Chapter 17 BWV 39 Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot

Break your bread with hungry men.

Chorus--recit (bass)--aria (alto).

Aria (bass)--aria (sop)--recit (alto)--chorale.

For the first Sunday after Trinity.

This is certainly one of the largest and most expansive cantatas Bach composed after the completion of the second cycle. The clue may be found in the day for which it was written. C 75 (vol 1, chapter 2), also for the first Sunday after Trinity, was the first of Bach’s compositions to be performed in Leipzig in May 1723 announcing, as it did, the arrival of the new cantor and the beginning of his first annual cycle of cantatas. C 20 (vol 2, chapter 2), composed in 1724 also for this day, heralded the beginning of the chorale/fantasia second cycle. It was one of the most expansive of those works, heading the fifty-three cantatas performed in Bach’s second year at Leipzig and the only two-part cantata of that cycle. (It is surely no coincidence that all three works, Cs 75, 20 and 39 are bi-partite).

Strangely, there is no cantata for this day of 1725. It would have followed C 176 but this is the period of Bach’s ‘sabbatical’ when he appears to have composed no new cantatas for some weeks. Whether they are lost, repeated earlier ones or works by other composers is not known. What we do know is that of this period only cantatas for the 9th, 12th and 13th Sundays after Trinity are extant (Cs 168, 137 and 164) and that two of these are comparatively slight works.

Could it be that C 39 was the cantata with which Bach intended  to commence his fourth (or, if the Obituary counted the Weimar cantatas as a separate first annual set, possibly fifth) annual cantata cycle?

It may be that Cs 168-129 comprise what remains of the third cycle and that C 39 is the first of a similarly depleted fourth. Wolff aligns them differently (pp 281/3) and in a sense it does not matter. We now know reasonably accurately when these works were first performed and for which particular church days. Further speculation about their groupings does relatively little to help our appreciation of them.

Nevertheless, it seems very likely, that Bach attached personal significance to this particular day and consequently sought to parade a work of considerable substance. It has now been fully established that this cantata was composed for this occasion in 1726 (Dürr p 394) and not in the early 1730s as was previously believed to be the case.



The opening chorus is massively constructed, setting a substantial stanza of greater length than we would normally expect for such a movement. The theme is one of loving one’s neighbour, allied with the parable of the rich man who, should he share that which he has with the less fortunate, will ensure his own grace in the eyes of the Lord. Specifically, it exhorts the privileged to break their bread and share it with the less prosperous and, furthermore, to assist in clothing the naked. The first part of the verse (and the chorus) deals with these precise actions, the second part with their consequences----you will grow within your own righteousness and your inner light, like that of the dawn, will shine forth----and so God will accept you into His place.

There is, therefore, a duality built into the text which refers, on the one hand, to the lowly and needy and on the other, identifying those wealthy individuals who may bring glory upon themselves by offering charity to the poor. Bach has reflected this duality in a number of ways, not least in the instrumental ritornello itself. The contrast of circumstance is captured in the most masterly way, initially through orchestral means in the setting of pairs of recorders and oboes against strings and continuo.

Two repeated notes on the recorders are immediately imitated by the oboes followed by the strings, setting up a pattern, which dominates the opening dozen bars. Schweitzer (vol 2, p 46/7) quotes Spitta’s theory that this ‘broken’ musical idea represents the breaking of the bread referred to in the text. Schweitzer derides this and includes the figuration as one of Bach’s ‘motives of exhaustion,’ quoting similar patterning from C 125 (vol 2, p 92/3). The music suggests, in his view, ‘a man wearily dragging himself along’ and being ‘conducted under a sheltering roof’ (ibid).

    Pairs of flutes and oboes above upper strings and continuo.

Schweitzer is probably somewhat nearer to the truth although he does not seem to entertain the thought that Bach may have intended to represent both images with the same musical figuration.

An examination of the dualistic structure of the opening ritornello may shed some light on the problem. The rhythmically broken figure described above virtually disappears in the second half of the instrumental section where recorders and oboes overlap with a more flowing figure (from bar 14).

    Flutes echoed by oboes.

Shortly afterwards the continuo line announces a series of ascending scales, reaching upwards one note further on each repetition, the recorders eventually concluding the sequence. Thus we find a musical picture of weariness and poverty merging into a more benign, uplifted and integrated view of the world, accompanied by a ceaseless striving towards greater heights in search of God’s ultimate blessings.

Bach continues to combine these elements in a number of ways, merging seamlessly the three great sections of the movement’s structure. The first of these culminates in a four-part fugal exposition that begins with the tenor entry (from bar 47) and it ends, without ambiguity, with a move from triple to common time in bar 94.

This second section concerns itself with those lines of text that describe the covering of the naked man. The musical texture is full and flowing with only the subtlest of reminders of the ‘dragging’ figuration in the oboes and middle strings.

The third and final section is heralded by a second change of time signature, this time to 3/8 (bar 206). The text concentrates upon the glowing light of virtue which will emanate outwards, ultimately to be received by God himself. Flowing semi-quaver figures predominate and the general metaphor of ‘rising to something above’ is encapsulated in the two four-part fugati (commencing bars 106 and 167) where on each occasion the order of entries is from the lowest to the highest voices.

It cannot be doubted that this is a chorus from a composer at the very height of his powers. It may be that Bach tired for a while, quite understandably, of delivering regular weekly cantatas after the completion of the second cycle. But if that had then been the case, there is no sign of it in this work!

Bass recitative.

The bass recitative takes the form of a sermon----God’s bounty poured upon us serves as the ultimate example of charity----mercy given to one’s fellow man touches His heart. It is interesting that at this stage of his career Bach seems to have temporarily lost the interest he had frequently displayed in the second cycle of combining recitative, chorale, arioso and ritornello elements. He now seems to prefer the simple, direct secco recitative structure, although there is one moment where he transcends it. The final phrase, expressing the pleasure in God’s heart, is a tender and touching moment of pure arioso melody as only Bach could create.

Alto aria.

Part 1, presumably performed before the sermon, ends with an alto aria accompanied by two obbligato instruments, a violin and an oboe. The text tells us that the following of the Creator’s examples on earth is but an imitation or reflection of His goodness. Nevertheless, it is a foretaste of that which we ourselves may aspire to receive in heaven. It concludes with the metaphor of sowing on earth those seeds which we will duly harvest after death.

There are, then, three clear images, which the music encapsulates: that of imitation, ultimate celestial ecstasy, and the scattering of fertile seeds.

Bach’s love of and facility with imitation techniques was, of course ideal for the representation of ‘reflection’ or replication and the oboe follows the violin throughout. Two different, but equally flowing melismas on streuet----to scatter (bars 71 and 104)----paint the third image quite unambiguously.

    From bar 71:

Furthermore, there is a joyousness and sense of almost breathless expectation about this movement as the four melodic lines effortlessly interweave in a measured celestial dance.


Bass aria.

The bass returns, presumably to reinforce the theme of the sermon. Certainly the text adds nothing that has not been heard previously----remember that to do that which is good and to share with the unfortunate i,s to please God. The aria is a miniature ritornello movement, dispensing with any obbligato instruments, the continuo providing the only support.

In fact the instrumental bass line seems to have been constructed principally for the purposes of rhetorical proclamation. The opening theme draws immediate attention to itself through its asymmetrical structure; the first two phrases are each one and a half bars long.

The constant repetition of this initial idea throughout gives the impression of a ground bass although this is strictly not the case. The voice makes much use of the theme, entering with it on bars 6, 12, and 31. The first four notes form a figure which may be detached thus creating a ‘hook’, returning consistently to remind the listener of the main thesis----wohlzutun----it is right and beneficial to share and to do good.

At this stage the premise of the day has been comprehensively dealt with. It has been stated and sung about, expounded, no doubt, in a sermon to the congregation and now it is reinforced by the bass voice of authority. It is time to dwell for a moment upon a more personal and individual reaction to these events. The soprano adopts this role in the following aria, accompanied by two recorders playing their obbligato melody in unison.

Soprano aria.

The text is somewhat enigmatic but it boils down to a complete subservience of self to the Will of God----all that I have is bestowed upon me by You----but whatever I may offer You in gratitude, You would have no need of. Despite the somewhat elaborate expression, the essential theme is one of simple faith, the concept of ‘simplicity’ embodying dignity and a complete lack of guile or sophistication. But if one has difficulty in extracting the message from some of the more florid translations of the text, the music is direct and unequivocal.

In fact, simplicity is the keynote throughout this movement. The ritornello theme, played by the unison recorders, is built in direct, uncomplicated two-bar phrases, in itself a sign of Bach’s intentions.

    Flute, opening 2-bar phrases.

The obbligato line is gracefully fluid but never truly virtuosic. The vocal line has, at times, the quality of a folk song. Nothing disturbs the directness of the individual’s affirmation of faith, enveloped within the encompassing blessings of the Almighty.

Alto recitative.

The personal element continues in the penultimate movement, a recitative for alto accompanied by lush string chords. It first asks how one might repay God for his blessings to soul and body and then it takes the form of an individual pledge to do all that has been asked, to praise Him, to offer up the Soul and to continue assisting one’s neighbours and the poor; all in the hope of ultimate salvation. The opening, rich Eb harmonies suggest an all-encompassing warmth and the strings envelop and caress the voice throughout. Somewhat strangely for the expression of such positive values, the movement is largely set, and ends in the minor mode. Perhaps the implied message is that, pledged or not, adhering to one’s resolutions may still be a challenging matter!


The chorale setting must be one of Bach’s simplest and most direct. Once again it reinforces the principal theme of charity and good deeds, demonstrating a sense of compassion towards others and the consequent blessings that such actions will receive from the Almighty.

The phrase structure is symmetrical and predictable until the last two phrases. Each of these is two-and-a-half bars long, having the effect of extending outwards: perhaps a final suggestion of looking beyond ourselves, stretching towards the Lord in the continual search for His approval?

  Could it have been this odd and surprisingly compelling structure that gave Bach the idea of those asymmetrical phrases at the beginning of the bass aria?


Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.
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