Chapter 2 BWV 75 Die Elenden sollen essen

The poor shall not go unfed.

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

Sinfonia--recit (alto)--aria (alto)--recit (bass)--aria (bass)--recit (tenor)--chorale.

The first cantata of the cycle for the First Sunday after Trinity.

The first performance of a cantata in a regular Sunday service by the newly appointed Cantor must, if only in retrospect, have been a highly significant event.This was not the first of Bach's cantatas to be performed in Leipzig, however. He had presented Cs 22 and 23 earlier in the year as audition pieces supporting his application. Bach made use of them later as part of his first complete cycle; essays on them can be found in chapters 44 and 45.

Like the two works which followed, C 75 was a piece of substantial proportions, bi-partite with the sections intended for performance on either side of the sermon. Bach may well have realised that the workload involved in producing weekly works of this dimension was an impossible one since he only wrote a limited number of two-part cantatas for the remainder of this cycle (Cs 76, 21, 147, 186 and 70) and only one (C 20) in that which followed. Nevertheless, from a retrospective examination of this work we are able to infer much about Bach’s ambitions, intentions and aspirations as he set about producing his canon of ‘well regulated’ church music.

It is noticeable that Bach does not open his Leipzig account with a large orchestra with trumpets, horns or drums. One solo trumpet makes its appearance in two later movements but the opening chorus suffices with continuo, strings and a pair of oboes (although a bassoon is specifically called upon to double the continuo line).

What, then, are we to make of this debut work, long, impressive and imposing certainly, but without being unduly strident or flamboyant? Was Bach not yet aware of the additional musicians he could call upon when required, a likely hypothesis as the work is known to have been composed before he took up his new appointment. Did he wish to convey an initial impression of prudence and of not squandering resources unnecessarily? Did he want to demonstrate that he could do the job whilst making only modest demands upon the ecclesiastical purse? It must, however, be remembered that Bach took up his post in the period following Trinity, a sector of the church year which provided fewer opportunities for festive or extravagant musical displays within the services. Bach would have to wait until the Christmas celebrations at the end of 1723 for such an occasion.

But, as seems most likely when one considers the history of Bach’s general disregard for the opinions and budgets of those in authority, is it not most likely that he simply chose the precise resources required for the most effective communication of his music? His choice of instruments must have been made, at least partly, according to the nature of the occasions for which music was required e.g. horns, trumpets and drums for ceremonial occasions. But whatever the complex reasons, there is little doubt that Bach began by giving the Leipzig congregations a clear insight into his ultimate intentions and what he was capable of, as well as offering a practical demonstration of the vast range of musical expression that he could command with minimal resources.

It is also probable that Bach viewed the first two (and possibly even three) of his Leipzig cantatas as a cognate group. Cs 75 and 76 each has fourteen movements, seven in each part. Each section contains three recitatives and two arias and ends with a chorale with independent instrumental parts. In both cases Part 2 begins with an instrumental sinfonia and the initial recitative in each of the four sections is accompanied by full strings. All four voices are used for the arias in both works but in a complementary fashion:

       Part 1 tenor/soprano (C 75), soprano/bass (C 76).

       Part 2 alto/bass (C 75) and tenor/alto (C 76).

Might this have been an intitial template that Bach was considering to be appropriate for the Leipzig services?

There are minor differences in the structural layouts; for example whilst each voice has one or more recitatives in C 75, there are none for the soprano in 76. But there are enough similarities to suggest that Bach was in the process of formulating an ideal cantata model to form the basis of his canon of' well regulated' church music. Did he abandon it because of the inordinate workload? Or because these large scale works placed too great a demand upon the learning capacities of the young performers? Or was it simply that his endlessly questing imagination led him to discover that there were a number of other equally effective ways in which his music could be structured and presented? Not the least of these would be the solo cantata (making its first Leipzig appearance on the eleventh Sunday after Trinity) and the chorale/fantasia which was to become the mainstay of the second cycle.


Opening chorus.

ThIs imposing chorus is set in the key of Em which Bach tends to associate with the crucifixion. The text falls into three distinct parts, thus determining the tri-partite musical structure. The first (bars 1-41) tells us that the poor shall eat and not starve. In the opening two bars the musical theme combines a sense of power and authority (the French Overture-like dotted rhythms and leaping intervals) with a feeling of solitariness and isolation (the lone, struggling oboe semi-quavers). Indeed the placing of the second phrase a fifth below that of the opening statement is, in itself, a musical expression of 'lowliness'.

                                           Tutti                         Solo oboe......................................

The contrast between the rich and commanding and the poor supplicant (Lazarus) is immediately evoked. The fusing together of ideas and images which are essentially contradictory is a characteristic of Bach’s composition with which the Leipzig congregations were to become extremely familiar over the succeeding years; Bach begins as he means to continue!

The vocal entries are initially restrained and dignified but quickly evolve into a full and gratifying texture as the poor are seen to be replete.

The second line of text informs us that those who seek the Lord shall praise Him, thus preparing us neatly for the optimism of the final line promising----the heart which acclaims shall be immortal! This middle section commences with the rising tenor idea (bar 41) taken up by each of the other voices in turn.

The imperious dotted rhythms are never absent for long and it is notable that the predominant direction of all parts is upwards, a clear indication of the seeking after, and offering praises to, the Lord in His House.

The third section (from bar 68) is faster and much more overtly fugal, the following theme presented in two expositions (from bar 68 with tenors leading and from bar 83, led by the basses).

  The texture is preoccupied with swathes of semi-quavers indicative of the joy of salvation, eternal life and the blessings of the Lord that shall encompass us all. It surges forward to a triumphant final cadence, prior to which all voices and instruments have combined in a universal declamation of joyous eternity. A movement which began in a slightly hesitant and wistful minor mode now ends on an exultant E major chord.

Running typically at a little over four minutes, this is by no means the longest of Bach’s opening choruses; indeed, it is concise almost to the point of terseness. But it remains an impressive and memorable first foray which, according to contemporary accounts, was well received by those for whom it was intended (Dürr p 384).

(Readers may also wish to consider Dürr’s account of this chorus as a choral expansion of the instrumental prelude and fugue, pp 384-5. It is perfectly possible to view it in these terms as well as noting the musical adherence to the three textual ideas).

Bass recitative.

Of the six recitatives, the first in each section is accompanied by a four-part string/continuo texture. This bass recitative has a quasi-philosophical ring to it----of what use are the earthly trappings of majesty, vanity and precious goods when they must eventually vanish?----we must leave these temptations of the devil when we depart this life----and how quickly they all turn to dust.

The bass is the voice of God and/or authority and so it is not surprising to find his utterances to be forceful and rhetorical, as in this mini-sermon on the irrelevancy of the 'good things' in life. What may take us by surprise, however, is the powerful operatic declamation. In a sense it might seem absurd to try to depict such oratorical deliveries in anything less than theatrical terms and Bach was surely well aware of this. Nevertheless, the Leipzig authorities had demanded a less operatic style as a condition of Bach’s appointment and it is typical of the man to disregard the injunctions of ‘lesser mortals’ and follow his own judgement, even this early in his period of tenure. The striding melody sweeps over more than an octave and a half, the strings reinforce the rhetoric and significant words e.g. hinnen----the departure {from this life} is given robust harmonic emphasis (bar 7).

Tenor aria.

The tenor aria is the first movement to begin in a major key as befits the joy of giving oneself to Jesus----You, Jesus are everything to me----I rejoice that Your sacrifice allows me to partake of the greatest of all contentments. The mood is jauntily confident and buoyant, strings accompanying with an oboe veering between doubling the first violins and offering its own solo passages. The fifteen-bar ritornello is heard fully three times, at the beginning, at the end and between bars 70-84.

The structures of both the ritornello and the overall movement are indicative of a number of features that Bach was to develop and make his own in the following years. The opening two-bar phrases quickly become extended into non-symmetrical units; any remaining sense of predictability is erased by the two-against-three of bars 11-13 where a five-note motive is stated four times within a three-bar context.

Opening two bars                                                     Bars 11-13.

This is an excellent example of Bach’s avoidance of the expected and conventional, frequently a delight to his listeners but sometimes posing unforeseen problems for the performers. The overall structure of the movement is one which Bach developed in a number of contexts, particularly after the second cycle. It appears to be a ternary form structure contained within a conventional ritornello shape. There is a clearly defined first section taking us to bar 84, after which a contrasting middle section follows; but there is no clear reprise. A considerably condensed version of the A section (barely one quarter the length of the original) begins in bar 113 and while reuse is made of the primary material, there is no complete recapitulation and certainly no da capo, although it would have been simple enough, particularly as Bach had ended his first section in G major, the tonic key. Perhaps the determining reason was the length of the overall cantata; there are no individual movements as long as five minutes in performance and most are considerably shorter.

Tenor recitative.

The short tenor recitative informs us that God both casts down and elevates as He chooses and these actions of direction are clearly heard in the shaping of the melodic line. The ‘seeking of Heaven’ is given vocal stress (bar 4) and the last chords move from minor to major suggestive of the vanquishing of Hell’s enticements and the consequent rejoicing as God redeems those who have been wise enough to reject earthly temptations.

Soprano aria.

Whilst the tenor aria was wholly positive and joyful, that for soprano is less certain. The minor mode returns and the dark oboe d’amore makes its first (and only) appearance as the obbligato instrument. The continuo line plods somewhat wearily and hesitantly, mostly on the first and second of the three beats in a bar.

The text concerns itself with human suffering but not in an entirely negative sense----I accept my anguish joyfully without complaint----those who have cheerfully born the torments of Lazarus will be welcomed by the Angels. The form is conventional da capo/ritornello, the only one in this cantata. The contrasting B section begins in bar 75.

The mood of this aria is not one of unmitigated joy. Earth has its trials and sorrows and they are bound to wear us down, ultimately exhausting us. It is our attitude towards our ordeals which is important as the long, euphoric melismas on Freuden----joy----and Engels----Angels, demonstrate (see bars 33-35, 53-56 and 100-106). Such moments contrast with the torments of Lazarus suggested, in the middle section, by migration through unrelated keys (Am, Bm and F major).

Soprano recitative.

The major-mode soprano recitative prepares us for the cheerful setting of the chorale which closes Part 1. We are told that God provides us with an effective conscience with which we may thrive----our road to death may yet be miserable but it will end well. The moment of death evokes a graphic but fleeting instance of word painting (bar 6). Bach also pictures the journey tonally: the progression of ideas from positive conscience to misery and death, thence returning to encouraging conclusions, are represented by the transitions of mode—major—minor--major. This process also leads us to G, the key of the chorale.


It was some time before Bach chose the plain four-part chorale setting to end the majority of his cantatas at Leipzig. Initially he seemed to prefer a more extrovert arrangement, the orchestra playing a much greater part than it was to do later when it merely doubled the vocal lines. Perhaps it was initially a matter of the workload which led him to this practice or maybe he came to believe that a quiet moment of communal reflection was a particularly effective way of ending the majority of the cantatas. Indeed, this first cycle reveals a continuous process of experimentation as to the various ways in which chorales might be used within the cantata formats.

For C 75 the setting is ebullient and stirring, with little feeling of the cup of bitterness referred to in the text. Rather, this is a hymn of praise to God the All-bountiful who renews our hopes and drives away our troubles. In effect this is a mini- chorale/fantasia, the first violin (and oboe) melody introducing and conjoining the phrases, further impelled by a sturdily marching quaver continuo line below the subtle, stroking off-beat rhythms of the second violins. The entire movement will return to conclude the cantata using a different verse which, nevertheless, expresses the same premise.



Bach takes pains to ensure that the congregation maintains its interest in the chorale melody because the trumpet now proclaims its six phrases within the sinfonia which ushers in Part 2. Strings and continuo present a four-part fugato based upon a theme, the repeated notes and rising interval of which declares its connections with the subject from the opening chorus. Violin 1, then 2, viola and continuo take turns to announce this concise theme before the first trumpet entry.

Two points are of particular interest. The first is the range of key contrast which Bach manages to achieve despite the constraints of the chorale melody. Three related keys (A and E minors and D major) are all touched upon. In a sense this can be viewed as a preparation for the great chorale fantasias of the second cycle. There, the opening choruses were often tonally restricted by the lack of variety of keys in the chorale melody. Bach here, as there, is constantly seeking imaginative ways of extending his tonal palette.

The second point relates to the motivic connections between this and the previous movement. Both feature surging scalic strings creating a picture of God’s bounty and our ecstasy in receiving it. Both include a series of suspensions in the harmony, subtly moderating the outpouring of benefice. Perhaps, in the ‘purest’ of musical terms, Bach is anticipating the mixed message of the movement which follows.

Alto recitative.

This is the second accompanied recitative and, as with the earlier one for bass, the mood is quasi-philosphical. The alto muses upon the frailty of our faith on earth----we believe in the daily renewal of God’s blessings but we lack the potency to attain the spirituality of the eternal and divine realm. This dichotomy clearly distinguishes the contrast between devotion (which may be strong and assured) and endeavour (which is often weak and lacking). This may grieve the good Christian but the major-mode ending offers hope as it points the way to the blessing offered by Jesus and further explored in the following aria.

Alto aria.

Here the voice is accompanied by the continuo and an obbligato line played, not by a soloist but by all available violins. This creates, particularly in the lower registers, a rich and opulent sound. The text tells of the spiritual growth that one may attain through the spirit of Jesus----nothing more is required in this life. The initial musical idea, a rising scale, may suggest the nourishment and advancement of the human soul. But three bars later the direction is reversed; the scale now descends. Between them a repeated semi-quaver motive is heard, suggesting Christ’s benefice trickling down upon those who are ready to receive it.

     Rising motive  followed by trickling thence falling shapes.

The imagery encapsulated within these musical motives is difficult to pinpoint and the Em key, with little major-mode contrast, suggests a resigned and submissive soul. We accept what the Lord offers us but lack the ability to fully understand or implement it, at least in this life. There is a dour stolidity about this aria which music, perhaps, conveys with greater subtlety than words.

The structure of the aria is odd and truncated. We are led to expect a contrasting middle section to emerge from bar 87 but it doesn’t eventuate. We are simply left with a reference to the opening bars and a final emphasis upon our spiritual richness----reich.

Bass recitative.

The bass recitative offers a gentle reassurance to those unable to take full advantage of the benefice offered to us----simply remain true to Him and live well----only this is needed for you to ensure your proper place after death. Ever the practical musician, Bach places it so as to allow the singer to ‘warm up’ before his big aria.

Bass aria.

The trumpet returns but this time as a leading virtuosic member of the ensemble. Bach’s trumpets usually appear singly or in groups of three; whilst pairs and quartets are not wholly unknown they are much less common. The triplets, shared between strings and trumpet but only adopted by the singer near the very end, suggest the flames of Christ’s glory; what was originally a trickle has become, in this aria, a conflagration----I now love and believe----consequently His flames envelop me totally.

    Trumpet above 1st and 2nd violins.

This is the ultimate assertion of confident faith and commitment; all doubts have now been abandoned. The form is ternary with the A section returning from bar 34. But it is not quite a simple da capo reprise. In his last statement of affirmation of belief and endearmen,t the singer adopts the triplets in a triumphant scale rising nearly one and a half octaves (bars 49-50). This is the moment of personal commitment and declaration towards which the whole cantata has been building.

Tenor recitative and closing chorale.

Following this confident assertion, two final moments of Lutheran moralising complete the work. The tenor (recitative) reminds us that when Jesus alone inhabits the heart of beggar as much as rich man, the way is open for the Christian to approach God. There is, however, an oddly pensive moment (bars 3-4) when reference is made to Jesus ruling alone. But this is soon forgotten when the concluding festive chorale setting returns, reaffirming our personal commitment to accept unquestionably everything He decrees: what God does is still well done!


Three centuries later some may feel that the moral may have become a little repetitious. But this was intended for a slower age and, indeed, a very different audience, one with which Bach was yet to become fully familiar. Better, perhaps, at this early stage to make doubly sure that the intended message was fully communicated and clearly understood. Bach would create many opportunities for condensing and focussing his texts in numerous works yet to be composed.


Copyright: J Mincham 2010.  Revised 2012 and 2014.
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