CANTATA #28, BWV 28
GOTTLOB! NUN GEHT DAS JAHR ZU ENDE
PRAISE GOD! THE YEAR NOW DRAWS TO A CLOSE)
FIRST MOVEMENT (of six)
ARLEEN AUGER, SOPRANO
STUTTGART BACH COLLEGIUM
HELMUTH RILLING, CONDUCTOR
I think it is sometimes easy—at least it was easy for me—to assume that because Bach lived, worked and died within the confines of Germany—no travel in his lifetime beyond its borders—that he was, in some way, inferior to the other great composers of his day. In particular, inferior to his exact contemporary Handel, who was truly the international, cosmopolitan composer of his time. Was this a lack of vision on his part? A lack of the self-promotion gene? Due maybe to a lack of self-confidence? A lack of compositional ability?
I think that understanding this requires us to get into Bach’s psyche. It may be difficult for many present day 21st century citizens to relate to a man for whom service to God is the prevailing dictate of his life. However Bach envisioned it, to him his relationship with a divinity that created the world and provided an (eternal) escape from sin was the guiding light in his life. Seeking God’s approval by doing what he—Bach—could do best—which was musical composition—was THE main thing. Self-aggrandizement was the furthest thing from Bach’s mind. Within Germany, then, he rose to be THE preeminent musician in all of Protestant Germany, securing the post of music director of St. Thomas church in Leipzig, the most important center of Protestant Christianity in Germany.
Bach was anything but a wallflower, he knew his worth, and he attained what would was considered to be the top compositional post in all of Protestant Christendom. And, I should mention—in retrospect, he is widely considered the greatest musical genius of all time.
So, the position Bach held in Leipzig was a plum position. He was responsible for the music for four churches including St. Thomas. He was in charge of the lives and education of the boychoir boys who lived at St. Thomas. His family life was busier than most. Bach, as you may know, fathered many children.
Bach and his first wife, Maria Barbara, had seven children, of which two died in infancy. Maria Barbara died in 1720, and Bach had shortly remarried, Anna Magdalena, in 1721. They started having children at the very same time Bach acquired the Leipzig position. They ultimately had thirteen children, seven of whom did not survive childhood. The fewest number of children, then, in the Bach household at any given time during these early Leipzig years would have been eleven. Bach assumed the role of music educator/father to all of his children, especially the boys, several of which became noted composers.
All of this is just to give a little context to the environment in which Bach was composing during the 1720’s. From 1723-29, Bach was composing at an absolutely white-hot pace, often composing one cantata per week. He found all the vocal soloists for his works, rehearsed the choirs every day, and conducted every performance of every cantata—meanwhile seeing to the education of the live-in choir boys (including teaching them Latin), and trying to provide a cohesive family life for a burgeoning clan.
Not that anyone reading this needs a reminder, but I like to remind myself from time to time that, given the task of writing a single Bach-style cantata—six or seven movements, several of which would feature vocal soloists, and at least two of which would involve a choir, and all of which would involve the most creative instrumental writing—that given such a task, most other composers of the time—even the best—would have had to devote a considerable amount of time to produce just ONE. Bach literally tossed these off one after another.
Cantata #28 was composed in 1725. Like so many of the other cantatas, it features four vocal soloists. Bach would very often have, as his initial movement in the cantatas, an orchestra-and-chorus movement that introduced, and revolved around, a chorale theme—a melody either written by himself, or much more likely, someone else, such as Martin Luther himself. But in Cantata #28, Bach starts with a soprano singing a virtuosic aria which commands the listener to praise God. This cantata was (and is) sung on the Sunday that falls between Christmas and New Year’s—a final reminder for the year to congregants about getting one’s priorities in order.
It is sung here by the wonderful Arleen Auger. This movement typifies so much about singing Bach—the separate articulation of every note, in particular. The “conversation” that one hears at the opening was typical of the “concerto grosso” form, a conversation between a small group of instruments with another larger one. And like one hears in many of Bach’s keyboard works, one hears here, in the interplay of orchestra with soloist, the juxtapositioning of faster-moving notes in the orchestra with longer, detached ones in the soloist’s part.
This is a really delightful movement.
Pictures: St. Thomas then, St. Thomas now, St. Thomas interior.