Chapter 10 Bwv 136

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Chapter 10 BWV 136 Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz

Examine me, God, and know my heart.

Chorus–recit (tenor)–aria (alto)–recit (bass)–duet (tenor/bass)–chorale.

The ninth cantata of the cycle for the eighth Sunday after Trinity.

C 136 marks a change of direction in the structuring of Bach′s weekly cantatas. Over the previous seven weeks only one work C 167, composed for St John′s Day which lay outside of the normal Sunday services, had not been presented in two parts (this is assuming that the pairing of Cs 24 and 185 served the same purpose). But beginning with C136 Bach embarks upon a series of cantatas of lesser proportions, typically with six movements. Furthermore, the pattern of beginning with a chorus, and ending with a simple four-part chorale with alternating recitatives and arias between, now takes shape.

Various theories about why Bach should have operated in this way have been rehearsed in earlier chapters of this volume and need not be repeated here. Suffice it to say that much of the repertoire that Bach presented in the early weeks of this cycle, including C 136, had been wholly or partially composed before he took up his Leipzig appointment. Eventually he would be creating an increasing number of new works on a regular basis and, indeed, it seems likely that this was what he had always planned to do.

But whatever the nature of the cantata shape that he chose as the framework for his ideas, the quality of musical invention, attention to the textual images and the sheer expressive intensity of his creative work never diminished.

Dürr provides us with what is known of the background to this cantata (p 454-5) which is relatively little. However, if we compare it to C105, the cantata for the following week, a number of revealing differences may be noted. These can be partially explained by the gap of several years between their composition. The imagery in C 136 is painted more overtly and obviously as Bach was wont to do in his earlier works. In C 105 it is inextricably entwined within the musical texturing. The fugal writing in 136/1 is ebullient and energetic but less tight than it was later to become. And C 105 conveys that inexplicable sense of ′touching the soul,′ an indescribable profundity that illuminates aspects of the human condition and which is so often characteristic of Bach′s fully mature works.

Nevertheless, this cantata should not be dismissed as a negligible work; it is full of delights simply waiting to be discovered by the keen listener.


The opening chorus has a joyful ebullience of a kind not yet heard by the Leipzig congregations. It is not the celebratory or commemorative, ′trumpets and drums′ sort of festive proclamation; it is rather a guileless, open, carefree, perhaps almost teasing invitation—-come, search me and know my innermost thoughts. The sense of there being nothing to hide pervades the mood of the entire chorus; there are no hidden depths or depressed recesses of the mind here! An optimistic rising scale (strings and oboes) immediately introduces the confident horn call, a theme which will become the subject of the fugue which the movement contrives to become.

Or is it? It is just as much an Italianate concerto-type movement with an instrumental ritornello at the beginning and end, a section of which also appears in the middle (bar 27-30). The ritornello material is used throughout to support the choir, most noticeably in the virtually continuous sweeps of the first violins (doubled with oboe). This happy combination of established forms is typical of Bach′s early experimental years. One only has to look at a number of the Brandenburg Concerto movements to discover a range of seemingly ′new′ structures which are, in fact, ingenious meldings of fugue, ritornello, ternary and, occasionally, rondo and binary forms.

The orchestration is conservative, the three oboes doubling the strings except when their allegiance is transferred to the upper voices.

The fugue subject, already announced by the horn in the opening bars (and how beautifully this little melody suits the instrument) is declared, with the minimum of accompaniment, by the sopranos (bars 7-8)—-search me and know what I feel.

It is important that the unsophisticated prayer is clearly articulated and heard by all. The soprano′s second proclamation of this same theme marks the beginning of the fugal exposition (from bar 10), the other voices thence entering in the order A, T and B. One further statement by the sopranos leads us seamlessly into the first episode and a momentary pause for breath in the darker key of F#m (bar 27).

The second half of the fugue contains examples of close imitation between the vocal lines which the serious student may disentangle. Highly significant and made clearly audible, though, are the three monolithic statements by the choir from bar 49—-prüfe mich—-try me! Such is the confidence of these statements that one might almost suspect the Soul of challenging the Lord directly. Or more probably it is the candid and innocent baring of the guileless Soul to one′s Master. And no-one, surely, can miss the constant flow of first violin semi-quaver melody which adorns, suffuses and electrifies the choral textures throughout.

But whatever analysis may reveal, this chorus remains one of those fresh and sparkling movements that will bring renewed pleasure and a sense of uplift on countless re-hearings.

Tenor recitative.

Both recitatives are secco i.e. with continuo support only. That for tenor is a rant against hypocrites and hypocrisy—-it is the curse that strikes the earth!—-it directly infects the heart of Man—-even children disguise themselves as angels of light as the wolf hides his true self under pure wool. Melodic shaping and harmonic movement are the basic tools Bach allows himself for the painting of the images, yet they remain overt and graphic e.g. the initial curse, thorns and thistles of sin, and the final warning of the terrible fear that hypocrites bring upon themselves. Such moments contrast with the almost silky quality of the line describing the wolf in sheep′s clothing (bars 14-15).

For an instant the ranting abates and we have a momentary insight into the beguiling, yet dangerous allure of the charlatan wreathed, as he is, in a coating of deceptive charm.

Alto aria.

The aria for alto makes use of one obbligato instrument, the oboe d′amore, and the deeper timbres bring about a sense of gravity and serious intent which was lacking in the opening chorus. This is further accentuated by the choice of the dark key of F#m and the central position of the movement in the cantata. The premise of the work is now taking shape—-examine me and know me—-hypocrisy is rife and dangerous. Now, at this crucial stage of the cantata, comes the threat of the terrible day of Judgement when sentence shall be passed and hypocrisy will tremble and be destroyed under His zeal. The aria is unusually constructed, a presto central segment portraying the enthusiastic destruction of guile, enclosed by more measured and sober outer sections.

It is worth paying close attention to the structure of the eleven-bar ritornello which opens and closes the aria. It begins with a motive played by the oboe rhetorically suggestive of the alto′s initial declaration—-the day is coming!

This is repeated twice, each time at a higher pitch accentuating its significance and urgency. The third statement of this motive is extended towards the first cadence where we are given the briefest of moments to collect our thoughts.

At this point a second idea is heard.

Although clearly derived from the first, its main aural characteristic is a little skirl of notes rushing downwards, perhaps suggestive of God′s pouring out His vigorous wrath! This is heard four times, now at successively lower pitches. Finally a three-bar codetta completes the ritornello theme and delivers us at the point of alto entry. The phrase lengths are also significant, one of five bars followed by two of three each. The effect is one of total musical coherence but with an underlying suggestion of insecurity.

Bach′s ability to concoct a complex, continuous melody of this sort from a single, uncomplicated idea, in this case the notes of the common chord, is clearly in evidence. This economy of basic material that can still be wrought into so many different shapes, guises and complex textures, partially explains the intensity of the music.

The return to the original theme after the presto section is not a lazy da capo reprise but a further development of the musical material. One should not miss the musical representation of trembling with fear—-erzittern—-bars 45-7.

Bass recitative.

The bass recitative extends the concept of individual unworthiness more universally—-the heavens themselves are sullied—-how can man be expected to cleanse himself? But the answer is given directly—-he who is cleansed through the blood of Christ will be fairly judged even though his sins and lack of achievements may seem not to warrant it! The last two lines of text are set to a flowing arioso, the final sinewy melisma of which lays stress upon the strength which we gain from Him.

Tenor and bass aria.

The clear message of this cantata has now become—-Man is born in sin but is redeemed and purified through Christ′s blood—-and this is precisely what the last aria, for tenor and bass, states.

Interestingly, the construction of the ritornello melody (played by first and second violins combined) is similar to that for oboe of the alto aria described above. Both are in minor keys, both begin with a motive built around a minor common chord and both then proceed with an idea, the main characteristic of which is the skirls of falling notes. But these conjoined musical motives doubtless would have had different significances for Bach; the insistent dogmatic opening bars, perhaps now suggesting the pervasiveness of mortal sin, and the falling runs, the flowing of Christ′s blood.
   Opening idea followed by flowing theme (from bar 4).

Furthermore, in this movement the mood is more positive and confident, even defiant—-despite our inherited sin and acquired misdemeanours, we are saved! And just as the introductory ritornello was bipartite, so too is the macro-structure of the movement as a whole. The first half (to bar 33) reminds us of the blemish that the events of Eden have brought upon us all, the convoluted melismas on flecken—-stains—-(bars 10-14) and on Adam′s Fall (24) making the poetic points most dramatically.

The second half of the movement reminds us that refuge in His blood purifies us anew. This outpouring of grace is musically portrayed in streams of semiquavers, articulated principally by the singers, but ultimately combined in a communal act of acceptance and gratitude.


The closing chorale remains in the minor as, indeed, was the case with all previous movements except the opening chorus. Perhaps the initial superficial message is that opening one′s heart to God, whilst it makes us feel good, is a hostage to fortune. It may only reveal those deficiencies in ourselves of which we are unaware and this leaves us vulnerable to the Divine judgement that comes, inevitably, to us all. But we may yet mature sufficiently to accept our own deficiencies and to understand and appreciate the Saviour′s powers to redeem us. Indeed, the chorale underlines with allegorical hyperbole, the power of Christ′s blood—-a mere drop can purify the world and liberate it from the devil.

A modestly compassionate violin obbligato line drifts unostentatiously above the chorale melody. Readers may wish to speculate as to its possible imagic purpose.


Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012, 2014, 2017, 2020.