The reading for the Sunday after Christmas goes out of order with
the story. Although both the Circumcision and the Epiphany are yet to
come, the reading starts at the moment where St. Simeon predicts that
the child is set for a fall and a rising again. The aged prophetess
Anna is introduced, and she speaks of Jesus as the savior of Jerusalem.
There is a sadness to the reading, not only Simeon’s prediction, but
the general sense of uneasiness of all of the participants of what kind
of a future this child would have. All of the cantatas for this day
celebrate the ending of the old year and the beginning of the new. They
also all project a kind of melancholy that is inherent in the readings,
This is Bach’s only setting of “Das neugebor’ne Kindelein” in the cantatas, although there is another harmonization in the 371 chorales that may be from a lost work. The lovely minor-mode tune is set in a swinging 3/8 time with many echo and bell effects in both the orchestra and chorus. As befitting the mood, the piece keeps trying to modulate to a happier major mode but is always defeated. It is interesting that the melody itself is not so important, either in the make up of the musical material of the orchestra, or of the shape of the cantata. After a work such as BWV 121, it is surprising to see something this loose. It is a very wonderful chorus, however, full of marvelous musical detail and melodic distinction.
The terrific bass aria with continuo refuses to follow its own device and be happy. Only the first line of texts refers to the “sinner” but the piece stubbornly preaches to that sinner. It is a piece, however, of great profile and marvelous energy. The soprano recitative brings in the chorale in a fully harmonized version played by three recorders; since they are not otherwise used in the cantata, the parts were no doubt performed by the oboe players. As fine as the cantata is, it is the trio that raises it to the top rank of pieces.
There are many references in this trio, many codes, as it were, that place it firmly in our perception. The Siciliano rhythm reminds us of the shepherds and the humble peasant birth. The soprano and the tenor enclose the chorale like the shield mentioned in the text. The whole child warrior image is one that is appealing: think of Joan of Ark. The medieval English poem says it best, “This little babe, so few days old, has come to rifle Satan’s fold.” Over the gentle dotted rhythm of the continuo the soprano and the tenor sing a swinging melancholy duet. The interior alto, strengthened by all of the strings, sings the chorale in long notes. There is a hypnotic effect to the piece, a miniature quality that is positively captivating. The tropes that the soprano and tenor sing are often very close in feeling to the chorale lines. Less like the little sermons that we have seen in earlier cantatas containing that form, these comments merely strengthen the sentiments of the text. The alto actually leaves the chorale at the end and joins in the trope to bring the trio to a rich and full conclusion.
The accompanied recitative for bass is actually quite lengthy and tries to free itself from the melancholy of the opening aria. The chorale is in block form and brings the piece to a sturdy conclusion.