Chapter 24 Bwv 89

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Chapter 24 BWV 89 Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim?

What shall I do about you, Ephraim?

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

The twenty-third cantata of the cycle for the twenty-second Sunday after Trinity.

It is, perhaps, unsurprising that Bach temporarily abandoned the practice of beginning with extended choruses following C 109. C 89 heads a quartet of cantatas which commence with arias and dispense entirely with choruses except for the closing chorales. It has often been suggested that this was to give the young musicians a break between those parts of the church year when they were required to be particularly active. This may have been a factor but so too may have been Bach′s desire to temporarily lift the load from his own shoulders or even just a determination to present as varied as possible a musical diet to the parishioners.

The periods of greatest musical activity requiring the production of large-scale works in Bach′s first year were: a) the initial weeks, when he clearly had to establish himself, b) Christmas celebrations and c) the Easter festival. At other times, as now, we find clusters of smaller works. Bach was, however, almost certainly in the process of developing the larger works during these slightly more fallow periods. Indeed, this conjecture is strengthened with the realisation that not only were extended choruses set aside after C 109 but much of the scoring of arias was also very light. Bach may not yet have formed a definitive concept of the ideal cantata structure (if he ever did!) but he seems to have planned his workload over the twelve months with scrupulous efficiency. As we shall see, from the week of C 70 (the cantata which completed the church year) to that of C 65 (Epiphany), Bach amassed larger forces with which to perform the substantial works required at this significant time.

Whatever the reasons, it remains the case that Cs 89, 163, 60 and 90 are all of the chamber cantata type, each requiring only about a dozen players to perform. The concluding chorales were almost certainly performed by just four singers, all or most of whom would have had solo roles earlier in the works. C 89, for example, contains recitatives and arias for all voices except the tenor so he would have been the only additional vocalist to be recruited for the chorale.

Bass aria.

The opening bass aria is set to a discursive text which might seem more ideally suited to recitative. Presumably Bach set it as he did because it conveys the words of God to which a dramatic aria might lend greater import. Bach was certainly not averse to commencing a cantata with a recitative or, indeed, the voices of God or Jesus sung by the bass, the traditional expression of authority (see Cs 85, 108 and 87 from vol 2, chapter 44).

In C 89 God is pondering His future actions and the biblical references may initially seem confusing; but presumably they would have had resonances for contemporary congregations. Ephraim was the name of a group of tribes in North Israel and Admah and Zeboim were towns destroyed along with, and for the same reasons as, Sodom and Gomorrah. God is asking Himself what He should do with those existing communities which continue to show signs of sinfulness. Should He raze them as He had done previously? The text ends, however, with a line of moderation—-but My heart, governed by infinite compassion, is inclined to do otherwise. Thus we have a portrait of a Lord of command who is prepared to act decisively against the sinful but who, nevertheless, allows himself to be governed by mercy. Clemency, the bestowing or withholding of it, becomes an important sub-theme of this cantata.

The bass aria is the most fully scored of all the movements, albeit still within a chamber context. Strings, continuo and two oboes unite with a rather ineffectual horn part that shows all the signs of being added simply to keep a player involved! The route into a deeper understanding of this bleak and austere movement may follow three pathways, the slithering continuo line (heard first in the opening bar), the emphasis of key words through numerous melismas and sustained notes and finally, the three unexpected moments where the music comes to a temporary halt. We will examine each of these, starting with the last.

The text advances a number of questions which Bach condenses into three which he addresses to establish the main structural framework of the movement i.e. what shall I do about Ephraim? Or with Israel? Shall I treat others accordingly? Each question is expanded in turn, leading to a pause on an unfinished chord (bars 15, 22 and 29). The last hiatus brings us to the mid-way point of the movement, the second half of which deals with the notion of God′s compassion.

Apart from the emphases put upon the place names, Bach gives additional prominence to three key words, firstly schützen—-protection or deliverance (from bar 16). After the mid-way point we find inordinate stress put upon anders—-the different inclinations (of His heart; from bar 35) and lastly brünstig—-the passion (of His mercy; from bar 46). The final melisma is a convoluted melodic depiction of that word.

The semi-quaver continuo line is of the type that Bach sometimes associates with notions of sin, probably through a representation of the Serpent of Eden.

It is usually at its most menacing when heard on the lower instruments although in this movement the oboes also promote the image. At times the figuration is highly reminiscent of that in the last movement of the double harpsichord concerto in the same key (C minor) although this is almost certainly accidental since the expressive characters of the two movements are so different. The original nine-bar ritornello theme which contributed much of the material, though virtually nothing in the way of episodes, returns in full to conclude a movement of dramatic power and innovative structure.

Alto recitative.

Minor modes dominate the alto recitative which, in its support of God′s right to vengeance and its condemnation of our countless sins, takes on a fierce and provocative quality—-certainly He should speak His judgment and take vengeance for the mocking of His name—-despite His moderation, your sins remain limitless and in rejecting His kindness, the blame falls upon your neighbour. The sharpness at the mention of the mocking of His name is powerfully communicated (bars 3-4) as indeed is the final inflaming of the fires of vengeance.

Alto aria.

The next movement is a meagerly scored continuo aria for alto, but the scarcity of the forces should not diminish the significance bestowed upon it by its central place in the cantata. The text is completely uncompromising, based around two interlinked assertions—-judgment without mercy will be pronounced upon you—-retribution begins with those who have themselves demonstrated no mercy for they shall, like Sodom, be levelled. The musical structure of what is, in the first instance a ritornello movement, is predicated upon these two ideas. So indeed is the opening continuo theme, a forthright, rhetorically assertive figure immediately followed by a stream of semiquavers, perhaps the pouring forth of God′s passionate anger.

A third pattern arrives with the introduction of triplets (bar 18) at the mention of God′s vengeance.

The interplay of these three ideas, at one point resulting in the tension of groups of three notes against two, forms the basis of the contrapuntal material.

Just as there is no escaping the enormity of God′s will, there is no corresponding light and shade in this aria which remains resolutely minor. Even the related key of C, traditionally major, becomes minor (from bar 27).

An additional three-part format is directly derived from the text and Bach superimposes it upon the existing ritornello structure e.g. the pronouncement of judgement (bars 5-17), the vengeance inflicted (bars 18-31) and a re-emphasis of the original decree (from bar 32). In other words the conventional ritornello form is divided, through the sense of the verse, into three segments. The message of the text of this aria seems conceived for the purpose of freezing the marrow in one′s bones! Bach, however, requires only three musicians for its communication.

Soprano recitative.

The soprano recitative, as bare and secco as that for alto, at least brings us the relief of major modes although while it employs them at the beginning and end, it reverts to minor in between. This precisely reflects the sense of the verse, commencing, as it does with commitment to lay aside strife and forgive one′s neighbour and concluding with a returning to Jesus. Between them, however, lies the terror of the sinful life, a sense of trepidation which faith has not yet conquered. Nevertheless, we are clearly on the right path as the closing affectionate arioso above a steadfast bass line, confirms.

Soprano aria.

The third and final aria is for soprano. After an initial question—-how, oh God, do You judge me? —-it becomes almost as adamant as that for alto but expressed from a very different standpoint—-for my part I shall count Christ′s droplets of blood against my account and they shall mask my sins. The rhythms are now dance-like, the mode major and the predominant melodic directions are optimistically rising.

It is a surprisingly short movement considering its significance marking, as it does, the end of doubt and the consequent acceptance of faith as the means of redemption. It reprises the first section but in a severely truncated form and, indeed, Bach seems happy to leave much of the celebration to the obbligato oboe; its cheery theme is heard, without the voice, for more than half the movement. The allusion to Christ′s blood and its implications for us (from bar 28) do navigate the music through related minor keys but the optimistic rising oboe motive is never far away, although never fully adopted by the soprano.


The closing chorale is a serious Germanic statement of affirmation—-whatever I may lack, still that which I have is achieved through Your blood—-only through it may I conquer death the devil, hell and sin. The mode is once again minor but Bach has contrived to harmonise three central cadences in the major! There is hope, particularly when we are reminded, as we are, of Christ′s redeeming blood.

But we still leave this cantata on a moderately sombre note. In fact the last two movements demonstrate very effectively two sides of Eighteenth Century Lutheranism, the joy of finding Christ and revealing the truths of redemption on the one hand and the recognition of personal transgressions and inadequacies on the other. Interesting that in the first of these two final movements, the mention of Christ′s blood is associated with minor modes within an overall major context. In the second, the chorale, this process is reversed. The symbolism is clear but perhaps only intended for God; on the one hand we grieve for His pain as we contemplate our own salvation. On the other, we rejoice in the recognition of His sacrifice as we admit our own failings.


Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017.