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Mystic Nativity by Botticelli, circa 1500. National Gallery, London.

Since I was a very small child, the word “Jubeljahr” (Year of Jubilee) has stood out to me when listening to Cantata 122 Das neugeborne Kindelein. I already mentioned this a bit in my post from last year. So on the second to last day of 2017, I did some research into this concept of Jubeljahr, and realized that perhaps Bach might have liked the word too. Keep reading to find out why.

My favorite recording of this cantata is the one by Herreweghe from 1995 with soprano Vasiljka Jezovsek, alto Sarah Connolly, tenor Mark Padmore, and bass Peter Kooij. Find it here on YouTube. Find the text of cantata 122 here, and the score here.

In 1724, there was a Sunday in between Christmas and New Year’s Day, (a first for Bach in Leipzig*) and it fell exactly on New Year’s Eve. The upcoming New Year was not just any year. For the Catholic church 1725 was going to be a Holy Year, Year of Jubilee, or “Jubeljahr” as they called it in German.** While Bach was Lutheran, chances are high that he was aware of the Catholic tradition and thus of the extra importance of this last Sunday of the calendar year. The nearby court of Dresden was Catholic, most of the Marian feast days were still celebrated, only a year before Bach had written a Magnificat (Mary’s song of praise) for Christmas, and many medieval customs were still present.

Because of all this, I would like to think that Bach wanted to mark this special occasion, and might have chosen the chorale Das neugeborne Kindelein from 1597 on purpose for his cantata for this day, because of the mention of “Jubeljahr” in the last verse. Whether the original writer of the chorale might have alluded to the Lutheran belief that the union of God with people makes every year a Jubilee, or to the then upcoming Jubilee and turn of the century in 1600, I don’t know. But nowhere else in Bach’s cantata oeuvre is do we see the word “Jubeljahr.”

The text of the chorale builds on the early medieval tradition of melting the story of Jesus’ birth with the celebration of the New Year, talking about the newborn baby Jesus at the same time as announcing that the year has ended and this is a true Jubilee.

However Bach and his librettist don’t go all the way with the medieval world view: They change the original text of the third verse of the chorale, used for the fourth movement of the cantata, Trotz Türken, Papst und Höllen Pfort (Despite Turks,the Pope and the gates of hell) into Trotz Teufel und der Höllen Pfort (Despite the devil and the gates of hell). In 1725 the fear for a Turkish invasion was probably not as palpable as it had been in 1597, when the chorale was originally written.

Other things to listen for in cantata 122: The amazing high c in the soprano recitative. The leap of a fifth from f to c and then the octave back to c in the soprano recitative on the words “Die Engel” (the angels) had actually just occurred one movement earlier, two octaves lower, in the bass aria, on the words “O Menschen” (Oh people). Gardiner says this musical illustration that heaven/angels (high voice and highest instruments: recorders) and earth/people (low voice and cello) become one makes him think of the angels and men hugging in the forefront of Mystic Nativity by Botticelli, and this is why I decided to feature that as the illustration for today’s blog post.

Wieneke Gorter, December 30, 2017

*In 1723, Bach’s first year in Leipzig, the Sunday after Christmas was December 26, Second Christmas Day.

** The concept of “Jubeljahr” comes from the Old Testament, where Leviticus describes that after 7×7 years, you sould celebrate a Year of Jubilee, the 50th year. However in1470 Pope Paul II issued a Bull to fix the Jubilee for every twenty-five years, starting in 1475, so that every generation could have a Jubilee.