The so-called Shepherds’ Cantata (BWV 249.1 / BWV 249a) is one of the lesser known of Johann Sebastian Bach’s vocal works. The original secular version of the Easter Oratorio has survived only in fragmentary form, but it can be reconstructed from the latter’s incompletely transmitted early version “Kommt, gehet und eilet” (“Come, hasten and hurry”; BWV 249.3 / BWV249 I) with exception of the recitatives, which have to be considered lost. In this fragmentary form it was published already in 1977 by Paul Brainard in the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (NBA). The Shepherds’ Cantata was composed in 1725 for the birthday of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weißenfels (1682–1736). Described as “Tafel-Music” (table music) by Picander in his libretto that was published in 1727, following the conventions of the time it was presented on stage, i.e. as a baroque music theatre, the four vocal soloists being clad in costumes befitting the pastoral subject matter. This is also indicated by the dialogic structure of the recitatives. In modern terms the work may be described as a one-act festive opera. In Bach’s Shepherds’ Cantata Picander presents two pairs of figures – the shepherdesses Doris and Sylvia, and the shepherds Menalcas and Damoetas. In Greek mythology, Doris is a daughter of the titans Okeanos and Tethys, her companion Sylvia is the guardian of the woodlands. The two herdsmen Menalcas and Damoetas go back to the Eclogues by Vergil (70–19 BC). The third of altogether ten shepherd’s songs tells the story of a singing match between Menalcas and Damoetas provoked by a dispute, which ends undecided, however. This is where the plot of the Shepherds’ Cantata sets in: Right in the middle of the initial duet of the competing shepherds (movt. 3) Doris and Sylvia appear unexpectedly and, replacing the two men, sing the Da capo – a clear break with musical conventions of the time and a unique incident in Bach’s œuvre. The courtly audience must have appreciated Picander’s play with the antique models as highly entertaining. The sudden appearance of the shepherdesses is also referred to in the ensuing recitative (movt. 4). Finally, the concluding chorus addresses the celebrated regent directly: The introductory “Glück und Heil bleibe dein beständig Teil” (“May fortune and salvation remain your continual portion!”) alludes to the duke’s motto “Cum Deo Salus – Mit Gott mein Heil” (With God my Salvation). In the Easter Oratorio, which was first performed in Leipzig on 1 April 1725 (only a few weeks after the Duke’s birthday), the four shepherdesses and shepherds become Mary (daughter of James), Mary Magdalene, Peter and John. This early version of the Easter Oratorio “Kommt, gehet und eilet” (“Come, hasten and hurry”; BWV 249.3 /BWV 249 I) was subjected to at least two major revisions, resulting in the “standard version” performed today. Obviously Bach had good reasons for these significant changes: Friedrich Smend, who in 1942 had provided evidence for the parody relationship between the Shepherds’ Cantata and the Easter Oratorio, was the first to realize that while the Shepherds’ Cantata was a coherent and well-structured work, the Easter Oratorio contains numerous dramaturgical inconsistencies and oddities resulting from the parody process. For – contrary, for example, to the Christmas Oratorio – in reworking the Shepherds’ Cantata Bach had at first created a mere en-bloc parody, forgoing any substantial alterations such as the insertion of chorales and elaborate ariosos. It was again Friedrich Smend who found out that the “Drama per Musica” Die Feier des Genius (“Verjaget, zerstreuet, zerrüttet, ihr Sterne”, BWV 249.2 / BWV 249b), which is also lost today, is a secular parody of the Shepherds’ Cantata. First performed as an “Abend-Music” on 25 August 1726, this congratulatory cantata was addressed to the governor of the Leipzig Pleißenburg – and patron of Bach’s – Joachim Friederich Count Flemming (1665–1740), as a surviving copy of the libretto by Picander reveals. The libretto is a parody of the Shepherds’ Cantata, the original cast having been replaced by Minerva and Melpomene, Mercurius and Genius. The new mythological plot was tailored precisely to the new dedicatee: Genius as the guardian spirit of the Romans probably represented Flemming’s vigor, Melpomene as one of the nine Muses stood for his love of the arts, and Minerva as the goddess of tactical warfare addressed his military credits (which he had won in the Turkish Wars). The arias, the concluding chorus, and the first recitative (movt. 4) have the same rhyming scheme as their model of 1725, which suggests that all three were also musically parodies. Apparently Bach attempted here to maintain the original dramaturgy, as, analogous to the Shepherds’ Cantata, Mercurius and Genius comment on the unexpected appearance of Minerva and Melpomene in the preceding duet. Friedrich Smend presented a first attempt at reconstructing the Shepherds’ Cantata already in 1943, published by Bärenreiter at its Basel subsidiary. The lost recitatives were newly composed by the church musician and musicologist Hermann Keller (1885–1967). In his edition Smend failed to consider, however, that the first version of the Easter Oratorio (BWV 249.3 / BWV 249 I) of 1725 certainly comes closest to the musical text of the Shepherds’ Cantata and thus has to be used for any reconstruction. How Bach set the four recitatives of the Shepherds’ Cantata, cannot be determined any more. The second version for Count Flemming is rendered in italics and in the appendix (movts. 6, 8, and 10). Of particular interest in this context is the Arioso mentioned explicitly in Picander’s libretto, which apparently points to further changes in the music of the Feier des Genius (Celebration of Genius).
From the preface by Alexander Grychtolik