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Cantata BWV 191
Gloria in excelsis Deo


Thomas Braatz wrote (December 26, 2001):
BWV 191 Merry Xmas from J.S.Bach

Many Christians might be offended by Bach’s use of ‘X’ in place of Christ simply to save space on a title page where there is ample room available. Here is the entire title in Bach’s own handwriting c. five years before his death:

J.J. Festo Nativit: Xsti. Gloria in excelsis Deo. à 5 Voci. 3 Trombe Tymp. 2 Trav 2 Hautb. 2 Violini Viola e Cont. Di J.S.B.

I believe that the J.J. is the Latin abbreviation for Jesus helps (Jesu Juva?) but I could not quickly find the exact reference. The ‘X’ means much more than ‘X’ marks the spot for something missing such as a signature, when someone is unable to write. It is, of course, the Greek letter Chi which in Christian theology is always associated with Christ as this is the first letter in Christ’s name.

From the lack of recordings of this cantata one can already surmise that there are some unusual aspects, theories, problems, and misinformation associated with work. The Oxford Composer Companions: J.S.Bach [Boyd] 1999, does not even list this as a church cantata and also has no separate article under the title, “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” But a very short listing is found under Latin sacred music where the vocal parts are incorrectly listed as SSTB and not SSATB. There we also find the Bach Compendium designation as E 16 and the date is precisely indicated as Christmas 1745. It is not even mentioned once in the Wolff/Koopman collaboration, “The World of the Bach Cantatas” [3 vols. with a total of 742 pages!!!] In his Bach biography, "The Learned Musician," (1999) Wolff only indicates that this cantata is one of the very rare new adaptations from earlier compositions: “One such instance is the festive Latin work for Christmas Day, “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” and presented sometime between 1743 and 1746.”

Commentators such as Schweitzer and Smend do not even discuss this work, and even Dürr devotes very little space to the discussion of this work. Here is what Dürr (1971) had to say about it. He does not even offer a conjecture regarding the date of performance, which is very unusual for Dürr. “We do not know what occasioned this Christmas music with a Latin text.” [Had Dürr conveniently forgotten about the first, Eb version of the Magnificat (BWV 243) with its Christmas interpolations?] “In any case the performance of a Latin cantata during a main church service in Leipzig would have been very unusual to say the least, so that we have reason to doubt whether Bach actually wrote this work for that purpose. Perhaps it was for another purpose altogether, for example, a commissioned work from someone not living in Leipzig, so that we can not understand it to be a cantata at all in the usual sense of the word. The text is simply the Latin version of Luke 2, 14 with an added smaller version of the doxology (“Praise be to the Father and to the Son etc….”) This text is divided into three sentences with one before the sermon and the others after it. All three mvts. are taken from the B minor Mass BWV 232, the “Gloria” practically without any change at all. The 2nd mvt. is the “Domine Deus” which received a new text and was altered slightly, and the same occurred with the “Cum Sancto Spiritu” where the words at the beginning made a slight extension of the mvt. necessary.”

Spitta’s thoughts on this cantata are as follows: since Bach had composed the B-minor Mass BWV 232 without ever counting on its performance elsewhere (Dresden, for instance, or in a Catholic church,) the existence of BWV 191 demonstrates Bach’s way of performing parts of it nevertheless. “Such a practical musician as Bach would not compose a work of such large proportions (BWV 232) simply to have it ‘buried unperformed under a pile of other compositions.’ What he did was to perform parts of it at various times. We have proof of this in BWV 191 which contains the specific designations in Bach’s own handwriting: “Festo Nativitatis Christi” [“For the Feast of the Birth of Christ.”] Since Bach noticed that the “Gloria” (BWV 232) was not suitable for Christmas, he changed the text and altered slightly the music to make it fit. It is also possible that Bach may have performed the entire “Gloria” as the main ‘church music.’ Also the “Sanctus” could have been used as Christmas music, and may have even been originally composed with that purpose in mind. In the Leipzig liturgy, the “Sanctus” had a definite/secure/certain position specifically on the three high church feasts as the “Präfation” before the Communion. We have several other such “Sanctus” mvts., of which one specifically is referred to as having been performed during the Christmas Day service in 1723. [Then follows a long discussion on how other parts of the BWV 232 B-minor Mass would have been included during the church service on ‘high, holy days’ with extended sections performed during the Communion. The “Sanctus” before the Communion and the “Osanna,” “Benedictus,” “Agnus” and “Dona” after the initial words of Communion had been spoken.]

In 1936 Arnold Schering was the first Bach scholar to state the possibility “that this Christmas Gloria was used to celebrate a very special Christmas holiday, perhaps as the result of a fortunate political event (BJ 1936, p. 6.)

This theory was revived by Gregory Butler (BJ 78, 1992, pp. 65-67) who presents a convincing case suggesting that this cantata was put together at short notice to celebrate the Peace of Dresden at the conclusion of the 2nd Silesian War (during which Leipzig had been occupied by the Prussian troops of Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau) at a special academic thanksgiving service in the Leipzig University Church on Christmas Day 1745. Coming between the main services in the two principal churches of Leipzig, Bach would have had the use of the two best ‘Kantoreien’ and the Latin text would have been eminently appropriate for an academic occasion. Butler also proposes that the D major Sanctus composed for Christmas 1724 was also performed on this day. Thus the juxtaposition of these two works, related as they are to the Latin Ordinary, may have inspired Bach to compile a ‘missa tota’ in the remaining years of his life, perhaps in response to this first and only personal experiences of the horrors of war.

The NBA I/2 [Cantatas for the 1st Day of Christmas] KB notes that mvt. 1 of BWV 232 is almost identical to BWV 191, while mvts. 2 and 3 are parodies of the “Domine Deus’ and “Cum Sancto Spiritu” of BWV 232.

Regarding the political occasion theory, the editors of the NBA ask, “Why would Bach not have noted this special occasion on the title page as he frequently does elsewhere if this were the case?” They prefer to stay with the following reasonable assumptions that BWV 191: 1) replaced the usual cantata completely, 2) was performed for a very special occasion (not necessarily political), or 3) was considered as the primary cantata for Christmas Day.


Cantata BWV 191: 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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