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Cantata BWV 11
Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen

Carl de Nys | Little & Jenne | Eric Chafe


Aryeh Oron wrote (January 13, 2003):
Carl de Nys

The comprehensive and excellent commentary below, quoted from the liner notes to the original 2-LP album of Corboz on Erato [8], was written by Carl de Nys.

The autograph score of the cantata BWV 11, Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen, is preserved in Berlin and bears Bach's own unequivocal title: Oratorium Festo Ascensionis Christi. The work is therefore an oratorio and not a cantata: but we know that for Bach the oratorio was merely the culmination of all his cantata-writing. Moreover this is the work with which on 19 May 1735 Bach rounded off his aforementioned monumental «Life of Christ» - the cycle which he created during the liturgical year 1734-5. It had been inaugurated with the six cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248). It is known that Bach drew on his existing music in all the works in the cycle, altering and improving as he went along. Pirro took the view that the secular cantata Froher Tag (1732) provided the basis for the first version of this oratorio, but more recently Professor Friedrich Smend has shown that this hypothesis is untenable in view of the texts. Professor Smend in his turn has proved conclusively that several movements of the oratorio were borrowed from two other secular cantatas whose libretti he has traced but whose music is lost. Thus the soprano and alto arias come from the cantata Auf, süss entzückende Gewalt, written in 1725 to a text by Gottsched and celebrating the wedding of Mr von Hohenthal. As for the opening chorus, this is a new version of the closing chorus of the cantata first performed on 15 August 1726 for the birthday of a Mr J. W. C. D. - a chorus of Graces taken from a libretto by Christoph Friedrich Henrici, Master of the Posts, better known under his literary pseudonym of Picander. The style of the Ascension Oratorio seems to show that the closing chorus was also based on an earlier work, but if so this has not yet been identified.

The structure of this fine work, which constitutes another unequivocal peak in Bach's vocal catalogue (incidentally he returned to the alto aria for the Agnus Dei of the B minor Mass (BWV 232), is somewhat unusual: the two outer movements are big choruses, and at the heart of the cantata comes a verse of chorale (it is not known whether this was sung before or after the pastor's sermon on the gospel of the day). Each of the two parts consists of a single aria framed by several recitatives; but surely the predominance of recitative is one of the distinctive features of an oratorio? The chorale is the fourth verse of the hymn Du Lebensfürst, Herr Jesu Christ (Lord Jesus Christ, you prince of life) by Johann Rist (1641). The closing chorus uses the seventh verse of the hymn Gott fähret auf gen Himmel (God ascends into Heaven) by Gottfried Wilhelm Sacer (1697).

It may be mentioned that these two chorales were not among the traditional de tempore Ascension hymns at Leipzig, but they are admirably appropriate - perhaps even more so than the Leipzig chorales themselves would have been. As for the texts specially written for the oratorio the librettist is unknown. For all the undoubted mediocrity of some of them (e.g. the bass recitative), it would probably be unjust to attribute them to Picander. It should be explained here that the work includes several numbers that are taken straight from the Scriptures: N° 2 from St Luke (24, 50-51); N° 5 from the Acts of the Apostles (1, 9) and St Mark (16, 19); N° 7 from the Acts again (1, 10-11); and N° 9 from St Luke (24, 52 a), the Acts (1, 12) and St Luke again (24, 52 b).

The instrumentation of the work is sumptuous: three trumpets, kettledrums, two transverse flutes and two oboes in addition to the usual quintet of strings and continuo (this includes bassoon and the organ keyboard). The immense opening chorus is in the form of an Italian aria, and uses the whole orchestra. The instrumentation was certainly expanded in this new version of the chorus of Graces in the birthday cantata. There is a masterly fusion of quasi-popular elements taken from songs and hymns with the most learned polyphony in this vocal overture, which celebrates Our Lord's famous triumphal entry into his kingdom. The scriptural texts are all sung by the tenor in secco recitative, as in the Passions; but when two persons have to speak the bass joins in with the tenor in a very evocative arioso. The accompanied recitatives on the poetic texts are particularly intense and expressive and almost dramatic, even operatic, in feeling.

The text provides the explanation of one unusual feature of the central chorale: the very low tessitura of the soprano part, which has the hymn tune, symbolizes the fact that everything is below the feet of Jesus when he ascends into Heaven. It is interesting to compare the alto aria with the later version in the E minor Mass. That version is more concentrated, less dramatic and yet even more expressive. It is unfortunate that the music of the original wedding cantata has not come down to us, for if it had survived we would have been able to follow Bach's creative processes from first attempt to final perfection. But it will be noticed that the original text likewise dealt with departure and separation - which goes to show how specific and precise Bach's musical language is.

The second aria, for soprano, in the radiant key of G major, is composed a quattro, with the flutes in unison and the oboe and the strings in unison in basso in the Vivaldian manner. The vocal line is inserted into this instrumental trio. It will be noticed that this movement contains almost nothing but high tessituras: this is Bach's way of representing the innocence that is mentioned in the original secular cantata. With the oratorio text the music has the effect of drawing the inward eye of the listener upwards towards the heights into which Our Lord disappeared on the day of his Ascension - a further instance of the precise and specific nature of J.S. Bach's musical vocabulary.

The closing chorus is no less original: it reveals Bach's total mastery of the art of superimposing and combining apparently disparate elements, and expresses the text marvellously well, rendering its atmosphere by Means of musical symbolism. In fact the melody of Sacer's chorale is that of the hymn Von Gott will ich nicht lassen (I do not want to abandon God): it is in E minor, whereas the music as a whole (and notably the instrumental parts) is in D major. The opulent orchestral writing provides an effective backcloth against which the natural-sounding hymn tune stands out. That tune goes up and then down – a symbolic motion that actually anticipates the descent of the Spirit, whom Our Lord promised to send after his Ascension into Heaven. The superimposition of the two keys serves to show that the joy of the Ascension and the misery of separation are indissolubly linked. The music even foreshadows the appearance of Our Lord «on the clouds» at the end of time.

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 17, 2003):
BWV 11 Himmelfahrts=Oratorium - Commentators:

Little & Jenne (“Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach” – expanded edition):

Mvt. 1:
This belongs to the gavotte type II category.

A Checklist of Gavotte-like Characteristics:

1. Duple meter beginning in the middle of the measure
2. Moderate, intimate affect, often pastoral, naïve, and simple
3. Moderate tempo
4. Clearly balanced 4 + 4 phrases, often in question-and-answer format
5. Characteristic rhythmic patterns (explained elsewhere in book)
6. Simple harmonies

Pieces of this type “are notated in 2/4 meter, unlike any of the titled gavottes. In Bach’s music the meter sign 2/4 normally indicates Italian style, a slightly faster tempo than 2 or ¢ [cut time], and a certain stateliness of affect….With tfaster tempo, it is problematic whether to think of one or two beats per measure. The connection of these pieces [those in this category that are not named gavottes] with the gavotte is their phrase structure, counting each measure as one beat. Each has balanced four- and eight-measure phrases with thesis on measures four and eight.

“A jubilant chorus of praise characterizes “Lobet Gott in seinen ReichenBWV 11,1 (1735), the long, concerto-style opening to the Ascension Oratorio. Balanced phrases and slow harmonic rhythm

Mvt. 8 (Soprano Aria)
This belongs to the minuet-like category.

A Checklist of Minuet Characteristics:

1. Triple meter with one unequal beat per measure with 3/8 time signature, occasionally ¾
2. Moderate affect: intimate, nonchalant; simple joy or peace
3. Moderate tempo
4. Balanced 4 + 4 phrases, or multiple thereof, with extensions
5. Characteristic rhythmic patterns
6. Simple harmonies, usually two chord changes per measure

“Bach often used minuet dance rhythms in his vocal music. Almost all of the pieces in this group are long da capo arias for one or two singers with instruments….The minuet [aria] texts are of a moderate affect, often intimate, peaceful, or mildly joyful, but not of the ecstatic joy found in some texts using bourée and giga II dance rhythms.”

“This is a soprano aria of simple joy and peace, with all voices in a high tessitura possible depicting the soul’s longing to follow Christ in his rise to freedom from terrestrial fetters.”

Eric Chafe:

After discussing the tonal progression from mvt. to mvt. in the Christmas cantata BWV 91Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ” [Chafe’s anabasis/catabasis theory traces the mvt. of tonality in many of Bach’s cantatas], Chafe turns to BWV 11.

“Turning to the reverse of the incarnation we find in the D major Ascension oratorio, Cantata 11, a complex series of modulations that, because of the length of the work and variegated character of its text, does not emphasize a continuous progression in a single direction but mirrors the changing directions suggested in the succession of mvts. The work exhibits the following sequence of modulations: to the dominant for the initial narrative of the ascension (Mvt. 2, Recitative); from A major down through the circle of fifths to a close in A minor for the Christian entreaty for Christ to remain on earth (Mvts. 3 (Rectative) & 4 (Aria) “Ach, bleibe doch”); [In light of the relatively flat (dominant minor) tonal character of this aria within the “Ascension Oratorio” it is significant that the parodied form of the mvt. in the “Mass in B minor (“Agnus Dei”) is in G minor and is the only mvt. in flats in the “Mass,” serving almost as a huge plagal cadence, as it were, to the final “Dona nobis pacem”; its character of entreaty to the deity is preserved, of course, in its flat-minor tonality.] back up to F sharp minor for the remainder of the narrative of the ascension (Mvt. 5 (Recitative)); down to D major for a chorale expressing Jesus’ rule over the earth (Mvt. 6 “Nun lieget alles unter dir”), and the narrative of the two men on the road to Jerusalem who foretell Jesus’ return (Mvt. 7, Recitative); down to B minor for the recitative beginning “Ach ja! So komme bald zurück” [Mvt. 8], and further down to G major for the recitative and aria, “Jesu, deine Gnadenblicke, “ the latter without basso continuo to represent the fact that although Jesus is above, love remains as a Christian benefit (middle section, “Deine Liebe bleibt zurücke”). The work is framed by D major choruses.

Mvt. 8 (Aria – Soprano):
“In the Ascension Oratorio (BWV 11) the ‘bassetchen’ texture in the aria “Jesu, deine Gnadenblicke” represents the fact that Jesus’ love remains even though he is not physically present.

The term ‘bassetchen’ (or ‘bassetgen’; French ‘petit basse;’ Italian: bassetto) was used by the theorists of the 17th and 18th centuries to designate basso continuo accompaniment in a register other than the bass, as well as a bass line that substituted for the basso continuo in the upper register….Bach’s oeuvre contains several such arias: BWV 11/10 (or Mvt. 8 in the NBA), BWV 46/5, BWV 234/3, etc.


Cantata BWV 11 [Himmelfahrts-Oratorium]: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Commentaries: Main Page | Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Other Vocal Works BWV 225-524 | Sources


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