ELEVENTH BIENNIAL INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON BAROQUE MUSIC
Manchester, 14th-18th July 2004
Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (BWV 225) by Johann Sebastian Bach – functions and meaning
In 1961, Konrad Ameln outlined his hypothesis in the Bach-Jahrbuch that Johann Sebastian Bach’s motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied BWV 225 had been composed in the spring of 1727. According to Ameln, the work was performed early in the morning of May 12, 1727 at St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig on the birthday of August II, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony when the monarch was residing in the city. Historical research has yielded no evidence to confirm this hypothesis. In his 1985 article Bachs Motetten und das Reformationsfest, Robin A. Leaver cites certain theological arguments and some manuscript dating evidence to date the motet to the Feast of the Reformation of October 31, 1726.
While I venture no conclusive judgements on either the date or the circumstances of its composition, I perceive the motet BWV 225 – in keeping with the general tenor of Psalm 149 – as a joyous hymn celebrating the Lord as the King of Heavens, a hymn in which the people of Israel – God’s children – are encouraged to praise God with their singing and dancing. In my opinion, the references to royal authority in the motet Singet dem Herrn are reflected in its musical setting. In the most general terms, this includes the polonaise rhythm present throughout the 1st movement, and its double choir texture. The literature to date quotes Bach’s comments on the margins of the 15th chapter of the Exodus in his Calov Bible as evidence of the intentional nature of his use of the double choir texture. In my opinion, the intentional use of the polonaise rhythm is likewise motivated by the Psalmist’s appeal in verse 3: “Sie sollen loben seinen Nahmen im Reigen.”
The decision to select a polonaise rhythm points to the symbolism of royal power. In Bach’s music, the theme of royal authority (secular as well as divine) is one of the most important areas of musical allegorization, the polonaise being one of the essential means used by Bach to symbolize royalty. Similarly, the polonaise rhythm is present in the musical setting of the text “Singet dem Herrn” in the cantata BWV 190 of the same title, which I believe corroborates the thesis that Bach used the rhythm on purpose when setting the relevant verses of Psalm 149 to music. If the symbolism of the polonaise is to apply at a secular level, the only possible reference can be made to king August II the Strong, and it is in this context that the question of the circumstances of the composition and the first performance of the motet Singet dem Herrn BWV 225 by Johann Sebastian Bach should be reconsidered.
Last updated on 09 May 2004