Chapter 18 Bwv 88

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Chapter 18 BWV 88 Siehe, ich will viel Fischer aussenden

See, I shall send forth many fishermen, said the Lord.


Aria (bass)–recit (tenor)–aria (tenor).


Recit (tenor)–arioso (bass)–duet (sop/alto)–recit (sop)–chorale.

For the fifth Sunday after Trinity.

There are only two extant cantatas for this particular day and they both make use of the same chorale melody. The fifth day of Trinity had been subsumed by more significant events in the first cycle and if Bach composed any other cantatas for it after C 88, they have been lost. Therefore, the only surviving work with which it may be compared is C 93 from the second cycle (vol 2, chapter 7).

That was a chorale cantata, the fantasia of which was constructed from the image of the house built upon sand. Subsequent movements draw heavily upon the chorale melody for ideas and development; for example the five-note motive which begins and dominates the tenor aria is a major-mode version of the first notes of the chorale melody.

Bach is known to have used this particular chorale on numerous occasions, rather flamboyantly in 179, and in much simpler harmonisations in Cs 93 and 88. C 93 was, in some ways, looking back to earlier works like C 4 where the chorale made relentless appearances in every movement as well as forming the basis of the opening fantasia. In C 88 the chorale does little more than close the work, taking no significant part in the musical construction of the preceding movements.

The same verse of text is used for the closing chorales in both Cs 93 and 88 although, as almost always, Bach has tinkered with the harmonisation. We observe the extension of the first phrase by one note and the simplification of the bass line in the last phrase of the later work. Since the text is identical, these alterations would seem to have been a matter of whim, emphasis or an impulse to improve upon first thoughts, as they cannot be reactions to different images.


Bass aria.

C 88 is somewhat unusual at this stage of Bach′s cantata writing as it begins with an aria for bass. The scale of this movement suggests that it could easily have been conceived, as are most of the other two-part works of this period, as a massive opening chorus which, doubtless, would have been commanding.

But Bach has already demonstrated that when a cantata begins with the words of the Lord spoken in the first person, a bass aria is a most effective means of delivery. Three works from the second cycle begin this way, two (or possibly all three of them) with libretti by Mariane von Ziegler (Cs 85, 108 and 87: see vol 2 chapter 44). These were all compositions of the highest musical quality, suffering no loss from the lack of a grand opening choral gesture.

That of C 88 is the longest of the bass arias which open Bach′s cantatas and it is conceived in two contrasting parts. The first gives us the Lord′s decree—-see, I will send out many fishermen to catch them! The second is much more vigorous and delivers the second decree—-I will send out many hunters who will capture them on mountains and in the valleys. In a sense they might be seen as two separate movements although the tonal scheme suggests otherwise. Section A (bars 1-101) begins and ends in D major, in which section B also begins: but it ends in G. There is no tonal conjoining with the subsequent movements (as in the first three movements of C 16, chapter 10) so the obvious conclusion is that Bach conceived this as a huge da capo movement in which section A was to be repeated in full after section B. There is no such direction in the score but the tonal plan suggests strongly that this was the intention.

Bach has already set precedents for such aria structures in which the middle section is differentiated from the outer ones in a number of ways, including a significantly faster tempo (see, for example, the first movement of C 151, chapter 8).

Section A, in dealing with the fishermen, represents the movement of waves and water in two different ways. The first four bars have a gentle flowing quaver rhythm which, while persisting in the continuo line, finds the upper strings (oboes doubling) taking up an equally flowing but faster semi-quaver motion (from bar 5).

Both ideas continue throughout the aria suggesting, as indeed Schubert was later to do in a number of his ′water- based′ piano accompaniments, the ceaseless activity of a stream or ocean. The occasional semi-quaver movement enlivens the short pedal notes in the continuo, thus hinting at possible perils in the depths. But the final melisma on ′sollen′ stresses the obligation that Man has to do the Lord′s bidding, whatever the risks may be.

Note also the bass′s repeated rhetorical statements—-Siehe—see, or behold! There is clearly something here which we are all commanded to note well!

It seems, however, that the rather peaceful activity of fishing is much less energetic than that of chasing live quarry over hill and dale; the music makes this abundantly clear. The two hunting horns have been held back until the more animated section B emerges and their role varies between that of simple accompaniment (as in bars 104-7) and a more vigorous portrayal of the hunting scene thereafter.

However, it is in the two lines of the bass and continuo that we find all of this section’s basic material, in particular streams of quavers pitted against dotted and syncopated rhythms. The scene painted so operatically is one of restless movement, a scattering of hunters (and presumably their dogs, although there is no specific mention of them) over, around and up and down the various terrains of the countryside. Not only is the scene pictured vividly in macrocosmic terms but the participants are also painted in a number of ways. Terms such as Jäger and Bergen—-the hunters in the mountains—are set to a commanding interval of a falling 7th. Long and technically difficult melismas on Jäger and fahen—-catching—- both underline the basic theme whilst suggesting the physical effort required. Horns and strings emphasise the hunting aspects whilst the continuo is mainly concerned with driving the action forward by means of rolling quavers.

This is a breathless and commanding piece of music effectively offset by the return of the calmer scene of the fishermen; but only if and when one finds conductors bold enough to take the unspecified reprise.

Tenor recitative.

The tenor asks a number of rhetorical questions in his following secco recitative: how easily might the Almighty turn away from the sinners rushing towards their perdition? What may be His response to them? Does He withdraw His blessings and abandon us to our enemies? Bach graphically paints the pictures of potential abandonment and ruin through the shaping of the melodic line, and he ends on a musical question—-does He abandon us?—- begging an answer which the following tenor aria immediately delivers.—-

Tenor aria.

‘No, God intends to keep us to the path of righteousness, beneath His guiding light—-He will even seek us out should we stray from it’.

The fact that the question needs an immediate answer accounts for Bach′s dispensing with an opening instrumental ritornello in this aria. But he compensates by ending it with a postlude of some length and complexity. The opening vocal section is accompanied only by the continuo so as not to mask the core of the message—-God guides us with His light. The light of the Lord flickers gently as the obbligato oboe d′ amore makes its entrance. Oboe, voice and continuo merge into a perfectly balanced three-part texture and as He leads, we follow and the continuo quavers mark our footsteps.

The second part of this verse tells us that God seeks us out when we have abandoned the ′right way′. Here (from bar 57) we find examples of the fabric of the music wrought to accommodate the poetic ideas. The vocal phrases with which the movement begins are symmetrical four-bar structures, perhaps suggesting that our path and God′s will sit together in perfect balance. When we depart from it, the phrase structures temporarily become rather more wayward, six bars in length and more rhythmically disjunctive. At the same time the little oboe ′figure of light′ revolves around a single note (bars 57/8 and 63/4) as if the lamp is held as a steady beam, a beacon piloting us back to the ′true path′.

Details these may be too subtle, perhaps, for a human congregations but surely obvious to God Himself. The tenor line reflects the physical and mental effort of keeping to the path, our eyes averted upwards towards the light of heaven.

The lengthy codetta combines all of the musical elements of the aria, returning to balanced four-bar phrases. In purely musical terms we have resumed the true path and both our journey, and God′s Will have been re-established; truly a masterpiece of understated musical narrative effectively drawing the first part of the cantata to a close. Furthermore, these two movements reflect strongly Bach’s awareness of contemporary operatic narrative and drama.


Tenor recitative, bass arioso.

The two-bar tenor recitative must be one of the shortest ever written and is included for narrative purposes, dainty strings accompanying the simple statement: ′Jesus said to Simon—–‘.

Bass aria.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the aria which follows immediately, is for bass. It informs Simon that he should fear nothing since we should, from this time, be ′catching men′. This is a simple uncluttered ritornello movement without obbligato, ensuring that the Saviour′s words may not be obscured. It is united by the tripping figure (that of ′joy′) first heard in the continuo line but quickly borrowed by the singer.

Particularly noticeable are the four occasions on which the vocal line uses bare crotchets to declaim—-from now on you will catch men—- (commencing in bars 4, 21, 35 and 44).

On each occasion these stark commands dissolve into melismas which suggest the more complex processes of seeking, hunting, catching and converting, all of which were portrayed in the opening movement. Again, the musical devices are subtle but the very texture and shaping of the music is directly derived from these simplest of ideas.

Soprano/alto aria.

Bach has used the soprano/alto duet on various occasions to express a joyful and innocently childlike coming together of the faithful: see for example that in C 78 (vol 2 chapter 14). In C 88 the obbligato theme is a muscular and  powerful one, two oboes doubling first and second violins. The mood of the ritornello is buoyantly confident and completely lacking in ostentation. The text asks—-if God calls us, His blessing shall be dependent upon our actions—-He has given us our talents and will continue to nurture them, but eventually they must be returned to Him with interest.

Noticeable in the ritornello structure is, firstly, the immediate canonic imitation by the continuo of the opening theme, secondly Schweitzer′s figure of joy, and thirdly the broken three-note quaver motive in the 5th and 6th bars. All play important parts in the development of the movement.
   Opening bars.

The imitation, also a feature of the vocal writing throughout, is symbolic of the union of God and Soul and this is essentially a matter for personal celebration. The quaver figure appears three times in parallel movement in the voices (commencing bars 36, 57 and 81). The first time it expresses the fears that may oppose us on our journey towards divine unification, but on the second two occasions it asserts God′s power to help us to bring our talents and ambitions to fruit. This is a clear message supported by musical process i.e. with God′s help we may endure tribulations and persist in our efforts to achieve our ultimate goals.

The very nature of this pithy musical idea is one of persistence and perseverance, another example of Bach′s ability to communicate on a virtually subliminal level.

The feeling of potentially inhibiting fears and tribulations is powerfully portrayed (bars 32-40) but not dwelt upon. The essence of this movement is the joy of fruitful union and not of dangerous and negative experiences. Nevertheless, we should always be aware of the possibility that the latter may conspire to prevent the former.

Soprano recitative.

A similar moment occurs in the final recitative for soprano (bars 8-10) where the pathos of the line conveys the message that trouble and toil, plague and pestilence, lies and envy must be viewed as enemies of true union. It was difficult for the Eighteenth Century Lutheran to lose sight of these negative aspects of earthly existence for any period of time and Bach portrays them as the text dictates; nevertheless his unfailing optimism always prevails. The point is that when God extends His hand, these matters need not divert us.

Furthermore, a true perspective enables us to see, in hindsight, that these trials were actually good for us and doubtlessly character forming! Pain needs to be suffered and cheerfully endured if we are ultimately to enter the House of God.


If any doubts remain, the closing chorale removes them—-sing, pray and follow God′s true path, for if we place ourselves in His hands He will not abandon us.

And so we depart reassured. We have been reminded of the terrors and dangers but only in passing. The ultimate message is one of optimism and confidence; Jesus and His disciples have hunted our souls and we are consequently to be saved.

A warming and comforting notion. One wonders whether Bach′s essentially positive view was also reflected in the sermon of the day.


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