Chapter 21 Bwv 48

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Chapter 21 BWV 48 Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen

Abject that I am, who shall redeem me?

Chorus–recit (alto)–chorale (SATB)–aria (alto)–recit (tenor)–aria (tenor)–chorale.

The twentieth cantata of the cycle for the nineteenth Sunday after Trinity.

In many respects this cantata adheres to the established pattern of opening chorus and closing chorale, separated by alternating recitatives and arias. However, right in the middle Bach has placed an additional, unadorned harmonisation of a second chorale. The reason for this is not obvious although some possible explanations present themselves.

We should note however, that with the exception of C 109, this is the last cantata to begin with an expansive chorus before C 70, a large, bipartite work which will complete the ecclesiastical year. Thereafter Bach returned to presenting substantial opening choruses with gusto, particularly throughout the periods of Advent, Christmas and the New Year. It may have been a matter of temporarily restraining his full resources in order to unleash them anew for the major events of the year.


Whatever its context may have been, the first movement of C 48 is one to relish, with its dark brooding atmosphere and preoccupation with misery and death. This is not one of those two-part structures which appear so frequently in the earlier part of the cycle 1 cantatas. It is, rather, an integrated tone poem, carefully built about the melody of the chorale which will later close the cantata. It consistently sustains the atmosphere of subdued menace through to the very last bar.

There is but one line of text—-wretch that I am, who might liberate me from this mortal body? The theme is a very common one, the corrupting power of sin on our bodies and souls and our wish to be rid of it. But conventional though this might be, Bach turns it into an elegy which elicits our most primeval of responses, the natural human fear of death, pain and contamination. There is a deep and inexplicable yearning, dejection and isolation in this music that mere words cannot conjure up.

But as well as creating such a deeply emotional experience, this movement is crafted with an intellectual dexterity and control that finds few equals in other composers of the period. The aesthetic pleasure of penetrating the cerebral aspects of the way the composer has organised his musical material is quite different from the emotional experience of simply listening to and absorbing it directly; but in its own way it is no less satisfying.

Perhaps the best way to begin to unravel the complexity is to differentiate between the three basic components, strings, choir and a paired trumpet and oboe. Each will be essentially associated with its own theme. The first violins begin by stating an eight-note motive which has two clear elements, a little upward exclamation immediately followed by a falling sigh. This figure is repeated, sequenced and extended but remains the prime material for the strings throughout, their expressions of despair moving from fore- to back-ground at different points along the journey.

The chorale melody is intoned by the trumpet and oboe, phrase by phrase and always in canon, the brass instrument leading at the higher pitch. It is extraordinary that the entire melodic line will work this way with the minimum of accommodation and it demonstrates Bach′s uncanny ability to recognise and exploit the potential of any given theme. It was his decision to use the entire chorale in this way that predetermined the overall shape, length and structure of the movement.

And lastly the choir, whose main melody is an extension of the chorale′s fifth phrase. It commences with an expressive upward leap of a sixth and, like the wind version of the chorale, is similarly canonic.

The first entry is of sopranos leading altos, thence basses leading tenors. String, wind and vocal themes can also be heard simultaneously at telling moments in the movement.

What are we to make of these intricacies? On one level it seems certain that Bach was stimulated by such challenges and probably relished the intellectual stimulus involved in finding aesthetically and technically satisfying solutions. But that explanation never seems quite adequate when we delve more deeply into Bach′s music; it is almost certain that there were extra-musical intentions as well. Did he intend the canonic interlay of the themes to suggest the universality of humans in their attitudes towards death? Or an underlying kinship between man and God? Was it a representation of miseries piled one upon the other? Or a conjoining of those oft conscripted bedfellows, sin and punishment? One has to wonder if, surrounded as he was by many talented young students, Bach was ever actually asked such questions.

Alto recitative.

The alto takes on the role of the afflicted soul in the following recitative and the imagery is very similar to that of the ′world as a hospital′ evoked in the tenor recitative from C 25—-pain, misery and poison affect us in this hospital and the body bears this to the very grave—-the soul feels it all and life′s most bitter cup forces from it an impassioned sigh. The opening powerfully drooping intervals convey the sensations of the pain and misery which the text expresses.

The sustaining strings begin and end in major modes although the vocal line seems more at home in the dark keys of F and Bb minor. In fact the range of minor keys touched upon in some bars is quite disconcertingly effective, presenting a graphic picture of the unsettled soul. Certain key words are given strong melodic or harmonic emphasis e.g. Schmertz—-pain (bars 1 and 12), Elend—-misery (2), Plagen—-torment (7) and the harmonic shift that pictures pain striking the body of death is doubly arresting (12-13). The passionate sigh of the final line is likewise communicated melodically with appropriate fervour.


Undoubtedly the reason for the unexpected appearance of a plain four-part chorale at this point lies within its text—-if it must be that pain and retribution follow sin—-allow me to do my penance here instead of in heaven. Perhaps Bach felt that a simple and self-revelatory prayer of this sort was more powerfully expressed through a recognisable hymn tune than by means of music new to the congregation. But all is not quite plain and direct; the dark chords in bar 2 and again at the end are strongly suggestive of the sin and pain which persist in this life and about which much mention has been made in the previous movements.

Alto aria.

Put down the sinful city of the wicked, only spare and purify the soul—-these are the joint entreaties expressed in the text of the alto aria. It is built in two sections around a cheerful ritornello theme, the first section (to bar 38) dealing with the razing of the place of evil and the second a prayer for the sparing of the pure soul. There is no reprise of the first part because that is not the aspect of the narrative that Bach wishes to emphasise at this point.

At a first glance this movement seems a little cheerful for such sentiments, the light minuet-like character of the oboe obbligato suggesting little of the hand of God smiting down the dwellings of the wicked. Bach, it seems, has decided to concentrate principally upon the second thought, the preserving and uplifting of the soul. Nevertheless, the early b flat in the ritornello theme offers a passing suggestion of inherent sin.

Viewed thus, one can see why this was designed as the central, keystone movement; sin may well be all around us as are its painful consequences but the soul is immortal and immutable. It has already confessed its transgressions and accepted its punishments on earth. Its potential to be redeemed and uplifted forms the essential core of the movement.

This is fundamentally an optimistic theme and it sits well with Bach′s enduring buoyancy and resilience which resounds throughout much of his religious music. Nevertheless, note the two brief shadowy moments touching upon the matter, painted by melodic and harmonic means, the  unexpected incursions into Bbm at bar 27 and again from bar 35. Neither, however, has the lasting impetus of the conjoined oboe and voice lines in their exiting dance of mutual joy around the hallowed Zion.

Tenor recitative.

The short tenor recitative simply confirms the power of Jesus even when our soul seems dead and our bodies corrupted—-for He can restore them both. Bach′s attention to detail can be seen through the contrast in musical character of two critical lines of text, that which dramatically pictures our physical decay (bars 4-5) followed by that which optimistically declares Him empowering both body and soul (bars 7-8). Thus, consciously or not, the listener may become aware of the forceful power of the carefully crafted melodic line.

Tenor aria.

After a spell in major modes the tenor aria returns us to the minor, oboes doubling violins and supported by the other strings. The first thing that immediately catches the ear is the convoluted rhythm of the ritornello theme. It is important to understand its connection to, and musical representation of the text, the second line of which informs us candidly—-body and soul shall be healed. The melody is cast in 3/4 time and three-bar phrases but that is only part of the story. Listen carefully and you will feel three long beats subsumed within the three crotchets per bar  i.e.

This is a pattern which replicates itself several times, certainly not by accident. It is possibly intended as a musical representation of conjoined body and soul, the one painfully enduring and the other potentially released and buoyant.

It is somewhat surprising that Bach chose to set what appears to be an essentially optimistic option to music which is so earthbound. Not only is it in the minor mode, there is, apart from the shortest of excursions through Eb major, very little tonal light and shade throughout; the predominant structural keys are G, D, A and C all of which are minor.

The likely explanation is that Bach was taking forward the notion expressed in the third movement, itself conveying an idea that he must have considered highly significant since he took care to introduce it through a second chorale. There the prayer to endure suffering on earth rather than in Heaven was explicit. Here in the tenor aria we are reassured that Jesus will forgive, heal and bring us back to life, thus keeping the ancient promise of salvation proffered in return for faith. And that is surely the key to Bach′s approach to this aria; healing resurrection and eternal bliss are all in the future; sin, continuing punishments and even torments are part of the continuing present.

This, therefore, is an aria about here and now. Our faith tells us what Christ can and will do for us; but meanwhile we are consigned to the earth and have, indeed, even requested acceptance of the ongoing penalties for our sins and transgressions.


We should recognise the closing chorale from its convoluted appearances in the first movement. It addresses Christ the Comforter to whom we turn—-He knows our agonies and can set them aside as He pleases—I am His forever. Sin and punishment have been recognised, the resilience of the soul is accepted and the way ahead becomes clear for those choosing the right path. Nevertheless, the mode is still minor and the prevailing mood sombre and serious. The privations of the present remain with us and must be endured until death claims us.

Students may wish to compare Bach′s quite different harmonisation of this chorale, and its various other uses, in C 113 from the second cycle (chapter 12).


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