The cantata Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille, BWV 120, was written for the yearly Leipzig council election. Election Day in Leipzig had a slightly different cast than the flag-waving event we Americans are used to. All blessings on the population as well as the city are credited to God rather than the Founding Fathers. More importantly, certain enlightenment precepts that we take for granted in our beginnings were years away in the Leipzig of 1727, the year of our cantata. Yet the text is touching and relevant in its quality of being steeped in the Psalm reading and its genuine sense that all good things come from God.
The cantata BWV 120 has many sources for its music. Strangely, the extreme refinement and “finished” sound of the piece is somewhat misleading. The opening very elegant and ceremonial aria for alto probably has its beginnings in a lost violin concerto. It is nevertheless a gorgeous and completely convincing setting of Psalm words, miraculously combing elegance with a genuine supplicating tone. Interestingly, the one movement that will probably be familiar to the listener is the brilliant chorus with trumpets and drums that follows. This is the one concerted movement that is entirely original to this cantata, but is best known for its appearance some ten years later as the “Et expecto” movement in the B Minor Mass. Those familiar with the Mass will recognize a wholly original and interesting middle section to our cantata movement.
By 1727 Bach had a huge body of earlier secular vocal and instrumental works at his disposal to flesh out his sacred works. In some of these transformations there is a sense of awkwardness and inappropriateness of the secular material in a sacred context. In the Cantata BWV 146 there is a peculiar and, one must say, unsuccessful transformation of the slow movement of the magnificent D Minor harpsichord concerto to a chorus. In our cantata the fleshing out of a movement for violin and harpsichord to include a string orchestra and soprano looks like it might fail in the same way. But succeed it does, and magnificently. In fact it is hard to hear the piece without the beautiful and completely fluent text setting that Bach incorporates. Both recitatives in the cantata concern themselves with the “official” side of the holiday. The cantata ends with a four-voice setting of the fourth verse of the German Te Deum.
At the end of cantata BWV 120 in Bach’s manuscript we find the inscription ‘In Fine Intrada con Trombe / e Tamburi’ clearly in Bach’s own hand. While we cannot reconstruct the original music that Bach intended, perhaps this indicates an instrumental piece with trumpets and drums should be inserted at this point? It is this small instruction by Bach coupled with the Celebration of St. Michael and All Angels, that we append the one movement fragment Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft, BWV 50.One only has to think of the ‘Sanctus’ in the B minor Mass to realize that Bach embraced and relished the musical imagery of Book of Revelation and the concept of the angelic hosts. A stunning collection of cantatas composed to honor the archangel Michael has survived from the most productive years of Bach’s cantata composition, the 1720s.Michael the archangel (the name means ‘Who is like God?’) is one of the few figures to appear in the Old and New Testaments, the Apocrypha and the Koran. When Lucifer, highest of the Seraphim, led a mutiny against God, he became transmogrified into the Devil, appearing either as a serpent or a ten-headed dragon; Michael, at the head of God’s army in the great eschatological battle against the forces of darkness, was the key figure in his rout.In BWV 50 Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft Bach quotes the last of the above paraphrased verses from Revelations 12 and makes it his text for one of his most impressive works. In a compact movement of less than four minutes, Bach draws on two vocal and three instrumental choirs (of trumpets, oboes and strings) to encapsulate the victory celebrations of the forces of Light through use of a permutation fugue in which there are no episodes, only subjects and countersubjects that can be rearranged in various orders. The musical complexities are enhanced by the special effect of one whole choir pitted against the rest. Musicologist Klaus Stein explains these features as products of Bach’s imaginative response to the text, the words from Revelation being spoken by a ‘loud voice... in Heaven’ and Bach returning them from Earth in echoing assent.