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Pontormo,_natività_del_battista

Birth of St. John the Baptist, Zechariah writing “His name is John,” by Jacopo Pontormo, c. 1526

In Bach’s time, June 24 was an important feast day, celebrating the birth of John the Baptist. In the Lutheran faith, it is believed that John the Baptist paved the way for Jesus to come into the world, and his birthday was thus dated exactly six months before Jesus’ birthday. Many paintings from the 16th century onward show Mary with a baby Jesus in her lap, while John the Baptist, or St. John, usually depicted as an already standing infant, is looking on or playing with Jesus.

It means that on this day, June 24, 1723, the Leipzig congregation got to hear a new cantata already on Thursday: cantata 167, Ihr Menschen, rühmet Gottes Liebe.

My favorite recording of this cantata is the one by Montreal Baroque, with terrific singing especially by tenor Charles Daniels and soprano Suzie Leblanc.

Listen to this recording on YouTube or on Spotify.

Find the text here, and the score here.

A little more than a week later, on July 2, the church would celebrate the feast of the Visitation (Mary visiting her relative Elizabeth), strongly related to St. John. (Another wonderful cantata for that coming up next week!)

So let’s imagine two consecutive weeks of festival buzz in Leipzig, since both these holidays were important. Thanks to Gardiner’s research, we know that during trade fairs, the Leipzig population would grow to 30,000, and that Bach would often have extra students and colleagues visiting. The feasts of St. John and the Visitation did not fall during a trade fair, but we can assume that there were nonetheless a few hundred, or maybe even a few thousand visitors in Leipzig  for these holidays.

And it really looks and sounds to me as if Bach is showing off to his fellow musicians in the writing of this St. John cantata from 1723. While it is a small-scale and intimately scored work, it showcases impressive composition talent and skills: a lovely tenor aria with wonderful melismas on the word “preiset” (praise), brilliant meter changes in the already striking soprano-alto duet, a bass recitative which gives the listeners a “sneak peek” at the melody of the closing chorale, and a terrific setting of the closing chorale.

The Gospel reading for this day is the declamation by Zechariah from Luke 1: 57-80. Zechariah, the father of St. John the Baptist, has been made mute by Gabriel because he didn’t believe Gabriel’s announcement that he and his wife Elisabeth would have a son. At the time of his son’s birth, Zechariah carves a sign to tell the community “His name is John,” and as soon as he has done this, he regains his voice, and praises God. The unknown librettist of this cantata reworks this song of praise (also known as the Benedictus) into the text for the tenor aria as well as the alto recitative in this aria, sometimes quoting directly from the Gospel.

This past Sunday, in cantata 24, Bach decided to let a recitative blossom out into an arioso at the end, probably to emphasize the text. It was not a new thing, as he had actually often written recitatives this way in Weimar and Köthen. But it created a wonderful effect in cantat 24, and he must have liked it himself, because he uses the same “trick” in this cantata, at the end of the alto recitative as well as at the end of the bass recitative.

The exquisite soprano-alto duet, which at times sounds more like a motet than an aria, moves into a 4/4 canon on the text “was er in dem Paradies,” and then–still within that middle-part–moves smoothly back into 3/4, so when music and text goes back to the beginning, as if it were a standard “da capo” aria, the meter has already been back to 3/4 for a while.

In the bass recitative the Weimar/Köthen characteristic feature of letting a recitative blossom out into an arioso Bach already played with in cantata 24 gets even better: The call to action to see Zachary as an example and now also praise God is illustrated by musically quoting the closing chorale on the words “und stimmet ihn ein Loblied an” (and sing praise unto him). It is a witty joke, which, just like the clever move with the meter in the duet, only fellow musicians would have fully appreciated. But that is just my own humble opinion …

The impressive features of this cantata are more obvious in the closing chorale. As Gardiner points out, and as those who remember cantata 75 might have already heard: Bach wrote the closing chorale of this cantata 167 in the same way he wrote the closing chorales for cantatas 22 (the cantata which he performed as part of his audition in Leipzig in February 1723) and 75 (his debut piece on Trinity 1). While the chorus sings a “standard” chorale setting, the orchestra parts, moving to a walking bass, are completely separate, and form another piece of music around the chorale, just like a beautifully ornamented Baroque frame around an already great painting. In this case the frame is a golden one, because of the extra luster the trumpet part brings to the music.

Wieneke Gorter, June 23, 2016