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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

Cantata BWV 91
Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ

A. Dürr | A. Schweitzer | L. Finscher | E. Chafe | Little & Jenne | D.R. Melamed | Csibas | D. Humphreys


Thomas Braatz wrote (April 22, 2003):
Dürr’s Commentary:

Just as he had done for the 1st of Advent, Bach also used the Luther chorale (1524) which was considered as the main chorale for the 1st Day of Christmas (Christmas Day) for this cantata as well. It was adapted/modified for use in this cantata by an unknown librettist.

Corresponding to the festive atmosphere for Christmas Day, Bach uses 2 horns and timpani and the oboe choir is given more strength by adding a 3rd oboe. Thus the introductory mvt. offers the possibility of having the various instrumental choirs (horns, oboes, strings) contend with each other on an equal basis in a concertante manner. The vocal choir then joins these to expand the group of choirs to 4.

The structure of the 1st mvt. is comparable and related to that in BWV 62. Since, in the latter cantata, the chorale melody was present in the instrumental accompaniment, it is here (BWV 91) omitted entirely and replaced with musical material completely independent of the chorale melody (in the 2nd mvt. the chorale melody is quite apparent, as if to make up for its absence in the accompaniment in the 1st mvt. The introductory and concluding ritornello of mvt. 1 supply the material used in the shorter instrumental episodes between the lines of the chorale as well as the background accompaniment to the vocal sections. The thematic elements that make up these ritornelli are quite diverse and allow for numerous combinations. The most important of the musical figures in the ritornelli include the following: a) a figure beginning with an ascending scale passage (running 16th notes); b) a descending broken triadic contrapuntal figure; c) an encircling (circulation) figure in the horns which is combined with ‘b’ and which probably originally was a transformation of ‘a’ and which attains an independent character in the course of this mvt.

The c.f. is in the soprano voice while the other voices provide contrapuntal material in varying ways:

Line 1: (“Gelobet….”) imitative style based on the ritornello figure ‘a’

Line 2: (“daß du….”) chordal style based on ‘b’; freely polyphonic based on ‘c’

Line 3: (“von einer Jungfrau….”) chorale line metrically shortened, imitative; but then a confirming “das ist wahr” in chordal style as an appendage is added

Line 4: (“des freuet sich….”): imitative style with the figures taken from ‘a’

Line 5: (“Kyrie eleis”): freely polyphonic style; use of ‘b’

These sections are in a symmetrical grouping with Line 3 as the center in which the accompanying voices partake of the chorale melodic material for the only time.

Mvt. 2: In this mvt., the soprano is accompanied only by the continuo, there is an alternation between sections which quote the chorale melody and sections which are entirely in a recitative style. In the chorale-sections Bach has the continuo play in shorter note values (8th notes in contrast to the chorale being sung in quarter notes) repeated citations of the opening notes of the chorale. The chorale is sung almost unchanged by the soprano except in the line “itzt man in der Krippen findt” where Bach uses an expressive embellishment.

The tenor aria (mvt. 3) is accompanied by an instrumentally very charming sound created by 3 oboes which has been given the task of providing some very distinctive rhythmic accents, possibly to illustrate God’s strong will, His initiative and His omnipotence as now being applied to the salvation of mankind.

Mvt. 4 features a recitative accompanied by strings which develops into an impressive arioso with daring chromaticism on the final words “durch dieses Jammertal zu führen,” which conclude on a glorious cadence.

In the duet (mvt. 5) Bach is able to translate into music the contrasts offered by the text: poverty vs. abundance and human being vs. angel (choir.) The contrasts in the main section are:

Die Armut….”: imitative appoggiatura figures

“hat uns ein ewig Heil bestimmt”: homophonic parallel passages

in the middle section:

Sein Menschlich Wesen….”: ascending chromaticism

den Engelsherrlichkeiten gleich”: coloraturas, melodies based upon the triad

The symbolism contained in these contrasts is quite obvious.

In the final chorale, the horns are partially independent of the voices. One reason for this is the restrictions placed upon these instruments using only the natural tones available to them, but these restrictions play a part in creating a vigorous final cadence on the words “Kyrie eleis” which in turn is reminiscent of the ‘circulatio’ (figure ‘c’ above), thus connecting the final mvt. with the opening mvt.

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 23, 2003):
BWV 91 - Commentaries:


The Solemnity Motif:

The dotted rhythm (example given) is mostly associated by musical people with the idea of dignity or solemnity. It is used in the ‘grave’ section of the old French overture with the same signification as in the Gral scene in ‘Parsifal.’ The Eb prelude for organ at the beginning of the collection of the greater catechism chorales illustrating the Lutheran doctrine is worked out in this rhythm [does anyone know what Schweitzer is referring to here? BWV #?], as it needs to be unusually majestic. Bach employs it again in the Easter cantata “Christ lag in Todesbanden” (BWV 4,) to express the 6th vs., “So feiern wir das hohe Fest” [“So we celebrate the high feast.”) In the cantata for Palm Sunday, “Himmelskönig, sei willkommen” (BWV 182) it is prompted by the word “Himmelskönig” (“King of heaven”) – (Example given.)

The same rhythm occurs in several arias in which mention is made of the godhood of Jesus. In the Christmas cantata “Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ” (BWV 91,) it elucidates the text “Die Armut, so Gott auf sich nimmt” [“God takes poverty upon Himself”) – [the opening figure in the violins from mvt. 5 is given.]

It is found again in the 1st chorus of the cantata “Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott (BWV 127.) Even the phrase “Fürst des Lebens” [“Prince of life”) in an aria in the cantata “Der Himmel lacht, die Erde jubilieret” (BWV 31) is enough to make Bach feel justified in introducing the rhythm of majesty [Ex. given]

This is the rhythm of solemnity (not violent passions) and is used in slow 4/4 time [all the examples shown have a ‘C’ time signature.]

The Grief Motif:

To express grief Bach employs a chromatic progression of 5 or 6 notes, typifying torturing grief. This chromatic motif is frequently used to throw a particular word into high relief – for example in the final chorus of the Christmas cantata “Christen, ätzet diesen Tag (BWV 63,) at the words “Aber niemals laß geschehen, daß uns Satan möge quälen” (“But never let Satan molest us”) – [Example given] In a recitative in the cantata “Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (BWV 91,) the word “Jammertal” [“Valley of distress”] is brought out in the same way.

BWV 91 is naturally based on the “joy” motif. The tenor aria (mvt. 3,) accompanied by 3 oboes, is a charming lullaby. In the duet (mvt. 5), the violins have a ‘unisono’ theme in the rhythm of solemnity, symbolizing the celestial majesty of Jesus, while the voices tell us of the “human form” that makes us equal to the angels. Bach employs this rhythm of solemnity to express the text “God takes poverty on Himself,” which likewise deals with the divine and human nature of Jesus. Thus the music in each case represents the divine majesty.

Ludwig Finscher:

The 1st vs. is a spectacular chorale mvt. in which the melody is develline by line in the soprano voice while 3 instrumental choirs (horns and timpani, oboes, strings) accompany with joyful signal motifs and runs in a concertante manner. The recitative of the soprano is free poetry (in a declamatory style,) alternating with the lines of the chorale which at times are lightly ornamented. Similarly, the chorale lines are accompanied by a sostenuto in the continuo, formed by the 1st line in shortened note values (symbolic of the text statement of the lines: “Des ewgen Vaters einigs Kind” – The Son of Mighty God.) The tenor aria underlines by its dancing rhythm and unusual instrumentation (oboes without strings) the pastoral sphere of the crib scene. The 2nd recitative, accompanied by strings, leads into an extraordinarily chromatic arioso on “Jammertal” (vale of tears) which, however, since Christ intends of course to lead us through the ‘Jammertal’, takes on a C major cadence. The duet transforms the opposing terms of the text into opposing musical figures (poverty and human nature: suspensions and chromatics; eternal salvation, abundance of heavenly treasures and angelic glory: parallel 3rds and 6ths and coloraturas.) The songlike setting above the final vs. emphasizes the “Kyrie eleis” by a splendid cadence embellishment of the horns, which at the same time refer back to the wind motifs of the opening chorus.

Eric Chafe:

Another Christmas cantata that deals with the meaning of the incarnation is BWV 91Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ;” it likewise has a descent/ascent plan and a sudden shift of key area at the center. From its initial key of G major (chorale fantasia, “Gelobet seist du,”) the sequence moves down through E minor (recitative, telling of Jesus’ incarnation in terms of the eternal light taking on accursed, damned, and lost humanity,) and A minor (aria, “Gott’ dem der Erden Kreis zu klein”) to an accompanied recitative ending in C minor, “er kömmt zu dir, um dich vor seinen Thron durch dieses Jammertal zu führen!” [Example – the last 5 ms. of mvt. 4.] The return ascent is made in an E minor duet that explains the redemptive meaning of the incarnation (“Die Armut, so Gott auf sich nimmt, hat uns ein ewig Heil bestimmt”) and a G major chorale (“Das hat er alles uns getan.”) The juxtaposition of Jesus’ divine and human natures is a key to the harmonic/tonal and stylistic character of this cantata in closer details as well.

The diatonic G major of the opening chorus, with its rushing scales and arpeggios, represents an atmosphere of rejoicing (“des freuet sich der Engel Schar.”) The 1st recitative contrasts chorale lines at the original pitch with recitative interpolations that introduce often striking modulations. The 2 arias make use of dotted rhythms in association with the idea of Jesus’ divinity. But the 2nd one – the soprano/alto duet with unison violins – crowns the work, a mvt. that Bach subjected to rhythmic revisions to increase his emphasis on the dichotomy of Jesus’ two natures. The main melody of the violins is a dotted figure whose rhythm (or, perhaps just its notation) Bach sharpened slightly in his revisions, undoubtedly to underscore the reference tot eh majestic style. The melodic descent of the figure itself was probably associated with the incarnation. In the middle section of the aria this figure is combined with two others in the vocal parts. The first of these is the ascending chromatic tetrachord that has been heard at the end of the preceding mvt. (on “Jammertal” in C minor,) and the 2nd is a melodic pattern whose prominent syncopated rhythm was added in the revision stage and might have been intended to clash with, rather than assimilate to, the dotted rhythms of the instrumental figure. Both these vocal ideas are clearly linked to the 1st words of the text: “Sein menschlich Wesen [machet euch den Engelsherrlichkeiten gleich, euch zu der Engel Chor zu setzen.”]

The tonal aspect is most striking in intent. Bach divides the section into 2 halves, passing the chromatic tetrachord once through all four voices in each half. In both halves the chromatic line modulates upward a fifth each time it enters, but the 1st time the modulations are in sharp keys—A minor, E minor, B minor, F sharp minor—and the 2nd time in flats, C minor, G minor, D minor, A minor (ms. 36-40 of mvt. 5.) A minor—expressive of the mean between sharps and flats—is common to both and is the key of the middle section. At the juncture of the 2 sections the keys of F sharp minor and G minor are confronted in a form of tonal mi contra fa. When the text changes at this point, from “machet euch den Engelsherrlichkeiten gleich, euch der Engel Chor zu setzen” (which is emphasized in the vocal lines as the ‘menschlich Wesen’ idea sounds in the instruments) back to “sein menschlich Wesen” as the move to flats is made, the meaning is made fully clear and immediately audible. The ascending modulations represent, of course, the elevation of mankind to the level of the angels by means of Jesus’ humanity (the ascending chromatic tetrachord.)

Little & Jenne {Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach}:

The tenor aria (mvt. 3) is ‘sarabande-like.’ It features sarabande phrases which are often extended in unbalanced ways. The almost constant dotted rhythms reflect the similar dootec rhythms in the Prelude VIII from WTC I, BWV 853, sustaining the affect of majesty and God’s royalty suggested by the text. Some sarabande characteristics: serious affect: noble, majestic, yet passionate; slow tempo.

Daniel R. Melamed:

The introductory mvt. of BWV 91 gives us a compact example of a typical opening choral mvt. based upon a chorale. The musical substance of this piece is found in the instrumental parts which opens and closes the mvt. as well as supplying the unifying patches between the lines of the chorale. The motivic material consists of numerous levels: there are 4 distinctive musical thoughts, each one with a different rhythmic movement accompanied by 4 instrumental groups (horns, oboes, strings and bc., but each time in a different constellation. At precisely the point in the mvt. where the chorale melody is introduced for the 1st time, the introductory ritornello reaches an emphatic cadence leading into the main tonality. From here on, as he maneuvers his way through various strata and keys, Bach keeps going back to the materials presented in the opening ritornello, but he avoids any pronounced cadences until he reaches the end of the last line of the chorale, from which point a literal repetition of the opening ritornello commences.

The 4 text and melodic lines of the chorale (including the final “Kyrieeleis”) are heard sung by the soprano in long note values (mainly half- and whole-notes.) As a rule the density of the instrumentation lessens when the choir enters (the horns stop playing.) Bach has the instrumental ritornelli and choral sections intersect differently each time: sometimes the full orchestra already enters directly upon the final note of the chorale line, at other times only after the final note has ended.

The manner in which the accompanying voices enter and embellish the chorale melody in the soprano is varied, but, in any case, they are constantly in greater rhythmic movement than the soprano and the musical material is different each time. The 1st and last lines are treated more homophonically [I don’t see how Melamed comes to this conclusion] and the words are more or less declaimed at the same time. In the 3rd line they imitate each other using a theme derived from the chorale itself which they are here accompanying. In the other lines they become, to a certain degree, a part of the orchestra since they are giving a vocal version of the motifs presented by the instruments in the ritornelli.

The Csibas:

In mvts. 1 & 6 two corni in G major are used.

David Humphreys:

First performed on Christmas Day 1724, this cantata was revived in 1731/32 and after 1735 (probably after 1740.)

The cantata opens with the usual concerted chorale setting, with Luther’s melody sung by the soprano against jubilant counterpoint from the voices and instru. The rushing scales from the oboes which open the ritornello are characteristic of Bach’s portrayals of angels in other works, and the mood is here reinforced by fanfare writing for the two horns. The following simple recitative for soprano and continuo is interpolated with statements of the four lines of the chorale, given out in arioso style to the accompaniment of entries of the 1st line in diminution in the bass. This leads to a ritornello aria in A minor, “Gott, dem der Erdenkreis zu klein,’ set to the accompaniment of the woodwinds (3 oboes and bassoon doubling continuo.) The ritornello material is based on a sprightly figure in dotted rhythms which gives the music a ‘galant’ air, the regal French ‘dotted style’ being the normal symbolic representation of kingly majesty in Baroque music from Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-87) onwards. The mvt. is in an unusually clear-cut ritrnello form, with medial entries in E minor, G major, D minor, and E minor punctuating the main periods in the development of the music. An abundance of dynamic and articulation marks further emphasizes the expressive character of the music.

The following bass recitative, accompanied by the strings, ends in an arioso marked Adagio, featuring extravagant chromaticism prompted by the reference in the text to ‘this vale of tears’ (there is also a pair of parallel 5ths which were gleefully pointed out in the text of the BGA.) The subsequent duet, ‘Die Armut, so Gott auf sich nimmt,’ again uses dotted rhythms, this time in a somewhat Handelian accompanying figure (violins 1 & 2) which persists almost throughout the mvt., as though adding substance to the words, which concern the poverty which God takes upon himself for the salvation of mankind. The voices do not participate in the ritornello material, but pursue their own course, singing for much of the mvt. in close imitation over a Corellian walking bass. The final chorale, which is accompanied by additional parts in fanfare style for the horns and drums, restores the jubilant tone of the opening chorus.


Cantata BWV 91: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

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: Friday, September 01, 2017 13:28