Many cantatas for the Christmas season are not deeply involved with the Christmas story, but assume a contemplative attitude with a minimum of narrative. The Cantata BWV 65 not only directly quotes Isaiah’s prediction of the Wise Men, but contrasts it with a chorale description of how that prediction came true. Thus, the unusual placement of a chorale immediately after the opening chorus sets off the principal thrust of the piece: the gifts of the Wise Men are a reflection of the gift of God in fulfilling the words of Isaiah.

The opening chorus has a wonderful, exotic, “Eastern” sounding orchestration with pairs of recorders, oboes da caccia and horns as well as the usual strings and continuo. The loping 12/8 meter gives the piece a charming “camel music” quality. This cantata contains the only example of horns in C in all of Bach’s music. The beginning tutti shows the richness of color available to Bach with this combination of instruments. The sound of the piece comes not only from the exotic combination of instruments but also from the abundance of octave doublings. This interest in octaves culminates in the final cadence of the tutti, which contains a rarely-heard unison from the entire orchestra. The choral writing is marvelously varied with block-like writing, imitative writing, and a full-fledged choral fugue. In his book “The Compositional Process of J.S. Bach,” Robert Marshall describes ingeniously how Bach “thinks on his feet” in the writing of this fugue. In fact, one of the great glories of the first Jahrgang is the new way in which Bach is able to fold choral fugues into a more homophonic texture. This is particularly striking in a work such as this that has horns with few available chromatic notes. Bach makes an event out of the return of the horns to the orchestral texture by surprisingly overlapping them with the end of the fugue.

The chorale that follows, a verse of “Ein Kind, geborn zu Bethelehem,” is austere, almost barren in its harmonization. It is as if the richness of Isaiah’s prophecy is contrasted with the meager circumstances of Christ’s birth. The recitative that follows is a classic example of Bach’s sensitivity to the shape and function of the text. The first half, which recounts the story of the wise men, begins in F major and modulates to G major. At the beginning of the contemplative section, where the speaker examines how these events affect him, the bass moves down to a six-four-two chord and sends the recitative in a harmonically different direction.

Bach uses the dark sound of the two oboes da caccia as obbligati for the bass aria. Notice how the opening theme, so closely imitative and evocative of gold, is transformed into the gold torn from the earth by the drop of an octave at the end of the third line. The canon here is exclusively associated with the inadequacy of the gold offerings. The offering of the Christian’s heart is accompanied by euphonious parallel thirds in the obbligato instruments.

The secco tenor recitative is appropriately didactic, and offers a perfect foil for the return to the extravagant orchestration that accompanies the opening of the next tenor aria. The main tune of this aria is clearly related to the opening idea of the chorus. Even more, the “oriental” octave doublings bring us back into that world. There is something popular in the character of this spirited piece. It is bar-form, something rather unusual in non-chorale related pieces in Bach. The simple folksy vocal writing at the beginning is a wonderful contrast to the exuberant melismas of the final section.

©Craig Smith

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