Thomas Braatz wrote (July 19, 2003):
This birthday cantata for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen is a relatively unpretentious/undemanding composition, a fact which has led some to suspect that it had been composed rather quickly as early as 1717 upon Bach’s release from prison (the Duke of Weimar arrested Bach because he had been appointed Musical Director in Köthen and had left his Weimar post without permission.) Bach would have had only a few days to compose and prepare this cantata for Prince Leopold’s birthday on the 10th of December, 1717. Closer examination of the autograph score indicates that it was obviously written a few years later, perhaps as a ‘clear’ copy. But it is also just as possible that this work was first composed around 1722.
The librettist is unknown. Very conspicuous is the relative unimportance, at times even the complete lack of typical recitative forms in that the 2 recitatives contained in this composition of 8 mvts. have a verse form that is much too regular, even to the point of including a ‘da capo’ of the 1st line. The librettist certainly did not have in mind a typical musical setting of a recitative. Even the 3-verse form of mvt. 4 must have sounded rather antiquated in the years from 1717 to 1722. In any case, the librettist must have belonged to an older generation of poets.
The instrumentation calls for strings and continuo with the addition of transverse flutes and bassoon. A soprano and bass are called for as vocalists and we can even assume that the final mvt. (Chorus) was also sung only by these two soloists. Perhaps Bach considered these voices as allegorical figures (often Bach did not name such allegorical figures on the autograph score – also, the original printed text has not been preserved.) With words like “Leopolds Vortrefflichkeiten machen nicht erhalten” it is possible to imagine that they were spoken by a goddess of protection, a personification of fame or of poetry; however, the text that we have does not allow us to detect more details that would help to resolve this issue.
Despite the limitations placed upon Bach by the small musical forces and the somewhat antiquated form of the libretto, he nevertheless achieves variety with a wealth of ideas in the succession of 8 separate mvts. The introductory recitative has fully-written out string parts which lead with a virtuosic coloratura into a final repeat of the 1st line text.
The following aria (mvt. 2) is reminiscent of a dance mvt. since it has an introductory ritornello which is clearly divided into periods. The extremely appealing character of the rhythmically dominated melody The impressive melodic element, interrupted by many pauses/rests and dominated by triplet rhythms, as well as the delicate instrumentation with flutes and stings gives this mvt. an extremely appealing character. In the middle section, the expressive power of the music is intensified to the level of veritable ‘spoken’ gestures on the words “ruhmet, singet” – a motif which is emphatically repeated by the strings. Conspicuously short is mvt. 3, which Bach intentionally avoided calling an ‘aria.’ Its lively tempo (‘vivace’) and the restlessness of the accompanying strings characterize the enthusiasm with which Leopold’s fame is being spread. Despite the use of a free da-capo repeat, this mvt. nevertheless gives the impression of an open form because the melody laden with motifs, a melody which is almost exclusively played as a unison by the violins never really achieves thematic consolidation.
The duet (“Unter seinem Purpursaum”), mvt. 4, marked „Al tempo di minuetto“ is one of Bach’s most original arias. Following the 3-vs. structure of the text, this mvt. is also divided into 3 sections, of which the 2nd and 3rd sections are variations of the 1st, in the course of which, by using various devices, an intensification to a climax is attained. The sequence of keys moves through the circle of 5ths from G- (section 1), then D- (section 2), to finally A major; the instrumentation which calls for only voice, strings, and continuo in section 1 is increased in section 2 by adding 2 flutes and in section 3 by adding an additional vocal part. The movement in the notes is increased from quarter notes in section 1, 8th notes in section 2, and 16th notes in section 3.
The duet recitative (mvt. 5), after only a few ms. takes on the form of an arioso, in the course of which the reverent sighs ascending to heaven are pictorially rendered in the music by scale- and sighing-figures.
Mvt. 6 also has a dance-like character just as in the preceding arias. This mvt. is a bourrée. Dynamic nuances are created in the middle section by having the flutes play and pause alternately.
Mvt. 7, another aria, creates a necessary contrast to the surrounding mvts. by using exclusively the low range of the voice and instruments. Against the background of the continuo consisting of a violone and harpsichord, there is the concertante treatment of the bass voice and the bassoon and violoncello playing in unison.
The final choral mvt. once again has a dance-like character. It might be understood to be a polonaise. It is formally divided into 2 pts; in each part the instrumental section appears alone at first, after which the vocal parts are composed ‘into’ [Vokaleinbau] the repeated instrumental section. The overall structure is 2-pt. reprise form.
The 1st performance most likely took place on May 29, 1724; however, none of the original sources of this performance have survived and we can only conjecture that the version which was heard on that date must have been much closer to its secular original form than the copy which has come down to us from a later date.
Only in 1728 (1727?) or as late as 1731 (from this year there is a printed version of the text) did this work take on the form in which it is known today. The unknown librettist not only parodied the arias and the final chorus, but also faithfully parodied both of the recitative verses (mvt. 1 & 5) as well. Apparently the goal was to render completely all the mvts. of the secular original as a sacred cantata. [Usually the recitatives of a secular cantata are not used and new sacred recitatives are composed for a parody.] The content of the new sacred text is kept very general over the greater portion of it. God is thanked and praised for the great things that he does for mankind. Only in mvt. 1 and in the 1st vs. of mvt. 4 are there more specific references to the Gospel for Pentecost Monday [Whit Monday.]
Despite some changes in the musical details, the secular origin is still quite apparent. To be sure, the voice parts have been expanded from 2 to 4, 2 mvts. from BWV 173a (mvts. 6 & 7) have been dropped, and the voice-leading, particularly in the opening recitative is changed to suit the new, religious text; but, for the most part, the instrumental parts remain unchanged.
Mvt. 1, as mentioned before, is a textual parody of the same mvt. in BWV 173, despite its recitative-like character, even the return at the end to the beginning line is the same. But Bach has now substituted a tenor voice for the original soprano and changed the shape of the melodic lines considerably. Bach even put these changes into the original score for BWV 173a. The accompaniment as well as the sequence of harmonies remained unchanged.
There are no essential changes undertaken in mvts. 2 through 5, the only exception being the adjustments made to the vocal parts to make them fit the text and an occasional shifting up or down of an octave. All the remarkable aspects of these mvts. were discussed above under BWV 173a. Even the final mvt. which now contains 4 vocal parts rather than 2, now has “Choreinbau” instead of “Vokaleinbau,” but essentially it remains the same.