Chapter 11 BWV 105 Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht mit deinem Knecht

Lord, do not enter into judgement with Your servant.

Chorus--recit (alto)--aria (sop)--recit (bass)--aria (tenor)--chorale.

The tenth cantata of the cycle for the ninth Sunday after Trinity.

Another compact cantata and very possibly the first to be wholly composed after Bach took up his post at Leipzig. The depth and profundity of this fine work indicates that it is more likely to belong to Bach’s middle than his earlier period of cantata composition. This is not to say that some of his most youthful inventions were not, artistically, of the highest order; Cs 106 and 4 immediately spring to mind. Nevertheless, we can note ways in which Bach handled and expressed textual images which became increasingly more subtle as his experience of text setting increased over the years.


The first bars of the opening chorus proclaim a work of gravity and seriousness; there is here, no hint of the innocent delight of the equivalent movement of C 136 from the previous week. Leipzig audiences must, by now, have become aware that each successive work delivered by their recently appointed cantor heralded a new voyage of discovery. The mood this week is, however, bleak and forbidding. The key is Gm and the low oboes, single horn and violins produce a haunting and arresting timbre heightened by the gently throbbing bass and the series of dissonant suspensions in the harmony. The four bars which this idea requires to establish itself seem longer than they actually are, and from there the musical flow moves seamlessly to the next motive, a rhythmically broken, sobbing figure in the top line. (Listeners might well find that this music calls to mind the beginning of the first chorus of the St John Passion).

There is a dour, pleading inevitability about this music, a mood not unfamilar to some forms of eighteenth century Protestant pessimism.

The overall design of the movement is bipartite, each section dealing with one line of text. Dürr’s idea of comparing such a structure to that of the prelude and fugue (p 466) is helpful and forms the template for the analysis below.

1 PRELUDE: (bars 1-47). 
     Text:- Lord, enter not into judgement with thy servant.
     Structure:-four instrumental sections (of which the first and second are much the same and the fourth a development of the third) enclose three broadly similar choral blocks, the last of which is extended.

i.e. A- C-- A1-- C1-- B-- C2-- B1.

(A and B represent the instrumental sections and C the choral. It may help the non-specialist listener to note that whilst C2 is the longest of the choral sections, B is the shortest instrumental episode).

2 FUGUE: (bars 48-128) 
     Text:- For before You no living man shall be justified.
     Structure:- Three massive fugal expositions in which all four voices enter in turn, followed by a coda.

     Exposition 1: bars 48-67 voices entering, T, B, S, A.
     Exposition 2: bars 68-87 B, T, A, S.
     Exposition 3: bars 94-113 S, B, T, A.
     Coda: bars 114-end, including two statements of the fugue subject.
   Fugue subject.

If this description appears daunting to some, simply think of it as a slow prelude with alternate instrumental and choral sections and a faster fugue in which the main subject, heard at the beginning, is announced by each of the voices in turn in three ‘blocks’.

It is difficult to interpret Bach’s overall view and setting of this text with any certainty. The ‘prelude’, however, seems unambiguous. The mood is bleak and pessimistic, the ultimate expression of the guilt and lack of self-worth that may drive an individual to avoid judgement or ‘measurement’. Bach’s dark, but never entirely hopeless music expresses this state of being perfectly.

But why is the view that God justifies no living man set in such a contrasting and upbeat manner? Although the mode remains minor the constant repetitions of the fugal theme are almost pugnaciously relentless. Does Man address God in such a manner? The theme of the cantata is surely more to do with humility than with self belief. Why has Bach taken such an apparently confident line?

Perhaps it is meant to be received as a representation of Man’s acceptance of God’s uncompromising severity. Or it is the driving power of a conscience which torments the sinner who considers himself unworthy? It could be that Bach’s reason was also to do with balance. Until the late tenor aria, much of this cantata is tied to a text which could hardly be called energising and he may well have felt that a degree of vitality was essential if his congregations were not to lose interest. We cannot know what he had in mind; but we can, nevertheless, be grateful for his gift of a very fine piece of music.

Alto recitative.

The secco alto recitative paints little in the way of musical pictures. Artistically, its principal purpose is to bridge the contrasting humours of the first and third movements. The text asks that God does not reject a soul who bows before His justice. It acknowledges His justness, our guilt and promises to hide nothing. The connections with the cantata of the previous week may now be seen. Whereas C 136 began exposing our hearts to the Lord as, childlike, we fail to recognise our state of original sin, in C 105 we acknowledge and even parade our misdemeanours before His petrifying judgement.

Soprano aria.

The soprano aria transpires to be one of those movements which defies meaningful description. This is Bach at his most subtle and ingenious. It is a depiction of an aspect of the human condition so complex, and yet so expressive that words seem irrelevant.

And yet, it still behoves us to try to delve beneath the surface.

Its spiritual or ethereal quality is enhanced by the omission of a bass continuo line; the violas provide the harmonic foundation with gently throbbing unbroken quavers. The violins also use a repeated figuration but at double the speed of the violas a clear representation of the 'trembling and wavering' of the sinners. The solo oboe’s melodic line, latterly taken up by the soprano, is formed from a repeated four-note motive, stretched to suggest an intensity of effort as it approaches cadence points.

The effect is one of instability, of being essentially uncertain of oneself and one’s emotions. Where else has the ‘anguished conscience’, ripping itself apart, been so subtly and effectively portrayed?

The instrumental support is minimal, one oboe and upper strings only. But it is, nevertheless, extremely effective and hardly surprising since Bach has often demonstrated the expressive depths he can extract from limited resources. The text describes the trembling and quivering of the sinners who accuse themselves and each other. The penultimate lines summate the essence of both the aria and the entire cantata, the terrified conscience tearing itself apart with its own torture.

The initial vocal line is characterised by the fact that it inter-relates with the oboe, the four-note motive overlapping between them and maintaining the sense of insecurity. But it is not long before tentativeness becomes tortuous; convoluted melismas on----verklagen----and----wagen----both underline the ferocity of pointless accusations, leaving us in little doubt as to the causes of the emotional turbulence.

The music has now moved to the dominant key of Bb and a shortened version of the ritornello theme ushers in a further setting, altered only in detail but with increased intensity, of the original four lines of text. Bach’s portrayal of the suffering conscience is extended and spacious; this is not a matter to be glossed over in a hurry.

A second, shorter but even more intense oboe solo (bars 74-8) leads us to the final two lines of text, the self-defeating conscience, the denouement of the movement and the point of highest drama. Minor keys escort us to a final anguished cry from the soprano.

The aria concludes with a repetition of the original ritornello. There is still disquiet and uncertainty; but perhaps we are now prepared to emerge from this state into one of promised redemption and blissful acceptance.

Bass recitative.

Bach’s use of the upper strings to support the recitative voices had hitherto served the purpose of supplying sustained chords or accenting chosen words or actions. However it was not long before he was introducing woodwind instruments and making use of more active string figurations. Violins and violas are employed in the most imaginative manner in this bass recitative, reflecting, as always, aspects, ideas or images drawn directly from the text.

The insecurities expressed so graphically in the soprano aria are now beginning to dissipate to be replaced with the certainties of redemptive faith----happy is he who knows his Guarantor who erases the handwriting of your decrees----Jesus sprinkles it with His blood, nails it to the Cross and, at your death, will deliver it to the Father----when your body is finally covered in the grave, the Saviour unlocks, for you, the eternal dwelling. There are a number of strong images here but Bach is not distracted by niceties. His main preoccupation is to convey the important message which is the bedrock of the entire cantata and, no doubt, of the following sermon as well.

The strings are a vital ingredient in the communication of this particular argument. They begin with a broken, slightly tremulous figure above a pizzicato bass, the latter suggesting optimism, the former a lingering degree of uncertainty.

But when mention is made of your earthly record----body and soul-----the interrupted motive becomes continuous (from bar 9). When the body is carried to the grave and buried (from bar 13) only the first violin carries on with the established semi-quavers above low, sustained chords: earthly existence has terminated but the soul persists forever. Nevertheless, the descending vocal phrase in bar 14 graphically portrays the descent into the grave.

But just before the end, the voice strides confidently onto centre stage, reminding us of the eternity of the redeemed Christian’s dwelling. The strings return briefly to their original figuration, thus resuming their accompaniment role.

One final tiny detail may be noted with the ending of the voice and the first violin on the note of g, the third rather than the expected root of the chord. This in itself implies a lack of finality; death has occurred but the soul’s existence is eternal.

Tenor aria.

There has been plenty to touch the listener but rather less of an invigorating nature in this work to date. The tenor aria compensates for this although its initial bars, slightly plodding, if essentially martial due to the reappearance of the horn, are deceptive. It is not until bar four that the true breathless vigour and turbulence becomes apparent through the swirling streams of violin semi-demi-quavers. Man begins his journey to reside in eternity, leaving Mammon and earthly things behind him. Thus Bach would seem to be representing first, the mundane matters of the earth followed by the spiritual and divine clouds of glory. Indeed, the representation of oppositeswithin the same movement was a challenge that always stimulated him.

The tenor’s cries of rejection of Mammon are so overt that they cannot be missed even by a listener unfamiliar with the language. The aria is a relatively rare example, at this time, of Bach’s use of the strict da capo form in which the first section is repeated without change, The B section (from bar 40) offers contrast in both mood and substance as the text bemoans this vacuous world in which no pleasure is to be found. The rallying calls of the horn are temporarily silent as, indeed is the swirling haze of the first violins. But the latter returns before the end of the section; one might be disconsolate at the emptiness of earth’s temptations, and may well, as occurred earlier in this cantata, temporarily lose sight of the glory of God. But it does not cease to exist; it remains in perpetuity and the Christian is to be continually reminded of it.


The setting of the closing chorale is unique and one of the most striking in the canon. It is an acceptance of the divine assurance----I know that You will quieten my restless conscience and keep Your promise that none on earth need be lost----they may live forever. Bach’s descending chromatic bass line underpinning the first of the eight phrases is taken over by the upper strings and with it they extend each chorale statement. Thus every phrase melts away by means of the drooping melodic line and repeated notes, the latter of which were such a feature of and, indeed remind us of, the soprano aria. Furthermore, Bach slows the rhythmic movement of each of these little string codettas, beginning with semi-quavers and moving through triplets and quavers to end with crotchets, the least hurried of them all! The fears of the soul are gradually allayed and drift away as the soul detches itself from its mortal confinements; a process which is portrayed with the most imaginatively creative stroke of genius.


The soul has been quietened and has, at last, lost its fear. It may now find peace and respite, here upon earth and ultimately in the House of Eternity. And, of course, we are not permitted to forget that salvation is everlasting. The chorale ends not with the finality of a cadence on the tonic chord of Gm but on the unfinished dominant chord of D. Bach’s invention, imagination and truth to the text continues until the very last chord!


Copyright: J Mincham 2010.  Revised 2012 and 2014.
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