Cantata BWV 121Christum wir sollen loben schon
Discussions - Part 3
Continue from Part 2
Discussions in the Week of May 3, 2009 (3rd round)
Kim Patrick Clow wrote (May 6, 2009):
Cantata 121 - Introduction
My apologies for being late this week, Adobe Acrobat was being very naughty with my Word file and I was having a wee bit of trouble. I appreciate the list's patience. There are many, many fine contributors to the cantata introductions, and I feel particularly insecure following such fantastic writers this past month: Francis Brown, Doug Cowling, William Hoffman and David Lebut, Jr. When Aryeh approached me about doing these cantata introductions, I pointed out my insecurity in writing, and wanted to do an more interactive approach. Aryeh agreed along with several list participants. While I am presenting this in the standard E-mail format, I encourage you to download a PDF that's much, much easier to read, and includes several illustrations, plus there are hot links to external Sibelius/Scorch files and mp3s listed at the end of this article.
The PDF is located @ http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Guide/BWV121-Kim.pdf The MP3 links are the bottom of the PDF are not hot-linked yet, but Aryeh is going to upload the corrected file very shortly. Until then, you can see the links at the bottom of this E-mail ;)
By Kim Patrick Clow - May 9, 2009
What a singularly turgid piece of music for the Christmas season! This is one of those instances where I would love to have been in St. Thomas on December 26, 1724, and to have seen the faces in the congregation as they heard the opening chorale that opens this cantata. No ordinary setting of the chorale, this was a polyphonic tour-de-force! The tune was a very familiar one: "Christum wir sollen loben schon," the melody dates back to the fifth century Christianity and was modified by Martin Luther into a congregational chorale published in Erfurt, Germany in 1524 (Eyn Enchiridion). This chorale was arranged many times, the most famous setting by Michael Praetorious (you can hear this setting in an MP3 provided for you at the end of this cantata introduction).
The Chorale's Ancient Background
According to the Emmanuel Music commentary on this chorale: "Our cantata BWV 121 is based upon the Luther chorale "Christum wir sollen loben schon." Here again is another Luther work treated in the respectful archaic manner. Luther took the early Christian hymn `A solis ortus cardine' written by Caelius Sedulius no doubt for its connection to the early church and the idea of congregational singing. According to Groves': "Sedulius [Caelius Sedulius] was a Christian Latin poet. He is known principally for his `Carmen paschale,' a biblical epic in five books of dactylic hexameter, probably written in the period 425-450. It was well known by the end of the 5th century and remained popular until at least the 12th; it was frequently copied and quoted, and was the source for the text of the introit of the Votive Mass of the Virgin, Salve, `sancta parens,' and the Christmas antiphon `Genuit puerpera regem.'
Two shorter poems are also attributed to Sedulius: a text on salvation history, `Cantemus socii Domini' (variously designated `hymnus', `versus' and `carmen' in the manuscripts), and the famous abecedarian iambic hymn `A solis ortus cardine,' which recounts the life of Christ from the Incarnation to the Ascension and is found in liturgical manuscripts from the 10th century onwards The latter text was often divided into sections for different liturgical occasions: the first seven strophes were used for Christmas, the next four (beginning `Hostis Herodes impie') for Epiphany, and the following four (beginning `Katerva matrum personat') for the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Both `A solis ortus cardine' and the `Carmen paschale' had a significant influence on medieval poets.
Martin Luther: Hymn Composer
Part of Martin Luther's Reformation included the addition (or I should say the restoring) of congregational participation in the liturgy. Towards that end, Luther wrote hymns and the first collection of these was published in Erfurt in 1524. According to Emmanuel Music, "As with other Luther arrangements of Latin sources, the melody is very irregular in form, four phrases of irregular length. The second and third phrases are similar and have only one (but an important one) note difference, at the beginning. The last phrase also has similarities to the 2nd and third phrases. Perhaps the most interesting characteristic of the melody is that each phrase is longer than the last so that by the end the last phrase is almost twice as long as the first. There is another melodic peculiarity. The 2nd degree of the scale (the tune is in the Phrygian mode) is sometimes sharped and sometimes not. This ambiguity, which is different in every version of the chorale, gives rise to interesting harmonic variants. Bach uses it both as tone painting, as in the 2nd phrase which refers to the "pure maiden." [#1 chorale bar 37-47 with text] and allows the resultant harmony to lead the music in a different direction [#1 bar 48-59 bottom three voices on one stave, no text]. Bach was always interested in this melody. His setting from the "Orgelbüchlein" while only three lines long, is one of the greatest pieces in the set. This setting encapsulated Bach's feelings about the chorale. The fifth bar is typical of the harmonic ambiguity that results from the altered second tone of the scale [fifth bar in BWV 611]. It is interesting that Bach's feelings remained basically unchanged about this melody.
Multimedia Files: Sibelius & MP3s
In an effort to make the cantata discussion more interactive, Aryeh has placed several files on the Bach cantata website. These files will illustrate some of the points discussed about "Christum wir sollen loben schon." To hear these files, you must have the Sibelius "Scorch" browser plug-in installed, which is available for several platforms and browsers. Follow the instructions provide on the website, and if you have a successful installation, you should see and hear a sample file provided on the Scorch page. Also make sure you have your computer speakers on, or your earphones plugged in.
Scorch Browswer plugin:
Martin Luther's version of "Christum wir sollen loben schon":
"Christum wir sollen loben schon," BWV 121:
(Please remember, you may have to cut and paste these links as a SINGLE line for the URL to open properly)
Martin Luther's Hymn as MIDI file: Martin Luther's Hymn - MIDI
John Eliot Gardner's performance of the opening chorus to BWV 121: J.E. Gardiner - Opening Chorus - MP3
Michael Praetorius setting of the hymn performed by Paul McCreesh with the Gabrieli Consort & Players:
M. Praetorius's Hymn Setting - P. McCreesh - MP3
Douglas Cowling wrote (May 6, 2009):
Kim Patrick Clow wrote:
< Part of Martin Luther's Reformation included the addition (or I should say the restoring) of congregational participation in the liturgy.Towards that end, Luther wrote hymns and the first collection of these was published in Erfurt in 1524. >
Bach was always interested in this melody. His setting from the "Orgelbüchlein" while only three lines long, is one of the greatest pieces in the set. This setting encapsulated Bach's feelings about the chorale.
In the last decade, Lever and Herl have proposed a radical revision of the accepted notion that Luther invented congregational singing and chorales. They show quite conclusively that pre-Reformation Catholic Germans regularly sang unaccompanied vernacular hymns during the mass as early as the 14th century: the clergy fulfilled the letter of church law by reciting the prescribed Latin texts "sotto voce" as they would continue to do after the
Reformation during celebrations of the Tridentine mass. The tradition of vernacular hymns during the Catholic mass in Germany and Austria can be seen as late as Schubert's "Deutsche Messe" which, far from being "proto-Protestant," is part of a 600 year old Catholic tradition
Even in Bach's time, congregations sang certain chorales unaccompanied after introductory chorale-preludes on the organ -- McCreesh's recording of the Bach "Epiphany Mass" demonstrates this tradition with "Christum Wir Sollen" prefaced by BWV 611 from the "Orgelbüchlein." The "miniature" format of both this setting and that in the Kirnberger collection suggests that they were indeed preludes to hymn-singing. We know that a prelude was played before the cantata. Were one of these settings played before Cantata BWV 121, Bach nimbly transposing to match the key/mode?
Francis Browne wrote (May 6, 2009):
I must admit at once that this has not been one of the cantatas to which I frequently return, but as so often closer attention to Bach's music leads to increasing delight. I have listened to recordings by Richter , Leusink , Rilling , Koopman , Suzuki  and Gardiner (2nd recording) 
Kim, in another valuable introduction, says of BWV 121 :"What a singularly turgid piece of music for the Christmas season! This is one of those instances where I would love to have been in St. Thomas on December 26, 1724, and to have seen the faces in the congregation as they heard the opening chorale that opens this cantata". Brad Lehman, uncharacteristically negative in the previous discussion, said : "This is a boring generic cantata not worth wasting more time on.....I went through BWV 121 (playing and reading it) and listened to it, and decided not to waste any more time on it this week; I didn't fancy the piece, didn't find much of interest in it." I think I can understand something of what may prompt such remarks: our expectations of a Christmas cantata are more the drum rolls and jubilation of "Jauchzet, frohlocket usw" but I suspect that many faces in the original congregation would not show surprise or disappointment at the lack of merrymaking in the opening chorus. On the contrary, they would find it most appropriate for some aspects of what Christmas means.
I remember how even as a child with no musical background the plangent tone and austere beauty of "O come, ocome, Emanuel' stood out amongst the determinedly unremitting cheerful tone of other Christmas carols. That Advent hymn and the Luther chorale and Latin poem on which Bach's opening chorus was based come from a world before Father Christmas, before modern commercialisation of Christmas, from a world where the birth of a saviour in squalid poverty was a shocking scandal, reversing accepted values -not a subject for sanitised, saccharine crib in church to amuse children. Bach's original congregation, I suspect, would have an instinctive appreciation of this aspect of Christmas and so would not find the opening chorus in any way dull or disappointing -having listened to a half-dozen recordings I find it endlessly fascinating and full of musical interest.
But even if this opening chorus may seem to some not appropriate for Christmas the two arias by contrast may seem too frivolous and cheerful. Whitaker maintains that the tenor aria" ... is clearly a borrowed number, on account of what Schweitzer calls the "barbarous declamation". He clearly thinks the words are set inappropriately and comments " the cheerful tunes lilt and gambol on unconcernedly...." and after commenting on what he sees as the inadequate setting of the second part of the aria he can only advise the listener to "forget all these things and to surrender oneself to the deliciousness of music."
Listening to the generally good recordings I found both the opening chorus and the arias work well in context and all combined together to make a cantata that rewards repeated listening. This is the first occasion for a long time on which I have listened to the full range of recordings of a cantata, and in general I found nothing startling that would differ from points that have already been made about the virtues and shortcomings of the various cycles and therefore I do not need to repeat such things again here, but I will make just two points.
The Bach Collegium of Japan and Suzuki  are frequently the performance to which I return with most pleasure but here the tempo for the bass aria is so rapid that Peter Kooy - an excellent singer whom I generally admire - is reduced to gabbling words.
In contrast, Richter  often seems to me ponderous and overblown, but here, as Thomas Braatz, observed in the earlier discussion :
"it is truly remarkable that such a feeling of strength emanates from this performance. This is made possible, in part, by the larger number of modern instruments and the use of staccato in rendering the many running 8th-note passages in this mvt. There is absolutely no let-up in the almost ferocious intensity with which the voices and instruments sing and play this music. This befits the nature of this 'archaic' chorale and evokes the strong feeling of faith that found its expression through this music in Martin Luther's time."
Added to this both Peter Schreier and Dietrich Fischer Dieskau give outstanding performances of their arias -each of them shows a sensitivity and subtlety in the way in which they sing the words that is difficult to analyse and express clearly but adds immeausurably to the overall impact of the music. This is the recording to which I shall return most often
When Richter  produces such a performance, I think of other recordings in comparison in terms of Matthew Arnold's words : they seem
"...light half believers of our casual creeds
Who never deeply felt , nor clearly willed..."
(I hope I do not need to add that I am not suggesting religious belief equates to musical value: my point is the emotional intensity successfully conveyed by this particular performance)
Neil Halliday wrote (May 7, 2009):
From the Richter recording  of Christmas Cantatas (Vol.1, CD2), I notice that BWV 121 "Christum wir sollen loben" (Christmas Monday, 1724), and BWV 64 "Sehet, welch eine Liebe" (Christmas Tuesday, 1723), have the same ensembles: SATB; cornetto, trombones 1,2,3; oboe d'amore; strings and continuo.
The opening choruses are both in 'motet-style' with the former being chorale-based and the latter being fugal in form, with brass doubling the voices for a sombre yet magnificent effect; both have lively counter-motifs (Richter  takes both choruses at a cracking pace; he is a bit faster than Gardiner  in BWV 121). Moreover the arias have similar instrumentation; for BWV 64, strings in the S aria (B aria in BWV 121), and obbloboe d'amore (plus continuo) in the A aria (T in BWV 121).
In BWV 121, Bach adds the oboe d'amore to the cornetto and S in the opening chorus, but omits it from the cornetto and S in BWV 64/1, presumably because S is not a chorale line in BWV 64/1.
The 'plain' 4-voice chorales in both cantatas are particularly resplendent because of the brass doubling the voices - an effect that was also particularly notable in Rilling's recording of the chorales in BWV 40 (discussed last week), where a horn doubles the S lines).
Thanks to Kim for the mp3 of Gardiner's engaging recording of BWV 121/1 .
Ed Myskowski wrote (May 8, 2009):
>Kim, in another valuable introduction, says of BWV 121 : <What a singularly turgid piece of >music for the Christmas season!...>
First, I would like to say how gratifying it is to see Francis able and willing to participate in the discussions:
Second, I would like to agree with his opinion, re the value of Kim's introductions. I especially support the technical advances introduced, despite the fact that I am personally not yet technically advanced enough to participate in the details. As an alternative, I do have plenty of CDs (and records!) at hand, so no excuses intended.
Which I have not yet taken the time to give a fresh listen to, with respect to Kim's description of BWV 121 as turgid, for the season. I do not recall having that impression in the past, but perhaps it is not totally out of character for the 2nd Day of Christmas, in the 18th C. Lutheran tradition? Christmas is a bit double-edged, a blessing of course, but with the sacrifice of the crucifixion already pre-destined, in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. By the second day of Xmas, a bit of the bloom is already off the rose of celebration?
Neil Halliday wrote (May 8, 2009):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
>I have not yet taken the time to give a fresh listen to, with respect to Kims description of BWV 121 as turgid, for the season.<
I presume that should read BWV 121; I had to look for "turgid" in the dictionary (thinking it meant dense/opaque), but in fact my dictionary says "bombastic, rhetorical" - perhaps more acceptable as one description of the music of the opening chorus.
One thing: I'm not sure what Kim meant when he commented (in his excellent introduction) that the organ chorale prelude BWV 611 has only three lines of the chorale melody; the fourth line surely begins in bar 11 and is heard in its entirety.
Ed Myskowski wrote (May 8, 2009):
Re the definition of turgid:
Neil Halliday wrote:
>I had to look for "turgid" in the dictionary (thinking it meant dense/opaque), but in fact my >dictionary says "bombastic, rhetorical" - perhaps more acceptable as one description of the >music of the opening chorus. <
Thanks for pointing this out; I had the same misunderstanding, as in the phrase turgid prose. My dictionary, as a synonym for bombastic, includes: <turgid implies such inflation of style as to obscure meaning>.
Perhaps Kim intended to stimulate a bit of discussion? Mission accomplished, if so.
Neil Halliday wrote (May 9, 2009):
turgid or highly-wrought or whatever, the polyphony of this marvellous chorus (BWV 121/Mvt. 1) can be more readily appreciated by following the score (on your computer screen) while listening to the music (you can practice your score reading ability at the same time). There are only five staves, and apart from the slow-moving soprano chorale line, three vocal lines arranged in fugal fashion; it's amazing the extra musical information one can comprehend when perusing the score while listening. Rilling's  more temperate tempo is excellent for this purpose.
The trombones add a resplendent quality to the score; and the kaleidescopic harmonies under/over the sopranos' final 11-bar-long F# are wonderful ("the sun shines and reaches to the ends of the world").
Kim Patrick Clow wrote (May 9, 2009):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< turgid or highly-wrought or whatever, the polyphony of this marvellous chorus (BWV 121/Mvt. 1) can be more readily appreciated by following the score (on your computer screen) while listening to the music (you can practice your score reading ability at the same time). There are only five staves, and apart from the slow-moving soprano chorale line, three vocal lines arranged in fugal fashion; it's amazing the extra musical information one can comprehend when perusing the score while listening. >
I'm so thrilled you liked this, because what you describe is PRECISELY why I wanted to supplement the discussion with some Sibelius "illustrations."
Continue on Part 4
Cantata BWV 121: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4