Chapter 25 Bwv 163

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Chapter 25 BWV 163 Nur jedem das Seine!

To each man his just due!

Aria (tenor)–recit (bass)–aria (bass)–recit (sop/alt)-duet (sop/alt)–chorale.

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

Another return by Bach to Weimar compositions, this cantata dates from 1715 (Dürr p 621) a fact that may explain the unusual scoring. There are various occasions when Bach experiments with unusual combinations of low pitched instruments, creating sonorities of a uniquely dark timbre.  Brandenburg 6 (violas and gambas) and the Quoniam from the Bm Mass (horn and two bassoons) are well-known examples. But such experiments are less common in this cycle, possibly suggesting an innate conservatism of the Leipzig congregations.

Bach′s unerring ear for musical colour always leads one to look closely at the text to ascertain whether there might be specific clues justifying the choice of instruments. Alas, there are no obvious images which suggest, for example, the use of two obbligati cellists in the bass aria so one is tempted to fall back on the excuse that, as a young composer revelling in the total technical command he had of his material, Bach just enjoyed experimentation. The availability of appropriate musicians must also have been a factor.

There is, however, one image in this particular text which would surely have attracted Bach′s attention and woven itself into the textual nature of the music. It is the notion of dualism, the two conflicting sides of human character and behaviour, the pure and false, true and counterfeit, steadfast and unreliable, virtuous and sinful. This idea manifests itself in much of the basic musical invention as well, perhaps, in the unusual inclusion of two duets (one a recitative, the other an aria).

Tenor aria.

The concept of dualism is apparent from the use of close imitation of the very first musical idea. The ritornello theme of the tenor aria begins, unusually, with a short motive announced by the continuo and immediately taken up by the upper strings.

It settles on a cadence in the major in the fourth bar where the process is repeated. When the tenor enters, the insistence of this motivic idea is such that it is heard four times, one immediately following the other: voice, continuo, violins and voice. (Just prior to the vocal entry students may like to notice the almost unique use of a Neapolitan chord in its second inversion, bar 7).

The text is by Salamo Franck whose preoccupation with lists is particularly apparent in some of the libretti that Bach set apparently as a tribute following his death (see volume 3). The first stanza asserts—-to each his due—-and it is these words that generate the oft repeated ′head′ motive referred to above. It then informs us that, in the same way in which sovereigns are due their taxes, levies and dues, so then we cannot avoid our debt to God i.e. the bequests of our hearts.

The aria is in traditional da capo form, the first part a reprised section stressing only the moral precept—-to each his due. The remaining five lines of text are dealt with in the more complex middle section, beginning at bar 23. It may be divided into three clear segments, expanding the textual ideas and communicating them through subtly different musical characters e.g.

A) Bars 23-27: a rhetoric declaration of the due tolls and taxes

B) Bars 27-30: an emphatic insistence that a debt owed must be honoured

C) Bars 31-37: the most tenderly written of the vocal lines, emphasising the unification of the heart with God.

The return of the opening section simply reasserts the moral precept underlying the cantata′s premise.

This aria is a masterpiece of detailed structural analysis of poetic text reflected within the effortless musical flow: true ′art which conceals art′.

Bass recitative.

The bass secco recitative is operatic in its intensity and subtle adjustments of character. Beginning with a serene prayer of gratitude for all things that He has given us (and we can be certain that Franck will list them for us) it goes on to suggest a quandary: what can we offer in return, since all that we have is His anyway? Again the heart is found to be the only possible gift, its powerful tribute emphasised by an awakening of the continuo line (bar 16). Even so, this unique endowment may be devalued through Satan′s disfigurement of it, another image of ′counterfeit coin′. The final six bars take on a more aggressive, even belligerent quality as the implications of this disturbing thought are recognised.

Note that Bach views Franck′s list as an opportunity rather than a shortcoming and makes a rhetoric point of the various gifts  He has bestowed upon us: spirit, soul, body, life, wealth, property, reputation and rank (bars 5-8).

Bass aria.

Bach seems to have had an affection for cello and gamba and several of his second cycle works use the piccolo cello and the services of an excellent performer. Two obbligato celli accompanying bass voice and continuo would appear to be an odd, if not bizarre combination but, as always, Bach makes it work. The result is an aria of extraordinary richness and mellowness unique in the canon. As in the opening movement, the immediate echoing of the initial ideas between the celli suggests the two sides of the (metaphorical) coin and the (possibly disfigured) heart.

It is a prayer of submissive offering to Jesus with the caveat that if the heart be not pure, may He come and renew it, dissolve and remould it so that it gleams anew.

The first section (up to bar 24) makes the offer directly to Jesus. As in the opening aria the remainder of the text unfolds later (from bar 27) although this time there is no reprise. One cannot miss the burst of quicker notes on the first cello (bars 33-5) representing the lustrous gleaming of the newly burnished soul. Only heard once in the movement, this is another characteristic of Bach′s earlier church composition where he was happy to paint individual images in the most pictorial of ways. Latterly he tended to be less concerned with the isolated image, becoming more inclined to portray it as a part of the wider picture and musical structure.

As in the tenor aria this section is clearly conceived in three parts—-come and renew its gleaming (boldly enjoining, bars 27-33)—-melt and remould it (almost melodramatically rhetoric, bars 35-41)—-may its kinship with You gleam within me (imprecatory, bar 41-end).

A final delicious point of detail relates to bars 5-6 where the streams of cello semi-quavers produce not the expected effect of smooth flowing, but that of a cross rhythm against the basic beat. Yet another subtle hint of the ersatz, cunningly concealed within the genuine?

Soprano/alto recitative.

The two higher voices make their first appearance in a movement, the experimental structure of which looks forward to the hybrid experiments Bach was to present in the second cycle. Its five clear sections blend arioso with a recitative that is clearly intended to adhere to a strict rhythmic metre. It begins with a prayer—-I would gladly give Thee my heart but flesh and blood resists. Soprano and alto echo each other at first with apparent candour, but the allusion to the temptations of the flesh produces a fleeting moment of harmonic darkness (bar 8-11). From thence, the pattern is as follows:

Section 2 bars 11-14 the coldness of that word which imprisons the heart (sad)

Section 3 bars 14-19 the joy of realisation that the heart cannot allow this (joyful)

Section 4 bars 19-21 I must hate the world, however, if I am to love You (tragic)

Section 5 bars 22-40 Fill my heart with Your blessing and make me a Christian (ecstatic).

It is interesting to compare Bach′s setting of this rather conventionally portrayed disturbed mind with the vastly more dramatic depictions in C 109 2/3. This may say something of the varying quality of his texts, but probably more of the many creative facets of his own personality as a composer.

Soprano/alto aria/chorale.

The final aria, again for alto and soprano, is a love duet, the simplicity of the antiphonal avowals of commitment not wholly unlike those given in the final movement of Monteverdi′s The Coronation of Poppea. There the declarations of love were carnal and addressed to each other; here they are spiritual and addressed to God. Nevertheless, there is a deeply human emotional quality in each which the simplicity of expression intensifies.

The minimalism with which Bach′s movement begins is, however, misleading. Soprano and alto echo each other in the offering of selves through the barest of melodic lines above a stark crotchet bass.

But when the first phrase of the chorale arrives on the combined upper strings, the vocalists have moved into quavers, to be followed by similar increased movement in the continuo line beneath the next chorale entry.

As usual Bach is working on several levels. All six phrases of the well known chorale are superimposed upon the three-part texture of soprano, alto and continuo and Bach would have expected his congregation to recognise the refrain—-I will not leave my Jesus—-. This hymn, incidentally, also completes C 70 at the close of the church year and C 154, a cantata for the important day of Epiphany. Both these arrangements are more extrovert and less personal.

The passion of giving to God and accomplishing His will is conveyed by the relentless quaver bass and the interactions of the vocal lines. Passion is important and cannot be taken for granted. But at the end of it all, it is the personal, private, modest and reserved commitment of faith that is most important. This is what Bach returns to (from bar 62), the singers completing the movement much as it began but now entwined with the last two chorale phrases.


The closing chorale has survived with a bass line only. There is, however, no problem in realising a full harmonisation. The six phrases lead, successively, to cadences in D, A, Bm, D, D and D, all of which are perfect except the penultimate one. The text is a very simple prayer requesting that He may guide heart and mind to remain forever as part of His body, avoiding all things that might cause separation. All four singers have been given solo roles in this work and are consequently available to render the chorale, one voice per part with strings doubling.

A brighter version of this melody, allied with a cheery viola obbligato, was heard in C 199/6, Bach′s first solo cantata at Leipzig, a salient example of the flexibility and expressive potential of these chorale melodies. Little wonder that a composer of Bach′s immense imaginative powers found them to be so inspiring as well, of course, professionally indispensable.


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