Cantata BWV 147 has an interesting history. With his great Weimar librettist Salomo Franck, Bach wrote three ambitious cantatas for the 2nd and 3rd Sundays of Advent. When Bach moved to Leipzig, these works could not be revived because these Sundays were penitential and had no music. Bach expanded each of these works with recitatives to make them suitable for other Sundays where there was music required. Our cantata shows its Advent roots but was expanded with recitatives to make it suitable for the Assumption of the Virgin (or the Visitation of Mary). Musically the work is remarkably consistent, but the difference in style between Franck’s wonderful pithy words for the arias and the rather more expansive style of the recitatives is problematic. That said, there is no doubt that Bach was working at his highest level for both parts of the piece.

The cantata opens with a wonderful and brilliant chorus for trumpet, oboes, and strings. The dazzling high trumpet writing is equaled by the brilliant string figurations and energetic oboes. The chorus, like everything in the cantata, is pitched very high and thus matches the brilliance of the orchestra. The tenor recitative establishes the expansiveness of the recitative writing with a lush and beautiful string accompaniment. Everything in the lovely melancholy alto aria is used to illustrate the word “shame.” Both the arching, sad line of the oboe d’amore and the supplicating half steps of the alto perfectly reflect the words. The bass recitative renews the energy of the opening chorus.

Almost all of Bach’s Advent pieces have at least one movement with “walking” music to illustrate the “make straight a highway” reference In Isaiah. In the soprano aria, an expressive and jaunty violin lays its line over a walking bass. The high, silvery soprano adds to the magic of the texture. The familiar chorale setting that ends both halves of the cantata was added by Bach in the Leipzig version. It is justly famous and absolutely characteristic of his best chorale fantasia manner.

The motto “Hilf, Jesu, hilf” becomes the three-note motto for the tenor aria that opens up the second half of the cantata. Cello roulades not only add a note of desperation to the line, but also become the sense of richness and calm that appears later in the text. The mystery and magic that is summoned in the lengthy alto recitative is created by the dark, exotic sound of the two English horns playing their sighing accompanying figures. The bass aria brings back not only the trumpet, but also the marvelous energy of the opening chorus. Bach bookends the piece with a repeat of the well-loved chorale fantasia that ended the first half, known in English as "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring."

©Craig Smith

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