In July of 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach left the ducal court of Anhalt-Cothen (although he retained his title as Capellmeister, and continued to provide occasional works until the death in 1728 of his employer there, Duke Leopold) to become Director musices for the churches of Leipzig and Cantor of the Thomasschule. For the first time in his career it became his primary responsibility to provide music for worship services of the city’s churches, particularly one or more cantatas for each Sunday, plus special works for the holidays of Christmas, Holy Week, and Easter. (Incidentally, “cantata” is not a term that Bach used to describe these works: he usually called them simply “the music,” which gives us some idea of the importance he assigned to them.) He immediately embarked on the titanic project of composing five annual cycles of cantatas, enough to supply the musical needs of the two principal churches in Leipzig for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, only three complete cycles and fragments of the fourth and fifth have survived to our time; all the same, just these three hundred cantatas represent an astonishing compositional achievement.

Cantata #184 (the numbering by which they are known is simply the order in which the Bach Gesellschaft published them between 1851 and 1900, and does not in any way reflect the order or time of their composition) was part of the first of the annual cycles, intended for the third day of Pentecost in 1724. However, in the press to prepare music for his first year, Bach found it necessary to revise works that he had composed for his previous positions in Weimar and Anhalt-Cothen, in somecases even fitting new, sacred texts to cantatas that were originally intended for secular occasions. This cantata is one of these, having been composed for New Year’s Day of 1721 in Cothen (the original text does not survive).

Several musical characteristics bear out its secular, pre-Leipzig origin. Most of the Leipzig cantatas begin with large and complex choral movements with text drawn either from the Bible or from Lutheran hymnody, and close with a simple but highly expressive four-part chorale—whereas Cantata #184 begins with a solo recitative, an unusually long one, and the chorale-movement is second from the last. The last movement, which contrasts a duet of soprano and bass soloists with the chorus, is in fact a gavotte, a dance rather than a hymn. Nor is that the only dance to be found: the first aria is a passepied. The prominence of dance-types reflects the taste of a ducal court more than that of the middle-class burgers of Leipzig. Nevertheless, Bach used the dances to serve the needs of the text. In spite of their being French courtly dances, both the gavotte and the passepied had pastoral connotations, and the text of the cantata is focused on the idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd and the believers as his sheep.

The Magnificat also dates from that first year in Leipzig, being composed for Christmas Day of 1723. Although Martin Luther provided translations into German of all the liturgical items that were used in the western European tradition, he allowed for Latin to be used at major festivals in large metropolitan churches, which allowance covered Leipzig. The form in which it is generally heard now, including this performance, is a revision dating from the years 1728-1731. In 1723 the work as a whole was in the key of E-flat, and included four German-language arrangements of Christmas hymns. In the revision at the end of the decade the key was changed from E-flat to D, some details of instrumentation were changed (most notably the substitution of two transverse flutes for the original recorders), and the German Christmas hymns were omitted. These changes were presumably intended to make the piece more appropriate for festal occasions other than Christmas. The Magnificat differs from Bach’s other Latin church music (the four missae breves and the B-minor Mass) in one very interesting respect: it is entirely newly-composed, whereas the masses all rely very heavily on recycled movements from cantatas from throughout his career. This difference may reflect in part Bach’s evolving attitude toward his Leipzig employers. In 1723 he was new to the position and eager to create what he considered “a well-regulated church music.” By the 1730’s when the short masses were composed, including the Kyrie and Gloria of the B-minor, he had become somewhat frustrated with his superiors at the Thomasschule and the City Council (and they doubtless with him) and was turning to other outlets for his creativity. The masses were probably intended for other places than in Leipzig, and especially the B-minor in its first incarnation for the Electoral Court in Dresden

But in 1723 Bach’s enthusiasm, ambition for his new post, and creativity were unfettered, and for Christmas Day he produced an elaborate work of unprecedented splendor. The Magnificat calls for an enlarged choir of five parts—two soprano sections, along with the normal alto, tenor, and bass—and soloists, together with as large an orchestra as he ever used. The twelve movements are arranged symmetrically around the major choral sections, which are Nos. 1, 4, 7, and 12. An especially notable symmetry is that the music of the first movement is repeated in the last.

Text-painting abounds. The second movement is a sprightly dance, to which is sung “and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” The third, which is about humility , combines the mournful tone-color of the oboe d’amore with a slow aria in B-minor; at the end of this, when the soloist is singing, “for behold, (they) shall call me blessed,” the full choir and orchestra explosively interjects with “all generations” (those who shall call her blessed). The bass soloist sings next a proud aria about the Lord’s might, and that is followed by a gentle swaying duet about His mercy. The central choral movement depicts first the strength the Lord has shown with His arm, and then in an apparent break-down of all coordination between the various sections the scattering of the proud. The tenor aria which follows uses rapid passage-work to illustrate putting down the mighty (descending scales) and exalting the humble (ascending sequences) No. 9, “He has filled the hungry with good things,” contains one of the most picturesque touches, and the very end, after “He hath sent the rich away empty,” all the instruments drop out except the bass, leaving the final cadence, like the rich, empty. The trio of women’s voices in No. 10 is accompanied by the oboes intoning a medieval chant melody to which the Magnificat was traditionally sung, the Tonus peregrinus—the “wandering” tone, perhaps a reference to the wanderings of Israel in the desert. Then, as the choir sings “as He spoke to our fathers,” Bach writes in the polyphonic style of the late Renaissance, a style known in the Baroque period as stile antico. And finally, the choir ends the work by singing “As it was in the beginning” to the same music that was in the first movement of the whole work.

In 1730, having completed most of the work he would compose for the Leipzig churches—the five cantata cycles, the Magnificat, and the Passions—and having become frustrated by the general lack of sympathy with and understanding of his ambitions and ideals for those same churches on the part of the authorities of the school and city council, Bach found another focus for his attention. In that year he took over direction of the Collegium Musicum, a performing group of university students and teachers and local professional musicians, which had be founded several years earlier by Telemann while he was a student at the University. Bach retained that leadership until about 1742, and during those years he was responsible for weekly public concerts which were held at Zimmermann’s Coffee House. For those concerts he revised a large number of concerti that he had written at Weimar and Anhalt-Cöthen, many of which he adapted as harpsichord concerti for himself and hiss ons to perform (thereby inventing the keyboard concerto). He also composed new works, one of which was the third of his four overture-suites for orchestra. Bach himself was familiar with the French overture style since his student days in Lüneburg, when he had several occasions to hear the court-orchestra of Celle, staffed exclusively with French-trained players. He may also have been influenced in his choice of this genre for the Collegium Musicum by the music of its founder, his friend Telemann (they were born and grew up very near each other, and Telemann stood as godfather to Bach’s second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel in 1714): Telemann produced over three hundred overture-suites during his career, and it is likely that the Leipzig Collegium Musicum had some of them in its repertoire.

The third Overture-suite, like the fourth, is scored for trumpets with timpani, oboes, and strings with continuo. Its opening movement, which gives its name to the whole work, is a typical French-style overture, with slow outer sections characterized by proud and majestic dotted rhythms framing a fast, fugal inner section. In this instance, the fast inner section is also characterized by a florid solo violin part. The overture movement is followed by a series of dance movements in binary form: a pair of gavottes, a bourree, and a gigue to conclude. But it is undoubtedly best known for its second movement, the Air. This movement, unlike all the others in the suite, is played by the strings alone, without the oboes and the trumpets. Its lovely serene melody was made widely popular in the late 19th century by the German concert-violinist August Wilhelmj, who made an arrangement of it for solo violin and piano, to be played using only the lowest string on the violin (a not-unusual virtuoso trick); he called it therefore “Air on the G String,” a name which has stuck to the piece ever since, even though it is completely irrelevant to the work as Bach composed it.

Copyright © 2000, Daniel Pyle