Aryeh Oron wrote (July 9, 2003):
The commentary below is quoted from the liner notes to the American edition on MHS (early 1970’s?) of the recording by Gönnenwein for the German label Cantate. It was written by Alfred Dürr and translated into English by Stanley Godman.
In the summer of the year 1728 the Leipzig poet Christian Friedrich Henrici, who used the pseudonym of Picander, published a set of cantata texts for the whole year and in the preface he wrote:
"I have undertaken this project the more willingly since I may flatter myself that what the texts lack in poetic charm may be made up for by the loveliness of the music to which they are set by the incomparable chapel Master Bach and that they may be sung in the main churches of devout Leipzig.'
Evidently, therefore, it had been agreed that Bach was to compose and perform this series of cantatas; and we do in fact possess a number of cantatas to these texts - admittedly not very many and to some extent only in fragmentary form. If Bach really did compose the whole series, and there is good reason for believing that he did, - much has been irretrievably lost.
The present New Year cantata belongs to this series and it may therefore be assumed that it was composed for the first of January 1729, or maybe a year or two later. Picander, as usual, follows the Gospel for the day, in this case, Luke 2: 21. The short lesson is as follows: "And when eight days were accomplished, for the circumcising of the Child, His name was called Jesus, which was so named before He was conceived in the womb." The poet now strives to show the significance of the name of Jesus for Christendom. He does this to begin with by means of a hire from Psalm 48: The whole world knows and praises the name of God. The following aria takes up the same idea, whilst the succeeding recitative strikes a more personal note with its address to Jesus: The name of Jesus, called upon in persecution and distress, is a comfort and protection and -a reference to the immediate occasion - "My gift for the New Year." But the next aria says, just as Jesus' name is my first word at the beginning of this year, so shall it also be my first word in the hour of death. The two remaining numbers are in the nature of a prayer. With reference to John 14: 13 ("And whatsoever ye shall ask in My name, that will I do": compare also John 16: 23) God is asked to protect His people in the coming year. The closing chorale, the second verse of the hymn "Jesu, nun sei gepreiset" by Johannes Herman (1593), at the beginning of which there is a further reference to the name of Jesus, contains the same thought. The three phases through which the text of this cantata passes are therefore a reading from the Bible, meditation and prayer.
Bach's setting shows him at the height of his powers. The opening words from the Psalter are given to a large-scale choral fugue to which the parallelism of the strings and oboes with the voices gives an archaic motet-like feeling. The trumpets, however, have a part of their own. The first trumpet even has its own subject and this gives the number its solemn splendour. About 15 years later Bach recast this music to the words: "Patrem omnipotentem, factorem coeli et terrae, visibilium et invisibilium" in his Mass in B minor (BWV 232) - here again the thought of God's world-embracing omnipotence!
The following aria, neither of whose obbligato instruments is specified in the sole surviving autograph - it is therefore impossible to ascertain which instruments the composer had in mind - still has a degree of contrapunctal austerity, with its closely imitative texture, in which voice and instruments play an equal part, although, compared with the opening chorus, the texture is much looser, thanks to the expansive concertante instrumental figures.
In the second aria (Mvt. 4), introduced by a simple recitative which is accompanied only by the continuo, the virtuoso element is still more strongly marked. The music was taken from a secular cantata the text of which was a song in praise of the gentle zephyr wind. The artistic violin figures are now called on to praise the name of Jesus -a bold change, only feasible within the unity of the Baroque attitude to life, but nevertheless convincingly successful. The number may be rightly regarded as a masterpiece. Anyone who has absorbed this aria must find it difficult to believe that the melody which fits the text so effortlessly was ever sung to different words.
The succeeding recitative is in its way equally successful: an introductory Arioso, only accompanied by the continuo, refers to the Promise that God will hear prayers prayed in Jesus' name. The following entreaties are performed in the style of a recitative but accompanied by two oboes. The conclusion "Wir bitten, Herr..." again becomes an Arioso, this time, however, with the retention of the oboe accompaniment, thus consummating the two previous sections. The final chorale brings together all the instruments, reinforcing the voices with oboes and strings, whilst the trumpets and drums provide some interludes between the lines. The setting was taken from an earlier New Year cantata to the opening chorus of which it is thematically related. In the new cantata too the back reference to the opening number is established by the similar treatment of the instruments -oboes and strings being used colla parte, and trumpets with apart of their own.