program notes / bwv 91


Program Notes

Christmas Cantata BWV 91

Boxing Day, and last night’s Christmas Day concert turned out to be blessed. It felt like a true celebration with everyone in the group fully alive and committed, exchanging happy glances and smiles and enjoying the bits they had not fully registered till the moment of performance. It began with BWV 91 Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ, which sets Luther’s hymn as a majestic chorale cantata. The opening fantasia has a buoyancy, swagger and – through the build-up of its running G major scales over or under sustained thirds in the horns – that special sense of expectation that is the hallmark of Bach in Christmas mode. It is one of those movements which expose his seventeenth-century roots – say, in the Zwiegesänge of Praetorius in the way he sets ‘das ist wahr’ and the syncopated ‘Kyrie eleis’ with such unselfconscious abandon. The mood persists in the soprano recitative interwoven with the second verse of the hymn, and in the festive tenor aria set for three oboes swinging along like prototype saxophones: baroque big band music in the city of the Village Vanguard! Even at Christmas time Bach wouldn’t be Bach without a reference to the ‘vale of tears’ from which the newly incarnate Christ will lead us. He duly obliges with a slow, chromatic accompagnato (No.4) for bass and strings moving in contrary motion, which brings one up short. An extended duet for soprano and alto, with a dotted motif for the unison violins, postulates the poverty that God assumed by coming into the world and the ‘brimming store of heaven’s treasures’ bestowed on the believer. When he came to rework this cantata during the 1730s Bach added lilting syncopations to the vocal lines to illustrate the human aspiration to sing(and, by implication, dance) like the angels. These clash with the violins’ dotted figure and the polarity between them is reinforced by means of upward modulations, once in sharps (to symbolise man’s angel-directed aspirations), once in flats (to represent Jesus’ ‘human nature’). The final chorale is richly harmonised with the two horns and timpani working up to a rousing two-bar cadence.