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Cantata BWV 123
Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen


Aryeh Oron wrote (January 6, 2002):

The background below is based on several sources (Robertson, Young, Whittaker, Finscher, etc.) and something of my own. The English translations are taken from Richard Stokes’ book.

Like last week BWV 122, the ensuing cantata in the BWV list is also a Chorale Cantata. It is based on the hymn of Ahasverus Fritsch (1679). The first and the sixth stanzas are quoted for the opening and the final movements, and the intervening stanzas are paraphrased for the arias and recitatives. It seems that the hymn. And so the libretto, has no connection with the Gospel or Epistle for the Feast of Epiphany, for which this cantata was composed.

Mvt. 1: Chorus
Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen
(Dearest Emmanuel, Lord of the righteous)
This is a magnificent chorale fantasia for full chorus and orchestra on the first verse of the hymn. The text suggests a crowd, appealing to Jesus to come to them. The construction of the chorus is original. The 11 lines of the chorale are divided into the order of 4-3-4, with ritornelli in between each. The prevailing theme, based on the melody of the first bars of the chorale ‘Liebster Immanuel‘, is a French dance, a courante, which Bach uses only once here in all his cantatas. It is at once heard on the oboe d’amore, then on the flutes and in the continuo. Bach dwells lovingly on this theme throughout, both in the voice and the ritornelli. The unison flutes are especially picturesque, evoking a blissful picture of the Saviour in heavenly glory. The melody is full of devout longing; the instrumental introduction, followed by its ritornelli, adds an aura of mysticism to the voices of the choir. The whole movement, with its beautiful dance-like accompaniment, makes an intimate and tender meditation on the ‘beloved Emmanuel’.

Mvt. 2: Recitative for Alto
Die Himmelssüßigkeit, der Auserwählten Lust
(Heaven’s sweet delight, the chosen people’s joy)
The secco recitative tells how much joy one feels at being one of the elect. When he speaks Jesus’ name, his heart is refreshed by His manna, just as dew revives dry land. Even in danger and pain, his heart is gladdened by His strength.

Mvt. 3: Aria for Tenor
Auch die harte Kreuzesreise
(Even the cross’ cruel journey)
The last words of the recitative preceding this aria prepare one for the abrupt change in mood of the aria. Three changes of tempo by the accompanying oboes d’amore and continuo mark the three different states of mind in the tenor’s text. He appears to be a traveller through life who struggles along under his burden (lento), who confronts storms periodically (allegro), but who finally receives light and salvation from Jesus (adagio). In the first section Bach’s vocal line at ‘Shreckt mich nicht’ (Do not frighten me) contradicts the sense of the words. The word ‘Kreuz’ (Cross) in the opening line is always placed on high note, as also is ‘Tränen’ (Tears) in the second line. In the second section the rage is expressed in a flurry of demi-semiquavers in the voice part.

Mvt. 4: Recitative for Bass
Kein Höllenfeind kann mich verschlingen
(No fiend of hell can devour me)
This secco recitative relates his confidence in Jesus. No hellish enemy can devour him, since now his crying conscience is silent. Why should the host of the enemy encircle him? Even death itself has no power over him. He is destined for victory because Jesus is his Helper.

Mvt. 5: Aria for Bass
Laß, o Welt, mich aus Verachtung
(Leave me, O scornful world)
He begins on a pessimistic note that reflects his loneliness because the world despises him. The drop of a seventh in this D major aria is explained when the bass sings it at ‘Verachtung’ (contempt). There is a moving bar at the end of the section where the bass sings of his loneliness. The loneliness of the sinner is emphasised by the silence of the instruments during the line ’In betrübter Einsamkeit’. His mood than changes to a joy-motif at the thought that Jesus is always near him. The word ‘bleibet’ (remains) is set to a run that goes up to the da-capo, as if he does not want to be separated from Jesus. The da-capo, however, brings him back to his misery. The continuo only accompanies his first sadness. A transverse flute illustrates his turn to joy.

Mvt. 6: Chorale
Drum fahrt nur immer hin, ihr Eitelkeiten
(Be gone, then, for evermore, you idle fancies)
This stanza six of the hymn, performed tutti and plainly in a very slow tempo. It is as impressive as the opening chorus. They are the picks of this cantata. Bach directs, in a unique procedure, that the last three lines be sung a second time piano, to interpret the peace implied in these significant words, descriptive of a burial scene. The courante rhythm of the opening chorus returns in this concluding number.

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 7, 2002):

Aryeh has given an excellent summary from the comments on individual mvts. made by Robertson, Young, Whittaker, Finscher, etc.

Unfortunately, I find it necessary to take issue with the connections made between mvts. 1 & 6 and the dance forms current in that period.

It is either Robertson, Young, or Whittaker who firmly maintain that the “prevailing theme of the chorale is a French dance, a courante, which Bach uses only once here in all his cantatas.” Also, Finscher (1982) states that the rhythm is “like that of a gigue.”

With this type of argumentation based primarily on the observation of the time signatures, many false conclusions may be reached. I recently referred to the Samuel Scheidt’s “Das Görlitzer Tabulaturbuch aus dem Jahre 1650” where you will find numerous examples of chorales in 6/4 meter or in cut time. We have become so accustomed to the typical quarter-note standard treatment that Bach prefers to use in many of his 4-pt. harmonizations, that we tend to forget that the pre-Bach period had many chorales that would appear to be courantes or loures (the latter are always in 6/4 the same meter that Scheidt frequently uses.) When Scheidt uses cut time, it does not indicate any connection with a gavotte, just as a 6/4 chorale does not have any connection with a loure or a courante.
In “Dance and the Music of J.S.Bach” by Little and Jenne, the following statement is made: “The courante is not used as a basis for works apart from the dance genre; one finds no courante arias or choruses in the [Bach] cantatas, for example, most of Bach’s courantes are for keyboard; there are also two for lute, one for orchestra, and one for solo cello.” p. 123 These authors do list those cantata mvts. (sacred cantatas included) that are related to dance forms.
Regarding the gigue rhythm that Finscher attempted to apply to this cantata, the same source indicates that 42 dances by Bach have survived with titles such as ‘gigue,’ ‘giga,’ ‘jig,’ ‘jigg,’ and ‘gique’ with time signatures such as 3/8, 6/8, 12/8, 12/16, C.” There is no 9/8 or 3/2 time signature in this group, nor have the authors determined that the two outer mvts. of this cantata can in any way be related to the dance forms that Bach typically used.

Another matter that came to my attention as I did this research is that of performance style, specifically as introduced and misunderstood by Harnoncourt and very evident in his recording of this cantata [2]. This concerns the interpretation of how “notes inégales” are to be performed. These, according to Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773) in his “Versuch einer Anweisung die Fl. Traversiere zu spielen” Berlin, 1752 are “the quavers that follow the dotted crotchets in the loure, sarabande, courante and chaconne [that] must not be played with their literal value, but must be executed in a very short and sharp m.” Regarding the string instruments, he states, “they must detach the bow during the dot” of the dotted quarter note. A later statement makes all of this unclear so that the authors, Little and Jenne, mentioned above, conclude that what Quantz really means is that each quarter note must be bowed separately and not slurred. Can you see how easy it was for Harnoncourt to latch onto the first statement made by Quantz over a quarter of a century later than the primary productive period of the Bach cantatas? This is the type of ‘evidence’ from a later period that Harnoncourt applies to his performance practice, disregarding entirely the vocal tradition that had already been established separately. Actually, the vocal legato singing tradition during Bach’s primary production period was emulated by the instruments as much as this was possible. But Harnoncourt perversely insists upon turning the direction of influence around 180 degrees. Now let Harnoncourt know that this cantata has two mvts. that are in reality two dance mvts. (which we have now discovered that they are not.) The result of all this misinformation adds fuel to his fire so that he feels justified in pursuing this ill-considered interpretation consisting of strongly thrusting accents with frequent tonal gaps in between without first considering the primacy of the vocal tradition (primarily legato) and the seriousness of the cantata texts (yes, even joy can be ‘serious’ in the sacred Bach cantatas). Harnoncourt has proceeded to adulterate Bach’s intentions in the name of newly discovered information that he contended would provide us with the original sound of Bach’s choir and orchestra. Behind this Potemkin village façade, the truth concerning the misapplication of unrelated musical sources soon becomes evident.


Schweitzer is one of the few commentators whose works I have access and who had something worthwhile to say about this cantata. He hears a similarity in the triplet rhythms in the famous chorale setting (Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring) in BWV 147 and the opening mvt. of BWV 123. It is this present cantata which he declares to be “one of the finest expressions of Bach’s mysticism. Its 1st chorus reminds us a good deal of that of the cantata “Du Hirte Israel” BWV 104. “Liebster Immanuel! Liebster Immanuel!” cry the orchestra, all the instruments repeating continually the opening phrases of the melody. It suggests a crowd of people appealing to the Lord, whose glory has just been revealed in baptism, to be allowed to kiss the hem of his garment.”
In Mvt. 3 the tenor sings of the “cruel way to the cross,” the two oboi d’amore adding an expressive lament. At the end comes the joyous march-song “Laß, o Welt, mich aus Verachtung,” in which the soul bids the world farewell.“ “In the staccato quavers in the basses and the hurrying figures in the flute” Schweitzer perceives “the joyousness and urgency” rather than the “elegiac mood of the text.”


This commentator sees some loose connections between the text of this cantata and the Gospel (Luke 2, 21) for New Year’s Day, a reference which refers to the naming of the Christ child.
Mvt. 2 has “Jesusnamen” (the name of Jesus to remind us of this connection.
Mvt. 3 has “Heil und Licht,” which relates to the Epistle for Epiphany (Jes. 60, 1-6).
Mvt. 5 has a general reference to Christmas: “Jesus, der ins Fleisch gekommen” [“Jesus, who has become flesh – has been incarnated as a human being.”]
Very important: According to Schweitzer’s general analysis of the sacred cantatas, Bach usually begins composing with an overriding theme in mind. This frequently takes on the form of a duality, an antithesis which then allows for dramatic development of the musical ideas.
Dürr suggests the antithesis already present in the original chorale: the contrast between the World and Jesus, or in other words which provide for a resolution of this contrast, the World’s animosity and contempt which a Christian feels will not affect him as long as Jesus stands beside him.
Dürr also points out that in Mvt. 6, the repetition of the Abgesang using a “piano” dynamic marking for the repetition is not unusual for Bach. Further examples of this can be found in the early cantatas BWV 106 and BWV 71, but also in BWV 68 dating from 1725.

David Humphreys:

Humpheys, who wrote the article on this cantata for the Oxford Composer Companions: J.S.Bach [Boyd], 1999, makes some valuable observations worth repeating here:
Mvt. 1 – The presence of nine units in the bar and the constant stream of triplet and three-part chords suggest apparently that Bach interpreted the word “Frommen” [“the pious ones”] as a reference to the angelic host. The first line of the chorale, which forms the basis of much of the accompanying instrumental material, is treated in chains of imitations and sequential repetitions producing many entries in parallel 3rds (simple and compound) which reinforce the symbolism.
Mvt. 3 – The angular ritornello melody (the opening motif of which could perhaps be seen as a version of the Baroque ‘cross’ figure) represents the ‘hard journey of the Cross’ with its hard-won ascent through a diminished 7th to a high a’: motifs derived from it pervade much of the A section of the aria. As so often in Bach’s figural language, the Cross is symbolized by the three sharps in the key-signature (F# minor) and by additional sharps as accidentals. For the B section Bach changes the tempo from Lento to Allegro to accommodate the line “Wenn die Unwitter toben” (“When the storms rage”), depicting the rumbling of the thunder with an extravagant melisma in the voice part, and he reverts to the main tempo at the next phrase, “sendet Jesus mir von oben Heil und Licht” (“Jesus sends me salvation and light from above.”)
Mvt. 5 – Much of the material for this aria is generated by the opening phrase, with its characteristic drop of a major 7th at “Verachtung” [“scorn”]. Bach also ‘paints’ the words “in betrübter Einsamkeit” [“in troubled loneliness”] by applying chromatic disturbances to the melodic line and by silencing the instruments, thus he leaves the singer momentarily unaccompanied.

Some personal observations (pulling loose ends together):

Mvt. 1:
The frequently repeated 2-measure opening phrase of the chorale melody is playfully bandied about in the orchestra by the various groups of instruments, and this ‘broken’ phrase even occurs the first time the voices enter. First the alto/tenor combination announces this fragment theme before the official cantus firmus entrance by the sopranos. A rather interesting musical treatment of the words occurs when the c.f. sings “komm, komm nur bald.” [“come, do come soon”] ms. 41-46 and continues to hold the word “bald” [“soon”] for 4 measures. During this time a duet-like figure (alto/tenor) repeats these words with the bass only singing single dotted quarter notes on “bald,” resting for twice that amount of time, then repeating “komm” again for a total of 4 times. What ‘comes soon’ after that is an exact repetition of everything already presented, the only difference being in the words that continue to change (this is the A section of the barform [A-A-B] known as the “Stollen,” which is followed by the “Abgesang” [B] that is normally sung only once (but not in Mvt. 6!) –What all this means for Bach’s musical picture language is that he may ‘color’ specific words during the initial statement, but on the repeated A-section, the words may no longer fit properly the intended musical effect that was appropriate for the the first time through the A-section.) But here Bach does something quite different and unusual: instead of having the basses repeat the single, separated, dotted quarter notes on the word “wallt” which now replaces “bald”, he now (ms. 86-91) gives them (the bass singers) a unique figure, using the words from the previous line “so ganz vor Liebe brennt” (“completely burning with love this way”), ms. 88, while the others (alto/tenor) are singing “nach dir wallt,” thus causing a telescoping of ideas, a simultaneity of thoughts that are normally taken in sequence. In ms. 90 Bach allows the basses to sing a similar figure with the words agreeing with those being sung in the other voices. As we move into the “Abgesang” [section B of the barform], we encounter yet another unique feature that calls attention to itself: it is the bold presentation of the antithesis between the angelic hosts and the earth below. This is how Bach does it: in the intervening ritornello (5 ms. from ms. 91-95) all the high orchestral parts (flutes and oboi d’amore) are busily engaged in the triplet motion figures (the angelic host) while the strings continue to announce the initial chorale fragment motif, which is the element that unites all the separate parts of this mvt. What happens when the voices enter at ms. 96 and for a total of 4 ms. thereafter is that the orchestral as well as the vocal parts get stuck on a particular note or pattern (somewhat like a recording when the same groove is repeated over and over.) It occurred to me that Bach is attempting to represent the apparently flat plane of the earth to which mankind is bound. The key connection here originates with the words being sung: “Nichts kann auf Erden” [“Nothing can on earth.”] What an effective portrayal of this idea musically as it also stands in stark contrast to the otherwise free-floating movement of the ‘angelic’ triplet rhythm figures! Beginning at ms. 113 “Als wenn ich meinen Jesum stets behalt” [“As when I keep or hold onto my Jesus steadfastly”], the basses begin alone with the initial chorale fragment motif, before all the other voices enter. Another very effective instance of musical word-painting occurs on the long (4-ms.) held note in the c.f. on “behalt” [“to hold onto, to keep.”]

Mvt. 2:
In contrast to heaven (the higher sounding notes in the vocal range), “Erden” [“Earth”] receives the lowest notes in the range. At the words “verborgenes Manna” [“hidden manna”], the word “verborgenes” receives a B# which, when ‘unhidden’ is simply the same note sounding as C natural.

Mvt. 3:
“Augenmusik” [“Musik intended for the eyes only”]: With the agonizing initial vocal line on “Auch die harte Kreuzesreise” [“Even the difficult path of the cross”], the performers need to be visually aware of the now symbolic key signature for F# minor: the 3 crosses [German pun: 3 Kreuze = 3 crosses/sharps] on Calvary. As I pointed out earlier last year [Esoteric Bach on Aryeh’s site], when the word “Kreuz” [“cross”] is sung, you can expect either the sung note or the bc (as is the case here) to have a sharp sign before it. Here the bc has a B# and even the obligato instruments have a D# and a G# as well as the sharps sung by the tenor in the passage leading to the word “Kreuz” [“cross’]. As previously pointed out in Aryeh’s commentary on this mvt., “schreckt mich nicht”, although negated [“does not schock or terrify me”] is nevertheless colored musically to represent the shock. Also to be taken into account are the obvious sudden, strong contrasts between “Wenn die Ungewitter toben” [“When the storms are raging”] and “sendet Jesus mir von oben Heil und Licht” [“Jesus will send me healing and light from above”].

Mvt. 4:
The word, “Tod” [“death”], has a D# in the voice part, but “Sieg” [“victory”] is on a high note.

Mvt. 5:
When the voice sings the word, “Einsamkeit” [“loneliness”] there is usually a single, long, held note in contrast to whatever the other parts in the orchestra happen to be playing. “Verachtung” [“scorn”] has an interval drop of a 7th when this word is sung. On the words, “Jesus, der ins Fleisch gekommen” [“Jesus, who has been incarnated”] has a downward-moving figure and “bleiben” [“to remain”] is illustrated with long holds.

Mvt. 6:
“Fahret” [“to move or travel”] shows strong faster movement in the bass line.
“Grab” [“grave”] is sung with the bass line jumping down with a one-octave leap or drop.

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 8, 2002):
BWV 123 Bach’s multi-level approach

The opening vocal phrase of Mvt. 3 (tenor aria) with its highpoint on the word "Kreuz" ["cross"] illustrates Bach's multi-level approach toward composition. It is as though a number of separate planes intersect this critical point, with each plane representing a distinct level of understanding. The initial phrase, "Auch die harte Kreuzesreise" ["Even the difficult path to the cross or the path on which you carry your own cross to its destination"] is fraught with deep meaning for Bach who feels an obligation to reveal this central factor in his life on various levels.

One way which Bach often uses is to rely on the double entendre, the punning aspect of certain significant words. Consider how he chose and allowed various simultaneous meanings to exist side by side, when he composed the cantata BWV 193 "Ihr Tore zu Zion" ["Ye Gates of Zion"] for the installation of the Leipzig city council on August 25, 1727, at a time when his difficulties with the council were already increasing. On August 3, 1727, Bach had performed at Leipzig for the name day of the reigning Augustus II a secular cantata long known as "Ihr Pforten zu Zion" ["Ye Gates of Zion"] BWV 193a. This version was then changed to its sacred parody performed three weeks later. Here it is important to note that "Pforten" ["gates"] does not allow for a pun the same way that "Tore" ["gates"] does. To understand the duplicity of meaning inherent here, it is necessary to understand that the August 3rd performance was understood as a compliment by the Leipzig city council. They envision!
ed themselves and the city of Leipzig as "Zion" the same way that a famous artist would depict the birth of Jesus in a European environment. In the parody performed on August 25th, Bach changed, in collaboration with Picander, the text and title of the cantata. Now "Ihr Tore zu Zion" carried a double meaning: "Ye Gates of Zion" and "Ye Fools of Leipzig." In this way Bach attempted to 'send a message' about his dissatisfaction regarding how he was being treated by the council, while at the same time deflating the high opinion which the council members had formed about themselves and their city.

Returning to Mvt. 3 of BWV 123:

On the word, "Kreuz" ["cross"] which is the first and most important part of the compound noun, "Kreuzesreise," all the various planes 'cross' each other. In other words, this is the critical crossing point of the various ways in which this word and the events associated with it can be viewed. Here are at least three important planes or levels:

1) The congregation in Leipzig is able to read and the text of the cantata and hear Bach's musical presentation of this text. In Mvt. 3 ms. 5 they hear and read the initial phrase, "Auch die harte Kreuzesreise." They can hear the ascent of the musical line that reaches its highest point on the word, "Kreuz." They experience vicariously how the tenor expends energy in lifting his voice to this high note. This is "the way of the cross."

2) The performers have only their individual parts to look at (usually a single sheet) and do not see what the other performers have on their parts. The individual performer, however, can make the visual association between the word, "Kreuz" ["cross"] which thear the tenor sing and the "Kreuz" ["the sharp sign (#), the accidental marking which raises the existing note before which it stands a semitone higher."] In essence, when they see the sharp sign (#) before a note they are to play, they are raising the pitch, raising or erecting the 'cross' = '#' (their own personal cross.) They also need to be very much aware of the key signature (F# minor) which has 3 crosses/sharps grouped together at the beginning of the line. The picture of the crucifixion is very much before their eyes, but, of course, the audience is completely unaware of this aspect of the performance. This is 'Augenmusik' ["Music intended for the eyes."]

3) The composer/conductor is the only one to have access to the entire score. He will be able to experience the total number of sharps/crosses that appear to be heaped together in greater numbers around the word, "Kreuz." This is what he sees in ms. 5 which contains this critical word: as the vocalist makes his ascent to the high note on "Kreuz," he will be singing G#, F#, B#, C#, D# all in a very short space of time; the oboe d'amore 1 remains on a D# while the oboe d'amore 2 goes from G# to F#; and the basso continuo descends from F# to B#. Add to this the fact that the performers, some of them were probably still students at the St. Thomas School, needed to become more observant as they made their way through a maze of crosses/sharps, this would make they entire experience of playing more meaningful and real as they were forced to become more careful at this critical juncture in the composition.


Cantata BWV 123: 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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Last update: ýSeptember 27, 2011 ý09:44:38