Bach’s ability to stand back from the level of depth that he regularly pursued in his cantata writing and compose a perfectly good occasional piece has already been noted. The work written for the celebration of the election of the town council sets the perfect tone for such a public event. The set of chorale variations, and that is what the cantata BWV 137, “Lobe den Herren” is, is in its own right a perfect piece, and in one respect the most modern set of variations that Bach ever composed. Bach’s most famous variations, the Goldbergs and the “Vom Himmel hoch” variations, remain for the most part in their tonic keys. Even the 30 variations of the Goldbergs are almost exclusively in G with a very occasional foray into G minor or the relative E minor. “Vom Himmel hoch” never varies from C Major. This bothered Stravinsky so much that in his resourceful and ingenious orchestration of the piece he transposed several of the variations to give the piece more tonal variety. In our cantata no such imagined problem exists, the tonality of the five movements is skillfully varied in a way that is very pleasing to modern tastes. C major, G major, E minor, A minor (with the chorale in C), and C major. The celebration of the election and its adjacent Sunday, the twelfth after Trinity, is an event of generalized emotion. Even the miracle used for the Gospel reading of that Sunday, the curing of the deaf and dumb man, is without much point or specific theological significance. Bach chooses for this cantata a great tune, “Lobe den Herren.” It is a simple melody in four phrases. The first two are identical, the third moves to the dominant and the fourth, slightly shorter than the other three rises, triumphantly back to the tonic. The most striking feature of the melody is the big leap of a fifth in the beginning of the opening phrase. This trait is, in one way or another, reflected in each of the five movements.
The first chorus, scored for 3 trumpets, tympani as well as the usual oboes and strings, begins with a marvelous jaunty melody. The leap of the sixth in the second bar is clearly inspired by the big leap in the chorale tune, and becomes one of the signal features of the chorus. The catchy syncopated figure in the first bar generates a rhythmic drive the carries us through the whole movement. The chorus enters imitatively in the lower three voices in a melody based upon the opening. The leap of a sixth is charmingly awkward when sung and has an appealing yodeling sound. The third phrase of the chorale is sung in a block-like style, the fourth returns to imitation and provides a perfect tonal return to the opening idea.
The 2nd verse is an alto aria with violin obbligato. The chorale appears almost unadorned in the voice while the violin plays sweet and lyrical figurations, still influence by the melody. The leap of the sixth in the first bar refers unmistakably back to the first movement. This is one of the chorale movements that Bach chose to arrange for organ and publish in his Schübler Chorales.
The duet #3 for two oboes, soprano and bass goes deepest of any movement in the cantata. The oboes and voices, in pairs, always enter in canon with each other. Unlike the tour de force of the duet in Cantata BWV 9, the canon breaks down part of the way throughout the passage. There is a sense of complexity and depth that the previous two movements do not have. Bach varies the first and second phrases, something that has not happened in the first two movements, by having a different voice lead the canon. What is perhaps most distinctive in the movement is that the last two phrases are repeated, giving the movement a kind of symmetry that none of the others has. It is interesting that this is the only passage in the whole chorale text that has any darkness to it “In wieviel Not, Hat nicht der gnädige Gott, Über der Flügel gebreitet!”
The tenor aria with continuo is wonderful display of tonal control. The piece is firmly in a minor but the chorale played on the trumpet is in C. It begins with one of Bach’s great “whiplash” motoric figures. Obviously the big leaps relate to the opening. The wonderful slurred scale passages go up and down in no particular order giving the movement terrific energy. The tenor part acts like a prelude to the dazzling entrance of the trumpet on the unadorned chorale. There is a marvelous tension between the tonality of the aria and the tonality of the chorale. One example is with the last chorale entrance. The C major scale of the trumpet is wonderfully under cut by the A minor scale of the voice part. The chorale is not even allowed to cadence in C major, but the action is propelled through the long-delayed (12 bar) vocal cadence in a minor. The seven -voice setting of the final chorale, with independent trumpet parts brings the piece to a triumphant conclusion.