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild
Discussions - Part 3

Continue from Part 2

Discussions in the Week of July 29, 2007

Russell Telfer wrote (July 28, 2007):
Introduction to Cantata BWV 79

Topic for discussion from 29th July 2007

Introduction to BWV 79: Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild
(God the Lord is sun and shield)

The cantata was most probably written in the autumn of 1725 and was used on the 31st October in that year. It may have been performed five years later as well. It celebrates the Feast of the Reformation.

As all regular list members know by now, just about everything: music, texts in different languages, provenance, commentary and discussion, and music examples - several in the case of this cantata -are to be found on the website.

The cantata has received about a dozen recordings (and rising) and there are ten or more examples of part of the performed cantata online including of course Leusink [11].

The last discussion of the cantata here was in April 2003. As just one illustration of the conditions that prevailed then, I quote Aryeh Oron at that time:

"(Our) ... music examples have some limitations. Firstly, usually they should not exceed the limit of 60 seconds, to cope with the international copyright rules. Secondly, the level is usually inferior to the CD or LP recording. So they are not real substitutes for the actual recordings, but are better than nothing."

Yes, things have changed: membership of the BCML has soared since then; monthly output of comment is prodigious and there is an abundance of cantatas available for study on the web, largely thanks to Aryeh Oron and a small circle of enthusiasts.

Details of the movements:

Mvt. 1: Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild
(God the Lord is sun and shield)

A massive opening chorus which rivals BWV 80 (Eine Feste Burg) for power and exuberance. Listening to this, and to some other eighteenth century music, I am puzzled as to how Bach's reputation and standing could be even partly eclipsed by other composers when hearing such displays of potency and musical mastery.

It is scored for two horns, timpani, two oboes, strings, choir and continuo.

It is one of the easier cantata choruses to sing. (It is when the choral parts are very difficult for amateur singers that conductors can be most severely tested.)

One personal reservation I have is that the timpani seem too intrusive. Dare I say this? The part is written, but I feel it needs to be played subtly to avoid literal tub-thumping.

Mvt. 2: God is our true sun and shield!

Next comes an aria for alto with solo oboe. The continuo combines actively to present an engaging interplay between the three parts.

Mvt. 3: Nun danket Alle Gott: Now thank we all our God

This is a powerful Choral to the well known hymn tune. The martial ambience may be explained by a subtext of earthly powers gaining satisfaction from devotion to a God who has helped them in battle to the point of a triumphal celebration with much beating of drums. (There is a contentious underlink to the Reformation, after all.)

Gönnenwein [6] in particular presents relentless punctuation by the timpani during most of the first 29 bars. I also feel that Leusink's [11] use of the timps seems a bit aimless. These are subjective remarks with which others may disagree.

Mvt. 4

A short recit for bass follows. The theme is:
Jesus, thou hast shown us through thy Gospel the proper path to blessedness.

Mvt. 5 is an Aria (or duetto) for Soprano and Bass. This time the violins are in unison on the top line, and the continuo, as usual, underpins the musical argument. For much of the time, the two singers travel together, sharing entries, runs and rhythms overall. Bach is a master of duet writing, as of everything else.

Mvt. 6

The final Choral is based on the hymn melody:
Wach auf, mein Herz, und singe.

The text: Preserve us in the true path, Grant everlasting freedom
To raise thy name in glory Through our Christ Jesus.

Horn and timpani have independent parts and the others double the choral parts. This is a powerful end to a powerful cantata, one of the more popular, judged by the number of performances and recordings it has received.

Neil Halliday wrote (July 30, 2007):
Russell Telfer wrote:
>One personal reservation I have is that the timpani seem too intrusive. Dare I say this? The part is written, but I feel it needs to be played subtly to avoid literal tub-thumping.<
Craig Smith (of Emanuel Music) wrote these words:

"For the line "God, the Lord, is sun and shield" sets off in Bach a chorus more spectacularly military than any other piece in his output. This chorus reminds one of that great Altdorfer painting of the armies of Saul. Row after row, literally thousands of soldiers all in battle formation, fighting for the forces of good."

This is the aspect of the 1st movement (Mvt. 1) that most captures my imagination. This is powerful music for large forces, and the drums ought to be capable of instilling the fear of God into the opposition! Therefore, while I agree that the passages of extended drum-beats can be problematic (eg, if they sound merely tedious, aimless, unimpressive, or as Russell says, overly "tub-thumping"), I would rather find a solution that does not somehow try to hide the problem. One method might be to have a crescendo from soft to loud over each passage of the (usually from 24 to around 30) drum-beats, with a sforzando on every fourth beat (quaver) to match the metre of the piece, which is 2/2*.

IMO, few of the recordings fully explores the opportunity to both `wow' the audience with what should be powerful and impressive drums, but without driving the listener to distraction; this should be possible through using an expressive variation in timpani dynamics.

For a less overtly martial view of the music, listen to Bach's parody of it in the G major Mass (BWV 236), where he does away with the horns and drums.

*Thanks to Brad for explaining the significance of the 2/2 time signature in previous discussions, even though I disagreed with his conclusions that would see a marked increase in tempo over the existing recordings; these recordings all have the 'left-left-left-' of the marching soldiers reasonably corressponding with the passages
of the minims (though the Rotzsch [8] march is rather quick).

Russell Telfer wrote (July 31, 2007):
Neil Halliday quoted Craig Smith (of Emanuel Music) ....
but I believe that these are Neil's words rather than Craig's:
< while I agree that the passages of extended drum-beats can be problematic (eg, if they sound merely tedious, aimless, unimpressive, or as Russell says, overly "tub-thumping"), I would rather find a solution that does not somehow try to hide the problem. One method might be to have a crescendo from soft to loud over each passage of the (usually from 24 to around 30) drum-beats, with a sforzando on every fourth beat (quaver) to match the metre of the piece, which is 2/2*. >
Yes, I think that is very sensible. Just as phrasing is needed generally to 'steer' a piece of music towards a desired interpretation, so any means that the timpanist can use to make the part interesting, to provide variation without "changing the script" would be worth considering. I don't think I personally would complain though if some of upbeat nores were ppp. Not a purist answer, of course.

John Reese wrote (July 31, 2007):
[To Russell Telfer] I sang the opening chorus (Mvt. 1) of BWV 79 in my high school choir, and it was my introduction to the music of Bach. This was also the first cantata for I ever purchased a recording (Gönnenwein [6]).

This cantata is interesting because the music of the opening chorus (Mvt. 1) seems to have been derived from the chorale setting in the third movement. The upper horn part isn't actually an independent melody, but a heterophonic elaboration of "Nun laßt uns Gott" -- there are several parallel unisons between the chorale melody and the horn part. Therefore, the opening chorus can be said to be a chorale chorus, in a roundabout way.

The use of the timpani is indeed very unusual. The writing with horns is very different from what would be expected if Bach had written a timpani part to be played with trumpets (in which case, they would tend to play the same rhythms). The fugue subject from the opening chorus (Mvt. 1) (at least in the instrumental parts -- the voice parts are "dumbed down" for singability) was either derived from the timpani rhythm, or vice versa. If the fugue subject came first, then it's clear that the opening chorus and the later chorale were conceived of as a set. Otherwise, it's possible that the chorale movement was written independently, and it was only later that Bach decided to build a cantata around it.

It's interesting that you say it's one of the easiest choruses to sing -- my high school choir certainly found it very challenging compared to our usual repetoire, which normally included Renaissance motets, more modern pieces, and a smattering of Haydn and Mozart. However, the fact that we were able to even attempt it, and never attempted any other Bach choruses, probably lends credence to the claim.

Anyway, just my thoughts on the subject. This cantata is one of my favorites, partly because of the nostalgic effect it has on me. It makes me wonder how I would view this work if I had only become familiar with it after being better versed in music than I was as a high school student.

Jean Laaninen wrote (July 31, 2007):
Russell Telfer wrote:
< Subject: [BachCantatas] Introduction to Cantata BWV 79
*
Mvt. 3 Nun danket Alle Gott: Now thank we all our God
This is a powerful Choral to the well known hymn tune. The martial ambience may be explained by a subtext of earthly powers gaining satisfaction from devotion to a God who has helped them in battle to the point of a triumphal celebration with much beating of drums. (There is a contentious underlink to the
Reformation, after all.) >
---This chorale arrangement of Nun danket Alle Gott is one of my favorites. The variations on this work continue into recent times, and during my organist years I also loved playing the Karg-Elert interpretation of this melody and text...in particular for Reformation Sunday (Scroll down)

< *Mvt. 5 is an Aria (or duetto) for Soprano and Bass. This time the violins are in unison on the top line, and the continuo, as usual, underpins the musical argument. For much of the time, the two singers travel together, sharing entries, runs and rhythms overall. Bach is a master of duet writing, as of everything else. >
---Although I have listened to this cantata once before this week, I did not fully appreciate the elegance of this duet between the soprano and the bass until this listening. The bass provides such a firm foundation for the soprano's graceful upward sweeps, but his part is also interesting for the exchanges.

Neil Halliday wrote (August 2, 2007):
Introduction to Cantata BWV 79: Some observations

It's worth being aware of the order of vocal entries of the fugue subject in the opening chorus (Mvt. 1), since this facilitates the recognition of the subject within the rich counterpoint. The fugue subject is set to the third part of the text, namely "er wird kein Gutes ma-ngeln (lassen den Frommen)", in the order: B,A,S,{T, B in stretto}, A,T,B,S.

The first two parts of the text are set in magnificent homophony.
----------
A detail worth noting in the duet is the varying treatment of the lively `3 quaver plus 4-crotchet' figure in the unison violins. Sometimes, as in the opening ritornello, this figure is concluded with a minim; sometimes this minim is absent, which, in certain places, results in an interesting cross-rhythm being set up; in one place there are six crotchets.

(Be aware that the period violins in some recordings might be too soft to enable some of the preceding to be heard).

This duet features introductory passages for the voices in parallel 10ths, 13ths, and 6ths.
----------
A note on Rilling's drums [9]: they are rather insipid in the Mvt. 1 and Mvt. 3, but resonant, and well recorded in the last movement, with the different pitches quite evident. The only thing lacking (in the last movement) is the (suggested) drum-roll at the end of the phrases (listen to Werner [5] for this).

Rilling/Hamari [9] give a lively account of the alto aria (Mvt. 2), with modern flute and pizzicato double bass.
-------

I think Julian has already pointed to a unifying element in this cantata; the first few notes on the horns in the Mvt. 1 and Mvt. 3, the opening notes on the oboe (or flute) in the alto aria, and particularly the incipit of the vocal part, and the opening vocal motif in the duet all comprise adjacent notes. This compares with last week's cantata BWV 164 where identified unifying elements are the canons with interval leaps at or near the start of the main movements.

Obviously such artistic considerations occupied Bach's genius more significantly in the design of the music than purely textual considerations, even if an aspect or idea in the text is the initial inspiration for the music.

 

Continue on Part 4

Cantata BWV 79: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Recordings & Discussions of Cantatas: 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

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