The Kennedy Center

Cantata "Unser Mund sei voll Lachens" BWV 110

About the Work

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

A major portion of Bach's extant output consists of sacred choral music. In many ways these works provide the key to his self-understanding of his role as an artist. More than 200 cantatas survive, including some written for civic and secular occasions. They reveal an extraordinary variety of styles, formal invention, and expressive character. Bach in fact began composing cantatas early in his career, especially toward the end of his Weimar period (the period preceding his Cöthen post, which started in 1717), although many of these have been lost. The bulk of the extant cantatas date from Bach's first several years in Leipzig.

    Bach's professional responsibilities in Leipzig required him to prepare music on a regular basis for his community's Lutheran worship services. That didn't mean he had to write a fresh cantata for each Sunday in the entire liturgical year, as well as for special feast days. He could have drawn on existing repertoire, but during his first years in Leipzig Bach decided to launch an ambitious project that far exceeded the already imposing official scope of his job by writing an entire cantata cycle of his own, sticking to a schedule of production that's hard for mere mortals to imagine. According to the composer's obituary, he eventually completed five such annual cycles; three of these have survived, along with some later cantatas.

    In his recent Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven (required reading for anyone passionate about the composer), John Eliot Gardiner writes that Bach's achievement with the cantata cycles and the two large-scale Leipzig Passions "was almost profligate and far outstripped anything than any other composer of the time was attempting. It is all the more astonishing for having been carried out in a climate of innate conservatism, artistic indifference and discord, while he operated within a creaky structure, undermanned and underfunded."

    The church cantatas transcend their specific, practical function. Bach approached this duty as an opportunity to experiment with the genre and to engage the full powers of his creative imagination-all with the aim of better glorifying the deity.

    Unser Mund sei voll Lachens ("May Our Mouths Be Full of Laughter"), BWV 110, dates from Bach's third Christmas season in Leipzig, in 1725, and represents the genre in its most brilliantly celebratory mode. Like the Suite No. 3, this music opens in unbuttoned D major, and the score also calls for three trumpets and timpani to punctuate the festive atmosphere; the rest of the ensemble consists of a pair of flutes, three oboes, oboe d'amore, oboe da caccia, bassoon, strings, and basso continuo.

    That resemblance to the Suite is no coincidence: indeed, the opening title chorus recycles the Overture (i.e., opening movement) of Suite No. 4, which is in several ways complementary to Suite No. 3. Thus we again encounter the French-style dotted rhythms of an orchestral introduction, followed by a lightly tripping fugue-but this time, with words Bach sets from the Darmstadt-based poet Georg Christian Lehms (1684-1717).

    What had been abstract instrumental music is refashioned into music for mixed chorus and instruments. "As a paraphrase of Psalm 126," remarks Gardiner, "the piece emerges new-minted, alive with unexpected sonorities and a marvelous rendition of laughter-in-music, so different from the stiff, earnest way it is often played as orchestral music." The binary of absolute versus program music becomes irrelevant in Bach's resuscitation of pre-existing material for a new context of celebration.

    This music would have reverberated in the imposing space of Leipzig's late-Gothic St. Nicholas Church on Christmas morning in 1725. Following the infectious communal joy of the opening chorus, Bach deploys a frequently used scheme of alternating arias and recitative, with some marvelous word painting in the solo tenor's injunction to "rise up toward heaven," intertwined with celestial flutes. A poignant emotional contrast emerges in the alto's aria (a duet, really, with oboe d'amore), which reflects on the human condition and the promise of salvation that is the underlying significance of the Christmas narrative. A duet for soprano and tenor adds another variation of texture to the pattern of arias; this duet recycles a movement of the "extra," Christmas-specific music Bach had interpolated in the first version of his great Magnificat of 1723 ("Virga Jesse floruit"). The timbre of the trumpet returns in the bass's aria, almost hinting at "The Trumpet Shall Sound" Handel would later write for Messiah in 1741.

    Bach concludes the cantata with a harmonized chorale. The scholar Malcolm Boyd points out that this procedure may seem a less satisfying closure to modern ears than a full-scale chorus, yet we should bear in mind the practical context of this music: "a feeling of communal participation in the chorale would be enough to secure the sense of completeness that a modern concert performance might seem to miss."