Chapter 26 Bwv 116

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Chapter 26 BWV 116 Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ

Prince of peace, Lord Jesus Christ.

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

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


When Bach composes an aria with an oboe as the obbligato instrument we are seldom, if ever, disappointed. But when he writes for the alto voice with oboe d’ amore, we may expect something quite special and spiritual. This is undoubtedly true of the second movement of this cantata with which, as a digression from our usual procedure, we will begin our consideration of this work.

Alto aria.

The alto voice had, for baroque composers, special qualities often associated with matters spiritual. The Agnus Dei from the B minor Mass and the arias Grief for Sin and Have Mercy on Me, Oh Lord from the Saint Matthew Passion stand out as iconic examples.

This aria refers to Christ’s words of forsaken-ness on the cross. It begins with an expression of dread—-alas, our terror renders us speechless—-we fear the verdict of the angry judge as, like you Jesus, we raise our voices to God. Bach was clearly not unduly bothered about the inherent contradiction of muteness and lifting our voices. Nor was the musical expression of ‘speechlessness’ one to shy away from. Bach accepts all the challenges and produces a movement of remarkable beauty.

Let us look at the structure of the ritornello melody, played by the oboe d’ amore, in some detail. It is in Bach’s tragic key of F#m and has three four-bar sections. It begins with a two-bar idea which is then sequenced (repeated at a different pitch) up one tone; this gives us four bars. This initial theme is slightly altered and that version is also sequenced, this time at a lower pitch; now eight bars. Finally, there is a four-bar codetta, yearning and striving upwards before settling on a low tonic note preparatory to the alto entry; twelve bars in all.

But this melody, whilst formally remaining totally conventional and very tightly structured, reveals itself to be quite unique in character. Partially wistful, tragic and yearning,sch this translucent air reminds us again of the statement in the Obituary where Bach’s melodies were described as ‘strange’ and ‘like no others’.

The voice enters hesitantly taking just the first three notes from the opening oboe motive—-Ach—-alas! It stops and the oboe  d’ amore completes the musical phrase. Bach then repeats the same thing a tone higher. This is a depiction of the ‘speechlessness’ from the text; or more correctly it is a musical representation of attempting to speak but simply not being capable of getting the words out. This is the most perfect combination of thought, action and musical form, all brought together with great focus and powerful expression.

The ‘angry judge’ has a brief moment of exposure as the continuo line (bars 24 and 63) emits a bar of irate semi-quavers, an overt piece of word painting which is reinforced by the melismas on the word erzürnten—-angry.

Spend a little time re-hearing this perfect little gem. The melodic shape is so clear and distinctive that you are never likely to forget it. And furthermore, compare it with the tenor aria from C 123 (chapter 33). Another exquisite piece, this aria shares the key of F#m and employs a second oboe d′ amore to evoke a similar, indefinable translucency.

Tenor recitative.

The tenor recitative, which follows, returns us to A major, the key of the chorale and fantasia. More, it carries an echo of the chorale, the continuo entering with a statement of its first phrase. Doubtless this is intended as a point of structural unity, but it also draws together connected ideas. The recitative reminds Jesus that he is the Prince of Peace and we must pray that He turns not away from us. The chorale texts form a simple entreaty—- enlighten and inspire us in life and in death!

The two thoughts are as one and Bach simply reinforces his message through the resonances of the chorale melody.


Turning our attention to the opening fantasia, we note that the instrumental resources are modest, two oboes d’amore, strings and continuo with the traditional horn doubling the soprano chorale. The text has no hidden message—-we invoke the name of Jesus, Prince of Peace and that of His Father—-they aid us in times of trouble. The key is major and the mood somewhat Teutonically ebullient, Schweitzer’s three-note figure of joy abounding in all parts.

The structure of the ritornello theme however, is stolidly symmetrical; four clear-cut phrases, each four bars long, suggesting the solidarity and cohesion of Father and Son. There are no doubts or inhibitions at this point; they will come later.
Opening 4 bar phrase, violins & oboes d’amore.

The main aspect of interest, however, is the variety of choral writing for the lower voices. The first, second and final phrases are harmonized in block chords, even more simply than we might expect in the closing chorale. The text invokes the names of Christ and His Father and the solid walls of harmony convey the strength and potency they entail.

The third and fourth phrases are treated very differently. The lower voices enter fugally using one of the ritornello themes, firstly in the order tenor, bass and alto, latterly alto, tenor and bass, enmeshing the sopranos in a complex tapestry of counterpoint. The text has moved from an evocation of the names of the Divines to a statement of tribute—-You are our true Friend in life and in death. The density of this thought, the linking of Christ with man and the allusion to the range of mankind’s mortal and immortal existence, all combine to induce a complexity which Bach conveys through an enriching of musical textures. There can be no doubting the symbolic significance of the totally contrasting textures of these first four phrases.

But Bach has still not finished. The penultimate fifth phrase announces—-we call out in Your name. Once again the vocal texture becomes radically different, principally homophonic, but without the sustained chords of the first lines. Here we find strongly marked rhythmic interjections emulating the action of calling out.

Six chorale phrases, three stately and dignified, two fugal and busily complex, and one summoning, all unified by the energetic surging of the Italianate ritornello. A masterpiece of musical planning and subtle communication.

The confidence exuded by this fantasia is abated in the alto aria (discussed above) to return, to some extent, in the tenor recitative. But the fourth movement proves to be particularly unusual.

Soprano/tenor/bass aria.

There are only three trios in the entire second Leipzig cycle. C 38 (chapter 22) has one for soprano, alto and bass, C 122 (chapter 31) for soprano, alto and tenor and C 116 has the third, for soprano tenor and bass. It is interesting that each combination of voices is different although it is hardly surprising that in this instance Bach gave his alto soloist a break after the emotionally demanding second movement. But whenever a great composer does something only occasionally, it is always worth looking at in detail—-and that is certainly the case with these trios.

The serious student will benefit from comparing and contrasting all three. S/he will discover that all are very lightly orchestrated so as to allow the translucency of the vocal writing to be heard clearly. Those from this cantata and C 38 are supported by the continuo line only. That from C 122 has one additional element: the upper strings articulate an unobtrusive version of the chorale melody.

Mention has frequently been made of Bach’s habit of composing an extended and significant movement, often appearing towards the end of the cantata. Here is a case in point. The trio takes over half of the time required to perform the complete work .The text returns to that crucial Lutheran theme of personal guilt—-we are aware of our sin and transgressions but we can do no more than to ask that, through Your mercy and the love of Your Son, we may yet be saved.

The key, interestingly, is major not minor and it is, perhaps coincidentally, the same as that for the chorale fantasia from C 8—-when, dear God, when will I die? Both are intensively personal works and both wring the most moving and affecting music from the major mode. Whilst death is not explicitly mentioned in this trio, the concepts of guilt, followed by processes of salvation and redemption through death are all implied.

The continuo ritornello is a strangely hesitant theme, most bars having rests on the first beats.

Does this suggest a wavering uncertainty or vacillation when approaching the Divine? The cantata began confidently enough, but then the alto aria expressed the muted fear which inevitable judgments about our guilt must incur. Now, perhaps, we are a little more realistic; we are aware of our shortcomings and unworthiness and our invocations to our Saviour should be appropriately humbled. Perhaps this is what underlies the choice of the major key. This music is not tragic in character; it is quietly muted and suggestive of honest, personal entreaty. And it is, of course, extremely beautiful.

The voices enter in strict imitation, tenor, bass then soprano. The leaning on the words um geduld—-Your patience—-suggests the tolerance God will need in the deliverance of His mercy simply because our sins are so vast. The middle section takes us temporarily to the depths of C#m as it reminds us of Christ’s love; that which brought Him to earth in order to save the fallen. The descending vocal phrases combine the poignant truth of this Christian event with a representation of the act of falling.

The continuo ritornello returns to usher back the opening section, but not as a straightforward da capo repeat. Bach rewrites it to include themes from both segments. Our guilt and Christ’s actions in delivering us from its consequences are merged together into a single notion.

But the uncertainty remains until the end. It is the hesitating ritornello that completes the trio, lingering long in our imagination. This movement surely gets to the heart of the message, a complex combination of supplication, humility, poignancy, grace and ultimate acceptance.

Alto recitative.

The alto voice returns for the final recitative, a dramatic piece entreating God to save us from war with our enemies and the savagery which such conflict entails. The strong vocal lines are swathed in luxuriant string chords and Bach moves from minor to major, not only to prepare us for the key of the closing chorale, but also to register our optimism and gratitude, both associated with the lasting peace which only God can restore. In the final bars the melisma on Friede—-peace—-underlines this truth.

The chorale is major and positive, returning us to the more optimistic outlook of the opening fantasia—-Jesus is the only one who can enlighten and inspire us. Bach has taken us on a spiritual and deeply emotional journey, returning us to our starting point. Note the minor harmonies underpinning the fifth phrase, emphasizing the name of Jesus—-the only one {who can save us}.

This is a deeply satisfying and fulfilling work which one should not leave without noting that, although it appears barely half way through Bach’s cycle, it completes the Lutheran church year. We are also fortunate, as Boyd points out (pp 142/3) that we owe its existence to the fact that Germany had celebrated Easter a week early in 1724; otherwise the season would have ended a week earlier and there would have been no twenty-fifth Sunday after Trinity. We are grateful indeed that this accident of history gave Bach the occasion to provide us with such an appealing work.


Finally, a word of warning about the inherent dangers of speculation which all Bach scholars should heed. Schweitzer (vol 2, p 378) comments upon the two recitatives and their preoccupations with ‘the bitter hardships of war’. He concludes that this can only refer to the Prussian invasion of 1744 and consequently he dates the cantata from that period. We now know it was written twenty years earlier and the allusions to war may well have been unspecific and general. After all, Germany had had a long history of conflict at this time.

It′s the type of trap into which we can all fall!


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