We are accustomed to the weight of Bach cantatas being at the beginning of the work. A large number of his cantatas, even those that do not begin with a chorale-based movement, generate from the mass of ideas in their first movements. Our cantata, BWV 28, is unusual in that it begins with a soprano aria before coming to the weighty chorale-based motet movement. Clearly the special formal outline of this work reflects the Janus-like character of the new beginning of the year. The first aria looks back on the old year, the final duet looks forward to the new year. In general, there are enough similarities between the soprano aria and the alto-tenor duet that ends the cantata that a real palindrome kind of structure is implied.The opening soprano aria is a wonderfully energetic, lively affair. It generates its considerable energy from the dominance of three eighth-note groups in the context of ¾ time. Both the falling bass figure and the whiplash tune in the upper instruments propel us against the meter. This, in addition to the lively interplay between the oboe choir and the strings, give the work an attractive, jumpy character. There is a palpable excitement that the year is actually over. The soprano part is virtuosic and the melismas irregular and unpredictable; one is again amazed at the demands that Bach placed upon his provincial singers.The chorale, “Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren” actually appears quite often in the cantatas, but interestingly was never set, as far as we know, as an organ chorale. In truth it is not a terribly interesting tune, but Bach has written several top-drawer versions of it. Perhaps the most well known is the wonderful two violin – solo soprano movement in the brilliant solo cantata “Jauchzet Gott.” Whereas Bach usually chooses high-profile tunes such as “Aus tiefer Not” or “Ein feste Burg” for his motet treatments in the cantatas, this brilliant granite-like setting is a triumph, clearly one of his great monumental stile antico movements. The lack of contrast and profile in the melody becomes an actual virtue in the setting. The opening line of the melody is immediately turned upside down to become its main contrapuntal juxtaposition. The second phrase of the melody has even less profile but appears against a more jagged line. It is curious to see Bach dealing with a tune of so little profile. The counterpoint and resultant harmony are the sole propulsive elements in this movement.The quotation from Jeremiah is on the surface set in a rather austere manner in the following bass arioso. Certainly it is meant to be heard in relief of the refulgence of the chorale movement. There is a richness and ornament and affect, in God’s declaration to plant the Israelites and make them flourish. The addition of the strings to the tenor recitative emphasizes the richness of God’s gifts. The bounding compound meter with the precipitous falling arpeggios sets up an interesting foil for the rich alto-tenor melismas in the following duet.

All of Bach’s alto-tenor duets have an interesting split personality to them. The male alto and the tenor were really very similar in quality and range in Bach’s day. He always uses this combination to show two sides of the same personality. Clearly the Janus idea is a work here just as much as it is in the structure of the whole cantata. It is interesting to note that even in a movement of such unbridled optimism, Bach feels free to include the passing shadow of harrowing chromaticism The sixth verse of “Helft mir Gotts Güte preisen” ends the cantata. Although this is a chorale tune of much more profile than the motet movement tune, Bach manages to assume the same harmonic language thus unifying this most impressive cantata.

©Craig Smith

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