Chapter 27 BWV 47 Wer sich selbst erhöhet,der soll erniedriget werden.

Whomsoever exalts himself shall be humbled.

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

For the seventeenth Sunday after Trinity.

It is tempting to begin a discussion of this cantata by comparing its first movement with that of C 39 (chapter 17) performed a little over three months previously. Both are massive choruses in Gm and of almost identical length, 218 and 228 bars. Both have complex ritornelli which contain all the essential musical ingredients, stated at the beginning but not at the end. In each case the ritornello opens with a broken, partially fractured rhythmic statement, ultimately transforming itself into more flowing and continuous contours.

Finally, each of the massive vocal fugal sections is separated by moments of a more homophonic texture.

All of this may seem like coincidence although it does suggest that Bach was taking interest in a particular type of chorus structure at this time, as indeed he had done previously with the chorale/fantasia cantatas. He was certainly the kind of man who, having hit upon a new idea or formal principle, tended to explore and develop it as far as it would go.

Furthermore, textual themes also link these movements together.

C 39 is an admonition to those who have to provide for those who have not. In this way one may ‘raise’ oneself and be taken by the Lord into His home. C 47 is more laconic but presents us with a different perspective of the same theme----he who exalts himself shall be abased and vice versa. The juxtaposition of the rich and poor, high and low, proud and humble lies at the root of both these great movements and may indicate that Bach deliberately reminded himself of the format of the one before embarking upon the composition of the other.

Three cantatas written for this day are extant, one from each cycle in the order Cs 148 (vol 1, chapter 20), 114 (vol 2, chapter 18) and 47. Superficially their structures are similar in that they all begin with a long and complex chorus and end with a four-part chorale.

The first movement of C 148 is a song of worship and honour to the Lord, the need to offer such homage being the main theme of the work. It begins with one of the longest trumpet solos in the canon, clearly a demonstration of the pomp and ceremony with which we are mandated to praise Him.

The vaulting theme which announces C 114 is a rallying cry to the faithful, an exhortation of energy and affirmation. There can be few contrasts in the cantata repertoire greater than that between this impressive chorus and the despair evinced by the obbligato flute at the beginning of the following tenor aria.

Of these three cantatas C47 contains the fewest movements but compensates by having by far the longest opening chorus; counted in bars it is longer than the other two added together. The text, paraphrased above, is quite short so one is not surprised to encounter even more than the usual amount of repetition.


It is slightly surprising that Bach’s orchestra for this huge opening chorus was not more grandiose than that of the usual line up, just the two oboes with strings and continuo. The first theme is hardly worthy of the name; it is a rhythmically broken idea, the oboes echoing the strings’ sighing, three-note figure of dejection.

The second idea (from bar 4) is more conjunct, again the oboes following violins in close imitation.

A passage of rolling semiquavers on violins, then oboes and finally continuo takes us to bar 17 where Bach returns to the original material but reverses the roles of the oboes and strings.

From the symbolic point of view what are we to make of all this invention? Does the initial drooping figure represent the self-effacing ‘humble’ and the rising semi-quavers the ‘exalted’? It is highly probable that Bach had some representational ideas of this sort in mind. Certainly the structure of the ritornello follows, in general terms, that of so many movements analysed in these essays i.e. there are clear contrasting ideas in the text and the music that Bach interlinked, both as a stimulus to the initial invention and as a means of ensuring adequate musical contrast and cohesion.

The first of two full fugal expositions begins with the tenor entry in bar 45, the order of the subsequent entries being alto, soprano and bass. The fugal subject is in two parts, the first taken directly from semi-quaver passages in the ritornello, the second an adapted falling scale. Both parts of the theme cover precisely one octave, firstly rising from g to g thence falling through the same distance.

The precision of this shape leaves little doubt that, in terms of melodic contour the melody is intended to suggest the rise and fall of the humble and the mighty. If further evidence is required of Bach’s embedded textual concepts within the linear shapes, listen to the countersubject (tenor line from bar 54) where the process is reversed; now a balanced descending in pitch followed by a rising; a mirror image of the original subject.

Note that the ‘broken’ rhythms from bars 1-4 accompany the chorus throughout.

The remainder of this essay could be given to analysis of this single movement but the detail would go well beyond the scope of this volume. To summarise, the keen listener will notice that after an interlude consisting of two short chorus interjections amidst the ‘broken’ rhythms (bars 89-104) there is a second fugal exposition using the original subject with the order of entry now being S, A, T and B. A second similar interlude commences in bar 152 to be followed by further discussion of the fugal theme, falling somewhat short of a third complete fugato but having the feeling of drawing the threads of the movement together as in an extensive coda.

Surely all that remains is the reprise of all or part of the substantial ritornello to conclude the movement. But Bach seems to have developed some reservations about this practice at this juncture of his career and has, on occasions, combined the final instrumental statement with additional vocal material. Skipping forward to chapter 30 we may see how, in the last movement of C 49, Bach similarly merges the final ritornello with a vocal line.

In C 47 he applies the same principle but to grander effect. The complete ritornello is reprised from bar 184, but it now encompasses impressive choral statements. Largely homophonic for pointed emphasis and throwing around wisps of the earlier material, the singers thrust home, yet again, the message of the cantata with additional dramatic force.

Soprano aria.

The soprano aria was originally written with an organ obbligato line, later reworked for violin (Dürr p 567). The text contrasts meekness, which all good Christians should acquire, with arrogance, the work of the Devil. The stanza is neatly balanced in that the first three lines deal with the former viewpoint, the last three with the latter. This gave Bach the opportunity of setting it as a conventional da capo aria, the longer, repeated section expounding the more significant of the mental states i.e. the humility we must acquire before we may be judged before the Lord.

The proportions of this aria are rather odd. The first section is 126 bars (252 when we include the da capo), the middle section less than 40. Though it is not uncommon for Bach to construct movements in such a way that greater time and space is devoted to the more significant aspects of the message, this is a remarkable difference. It underlines the contention that humility must be perceived as a much more significant emotion than arrogance, thereby demanding a greater amount of musical attention.

The construction of the instrumental ritornello also invites comment. When stated at the beginning of the movement it lasts 18 bars. When closing the first section, and indeed the movement, Bach extends it to almost twice its original length, a total of 34 bars. There seems to be no obvious explanation for this virtually unique configuration. Did Bach set out deliberately to expunge the memory of haughtiness and all its evils as expressed in the middle section? It would seem so, since every structural decision appears to have been designed to diminish the significance of that unacceptable sentiment.

And yet short though it is, the impact of conceit remains strong. The long sustained notes on Hoffart----pride or arrogance----cut through the musical texture like a knife. The continuo takes on an aggressive yet somewhat ‘opera buffo’ quality which Bach frequently associates with depictions of Satan. The version which Bach wrote for the obbligato violin (rather than the organ) is doubly appropriate, the Devil being traditionally associated with that instrument. Furthermore, the weird double-stopping puts one in mind of other portrayals of Satan from Biber to Saint-Saens.

This is a superb miniature piece of picture painting. The sense of distain and distaste for haughtiness and the work of the Devil which God loathes, are both represented in the most potent manner. One almost regrets that Bach appears to conceal them amidst the least extensive parts of the aria.

The return to the true Christian’s arabesques of gentle humility does, however, form a stark contrast with the sentiments now about to be expressed.

Bass recitative.

The single recitative, for bass and strings, is also the central movement. The language used is strong and deliberately emotive----man is no more than excrement, hypnotised by his own arrogance----Jesus, by comparison, allowed Himself to be mocked and derided and you must follow in His footsteps----repent and genuflect before your God. This is a ‘fire and brimstone’ sermon, and yet Bach sets it with commendable restraint. It does not come across as a vehement harangue as, one suspects, the librettist may have intended. This is the stern but kindly Father, saddened and yet resigned to our condition and behaviour.

But it is also the voice of the Wise One who understands both our plight and our intentions and He advises shrewdly. The last lines instruct us to follow Christ, repent and bow before the Lord-----then, in time He may raise you again.

Bass aria.

Having criticised the haughty and advised them accordingly, the bass proceeds to offer an appropriate personal prayer for humility in the following final aria----Jesus, Make my spirit humble under your mighty Hand so that I do not renounce my salvation as Satan did----grant me Your humility so that I may condemn arrogance and thus please You.

Violin and oboe provide obbligato support and introduce all of the basic musical ideas within the ritornello. Whether or not the initial figure of falling semi-quavers, or the heavy downward inflections of the following quaver ideas were suggested by the image of nestling under Christ’s mighty hand or not hardly matters. The sentiment of the aria is one of dignified modesty fortified by a complete confidence in one’s personal faith. The texture, often consisting of four combined melodic lines, never seems crowded or overly copious; rather it warmly and lovingly embraces the singer throughout.
  Opening theme.

Interestingly, the semi-quaver figure thrown around between violin and oboe (bars 9-11) was not designed in isolation. It transpires that it was conceived as a counterpoint to the initial violin melody with which the bass makes his entry. The effect is that of stroking and caressing; Christ’s hand may be ‘mighty’ but here it soothes and placates. Even the references to Satan’s hell-fire in the middle section scarcely disturb the general aura of serene tranquillity.

We have asked for Christ’s support and we have been answered. We now have no need to fear the consequences that might have followed, had our salvation not been assured.


The closing chorale is in G minor, that of the opening chorus. Bach, however, disguises this by harmonising the opening bars in the related key of C minor. Is this a musical metaphor, temporary forsaking the key as one declares an abandoning of 'temporal glory?' 

It is particularly succinct, comprised of just five short phrases. It is a prayer, but a bitter-sweet one----I gladly renounce the world in return for the eternity You won for us with Your anguished, bitter death. There is no chromatic harmonic colouring of these words; the setting is simple with the minimum of passing notes.

Because it is a simple prayer about acquiring humility, Bach may well have felt that there was no place for ostentatious display. Given the theme of the day, plain, unadorned entreaty appears to be most appropriate.


Copyright: J Mincham 2010.  Revised 2012 and 2014.

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