Chapter 18 Bwv 138

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Chapter 18 BWV 138 Warum betrübst du dich mein Herz

My heart, what ails you?

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

The seventeenth cantata of the cycle for the fifteenth Sunday after Trinity.

NB The macro-structure of this work may be viewed as four musical ′blocks′ (see also C 95, chapter 19)  e.g.

Block 1: chorus/recit. Block 2: recit/chorus. Block 3: recit /aria. Block 4: recit/chorale.

Bach often seems to adhere to a plan for a limited period of three or four weeks before striking out in new and unexpected ways. After the solo cantata C 199 he produced a trio of works identical in structure: Cs 69a, 77 and 25 all with paired recitatives and arias between the opening chorus and closing chorale. Did he tire of producing ′stock patterns′ of this kind? Did he have a desire to keep the music fresh by constantly presenting the congregations with new and unexpected forms? Or did he adhere to a particular format only as long as he judged it ideally suited to particular texts? We know very little of his input into the shapes of the libretti apart from an occasional surviving example of alterations in his own hand. Did he discuss them, add or reject lines or stanzas or play any positive part in their choice and initial development? All we know is that the texts had to be vetted, approved and printed some time in advance of the Sunday performances so Bach would have been thinking out his compositional strategies well ahead of the performance dates.

Whatever his reasons, there is no doubt that after three weeks of sticking to a clearly defined format, Bach decided to deliver something quite different from anything he had hitherto presented in Leipzig. Both first and second movements of C 138 are highly innovative combinations of chorus, chorale and recitative, the last of which, in fact, dominates the entire cantata. There is, quite unusually, only one aria. Bach′s experiments with the integration of chorus and recitative continued further in the startlingly original cantata of the following week, C 95, but thereafter he returned to more established patterns. Could it have been that it was indicated to him that his innovative structures were not to the taste of his conservative congregations? But even so, would he have cared?


The first movement commences without surprises, a brooding, overcast idea on the upper strings of the sort that we have become used to, particularly with Bach′s setting of melancholy texts. After only three bars the first oboe enters with the initial phrase of the chorale melody which is to dominate the entire work (also later to be found ending C 47 vol 3, chapter 27). The second oboe has a series of short, chromatic sobs pre-empting the expression of grief and sorrow which is yet to come.

The structure of the first 31 bars of this chorus is very clearly thought out. There are three choral segments taking, in turn, the first three lines of the chorale melody and text—-why, heart are you troubled?—-Why suffer such pain?—-it is but a temporal matter—-. Each entry is preceded by a statement of the chorale phrase on the oboe and a solo tenor also pre-empts each line of text. Thus we have a situation in which both text and melody are stated twice, the former by an individual singer followed by the choir and the latter, initially, by solo oboe. Thus does Bach lay stress upon the individual and communal nature of human distress, setting the one immediately adjoining the other.

The movement could have continued with this pattern until the end and one is entitled to wonder why Bach did not do so; there are only two more phrases with which he could have completed the process. Instead, from bar 31, a solo alto voice is heard expressing through recitative, a number of lines of inserted text—-I am poor and struck down with enduring sorrow—-may God pity me and deliver me from this wretched world—-I wish to be dead. The strings now sustain the harmonies and the oboes add moments of commiserating regret.

Rather unexpectedly, the last two phrases of the chorale are joined together and sung by the choir to complete the movement—-put trust in the Lord God who has created all things. Oboes do not now pre-empt, simply doubling the sopranos as the upper strings, having abandoned their original figurations, provide an unobtrusively caressing accompaniment.

The following clarifies a structure that seems, when described, more complex than it really is: a, b and c represent oboe versions of the chorale phrases and A-E are the choral renderings.

a –solo (tenor) — A,        b –solo –B,      c –solo –C,     –alto recit,     –DE (tutti)

But whatever questions might arise about the peculiar structuring of this movement, its haunting expression of human desolation makes a considerable impact upon the listener.


The second movement appears to return us to a more traditional format, but appearances can be deceptive! It commences with a conventional, secco bass recitative, a masterpiece of self-obsession—-I am despised, the Lord makes me suffer with my meagre provision—-how can I fulfil my duties with only sighs and bitter tears for meat and drink? The pouring of the deceptive drink (bar 5) and the bitter cup of tears (bar 7) are graphically pictured in melodic lines of powerful declamation.
   Bar 5 (pouring) followed by bar 7 (bitter drink).

But at the height of this self-pity the (heavenly?) choir makes an appearance to reassure us. It is set again to the first three lines of the chorale melody—-He will not forsake you—He rules heaven and earth and He knows what you lack. Empathetic oboes offer cautious support with gestures reminiscent of the opening chorus.

The remainder of the movement consists of two further choral interventions, in each case repeating the conjoined last two chorale phrases (from bars 29 and 49). Separating these is a soprano recitative, followed by one from the alto.

The pattern is outlined below.

Recit (bass)—chorale/choir (first three phrases)—recit (sop)—chorale/choir (last two phrases)— recit (alto)—chorale/choir (last two phrases repeated).

The choir states, with increasingly assertive entries by the lower voices, that He stands by you whatever your needs. Both recitative texts continue the bass′s theme of ′poor me′ with expressions of loss and abandonment, desertion and loneliness. Will nothing reassure those who have got themselves into this state of exclusion?

Tenor recitative.

It is, perhaps, slightly surprising that the next movement is not a joyous aria. It stands centrally as the keystone of the cantata and it registers the change in direction of the narrative. Up until now all has been gloom and depression but now there is a little light at the end of the tunnel, even though a degree of the self-absorption still remains—-sweet comfort it is if He maintains and supports me even though the world still hates me—-I know that if He does not help me today, He will tomorrow, and I need know nothing more. The mode is now major and the melodic line is increasingly positive with one spectacular sweep stressing the word Freuden—-joy. Presumably it was the sheer bulk of text that persuaded Bach to set this significant stanza as a recitative.

Clearly Bach intended this movement, lacking as it does a chord of finality, to merge directly with the following aria. This would indicate that he did view this work as four integrated blocks as set out at the head of this article. (The short alto recitative will similarly be found to be in the key of the concluding chorale to which it is linked).

Bass aria.

It is unusual to have to wait so long for an aria but that which now arrives, for bass and strings, is worth waiting for. In terms of the narrative, the corner has now been turned and the soul cheerfully proclaims its faith and newly attained conviction—-my confidence is in Him, my faith accepts His governance, no worries or privations can plague me for amidst any sorrow he remains my Father and shall uphold me. The bright key of A major allows the strings to sound at their most brilliant in their outpouring of joyous affirmation.

But it does not quite begin that way. It starts with four bars of what seems like a civilised, even sedate minuet. It is only then that the first violins introduce a dazzling theme which evolves into streams of semi-quavers.

This ritornello is a complete mini-binary form movement in itself culminating in a bar of delicious busy-ness suggesting a moment of unrestrained ecstasy. It has therefore, two main musical components the head (minuet) and the tail (streams of rhapsodic delight).

The bass uses the head theme to make his initial entry and announcement—-I place my trust in God. This ′minuet′ idea is the key to the movement and it keeps cropping up to reassert the fundamental mantra, reinforced throughout by the several long and striking melismas on —-walten—-stressing the significance of His governance.

The middle section (from bar 58) reminds us of the poverty and sorrow that will not now continue to plague us. Adversity needs to be mentioned but should no longer take centre stage and the return of the head motive continuously serves to prompt us to remember the trust we have in Him. Long melismas on nagen and plagen may remind us of the privations which we had suffered but they are balanced by equal emphasis of Freude and erhalten, the joy of the Father and His wise sustenance. The A section returns, abridged, to stress once more our faith and confidence in His power and authority.

Bach later reused this aria in his mass in G BWV 236.

Alto recitative.

Yet one more recitative, but it is a very short one—-why, now I can rest in peace, disassociated from sorrows as if I were already in heaven. The importance of its return to Bm, the key of the opening, but even more significantly that of the final movement, has been noted.


After a number of plain chorale harmonisations Bach returns to his earlier practice of ending with an expanded arrangement employing individual instrumental parts. There are three main components to the score. The oboes have a stolid melody played throughout in parallel harmony, the rhythm of which evokes echoes of the opening chorus.

The choir sings the complete chorale, the lower voices occasionally demonstrating a slightly greater degree of flamboyance than one might usually expect in a plain, closing harmonisation. Finally, the violins unite to dominate the movement with great sweeping swirls of notes, though they still find space to unite with the oboes, particularly at cadence points.

Did Bach consider each constituent part to represent some entity or event relating to the main narrative? Do the oboes represent us, those earthbound human clods of earth now not without hope but still bearing life′s discomforts? Are the string skirls the all-encompassing benefices of the Lord, swirling all around and occasionally connecting with us?

The choir sings a closing verse that is only partially reassuring—-we might now believe that we will not ultimately be foresaken; but in the meantime we still must tolerate the privations of this mortal existence; on earth there is no real comfort. The ebullient setting may, at first, seem to be out of keeping with the sentiments expressed.

But Bach was an optimist. His joyous bursts of emotion serve to remind us of what is promised and what we shall surely receive and enjoy.


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