Cantata BWV 71 “Gott ist mein König (Dios es mi rey)” — Bach and the “political recorder”

1. General information about the cantata

The cantata BWV 71 “Gott ist mein König” is a church cantata, written in 1708 during Bach’s time as an organist in Mühlhausen (at the chruch “Divi Blasii”). It was written for the celebration service for the new elected “Rath” (that was the head of the protestant church). The writer of the text is unkown, but it is possible that the author is pastor Georg Christian Eilmar (pastor of “Divi Blasii”). Since it was a cantata for an important official celebration, it was printed in a little edition and that is the only printed cantata during Bach’s lifetime from which we still have the original print today.

2. Quick view on instrumentation, text and form

The cantata has the following, very rich (because of the official occasion) instrumentation:

Singers:

  • Soloists: S, A, T, B
  • Choir: S, A, T, B

Orchestra divided in four instrumental choirs:

  • choir 1: trumpet 1-3, timpani
  • choir 2: recorder 1/ 2, violoncello or violoncello piccolo
  • choir 3: oboe 1/ 2, bassoon
  • choir 4: violin 1/ 2, viola, violone

The division of the orchestra in 4 instrumental choirs creates a dynamic and changing sound and also the vocal choir has the dynamic steps of only soloists or soloists plus ripieno choir.

The text is mainly coming from the bible:

  • number 1 (choir tutti), 4 (bass solo) and 6 (choir tutti): 74. Psalm
  • number 2: 2. Samuel 19 (tenor solo) combined with the 6th verse of the choral written by Johann Heermann 1630 „O Gott du frommer Gott“ (soprano solo)
  • number 3 (choir for the four soloists, fugue): Mose 5/ Mose 1
  • only number 5 (alto solo) and 7 (choir tutti) are free poems

The general theme of the text is the change of youth to old age related to the change of old to new „Rath“ (= head of the protestant church). The fact that the text is mainly based on biblical words is typical for the old typus of the church cantata in the 17th century. This old typus is also indicated by the concatenation of little pieces, with no real Da capo Arias (only the bass solo of number 4 reminds of the later Da capo Aria) and no recitatives. But the rich instrumentation and the kind of free poem in the text of number 5 (alto solo) shows that the development to the new typus of church cantata had already started.

3. The recorder in the first and the final chorus — a political caricature?

When you read the cantata with another, maybe ironic, point of view, the first and the last choir could mean the opposite of celebrating the new „Rath“. From the correspondence between Bach as organist and the heads of the church we know that Bach always had problems with them. He did not want to do what they wanted him to do, his music was too difficult and not so “popular”: Bach wanted to do his own work without the rules of the „Rath“. The only king he wanted to follow was God. “Gott ist mein König – God is my king” is also the title of the cantata. And with these words the cantata begins and this fact could be a provocation to the new „Rath“: The human kings and heads have nothing to say and actually no importance, because God is the only king and celebration cantatas should be only for his name and not for human kings like the „Rath“. To refute this thesis you could mention that we have the rich and ornate instrumentation. That could be the real obeisance for the new „Rath“. But here comes the most prominent and striking part for the recorders in this cantata: Both the first and last choir (so also the very end of the cantata), are not ending with a great tutti sound, but with a little motive for the two recorders, solo and unison.
So maybe here is Bach saying: “Yes, I am taking a big instrumentation, but at the end it is like a joke, like making the whole celebration for the „Rath“ ridiculous”. The little motive the recorders are playing there is the same one the choir is singing on the text „God is my king“. So the final essence is: both at the beginning and end, in youth and old age, is God the only king. We do not need a big instrumentation to say that, and we do not need an old or new „Rath“.

Bibliography:

  • “Konzertführer Johann Sebastian Bach” VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik Leipzig 1984
  • Christoph Wolff: “Johann Sebastian Bach”, 3. Auflage, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2009
  • Alfred Dürr: “Johann Sebastian Bach: Die Kantaten”, 7. Auflage, Bärenreiter, Kassel 1999

Score – Partitura (pdf)

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