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Cantata BWV 121
Christum wir sollen loben schon

A. Dürr | A. Schweitzer | E. Chafe 1 | E. Chafe 2


Thomas Braatz wrote (May 15, 2003):
BWV 121 - Commentaries:


The basis for this cantata’s libretto is found in Martin Luther’s German version (chorale text, 1524) of an old Latin church hymn, “A solis ortus cardine.” Bach composed this cantata for its 1st performance on December 26, 1724. As usual, the unknown librettist kept the 1st and last (= 8th vs. of the chorale) verses of the Luther chorale, while the middle verses were paraphrased for all the middle mvts. Accordingly, vs. 2 of the chorale became mvt. 2 of the cantata, 3 & 4 became mvt. 3, 5 became 4, and 6 & 7 became 5. There is hardly any close connection with the Epistle or Gospel of this church holiday. Certain phrases point to the fact that the usual readings for St. Stephan’s Day were dispensed with in favor of those that relate to Christmas: “so will mein Herze…zu deiner Krippen brünstig dringen” (mvt. 4) and “Doch wie erblickt es dich in deiner Krippen?” (mvt. 5). Bach’s librettist takes Luther’s chorale and changes it into a sermon in verse. The 1st half of the cantata (mvts. 1-3) sings of the incomprehensible miracle of the birth of God’s son; the 2nd half (mvts. 4-6) contains the answer of an ordinary human being who turns to the crib in adoration. It is true that the Luther hymn already pointed to the John’s ‘jumping for joy’ in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:44), but the librettist amplifies this idea in mvt. 4: “Nun da mein Glaubensarm dich halt, so will mein Herze von der Welt zu deiner Krippen brünstig dringen.” The phrases ‘holding Jesus on the arms of faith’ and the ‘turning away from this world’ do not coincidentally point to the aged Simeon who was there at the presentation of the Jesus child in the temple (Luke 2:22-32.) This goes beyond the material contained in the Luther chorale text.

The melody of the chorale must have sounded at least somewhat archaic in Bach’s time. It is, to be sure, a rather simplified version of the ancient hymn melody, but it has still preserved some of the obscure/veiled relationships between the tonalities. The beginning lets you expect a Dorian mode, but at the end in concludes in the Phrygian mode.

In his setting of the 1st mvt., Bach emphasizes the impression of an antiquated style through his use of the chorale motet form: Each line of the chorale is developed over an independently created/directed bc part, above which the 3 lower voices (under the soprano) present imitative versions of the chorale melody before the soprano presents the melody in doubly-lengthened note values. At the point when the soprano part enters, the lower voices provide non-thematic counterpoint while the bc joins the bass part so that at no point is the mvt. expanded beyond 4 parts. [Dürr gives a schematic representation of this.] However, the non-thematic, freely polyphonic parts are nevertheless connected in motivic fashion by means of a musical figure which is derived from the beginning of the 1st line of the chorale and appears for the 1st time in ms. 2 & 3. [Example shown] All the instruments, including the oboe d’amore, strings and a quartet of brass parts [cornetto (Zink) on top with 3 trombones below] play colla parte with the vocal parts. It is this combination of instruments which heightens the impression of the ancient style (stile antico.)

Starting with mvt. 2, the ‘modern’ part of the cantata commences with a noteworthy, unusual periodic grouping of the elements which constitute the ritornello (3 + 3 + 2 + 2 + 2 ms.) and its cadence in the parallel tonality of D major: in order to come to its proper conclusion in the main tonality of B minor at the end of the main section, it has to be repeated with significant changes. In other ways as well there is a tendency in the course of this aria to transform the thematic material in such a way that the usual stereotype of the pure da capo form is avoided, all of which gives this mvt. a very unconventional character.

Mvt. 3, as a secco recitative, would probably be unremarkable if it were not for Bach’s daring and surprising harmonic change on the words “um zu den Menschen sich mit wundervoller Art zu kehren.” Instead of having the expected F sharp minor chord follow the C sharp major 6th chord, Bach inserts an abrupt change over a diminished 7th chord to C major. It will be extremely difficult to find any similar, unprepared change such as this in any of Bach’s instrumental works. Here it is legitimized by the text which speaks of the “wonder/miracle” of Jesus’ birth.

In mvt. 4 attention is now focused upon the sphere of human activity, to those who are observing this miracle. This bass aria with a full string ensemble is the most easily accessible piece in the entire cantata. This is accomplished by the use of uncomplicated, diatonic melodies with clear, simple harmonies. All of this is coupled with thematic fragments from the ritornello that are continually being reconnected in many different ways to create an interesting mosaic of sound that constantly pleases the ears because it is already familiar but seems new at the same time. Despite the artistic complexity of the motif imitations, this aria, nevertheless, gives the impression that it is basically homophonic because of the many parallel 3rds and 6ths that give is such a melodious sound.

The 2nd recitative (mvt. 5) is a simple secco recitative which appears directly before the final chorale (mvt. 6), in which Bach cleverly takes a melody in a church mode and transforms it into a D-major tonality more appropriate to the style existing in Bach’s time.


In BWV 121, the chorus is treated in pure motet style. The orchestra duplicates the voices. One is inclined to regret that Bach did not employ this form more frequently in his chorale choruses. [Schweitzer recommends that the organ may take the place of the instruments quite easily in this instance.]

The curious music in the aria “Johannis freudevolles Springen erkannte dich, mein Heiland, schon” can only be explained on the supposition that Bach is representing the leaping of the child in Elisabeth’s womb at the greeting of Mary. The barbarous declamation in the tenor aria is in itself sufficient to show that the music has been taken from another source; it is incomprehensible how Bach could listen to it. [Musical scholars, including the NBA, have not been able to verify that a parody might have been involved here.]
Schweitzer includes an example from the score of mvt. 4, ms. 1-3 to demonstrate Bach’s attempts as showing movement. Here Bach’s music is simply a long series of violent convulsions. Bach depicts the quivering of the body of the mother who is about to bear the Baptist, only here the word painting is quite realistic.

Eric Chafe:

If the uniting of the divine and the human worlds in the person of Christ underlies Bach’s juxtaposition of major and minor in several works, a lesser degree of tonal antithesis in conjunction with a highly antithetical point of modulation allegorizes the human response to the mystery of the incarnation in BWV 121. Dürr has pointed out that the 6-mvt. cantata divides into 2 halves, the 1st (nos. 1-3) dealing with the incomprehensible wonder of the incarnation and man’s inability to penetrate the unfathomable ways of God, and the 2nd (nos. 4-6) with the human response to the incarnation. The cantata begins and ends in the 2-sharp system, its opening and closing mvts. based on Luther’s paraphrase of the medieval hymn “A solis ortus cardine,” which begins as if in the 1st, Dorian, mode and ends in the Phrygian. Bach’s setting thus seem, in modern terms, to begin in E minor and end on the dominant of B minor. Perhaps Bach associated the rise in tonal center with the elevation of the flesh: the 1st aria, in B minor, “O du von Gott erhöhtes Creatur,” seems to resolve the modal ambiguity by interpreting the E minor and F sharp as the subdominant and domiof the key. The 3rd mvt, the recitative completing the 1st half, modulates upward through A major and C sharp minor, then suddenly, on the last phrase, makes an enharmonic modulation down a tritone from F sharp minor to C major (“Gott wählet sich den reinen Leib zu einem Tempel seiner Ehren, um zu den Menschen sich mit wundervoller Art zu kehren; emphasis added [example is given – ms. 10-15 of mvt. 3.] The following C major aria marks the turn to the human part of the cantata, and stands in a fa relationship to the B minor (mi) of the preceding aria. From here the mvts. return by stages to the 2-sharp system and the closing verse of the original chorale. Through the incarnation of Christ man is raised again to God; BWV 121 is, therefore, another descent/ascent cantata, but one that turns catabasis into a transformation.

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 15, 2003):
Commentary by Eric Chafe:

The question of how the mode of a chorale melody may affect the musico-theological design of an entire cantata of several mvts. has seldom been addressed in the Bach literature, one of the main reasons for that being the generally tenuous connections between the theological content of most chorale verses and the modes of their melodies. There are, nevertheless, cases where such connections do exist and others where, even if they do not, Bach’s treatment of the melodies indicates that he either perceived them to exist or introduced them by various means. Such is the case with the chorales that form the basis of the 2 cantatas BWV 121 and BWV 9 (Es ist das Heil uns kommen her.) In them Bach seized on details in the melodies that proved to be of enormous potential in his articulating a bond between music and theology over the course of their multimovement sequences.

Luther’s chorale “Christum wir sollen loben schon” had ancient roots, in that not only does the poem paraphrase the 1st 7 strophes of the medieval hymn “A solis ortus cardine,” written by Caelius Sedulius in the 4th century, but also the melody derives from the Gregorian melody associated with the Latin hymn. Sedulius was of considerable influence on later Latin poetry because of a 5-book collection of poetry titled ‘Paschale Carmen’ that treated of the miracles of the Old Testament in its 1st book, then those of Jesus from the incarnation up to the Passion and resurrection in the remaining 4. “A solis ortus cardine,” although it is a separate and much shorter poem, follows a similar design for the life of Jesus. That is, it begins with the incarnation, treating it in what has been called a “cosmic” manner, and covers many of the events of Jesus’ life as told in the 4 Gospels, ending with His victory over Satan and His ascension. The incarnation and the ascension circumscribe the beginning and completion of Jesus’ work on earth. And the layout of the poem as a whole is related to this aim: its 23 verses form an alphabetical acrostic (i.e., an “abecedarius”), in that each strophe begins with one of the letters of the Latin alphabet (i.e., the 26 letters of the English alphabet minus ‘j,’ ‘u,’ and ‘w’). This detail was certainly intended to symbolize the idea of completeness in association with Jesus’ life and work. Behind it lies, of course, the idea of Jesus as Alpha and Omega. Additionally, its 1st line appears to be indebted to the beginning of Psalm 112 “A solis ortu usque ad occasum laudabili nomen Domini,” which describes the praise of God in terms of the eastern and western horizons, or, as Sedulius’s hymn puts it, from the point of the rising sun to the ends of the earth (“ad usque terrae limitem”.) Since the word “cardine” (“cardo”) meant a pivot or hinge, it became associated with the axis or rotation of the earth as well as with a point of the compass. And this association undoubtedly underlay the fact that the 1st 7 verses of the hymn, dealing with the incarnation, were traditionally associated with Christmas, while several of the following verses were linked with Epiphany. Christmas, that is, celebrated the coming of God’s light into the world, associating that light since ancient times with the turning of the sun at the sinter solstice, while Epiphany also celebrated an east-west cosmological motion, that of the star of Bethlehem, associated not only with the incarnation but also with the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles—that is, to the entire world. In this way “A solis ortus cardine” represented the incarnation as the turning point of history, as Christmas and Ephiphany were associated with the turning of the liturgical, geophysical, and civil new years.

And, whether accidental or not, the melody of “A solis ortus cardine” can be considered to mirror the idea of a new beginning such as that of the rising sun: its melody shifts up a tone from its D Dorian beginning to an ending in E Phrygian. In the 4-phrase Gregorian melody both the 1st and the last phrase begin on d and end on e, while the 2nd and 3rd close on b and a , respectively. And the chorale version follows the same basic pattern, sticking close to the outline of the Gregorian melody but simplifying its contours and altering the cadential tone of the 2nd phrase from b to c’. Likewise, Luther’s text sticks very closely to the 1st 7 verses of Sedulius’s poem, except that it adds, as its 8th verse, a doxology not in the original. The most common harmonization pattern of the melody in the Lutheran chorale books, however, did not generally confirm its Phrygian mode interpretation but tended rather to treat the final e as the 2nd degree of the scale, harmonizing it, therefore, as the dominant of D. Even Werckmeister, who tended very much to argue for the correct modal finals, did not in this case. Instead, his interpretation of the tonal shift in “Christum wir sollen loben schon” in the “Harmonologia Musica” was a pragmatic one: antiphonal singing practices in ancient times had caused the final line to end on the 2nd degree of the mode, e, rather than the 1st, d. Since that shift indicated for Werckmeister that the melody had an incomplete ending and should, therefore, be harmonized with the dominant – that is, as a half close – he classed it, along with “Der du bist drey in Einigkeit” (which began in d and ended on g), as a ‘tonus corruptus.’ All Bach’s setting of “Christum wir sollen loben schon,” however, end with a plagal cadence to the harmony whose root is the 2nd degree of the mode – that is, they shift from D Dorian to E Phrygian (or, in BWV 121, from E Dorian to Phrygian F#) –creating the impression of ending, in modern terms, on the dominant of the dominant. This difference had great significance for Bach, whose interpretation of the mode can therefore be said to be closer to that of the Gregorian melody than Werckmeister’s.

Before taking up the tonal design of BWV 121, we must note that the text of Bach’s cantata amplifies certain features of both Luther’s chorale and the Latin hymn, such as the idea of the elevation of the flesh through Jesus’ incarnation, the miraculous nature of the incarnation, and, most particularly, the necessity of abandoning any attempt to “understand” the incarnation. This set of ideas emerges in what has been viewed as the 1st “half” of the cantata (mvts. 1 through 3), while the 2nd “half” (mvts. 4 through 6) emphasizes the believer’s response to the wondrous nature of the incarnation, his acceptance of the union of the divine and the human in the infant Jesus as the foundation of his hopes for eternal life: [Mvt. 1: E Dorian – F# Phrygian; 2: b; 3: D – C; 4: C; 5: G – b; 6: E Dorian – F# Phrygian.] While Sedulius’s poem uses the incarnation and ascension of Jesus to circumscribe His work, Bach’s text describes, as we will see, a descent—ascent tonal dynamic that mirrors the meaning of that work on several levels. And the turning point in question adds a dimension to the work that reflects the orgof its doctrinal-theological message according to the tropological and eschatological “senses” of hermeneutics.

The 1st and last (8th) verses of “Christum wir sollen loben schon” are parallel in that they both begin with praise of Christ, tell that He was born of a pure virgin, and end with expressions of His all-encompassing rule. The 1st strophe, making the traditional comparison between Jesus (‘Sohn’) and the rising sun (‘Sonne’), describes Jesus’ rule in geographical terms –“so weit die liebe Sonne leucht’t /und an aller Welt Ende reicht” (“as far as the beloved Son shines / and reaching to the ends of the earth) –while the last views it in temporal terms, “samt Vater und dem heil’gen Geist, / von nun an bis in Ewigkeit” (“with the Father and the Holy Spirit / from now until eternity.) The progression from the point at which the sun rises to the boundary of the world becomes analogous to that from the incarnation to eternity. In this sequence the believer and his time (the ‘nun’ of the final line) are centrally located between the historical incarnation and the future “elevation” of humanity. Thus, the cantata as a whole articulates a progression from the physical to the spiritual realm that is analogous to the widespread description of the incarnation as “elevating” humanity to the status of God’s children. In this scheme the incarnation, the meeting of the divine and human in Jesus, is the pivot between the two, marking the division between the “eras” of Israel and of Christ.

And Bach’s overall design for the cantata mirrors these dualisms in several ways. One of these involves the sense that the outermost mvts. (the chorale settings) represent a traditional or fundamental layer of meaning, not only in style and modal character, but in their scoring for ‘colla parte’ cornetto and trombones, an instrumentation that Bach utilizes principally in conjunction with the evoking of an archaic atmosphere. The 1st mvt. is basically a traditional chorale-motet setting in somewhat archaic style in which Bach introduces the idea of forward progression by beginning each of the successive lines of the chorale in the lower voices (the soprano has the ‘cantus firmus’) in long note values (half or whole notes depending on the line in question,) then speeding up the motion to quarter and finally 8th notes. The increasing activity goes hand in hand with long ascending and descending lines and the change of tonal center in the final line to suggest an eschatological (i.e., temporal and spiritual) as well as geographical (physical) meaning for the “Welt Ende” of its text. Bach likewise adds running 8th notes to the last phrase of the final chorale, thus prolonging the word “Ewigkeit” (eternity) for 5 measures.

In striking contrast to the archaic dimension of the two chorale settings, the 2 arias (mvts. 2 & 4) are modern in style, especially the 2nd, whose ritornello features a periodic phrase construction with piano/forte echo devices, sequential features, and a tonal design that modulates to the dominant at the midpoint and returns to the tonic over the 2nd half. The figural surface of the 1st aria, “O du von Gott erhöhte Kreature” (O you creature raised by God), seems to mirror the idea of the dualism of the divine and human, while its B minor tonality can be viewed as the outcome of the shift from e to F# (by hindsight from the subdominant to the dominant of (b) in the last phrase of the preceding mvt. an analogue, perhaps of the elevation of humanity through the incarnation.

The text of the 1st aria also emphasizes that human nature cannot “understand” God’s redemption of humanity through the incarnation and should therefore respond only with wonder: “Begreife nicht, nein, nein, bewund’re nur: Gott will durch Fleisch des Fleisches Heil erwerben” (Do not comprehend, no, no, only be amazed: God wants to earn the salvation of the flesh through the flesh.) The recitative (mvt. 3) that bridges the 2 arias centers on that idea, expanding the subdominant/dominant dualism of the ending of the chorale to the level of what Werckmeister called a “Große Metamorphosis in der Harmonie.” In it Bach modulates from the initial D major chord to A major, then C# minor for the following text: “Der Gnade unermeßlich’s Wesen hat sich den Himmel nicht zur Wohnstatt auserlesen, weil keine Grenze sie umschließt [A major cadence.] Was Wunder, daß allhier Verstand und Witz gebricht? ein solch’ Geheimnis zu ergründen, wenn sie sich in ein keusches Herze gießt [C# minor cadence]” (The being of immeasurable grace did not choose the heavens for His dwelling place, because no boundaries circumscribed it. What a wonder, that at this the understanding and intellect fail to fathom such a mystery, when it flows into a chaste heart.) The progressively sharpward motion of these opening phrases has, as we might expect, a particular purpose that is revealed in the phrases that follow: “Gott wählet sich den reinen Leib zu einem Tempel seiner Ehren, um zu den Menschen sich mit wundervoller Art zu kehren” (God chose the pure body for a temple to His honor, in order to turn to humankind in a wondrous manner.) After the reference to the eastern and western boundaries of the earth in the opening chorus, the remark that God chose the human form as His dwelling place over the heavens, because the latter had no boundaries, makes clear the centrality of the incarnation to the salvation of humanity. The “wundervolle Art” in question is, of course, the enharmonic shift that takes place at the final cadence of the recitative, where the e#--b tritone between the ‘basso continuo’ and the voice, instead of contracting inward to an F sharp harmony, expands outward to C major. The tritone shift in the harmony is an analogue or “allegory” of the descent of God into human form, while the enharmonic modulation represents the miraculous (i.e., instantaneous) means (“wundervolle Art”) by which God effects the descent. Bach expands the idea of the tonal shift in the chorale melody to that of a transformation, not only representing the miraculous nature of the incarnation but also introducing a tonal device that most likely would have been felt but not rationally understood by the listener in Bach’s congregation. In this respect it prepares the C major aria that follows. It seems clear, therefore, that the sharpward motion at the beginning of the recitative points to the sphere of God, while the sudden reversal of the tonal direction represents the shift to the human perspective. The verb “kehren” (to turn, reverse direction, etc.) extends the meaning behind the word “cardine” in the Latin poem to that of a turning point, which now bears the association of a new era for humankind, indicated by its immediate response to the incarnation. Thus, the ending of the 3rd mvt. and the beginning of the 4th can be said to pivot between God’s miraculous work and humanity’s response – that is, the two “halves” of the cantata –in a manner that fulfills the “cosmic” implications of Sedulius’s poem.

In order to bring out the quality of unmediated awareness called for in the preceding 2 mvts. – that is, of an understanding that goes beyond the “Verstand und Witz” (understanding and intellect) mentioned in the recitative – the text of the aria turns to the narrative of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elisabeth, whose conception of a child in old age was told to Mary by the angel of the annunciation (Luke 1:36.) Mary’s subsequent visit to her cousin in the 6th month of Elisabeth’s pregnancy then brought forth the response of the child, John the Baptist, who leaped in Elisabeth’s womb as she heard Mary’s greeting. Elisabeth was immediately filled with the Holy Spirit and thereby empowered to interpret that event as John’s leaping for joy (Luke 1:44.) Traditionally, the entire narrative of the Visitation and the subsequent one of John’s birth were interpreted as initiating a new era in salvation history. John’s was the 1st response to the news of the conception of Jesus, and it came before his birth. As such it represented the quality of simple unquestioning faith. AnJohn’s role as a Baptist and precursor of Jesus reinforced the interpretation of the story as a turning point in history, a quality that was further underlined by the 6 months that separated his birth from that of Jesus. The celebration of the feast day of John the Baptist on June 24 brought out the parallel between the beginnings of the 2 halves of the liturgical year, the one, Christmas, aligned with the winter solstice and representing symbolically the onset of the new era, the other coming soon after Pentecost, aligned with the summer solstice, and closely paralleling the beginning of the Trinity season – that is, with the part of the year that represents both the time of the church and the time of Israel awaiting the Messiah.

The melodic gestures at the beginning of the aria – the bass shooting downward through the C major arpeggio to the lowest note in the pitch spectrum and the violin leaping upward immediately afterward as it to depict John’s response – foretell the outcome of the cantata, the elevation of humankind to God’s children, as we are told in several other Bach cantatas. The key of C, highlighted in the enharmonic modulation and the beginning gestures of the aria, can be thought of here as representing simultaneously the depths of human nature to which God has descended and the turning point for humanity that began with John the Baptist’s recognition, while still within his mother’s womb, of Jesus as the Messiah. It might well have been chosen because of its association as “the easiest key in music” –that is, as a representation of the unmediated (unintellectual) awareness of Jesus’ identity by the child in the womb. The affect that accompanies that recognition is joy. Bach’s very modern tonal design and phrase structure in the ritornello set that tone for the aria as a whole. The middle section then utilizes a tripartite tonal scheme, featuring the keys of a, e, and G to present its text 3 times, the 1st suggesting (by virtue of the shift to the submediant or relative minor, the change to a ‘piano’ dynamic level, and new figurational detail) the believer’s symbolic approach through faith to the crib of Christ: “Nun da ein Glaubensarm dich hält, so will mein Herze von der Welt zu deiner Krippe brünstig dringen” [Now that the arm of faith holds You, my heart will passionately hasten from the world to Your crib.) The sharpward direction of the key sequence, however, perhaps indicates something of the outcome of the believer’s holding Jesus with the “arm” of faith and his heart’s eagerly abandoning the world for the crib of the nativity.

The 2nd recitative – beginning “Doch wie erblickt es dich in deiner Krippe?“ (Yet how does it [the heart] look upon You in Your crib?) – analyzes the effect of the believer’s approach to the crib of Christ as a sequence that progresses from the sighing of the heart as the believer’s “trembling and almost closed lips” attempt to offer thanks (A minor cadence,) through recognition of God’s immeasurable nature in the lowliness of Jesus’ human condition (E minor cadence,) to the ultimate benefit of the incarnation for humanity, participation in the heavenly choir (B minor cadence, perhaps alluding to the key of “O du von Gott erhöhte Kreatur.”) This sequence of ideas is an addition to the ideas conveyed in the chorale text, an amplification of its poetic imagery in more “theological” terms. To the extent that it’s a—e—b key sequence can be thought of as related to that in the middle section of the aria (a—e—G), as its text is an extension of that of the aria, we may conclude that the pattern is an “ascending” one—that is, the dualism of God’s miraculously becoming human in the incarnation (mirrored in the f#--C enharmonic shift of the 1st recitative,) and of John’s recognition of the dual natures of Christ (the descending and ascending C major arpeggios that begin and run throughout the 2nd aria) leads to the believer’s recognition of Jesus’ divinity through faith and the hastening of his (the believer’s) heart away from “the world.” The recitative articulates the final stage of the believer’s leaving the world in terms of his anticipation of participating in the heavenly choir. The chorale that follows then affirms the eschatological vision in the e—F# modal shift of its final line (“von nun an bis in Ewigkeit” – from now until eternity.) And to underscore the shift all the more Bach carries forward the pitch C natural, heard for the 1st time in the Phrygian cadence to B (i.e., V of e) that ends phrase 3, allowing it to permeate the harmony in all registers for the 1st 2 measures of the final phrase. The flattening of the harmony even brings about a passing C major harmony as the outermost voices expand by scalar motion to their point of widest separation on the beginning of the final word, “Ewigkeit.” Then, suddenly, the entrance of the F# major harmony on the 1st completion of that word in the alto and soprano 4 measures before the end reintroduces the C# along with the 1st appearance of A# in the mvt. From this point on the harmonies alternate between B minor and F# almost exclusively, settling ultimately on F$ major, at least in part to recall the realm from which Jesus’ descent to the sphere of humanity (C) was “described” tonally in the 1st recitative. It can, of course, be taken as an incomplete ending – that is, as the dominant of B minor – indicating the future character of the “Ewigkeit” of the final cadence and perhaps linking up with the B minor of the 1st aria (the elevation of the flesh by God) and the 2nd recitative (the believer’s anticipation of eternity.) In that view the F# major harmony would represent a still more elevated sphere present only in the believer’s hopes. At the same time, however, the final f#’ is, despite the common practice of harmonizing it as the dominant of 3 (or the transpositional equivalent) in Bach’s time, a perfectly legitimate Phrygian final, approached through a plagal cadence. If we accept it as such, then we must understand Bach’s intention as affirming the certainty of salvation for those who accept the incarnation.

Without wishing to generalize too far beyond the musico-allegorical frame of reference provided in BWV 121, we may nevertheless speak of potentially general principles that mirror elemental directional qualities in the text. That the incarnation was viewed as the descent of God into human form is, I hope, unnecessary to document: likewise, that its principal goal was the elevation of humanity (to the status of God’s children, as the texts of BWV 40, BWV 64, and BWV 173 and other Bach cantatas tell us) is far too well known to require “evidence.” What I have described in terms of the relative sharpness and flatness of certain keys in this cantata (particularly the subdominant and dominant qualities of e and F# in the chorale and the A—c#--f# succession versus the sudden shift to C in the central recitative) goes hand in hand with the directional qualities that lie behind the text, qualities that are mirrored rather obviously in the melodic dualisms of the two arias. The rising imagery in the cantata text is expressed in the analogy of Jesus and the rising sun, in the description of humanity as “erhöhte Kreatur,” in John’s leaping in his mother’s womb, and in the anticipation of eternity in the penultimate recitative and final chorale. That of descent is embodied in the incarnation and the turning of the believer to the crib of Christ, both of which symbolize turning points, the former that of history and the latter that of faith. The change from descent to ascent occurs precisely with the following of the enharmonic cadence by the melodic dualism with which the C major aria begins. It can also be thought of in terms of the turning of the sun at the winter solstice. In this sense the turning point of the cantata can be described as descent followed by ascent, mirroring the change from darkness to light that belongs to its place in the liturgical and geophysical years, as well as the turning point to faith unmedby intellectual understanding. The descent—ascent “shape” describes the incarnation of Jesus and the subsequent elevation of humanity through faith in the incarnation (i.e., the acceptance of Jesus’ human lowliness in the crib as the foundation of the hope of eternity.)

The pattern—common to countless Bach cantatas—of the duplication of the dynamic quality of an event within the human heart is the cornerstone of Lutheran hermeneutics and an expression of its purpose: to bridge the gap between “history” (in the broadest sense, which includes the notion of human finiteness) and its goal, the fulfillment of faith in eternity. History, beginning with literal, “finite” interpretation, yields to the faith experience and ends with the eschatological perspective. That sequence is an ascending one, progressing from the earthbound experience, centered in the reality of the physical, or what Lutheranism viewed as “flesh” (including purely intellectual understanding, which the 1st aria and recitative urge the believer to overcome,) to the spiritual experience and the higher reality to which it tends. In the language of traditional hermeneutics, such sequences articulate a progression from the literal-historical, through the tropological, to the eschatological sense. The cantata text adds this dimension to the mvt. sequence of the hymn. In BWV 121 Bach seized on a tonal anomaly of the melody of “Christum wir sollen loben schon” and expanded it into a design that can be said to mirror the dichotomies of the historical and the spiritual, human and divine, in several important respect: the differentiation of relatively archaic and modern styles, of “subdominant” (relatively flat) and “dominant” (relatively sharp) tonal areas and directions, and of melodic descent and ascent shapes. The keys of the 2 arias, B minor and C major, might be thought of as the “mi” and “fa” degrees of the ‘ambitus’ of E minor or E Dorian, while the F# cadences of the outermost mvts. extend beyond those limits, making what Bach perhaps viewed as a ‘mutatio’ of both mode and ‘cantus.’ The enharmonic change in the 1st recitative centers and gives a sharper focus to the tonal “allegory” of the chorale by amplifying its dualism to the level of a transformational opposition of tritone-related keys—a “mi” contra “fa.”


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

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