CHAPTER 35 BWV 3 Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid

Oh God, a deep sadness confronts me.

Chorus/fantasia--recit/chorale (SATB)--aria (bass)--recit (tenor)--duet (sop/alto)--chorale.

The thirty-fourth cantata of the cycle for the second Sunday after Epiphany.



This opening fantasia is one of Bach's most delicate. He employs the normal string orchestra and continuo with just two oboes d’amore as the instrumental support for the four-part choir. A trombone doubles the basses to whom, unusually at this stage of the cycle, the chorale is entrusted.

It is interesting to compare this with the opening chorus of C109 from the first cycle; both are long, closely developed movements wrought from a surprisingly similar main motive, a figure of four notes, the second of which is dotted. Even more notable is the virtually identical melodic shape of these motives, a leap upward, a further step up and thence a drop downward. However C3 is set in a major key, C109 minor and the C 3 motive is firmly based around the more expected tonic and dominant notes of A major (e & a) whilst the C 109 motive uses the more remote 6th and 7th notes of the scale.

     Motive from C 3 followed by that from C 109.

The resulting characters are, then, quite different even though the basic shape dominating the structure of both movements has the same outline. Furthermore, it may come as something of a surprise to find this contour, also on oboes, announcing the alto aria from C 42 (chapter 42).

This is an example of Bach's ability to create a simple idea and extract the maximum of possibilities from it, a procedure that is often apparent as we study his quarrying of motives from his chosen chorales. And although the texts of the two choruses express similar underlying themes of doubt, sadness and misgiving (as, indeed, does the C 42 aria) each movement remains distinctive and individual.

We should note that once again Bach’s choice of mode is often unexpected. In order to set a text dealing with the sadness and sorrow encountered on the path to heaven, Bach eschews the well furrowed minor mode and chooses the traditionally brighter major, in this case the forthright key of A. He does, however, soften the natural quality of the key by making constant use of the flattened 6th and 7th notes of the scale (f instead of f# and g in place of g #), this occurring as early as the opening two bars. These are two of the three notes which distinguish major from minor and the effect is to produce a feeling of resigned and melancholic sadness as opposed to one of deep sorrow (compare this with the fantasia from C 8, chapter 16, which uses the same technique).

This quality of resignation and the acceptance of tribulation in the present world whilst awaiting God‘s word in the joy of the next is very characteristic of Bach's Lutheranism. Sadness and grief are parts of life and it is safe to assume that Bach must have experienced these emotions more than many. But his faith draws a clear distinction. On the one hand there is the inherent sadness of the human condition which can, and should, be resolved through the process of redemption. On the other, we may experience seemingly unredeemable tragedy which appears, at the time, to offer us no hope of a positive outcome. Bach's music emphasises the former time and again and, indeed, the recurring optimistic elements of hope, trust and redemption in his music partially explain why we keep returning to it, even generations later.

A second motive occurs in the violins from bar 4, a repeated quaver falling to a note below it. This is a commonly used "weeping" shape in baroque music. It comes discretely in this movement, presumably because Bach does not wish to labour the feeling of grief. However, students will find a movement dominated by this simple idea by revisiting the slow movement of Brandenburg 2, a further example, if any is needed, of Bach's weaving silk from a sow's ear of seemingly negligible potential.

The fantasia portrays the Christian's grief throughout his journey on the narrow path to heaven----how difficult it is for flesh and blood to make this sorrowful journey. The structure is straightforward despite the basses having the chorale theme for the second, (and last) time in the cycle, an echo of C 135 (chapter 5). The motive generated by the oboes in the opening bar provides material for the sopranos, altos and tenors, frequently entering in canon as they introduce and frame the chorale melody.

The infrequency of the basses having the chorale leads one to surmise that Bach may have intended it to symbolize the heaviness of tread upon the sorrow-filled path to heaven. The delicate filigree of the imitative oboes, accompanying strings, and canonic upper voices above the solidarity of the basses all come together to produce a highly complex, though never cluttered, texture. And, as if this is not enough, every so often Bach inserts two bars of marching quavers in the continuo line (first heard in bars 4-5). Schweitzer alludes on several occasions to Bach's "stepping" motives and here we discover an explicit depiction of the tread along the narrow pathway to heaven.

But these steps are less persistent than in some other movements because the main premise here is the state of resigned sadness within the Christian's mind and his consequent reluctance to embark upon the difficult journey.

The chorale is particularly concise, consisting of only four phrases entailing just four choral entries in the fantasia. These are extended by the upper voices’ canonic introductions to each bass entry and the long instrumental sections. A simple miniature thus becomes a symphonic pronouncement of sizeable proportion.

Soprano/alto/tenor/bass recitative/chorale.

The subsequent hybrid recitative provides an excellent example of Bach's experiments of investing long texts with sustained musical interest. The choir sings the four chorale lines, but immediately following each is a short recitative phrase declaimed by the soloists in turn T, A, S and B. Each phrase of the hymn is accompanied by the continuo whose insistent (and joyful) motive is itself a version of the chorale melody.

      First chorale phrase followed by bass line derived from it.

It also recalls, from the fantasia, the act of walking although now it is more of a ‘tripping’ motion, Bach must have been delighted with this particular chorale, the first phrase of which combines three repeated notes (which might depict both a physical act of treading and a mental attitude of perseverance) with Schweitzer's flickering figure of joy. This continuo line combines them in diminution.

Two weeks after this cantata was first performed, Bach used the same technique of separating chorale phrases with recitative entries sung by each of the voices (C 92 chapter 37). Three weeks before he had inserted a line of four-part harmony into the bass recitative to portray the trampling of Satan under foot (C 41, chapter 32). Clearly, at this time he was experimenting with ways of making best use of his choral forces for both dramatic and structural reasons. There are also other examples of his introducing the choir into recitatives where the melody is sung in unison rather than in four-part harmony (C 125, chapter 38).

The text of this movement does little more than take forward notions of the weak flesh looking to the guiding hand of God; the solo interventions merely expand upon the chorale assertions. It could have been radically pruned without loss of meaning or dramatic structure. But it is reasonable to conjecture that Bach might have relished the challenge of presenting such a protracted piece of text without disturbing the balance of the overall work.

Bass aria.

Bach composed, for the bass voice, several strongly characterful arias employing insistently bizarre chromatic continuo lines such as that which underpins the following movement. One is to be found in C 76 very early in the first Leipzig cycle where the tenor bemoans----you may hate me well, vile devils from hell----and the continuo provides a similar busy, constant, quaver-driven, minor-mode feeling of dread.

In C 76 it is hatred of hellish fiends that drives the character of the music. Here it is the fear of the actual torments----I feel the terror of the pain of Hell. But comparisons may go even further; in both arias the vocal line ultimately dissolves into a mellifluous stream of flowing notes. In C 76 it represents the glowing love of Christ and similarly in C 3 the mention of Christ's name dispels all sadness through a gently diffusing haze (from bar 62).

It is well known that Bach inherited the established da capo (A-B-A) aria from Italian opera although he tended not to use it in some of the earliest cantatas and modified it increasingly in the later ones. It is interesting to note the ways in which he developed this uncomplicated musical form, often by merging it with other structural principles such as fugue or ritornello. Furthermore, he would frequently differentiate the A and B sections in order to convey quite different ideas and/or emotions. We will encounter numerous occasions in our voyage through the cantatas where Bach deliberately employs the given structure of A B A to convey dissimilar or even opposing perspectives whilst still retaining firm control of the structural cohesion. Sometimes contrasting characters or images were even introduced within an extended opening instrumental ritornello (bass aria from C 13 (vol 3, chapter 12) but in the more concise movements of Cs 3 and 76 this is not the case.

Although the continuo varies little in its quaver-driven rhythmic impetus, the vocal line employs a wide range of melodic writing within a relatively short period. It begins by taking up the continuo's persistence. Then the three repeated notes from the chorale become an excruciating cry of agony on the words Höllenangst und Pein----Hell and pain----followed by a moan of deep personal distress. But very soon the joy of heaven emerges through the utterance of the Saviour's name, both represented by flowing and, given the context, almost joyous semi-quavers. It is  miraculous the range of emotion that is crammed, with complete conviction, into a movement just a few minutes long!

The continuo line provides both a solid structural framework and a relentless emphasis of the horrors of hell. The vocal line recognizes the latter but ultimately surmounts it.

Tenor recitative.

The tenor secco recitative does not unduly stress the images of death or the terror of the grave, both of which are referred to in the text. Instead it takes us on a short musical journey from opening minor (the decaying of soul and body) to closing major (Jesus, symbol of my wealth and fortune) and thus prepares us for the exquisite soprano and alto duet.

Soprano/alto aria.

 This movement has an opening idea of surprisingly powerful emotional impact considering it employs the simplest of harmonies; repeated chords 1 and 5. A new-found bliss casts aside the ‘repressive cares’ referred to in the first line of text with a sense of overwhelming conviction. The sadness in the world of mortals is largely absent from this music which reflects the simple contentment of giving oneself to Jesus and allowing Him to carry our crosses. The duet bursts out with the joy of song and singing as the two voices rise and fall and, indeed, almost seem to compete in order to express their exuberant ecstasy, albeit within a contained and cultivated context.

There is a degree of groundedness in the pulsating dotted rhythm theme between strings/oboe and continuo that marks the character of the ritornello theme and subsequently much of the movement.

   Melody played by two oboes d'amore and violins above continuo.

This may be a suggestion of the swaying motion of bearing the cross to the place of execution; Bach has used dotted rhythms to convey this image elsewhere, most particularly in the Saint Matthew Passion. But there it is a strong visual image, here it is subdued, little more than a fleeting memory of the path Jesus took in order to take upon Himself the sins of suffering Christians. Furthermore, the image here is of Jesus bearing my individual cross, a metaphor for the dissolution of my sorrows, not His own nor the wider agonies of humanity.

The minor-mode middle section suggests something of the pain associated with the cross and ends with an unexpected cadence which may even suggest the placing of it down upon the ground (bar 73).

But the da capo aria returns us to the first section, appropriately leading us to the finale chorale. As we have so often discovered, yet again the final aria penetrates to the core of the matter.


The chorale is simply harmonized, strongly major in mode and positive in character. It affirms our steadfast and continuing faith in Jesus. Students may wish to compare this harmonisation with others; an earlier version in C153 from the first Leipzig cycle presents the chorale in triple time. A later appearance (in C 58, third cycle) is altogether more ambitious. There the structure, interestingly, is almost identical to the second movement of C 3; the choir sings the chorale phrase by phrase in between which are the conjoining sections of a bass arioso giving an overall feel of an Italianate ritornello movement.

A recurring theme presents itself again, that of Bach the recycler, constantly changing, adapting and reconstructing identical or similar ideas for different expressive purposes. Bach's restless, questing energy never ceased to explore and exploit an astonishing range of creative possibilities, often wrought from the simplest of basic materials.

The wonder is that so much could be fashioned and movingly expressed from so little.


Copyright: J Mincham 2010.  Revised 2012 and 2014.
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