The original version of the cantata BWV 197 was written for Christmas Day, probably 1728. It exists as only a fragment. Much later, perhaps as late as 1740, a version was made for a wedding. This is the version of the work that has come down to us in a complete form. Even as early as 1728 Bach was experimenting with the galant style. Certainly by 1740 it was part of his compositional arsenal. Probably the most thoroughly galant work that Bach ever wrote was the Trauerode BWV 198, approximately contemporaneous with the Christmas version of our cantata here. It would be a mistake to presume that this, or for that manner, any style completely took Bach over. We must remember that the St. Matthew Passion was written rather close to this time and has almost no galant elements.

Although not very well known, this is a thoroughly first-rate piece, showing not only the best of Bach’s appropriation of this style, but also the older qualities that we value most in his vocal music. The common view of galant style implies music of a less contrapuntal cast; while in certain ways that is true here, the opening chorus includes an impressive and very expert fugue. What is different here is both how he gets into and out of that manner. The opening tutti, while as lengthy as we have grown to expect with Bach’s choral fugues, is much more transparent and musically simple than most of his other fugal choruses. Even more characteristic, that part of the piece falls into more sectionalized periods with clearer and simpler cadences than we expect from works in the earlier part of the decade. The theme is vintage and characteristic Bach, but the counter-subject is simple and the orchestral accompaniment is extremely spare. Very early on the choral texture becomes block-like filler against fanfare-like figures of the trumpets that began the cantata. The chorus is in da capo form. The B section is for the most part homophonic, resembling more the secular trumpet and drum choruses of the secular cantatas rather than the sacred ones of the 1720’s. All of this is perfectly appropriate for the occasion and one must say, probably less effective in the lost Christmas version.

The recitatives in this cantata are all not only ambitiously detailed but very effective as transitions between the various sections of the work. The arioso that ends the secco bass recitative sets up a perfect tempo for the alto “slumber” aria. Again the galant style is very much in evidence with the simple accompanying strings and the oboe d’amore melody very clearly falling into regular periods. Harmonically the aria is adventurous; the chromaticism here has, however, a soft-edged non-threatening tone. This work is also in da capo form with a lighter dance-like B section. After another bass recitative, this time with strings, an unusually beautiful harmonization of "Nun bitten wir den heiligen Geist," ends the first section of the cantata. Many of the harmonic turns that dominated the a section of the “slumber’ aria here color the chorale.

The bass aria that begins the 2nd part of the cantata sounds more like the Telemann of the “Paris” Quartets than perhaps any other Bach work. For instance, the bassoon obbligato reminds us of the viola da gamba writing in the Telemann works. The voice part manages to be both florid and conversational. Certainly the oboe and bassoon obbligati are meant to sound like the loving couple and the muted violins add a seraphic glow to the texture.

The extended secco recitative for soprano gains a kind of ecstatic momentum that propels the work into the exquisite soprano aria. This is one of Bach’s most light-hearted siciliani. The piping of the oboes d’amore on the off-beats adds a wonderful pastorale quality. As with all of the movements in this lengthy cantata the aria is on a large scale. The casual quality of the opening ritornello does nothing to prepare one for the many episodes and the very skilled way that the A section is modified for its return in the da capo. Both oboes and strings accompany the final bass recitative and set up the sound for the very sturdy harmonization of “Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten” that ends the cantata.

©Craig Smith

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