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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

Cantata BWV 119
Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn


Aryeh Oron wrote (May 6, 2003):
BWV 119 - Background [Lindsay Craig]

The short background below, quoted from the liner notes to the Erato reissue of Werner’s recording, was written by Lindsay Craig:

BWV 119 was written for the Town City Council election on August 30, 1723, in Bach’s first year of office there. As has been customary since the 16th century for such services on secular or semi-secular occasions, the text draws heavily on the Psalms, with some lines from Luther's German translation of the Te Deum providing the final chorale Equally in accordance with tradition is the opulent orchestration (four trumpets, timpani, two flutes, three oboes, strings) which removes any doubt that the authority here celebrated really is in the image of God, as stated in the text The opening chorus is incorporated into a French overture; the tenor aria and the subsequent recitative, with their dotted and triplet rhythms and joyful wind instruments, all hark back to the symbolic style of music at the court of an absolute monarch; the huge choral movement ‘Der Herr hat Gut's an uns getan’ (The lord has bestowed blessings upon us), the fugal section of which recalls the hymn ‘Nun danket alle Gott’ (Now thank we all our God) is also introduced by a positively martial orchestral ritornello. Up to that point, Leipzig is celebrated as a miniature Versailles, both in the austere recitative and the strict four-part final chorale, the ‘arm Gebet’ (poor prayer) of the congregation is the spiritual rather than the secular authority has the last word.

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 11, 2003):
BWV 119 - Commentaries:


This festive cantata for the occasion of the ‘Rathswahl’ church service on the 30th of August 1723 exudes spirit and magnificence in the choral mvt. while also having notably warm and melodic arias for solo voice. The form of this cantata is related to the ceremony taking place here: At the top or beginning of this cantata is an overture in the French style with a festive array of instruments [which are listed.] The extremely pompous ‘Grave’ section is entirely instrumental, but at the ‘Allegro’ [the designations of ‘Grave’ and ‘Allegro’ do not appear in the autograph score] section with a time signature of 12/8, the choir enters and introduces a Bible quotation from Psalm 147:12-14, not so much in the manner of a fugue as also with the use of free imitative, motivic materials based upon the main subject introduced at first by the basses. The ‘Grave’ appears as a postlude at the end of the middle section. This application of a secular (operatic) convention [the French Overture] to sacred situation already occurs with Bach in his early cantata “Nun komm, der Heiden HeilandBWV 61. There is, however, an essential difference between the latter cantata and this one [BWV 119]: in BWV 61 the choir is also included in the ‘Grave’ section, which is not the case here. The emphasis on the instrumental aspect in BWV 119 might seem to make it appear that that this cantata is more secular than sacred. Although this church service is not strictly one belonging to the church year, Bach maintains an aspect of the sacred in his choral treatment of the ‘Allegro’ section. The text of the recitatives and arias that follow moves away from the sacred. If Bach had not had such a fertile imagination, it would have been impossible for him to set these texts to music as easily as he did since these texts offer little to become enthusiastic about. But wherever he could find the smallest bit of poetic stimulus, Bach did seize upon it and gave it a marvelous musical setting. The first aria, “Wohl dir, du Volk der Linden, wohl dir, du hast es gut” is a good example of this. It is a sunny and contented piece of which there are not many others that could be compared with it. The oboi da caccia lend this piece an idyllic, but serious character. The bass recitative is also quite unusual with its trumpet fanfares and sustained notes played by the recorders. After the G-minor aria, all the musical forces are gathered to play and sing “Der Herr hat Guts an uns getan” which is obviously derived from the 1st line of the chorale melody by Johann Crüger “Nun danket alle Gott” (text by Martin Rinckart) [In order to see/hear this connection you will have to ‘think away’ the 1st 3 notes on the words “Der Herr hat” after which point the similarity between the melodic subject of the fugue and the incipit of this famous chorale will become clear.] This sacred idea is placed as the central focal point of this mvt. surrounded by the more secular instrumental sections which surround it. In the final instrumental section Bach uses and expands the tromba 1 motif with which the mvt. opened. Only at the very end, in the final chorale, is there the expression of a strictly sacred feeling.


In the two large choral mvts. (1 & 7) of this splendid cantata, Bach provides effectively for variety as well as a generally unified attitude/mood, and in the tenor aria for graceful elegance. There are some solo parts that relate very specifically to the occasion, that it would be better to remove them. In a performance of this cantata in Göttingen, I removed mvt. 4 (bass recitative) and replaced it with the bass arioso “So spricht der Herr” from BWV 28 which, with its mood and text, fits quite well into this cantata. In the final large choral mvt., it would be best to reduce the ritornelli. Also change the words “nicht müde” to “und niemals”; „Er seh’ die teuren Väter an“ to “Er seh’ uns alle gnädig an“ and „ihrem“ to „unserm.“ Naturally, the final chorale should be performed with all available instruments.


The text is probably by Picander. This pompous work consists of the 2 choruses “Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn” and “Der Herr hat Guts an uns getan.” The 1st is in the French overture form; the voice parts do not enter until the ‘allegro.’ The ‘grave’ is a positively overwhelming picture of solemnity. The score is written for strings, 3 oboes, 2 flutes, 4 trumpets and kettledrum. The trumpets, however, are only used for fanfare-like interludes,---a method of employment that increases their effect. The recitative “So herrlich stehst du, liebe Stadt (“So splendid art thou, beloved town”) is introduced and ended by the following signal in the winds. [Example from score] In the aria “Wohl dir, du Volk der Linden” we hear the rhythm of solemnity. The soli, --the words are rather poor dithyrambs upon magistracy in general and the Leipzig magistracy in particular –are naturally somewhat overweighted by the choruses.

The 1st performance of the cantata after Bach’s death was given in the Gewandhaus at Leipzig under Mendelssohn on the 23rd April 1843, on the occasion of the unveiling of the Bach monument at the St. Thomas school.


In this cantata Bach presents to us a splendid festival orchestra and just as magnificent is the musical form, the French overture, which he chooses as his 1st mvt. The dotted rhythms which are both solemn and ceremonial surround as an instrumental introductory and concluding ritornello the fast middle section, which normally would consist of the traditionally expansive fugue, but here appears as a predominantly homophonic section with, at the most, some imitative figures in the ‘outer’ voices (bass and soprano.)

In the following, plain secco recitative the words “Gesegnet Land, glückselige Stadt” are stated at the beginning and repeated at the end. Bach adds some charm to this ‘framing’ of the mvt. by reversing palindromically the sequence of the musical motifs and the words associated with them.

The choice of instruments in the tenor aria (mvt. 3) [2 oboi da caccia] along with the emphasis upon the middle range helps to create a warmand gentle feeling which is further increased by simple and song-like characteristics of the melodic lines.
Even more clearly than the 1st recitative, the 2nd recitative demonstrates the deliberate effort at framing a mvt. in a quasi ABA-type form: the middle section is the actual ‘song’ section accompanied by the woodwinds, while the A section features a tromba ritornello without the voice.

In the 2nd aria (mvt. 5 for alto) the low woodwinds are now replace with recorders playing in unison. Both arias have in common songlike quality which here almost becomes a dance. Some commentators have surmised that the staccato, repeated 8th notes played by the recorders represent a derisive caricature of the text: “Die Obrigkeit ist Gottes Gabe, ja selber Gottes Ebenbild.” This is a questionable interpretation. Is it not possible that a modern conception of a mature citizen in our age is being confused with that of the hierarchically thinking individual of the Baroque?

The following secco recitative (mvt. 6) moves directly into the following choral mvt. (7) which in its pure da capo form reveals a middle section treated primarily in chordal fashion with some imitation ‘to loosen things up.’ This middle section is framed by a choral fugue, the theme of which is based upon the incipit of the chorale “Nun danket alle Gott.” This fugal section builds upwards gradually from a bass voice + bc to the soprano voice, then the instruments are added sometimes with independent fugal entries (not colla parte with the voices) with a final entrance in the 1st tromba and 2 recorders.

After this majestic choral mvt., there is a very short secco recitative which is followed by a simple, 4-line treatment of the German ‘Tedeum’ with an ‘Amen’ that introduces some variety compared to the usual simple ‘Amen.

Eric Chafe:

The relationship described between God and humankind and between ‘Obrigkeit’ and ‘Untertanen,’ for example, is the subject matter of Bach’s several cantatas for the changing of the town council, in Leipzig as well as Mühlhausen. Those cantatas, like “Gott ist mein König,” generally project a very festive character, primarily in association with praise and thanks to God, but also in keeping with the idea that worldly government derives its authority from God and serves, as an aria from BWV 119 puts it, as God’s image (“Ebenbild”) on earth. BWV 119 is unusually festive in the styles and instrumentation of its cornerstone choruses: the opening mvt. is an ABA form French Overture with chorus in its fugal section and the 7th is a similarly disposed ABA choral fugue with orchestral introduction and a contrasting (texted) middle section; both mvts. are scored for 3 [sic] trumpets and kettledrums, 2 recorders, and 3 oboes, in addition to the strings, chorus and basso continuo. The image of stability and majesty dominates not only these mvts. but also the 4th mvt, a bass recitative accompanied by strings [sic] and bc and framed by fanfares for the trumpets and kettledrums. The cantata develops the analogy between Leipzig and Jerusalem, Leipzig as the ‘new Zion,’ praising God and thanking Him for His blessings, which, as the central recitative makes clear, are transmitted through “kluge Obrigkeit und durch ihr weises Regiment” – that is, through government and the Leipzig town council. Both the bass recitative and the 2nd of the large chorus introduce a widely used fanfare theme of the time that Bach associates in his cantatas with majesty (usually God’s majesty;) in BWV 119 he introduces it in order to suggest the transmission of authority from God to His people through the duly appointed worldly government. The bass recitative begins with this theme, setting the line “So herrlich stehst du, liebe Stadt.” In the 7th mvt. it sounds first (somewhat modified) in the instrumental introduction and conclusion, then again in the middle section, punctuating the words “Er seh’ die teuren Väter an und halte auf unzählig’ und späte lange Jahre ‘naus in ihrem Regimente Haus, so wollen wir ihn preisen,” first in unison strings, then unison oboes, and finally (again slightly modified) unison recorders. We have already encountered this theme in the opening mvt. of BWV 70, where it represents God’s coming in glory to judge the world. Between the C major choral “pillars” appear 2 recitative/aria pairs, the 1st in the dominant major (G) and the second in the dominant minor (g). The key of the latter may well appear surprising since its text deals with worldly authority as God’s gift to His people, even the image of God Himself (“Die Obrigkeit ist Gottes Gabe, ja selber Gottes Ebenbild.”) And the mvt. has occasionally been interpreted as satirical in tone. But, in fact, the flat minor tonality is exactly Bach’s means of representing the important idea that such government is human, not divine, and our accepting and obeying it is exactly because of its sanction by God. The middle section of the aria amplifies the idea just described by turning to C minor –that is, the tonic minor of the C major of the choral “pillar”—for the line “Wer ihre Macht nicht will ermessen, der muß auch Gottes gar vergessen: wie würde sonst sein Wort erfüllt?” (Whoever will not accept its authority must also abandon God’s: how otherwise would His word be fulfilled?) Behind this idea lies, of course, a very similar “tonal allegory” to the representation of Jesus’ humanity in the incarnation by means of modulation to flat-minor regions. As in “Gott ist mein König” behind the turn to flat-minor keys in “Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn” lies an acknowledgment of human weakness, even in the person of worldly authority. Bach invokes the ancient, broader meaning of the terms ‘durus’ and ‘mollis’ to lend the figurative aspect of his tonal design a meaning we might not otherwise suspect.

The opening motif sung by the bass in mvt. 4 after the trumpet fanfare is a symmetrical ascent-descent figure that has associations with God in His majesty. This is extended by a jump of a 5th at the end. In mvt. 7, ms. 68-69 when the choir is mainly singing the word ‘naus,’ the 2 recorders announce this theme with an additional repeated-note pattern. Perhaps the best-known occurrence of this theme in Bach’s work is as the horn call of the 1st mvt. of the 1st Brandenburg Concerto, where Bach assigns it a triptlet rhythm that stands apart from the quadruple meter of the other parts and the mvt. as a whole. Bach used a version of the 1st mvt. of this concerto as introductory Sinfonia to the final cantata of the Trinity season in 1726, BWV 52. In BWV 127 Bach introduces this theme at the beginning of the apocalyptic bass solo “Wenn einstens die Posaunen schallen,” a representation of the Last Judgment; there its C major arpeggio juxtaposes to the C minor (with recorders and other :soft” devices, such as pizzicato bass) of the preceding mvt., “Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen,” a representation of the “sleep of death.” Other prominent appearances of this theme occur in this cantata, BWV 119, for the changing of the Leipzig town council in 1723 (in association with the majesty of Leipzig, interpreted allegorically as Jerusalem) and BWV 130, for St. Michael’s Day, 1724 (as principal theme of the aria “Der alte Drache brennt vor Neid”); closely related forms of this theme occur in BWV 147 for the Visitation of Mary, 1723 (as principal theme of the aria “Ich will von Jesu Wunden singen,” whose Weimar original text for the 4th Sunday of Advent, 1716, “Laß mich der Rufer Stimme hören,” has a character that is comparable to the 1st mvt. of “Wachet! betet!”). All the latter mvts. are in C. Versions of the theme also appear ithe other trumpet key, D, generally with associations of majesty and/or victory: BWV 172, the aria “Heiligster Dreieinigkeit”; BWV 214, on the words “Erschallet, Trompeten”; the SJP (BWV 245), in the middle section of the “Es ist vollbracht” on “Der Held aus Juda siegt mit macht”; BWV 249, later the Easter Oratorio, at “Wir sind erfreut (daß unser Jesum wieder lebt].” The 1st appearance of this theme that is known to me is in the setting of Psalm 136 from Heinrich Schütz’s “Psalmen Davids” of 1619, where it is associated with God’s majesty. It appears also in the ‘Intrada’ 1st mvt. of Heinrich Biber’s string suite, titled “Trombet und musicalischer Tafeldienst” (around 1673-74), where it is played by solo violin in imitation of the trumpet (headed “Tromba luditur in violino solo”) above a sustained C major chord on the lower strings.

The opposition of worldly and divine authority prompted Bach to use tonal descent and ascent in the cantatas written for the changing of the town council in both Mühlhausen and Leipzig. The 1st of these works for Leipzig, BWV 119, is a C major composition of highly extrovert, festive character – with French overture beginning, prominent trumpets and drums and the like. Its central mvt., a G minor alto aria with recorders, follows a powerful bass recitative for full orchestra, framed by trumpet fanfares, asserting government as God’s representative on earth. Coming after such a display of pomp, the minor key asserts the humanity of the ruling authorities as the tie between them and the community at large.


Cantata BWV 119: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

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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Last update: Friday, September 01, 2017 13:36