The number of different characters that Bach finds for cantatas in
the Christmas season is remarkable. The day after Christmas in the second
Jahrgang, Bach presented the grand and granite-like masterpiece “Christum
wir sollen loben schon.” Our piece BWV 133, “Ich freue mich in dir,”
performed the next day, couldn’t be more different from Cantata BWV
121. Here Bach uses the same wonderful faux folk style as the great
magic realist painters like Hand Baldung (Grien) and Altdorfer. All
of the earthy and realistic touches are bathed in an otherworldly heavenly
glow. The opening chorus, with its sturdy oboe d’amore melismas and
predictable sequences, nevertheless has a heavenly magical quality that
befits the story. The bell-tones that keep reappearing in all of the
orchestra play an important role throughout the cantata. The orchestration
is interesting for several reasons. The two oboes d’amore double the
second violins and violas instead of the usual doubling of the two violin
parts. The first violin part sings out quite high in its range against
the solidity of the middle voices, which gives the movement a richness
that it otherwise would not have. All of the chorale phrases are plain
and simple except for the sixth phrase, “Ah, what a sweet tone!,” which
suddenly becomes hushed and imbued with echo effects.
The alto aria uses the oboes d’amore in an uncharacteristic trumpet-like fashion. The little military motives clearly indicate that Bach reads this text as a call to arms. A little motive appears in the introduction, and will reappear only under the words “wiel wohl ist mir geschehen.” It functions like a personal weapon against the cruelties of the world. This motive reappears in the soprano aria with even more prominence.
The hushed lines at the end of the tenor recitative take the cantata inward, and bring us to the extraordinary soprano aria. Although the introduction is only eight bars long, it is so full of material and variety that is seems like a world of its own. A beautiful singing melody in played against a slithering bass part that sounds almost like a sympathetic vibration. The violin then goes into a swinging arpeggio figure that carries us into the cadence. The motive from the alto aria is taken from the orchestra’s accompaniment of the first theme of the soprano aria. This quiet little motive has a kind of ghostly presence that reminds us of “wie wohl is mir geschehen.” The bells referred to in the text are illustrated by both the violin arpeggios and a repeated note figure that is played on both a fingered and an open string. In the B section, the continuo drops out and the time signature changes to a 12/8 Largo, making this section even quieter. There is also a full da capo. This lullaby floats by like angels in a Grien painting. It is interesting that this formula is reversed in another aria written for this day in Cantata BWV 151. There the 12/8 lullaby is the A-section and the 4/4 time is reserved for the B-section.
The bass recitative quotes, at the end, more lines of the chorale text but not the melody. It is surprising that the final chorale harmonization has not become famous as a Christmas carol, for it is a wonderful melody, beautifully harmonized and in a singable range.