Chapter 33 Bwv 123

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Chapter 33 BWV 123 Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen

Adored Emannuel, Prince of the Faithful.

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

The thirty-second cantata of the cycle for Epiphany.


9/8 is one of the time signatures used somewhat specifically and sparingly in baroque music. Like 12/8 it has connotations of the pastorale when given a moderate tempo, a gigue when played faster. Typical examples of its expressive range may be found in the last movement of the A minor violin concerto (jauntily buoyant) the first movement of the sixth English Suite (discursive and contrapuntal) and the French Overture from the fourth Orchestral Suite (busily imperious and latterly adapted as the opening chorus for C 110: see vol 3, chapter 6). Its use is relatively rare in the cantatas although other fantasias in this cycle in 9/8 are those from C 96 (chapter 19) and C 125 (chapter 38). A more tempestuous treatment of this rhythm may be found in the bass aria from C 178 (chapter 9) graphically describing the actions of storms and waves.


Because 9/8 is formed from three groups of three quavers within the bar, it can have symbolic resonances of the Holy Trinity and it is possible that Bach intends this even when no specific reference is made in the text. Cs 123 and 96 both offer praise to the Divine and suggestions of the Trinity may well be supposed from the rhythmic structures.

With the possible exception of some of the earliest keyboard works, Bach is today admired as one of the most economical and focused of composers. In these cantatas, chorales increasingly offered him a variety of shapes and motives, the raw material from which to develop the other movements.
In this context it may be instructive to compare and contrast the fantasia of this work with that of the slightly later C 127 (chapter 40). Both make considerable use of the first chorale phrase as a part of the organic development of the highly concentrated ritornelli sections. Both use four woodwind instruments with a high degree of independence i.e. they are not merely placed in the service of doubling the strings. (However, in C 123 the lower and slightly darker oboes d’amore have been chosen and, in combination with the flutes, they provide a particularly distinctive colouring).

It is also interesting to note that both of the chorales from which these two cantatas are built begin with one note sounded three times. This is a motive which often attracts Bach’s attention and is discussed further in chapter 40. A comparative study of both works reveals much about his endless inventiveness and ability to construct a seemingly infinite number of characterful musical ideas from such apparently bland material.

And yet, for all their superficial similarities these two choruses could not be more different in character.

The opening motive of this chorale phrase is six notes long, taking two bars in both the original and the  converted 9/8 rhythm. It can clearly be heard eight times in the ritornello, played on almost every combination of instruments; oboes with bass, flutes with bass, basses alone and so on. Through and around this well-established idea, the first and second violins and violas weave a three-part tapestry of quavers throughout the first eight bars. The continuo then drops out and the upper strings combine to provide a lighter but continuously fluid support for the four wind instruments.

The first two bars of the chorale, followed as they appear in the fantasia.

The ritornello then, has just the two principal components, the reiterated use of the chorale phrase and the rolling string, thence wind quavers. Both are aurally extremely clear; it is not necessary to read a score in order to trace their unfolding. The whole instrumental segment is heard fully three times, at the beginning, after the fourth choral entry and at the end. Elsewhere the phrases of the chorale are separated by shortened versions of the ritornello, typically in lengths of four or eight bars.

The theme of the cantata is the familiar one of Christ as our bulwark against the harshness and antagonism of the world in this earthly life. The text of the fantasia offers praise and worship to Emmanuel, the Prince of faithful Christians, and expresses a hope that His coming may be soon. The continuous quavers in the orchestra are possibly suggestive of the hordes of the devout still awaiting his arrival. But the mood throughout is never aggressive or antagonistic; it is pensive and resigned, hopeful and expectant.

There is a great deal of variety in the writing for the three lower voices. In the first, fourth, ninth and eleventh phrases they enter imitatively, again making much use of the initial six-note motive. Elsewhere they tend to enter homophonically or in solid blocks of harmony. Note how they extend the fourth phrase as if issuing a summons—-komm, komm, nur bald—-come, come now quickly. Everyone becomes fully involved in the transmission of this urgent message.

Alto recitative.

Bach does not always feel the need to separate his first two movements with a recitative, even when they are particularly long and intense (see C 125, chapter 38). But here he does, with a rather bland one for alto. It certainly would not have excluded anything of textual significance had it been omitted, so its inclusion must be a matter of overall musical and artistic balance. It does little more than inform us of the joy provoked by the uttering of Christ’s name and the security afforded by His protection. It does, however end in the major mode, a brief welcome moment in the midst of two persistently minor movements.

But if our concentration is allowed to wander for a moment here, it is brought back sharply into focus for the tenor aria.

Tenor aria.

The combination of the key of F#m and two oboes d’ amore is bound to signal something special. This is another of those eloquently moving arias which long remains echoing in the memory. The text tells us that neither the tragic passage of the cross nor the tears it provokes within us can ultimately daunt our courage. The oddly shaped melody, first on one oboe and immediately imitated by the other, finally to be taken up by the tenor, attempts to rise but can only fall back on itself.

Although the words Schreckt mich nicht —-they do not terrify me—-are given great emphasis, the mood remains one of despondent resignation. It is the pain of the cross and life’s tribulations which underpin Bach’s interpretation of the text and our ultimate victory over them cannot yet be celebrated; at least not until we have encountered the later bass aria! The stress of effort and the sadness of life are communicated in the most beautiful, haunting and captivating manner.

Bach was certainly aware of the potential problem of an over-emphasis of life′s sadness and, as if to lift our spirits and rouse us, he suddenly moves to a faster tempo just where one might expect an extended middle section (bar 23). It is for just the one line—-when the storms seethe about us [Jesus sends me light from Heaven]. There is a long and complicated melisma on the word toben—-to rage—-which encompasses much of this short section, thus underlining the meaning unequivocally. The vocal line is  virtuosic, emitting cascades of rapid scales, shepherded and urged on by the insistent interactions of the oboes and continuo.

But this flash is over in a moment. The return to the slower tempo recaptures the initial mood, despite allusions to the light of salvation. The entire first section is then fully recapitulated.

Some scholars note Bach’s use of sharp keys for the depiction of images of the cross because of the particular shape of the symbol. It is not uncommon for baroque composers to suggest images of this sort through the contours of the notes rather than their sounds. Obviously, this is not a matter that an audience or congregation could be expected to appreciate but it may well have provided a moment of recognition between the composer and his musicians. In Bach’s case it was probably a further point of contact with his God, who notices everything. F#m, a key Bach chooses for some of his most profound utterances, has three sharps and it may be that it carries a double implication of both the cross and the Trinity.

Before leaving this superb aria let us return to C 116 (chapter 26). The alto aria from this work is also in F#m with one oboe d′amore obbligato. Additionally one may detect a similarity in the contours of the melodies and a concurrence of feeling in their musical expression.

Bass recitative.

The text of the bass recitative contains some powerful images—-neither the devil from Hell nor the hosts of enemies, not even death itself can harm me when I have the Saviour’s protection.
Bach chooses not to dwell on any of them. Again, he has a keen eye on the overall balance of the work and its primary contention as it unfolds,  principally through the fantasia and arias. This recitative serves three practical purposes, showing itself to be a superb example of the combination of artistry and pragmatism which is a hallmark of Bach′s composition. It emerges from the depths of F#m into the lighter major mode, it prepares us for the key of the bass aria and it offers the singer an opportunity of ‘warming up’ before his major event.

Which, of course, is the next and final aria.

Bass aria.

If Bach appeared to overstress the negative messages in the tenor aria, here he takes the other extreme and emphasizes the positive. The text scorns a world that can offer only derision to one in the midst of terrible loneliness and isolation. What do we really need from our earthly environment when we are assured that Jesus will remain with us forever? It is the latter idea that principally occupies Bach, teacher and composer, at this point.

The fact that in each of these fine arias Bach chooses to depict only one side of his balanced text is an indication of both his personality and his approach to large scale planning. Clearly the text of the tenor aria had strong implications of hope, but Bach largely chose to ignore them. The bass aria contains images of heartache and isolation but again, they are largely, though not completely, suppressed. One must view the cantata a whole; an organic, focused piece of artwork, conceived as a total entity.

Thus, to concentrate too much upon the individual elements is to miss the overall picture, which is not to say that in this energetic aria we should completely ignore the disheartening implications touched on in the text. In bar 12 the obbligato flute and continuo fall completely away to allow the tenor to express graphically a moment of Einsamkeit—-loneliness, later reinforced by the sustained notes in bars 20-21 and 32-33. Natural feelings of isolation and alienation have not disappeared entirely; we are after all, only human.

But the fundamental mood is upbeat and positive. And so it should be when Jesus appears and remains with us.

The ritornello theme is another of those melodies that the Obituary might have been referring to when it described Bach’s tunes as ‘strange’ and ‘like no others’. The first bars feel oddly phrased and initially the melody takes slightly bizarre and unexpected twists and turns. Even in the opening two bars it has a tiny ′kick′ upwards suggesting an involuntary exclamation of lifting the spirits.

But it is not long before the flute bubbles along with an infectious enthusiasm generated by a typically Bachian stream of semi-quavers. We have (largely) forgotten our worldly troubles and can now rejoice at the coming of Christ.


Most chorales are designed to repeat the first phrases, with different words. In this case the second section is also repeated. Perhaps Bach was happy to emphasise, through repetition, the final words—-I offer You everything, until I am laid in my grave.

It does, after all, summarise succinctly and elegantly the principal theme of the cantata. Bach leaves us with a bare, unadorned harmonization befitting the resignation of a soul abandoning the world to dwell with Jesus.

But the falling bass line under the pugnaciously repeated notes of the first bar still creates a subtle reminder of the descent into the grave.


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