The Kennedy Center

Cantata "Christen, ätzet diesen Tag" BWV 63

About the Work

J.S. Bach Composer: J.S. Bach
© Thomas May

This year may very well mark the 300th anniversary of one of the most festive of Bach's church cantatas, Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, ("Christians, Etch This Day"), BWV 63. Christoph Wolff suggests a date of 1714 (possibly 1715), the year in which Bach was promoted in his service to the ducal court of Wilhelm Ernst and was able to undertake a monthly schedule of cantata production.

    The identity of the librettist is uncertain, but Salomo(n) Franck, a favorite poet with whom Bach often collaborated in Weimar, has been ruled out. One possibility is Johann Michael Heineccius, a theologian and clergyman based in Halle's Liebfrauenkirche, which has been suggested by some experts as the site of Cantata BWV 63's first performance. (Heineccius and the church board were wooing him to fill the vacancy of town organist.)

    In any case, John Eliot Gardiner draws attention to the word Gnaden (grace) "at the heart of this cantata's symmetrical structure ... the grace that comes with Christ's birth and, with it, the release of humanity from sin and death-the very word that sanctifies music-making when two or three are gathered together with the right spirit." Overall, adds Gardiner, the text of this cantata "celebrates Christmas itself as the long-awaited day of the fulfillment of God's promise and the end of Israel's captivity."

    Christen, ätzet diesen Tag was significant enough that Bach decided to revive it during his inaugural cantata cycle in Leipzig, for Christmas 1723. The stakes were especially high. Wolff explains that this particular Christmas season provided "the first opportunity for an exhilarating musical statement" since the new music director had started his tenure earlier that year. For the occasion Bach composed a notably ambitious setting of the Magnificat. Wolff argues that both the Magnificat and St. John Passion, which followed several months later and rounded out Bach's audacious first liturgical year in Leipzig, were part of his radical plan to revitalize sacred music.

    Setting the stage for a Christmas program Leipzigers would remember was Christen, ätzet diesen Tag. It was performed at the 7:00 am Christmas morning Mass at St. Thomas's and later that day at St. Paul's, the University church, and at St. Nicholas's during Vespers. The unusually grand scale of Bach's score-four trumpets and timpani. three oboes, bassoon, strings, continuo, and four-part mixed chorus with four soloists (a part for organ was added later)-is precisely why some Bach experts question whether it was even performed in Weimar when first introduced, since these forces would have overwhelmed the palace church. On the other hand, it may have been originally calculated for performance at Weimar's major St. Peter and Paul Church.

    BWV 63 is framed by two extensive choruses-architectonic pillars for the whole work. Set in C major, both are designed as da capo choruses, with highly contrasting middle sections. Where the cantata we heard in the first half was capped with a brief chorale, the final chorus here is especially monumental, with maximal contrast as the music becomes unsettled and chromatic at the words "Laß uns stets in Segen gehn/Aber niemals nicht geschehn/ Daß uns der Satan möge quälen" ("let us always walk in blessing/but never let it happen/that Satan might disturb us").

    Bach establishes a pattern of dramatic contrasts at the start: following directly on the exuberant opening chorus is one of the most striking and anguished accompanied recitatives in Bach: the alto's "O seller Tag!" ("O blessed day!") Here again, he portrays the suffering of the human condition, in contrast with which the prospect of grace is so miraculous. An unusual feature of the two "arias" here is that they are duets. The second, for alto and tenor, is especially delightful in its illustration of rejoicing as a form of dance.

    One amusing final note: Gardiner goes out on a limb to suggest a subversive intent here in Bach's original presentation of the cantata, pinpointing what he believes is a moment lampooning the composer's patron Duke Wilhelm Ernst. (To be sure, they would eventually fall out, and Bach's Weimar job ended ignominiously when the Duke imprisoned him for a month out of spite.) After the quick bright fanfare that opens the final chorus, writes Gardiner, "comes a flippant fragmentary response-a sort of irreverent tittering by there three oboes, then passing like Chinese whispers from them to the upper strings (had [the Duke] tripped or was his wig askew?) It points the way to the infinitely more elaborate and cryptic ambiguities of Shostakovich...."