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Bach at the keyboard
Bach at the keyboard

In Leipzig Bach was perpetually overworked, so it’s no surprise that he borrowed the French overture of his fourth orchestral suite to open the cantata he composed for the first feast day of Christmas in 1725. (I wonder how many of his church listeners would also have been regulars at Zimmermann’s Coffee House, where his collegium performed such instrumental works as the suites.) He could hardly have made a better choice to begin this festive, celebratory cantata (Schmieder catalog number 110).

I can’t take credit for the following notes; they’re from a lecture which the director of today’s performance, Helmut Rilling, gave at concerts in the late 1990s, when the recording was made. They’re reprinted by kind permission of the publisher.

This cantata was written for the first day of Christmas 1725. Bach calls for a large orchestra to match the festive nature of the holiday: two oboes, two flutes, three trumpets and timpani. Appropriately, the work also begins on a festive note. However, the cantata has a theme related to the miracle of the Son of God coming into the world.

Movement 1: The musical construction (long-held notes in the bass, rhythmically active middle voices, ascending melodic lines in the melody instruments) gives occasion to consider this verity. It is divided into three parts and marked by dotted rhythms. Here Bach chose the form of the French overture. This kind of music was intended to be played in Versailles, when the king entered the theater – for does not a king enter the world on Christmas, as well? At the same time, Bach falls back on an older piece, an orchestral suite (BWV 1069), to whose middle section Bach adds a choral setting. The voices enter one after the other and signify the “laughter” mentioned in the title. The inventive alternation of wind and string instruments which serves the purpose of differentiation in the orchestral suite is overlaid in the cantata by the choir (“Der Herr hat Großes an uns getan”). Even though this may conceal the architecture somewhat, it gives the movement additional intensity and luster.

Movement 2: This tenor aria specifies the time of the celebration, which is “today” (“anitzt”). Musically, thoughts and the senses are also set in motion toward heaven, “himmelan.” Bach gives emphasis to the contemplation of God’s deeds, the image of Christ as man and man as the child of heaven by contrasting the “earthly” bassoon with the high “heavenly” tenor voice.

Movement 3: In the course of a recitative expressing affirmation, Bach illustrates the majesty of God while the strings tell us that the Lord’s magnificence is thus and shall ever remain so.

Movement 4: Together with the oboe d’amore, the alto voice protests against this certainty. Bach interprets “Daß du sein Heil so schmerzlich suchst” (“That you seek his salvation so painfully”) as indicating the way to the cross. The text, and thus Bach, as well, finds two answers to the related question of the essence of humankind: worm, hell and Satan are presented in dissonances and difficult rhythms, the Son and Heir born of love in playful, cheerful sounds. The canon between the oboe and the alto suggests that the way taken by the Son of God should also be a model for humans, the children of God, to follow.

Movement 5: Here for the first time there appears a passage from the Christmas Gospel, the “gloria in excelsis Deo” sung by the angels on the fields. Bach puts this to a dance setting in which the oboes provide the pastoral ambiance while the voices sing a dialogue in the form of a canon. For the words “peace on Earth,” Bach finds quite a different kind of music, one that expresses collective beseeching and apprehension. Finally, Bach draws a parallel to the first movement by having the laughter marking the day of the joyful celebration stand for good will to men.

Movement 6: Now is the time to wake up! – as signaled by the trumpet, followed by the instruments and voices. In the orchestra, the trumpet, violin and oboe play each other “Freudenlieder.” Here too, though, there are “andachtsvolle Saiten,” where the wind instruments are silent, and a shadow in B minor falls upon the D major harmonies. Virtuoso passages in the strings strike up the “Freudenlieder” once more at the end. At the command “singt!”, the response turns out to be a simple chorale – Bach wants the entire congregation, including the less sophisticated, to join in singing the concluding “Halleluiah.”


1. Coro

Unser Mund sei voll Lachens
und unsre Zunge voll Rühmens,
Denn der Herr hat Großes an uns getan.

2. Aria

Ihr Gedanken und ihr Sinnen,
Schwinget euch anitzt von hinnen,
Steiget schleunig himmelan
Und bedenkt, was Gott getan!
Er wird Mensch, und dies allein,
Daß wir Himmels Kinder sein.

3. Recitativo

Dir, Herr, ist niemand gleich.
Du bist groß, und dein Name ist groß
und kannsts mit der Tat beweisen.

4. Aria

Ach Herr, was ist ein Menschenkind,
Daß du sein Heil so schmerzlich suchest?
Ein Wurm, den du verfluchest,
Wenn Höll und Satan um ihn sind;
Doch auch dein Sohn, den Seel und Geist
Aus Liebe seinen Erben heißt.

5. Duetto

Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe
und Friede auf Erden
und den Menschen ein Wohlgefallen!

6. Aria

Wacht auf, ihr Adern und ihr Glieder,
Und singt dergleichen Freudenlieder,
Die unserm Gott gefällig sein.
Und ihr, ihr andachtsvollen Saiten,
Sollt ihm ein solches Lob bereiten,
Dabei sich Herz und Geist erfreun.

1. Chorus

Our mouth is full of laughter,
and our tongue is full of praises,
because the Lord has done great things for us.

2. Aria

Your thoughts and your senses
Lift you away today,
Ascend promptly toward heaven,
And consider what God has done.
He became man for this alone,
So that we can be heaven’s children.

3. Recitative

Lord, no one is your equal.
You are great, and your name is great
and you can prove it with your works.

4. Aria

Oh Lord, what is a human being
that you seek his salvation so painfully?
A worm which you curse (damn)
if hell and Satan are around him;
but also your Son, whom soul and spirit
from love call their inheritance.

5. Duet

Glory to God in the highest.
And peace on earth,
Good will to men!

6. Aria

Wake up, you veins and limbs
And sing the very songs of joy
That are pleasing to our God.
And you devout chords (or strings)
shall prepare for him such a praise
at which the heart and spirit rejoice.

Translation by David Roden

Further reading:

Cantata 110 at Bach Cantatas website

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