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Cantata BWV 41
Jesu, nun sei gepreiset

Woldemar Voigt | Albert Schweitzer | Alfred Dürr | Daniel Melamed | Eric Chafe | Gilles Cantagrel | Alberto Basso


Thomas Braatz wrote (March 13, 2003):
BWV 41 - Commentaries [in the approximate order of publication]:


All of the mvts. of this cantata are significant and if there is a virtuoso trumpet player available, a performance of this cantata is to be highly recommended. This latter condition applies particularly to the 1st mvt. in which the trumpets play a very important part, so important that no rearrangement or substitution (Voigt often recommends clarinets) is possible.

The introductory choral mvt. is splendid and very unusual in its structure in that it contains 2 sections with contrasting tempi (Adagio and Presto.) These tempo indications should not be understood in a modern sense. The tempo of the main section should be taken at only a moderate pace. In the final section, ms. 183 ff., the trumpets are combined with the chorale in such a way that a tempo that is too fast will actually distort the chorale melody while also becoming very difficult for the trumpets to play properly. The ‘adagio’ section, in contrast, should only be slowed down so much that the 8th notes are only somewhat calmer (slower) than they were before, but remain noticeably faster that the quarter notes were earlier. The ‘presto’ must accommodate the serious nature of the text, by not allowing the 4th notes to be taken any faster than the 8th notes in the main section. Moreover, the coarse accenting of the main beats in each measure should be avoided as the expressive rendering of the text must be kept generally calm and even the stronger forte of the entire presto section should be restrained as well, so that the reentrance of the trumpet fanfares in the final section can show themselves to their best advantage. This mvt. is rather extensive in that the introductory ritornello appears 4 times, but can not be shortened in any way. The oboes, if it is not possible to double these parts, can be supported by flutes and clarinets instead.

Voigt recommends making cuts to the soprano aria (I will not list these since they refer to a score (which? Breitkopf & Härtel?) by page numbers.

The alto recitative has an opportunity for great warmth to be expressed. Very effective is the way the bass line ceremoniously descends (ms. 7 to 12) into the depths.

In the tenor aria, a part of the violoncello piccolo is very difficult to perform in a cantabile manner. the rest of this part can easily be played by a normal violoncello. The continuo part must be worked out very carefully. Voigt recommends certain cuts and even a modification of the text.

In the bass recitative, the other voices that appear are most likely soloists (Concertists) and not the sections from the choir (Ripienists).


Schweitzer cites the opening motif in the trumpets and states the following: “The ‘joy’ motive dominates the orchestra in the 1st part of the chorus, the 2 trumpets working out the following splendid figuration (opening motif quoted here). At the words, “daß wir in guter Stille,” where the praise gives way to prayer, the ‘joy’ motif ceases in the accompaniment and does not return until near the end, where the prayer “Behüt Leib, Seele und Leben hinfort durchs ganze Jahr” is repeated. The final chorale is interwoven with the trumpet fanfares of the 1st chorus. The two arias rank among the most beautiful of Bach’s lyrics.”


The problem Bach faced in the 1st mvt. was to find proper divisions in the unusually long 1st verse of the chorale which is used. This chorale seems to have been rather popular with Bach (perhaps because it was popular in Leipzig) since it was used in three of his cantatas (BWV 190, BWV 41, and BWV 171) as well as in a 4-pt. setting BWV 362. This melody is not one of the greatest inspirations of the early period of Protestantism and is hardly known today. In Leipzig this chorale was sung with an extra repeat of the last two lines using the melody from the opening lines of the chorale. Bach took this chorale which had grown to the extreme length of 16 lines and divided it into 4 parts. The cantus firmus is placed in the soprano throughout in long note values and is interrupted by instrumental interludes.
The breakdown of the 1st mvt. is as follows:

Lines 1-4 = 5-8: a choral section with free polyphony inserted into a thematically independent concertante orchestral ritornello (3 trumpets, timpani, 3 oboes, strings, & continuo.)

Lines 9-10: a slower (‘adagio,’) dynamically reduced section (“…in gutter Stille”), a homophonically treated choral section with accompanying figures in the orchestral accompaniment.

Lines 11-12 = 13-14: a fast (“presto”) fugato in the lower three voices with the instruments playing colla parte.

Lines 13-14: a ‘rounding off’ of the entire mvt. by using the music from the beginning (lines 1-2 {= 5-6}) for the last two lines of the chorale.

The magnificence of the opening mvt. is then replaced by an intimate, cantabile soprano aria which has 3 oboes in 6/8 time evoking the character of a pastorale. A short secco recitative leads directly to the 2nd aria which features the wide-ranging gesturing of the violoncello piccolo as an obbligato instrument. With these wide-spanning melodic figures, Bach manages to elicit special effects that are characteristic of this super-sized viola with 5 strings.

Bach has placed a line from the German liturgy into the bass secco recitative. The 4-pt. choral section (“allegro”) which follows in the middle of the mvt. has the effect of a congregation engaged in an antiphonal response to the liturgy sung by the pastor.
The final mvt. makes a direct connection with the 1st mvt. of this cantata. The fanfare interludes from the 1st mvt. now interrupt the final chorale between the lines of the chorale text. Once again there is a meaningful division of the lines as in the 1st mvt.: the trumpets remain silent in lines 11-14 which include a time signature change as well. When the trumpet fanfares return in the last lines, the connection with the opening bars of the cantata is complete. The snake has bitten its tail.

Daniel Melamed:

Usually Bach uses his entire orchestra in the final chorales. In doing so, Bach equates the final chorale with other choral mvts. Sometimes even closer connections exist: into the 4-pt. chorale setting in the final mvt. of BWV 41, for example, Bach inserted short intervening trumpet & timpani fanfares between the lines of the chorale. By doing so, Bach connects the beginning mvt. with the last, thereby creating a higher unity within the cantata. This demonstrates how Bach systematically tried to exhaust all the possibilities that a particular type of mvt. had to offer, whether in the great introductory choruses or whether, as in this case, he combined stylistic elements normally foreign to a plain harmonization of a final chorale with just that simple type of chorale setting.

Eric Chafe:

The idea of completeness versus incompleteness, or eschatological versus earth-centered perspectives, can be represented by a variety of means, tonal or otherwise. Cantatas that begin in major and end in the “tonic” minor, or vice versa, are extremely rare. But those that end “higher” (i.e., sharper) on the circle of fifths than they begin are, in fact, not uncommon at all. And even when there is not such a stage-by-stage progression toward the final key as there is in BWV 21 (or BWV 12, BWV 61, and BWV 27 and a host of other “ascent” cantatas,) shift of key at the end of a cantata, or even just for the final phrase of the final chorale, may be associated with ideas such as the juxtaposof the old and new years (BWV 121 and BWV 41 and the chorale “Das alte Jahre vergangen ist”) or the old and new “man” – that is, Adam and Jesus (“Durch Adams Fall”) – or some other (related) theological idea such as the opposition of death and resurrection (BWV 127) or the “new life” given by Baptism (BWV 7.)

Gilles Cantagrel (from the booklet accompanying the Coin recordings) [6]:

BWV 41 was written for New Year’s Day 1725. But instead of celebrating the Circumcision – the Jewish ceremony consecrating the new-born child, during which he is given his name – Bach here simply celebrates the new year, giving thanks for days past and praying for the year to come: a year for which the believer is eager to obtain the blessing of Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, guide and protector in all things, and the only being capable of shielding man from the assaults of the devil. The work ends with a doxology.

There is no scriptural reference, therefore, either to the Gospel or to the day’s Epistle. Bach provides a musical commentary of an old chorale by Johannes Hermann, published in Wittenberg in 1591. The 3 verses of this chorale supply the thematic material for the cantata: the 1st one for the opening chorus and the 3rd for the final chorale. As for the 2nd vs., “Laß uns das Jahr vollbringen,” which the composer had already used on January 1st of the previous year (BWV 190) and which he was to take up again 4 yrs. later in BWV 171, the unknown librettist chose to paraphrase the text in 2 arias each followed by a recitative. The result is a falsely symmetrical structure much favored by Bach: in this case, chorus, aria, recitative, aria, recitative, chorale. On this 1st day of the new year Bach was thus led to develop two very different expressive registers in his music: the great festive laudation befitting the occasion – hence 3 trumpets, 3 oboes and timpani –and the intimate fervor of prayer, for which he uses the violoncello piccolo in a concerted role, along with the strings and continuo. And, of course, 4 soloists in turn, and a 4-pt. chorus.

The unusual length of the melody to Herman’s chorale (14 periods) encourage Bach to make the opening chorus of his cantata into a veritable operatic overture in several episodes. He goes through the canticle period by period, with sections that are clearly differentiated (structure: ABCA’). The melody always appears in cantus firmus for soprano while the other 3 voices create a very lively polyphonic texture in imitation. In the very fabric of the introductory sinfonia and the brilliance of the chorus of oboes, trumpets and timpani, we find 1st of all periods 1 to 8 of the chorale which takes the form of a thanksgiving on the part of the Christian as he embarks on a new year. The next 2 periods (9 & 10) form a sudden break, a sort of moment of rest: tempo ‘adagio,’ nuance ‘piano,’ chorale harmonized in homophony: the old year has ended peacefully, a fact that is emphasized by the long tie on the word “Stille” [“tranquility.”] The last 4 periods (11 to 14) form a prayer, which Bach chooses – as befits the occasion – to make into an explosion of joy, a bounding ‘presto,’ without interruption. But the last 2 periods are then repeated to the music of the 1st part, thus concluding symmetrically with the blaze of trumpets that was heard at the beginning.

The soprano aria begins with the 1st words of the 2nd vs. of Herman’s chorale: “Laß uns, o höchster Gott, das Jahr vollbringen” [“Grant us, o mighty God, a year of fulfillment.”] A humble prayer uttered by the Christian soul, here represented, as was customary, by the soprano voice. But, a week after Christmas, New Year’s Day still resounds with echoes of the feast of the Nativity: the birth of a new year is quite naturally compared to the promise of the birth of the Savior. In the music we find features traditionally associated with the celebration of Christmas: the use of the 3 oboes, the key of G major, the swaying rhythm of a soothing siciliana, a simple, pastoral character. The result is a serene prayer, confident and tender, which could quite easily have been taken from an Italian opera of the time.

After a recitative from the alto comes the tenor aria – the expressive heart of the cantata – in which the soloist beseeches God’s blessing. Again, the aria is reminiscent of opera, but this time the solo instrument rivets our attention. The violoncello piccolo describes an intricate arabesque, with broken chords, leaps, and even wide stretches , with an intense quivering expressing, as it were, excited anticipation of God’s “beatific Word” [“dein seligmachend Wort.”]

In the following recitative (bass), the prayer becomes more intense, for man is in constant danger of temptation from the devil. We must therefore repeat the litany “Den Satan unter unsre Füße treten” [“May Satan be beaten down beneath our feet.”] With the dramatic instinct of an accomplished man of the theater, Bach had the idea of having this litany proclaimed by the whole Church – right in the middle of the recitative! This exclamation, breaking with the rest of the recitative, is sung by the chorus in 4 pts. The result is an effect of intense surprise.

The final chorale sets forth the 3rd vs. of Herman’s canticle with harmonization in the instrumental tutti, while nevertheless keeping trumpets aside for the interpolation of brilliant ritornels between certain periods of the chorale, a feature we find in some of Bach’s early chorale-toccatas for organ.

Alberto Basso:

The particular layout of Herman’s poem led Bach to devise a unique musical structure (A-A-B-C-A’) for the 1st mvt. based on the chorale melody itself; it is of exceptional length (213 bars,) even incorporating a repetition of the last 2 lines. The working-out of the 1st 4 lines, each with a different contrapuntal motif, is repeated for lines 5-8, constituting the 2 ‘Stollen’ (A-A) that make up the 1st part of the barform structure; the instruments contribute a concertante commentary. There follows an Adagio section (B: lines 9-10) in chordal style and in ¾ time, with independent accompaniment from the orchestra, and an ‘alla breve’ Presto (C: lines 11-14) in the style of a fugal motet, with the chorale melody as a soprano cantus firmus and with instruments doubling the voices. The final section (A’) resets the last 2 lines in the musical language of the 1st 2 (and of lines 5-6,) while the last 12 bars are an exact repetition of the music with which the work began.

Following this majestically proportioned chorus, the contrasting with it, is a gentle soprano aria, “Laß uns, o höchster Gott,” in the style of a pastorale, with 3 oboes lending it a rustic flavor. The other aria, for tenor, “Woferne du den edlen Frieden,” is notable for its violoncello piccolo part, characterized by wide and energetic leaps. A particularly interesting feature of the 2nd recitative (mvt. 5) is the insertion of a passage from Luther’s German litany (1528-9,) “Den Satan unter unsre Füße treten” [“Let Satan be crushed under our feet,”] set in chordal style for all 4 voices. Bach had already set these words as part of a more extensive allusion to the litany in a Weimar cantata, BWV 18/3.

The final chorale uses the trumpet fanfares (with timpani) from the 1st mvt. as interludes between the lines of the hymn, while the structure of the mvt. as a whole also recalls that of the opening chorus.


Cantata BWV 41: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: 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: ýOctober 3, 2011 ý14:07:17