Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen, BWV 66 was intended for the Feast of Easter Monday and was probably premiered in Leipzig in 1724. But the work itself is a parody cantata; the original had been a birthday cantata from his Cöthen period in 1718 and Bach's unknown librettist had to fit new words to Bach's music. Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen is a dialogue cantata in which two of the soloists take metaphoric roles of fear (alto) and hope (tenor) in the fourth and fifth movements.The opening chorus must surely count as one of the longest and most exhilarating of Bach’s early works. It shares characteristics with the opening movement of the first cantata of the Christmas Oratorio: the da capo structure, the same key and time signature as well as repeated note figurations and great swirls scale passages on the strings and wind. The sheer momentum of the instrumental ritornello takes one’s breath away. The wind and strings are virtually never silent, providing an inexorable momentum of power and vigor.The text falls neatly into two sections for the two parts of a da capo structure. The middle section is marked by lighter orchestration and an alto-bass duet. Their lines appear more tragic than the passing reference to dispelled fears would seem to justify, a series of poignant descending chromatic passages and suspensions. The first section returns to remind us of pomp, ecstasy and heraldry.
The opening phrase of the bass recitative declaims the rupturing of the grave and along with it, our misery – the mouth now proclaims the living Lord and, whatever the circumstances, those who are faithful will thrive. As if to mark the satisfaction of this last thought the upper strings give a little arpeggio flourish.The bass aria explores the connections of dance with the images of celebration and festivity associated with the Easter message. The first section is a continuous, joyful interaction of voice and instruments fully encapsulating and declaiming the text. The middle section voyages through musically contrasting minor keys and takes on a slightly more serious tone. It is based around three ideas – Jesus comes, gives us peace, summons us and daily renews his compassion. The key words, which are given emphasis through extended melismas, are “Friede” (peace), and “leben” (in the sense of living with him).
The following duet for alto and tenor is a much more complicated structure, but is accompanied only by continuo. It is a discourse between two allegorical figures Hope and Fear. Fear begins with what amounts to a lengthy sermon. An extended arioso duet follows in which Fear expresses doubts, and Hope certainty about Christ’s resurrection. Bach then returns to a simple secco recitative format for the final interchange between the two figures, now a linear discourse as in conventional conversation.
The alto and tenor pairing continues in another dialogue movement, but this time with a difference. The traditional setting of such pieces is for one voice to follow the other in points of argument, disagreement or persuasion as in normal conversation. In this case Bach takes advantage of the fact that music can present different, even opposing statements simultaneously.The aria begins with another joyous, major-mode theme, the solo violin moving rapidly, and somewhat unusually for Bach, into Vivaldi-like idiomatic figurations. The violin’s infectiousness is such that even the continuo is unable to prevent itself from joining in just prior to the entry of the voices. The voices enter together but with markedly contrasting melodic characteristics. The middle section is a confirmation that all is well, and that no matter what the wrath of my enemies may be, I shall triumph in God. The notion of the victory of Hope over Fear is the central one, marked by one of the longest double melismas in the cantatas. A particular point of interest is the use of the sustained, repeated notes, first heard in the alto, now in the tenor line. It seems very likely that Bach had a chorale melody in mind that he was quoting, here set to the words – my heart is full of comfort. A good contender might be "Keinen hat Gott verlassen."
The closing chorale is one of the shortest and simplest, little more than an extended musical ‘amen’. It begins with thee Alleluias and ends with a Kyrie eleis. In between lies the simple statement – we will be glad that Christ is our comfort.
Most of the music in cantata BWV 66 originally appeared as a seculat cantata written in Cöthen in 1720. Bach later arranged it for an Easter time performance in Leipzig.The dazzling opening chorus, with its bravura trumpet part (one of the most difficult trumpet parts in all of Bach), sets a properly joyous Easter mood. The chromatic and hair-raising middle section for alto and bass soloists brings the conflicting sentiments of Easter into proper focus. the bass aria is very heroic, with vaulting scale passages for both the instruments and the singer. A complicated dialogue between fear (alto) and hope (tenor) follows. In both the elaborate duet-recitative and then the large da capo duet with violin, Bach is working on a large scale. In the severe last chorale, Bach brings this cantata to a stirring close.
© Craig Smith