Election Day in Leipzig had a slightly different cast than the flag-waving event we Americans are used to. All blessings on the population as well as the city are credited to God rather than the Founding Fathers. More importantly, certain enlightenment precepts that we take for granted in our beginnings were years away in the Leipzig of 1727, the year of our cantata. Yet the text is touching and relevant in its quality of being steeped in the Psalm reading and its genuine sense that all good things come from God.
The Cantata BWV 120 has many sources for its music. Strangely, the extreme refinement and “finished” sound of the piece is somewhat misleading. The opening very elegant and ceremonial aria for alto probably has its beginnings in a lost violin concerto. It is nevertheless a gorgeous and completely convincing setting of Psalm words, miraculously combing elegance with a genuine supplicating tone. Interestingly, the one movement that will probably be familiar to the listener is the brilliant chorus with trumpets and drums that follows. This is the one concerted movement that is entirely original to this cantata, but is best known for its appearance some ten years later as the “Et exoecto” movement in the B Minor Mass. Those familiar with the Mass will recognize a wholly original and interesting middle section to our cantata movement.
By 1727 Bach had a huge body of earlier secular vocal and instrumental works at his disposal to flesh out his sacred works. In some of these transformations there is a sense of awkwardness and inappropriateness of the secular material in a sacred context. In the Cantata BWV 146 there is a peculiar and, one must say, unsuccessful transformation of the slow movement of the magnificent D Minor harpsichord concerto to a chorus. In our cantata the fleshing out of a movement for violin and harpsichord to include a string orchestra and soprano looks like it might fail in the same way. But succeed it does, and magnificently. In fact it is hard to hear the piece without the beautiful and completely fluent text setting that Bach incorporates. Both recitatives in the cantata concern themselves with the “official” side of the holiday. The cantata ends with a four-voice setting of the fourth verse of the German Te Deum.