Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied!, was first performed on January 1, 1724, the first New Year after Bach assumed his duties in Leipzig. It has come down to us in fragmentary form in its first two movements, of which only the voice lines and the two violin parts have survived. All the remaining orchestral parts have been reconstructed. The text of the opening chorus, based on verses from Psalms 149 and 150, focuses entirely upon praise and thanks. Assembled in a manner that closely resembles that found in Bach’s motet of the same name (Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 225), the word ‘loben’ (praise) serves a primary significance emphasized by its extended melismatic treatment. This message of praise is further highlighted by the insertion of two lines from Luther’s German Te Deum (1529) between the psalm verses. He assigns this archaic melody to the traditional liturgical plainchant delivered in long notes by the choir in octaves. Set between the Te Deum, are two fugal expositions based upon what Schweitzer calls Bach’s ‘joy motive’ – a succession of rapid notes, or a repeated skipping rhythm of two sixteenth notes and an eighth note. The fugal entries form a palindrome in the order of B, T, A, S followed by S, A, T, B. The Te Deum quotation links the first and second movements as Luther’s melody returns, this time in a four part harmonization, in the litany-like second movement with recitative interpolations for three soloists.
There is a dance-like character to the aria in triple time for alto. Constructed around a simple, yet lengthy instrumental ritornello, most of the time the alto sings, the first violins continue to dance around the voice.
The bass recitative turns away from the New Year festivities to the Gospel reading of the day from Luke 2:21 concerned with the naming of Jesus and placing of the Christian life under the protection and guidance of Jesus. The tender duet for tenor and bass with ravishing oboe d’amore obbligato begins every line with the word ‘Jesus.’ This heartfelt hymn of love for Jesus reveals, in the last line of the duet, what lies behind the reference to Christ’s forthcoming Passion: ‘Jesus makes my ending good’. The tenor recitative, with its warm string accompaniment, requests Jesus’ blessing for the New Year. Like the bass recitative, it begins in the minor mode, yet concludes in the major, perhaps reiterating the journey of the previous duet from this worldly, sinful life to that of eternal, heavenly bliss.
Bach begins and ends our cantata in the brilliant key of D Major, as John Eliot Gardiner posits to “establish a solid framework against which the listener can measure the bumpy happenings and disturbances of the year gone by and the one about to begin.” The concluding chorale uses strophes from Jesu, nun sei gepreiset by Johannes Herman (l59l). The trumpets are given their own ceremonial role, ringing out with figurations borrowed from the main theme of the opening chorus to reinforce the ending of every phrase, an idea that Bach was to use in BWV 41 for the same day of the following year. This hymn is the perfect symbol of the span from Alpha to Omega.
© Ryan Turner