Chapter 12 Bwv 46

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Chapter 12 BWV 46 Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgendein Schmerz sei

Behold and see, should there be sorrow.

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

The eleventh cantata of the cycle for the tenth Sunday after Trinity.

The astute listener may have noticed that when Bach settles into the process of regularly producing cantatas for the Sunday services,  certain incipient patterns emerge. One was the placing of a large scale chorus, possibly in two parts, at the head of the cantata. Another was closing with a chorale, sometimes plainly harmonised but occasionally adorned with episodes of instrumental material separating the melodic phrases. The third is the occasional omission of the continuo in certain arias,  creating a more ethereal effect.

Cs 105 and 46 are conjoined in that they not only share all three characteristics but are identically structured. Nevertheless, a glance ahead at cantatas yet to come shows how dangerous it is to generalise or make predictions about Bach. Just when you think you may have him pigeonholed, his endlessly inventive mind takes him in totally unforeseen directions. C 179, the next in the series, begins to break the mould. It begins with a chorus but it is not bipartite in the ‘prelude and fugue’ sense  of 105 and 46. It is a motet which makes no use of individual instrumental writing. However all three retain the six movement structure of alternating recitatives and arias, ending with a simple chorale setting.

But in week twelve, C 199, Bach′s first solo cantata at Leipzig will break the pattern completely. It has nine movements, no choruses and no closing four-part chorale; the one hymn tune is given to the soprano against a particularly busy viola obbligato before a recitative and gigue conclude the work.

It seems clear that Bach was continually experimenting with a range of styles, and techniques, structures, textures, timbres and colours in the process of creating a hugely varied repertoire of movement types. He could then draw upon whatever he felt was ideally suited to any particular purpose. Thus we find him returning to all of these approaches at various times but never in such a way that his responses to texts become predictable or formulaic.

Indeed, perhaps the most consistent structure he used in his years of creating cantatas was the chorale/fantasia, the basis of the first forty cantatas from the second cycle (beginning with C 20, vol 2, chapter 2). But even there he achieved an amazing amount of variety in the form and character of those fantasias, while greatly developing recitative thinking and constantly varying the number and order of the movements placed between the outer choruses.


Returning to C 46, useful comparisons may be made between its opening chorus and that of 101 (vol 2, chapter 11), a massive chorale/fantasia composed for this day exactly a year later. They have similar themes of inflicted sorrow and anger, both make expressive use of woodwind and both are in Dm. It is suggested in various essays that Bach may well have looked back on cantatas written for the same day when assembling ideas for a new work. Comparison of the opening choruses of Cs 46 and 101 strongly supports the supposition.

The text of this chorus is unashamedly self-obsessed—-is there any other misery such as that inflicted upon me? The Lord′s anger has suffused me with despair. Additionally, both the rolling semi-quaver figurations of the recorders and the descending triadic shapes of the vocal entries are highly reminiscent of the Qui Tollis from the Bm Mass. Could one have been the original template for the other?

A chorus of this length and complexity is quite daunting when initially approached but a few relatively undemanding observations can clarify it greatly. It begins with a long and beautiful instrumental introduction; one can hardly call it ′ritornello′ because it never returns in full or in part, although its material is much used to support the choir. The mood is one of anguish and sorrow, the recorders weaving their lines around and above the violins as they exchange their ideas. The magnitude of what is to come is suggested by the structure of this first sixteen bars, a complete mini-binary form movement in itself moving to, and cadencing in, Am before returning to the home key of Dm.

Once the choir enters, it continues without cessation until the end of the movement. Readers who have been working through these cantatas from C 75, Bach′s first presentation at Leipzig will, by now, be familiar with his penchant for a bipartite opening chorus, a slow and often meditative first half and a faster,  frequently fugal, second section. This movement follows precisely this format even though, as in C 105, the text did not immediately appear to suggest it.

In section 1 (bars 17-67) the voices enter imitatively with slow-moving, falling, largely crotchet figures. Bach creates his ambience of distress in a number of ways. There is frequent stressing of the word Schmerz—-sorrow. Suspensions and dissonant 7th chords in the harmony add to the tension as do the uses of the highly expressive Neapolitan chord and false relations (see bar 43). The initial aura of distress becomes intensified into what might almost be described as panic with the increased movement and anxiety of the vocal lines (from bar 37).

It was suggested in the previous chapter (C 105) that sometimes the faster section of a chorus may have been more for musical rather than for textual reasons in order to balance the overall disposition of a cantata that was essentially mournful. That argument fares less well for C 46 which contains two upbeat arias, one almost brazenly extrovert and the other jauntily sprightly. Bach′s decision to complete the chorus with a muscular allegro-ish fugue is here undoubtedly based upon the text, probably a reaction to the mention of the Lord′s ferocious anger at the end of the verse. Indeed, the very shape of the fugue subject, its g # held as it struggles upwards to reach the note of the next chord, implies powerful tension, as do the overlapping entries of the voices and the grinding quaver bass line beneath them.

Structurally, the architecture of this section is simplicity itself: two fugal expositions each of which moves seamlessly into an extended episode. The voices enter initially in the order A, T, B, S above an agitated continuo support (bars 67-92) whereupon the ensuing episode transports us breathlessly to the second exposition. This uses the same sinewy theme with the voices entering, rather unusually, in the same order (bars 103-124). However, on their first entry the voices appeared against little contrapuntal competition. Now the remaining three voices, strings, oboes and recorders all play their part in adding to both the complexity of the texture and the disquiet which the Lord′s intensified anger engenders.

The culmination comes in the form of a homophonic (chordal) declaration—-The Lord has made me full of misery (from bar 128). This is surely the key to the moment as divine anger and consequent human misery are portrayed together at the same moment.

Tenor recitative.

The tenor recitative is a further example of Bach′s experiments with instrumentation in a way that lends colour and expressive depth to what might otherwise have been a bare event for voice and a slow-moving bass line. The upper strings sustain the harmony whilst a concise five-note motive flickers on the pair of recorders much in the way of the violins in the bass aria from C 105. The former suggest God′s eternal presence, the latter possibly the flowing of the tears to which the text alludes. But it is equally likely that these iridescent twinkles are symbolic; flickering feelings of uncertainty within a demolished world.

The text concerns itself with the destruction of Jerusalem although it is not yet mentioned by name—-a wretched pile of ash and stone brought down because of our own guilt and the consequent wrath of a hitherto forbearing God! Despite the force and variety of the vocal line, the images are not overtly painted in the music; one is left with the doleful timbre of the recorders ringing in our ears and a sense of eternal wistfulness and loss.

Bass aria.

Both the physical and metaphorical implications of storms or tempests seemed to excite and stimulate Baroque composers and Bach was no exception. The bass aria is, indeed, a graphic musical portrait of a thundering storm as well as an allegorical portrayal of God′s anger and fury. The trumpet, so suitable for pairing with the bass voice, supplies both the majestic aspect of enraged elements as well as an impression of divine, imperial might. It is supported by strings and continuo which alternate between aggressive dotted rhythms, rapid scales and angry repeated notes. Even the opening four-note trumpet motive, superficially little more than a conventional fanfare, suggests an element of struggle as it strains up towards the sanctuary of the tonic note,  b flat. The bass voice re-emphasises this impression of effort by making his entry with the same musical idea.

The text is basic, almost simplistic—-the tempest, representing God’s anger, looms from afar but eventually breaks upon you—-though it may be more than you can bear, your own sins brought about and ignited this conflagration. It is a graphic warning of what has happened in the past and may happen again, a moral all the more convincingly communicated by the voice of authority, the bass.

The flash which lit this fireball generates one of the longest, most convoluted melismas in the canon (from bar 27 and again from bar 93). A tortuous and exposed vocal line conveys the unbearable pain that inevitably follows from God′s just punishment (bars 54-8). The invoking of the lightening flash unleashes a torrent of angry semi-quavers on all strings (bars 71-2). This is a Baroque representation of anger, storm and tragedy of Gothic proportion.

Alto recitative.

In immediate contrast to all this blustering, the alto recitative is as minimalistic as any Bach wrote; a dozen or so notes in the continuo bass, slow moving harmony and a vocal line built much around the notes of common chords. It begins with a clear warning, perhaps the more powerful for its understatement—-do not, sinner, imagine Jerusalem alone was racked with sin. It ends more passionately with an alarming caution—-since you do not repent and continue to grow increasingly sinful, you too may have to die in this horrific manner! Note how, in the last four bars, and in complete contrast to the first, the harmony becomes more obscure, the bass less conjunct and the alto line more passionate. Bach is using the minimum of resource but even so, he still manages to create the maximum of effect.

Alto aria.

The exclusion of a traditional continuo line in the soprano aria of C 105 was to create an ethereal quality of spirituality. Its omission from the alto aria in C 46 may, in part, be for similar reasons; see also the soprano aria from the Ascension Oratorio C 11 (vol 3, chapter 50). Or perhaps it was to allow the soft-toned recorders to hold the centre stage with the minimum of musical competition. This verse is spiritual but viewed from a perspective different from that of C 105. There, the emphasis was upon the conscience of the sinner, turning upon and destroying itself. In C 46 we are presented with the caring side of Christ himself, a pastoral figure gathering and protecting his flock and bestowing sanctuary upon the faithful.

The tone colouring of the chosen instruments is both surprising and engaging. Where we might have expected the bassoon to take on the role of the bass line, here we have two oboes da caccia, the bass members of the family. Way above them are the two recorders, now sounding less forlorn than in the opening and closing moments. Thus is the alto voice surrounded and encompassed by instruments of contrasting but complementary timbres.

The first motive is one of those ′motto themes′ derived from the rhythm of the opening words: yet Jesus shall.

But as early as the third bar this idea dissolves into a series of imitative exchanges between oboe and second recorder, very possibly a musical depiction of the flock which Jesus gathers together, his ′sheep and chickens′.

The structure of the aria is decidedly odd. Clearly based upon the ritornello principle, the opening instrumental statement returns in full at the end as well as making appearances in the course of the movement. But imposed upon this conventional Italianate format are three clear sections: the first until bar 29, the second (29-45) and the third (45-end). Each has its own particular character, the first two portraying different sides of Jesus the punisher, gatherer and protector. The last is, perhaps, the most striking: a vivid portrayal of the storms of vengeance followed immediately by the contrasting haven of safety. Of the many fascinating details, just two are sufficient to illustrate the point; the complex melismas on belohnen—-the rewards (of vengeance, bars 46-9) and the long low note on wohnen—-the residual place of safety (bars 51-52).


The message of the chorale evolves naturally from the previous aria. There Christ′s collection and protection of his righteous flock was the central theme. Now, and in conclusion, the chorale text reminds us that it was Jesus who stayed God′s fury and we pray for salvation for His sake and not according to our own misdemeanours. The melody is harmonised for the four voices in the most minimalist manner, emphasising the simplicity and clarity of this child-like prayer. But Bach, possibly with the recollection of his extraordinary presentation of the previous week′s chorale still fresh in his mind, creates a soundscape that both separates the phrases, allowing additional moments of reflection, and simultaneously creating a telling and memorable sound image. The strings and continuo double the voices with repeated quavers, creating an affect of gentle throbbing, but the masterstroke is permitting the recorders to emerge out of every phrase like spring water surfacing from the soil.
   First flute above initial chorale phrase.

These exquisite woodwind moments are never entirely predictable, sometimes only lasting for one bar, sometimes a little longer. Are they intended to suggest the unfathomable nature of Christ′s sacrifice? Are their constant downward directions indicative of the blood oozing from Christ′s wounds? Or the consequent divine benedictions that filter down from heaven for our salvation? Whatever the intention, these recorder motives are reminiscent of those from the opening chorus, reminding us of that obsessive sorrow with which we began this journey.

This is not a hack composer′s predictable and stock harmonisation of a well-known hymn. This is a mini tone poem, structurally, musically and meaningfully related to, and emerging from, what has gone before. At the heart of its apparent simplicity lies the unfathomable genius of Johann Sebastian Bach!


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