Chapter 13 Bwv 179

Download in Microsoft Word format

Chapter 13 BWV 179 Siehe zu, dass deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei

Ensure that your fear of God is not mere hypocrisy.

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

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

The interesting group of four rather more compact texts that Bach was (presumably) given to set at this stage of the church year all tend to have depressing themes (Cs 136, 105, 46 and 179).This is equally true of  the next cantata C 199 but, as we shall see, with that work Bach breaks with the practices he had established because it is his first, though not his last, Leipzig solo cantata. C 179 shares its basic structure with the three that preceded it, beginning as it does with a chorus, thence alternating recitatives and arias, and a closing chorale. But Bach being Bach, could wrest enormous degrees of variety even from such a relatively fixed format.

C 179 is, perhaps, less about sorrow and misery than its predecessors and more about the justifiable anger which is vented at the hypocrites who say one thing but act and feel otherwise. Drawn from this rant is an observation about the sorry state of Christianity and a final plea for God to have mercy on a poor sinner.


Bach both breaks with, and re-establishes, traditions with his opening chorus; the form is archaic, the harmonic language modern. To date, he has not presented at Leipzig an opening movement in the form of a traditional German motet. The strings have no interdependence of their own and merely double the singers; only the continuo line displays a degree of autonomy. But although the form is antique and traditional, Bach′s display of contrapuntal and harmonic techniques within a framework of tonality rather than modality is very up to date.

The text of the chorus is short and direct—-ensure that your fear of God is not rooted in hypocrisy and do not serve Him with a heart that is false. The key to Bach′s sophisticated structuring lies with the word—-falschem. It is usually translated as ′false′ but it also has intimations of forging or counterfeiting; in other words producing a copy or fake of an original. It would seem that this inspired Bach to introduce the four voices not in the conventional fugal manner but with voices in mirror opposites of each other i.e. the bogus imitation, the copy which is not quite true to the originals.

Thus the basses enter with the main subject, to be answered by the tenors′ inversion of it i.e. turning it completely upside down.

Similarly with the sopranos and the altos; the first announces the theme ′the right way up′, the response inverting it. And in case this particularly subtle interpretation of the text is missed, Bach drives the point home by setting the word—-falschem—-with an aggressively grinding chromatic sequence (bars 22-4).

Nor is this an isolated moment. Bach continues to set this crucial word to similar dissonant progressions throughout the movement. In fact his second theme, also introduced by the voices in sequence but now overlapping each other, makes a particular feature of such falling chromatic pitches e.g. c#-c, g#-g, d#-d, a#-a. This section begins at bar 37 and gives a brief respite before the further expositions of the original theme, difficult for many to pinpoint without recourse to the score because, unlike at the beginning, the richness of the contrapuntal texture now surrounding the entries tends to disguise them.

The average music lover may not wish to pursue a detailed analysis of this contrapuntal phenomenon but the keen student may continue by charting the entries from bar 44 (in the order A, T, S and B) and again from bar 57, noting when the original subject is inverted or not.

The energy Bach generates in creating a justifiable anger at the behaviour of the hypocrites is quite awesome; from the opening bars the two lines of melody (bass and continuo) sizzle with a righteous vigour. Despite, or perhaps because of the complexity of the contrapuntal writing, this rage continues unabated until the concluding bars where the minor-mode notes of b flat, e flat and a flat give a final ominous colouring to the clear caution about falsity.

Tenor recitative.

The tenor′s recitative brings to mind an aging uncle who can find no good in the youth of today—-Christianity is in a parlous state and many are either lukewarm or inflated Pharisees—-they appear devout but in proud self-glory they merely go through the motions of obeisance—-hypocrites too, can do this! And, indeed, the very pomposity of the melodic line is highly suggestive of the self-important, over inflated Pharisees mentioned in the text.

There is, however, no mistaking the theatrical declamation of the final line—-No! Hypocrites do precisely this!

Tenor aria.

The vigorous resentment underpinning the first movement returns with additional force in the tenor aria. The mode is now minor, the rhythms bold and syncopated and the melodic lines forceful and arresting. The poetic language is equally stark and uncompromising; this is the sort of movement that immediately grabs the listener′s attention and keeps it until the final cadence. We are warned of ′Sodom′s apples′, the hypocrites packed with filth but outwardly gleaming—- they cannot stand before God. Bach′s settings of his texts are often filled with subtleties and layerings of meaning; but not here. This is about as clear and unequivocal an assertion of passionate conviction that we are likely to get.

The first violins, supported by two oboes, hurl out the ritornello theme which dominates the entire movement. Second violins and violas do little more than reinforce the harmonies so the piece becomes, in effect, a trio of violins doubling oboes, voice and continuo.

The last of these strides confidently along underpinning the upper parts with a quaver tread which forcefully pushes the momentum forward. But it is not incessant. Note the cunning little syncopations (bar 1 and elsewhere) and the periodic semi-quaver kicks (e.g. bar 3). Typical of many of Bach′s great bass lines, its unremitting drive is packed with details that prevent it from becoming predictable or humdrum.
           Bar 1.                                                                                            Bar 3.

The upper two lines emulate each other initially before joining forces (from bar 9) in a captivating interplay, a potent discourse, which must surely alarm all frauds and charlatans!

Bass recitative.

It is not wholly unusual for a cantata′s final recitative to provide the answer to, or clarification of, a problem posed in the earlier movements, thence leading to an aria of assurance or penitence and a chorale of reflection and confirmation. The bass wastes no time in his secco recitative—-he who is unchanged within and without is a true Christian!—-it is not, in fact, sufficient to eschew the worst sins of adultery and dishonesty—-you must confess your offences and in return you may expect mercy!

There can be no doubt that Bach lavished considerable care and attention to the detail in this recitative. Although secco, and consequently consisting of a bare two lines of music, the expressive moulding of the upper melody is exquisitely delicate. A short segment of walking quaver bass underpins certain key assertions: the true Christian, a praiseworthy example of penitence, the purity of the angel and finally the offer of grace and mercy. This is the musical equivalent of underlining (or printing in bold) passages that the author considers to be of prime importance and which he does not wish the reader to miss!

The concluding two words of text are extended into a brief but telling arioso which both accentuates the importance of the divine gesture and takes us to the optimistic major mode of C.

Soprano aria.

The soprano aria is simply an example of putting into practice that which the bass had demanded in the previous movement, a humble and penitent confession of sin and a prayer for mercy—-grant me solace and assist me—-I sink into a morass under the weight of sin that rots my bones. The voice is supported by a pair of imitative oboes da caccia and continuo. The mode is minor—not the C major which the recitative led us to expect— and the mood is subdued and imploring but not lacking in ultimate hope, despite the stark images of internal decay.

The contrast between the two arias of this cantata is obvious. Both are minor-mode and that, perhaps is where the similarities end. The first is rhythmic, pounding and sinewy; it hardly pauses for breath as it expresses the vigorous emotions of righteous anger and retribution. The second is a prayer,  pleading and penitent, a flowing of sensation rather than a forcing of fervour. The bass recitative links these opposing avowals.

Oboes da caccia have a darker, more solemn timbre than other members of the family and the second aria begins with a flowing quaver motive passed from the one instrument to the other. Although the direction of this idea is initially predominantly downwards, it has moments of apparent upward struggle (bars 9-11 and 30-31).
Bars 1-4  followed by bars 9-11.

Might it be the eyes of the penitent, appropriately cast down but periodically straining upwards towards the throne of God when beseeching His mercy? The aria is full of the most delicate yet very evident word painting of which a few examples must suffice; the stressing of the word Sünden—-sins, the disjointed cries of ′help me′, and the sinking into the Schlamm—-the mire of sin. This last image is first pictured harmonically with the chromatic notes in bars 72-3 and shortly afterwards by means of melodic direction, a falling scale covering nearly two octaves (bars 77-9).

The form is another of those combinations of ritornello and modified ternary. A middle section begins at bar 63 and concerns itself principally with the plea for help. The reprise begins with a shortened version of the ritornello theme (bar 82) but it only follows its template for a few bars.


The chorale is simply and directly presented. There are no independent instrumental parts, the two oboes simply doubling the plain melody. A feature which would surely have attracted Bach′s attention is the alternation of three and two-bar phrases at the beginning. Might they have symbolised, for the composer, the hypocritical and the devout?

The bass line is relatively devoid of embellishment, like the chorale melody, the embodiment of divine dependability and devotion. But the two inner parts display a degree of rhythmic adornment almost amounting, at times, to a level of dislocation. Do they suggest moments of humble and hesitant catches of breath as the now deferential sinner confesses all and pleads for mercy?—-I, a poor and wicked man stand before Him and ask for mercy and lenience. The self-abasement demanded by the Lutheran dogma of the time is pure, simple, trusting and childlike as, indeed, is the chorale melody . But the human breast is never completely devoid of sighs, passion or emotion as, perhaps, the alto and tenor lines suggest.

But might the composer’s symbolism here be even more byzantine? Could Bach be presenting a musical picture of what is more overtly stated in the tenor aria, the inner decay of the hypocrites disguised within the veneer of an apparently innocent exterior? The sheer complexity of Bach’s mind tempts and invites us to accept this as a very possible interpretation.


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