Der Herr denket an uns, BWV 196, probably composed in 1708 at Mühlhausen, is one of Bach’s earliest surviving cantatas. More than likely intended for a wedding, the text from Psalm 115 would be appropriate for any event that included the celebration of the importance and blessings of the Lord, and our gratitude upon receiving them.As was typical of Bach’s early cantatas, BWV 196 opens with a Sinfonia and contains no recitatives or chorales. Although only twenty-four bars long, it is a perfectly balanced gem beginning as a French overture that gives way to a contrasting middle section. There is even a brief reprise of the initial theme. The Sinfonia prepares us for a number of characteristics to be found in subsequent movements; e.g. the triplets in the soprano aria and the imitative rising voices at the beginning of the second and fourth movements. It is interesting to note that even at this early stage of Bach’s cantata output, he was thinking across the movements and beginning to conceive such compositions as a unified, dramatic and musical arc.The first chorus uses the first line on text – "the Lord has been mindful of us" – as the basis of the introductory and closing sections. The remainder of the text is set as a double fugue. The fugue subject is perhaps one of the briefest, built around four descending notes. The ensuing countersubject of rolling sixteenth notes suggests the pouring forth of blessings.The soprano aria features an interesting violin obbligato melodic line that recalls the triplets of the Sinfonia. The vocal line encompasses a rather extreme range extending down to a low A. The range and melodic figurations, although not as virtuosic, possess many of the same qualities heard years later in the soprano aria “Laudamus te” of the B Minor Mass. The duet for tenor and bass, based upon a single line of text, is in a stately triple meter giving it a dance-like quality. The abundance of musical and textual repetition, especially in the long phrase “je mehr und mehr”, perhaps illustrates the prosperity of blessings.

The cantata ends not with a chorale, but with a second chorus that begins with an energetic passage by the orchestra. Note how Bach treats the words “Himmel" and "Erde", set in block vocal chords, the former at higher pitches than the latter. The concluding, long Amen relies on two basic melodic ideas, one beginning with long notes and an octave leap downward, and the other beginning with short off-the-beat joyful bursts of a few notes each.

Bach scholar Alfred Dürr makes the point that Bach ends the movement piano rather than forte, almost an echo-like effect that is likely to have captured immediate attention. Even at this early stage, Bach seems to have been aware of the significance and effect that dramatic gestures could impart to his music.

©Ryan Turner

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