The chorale text, "Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut" began its life as a wedding hymn, a clue as to the occasion for the composition of today’s cantata - almost certainly a wedding. In the middle Leipzig period (around 1730) Bach was more likely to set multiple chorale verses intact, rather than original texts. This does not seem to have presented an obstacle to Bach compositionally. Another potential constraint (not in Bach's case) was the identical line of text that ends each verse.

The opening chorus is bright and celebratory. The ornamented chorale tune that serves as the main theme of the orchestral ritornello is further decorated by billowing sixteenth notes, most notably in the bass line. The chorus presents the chorale tune in simple block chords. The bass soloist takes the second verse in a recitative - the last phrase repeated several times in arioso style. The third verse is a gracious and melancholy dialogue between tenor and two oboes d’amore. The writing for the two instruments, as well as the harmonic ambiguity, seems to suit the textual duality. The chorus sings the fourth verse as a chorale. In the next verse – an alto recitative accompanied by strings – the last line of text takes on an even greater importance. Set as an extended arioso, the vocal line mimics the first phrase of the cantata tune, while the bass line becomes motivic and rhythmic material for the aria that follows.The bass is accompanied by a solo violin that supports the intimate and comforting quality of this aria. Full stings and flute (at the octave) accompany a lush pastoral alto aria. After a tenor recitative, the chorus sings the final chorale in the same harmonization heard earlier.

The whole experience of this wonderful cantata – while not exactly abstract – strikes us less with text-specificity or challenging theology than some of the cantatas of the earlier years.

©Michael Beattie

After the miraculous fecundity of the first few years in Leipzig, Bach’s output slowed considerably. The astounding intellectuality and textual specificity of the early Leipzig years are replaced, in the later years, by a more abstracted quality. Bach in this period (1730) began to set verbatim chorale verses. Thus, our cantata, even though it contains choruses, arias, and even recitatives, follows literally the nine verses of “Sei Lob und Ehr.” The work begins with a ravishing and refulgent chorus. The wonderful tune, that plays canonically against itself, is enriched by a bouncy and detailed bass line. The actual chorale parts are simply and clearly declaimed. The second verse is set as a bass recitative. The final phrase, which is common to all nine verses, is set as an arioso. The melancholy tenor aria with two oboes d’amore brightens in the last phrase. The fourth verse is a simple four-voice chorale. The alto recitative is accompanied by the strings, and followed by a continuo arioso. The violin obbligato energizes the lively bass aria. The alto aria with flute and strings is a warm and comforting setting of the eighth verse. The four-voice chorale that ends the work is identical to the fourth verse.

©Craig Smith

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