Mer hahn en neue Oberkeet

Much has been written and supposed about this work, partly because it is like no other of Bach’s cantatas. It is a burlesque, bordering at times on farce, a late composition (1742) composed at a time when Bach appeared to be generally turning his mind away from operatic-type pieces of entertainment and more towards music in its purest and ‘least adulterated’ sense. It contains more movements (24) than any other cantata but, typically lasting barely half an hour, it is by no means the longest; compare it, for example with C 205. It is written in a Saxon dialect, has no chorus, employs just two singers and is very lightly orchestrated.

Elsewhere readers will find opinions as to whether Bach was, uniquely, using the piece in order to make social comment. It is, perhaps, more convincing to argue that he set out to parody aspects of musical composition rather than social milieu, much in the way that Mozart was later to do in his Musical Joke. What we know is that it was written as a work of homage to Carl Heinrich von Dieskau, a tax superintendent who had inherited a number of properties (Dürr p 888). What we can reasonably infer is that the work was intended as entertainment, probably for a relatively elevated social class rather than that from which the characters are drawn.


A number of clues as to what the piece is about may be found in the opening sinfonia or, perhaps, a more accurate title would be ‘overture’. It is a potpourri of short dance tunes, some as brief as eight bars. Modes, time signatures, textures and tempi all alter in the course of the eighty-seven bars and, in a sense, Bach is offering a demonstration of how not to write music or, at least, how he does not usually do it. Nothing is developed or extended, there is a lack of musical argument and dialectic; each tune lasts barely long enough to make any impression.

Throughout his career Bach wrote collections of dances (suites) on many occasions, but never as transient as these segments.

On the other hand, the scoring for violin, viola and cello (the parts are complete without a harmonic instrument) evokes the feeling of a rustic ensemble. The fact that only a flute, second violin and horn are called upon to support the trio in the entire work supports this contention. The idea of musicians playing the part of villagers or country folk providing entertainment for their peers is one which may well have amused Bach and his librettist, Picander.

People will doubtless go on theorizing about this rather odd piece, though none can deny its enduring popularity, second only in public affection, perhaps, to the Coffee Cantata. Of course, there may be additional factors in that requiring, as it does, only two singers and seven musicians it is much less problematic and certainly cheaper to mount than almost any other cantata. Nevertheless, its enduring popularity even today supports the contention that it was conceived very much for purposes of entertainment and diversion.

The sinfonia evokes a sense of the opera buffo which many listeners will tend to associate with the latter part of the eighteenth century, Mozart in particular. Bach’s introductory instrumental movements do not always tell us very much about the ensuing compositions except, perhaps, through hindsight. This is not the case in this work. Here Bach seems to be looking ahead to the Rossinian practice of providing an overture which sets the scene for what is to follow. This is a piece of fun, not to be taken too seriously, and we are made aware of this within the first few seconds.

The overall structure of the cantata is simple and clear, a series of alternating arias and recitatives, six of which are duets (two arias and four recitatives). On some recordings, listeners may find that a small choir is employed at times to vary the tonal colours, but there is no need for this. It is a chamber piece for two characters and that is how it is best performed.

Soprano/bass aria and recitative.

The opening duet is a bourrée, further establishing the dance-like character of the work; it announces the coming of the new Lord of the Manor and the strong beer he dispenses. The following duet is a dialogue in which the bass requests a kiss but is quickly dismissed—you always want more! Two brief instrumental intrusions are highly reminiscent of the folk style from the overture.

It will be noted from the opening movements how little there is in the way of instrumental introductions. Analysis of recitatives in the church cantatas makes the important point that those movements, unlike those in opera, were heard but not seen. This allowed for a greater degree of richness of texture and meaning (see Cs 2 and 38).

Here the situation is different. Although we do not know precisely how works such as C 212 were presented, their very structure suggests a strong visual, dramatic element. The characters do not need to wait around as melodies unfold; they have immediate contact with the audience and direct interaction with each other. The very lack of extended instrumental themes is intentional and practical, revealing Bach’s innate sense of the theatrical, even though he never composed an opera. More of the arias have an instrumental coda, however; might these have been included to allow for discrete applause?

Soprano aria.

There have already been mild jokes about beer and sex and when we arrive at the soprano aria (no 4) we are presented with a further insight into human nature—yes, it is good to flirt and the fire in your belly is like the warfare of bugs and wasps. The raging of the insects is depicted in the violin semi-quavers of the latter bars.

Bass recitative.

The bass then changes tack in his recitative (no 5)—our master is good but the tax man will fine you as quick as lightening, merely for disregarding fishing laws. A brief burst of continuo notes on Blitz—lightening—indicates that, no matter how briefly, Bach intends to maintain the practice of word painting, undoubtedly for comic effect.

Bass aria.

The bass aria (no 6) reveals Bach as the skilled composer we know him to be. The imitations between bass and strings are simple but effective and unify the movement. The text is a plea for the tax man to be merciful with the poor peasants.

It should not be necessary to paraphrase every short subsequent movement; readers should be able to follow the progression of ‘plot’ from their translations. Basic principles have now been established and henceforth comments will be selective.

Soprano aria.

The soprano aria (no 8) will sound familiar to many listeners. It is based upon a harmonic progression that was in common usage at the time; Handel was one of several composers who made use of it. It has a sense of aristocratic refinement, highly appropriate to the subject, and its familiarity may have carried other messages to Bach’s audiences of which we are no longer aware. The movement progresses quickly, however, with the addition of more complicated string figurations in the manner of Pachelbel’s well known variations.

Bach’s point seems to be the initial establishment of a dignified context, progressing to one of more abandoned joviality. The text tells of a Chamberlain who is a most affable man; the music depicts this without compromising his position of decorum.

Soprano aria.

The next soprano aria (no 10) is an exception to the rule in that it begins with an instrumental introduction which is half the length of the entire movement. The ensuing misbalance points strongly towards some dramatic purpose. Even so, it is still barely thirty seconds long, but surely sufficient to allow for the introduction of a prop of some kind. Two local villages are specifically mentioned in the context of draconian property taxes. Might there, for example, have even been a crude map to which the attention of the audience was drawn?

Bass aria.

The bass (no 12) bemoans the loss of fifty thalers paid in tax—but we shall just have to save it again. The dotted rhythms create something of the quality of a drinking song or drunken revelry.

Soprano aria.

The soprano aria (no14) is one of two da capo movements (the other being no 20). As we shall see, no 20 is adapted from a work composed over a decade previously and it is almost certain that no 14 must have been similarly paraphrased. In style, proportion and in the requirement for an additional violin, they stand outside all the other movements of the cantata.

No 14 is in the form of a minuet and it may be reasonably assumed that the long ritornello sections, adorned with the arabesques from an added flute, would have provided the opportunity for the singers to perform a stately dance. The phrasing is regular and symmetrical and it may be significant that the soprano sings, almost without pause, in both sections, thus delineating very clear vocal and instrumental segments. Furthermore, when the reprise is taken into consideration, the ritornello theme is heard in full four times, accounting for almost 130 of the 240 bars of the aria; over half! What would the performers be doing if not dancing?

If the aria is paraphrased then one should not look too closely for connections between words and music. The text praises the Chamberlain’s acquired property—as tender and sweet as pure almonds. It proceeds to call for an abundance of blessings.

The specific reference may well have been to almond trees that were known to grow on the property. The general call for blessings is obviously suggested by the flute figurations.

Bass aria.

The next bass aria (no 16) reverts to the practice of eschewing the introduction but retaining a short coda. Dürr (p 890) tells us that it is a traditional hunting song from Bohemia, although there is no reference to that particular sport in the text—may he be wealthy and benefit from good wine! Nevertheless, it is significant that the horn, traditionally associated with hunting, is introduced here although its role is minimal, doubling the voice, playing a number of repeated notes and largely doubling the violins at the end.

This would imply that it was played by a student; or possibly it might have been a second instrument of the flautist or additional violin player.

Soprano recitative and aria.

The soprano recitative (no 17) is important because it informs us that the following aria is indeed a traditional song—what you say is crude, although people here would laugh at it—but so, indeed, would they were I to sing the old song—which is precisely what she then proceeds to do.

The horn is employed again (for the last time), contributing even fewer notes. The words wish the lady of the house many handsome sons.

Bass recitative and aria.

The bass recitative (no 19) is also significant since it provides another clue to the thinking that lay behind the cantata—yes, that was too crude—I must make myself sing something more urbane. We know that his next aria was paraphrased from C 201, Phoebus and Pan, first performed possibly as early as 1729. The lyricist seems to have gone out of his way to prepare for this second complex aria which, like no 16, stands apart from much of the rest of the work. The original text has Pan competing with Phoebus to find the better musician, calling for those about him to dance, relax and make merry. The later version calls for the Chamberlain’s wife to laugh for pleasure as she blossoms in the security of her new home.

Had Bach set this verse anew, he might well have conceived of a figuration more overtly suited to the depiction of laughing. But it is also possible he considered that the motive from bars 5 and 7, or the repeated notes (from bar 9) served this purpose. The aria is explicitly joyful, but is it as sophisticated as the singer clearly believes it to be?

There is a complicated piece of fun to be exposed in this instance. Bach had used this very aria in the Contest between Phoebus and Pan to demonstrate ‘low art’ i.e. music which is not of the highest refinement. Here the rustic singer mistakes it for ‘high art’, a comment on his cultural deficiency and a clever joke to be enjoyed by all who were familiar with the earlier piece.

Bass/soprano recitative and soprano aria.

Four brief movements complete the cantata and if Bach has diverted slightly from the rustic scenario, he now returns to it with gusto. The two recitatives are assured forms of dialogue in which the bucolic couple declare that it is time to repair to the tavern and drink, even in the company of the tax inspector!

The soprano’s last aria (no 22) is touchingly minor mode, giving what is essentially a mildly humorous drinking song a touch of genuine pathos—now is the time to drink and if your right hand fails you, use the left. The setting, simple, almost naive and with modest interjections by the violin and viola, is both sympathetic and touching. Bach appears to convey a genuine sympathy for these simple country people. Well, simple they may be, but still stylish enough to perform some quite demanding music!

Bass/soprano closing recitative and aria.

A final brief moment of agreement as to what to do next (no 23) leads to the final duet. Any moment of pathos is swept away immediately in a melodic line of inspired silliness—as we go to hear the bagpipes drone in the tavern we cry—’long live Dieskau’—and—’may he receive whatever he wishes for’.

One feels that this has the quality of a Bach family quodlibet. It brings to an end a work that remains puzzling to many, but maybe it should not be so. Perhaps we should take it simply on face value as a piece of entertainment, bordering on the crude at times, sophisticated at others.

It is also conceivable that some listeners will come to the conclusion that few other of his compositions reveal the range of Bach as a composer more than this one!

©John Mincham

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