Gott ist mein König, BWV 71, was commissioned for the town council elections in February 1708. There is nothing else quite like BWV 71 in Bach’s cantata output. No other work of his is laid out on such a grand scale in terms of its deployment of four separate instrumental choirs (1- strings; 2- oboes and bassoon; 3- recorders and cello; 4- trumpets and timpani), set against a vocal consort of four singers, tutti choir and organ. Bach was able to mix these modern sounds into previously unheard combinations, already allowing his genius to shine at the age of twenty-three. Recitatives or large-scale da capo arias are missing entirely. The individual sections almost flow into each other; reminiscent of BWV 131 composed a year earlier.

Bach’s motet, intended to greet the new council, contained a topical reference to the age of at least one of the councilors, a prayer for the good governance of the town, passing allusions to the War of the Spanish Succession and a tribute to the Emperor Joseph I (Mühlhausen was a Free City of the Holy Roman Empire), all intermingled with Biblical citations.  So impressed and gratified by Bach’s contribution were the town councilors that they agreed to pay for the printing of the score and parts, making it the only one to appear in print during his lifetime.

It begins with a powerful C major chord symbolizing God, the three-person 'King'. The tenor aria with soprano chorale tune expresses appreciation for the efforts of the aged and retiring council members. The tenor heartily sings the words of the wealthy old man Barzillai, who refused to journey on to Jerusalem with King David to be rewarded for his service, choosing rather to wait for death in his own land. The soprano sings a chorale melody by Johann Heermann, the text of which deals with a soul preparing for old age. However, the fugal quartet that follows, reminds us that as long as they are both with God, no difference exists between the young and the old. The bass aria depicts, through wide intervals often exceeding an octave, the expanse of the whole of creation. The brave alto aria brings back the trumpets and timpani, the free verse of which changes the scene to Germany of the present time. Following a Vivace passage declaiming 'Thy power and might', we have a somber prayer for continued peace and protection from times of war.

The ravishing chorus, movement 6, is the emotional and musical core of our cantata. Setting a verse from Psalm 74, "O deliver not the soul of thy turtledove unto the multitude of the wicked," Bach portrays with delicacy and the utmost tonal subtlety a sense of personal yearning, evocative of the cooing of the turtledove.  The result is a completely fresh and singular color. John Eliot Gardiner eloquently describes it: “A gentle, undulating figure beginning in the cello gradually permeates the whole instrumental ensemble – awakening a whole flock of turtledoves as it were – while the voices fade away softly and in unison, intoning five bars of Gregorian-like chant. They suggest a melancholic longing for something out of reach. This movement is one long enchantment, one of the few instances in Bach’s vocal music where he allows himself to mix nostalgic unreality, mystery and sensual delight.”

In the final movement, Bach creates a colorful concerto-effect, alternating solo quartet and tutti sections. The successful rule of the new city council is prayed for, and the trumpet illustrates God’s power; prosperity in everything is celebrated.

©Ryan Turner

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