Chapter 14 Bwv 78

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Chapter 14 BWV 78 Jesu, der du meine Seele

Jesus, who has rent my soul.

Chorus/fantasia–duet (alto/sop)–recit (ten)–aria (tenor)–recit/arioso (bass)–aria (bass)–chorale.

The thirteenth cantata of the cycle for the fourteenth Sunday after Trinity.

Two movements particularly stand out in this work, the massive opening chorus and the enchanting duet which follows it. So perfect are these that there is a danger of them eclipsing those which follow.

The opening fantasia is awesome in both scope and scale. The text is one of those that seems to have particularly inspired Bach containing, as it does, a number of contrasting images. As Bach’s rich counterpoint indicates, his was a mind that enjoyed the challenge of complexity, several ideas or feelings converging simultaneously or within a very short space of time. The challenge he so often set himself was to find a pathway through intricacy and invent a series of textures that were rich and multifaceted but never overwhelming or impenetrable. This opening movement is a superb example of that art.

The principal images are of Christ on the cross, His pain, the power of the devil in hell and, finally, the safe retreat for those protected by the word of the Lord; all common themes of the Lutheranism of the day. The point is not that they are original ideas, far from it. It is that all these images are brought together in a single movement that stirs both heart and mind while still retaining complete musical integrity. This is Bach’s genius and his ability to achieve it, often transcending potentially inhibiting technical and artistic constraints, still amazes us today.


The closing chorale has eight simple two-bar phrases. A significant early decision Bach must have made was to change its 4/4 time into 3/4 for the chorus. This is not the triple time of the waltz or minuet, however. Just as Beethoven was later to demonstrate in the first movement of his Eroica symphony, triple time has the potential to convey a sense of overwhelming force. Bach’s text touches upon the opposing powers of Christ and the devil as well as the contrary emotions of pain and contentment. His music encapsulates it all.

Structurally one could describe the form as a large-scale ground bass or passacaglia, the opening bars of which, incidentally, evoke echoes of Purcell′s earlier Chacony for strings in the same key. But this description, though broadly accurate, is simplistic. So let us turn aside from the work for a moment in order to consider some wider aspects of Bach’s original structural thinking.

Basically there were two kinds of compositional structures available to him and his contemporaries. One was the repetition principle which allowed a composer to create (or possibly borrow or steal) an idea and keep repeating it whilst inventing sufficient contrasting material to maintain interest. Theme and variations, ground bass, chaconne and passacaglia are all examples of such forms. Bach was less interested than some of his contemporaries in these, although when he did turn his hand to them, inevitably he created models for lesser composers to emulate e.g. the Goldberg Variations and the Passacaglia in C minor for Organ.

The second principle is that of progression from one key to another and transposing melodic and harmonic material, repeating and/or developing it in other modes/keys at different pitches. The seventeenth century consolidation of the various modes to just two, major and minor, made it possible for composers to move from one tonality (i.e. key) to another, thereby creating contrast and a structural backbone for their thematic material. Most of Bach’s music, including the Forty-Eight Preludes and Fugues, suites and concerti, employ this principle.

A good place for the interested amateur to see this in action would be the French Suite movements where Bach begins in the key of his choice, moves to another (at the double bar) thence passing (as a rule) through one or two further keys on the way home. Most of Vivaldi’s fast movements use similar principles. (N.B. names and descriptions of the main musical structures are listed in the glossary under form).

Bach’s genius as a musical structuralist is demonstrated less in his invention of completely new forms and more in his ability to extract the principles from existing ones and to combine and integrate them in fresh ways. This enabled him to create a multitude of different, and often unique, musical shapes, unparalleled in the Western repertoire. He had explored these possibilities in his earlier instrumental music, most notably in the Brandenburg Concerti. Now, on his mission to supply a repertoire of ‘well regulated church music’, he approaches his cantatas with a similarly flexible and experimental outlook.

The massive opening passacaglia of C 78 uses a theme which keeps repeating itself often, but not exclusively, in the bass line where it is first heard.

In this sense it is an example of the repetition type of musical structure.

But it is also a massive ritornello movement; the orchestra begins and ends it, additionally interpolating episodes of various lengths between the choral entries. If one thinks of these entries as the ‘solos’, one can easily recognise the Italianate concerto structure. For the technically minded, it is of interest to work out the key plan of this fantasia. Bach, seemingly completely unfettered by the constraints of the chorale tune, steers himself to four of the five related keys, C and D minors, F and Bb majors; an incredible feat of harmonic dexterity. This is another excellent example of Bach’s highly innovative approach to the structural problems inherent within these fantasias and alluded to in many other chapters.

Finally, this movement is a huge chorale/fantasia in which, as we have come to expect in this cycle, each phrase of the melody taken by the sopranos. It is not any one of these structures; it is a unique combination of all three.

Keen listeners will recognize the opening bass theme (bars 1-4) which is a descending chromatic scale from g to d. A similar version is also used (as a ground bass) in the Crucifixus of the Bm Mass (originating in C 12) and in the bass aria from C 4. This theme is one of infinite sadness and Bach frequently uses it as a symbol of the cross. It only occurs twice as a fleeting image in the C 4 movement but here it is used in all voices except the sopranos (who are tied to the chorale melody) and it is even inverted. Listeners may amuse themselves by counting the number of times they hear it. Even before the first choral entry it occurs four times, twice successively in the bass line, thence on oboes.

Against this figure in the opening bars, Bach writes a melody constructed mainly of dotted rhythms denoting power and might. Schweitzer′s three-note ‘joy’ figure dominates the continuo line under the first vocal entry. But this is a heavy and subdued echo of joyousness, merely hinting at the safe haven provided through the words of Christ. The main thrusts of the movement are concerned with images of power, Christ′s death, evil and suffering; and, of course, faith.

It has already been noted that Bach adapted the chorale into a triple rhythm, a common practice when using the ‘crucifixus’ theme. Almost certainly this symbolizes the Holy Trinity.

The sopranos’ chorale melody is doubled, for emphasis, by horn and flute (a pair of oboes augments the usual strings and continuo). One final point about this astonishing movement is the way in which the altos, tenors and basses pre-empt the soprano’s entries of the chorale phrases. This is no straightforward harmonization of the melody as may be found elsewhere. The lower voices always enter first, creating a complex tapestry of sound designed to surround, enhance and focus attention upon the chorale phrases.

But more than that, Bach considers each line of text in turn and ensures that the writing for the lower voices expresses it. For example, depiction of ‘bitter pain’ in the second phrase is preceded by expressive chromaticism and suspensions (from bar 25). For the ′wrenching of the soul from the devil′s cavern ‘ the flowing semiquavers in the lower voices suggest such actions (from bar 77).

Thought and feeling are combined and simultaneously articulated in the most profound manner and on every level.

Soprano/alto aria.

Doubtless Bach recognised the need for a little light relief after such intensity, hence the following aria for soprano and alto. We find the composer somewhat preoccupied with duets at this point of the cycle and this one is, without a doubt, a gem. The cello patters along in almost continuous quavers while the core notes are supported in crotchets by the bass (violone).

  Cello line.

There is no obbligato instrument, allowing the focus to be on the words and musical entwining of the two singers as they take their tentative steps towards Christ.

The text, as always, has evoked the musical ideas—-Jesus, we hasten to you for help; our steps are eager but uncertain. The cello quavers encapsulate the physical actions of children pattering off in order to seek the Lord’s blessing. The entire aria conveys a sense of the child; naivety, enthusiasm, wonderment, directness and sincerity: all are suggested. The voices are heard singly, imitating each other in musical canon and then joining together, just like children at play.

The middle section (from bar 51) touches lightly on the minor mode as mention is made of the sick and sinful whom Jesus seeks out. But there are no real clouds on this horizon, perhaps apart from the pointing of the words Ach höre—-ah, hear me—-which is particularly poignant and effective.

Bach must often have composed movements of this kind in a single evening. One wonders if he may have put his pipe down on his composing desk after creating a jewel of this kind and allowed himself to think, ‘Well, that was a good evening’s work’.

Tenor recitative.

The rest of the cantata, though certainly not musically weak, comes as something of an anti-climax after the two opening movements (see also C 109, vol 1 chapter 23 for the posing of a similar artistic problem). The tenor recitative is long and somewhat self absorbed with the individual’s transgressions and failings, all exacerbated by wide melodic leaps, the weird and disjunctive bass line and seemingly unrelated harmonies. The images are of sin, corruption and disease; and those who, at the time, criticized Bach for his operatic and overly dramatic expression should, perhaps, have examined his texts a little more closely, for he is only following where the words have led him. Six lines of text are quoted from the hymn, including those at the beginning and end but Bach makes no use of the melody.

There are two obvious moments of word painting which, presumably, everyone would be expected to recognize. The first comes from the extremely disjunctive bass notes underpinning the phrase—-wie oft ich fehle, zählen—-the many occasions on which I have sinned (bars 14-15). The second is the long melisma at the end; a tortuous arioso-like melodic line underpinned by chromatic harmonies on the word erzürnet—-anger (transgressions that have angered the Lord). Boyd (p 246) notes the rare dynamic marking of ‘piano’ at the beginning.

                      Convoluted melisma……

Tenor aria.

The tenor aria is accompanied by continuo and flute obbligato, presumably employing the skilled flautist whose services Bach was fortunate enough to utilise at this time. The first section of the text describes the joy arising from a heart cleansed and made pure. The middle section expresses confidence that, even should the devil renew his attacks, the Saviour’s support will continue.

Once again Bach surprises us in his choice of major and minor keys. One may have thought that the joy expressed in the opening lines would imply a major key and the threat of the devil the minor. In fact Bach reverses this expectation. The joy is there, uplifted by the sparkling flute, but it is muted, presumably due to the ever present perils of Satan′s potential interventions.

The first reference to the devil’s menace begins in the major (bar 31) but returns rapidly to the minor and ends with a forceful articulation of the faith we have in the support from the Lord. Numerous examples of word painting may be found including the octave leaps in voice and continuo on zum Streite—-to battle (from bar 46)—-and the long note on stehet—stands [Jesus at my side] from bar 53.

This is a Protestant expression of a joy which, because of the presence of the devil, is not unconfined. But it is also the articulation of a faith that is, or should be, unshakable.

Bass recitative/arioso.

The bass voice in this recitative has echoes of the Lord and continues the theme of evangelical passion dispensing with any implications of frivolous joyousness. Images of scars, wounds, nails and the grave abound (note the low notes on the word Grab—-grave, bar 3) but the major harmonies and assertive vocal lines rise above them. The strings encompass the voice like a shimmering halo.

Sounds heralding the Day of Judgment temporarily interrupt these musings with repeated string chords and a faster, more agitated tempo. Bach is fond of portraying the drama inherent in the terrors of this day, as the bass aria from C 168 from the third cycle attests. But the recitative ends in a poignant arioso as the good Christian offers himself entirely to Christ—-I give you my heart, sprinkled with Your very blood from the Cross itself. The strings provide a rich, four-part buttress encompassing the serene if slightly breathless vocal line

The effect is resigned, reflective, not entirely untouched by sadness, but above all, beautiful.

Bass aria.

The final aria, for bass, would seem to be the most straightforward movement in the cantata, a direct, uncomplicated and ongoing request for continued support and clarity of conscience. But the contrast between the initial two musical ideas suggests something more subtle. The first (head motive) is a clear-cut, unequivocal, assertive statement on strings and oboe embodying a suggestion of the shape of the first chorale phrase. It strongly conveys a sense of certainty and conviction. The second, which follows immediately, is a more meandering figure on solo oboe, slightly less assured and seeming as if to seek out a place of fulfillment. Nevertheless it is the oboe’s melodic line which attracts the listener’s attention throughout.

These musical statements alternate throughout the aria, symbolizing, perhaps, the two opposing but coexisting states of mind, trust and doubt. The first is rhetorical and assured—-You will placate my angry conscience and offer me hope. The second is less certain about the world at large—-if only all Christians could believe Your word, they would not be taken from Your hands.

But the ultimate message is that trust in the Lord will dispel natural human doubts.


The final chorale is minor and, perhaps, it too lacks a sense of total confidence; this may, after all, only be gained from the love of the Lord and it is for this that we have come to pray. Consequently there is still a suggestion of that coexistence of contradictions musically so explicit in the previous aria; I trust entirely in You and need Your support—-but I remain weak and cannot entirely trust in myself.

The ambiguities of theme, form, the power of God and the naturally inconsistent state of the human condition are all brought together in this cantata. But in the end there can be no doubt about the basic message; God′s love and help must be actively sought and only they can provide the support, strength and redemption the individual seeks.

A final note for students. The extant parts for this score show more in dynamic and performance markings than is usual in the cantatas. Scholars and performers may wish to pursue this further in the quest for ‘authenticity’ of Bach performance.


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