Chapter 6 BWV 185 Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe

Merciful heart of undying love.

Duet (sop/tenor)--recit (alto)--aria (alto)--recit (bass)--aria (bass)--chorale.

The fifth cantata of the cycle for the fourth Sunday after Trinity.

(See chapter 5, for further comments about the placing of this cantata).

It is not difficult to see why Bach began his period of tenure with a series of long, two-part cantatas. As the third choice for the position of Cantor, he must have felt the need to prove himself and he set out to do this by electing to compose himself the five dozen or so cantatas required for each annual church year. Moreover, if his Obituary is to be believed he created five complete cycles! He was not required to do this; it wasn’t part of his contractual agreement. So the works he had presented for the first three services were long and complex (up to fourteen movements) setting a standard which must have placed much pressure upon himself as the originator as well as upon his performers. Indeed, this may be why he  abandoned the bipartite structure for much of the first two cycles, reverting to a more concise and tightly-knit form.

Bach seems to have attempted to maintain the two-part format until C 186, the seventh Sunday after Trinity. Thereafter he dispensed with  it except C 70 which concluded the church year. However in this, the fourth week of his appointment, he solves his problem by producing a new cantata, C24, to precede the sermon and an old one to follow it. There can be no doubt (as, indeed there often is) about C 185’s pedigree since it is dated 1715, from Weimer, in Bach’s hand (Dürr p 417).

This is an interesting work because it demonstrates Bach’s preoccupation with the closing chorale and its potential for inclusion in, and structural dictation of, the first movement. This was almost a decade before he presented the great chorale/fantasia second Leipzig cycle, so clearly his mind had been working along these lines for some years. It also show’s Bach’s early partiality to the vocal duet; indeed some of the most original and memorable movements of the second cycle are the duos. Relatively minor changes were made to this work for its use in the first Leipzig cycle, consisting mainly of transposing it into a more suitable higher key (Gm as opposed to F#m) a task which could well have been accomplished by a competent student or copyist. (The Bärenreiter Urtext edition of the cantatas, vol 6, shows both versions).

Soprano and tenor aria.

The opening movement of C 185 is for soprano and tenor, accompanied by continuo. An oboe plays an embellished version of the nine chorale phrases, here recast from 4/4 into 6/4 time. This rhythm endows the movement with a slightly jaunty, dance-like quality which offsets the darkening effect of the predominantly minor mode. The movement is a serious one, but its minuet-like lilt reminds us that love and goodness are predominantly human, almost physical manifestations.

The overt connections between the texts of Cs 24 and 185 are obvious. Both berate the ungodly, although less viciously in the earlier work. Whilst C 24 stresses fidelity, faith and acting appropriately towards others combining to form the foundation of Christian being, C185 portrays much the same attributes as the art of living as a Christian. The two cantatas are thus complementary and it is unsurprising that Bach linked them together in the same service.

The duet speaks of eternal love and asks for the mercy of God to be passed through our own hearts in order to enable us to demonstrate proper clemency and morality towards others. The main melodic idea is stated in the continuo and taken up immediately by the soprano and tenor in turn.

At this point the bass line breaks into a stream of quavers, dominating the movement and returning to the original motive just twice; once in the middle and again to form the closing ritornello. These quavers may represent the flame of divine love referred to in the last line; but whatever the symbolism, they provide an insistent and unstoppable natural impetus.

Alto recitative.

In the following alto recitative, as in a number in these early cantatas, the voice is accompanied by the string orchestra. Its role is mainly to provide a haze of celestial harmonies with the occasional stressing of an important point (e.g. seeking to become like the Father----bars 8-9). However Bach’s penchant for painting graphic images, a strong characteristic of his earlier works, is apparent as early as in the first three bars----the fractured melodic line depicting hearts of rock and stone (bar 2) and the little melisma suggestive of Zerfliesst----melting away (bar 3).

The essential message of this verse is to emulate the Father and demonstrate mercy and forgiveness; note the complete change of mood and softening of the melodic line on, and after the word Vergebt----forgive (bars 13-14).

The closing arioso, with the long melismas on messen----to measure----underlines the conclusion----you will yourself be measured according to that which you mete out to others. Bach's setting suggests that it will be an intricate and possibly complex process!

Alto aria.

The opening ritornello of the alto aria (strings oboe and continuo) immediately brings to mind Handel. The theme is that of a stylised pastorale----try to scatter well and widely for he who sows well, harvests well. There is the suggestion of a peasants’ dance about the tripping rhythms and the returning ritornello section denotes the Italianate concerto structure.

This charming aria abounds with obvious examples of word painting. There is a long and convoluted melisma on auszustreuen----scatter widely (bars13-14) and another on erfreuen----to gladden (19-20). A held low note emerging into a rolling coloratura passage represents eternity (21-23) while mention of the sowing of ‘good things’ stimulates another little burst of delightful activity (bar 28).

Nevertheless, the strings and oboe maintain the formality of the sermon or parable throughout, encompassing all these individual bursts of picture painting. We should not allow details to distract us from the brief but important message i.e. we reap only that which we sow. And whilst the string motives generally suggest a pastoral scene of bountiful harvest and abundance, the occasional moment of stretching upwards reminds us that to achieve good things, humans have to make an effort (bars 4 and 35).

Bass recitative and aria.

The bass recitative dispenses with the upper strings----Do not flatter yourself into thinking that faults lie only within your neighbour. Look into yourself, rectify your own faults or else you will, like blind men, merely succeed in falling into a ditch. Indeed this very action is represented, rather obviously, by falling vocal and continuo scalic figures at the end of the movement.

Bach thence returns to the minor mode for the first time since the duet; minor will now predominate until the end of the cantata. Bach frequently follows a bass recitative with an aria for the same voice and there may be a number of reasons for this. One is purely practical; the shorter and often less demanding recitative gives the singer an opportunity to ‘warm up’ before the larger movement. But it is often the case that the bass, the traditional voice of authority, is used to represent God, teacher, pastor or mankind itself. Complementary movements which instruct, berate, command or inform are obviously suitable for the bass voice. Here the recitative rebukes us and the aria instructs us with reference to the same fault; know yourself, you are no more pure than your neighbour and you should reform your ways. Otherwise it is simply a case of the blind leading the blind.

Sometimes the aria may be seen as a reflection upon the thoughts expressed in the recitative, at others it becomes an extension of a censorious lecture. Here we are instructed that to know God and oneself, to be aglow with love and to treat others justly is, indeed, an art form. The sheer vigour of the music tells us that this is more a caveat than a reflection.

Although the voice is supported by continuo only, Bach has taken steps to ensure the strength of that line by adding all the upper strings, playing an octave higher. Thus the instrumental bass is thundered out at three octave levels (bass, cello and upper strings) an exposed, powerful and extraordinary sound.

The opening theme is clearly derived from the rhythm of the words and consists of two powerful motifs. The first proclaims sternly----this is the Christian art! 

                         Motive A.                                                   Motive B.

When taken up and repeated by the singer the effect is both rhetorical and pedagogic. The two main musical motives introduced in the very concise five-bar ritornello are the basis of all of the musical material. It would seem that a contrasting B section is about to emerge from bar 21 but it doesn’t. The movement maintains its ‘affect’ throughout and ends as rhetorically as it began by alternating the key lines----This is admired by God and Man---- and----This is the Christian art. The message is powerfully communicated with  energy and directness.


The adapted chorale was first heard in the duet. Now the melody is finally presented in its traditional ‘four beats to the bar’ rhythm. As expected, the available instruments double the four vocal parts, but there is a surprising exception; the first violins have their own melody soaring about everyone else. The prayer calls upon Jesus to listen, grant mercy and help us to live equally well for both Lord and neighbour. Perhaps the violin is a representation of the Lord above, always listening, always present. Possibly there is a clue in the surprising (diminished 7th) chord upon which the penultimate phrase ends on the word----sein---here used in the sense of existing for, and to be of help to, one’s neighbour. This is, after all, one of the key ideas of the cantata and the high a flat in the violin line at this point may even suggest the Lord’s awareness and emphasis of it.

C 185 may not, perhaps, be one of the most immediately striking or emotionally demanding of the cantatas but it is, nevertheless, a work which is full of subtleties and gentle delights. It pays revisiting.


Copyright: J Mincham 2010.   Revised 2012 and 2014.
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