Chapter 51 BWV 104 Du Hirte Israel, höre

Hearken, Shepherd of Israel.

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

The fifty-first cantata of the cycle for the second Sunday after Easter.

As noted in the previous chapter, this is another newly composed cantata which follows an established movement pattern of recitatives and arias flanked by an opening chorus and closing chorale. The character of the two works as a whole could, however, hardly be more different. This is a composition in the long-established pastoral tradition which was still very much alive in the Eighteenth Century. Images of happy, docile sheep, the protective shepherd and notions of the ‘noble savage’ in his pastoral idyll were available for the creation of powerful poetic metaphors that artists were not slow to seize upon for both religious and secular purposes.

The fact that two of the six movements of this cantata are in compound rhythms (9/8 and 12/8) should alert us to its character. Furthermore, the opening chorus, the chorale, and all the arias are set in major keys while mention is made of the Shepherd and/or His flock in every movement.


Four principal musical elements define the character of this gentle opening chorus. The first theme is presented over a repeated pedal bass, a particular feature of the movement and one intended to ground the image in the metaphorical pastures of rustics. The second is the initial string melody with its three groups of three notes within the bar, a structure that has both pastoral feeling and symbolic implications. The third is the gentle, rocking lullaby-like quality of the dotted rhythms, particularly apparent in the oboes and middle strings from bar 5. And periodically imposed upon these textures are the exclamations ‘listen’ and ‘shine’, two stark crotchets to which the choir gives dramatic weight, although the idea had been introduced by the oboes in the very first bar.

   Theme shared by violins between pedal bass and oboe chords.

The text is a double entreaty addressed to the Shepherd of Israel who leads His flock like sheep, firstly----Listen----or more poetically----Give ear----You who lead the sheep like Joseph! Secondly----Shine forth, You who sit upon the throne which the Cherubims support. From the beginning, lyricist and composer create the image of an idealised community which looks up towards an idyllic Higher Place to which we can all appeal for comfort, kindness and leadership. That is the essential theme of this cantata, an epitome of the ideal relationship between the spiritual and the corporeal worlds, mildly threatened only when natural human anxiety seeks reassurance (tenor aria). The aesthetic problem facing Bach was how to create a work approaching twenty minutes in length from a text essentially lacking in drama, and imbue it with sufficient musical variety to sustain interest. One of his solutions was to place the two longest and most similar movements (chorus and bass aria) as far apart as possible and to inject an element of tension and mild unrest in the minor-mode second and third movements.

Returning to the chorus, the construction of the twenty-five bar instrumental introduction demonstrates Bach’s ability to create a variety of musical motives whilst maintaining the fundamental disposition of the movement. Bach plays the four principal ideas off against each other with his usual consummate skill and the resulting texture is nudged towards D major, the dominant key. Simultaneously the bass, beginning from its static position, takes on some of the figuration of the upper parts, eventually settling into a quietly determined three crotchets to the bar underpinning the sturdy harmonic progressions.

Once the choir enters, the movement may be seen as divided into two halves. The first begins with a series of short statements accentuating the call----give ear----following which mention of Joseph leading his sheep brings forth a meandering fugal exposition, the four voices entering in the order T, A, S and B from bar 52)

The second, and complementary section begins at bar 72 and follows much the same musical pattern based upon the same words. This time the fugal segment (employing the same subject) has the voices entering B, T, A and S (from bar 84). This building up from the lower voices is intentionally culminatory since it leads to the important last line of text, very nearly at the end of the movement. The basses enter with the call to 'shine forth or emerge’ in bar 91 but the coming together of the multitude (i.e. the whole choir) in making this powerful entreaty is not heard until the reverberations of----erscheine----from bar 103. Bach has delayed the mention of the light emanating from the glorious throne until the very end, perhaps because an early musical representation of its magnificence would be at odds with the established everyday pastoral scene or possibly because he wanted to build up to, and end upon, a climactic note of divine glory.

Whatever the reason, the effect of the band and choir uniting in these last bars remains powerful. Furthermore, Bach does not dilute it; he chooses not to recapitulate the initial orchestral introduction.

Tenor recitative.

The tenor recitative is another masterclass of perfect construction, this time in miniature. It is in the minor mode, mainly for the reasons suggested above. It begins with a statement of considerable rhetorical strength----the highest Shepherd protects me! It follows with a question, the melodic line leaving it open, very much as in everyday speech----why should I be sorrowful? Then a rising, assertive phrase----every morning His goodness is renewed. And finally----be settled my heart, for God is faithful. This last line is imparted through a couple of bars of tender arioso above the continuo which, now moving in quavers, suggests full acquiescent and loving support. The movement is less than a dozen bars long and requires just the two melodic lines. But it is exquisitely wrought, perfectly united with the text and totally convincing.

Tenor aria.

The tenor aria follows immediately in the key of Bm to which the recitative has taken us. As the only principal movement in a minor key and surely the fastest in tempo, it stands out amongst the others. This is not a peaceful rural picture, rather it is one of vigour and movement. As suggested previously, the reason for this relates perhaps more to the requirements of the aesthetic equilibrium of the overall cantata than to the specific demands of the stanza, but it doesn’t matter. Too much pastoral perfection can become a little cloying and this movement addresses the balance. As an aside, the reader might like to turn to C 99 (vol 2, chapter 15) which begins with precisely the same rising motive. But there it is in the major mode and heralds an ebullient chorale/fantasia which is also virtually a flute concerto! Nevertheless, it serves to demonstrate the sheer range of invention and expression which a great composer can tease out of the seemingly most insignificant of musical shapes.

The first oboe states the opening figure immediately imitated by the second, after which they evolve into an entwined duet above a minimal bass line.

The texts of this and the following verse offer the only examples of doubt in this cantata and the metaphor underlying the aria is that of being lost in the wastelands----if my Shepherd is too long concealed and I am afraid in the wilderness, my feeble steps yet continue and my mouth cries to You----Your, word arouses in me a faithful Abba (Father). In fact, this lyric is less about doubt than about natural anxiety; the steps, though weakened, persist and there is no suggestion of diminished faith in the ultimate Divine support.

But whatever the possible interpretations of this text, there is no doubt that Bach saw it as a way of injecting some drama and troubled emotion into an otherwise gentle and benign work.

The aria is in a free ritornello-cum-ternary form, the short middle section commencing at bar 26 and a revised A section returning at bar 38.The oboe semi-quavers create an impression of mild anxiety and the continuo quavers may well suggest steps, at time faltering, at others more positive. A moment of uncertainty is caught in the subtle (and easily missed) hiatus in the oboe parts in the fifth bar of the ritornello. The points of highest drama, however, are most apparent in bars 16-19 (and later 50-3) where melismas are used for the articulation of unease----bange. Here, wrenches in the vocal line and powerful chromatic harmony combine to give the strongest possible impression of unrest. Similar treatment is given to Lange----stressing the prolonged absence of the Lord----from bars 12 and 45. The message is simple if a little overly stark: one becomes fretful and apprehensive when the Lord’s presence is missed.

Bass recitative.

The bass recitative, like that for tenor, is paired with the aria that follows it and consequently in the same key. The text is in two equal parts of four lines each, the first affirming that the Word is the nourishment of the soul, a pasture of delight and a glimpse of Heaven itself. The second four lines are formed less as a positive confirmation than as an entreaty----Ah, gather those who stray, Good Shepherd, and let the path whereby we are gathered into Your fold be short. Beginning this section with a diminished chord on----Ah----Bach strives for a slightly softer, less affirmative melodic line with which to express these requests. They are, after all, thoughts expressed on behalf of the anxious ones and, hidden within the subtext, one discovers that oft repeated Lutheran plea for death. It is difficult to explain the musical mechanisms whereby the character changes so delicately in the course of this short movement; but one cannot deny that it does.

Bass aria.

If Bach had been conscious of the problems of sustaining interest in the opening chorus, and one can hardly doubt that he would have been, how much more of a challenge might he have considered the bass aria to be? It is long, typically taking well over a third of the performing time of the complete work and the text is benign, lacking any moments of drama. Furthermore, the pastoral metaphor is as strong as ever, demanding a musical response that could not be vastly different from that of the first movement.

Bach makes little effort to conceal any of this. He retains the major mode and the compound time signature. True, it is now four groups of three notes within the bar, where previously it was three, but this has only a minimal affect on the music’s character particularly if, as seems to be the case, the tempi are similar. Furthermore, Bach even dispenses with the wide range of invention of contrasting ideas that we saw in the chorus but with a similar minimum of rhythmic variety.

What he does is to concentrate upon an extraordinarily rich, baroque sumptuousness of sound.

The upper strings work as a choir, a slightly forlorn oboe d’amore doubling the first violins. The singer enters with a theme that is a variant of the ritornello melody and the first section of the da capo is a series of textural contrasts between bass+strings (sometimes in five real lines of counterpoint) and bass+continuo only. Thus is the picture painted of Christ’s contented flock, happy in the mortal world to discard earthly pleasures in return for Christ's benefices.  In this section there is not even a hint of that constantly reiterated Lutheran theme of the challenging, painful and sorrowful pathway to heaven! The tenor aria was the closest we got to that!

Neither does the lyricist give the composer much more to get to grips with in the middle section (from bar 33)----here (on earth) you already taste His goodness and hope for faith to be rewarded through that soothing sleep of death. It is, in fact, this last idea which seems to have particularly stimulated the composer’s imagination. The upper strings no longer act continuously as an entity, as wisps of melody in one, two or three parts adorn the vocal line. But the most significant thing to register is the sustaining of significant notes. There are several on hoffet----the hope of rewards----but the greatest emphasis is upon Todesschlafe----the [sweet] sleep of death. Long notes and melismas combine over several bars to create an effect that is haunting and memorable. That desire for death to come as the gateway to Heaven (rather than as an end to our wretchedness) thus becomes a central premise.


There is little to say about the final chorale; it is sturdy, positive and optimistic. It is boldly major apart from a passing harmonic colouring when mention is made of the cooling and refreshing waters. It is set with very little embellishment of the three lower parts although the occasional bass movement (e.g. bar 3) might serve to remind us that the footsteps no longer falter.

The verse chosen is not a prayer but a statement of faith----The Lord is my Shepherd and I trust myself fully to Him---He leads me to green pasture and cooling waters and His word refreshes my soul. The pastoral metaphors remain to the end, now strongly associated with notions of purity and refreshment.

There was a brief moment in this cantata where faith might have weakened. But we come to its end, hardly surprised that this was never really going to happen!


Copyright: J Mincham 2010.   Revised 2012.
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