Bach’s period in Cöthen was marked by an explosion of very great instrumental
music and some few occasional secular works. Most of the vocal music
from this era we know from Bach’s rearrangements for sacred purposes
in Leipzig. The one, and prominent, exception is the wonderful wedding
Cantata BWV 202, which was apparently never adapted for sacred purposes
and comes down to us only in a copied score from 1730. In some cases
one expects that other works may have origins in Cöthen. Pieces like
the opening aria of Cantata BWV 32 so resemble Cöthen works, in that
case the opening aria of the wedding cantata, that they may very well
come from the same time. All of the vocal music from that period is
marked by an elegant, very finished style. The musical material, while
fitting the mood of the words, doesn’t seem to be generated by them.
Certainly the large-scale tuttis that one finds in all of these pieces
are fundamentally different than the tuttis that we see in almost all
of the original sacred works. In the sacred pieces we have a feeling
that a motive, or even an affect, for the words comes first. Even if
the opening material is independent of that musical material it seems
to generate from it. Even in the largest examples, the opening chorus
of the St. John Passion for instance, there is a sense of the inevitability
of the gigantic choral utterance on the words “Herr-Herr-Herr, unser
Herrscher.” For all of the grandeur of the huge crescendo up to that
entrance, its material is introductory; it could not stand alone. All
three of the tuttis in Cantata BWV 134 are extended enough and long
enough that they could.
The Cantata BWV 134, an arrangement of a secular New Years work, is characteristic. The secular text is simply rewritten word for word to fit Easter Tuesday. Even the notes of the recitatives remain more or less unchanged. The sacred version is startling in its context of the First Leipzig Jahrgang After the verbal and theological intensity of the St. John Passion and the probable Leipzig reworking of Christ lag in Todesbanden, the Easter Monday and Easter Tuesday performances of these secular reworkings can seem trivial. They are full of fine music however, particularly our piece being discussed here.
The work opens with a recitative introducing the two soloists, an alto and a tenor. Interestingly there is almost no sense of dialogue between them either in the sacred or secular version. The kind of hair-raising psychology that we see in the alto-tenor duets of cantata BWV 60 or 20 is totally absent here.
All three concerted pieces in the cantata are very long and all have full da capos. The opening tenor aria has the shortest tutti of the three but even it is in three sections with rather elaborate echo effects extending it further. All of this material is first class and the aria like all three concerted pieces in this cantata has terrific energy and thrust. We notice in all of the vocal music of this period a preponderance of allegros and even prestos. Even the pieces with more stately tempos, such as the duet #4 in this cantata, have a brilliance of figuration that belie the tempo.
Bach must have realized that these works could be effectively adapted for sacred purposes, for even the secular versions don’t have much verbal specificity or color. Thus the beginning of the secular version of this aria “Auf Sterbliche” could be transferred to “Auf Gläubige’” with no adjustment of the music: “Sterbende” was not at all characterized in the original. The duet #4 begins in its original form with the words “Es streiten.” One does see where the elaborate string crossings were generated from that, but they work just as well with the more neutral sacred text. The later Bach adaptations in the Christmas Oratorio, for instance, actually have more awkward moments than the Cöthen adaptions just because the original Leipzig Collegium material is more verbally vivid. The very opening of the 1st chorus for instance is wonderful in the Christmas version but only fully understandable when we know the original words, ”Tönet ihr Pauken”
The final chorus of this cantata has the advantage of incorporating the solo voices in duet with the chorus. It brings variety to the texture and actually brings the piece to a wonderful conclusion. Devotees of the most serious Bach cantatas will always be somewhat disappointed in a piece such as this, but one must say its overall happy mood and lively inspired music make for an impressive and joyous work.