Chapter 22 Bwv 38

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Chapter 22 BWV 38 Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir

I cry to you in great sorrow.

Chorus/fantasia–recit (alto)–aria (tenor)–recit (sop)–trio (sop, alto, bass)–chorale.

The twenty-first cantata of the cycle for the twenty-first Sunday after Trinity.

The balanced structure of this cantata is typical of the second cycle although an unusual and noteworthy feature is the inclusion of one of its three trios. As always, when a great composer does a thing rarely, it is worth close inspection because it is likely to be rather special. This is undoubtedly true of this particular trio; it is an indisputable gem and arguably the most inspired of the three.


The opening fantasia is of interest because of its combination of ′modern′ and ′archaic′ styles. It is written in the form of a traditional motet, the only independent instrumental part being occasional moments of the continuo line. Trombones have no independence but are used to double the voices, a traditional and practical procedure, but here it is more than that. They impart an unearthly Stygian quality of sound, completely in keeping with the personal torment described in the text. (It may be helpful to compare this with the opening chorus of C 2, the second of this cycle, which also begins with an archaic motet/fantasia of similar style and mood).

The form may be traditional but the harmony, despite its archaic Phrygian basis (note the lack of the expected ′one sharp′ key signature in the context of Em) is daringly modern with powerful dissonances and rich chromatic chords. Frequently Bach uses the harmony to underline and intensify the expression of certain words, in this case the mention of sin and unjust actions. Similarly innovative, the closing chorale begins on a surprising and, given the context, relatively ‘modern′ chord, an inverted dominant 7th which requires a resolution. The rich harmony at the end of the chorale is also gripping and imaginative, confirming the Phrygian basis of this old hymn.

The message is clear; the concept of relief of suffering through God′s redemption is ancient and traditional but it still has relevance to Bach’s contemporary brethren. Thus does he convey an archaic message to a modern audience, not simply through obvious word painting but by means of a collision of styles and techniques, united through his assured technique and structural coherence.

The opening chorus is very tightly developed and has an air of timeless majesty. One might be forgiven at first for thinking that the tenors, altos or basses were to carry the chorale theme throughout the movement as they all enter, one after the other, declaiming the first phrase. However it is the sopranos who eventually take it up as the cantus firmus (from bar 13), traditionally augmenting the notes.

Bach has found that, with a little tweaking, each chorale phrase can be treated imitatively almost as if it were a fugue subject. All of them are treated in this manner, participating in the portrayal of the individual cries of distress which coalesce to form a combined human clamour. This is a tour de force of contrapuntal technique producing a movement of both emotional intensity and intellectual rigour.

Furthermore, Bach retains the same order of entry; tenor, alto and bass (sopranos always last) until there is a textural point to be made. On the mention of ‘marking’ or observation of sinful deeds, Bach gives us something particular to mark or notice; he alters the order of the vocal entries to alto, tenor and bass (beginning bar 79). It is a point of significance in the text which the composer duly underlines i.e. it is heard in the words but it is felt through the music, a point of great subtlety.

Was this intended for man or God? Probably the latter. But the members of the congregation would, from the convoluted texture, surely at least recognise the wailing of the voices amid distressing sinfulness.

Tenor aria.

Schweitzer, interestingly, is rather dismissive of this cantata and one wonders if he ever had the opportunity to hear it;  the answer is, almost certainly not. He claims, without justification, that the trio ′should, of course, be performed by a small chorus, not by the soloists’ (vol 2, p 371). Even more controversially he states twice (vol 2, pp 371 and 461) that the tenor aria should be omitted from performances: ′The unendurably wretched declamation proves the music to have been borrowed from another work′. He does not evidence this or explain his thinking further. Presumably he is suggesting that Bach resurrected the music from some lost composition and adapted it hastily and sloppily to fit new words. This remains a dubious assertion rather than an argued conclusion and few today seem to share his overly critical view of the setting of the text.(Readers will discover throughout these essays comment upon a large number of examples of the scrupulous care that Bach brought to the process of paraphrasing earlier works e.g. chapters 48 and 50, vol 3).

In fact from the structural viewpoint, to remove this aria would be to eliminate the keystone of the cantata. For one thing it would place two recitatives together, something Bach does nowhere else in this cycle (with the possible exception of C 180, chapter 21). For another, it would badly misbalance the work. Furthermore, there is internal evidence indicating that this aria was conceived as an integral part of the overall conception.

Its central position, flanked on each side by a recitative and chorus (or trio), certainly marks its significance. The main theme, stated by the oboes and latterly voice, is built upon a shape of four notes which bears the same contour and rhythmic structure of a motive embedded within the chorale’s first two phrases.
The melodic shape and repeated bass figuration of the opening bars.

The opening line of text is—-I hear in the midst of my anguish—-and the tenor voice is placed very much ′in the midst′ of the four-part texture, below the two oboes and above the bass line. The oft repeated bass figure, yet another version of the ‘joy’ motive, albeit here within a moderating minor context, is a diminution of a rhythm which occurs in most of the chorale phrases.

None of these points may be significant individually. But taken together, and when one considers Bach′s preoccupation with structural coherence, they form strong evidence that this aria was composed for, properly resides within, and must be performed as an integral part of this work.

The text refers to the earthly distress and suffering of humans, their cries for help and the need for the redeeming mercy of the Saviour. This is a universal Lutheran theme and it sets Bach the sort of problem he clearly relished i.e. how does one convey both suffering and the joy of liberation from it within the same work; or even the same movement? But, as he demonstrates so often, this is just the kind of artistic challenge that he appears to seek out as a spur to his imagination.

In this cantata the emphasis is, perhaps, more on the pain than the relief. Every movement is set in a minor mode, with the partial exception of the first recitative (see below) and this in itself has the effect of emphasising sadness and pain. However, the aria and trio both materialise briefly into the major modes, the reasons for which are firmly rooted in the texts. In the tenor aria we emerge from anguish to the sound which shall bring us eternal comfort—-God′s word. In the trio, Bach paints the dawn of hope with a glorious ascent into C major and the effect, though brief, is magical.

However, although we do discover such moments of grace, resolution and redemption in this composition, the overall feeling is of a muted sadness amidst pervading earthly suffering.

Alto recitative.

The alto recitative begins with reference to Christ’s mercy and our consequent condition of peace; hence the major key. But Satan’s influence looms and so the minor returns, to remain for most of the rest of the cantata. This movement retains the archaic modal feel (from the chorale and the fantasia) particularly in its final cadence and it is underpinned by a continuo which, in the middle, seems to lack the coherence one normally expects from a Bach bass. Possibly this semi-chaotic shape reflects Satan′s deviousness and the abomination of sin.

Tenor aria.

The tenor aria has been largely dealt with. Nevertheless it is worth pausing a moment to note its complex expressive character. It is sad, doleful and yearning. But it also has strong rhythmic contours that give it a persistent energy. Somehow Bach has managed to convey within this one movement both the anguish of life and the relief and comfort that the words of the Lord bestows. It is neither wholly the one nor the other; it is both. The dissonant suspensions communicate pain and grief and the long oboe notes suggest that it will be enduring.

But so too, the tenor reminds us, is the word of God. His high sustained notes accentuate the words Wort besteht—-His word persists (bars 51-2 and 61-2).

Soprano recitative.

Bach employs a slightly modified version of the complete chorale melody as the bass line of the soprano recitative, an interesting experiment which he seems not to have repeated. The text bemoans the individual′s lack of faith and trust—-they have no foundation and require the word of the Saviour for salvation to be possible.

The chorale melody supports the individual who is clearly at a point of crossroads. On the one hand it acts as a constant reminder of the abandoned and sinful, crying from the depths as depicted in the opening chorus. But if we look at the verse of the closing chorale we find this same melody associated with images of divine support. Thus Bach employs the chorale as a double symbol, one depicting the depths of past transgressions and torments (the way back) and the other an image of God′s hand leading us to salvation (the way forward). (Further discussion of the richness of meaning Bach elicits from the use of the chorales in recitatives may be found in the essay on C 2, chapter 3).

Soprano/alto/bass aria trio.

Next is a special movement, one of only three trios occurring within the cycle. (The others are in Cs 116 and 122 and further discussion about them may be found in chapter 26).

The first bars of both ritornello and vocal themes are wrought from the shape of the chorale′s first phrase as, indeed was the main theme of the tenor aria. This is an indication of the organic thinking which binds the separate movements of this cantata together, all but the first recitative having overt connections with the chorale theme. The trio′s structure is simple, the texture complex. It is a ritornello movement, the opening statement appearing at the beginning, middle and end as well as underpinning the voices in their final statement.

The ritornello is, at first sight, about as clichéd a melody as one can find, a series of descending harmonic sequences built upon the staple progression for all Baroque composers, the circle of fifths. (One seldom hears a movement by Vivaldi in which it does not appear). But as usual, Bach’s approach is neither lazy nor formulaic; his adoption of this idea relates to a clearly conceived strategy.

This is the last movement before the final chorale, summative in that it shows the good Christian pathway ahead—-sorrows may chain me but the Saviour will rescue me—-soon will the hopeful dawn banish the sorrowful darkness. This sentiment seems in accord with what we may assume of Bach’s own optimism and, despite the doleful theme of the cantata as a whole, it provides the sought-after signal of hope and confidence. So Bach deliberately chooses a musical idea that is secure and readily recognisable. There may yet be sadness and torment in this life but now we are able to glimpse stability and familiarity; and through these, hope.

But if the ritornello is comfortably conventional, the theme with which the voices enter is not. It is a serpentine, chromatic idea, forever twisting around on itself. The voices enter in turn, interestingly in the same order as in the opening chorus, middle then high and finally low (A, S, B:- the tenor is omitted). The convoluted nature of this theme reflects the textural image of earthly sorrows to which we are ′chained′.

There is certainly a musical ‘binding together’ of the three writhing parts and Bach explores their imitative dependence until the ritornello theme returns (bar 70). Following this, an apparently new tune arises to express the dawning of the enlightening sun, a rising figure followed by long melismas on the word Morgen—-morning (from bar 73).

When all three voices have taken their turn, the original theme returns, leading to the singers’ concluding statement. This is virtually devoid of counterpoint, block chords conveying the strength, simplicity and certainty of faith which the new morning brings. The continuo melody satisfactorily concludes proceedings.

This is a movement which rewards revisiting; one never tires of it.


The chorale, one not frequently used by Bach, is sung as expected with the lines doubled by strings, oboes and trombones which, in the acoustics of the St Thomas and St Nicholas churches must have been a commanding sound. It would have provided the usual moment of reflection upon the final lines of text—-no matter how great our transgressions, God′s grace is mightier—-the Good Shepherd only can redeem Israel, and us, from our multitude of sins.

But the story is not completely finished. The final cadence, as Bach chose to harmonise it, is enigmatic and leaves us with a sense that the human condition is ongoing.


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