Bach, J.S.: Cantata, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51

Cantata No. 51, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51

Johann Sebastian Bach was born March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, Thuringia (Germany), and died July 28, 1750, in Leipzig, Saxony (Germany). Bach composed his cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen in 1730, and he led its first performance on September 17 of that year in Leipzig. Ivan Fischer conducted and Sylvia McNair was soprano soloist in the first San Francisco Symphony performances, in November 1984; the most recent performances were given in February 2003, with Bruno Weil conducting and with soprano Heidi Grant Murphy and SFS trumpet player Glenn Fischthal. This cantata is scored for solo soprano singer and an orchestra of trumpet, two violins, viola, and continuo. The edition used here is that of Matthias Wendt, published in 1987 as a part of the Neue Bach-Ausgabe. The composer’s works are identified by “BWV” (sometimes “S”) numbers assigned in Wolfgang Schmieder’s Thematisch-systematisches Verzeichnis der musikalischen Werke Johann Sebastian Bachs: Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (1950/1990).Performance time: about twenty minutes.

The cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen was probably composed in 1730 for the fifteenth Sunday after Trinity, which that year fell on September 17. The Gospel reading for that Sunday is Matthew 6:23-45, but this is a case where the cantata text bears no strong relationship to the Gospel passage. It’s doubtless for that reason that Bach noted that this particular cantata was for “Dominica 15 post Trinitatis et In ogni Tempo” (“the fifteenth Sunday after Trinity and for any occasion”). In fact, he later adapted it specifically for the Feast of Saint Michael (September 29), replacing several lines of text with words more appropriate to the new occasion.

Cantata No. 51 is also unusual in that it does not call for a chorus, not even to intone a chorale in four-part harmony, a trait it shares with only eight others in Bach’s oeuvre; and it is one of only twelve to employ a single vocal soloist. The orchestration—soprano, obbligato trumpet, strings, and continuo—is also unique in Bach’s production. Forebears can be found in the repertory of the Italian Baroque—Alessandro Scarlatti’s secular cantata Su le sponde del Tebro is a famous example—but the scoring of Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen stands as a real rarity in German music of its time. Far from incidentally, this is one of the few works that Bach actually identified with the term “cantata.” Although we don’t think twice about using that word to describe a vast body of his sacred and secular works, that usage is a later imposition; he was more likely to call them “concertos” or nothing at all apart from their text incipits. In labeling Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen a cantata, Bach expressly signaled his debt to Italianate models.

The overriding emotion of this cantata is joy, an ecstatic Psalm-like outpouring that climaxes in an extended “Alleluja.” In fact, the first two lines of the recitative “Wir beten zu dem Tempel an” appear to be a conflation drawn directly from Psalms 138: 2 and 26: 8; elsewhere individual lines bear similarity to Lamentations 3: 22-23.

The opening aria, “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen,” sounds very Italianate indeed, a da capo aria full of point-by-point word-painting and music of breathtaking coloratura virtuosity for both the singer and the trumpeter—plus the first violin, which also takes on a solo role here. Just who that singer was when this high-lying piece was new remains a mystery. It’s hard to imagine that it could have been one of the boys in Bach’s charge at the Thomasschule, although such a one might normally have been tapped for the soprano solos in the weekly cantata; for really difficult arias, however, it was more common to use an adult soloist who could sing in falsetto. Then again, a reportedly exceptional twelve-year-old named Christoph Nichelmann enrolled at the school in 1730, just when this piece was written. Also in 1730, an Italian opera company took up residence in Dresden, about seventy miles to the southeast, and it’s conceivable that Bach may have penned his cantata with one of the troupe’s star castratos in mind. It seems likely that Bach’s accustomed trumpeter, Gottfried Reiche, played the obbligato part. He would have been sixty-three years old when the piece was unveiled, but he was still active at that (for then) advancing age.

The cantata’s second movement is a recitative that begins in declamatory style but soon eases into a relaxed arioso full of long, lyrical phrases. This leads to the aria “Höchster, mache deine Güte,” a relatively meditative movement in siciliano rhythm in which the soprano is accompanied by continuo alone, the bass line serving as an active counterpoint to her melody. Bach then inserts a chorale, which one expects in a sacred cantata. But since he has no chorus at his disposal, he composes the movement as a chorale prelude in which the soprano intersperses the phrases of the chorale into a vigorous trio-sonata movement featuring the two violins dramatically intertwined. To be precise, the chorale employed is “Nun lob, mein Seel’, den Herren,” published in 1549 by Johann Gramann. “Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren”—the words sung here—represents the fifth verse of that chorale hymn.

The chorale spills without a break into the finale, the “Alleluja,” which makes rich use of quasi-fugal imitative counterpoint. This brings the text full circle: In Hebrew “hallelu-yah” means “Praise Yah-veh” (or, as the name Yah-veh came to be articulated, Jehovah), which would be rendered in German as “Jauchzet Gott.” The trumpet, which has lain silent since the end of the first movement, joins the soprano in this euphoric romp. Bach’s writing for both makes exorbitant technical demands in terms of range (the soprano ascends all the way to high C), power (a sequence of ascending arpeggios calls out for stentorian outbursts), agility, stamina, and breath control. It makes a dazzling conclusion to a brilliant cantata.

James M. Keller

More About the Music

Recordings: Marlis Petersen (soprano) with Ton Koopman conducting the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Amsterdam Baroque Choir (Challenge)  |  Emma Kirkby (soprano) and Crispian Steele-Perkins (trumpet), with John Eliot Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists (Philips)

Reading: Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work, by Martin Geck (Harcourt)  |   Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, by Christoph Wolff (Norton)  |  J.S. Bach, edited by Malcolm Boyd (Oxford Composer Companions series, Oxford)  |  Bach, by Malcolm Boyd (The Master Musicians series, Schirmer)  |  The Cambridge Companion to Bach, edited by John Butt (Cambridge)

(April 2014)