Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) left his job in Cöthen in 1723 to take up what would be the final, and most important, post of his career as music director in Leipzig. The city was a center of German trade during the 18th century, with a wealthy merchant class, and among his many duties there, Bach was responsible for the music enjoyed by the good burghers in the city's churches, foremost among them St. Thomas. The resplendent "Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen!" (Sing God's praise in every land!) was one such work, composed in 1730 for the 15th Sunday after Trinity (which would have been September 17 in 1730).
Bach used the dramatic and musical language of Baroque opera as the basis of many of his cantatas, and BWV 51 is no exception. (The BWV numbers come from the Bach Werke Verzeichnis, or Bach works catalog, prepared by German musicologist Wolfgang Schmieder in 1950.) The work opens with an aria clearly inspired by the heroic type in early 18th-century opera, with the trumpet as prominent as the soprano and solos for violin as well. (A favorite operatic stunt of the time was to pit a singer against a trumpeter and see who could hit the higher notes and hold them longer.) The ensuing recitative begins accompanied by the strings before moving into an arioso (aria-like) passage for voice and continuo at the words "Muß gleich der schwache Mund" (Of course, our weak mouths). The second aria grows out of this passage, employing the same texture (voice and continuo) and a dogged siciliano rhythm. The concluding two-part aria successfully balances the brilliance of its counterpart at the cantata's opening. In the first section, the soprano intones a verse from the Lutheran chorale "Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren" (Now praise the Lord, my soul) over an elaborate, three-part accompaniment; this is followed by a brilliant Alleluia constructed as a fugue, led by the soprano, who is joined again by the solo trumpet.
Taken as a whole, the cantata is both a joyous statement of faith and one of Bach's most exciting virtuoso vehicles; he himself recognized its universal appeal, designating it not just for a specific Sunday in the church year, but also for performance "in ogni tempo," at any time.
- John Mangum is the Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator.