Bach's new Year's Cantata BWV 41 begins with one of his largest scale chorale settings. The tune "Jesu, nun sei gepreiset" is a huge chorale melody in four sections. Bach sets it with grandeur, an orchestra of three trumpets, timpani, three oboes and strings. In addition he writes a solo for his favorite Leipzig string instrument, the violincello piccolo. After the blazing opening section of the first chorus it is interesting to find the inward quieter section still accompanied by trumpets; the quick homophonic section that follows leads directly into a recapitulation of the opening material. The jiglike soprano aria with three oboes gives the impression of being a palindrome even though it is not one. This perfectly illustrates the 'beginning is the ending' quality of the text. Up to this point this brilliant piece may seem a little superficial. The profound tenor aria with piccolo cello obbligato takes the piece deeper than one would have thought possible. The huge leaps of the five-string cello create a gossamer web that the expressive voice line floats over like a memory. The bass recitative includes a litany response from the chorus. The four-voice chorale harmonization is punctuated with motives from the opening chorus.
There is something cool and “official” about all of the New Years cantatas, particularly BWV 41. Much of this stems from the fact that the Gospel from Luke is only one verse long, and plainly says that on the eighth day after his birth, Jesus was circumcised and given the name that the angel had given him before his conception, Jesus. Most of the big feast days have some kind of ambiguity to them; even Christmas and Easter have a dark side that Bach uses with great eloquence. The New Years pieces most resemble in Bach’s religious output the Ratswechsal cantatas, proclaiming public policy about good works, laced with a good bit of nationalism.
The chorale “Jesu, nun sei gepreiset” is the longest of all of the chorales set in Bach’s 2nd Jahrgang. Its fourteen lines have many different musical versions, even in Bach’s own settings. Both the opening chorus and the final chorale go into triple meter in the last half of the tune but at different lines. The opening chorus begins with a big syncopated figure in the trumpets that dominates the whole movement. The strange “backward” harmony that modulates from C to Bb to A minor to the dominant G is clearly drawn from the inevitable harmonization of the first phrase of the chorale. For all of its enormous scale and ambitious orchestration, few of Bach’s 2nd Jahrgang chorale fantasias are as verbally uncharacterized as this one. The complex large form of the piece with three different tempo changes gives the piece an interesting and convincing large shape, but the platitudes of the text seem uninteresting to him. The largo ¾ section that covers the ninth and tenth phrases has a kind of floating grandeur, and the following motet-style treatment of the eleventh through fourteenth phrases is superbly contrasted with the opening music. The chorus must be considered, however an interesting failure.
The soprano aria has some of the verbal drabness that affects the opening chorus, but its yodeling voice line is appealing. There is an effect of a palindrome with the line “that the year finish as it began.” It is not in any way a real palindrome but the aural effect is clear, and brings to the work a nice symmetrical quality. This aria is often taken quite slowly, probably a mistake. Quarter note = 116 makes it into an attractive and lively gigue, a better character for the words.
The secco alto recitative again brings to the fore the “Alpha and Omega.” quality to the new year. Bach tries to go much deeper with the tenor aria with violoncello piccolo. The huge range of this five-string instrument is emphasized by the large and expressive leaps, in the obbligato. The opening ritornello is indeed very impressive. The entrance of the voice part, again shows us the shallowness of the liturgical underpinnings for this day. The idea that princely largesse shows us the way to godliness is not an idea that is particularly appealing to either Bach or most people now. For all of the compelling cello part, this aria again fails to impress much either by its passion or profundity.
The bass recitative brings in a bit of the Litany that was so impressively used in the Weimar cantata BWV 18. Here it doesn’t seem to add up to much. The final chorale harmonization is an enormously impressive version of the huge opening chorale. The major motive of the opening chorus becomes trumpet and drum fanfares in between the phrases of the chorale. Bach clearly liked this harmonization enough that he transposed it to D major and used it as the final chorale to another New Years cantata BWV 171. That cantata does not use the brass motive in its opening but clearly Bach was willing to sacrifice the “A and O” concept that permeates this cantata in order to save this harmonization.
Cantata BWV 41 is an interesting case of a very ambitious failure, written during Bach’s most consistently inspired period of cantata writing. One must presume that the text and particularly the ideas behind it didn’t interest him.