Chapter 14 Bwv 146

Download in Microsoft Word format

Chapter 14 BWV 146 Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal

We must traverse through great sorrow.

Sinfonia–chorus–aria (alt)–recit (sop)–aria (sop)–recit (tenor)–duet (tenor/bass)–chorale.

For Jubilate: the third Sunday after Easter.

This cantata assumes some significance in retrospect since it is the first one Bach presented after his ′sabbatical′ of February, March and much of April 1726. Following C 72 he had performed cantatas by a relative Johan Ludwig Bach (Wolff p 282) and in the intervening period of almost three months apparently produced no new ones himself. Perhaps he was ′resting′ but it is equally likely that he was planning ahead for the future requirements of the Leipzig churches and working on the St Matthew Passion.

What is undeniable, however, is that when he did return to presenting his own work, he did it with a typical Bachian flourish. He had, of course, begun cantatas with extended sinfonias previously (as early as C 21, the third work of the first cycle, although the only example from the second is C 42). Here he is again commencing a cantata, not with an impressive chorus or aria but with an instrumental movement of massive proportions. This is the largest and most imposing sinfonia that Bach has yet presented as an introduction to a cantata. But presumably it was well received for several more would follow in due course. A precedent would seem to have been established.

Additionally, the organ makes a strong impact as a virtuoso soloist rather than, as previously, a more modest ensemble member of the continuo group.


Why Bach chose to resurrect a pre-composed concerto movement rather than produce a new instrumental piece is unclear. Either he was heavily involved in the composition of the St. Matthew Passion or, as with the opening movement of C 110 (chapter 6), he may have felt that the perfect work for his current purposes already existed and there was no reason to create another. Interestingly, both of the earlier extant works composed for this day begin impressively. C 12 (vol 1, chapter 52) commences with an oboe sinfonia of searing beauty followed by the movement which was later to become the Crucifixus of the Bm Mass. C 103 (vol 2, chapter 45) boasts one of the most explosive opening choruses of the cycle. In both scale and dramatic force the first movement of the Dm keyboard concerto more than matches the cantatas which preceded it.

If, as has been previously suggested, Bach looked back over cantatas written for the same day when planning a new work, he would have reminded himself that he had a lot to live up to. Perhaps this is the essence of the argument: he sought an extended, intense and impressive movement and the Dm concerto fulfilled that requirement perfectly.

Another question is, who would have played the organ solos in C 146? Might Bach have been looking for a vehicle for one of his students or sons? The solo organ part, adapted from the harpsichord concerto, was simplified in various bars, particularly making the left hand part easier; for example, the original two-part writing immediately following the ritornello is now reduced to one line and the arabesques from the cadenza (bars 166/171) have become held chords. But this may simply have been Bach adapting to the different and more sustained sound of the organ. It is quite possible that he expected the player to improvise idiomatic patters upon the chords from bar 166. Furthermore, he strengthened the instrumental support (originally just strings) by adding three oboes, mostly doubling but with a degree of independence.

However, the general structure of the movement and most of the figuration was unaltered. It remains one of the most focussed of Bach′s extended movements, developed with great economy from a mere six bars of ritornello melody, initially stated without harmony. The dramatic power of the lengthy cadenza is, if anything,  even more intense when played on organ rather than harpsichord.

The sustained power and energy of this fine movement must have declared to everybody in no uncertain terms, the Cantor is back!

It could be, of course, that Bach had initially decided that the second movement of the concerto (now the only chorus in the cantata aside from the closing chorale) was particularly suitable for adaptation in this work. In that case the inclusion of the sinfonia, still trailing its concerto heritage, may have been an afterthought. Still, Bach′s regard for this concerto is further demonstrated by the re-use of the third movement in C 188 (vol 3, chapter 45) from the fourth cycle, a couple of years later. It is, indeed, a rare event to find Bach re-using all three movements of a concerto in the cantata canon.

The textual theme of C 146 is little different from its two predecessors also composed for this day; weeping and sorrow are necessary precursors to the entrance to heaven. The chorus (second movement) sums this up in one succinct line—-we must undergo much trial and sorrow before we may enter God′s Kingdom. Interpreted as a desire for death, the pulsating continuo line and quasi-tragic character inherited from the original model both make perfect sense within the new context.

Bach, however, has taken great pains in adapting this secular concerto movement for its religious purpose. Four largely independent vocal parts have been added, the vocal writing employing the minimum of imitative techniques (although the simplest of stretti entries may be found emphasising the final statement of the single line of text just before the end, from bar 74).

The original thirteen-bar throbbing ritornello theme is retained but its function has changed. The voices soar above it from the very first bar and continue to enhance it throughout its six appearances in different tonal environments. The ritornello theme has virtually become a free ′ground bass′ throughout. The tortuous melodic line, the main focus of attention in the concerto setting, has now become an obbligato melody, almost of secondary significance. It is played by the organ, the first time Bach has used the instrument in this way in a chorus. The choir rises magnificently above everything else establishing itself as the dominant musical force, even appearing to disregard the phrasing of the original composition. All that was of primary importance in the concerto is now secondary to the text and the chorus’s declamation of its message.

This momentous adagio, seemingly complete in its version for strings and harpsichord, has taken on a whole new dimension of musical meaning. It is now the embodiment of the inevitable sorrows that must be undergone on our pathway through life as we progress towards inevitable death and hopeful salvation.

Alto aria.

The major mode and sparkling brightness of the alto aria bursts upon us almost as a surprise after the intensity of the first two movements. But the fundamental paradoxes of contemporary Lutheranism help to explain what, at first sight, might seem to be another example of Bach′s simply seeking a variety of emotional expression across the entire cantata at the expense of an individual stanza. Of course, he ensures an effective overall balance, but he is also careful to express the contradictory tenet of antithesis. Earthly sadness and tribulation (of which death is an inevitable, even welcome, component) is an essential part of the journey towards heavenly bliss but now we have a glimpse of the rewards rather than the penalties, a vision even more richly painted in the later duet. The text is now entirely positive—having renounced Sodom I will go to heaven and live my life constructively with You.

The touches of minor-mode harmonies colouring the mention of Sodom (bars 20, 31, 42, 45) are charming but lightly applied because Sodom is hereby renounced and consequently not the central issue in this aria.

Nevertheless, the intervals comprising the vocal line of bars 43-4 illustrate a typically Baroque piece of word painting as the diverse pitches symbolise the actual separation of Sodom and Soul.
               Voice above organ.

The organ, unusually, provides the full accompaniment, the right hand delivering an obbligato melody of uplift and affirmation. The form is conventional da capo. Motivically there are links between the middle section and the later duet, proving that these two movements must have been conceived together as parts of the same composition.

Soprano recitative.

The soprano recitative sets the second longest slab of text in the work. It is self-obsessed and self-pitying to an extent that might alienate it from a contemporary audience. But the key point to notice is that the self-pitying is principally a rhetorical device for stressing the longing for death which lies at the root of this work. This recitative begins, and ends, with the expressed wish to be already in heaven.

Between these stated desires we are badgered about the weeping, the traps, the hatred to be endured and all of the resultant suffering! Clearly life is hard! Indeed, we must understand that it is meant to be hard. Bach conveys this angst through his expected expressiveness of melodic line but also by means of an ever-changing tonality passing through, but seldom establishing, a series of related and unrelated minor keys: G, C, F, D, F#, C, G, and D. The use of the upper strings to sustain the harmonies accentuates their disjunctive qualities. The last six bars are an example of Bach′s expressive recitative melody writing at its most deeply emotional. The accent on schwer—-difficult or burdensome—-is quite heart-stopping (bar 16).

Soprano aria.

The soprano aria is a more restrained and personal expression of the same basic sentiments and it is tempting to imagine that Bach might have considered it more congenial—-I weep anxiously, but yet I know that I shall reap that which I sow, a harvest of blessing. The antithesis continues, inevitable suffering garnering ultimate bliss. The metaphor of the harvest is clear and direct.

The voice is charmingly and delicately accompanied by two oboes and one flute, the latter providing the major part of the obbligato line. However, once again we may turn to the structure of the ritornello theme in order to appreciate both Bach′s compositional processes and his depiction of text.

The flute announces the principal melody, a version of which will become the basic material for the vocal line (bars 1-2). The oboes answer with a flowing depiction of God′s blessed harvest (bars 3-4).

Bars 1-4

From then on their role will be mainly supportive, gently stroking and reassuring both the flute and voice of God′s paternal presence. The following twelve bars of the ritornello find the flute melody dominating as it incorporates two of the textual images, the three-note quaver sighing motive of sorrow and a soaring semi-quaver figure representing the seeking and striving upwards towards God′s seat in the heavens. The concept is simultaneously simple and complex; the effect is deeply expressive.

For the student who wishes to examine Bach′s inventive and creative musical processes and how they are derived from a given text, this is a good place to begin.

Tenor recitative.

Despite beginning and ending in A minor, the tenor recitative strikes an increasingly positive note—-I am ready to bear my cross and although I may weep at the manner in which the world treats me, I know that the time of rejoicing shall come when God allows all into His Dwelling. Bach sets this as an almost matter-of-fact secco recitative. Here the tonal movement is more conjunct, moving through related keys; the central cadence in C major is strongly affirmative in the marking of God′s glorious revelations. Major modes are more frequently used than in the soprano recitative.

Tenor/bass aria.

The duet for tenor and bass is accompanied by strings and two oboes and is a joy. It was one of those cantata movements popularised by E. Power Biggs through recordings he made in the mid twentieth century. There the canonic lines were taken by two trumpets accompanied by organ, an effective arrangement that would have attracted many people who were probably destined never to hear the entire composition.

It is the climax of the work and it espouses the apotheosis of the cantata′s main theme; thoughts of sorrow have been completely superseded as we fix our eyes upon the ultimate rewards. We have not actually reached heaven as yet; but we may still imagine how we will rejoice when the time comes.

The compositional style is direct and uncomplicated, leaving some to suggest that this might be a parody of an earlier work. But there is no need to theorise thus. The simplicity and uncluttered nature of the writing is perfect for its purpose and its musical links with the alto aria indicate that the movements belong together. It is a traditional da capo aria, a structure that Bach was still drawing upon particularly when he looked for statements of convention, tradition and directness.

The apparent ease with which Bach presents the mini-canon between violins (oboes doubling) and continuo (later to be taken up by the voices) tends to mask the skill of its construction.

It suggests both the elation and the refreshment of the ′self′ alluded to in the opening lines of text, the sorrows simply draining away like the rushing scales in the continuo line. But we are subtly reminded of life′s tribulations with Bach′s favourite use of the minor third in a major key context. It brings a momentary shadow over the celebrations (bars 43 and 81) but otherwise all is positivity and aspiration.

The middle section (from bar 105) is of particular interest. Although the text talks of the good Christians shining like the sun and stars with all sadness and weeping having vanished, it is set in a minor key. Furthermore, the main theme, again introduced canonically (tenor leading bass), alludes to the repeated note motive from the middle section of the alto aria (from bar 57). There is also a connection of text; the alto had originally expressed the ambition to live not upon earth but with the Saviour. The tenor and bass are painting their picture of what that would be like.

This is a charming touch uniting thought and musical ideas across the movements. Would the congregation have noticed it or was it intended only  for God himself?


The score does not provide the verse for the closing chorale although several have been suggested. The melody itself is foursquare, symmetrical and unsurprising. Almost any simple text of the day, which deals with the happy arrival at the dwelling place of the Lord, would be suitable. The performing solution, of course, is to choose one of the suitable existing stanzas rather than to omit the chorale.


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