Bach, J.S.: Cantata, Auf, schmetternde Töne der muntern Trompeten, BWV 207a

Cantata No. 207a, Auf, schmetternde Töne der muntern Trompeten, Musical Drama for the Name-Day of August III, BWV 207a

Johann Sebastian Bach was born March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, Thuringia (Germany), and died July 28, 1750, in Leipzig, Saxony (Germany). Cantata No. 207a was composed in 1735, to mark the name-day of the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland on August 3; it draws largely on his Cantata No. 207, written in 1727, which itself incorporated some still earlier music. We know nothing certain about its early performance history. These are the first San Francisco Symphony performances. The cantata calls for two flutes, two oboes d’amore, taille (an oboe in F major; the part is often played by English horn in modern performances), three trumpets, timpani, strings, and basso continuo here performed on the organ by Jonathan Dimmock); soprano, contralto, tenor, and bass soloists; and a four-part mixed chorus. Performance time: about thirty-two minutes.

Approximately two hundred cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach have made their way down to us. Musicologists estimate that this represents three-fifths to two-thirds of his production in that genre, the rest having disappeared due to carelessness in the management of his estate and other annoyances that accompany the passage of time.

The vast majority of Bach’s cantatas were intended for specific liturgical use, but about thirty are so-called secular cantatas. Many of those exhibit a degree of spiritual content nonetheless, although they would not have fit into the normal proceedings of a Lutheran church service. We find among them cantatas written to enhance celebrations of various sorts, including birthdays and name-days, weddings, New Year’s festivities, and governmental and ecclesiastical appointments. Whether writing for God or for man, Bach did not alter his musical standards. In fact, Bach’s secular cantatas sometimes incorporate material that also shows up in a sacred work.

His cantata Auf, schmetternde Töne der muntern Trompeten is one of those secular cantatas. Bach composed it, probably in 1735, to celebrate the name-day of Friedrich August II, who beginning in February 1733 was Elector and Duke of Saxony and who in 1734 became also Augustus III, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. Bach’s city of Leipzig was a self-governing municipality, but it nonetheless fell under the general purview of the Saxon Elector, to whom its citizens were expected to pledge fealty. The name-day of the Elector King was essentially a secular celebration, but given the extent to which the ideas of monarchy and divinity were conflated in the mid-eighteenth-century mind, a certain holiness would have been attached to it as well.

Bach’s first decade in Leipzig had not been entirely smooth. He did not underestimate his own talents and he could prove temperamental when he was asked to acquiesce to demands and conditions devised by persons who (in his view) failed to appreciate him sufficiently. This led to not infrequent friction between the composer and the functionaries to whom he reported—the directors of the Thomasschule, the administrators of Leipzig University, and the members of the Leipzig City Council. In 1730, Bach took matters into his own hands (in his rather nearsighted way) by submitting to the City Council a memorandum he titled “Brief but Highly Necessary Draft for a Well-Appointed Church Music.” In this document he laid out what he felt were the essential conditions required for him to fulfill his obligations effectively, and he pointed out how far short the Council fell in providing them. Predictably, this made matters worse, and a couple of months later we find Bach writing to an old schoolmate complaining that the authorities for whom he worked were “odd and little interested in music, with the result that I must live in almost constant vexation, envy, and harassment. I shall be compelled, with the help from the Most High, to seek my fortune elsewhere.” It seems the Most High had other plans, and Bach remained at his job in Leipzig until his death.

Given the circumstances, it made sense for him to cultivate support at an official level that outranked the Leipzig City Council. That led him naturally to the Saxon Elector, soon to be Polish King, whose court was in the smaller city of Dresden. No doubt assuming that royal approbation would lend him an air of prestige around Leipzig, Bach wrote to the Elector on July 27, 1733, requesting a title in the royal musical establishment (the “Capelle”), and he traveled personally to Dresden to present his appeal at court. To bolster his qualifications for the honorary appointment he had in mind, he included with his letter a Missa.

The Elector’s name-day fell on August 3, and Bach provided a cantata for the event in that same year of 1733; it must have arrived on the heels of the initial package. (That cantata is now among the missing.) Not receiving a response, Bach kept the matter alive by composing a succession of pieces aimed to honor the ruler and his family, beginning with a cantata for his son’s birthday on September 5 (the “Hercules” cantata, Lasst uns sorgen, lasst uns wachen) and another for that of his wife on December 8 (Tönet ihr Pauken, erschallen Trompeten, better known as Bach later adapted it for his Christmas Oratorio). A further one celebrated the Elector’s elevation to King on February 19, 1734, but none of these inspired the action Bach hoped for. In October 1734 he composed yet another congratulatory cantata, Preis dein Glück, to mark the first anniversary of the monarch’s elevation to King, and Augustus certainly heard it as he was in Leipzig to observe the anniversary and was treated to elaborate festivities that included a performance of this piece. Bach wrote yet another cantata for the King’s name-day in August 1735—the work performed here. Still no appointment.

In October he provided a cantata for Augustus’s birthday, and it may be that it was accompanied by another petition to Augustus III (correspondence that we know existed but is unfortunately lost). Finally on November 19, 1736, the King initialed a document that granted Bach the position he had pursued so assiduously: “Whereas his Royal Majesty in Poland and Serene Electoral Highness of Saxony, etc., has most graciously conferred on Johann Sebastian Bach, on the latter’s most humble entreaty and because of his ability, the title of Compositeur to the Royal Court Orchestra. Now, therefore, the present certificate relating to the same has been prepared with His Royal Majesty’s Most August Signature and the imprint of the Royal Seal.” Bach expressed his thanks by traveling to Dresden to play a two-hour organ recital “in the presence of the Russian Ambassador . . . and many Persons of Rank, also a large attendance of other persons and artists,” as the Dresden newspaper reported. Bach was surely delighted to receive the appointment, but it didn’t change his life much. Friction with the Leipzig authorities continued, and in 1737 Augustus received a letter from his recently appointed Compositeur, who asked the King to intercede in a dispute between Bach and the City Council. Augustus chose not to get involved.

Although his cantatas for the Royal Family certainly consumed a fair amount of time in an already overfilled schedule, Bach cut corners by recasting quite a few of their movements from pre-existing compositions. Auf, schmetternde Töne der muntern Trompeten is a good example of this; its principal movements, fitted with new words (by an unidentified librettist), are lifted from his Cantata No. 207, Vereingte Zwietracht der wechselnden Saiten, a secular cantata he had composed in 1727 for the installation of a new professor at Leipzig University. Only three recitatives are newly composed: “Die stille Pleisse spielt,” “Augustus’ Wohl ist der treuen Sachsen Wohlergehn,” and “Augustus schützt die frohen Felder.” The other movements follow the original versions closely, any changes being mostly in matters of orchestration.

But the earlier cantata had already used some repurposed music. Its first choral movement (which in Cantata No. 207a begins with the words “Auf, schmetternde Töne der munten Trompeten”) is a recasting of the third movement of the First Brandenburg Concerto, the opening item in the set of six concertos Bach assembled in March 1721 to support his unsuccessful application for a job with the Margrave of Brandenburg. The composer transposes the music to D major from the Brandenburg’s F major, but apart from that he follows his rollicking original closely, even maintaining the dramatic incursion of two measures of expressive Adagio about two-thirds the way through. In this new setting, the orchestra handles the recurring ritornello sections while the chorus lends its voices to the intervening episodes.

The following tenor recitative (“Die stille Pleisse spielt”) references the River Pleiss, which merges with the Weisse Elster River just as it flows through Leipzig. Its gentle undulations are depicted by the murmuring bass line. The tenor proceeds to a bracing aria (“Augustus’ Namenstages Schimmer”) in which the violins’ syncopations (taken up by the singer) and substantial coloratura vocal demands provide an energetic underpinning to an ode praising the monarch’s insight. A recitative for soprano and bass (“Augustus’ Wohl ist der treuen Sachsen Wohlergehn”), which notes how Augustus’s protection benefits the populace, is greatly enlivened by fluttering triplet arpeggios in the instrumental bass line. A lightly textured duet follows (“Mich kann die süsse Ruhe leben”). Like the opening chorus and the tenor aria already heard, it is cast in da capo form; the two vocalists sing in carefully crafted counterpoint in the “A sections,” and they take turns as soloists in the contrasting “B section” in the middle. The music leads without a break into a “Ritornello”—actually a gavotte. It is also lifted from the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, where it appears as a bumptious trio within the Menuetto movement. In the First Brandenburg it is memorably scored for a “village band,” with two horns playing in simple harmony above a bass line rendered with considerable pungency by three oboes in unison. The orchestration is expanded here, and trumpets take the place of the horns while the oboes maintain their support in the bass.

A recitative and aria for alto follow (“Augustus schützt die frohen Felder / Preiset, späte Folgezeiten”), the latter enhanced by the airy duetting of flutes. The straightforward recitative “Ihr Fröhlichen, herbei” continues to praise the King, its lines distributed sequentially to tenor, bass, soprano, and contralto. The chorus and orchestra join for the festive concluding chorus which is also cast in da capo form.

There remains a short March that seems somehow attached to the scores of either Cantata No. 207 or No. 207a. Just where Bach intended it to be situated remains unclear, but it would not feel out of place as a processional at the beginning or a recessional at the end—or both, in which case it would provide a pleasant conceptual bookend to the ritornello-gavotte in the cantata’s center. It sounds a bit like Bach but perhaps even more like a cross between Charpentier and Handel. In any case, it’s a delightful movement, and it would seem a pity not to give it an airing in connection with this celebratory cantata.

James M. Keller

More About the Music

Recordings: Ton Koopman conducting the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir (Challenge; also in Teldec’s The Complete Bach Edition)  |  Frieder Bernius conducting Concerto Cologne and the Stuttgart Chamber Choir (Sony)  |  Helmuth Rilling conducting the Stuttgart Bach Collegium and the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart (Hänssler Classic)

ReadingJohann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work, by Martin Geck (Harcourt)  |  J.S. Bach: A Life in Music, by Peter Williams (Cambridge)  |  Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, by Christoph Wolff (Norton)  |  Oxford Composer Companions: J.S. Bach, edited by Malcolm Boyd (Oxford)  |  Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, by John Eliot Gardiner (Knopf)  |  The New Bach Reader, edited by Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, revised by Christoph Wolff (Norton)  |  The Cambridge Companion to Bach, by John Butt (Cambridge)