Bach’s Cantata No. 1. T. Herbert Dimmock discusses the first aria and second recitative. BDP #284.

 <music: J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 1>

Cantata I: How Brightly Shines the Morning Star has a total of six movements. A moment ago, we looked at the delightful musical language of the first movement. That opening chorus is followed by two recitatives, two arias and a closing chorale. In the two recitatives, Bach focuses on telling the story; that is Bach has his singers narrate the story. In the two arias, Bach explores the emotional impact of the unfolding story. Let’s look at the first of those arias now.

The first arias is for soprano. The English text in this aria is: “illuminate (with) heavenly fire, enflame the soul.” Bach accompanies the soprano with an “oboe da caccia” or literally a “hunting horn.”  Its modern musical equivalent today is an English Horn. This instrument is a little dark in tonal color and paints the picture Bach is hoping to find in the sound. The English Horn is about one and a half times the size of an oboe and can play a fifth lower.

The first idea that Bach explores in the music is that of a divine flickering flame. Bach paints a musical picture of that flame by having the solo English Horn play a rather quick line, cascading down. [music] While the English Horn busily clacks away on this musical flame motive the singer comes in with the text associated with it: “illuminate (with) heavenly fire.” In German “heavenly fire” is göttlichen Flammen (or Godlike fire)  Whereas the English Horn’s melody mostly went downwards, the God-fire melody goes up and ends with a little spark. The fire is aimed towards heaven, God’s dwelling place. The singer’s line sounds like this [music]… and when the word göttlichen [music] appears in the text the  music goes upward to God’s dwelling place ending with a staccato note at the top. [music]
In short, the singer’s line depicting the heavenly flame goes up towards heaven. This contrasts with the descending lines of earthly flames of illumiation depicted by the English Horn.

I mentioned that Bach uses recitatives to tell the story. That is the job of the recitative, reciting the story. But Bach cannot resist adding musically fascinating melodies for certain words that he finds particularly interesting. A good example is the recitative for our bass which follows the first aria. The bass’s recitative’s text concerns an earthly gleam, a worldly light, and everlasting delights of the soul. The exact English translation of this text is: “A ray of joy, my Lord to me has given.” Notice what Bach so effectively does with his music on these passages: An earthly gleam. [music] Note in particular the word “gleam.” The text that immediately follows is: “a ray of joy.” For a ray Bach found this melody [music]. That [singing] figure in Bach’s language is one of the most common devices in Bach’s musical lexicon. It is called the joy motive. It is the rhythmic pattern of one long note followed by two shorter notes. Typically it is written as one 16th note and two 32nd notes.  Or as one 8th note and two 16th notes [sings]. Thus to depict “the ray of joy” Bach employs the joy motive.

Finally, one other musically important moment appears here. The savior’s body and blood—meaning the Eucharist—is “a refreshment to me.” Bach’s music is proceeding as expected [music] up to the word “refreshment” [music]. Once again, Bach uses his music to define the essence of that refreshment with the joy motive. The refreshment of the soul is accomplished by the heavenly blessings that the Eucharist bestows on the faithful.  Bach believed that in turn would most certainly make one happy. Thus, Bach decides to employ the joy motive twice in this recitative. Bach often adds in small compositional flourishes of this sort to underline the details of the text which were most important to him. It is one of the many details in the music which make it such a delight.

<music: J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 1>