Chapter 23 Bwv 109

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Chapter 23 BW 109 Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben

I believe, Dear Lord, but assist me in my doubts.

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

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

Choruses that Bach chose to set in D minor are always striking. Examples include C 46, also from the first cycle and C 101 and 68 from the second (vol 1, chapter 12 and vol 2, chapters 11 and 49). Four powerful concerti are also set in this key, for one and three harpsichords, two violins and violin and oboe. The opening chorus of 109 is, like those of its cousins, strikingly inventive, its opening theme and seemingly discursive structure attracting immediate interest.


The instrumentation is conventional, two oboes, strings and continuo. Bach added a part for a valve trumpet in the outer movements at some later stage (Dürr p 599) something he had also done for C 162, a Weimar cantata re-presented at Leipzig the previous week. The fact that he repeated the practice for C 109 may well have been inspired by the availability of a player he wanted to encourage or make use of. However, it might also suggest that this cantata may have existed in an earlier version although there is no documentary evidence of this.

The trumpet was permitted only a minimum of independence, mostly doubling the upper strings. This would appear to lessen its significance although this is not the case. Its entry half way through the opening bar is noteworthy because it immediately alters the musical equilibrium. Without the trumpet we had an initial idea, one bar long played only by the violins. With the trumpet, there is a sense of question and answer, statement and counterstatement since now the initial four-note motive acquires an immediate rejoinder. Bach may even have thought of this as a metaphorical reference to the plea for support in regaining a lost faith, instantly responded to by divine assurance. Thus may the seed have been planted for the entire cantata narrative.

On a further matter of detail, it is worth giving some close attention to this opening four-note idea.

Its shape is one that Bach utilised, admittedly for very different expressive effects, in a number of works e.g. the alto aria from C 42 and the opening chorus from C 3 (both second cycle works, chapters 42 and 35) where further comments may be found on this observation. In the context of this cantata, however, it is helpful to observe that of the four notes forming the motive only two, the first d and the last a, are parts of the tonic chord of the key Dm. The others, b flat and c, lie without and the effect is one of fleeting but immediate disengagement. The tonic chord usually stands for certainty, finality and rootedness. The latter two notes encapsulate a momentary sense of misgiving entirely in line with the chorus′s textual theme—-I do believe, Oh Lord, but my doubts need Your assistance in order to be resolved.

The seventeen-bar ritornello is as rich as any from this period. Bach lures us into thinking that the voices are about to enter four bars before they actually do, at the cadence over bars 13-14. But the four-bar codetta that he adds at this point is significant, based as it is, upon an ascending theme conceivably struggling towards the acquisition of positive belief.

The key to navigating one′s way through this complex and episodic movement is to listen for the solo lines. Bach has mapped it out in such a way that the four voices, in their natural order of S, A, T and B are juxtaposed between full choral entries. Thus we hear the solo soprano from the beginning and in the course of that line the choir enters three times, reinforcing the short but succinct text. A similar, but not identical process is developed with the entry of each successive voice, altos (bar 36), tenors (bar 42 and even before the altos have finished), and finally basses (bar 58). Technically this may well have been achieved by one singer taking each solo part (concertante) and an additional singer bolstering each line in the tutti sections (ripieno).

Bach′s approach to the architecture of this piece was almost certainly symbolic as well as structural. Clues may be found in the isolated cries for help—-hilf—-which appear in the lower voices and the long melismas stressing Unglauben—-unbelief. But perhaps the simplest interpretation is the most convincing, that Bach was expressing a fundamental characteristic of the human condition; we feel things as individuals but the knowledge of this inevitably binds us together as a community.

The instrumental writing throughout is a developing relationship between the oboe and first violin, itself a possible symbol of individualism and concord. Whilst the ritornello theme offers little in the way of episodes, it provides the material for the entire movement and is repeated, in full, at the end.

Tenor recitative.

If the opening chorus is a balanced depiction of natural human doubt and misgiving, the tenor recitative is an expression of a confused state of mind bordering almost upon panic. The librettist has produced a picture of mental condition almost expressionist in its portrayal of conflicting emotions such as was later to be explored by Schoenberg in the early twentieth century. There are three conjoined and contradictory couplets, the sense of which may only be conveyed through a longer than usual paraphrase:

The hand of God is not curtailed, I may yet be saved_______Ah no, I already sink into the earth for fear that He destroys me

This is the will of the Lord whose Father′s heart breaks______Ah no, He hears not the sinners

He will hasten to help and restore you_______Ah no, I am anxious for consolation.

The final line poses a pitiable question—-how long, Oh Lord?

Listened to in this way, and with a tenor who communicates the exact nuances of meaning, it is not difficult to follow the various stages of mental turmoil. The closing arioso entreaty is an example of Bach′s melodic expressiveness at its most fervent. Note how the tenor′s last note is not an expected part of the final chord, in this case an e, g or a b. It is an a, left hanging in the air and unrelated to the final cadence; a musical disengagement suggesting a disconnection of the mind as the question resounds—-ah Lord, how long?
                   Wei       lan………………………………………

Tenor aria.

But it quickly transpires that the recitative is but a prelude to a landscape of even greater psychological bedlam, a mind on the edge of sanity—-my hope is uncertain and my heart trembles—-the spark of faith scarcely glimmers, the damaged reed is on the point of breaking and fear constantly renews pain.

The reiterated dotted rhythms of the first violins, latterly taken up by the continuo, are like hammer blows within the brain, perhaps even suggestive of that commonly experienced sensation, the throbbing migrane headache!

The emotional angst is expressed through the tenor′s disjointed phrases, the straining for high notes and the cascades of triplets which, significantly, are never imitated by the strings.

This distress is personal and private; it is the individual who feels it intensely and others can only observe and commiserate.

It is interesting to view this aria within the context of the Expressionist movement of the early twentieth century. Musically, this was most associated with Schoenberg whose operatic monologue Erwartung depicts an intellect at the point of disintegration. Harmonic language aside, there are a number of obvious differences; Schoenberg′s composition was a complete if short opera, Bach′s a shortish aria. With Bach we know precisely what the cause of the problem is, a sense of religious alienation, but with Schoenberg we are less certain. Furthermore Bach was constrained, at least to a degree, by the conventions and expectations of his age. Yet it is difficult not to see the one man as a precursor of the other both, in their own ways, delving into the recesses of mental instability. Unfortunately conductors are too often prone to take this movement too slowly, a misplaced element of refinement diluting a more appropriately aggressive assault upon reason.

After three such powerfully emotional movements, the remainder of the cantata comes almost as an anti-climax. The journey must continue and the narrative be completed of course; but is it artistically credible to return the listener convincingly to a state of grace, faith and blissful harmony with God after such a distractedly emotional and operatic beginning? Bach does his best and, as we shall see, could hardly have been unaware of the magnitude of the aesthetic problem he faced.

Alto recitative.

The function of the alto recitative is to prepare us for the inevitable emotional u-turn. It is a consoling little sermon aimed at comforting the soul, but does it convince us? Compose yourself—- it instructs us—- Jesus still works miracles and faithful eyes may yet behold the Lord′s gift of salvation—-though fulfillment may seem so far away, you can rely upon His promise. It seems that these words articulated through a short eight-bar secco recitative are all that is required to calm the frantic and console the hysterical. We cannot discount the possibility that the excessively baroque imagery of the initial movements might have been seen, by eighteenth century congregations, more as a metaphor and less realistically than Bach′s setting suggests to us today. Nevertheless, he set the texts vividly and took them very seriously, and it is difficult for us not to do the same when confronted with music of this consequence.

But whatever the conventions may have been, the penultimate movement, an aria for alto, cheerfully confirms the bliss generated by the replacement of doubt and confusion with a bedrock of faith and certainty.

Alto aria.

For the first time in this cantata we are presented with a movement resounding with joy and set solidly in the major mode. Two oboes and continuo provide the instrumental support, the latter through a solid treading of three notes to the bar. The former alternate between moving together in parallel as a single unity and imitating each other in cascades of falling semi-quavers.

The principle theme of this verse is not so much humans seeking their Saviour as of Him standing by us—-He knows His flock best when they are at their most helpless—-when flesh and spirit are opposed, He stands beside them and thus faith triumphs. Whatever the structural problems presented by the libretto of this cantata this joyous, effervescent aria is not one we would wish to be without.

It is a conventional da capo movement, the first section of which asserts the consistency of the Saviour in our times of need. This image is affirmed by the swirling streams of divine benefice conjured up by the oboes, with an implication of mortal destitution portrayed by the soprano′s long held notes, the low c of which lies right at the extreme bottom range. A very slightly adapted version of the ritornello theme conveys us to the middle section (commencing at bar 69). The antagonisms between body and soul are thence suggested in several ways; by the staccato oboe crotchets, the vocal scales and the hair-raising melisma on straiten—-struggle or contention (bars 102-6). But divine patronage depicted by the bubbling oboe scales is never far away.


The problem of a satisfactory aesthetic resolution to the narrative of this work was doubtless foremost in Bach′s mind when he came to the final movement. This is the most elaborate arrangement of a chorale so far presented to the Leipzig congregations. It is no less than a colossal chorale/fantasia of the type that was to dominate the second cycle. So the question naturally arises: might Bach have formed the idea of such a cycle when preparing this particular arrangement?

On the face of it the text does not suggest such an extrovert presentation—-whoever hopes and trusts in God and builds upon this rock shall not fail, whatever his mortal misfortunes—-he who relies upon Him shall not be disappointed. Could not this have been presented as a plain, four-part harmonisation? Surely a moment of quiet reflection would have formed an equally appropriate conclusion?

From Bach′s perspective, apparently not, although lesser mortals might have considered that the industry and intellectual effort of producing a chorus of the scale of the first movement and an aria as intense as the third would have been enough. But we know that Bach never took the easy way and he did not cut corners. A movement of magnitude and assertion was required to balance that which had gone before.

Everything about the instrumental writing of Bach′s setting suggests conflict and tension; the rushing scales on wind and strings, the sustained dissonant oboe notes, the angry bass interjections, the tonal dissonance of beginning in Dm and ending in A . In the midst of all this turmoil stands the chorale, unyielding and immovable, sopranos and trumpet intoning the melody with solid homophonic support from the lower voices.

This is the final picture of certitude in the midst of chaos. The problems of dogma have been resolved (more or less), the dilemma of artistic balance likewise. God′s steadfast support, represented by the chorale, remains in the midst of whatever mental or physical chaos we may bring upon ourselves.


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