Chapter 4 Bwv 21

Download in Microsoft Word format

Chapter 4 BWV 21 Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis in meinem Herzen.

I had so much sorrow within my heart.


Sinfonia–chorus–aria (sop)–recit (tenor)–aria (tenor)–chorus.


Recit (sop/bass)–aria (sop/bass)–chorus/chorale–aria (tenor)–chorus.

The third cantata of the cycle for the Third Sunday after Trinity

We now approach a cantata which begins and ends quite differently from the first two of the cycle i.e. it concludes with the most flamboyant chorale arrangement and a sinfonia replaces the expected chorus at the beginning. Most, or possibly all of this work is thought to have been written about 1713 (Dürr pp 408-9) but there is little certainty about the details. Suffice it to say that by the end of his third Sunday at Leipzig Bach had presented his congregations with nearly forty original movements! Perhaps several had been composed prior to his taking up his appointment, somewhat lessening the creative pressure. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that he contrived to deliver a huge range of structures, invention and musical styles to his sophisticated audience in a particularly short period of time. One wonders to what extent they were appreciated.



It is seldom if ever that a Bach sinfonia for oboe and strings lacks intense emotive power and this one is no exception. It is a continuous discourse between oboe and first violin, quite possibly suggestive of the dialogue structure (Christ and the Soul) to be found in later movements. The character reflects the opening words of the following chorus—-my heart is deeply afflicted—-thus preparing us for this expression of human sadness and distress. On three occasions (bars 15, 16 and just before the end) the melodic flow pauses, perhaps suggesting a contained sob and a catching of the breath. This prompts the unexpected cadences (which will surprise the listener) in the oboe obbligato melody of the later soprano aria, a strong indication that the movements were conceived together.

The supporting continuo line is one of almost unbroken quavers a throbbing, perhaps, of the troubled heart upon which the chorus is about to expound.


The chorus follows immediately in the same dark key of Cm. Three chords proclaim the one word, ich—-I—-giving a clear indication of the individual focus upon this expression of grief. This cantata, at least at this early stage, is clearly a representation of personal grief rather than communal entreaty. The choir then proceeds with a series of close entries of a single theme initially in the order S, T, A and B, making striking use of the repetition of a single note, a device which Bach employs frequently; it may suggest persistence, weary plodding, something ongoing and enduring or even a sense of determination, depending upon the context.

The form is not that of a strict fugue but of close, intense imitation, conveying deep feelings of sorrow as the intensity of a single melodic strand is repeated and entwined within a closely wrought texture of counterpoint. It is astonishing how Bach contrives to spin so much musical meaning and intensity of feeling from the continuous repetition of a simple idea.

Just as we might expect the movement to draw to a close there is a short rest, a necessary breathing space, followed by two adagio chords. They introduce a buoyant vivace which expresses the rejuvenation of the soul through the comfort of God′s words. Indeed, the transformation seems little short of miraculous as bars of sweeping semi-quavers in all parts suggest the revived Seele—-soul. But the lighter mood is short lived as the final bars return us, briefly, to the slower tempo and prepare us for a movement of breath-taking intensity. Christian despair is not always easily shrugged off!

Soprano aria.

This aria for soprano, obbligato oboe and continuo offers little in the way of consolation but much in the way of musical delight. The ritornello melody is a miracle of musical construction, meandering above a solid but unobtrusive continuo line. All is now melody, with little else in the texture to distract us. And yet, like the soprano messenger herself, we too are distracted, in our case by by two abrupt and extraordinary cadences (bars 4/5 and 6/7).
                     Bars 4-5………………………………… followed by bars 6-7.

At these moments, and without warning, the harmony suddenly shifts to startling diminished 7th dissonances suggesting the catching of the breath in moments of deepest misery —-sobs and tears, fear and death all gnaw at my heart and distress me deeply. Indeed, were these moments not anticipated by the similar instances of hiatus in the opening sinfonia?

The unexpected cadences return at bars 14 and 22 and the singer leaves us with a series of heavy, descending musical sighs of anguish. The original oboe melody is too good not to be fully repeated in full; and so it is, to close the movement.

Tenor recitative.

So far a sinfonia, a bipartite chorus, a deeply expressive aria and now a recitative; it cannot be said that Bach′s first Leipzig cantatas lack variety. This, for tenor, is accompanied by strings, a practice that Bach employed frequently at this stage of the cycle. The minor mode and the theme of isolation are both retained as the question is asked—-why do You forsake me and ignore my distress?—-You once delighted me but now, even though I seek You everywhere, You seem unaware of my anguish. The disposition of the vocal line lightens as bygone delights of God′s presence are recalled (bar 10-11) but the atmosphere of gloom is not dispelled. It is, in fact, accentuated in the final phrases leading to, not the expected perfect-cadence close, but a Phrygian cadence highlighting d flat to c as the last bass notes. In a technical sense, this cantata could be viewed as a text book in the use of original and highly expressive cadences.

NB This movement, the aria which follows and that which precedes the final chorus may be heard on some recordings sung by the tenor (e.g. Leusink) and on others by soprano (Koopman). This may be explained if we accept the contention that the cantata movements were drawn from a variety of sources. It may be that in an original version this was a ‘dialogue’ cantata for soprano and bass only and that when Bach expanded it for performance in Leipzig, he preferred a greater variety of voices. A contemporary conductor is faced with a choice: use the soprano which makes more narrative sense of the ‘developing soul’ or elect for a greater variety of voices by choosing the tenor.

Tenor aria.

The dullest congregation member should have been able to make the connection between the continual semi-quaver movement of this aria and the central image; streams, indeed floods of salt tears flowing continually.

Both strings and voice create an image of constant movement; but it is a stream which must initially be somewhat constrained because of the contrast which is yet to erupt as it transmutes into a fully blown tempest—-the storms and waves that are destroying me. There are only four bars of violence (from bar 24) but the faster tempo and long convoluted melisma on versehren—-storm, tempest—-create a greatly enhanced dramatic effect.

But the prevailing mood is more of contained personal grief than of unconstrained outpouring of emotion and so Bach returns to the original salty streams with a number of poignant pieces of word painting; note the sinking into the ground (33-4) and the peering into the jaws of hell itself (35). The aria concludes with a da capo recapitulation of the first section, closing just before the allegro bars.


Most unusually there are four choruses in this cantata; Bach′s singers must have been left in no doubt that their new Cantor intended to work them very hard right from the very beginning. This second chorus is significant, not simply due to its placement at the precise centre of the cantata but because it makes the initial transition between the state of alienation and the ultimate reunion with the Lord. The first part of this work deals principally with the former, the second part with the latter.

Bach′s care in reflecting both the meaning and disposition of the short tract of text in the structure of the movement is noteworthy and is best set out as follows:

Section 1, bars 1-10: a sumptuous, almost romantically expressive putting of the essential question—-why, Soul are you so dejected?

Section 2, bars 10-25: a spirited portrayal of the disturbed state of being in which the soul presently exits, ending abruptly and unexpectedly.

Section 3, bars 26-43: I shall wait upon God and give Him thanks: a return to the slow tempo with the inclusion of a short, deeply expressive oboe solo evoking the sense of time itself standing still.

Section 4, bars 43-74: a return to the faster tempo and the affirmation that He is the help of my countenance and, most significantly, He is my God. A double fugal exposition (initially in the order A, S, B, T and thence B, T, A and S) conveys this message with reiterated vigour. (Note, yet again, the repeated notes of the fugal subject).

The coda is an adagio restatement of the words—-[He} remains my God. The point has been made and, although the tremulous soul may subsequently wish for further reassurance from the Saviour, the essential transition from estrangement to delivery has begun.

Students may note that the sectional structure of this chorus points to its being a very early work Comparisons may be made with the youthful cantatas described later in this volume, in particular Cs 150, 131 and 143.


Soprano and bass recitative.

Part 2 begins, somewhat unusually, with a recitative for soprano and bass. But there is good reason for this. The previous chorus provided a lifeline, a simple and direct solution to the worried Christian′s doubts and fears. Consequently, now is the moment for any lingering doubts to be expressed and allayed. This is achieved through a dialogue between Soul and Christ and it takes place as a direct discourse. This was a well-established convention of the time; Bach composed four ′dialogue′ cantatas for just the two voices following the second cycle (see Cs 57, 32, 49 and 58, Vol 3, chapters 7, 11, 30 and 35)

The text, bound by tradition, allows for little of deep sentiment or originality; but it serves its purpose by developing the immortal soul′s relationship with the Saviour—-where are You?—-all is darkness and I need Your radiance. Jesus utters words of comforting reassurance and much of the misery and alienation depicted in the earlier movements seems now dispelled. There are numerous subtle examples of word painting: the low note c on nacht—-night (bar 6) the motion of the upper strings at the mention of the rascals or night-fiends (bar 9) and the representation of ′sweet refreshment′ after the struggles with estrangement (final bars).

Soprano and bass aria.

The dialogue continues in the following aria as the soul seeks replenishment and continues to vacillate between doubt and certainty. There is still a degree of unrest—-yes, I am lost (no, you are chosen) —- no, You hate me (ah, but I love You). All of this is clearly expressed in the shapings of the melodic lines. Bach structures the initial dialogue so that Soul′s and Christ′s questions and answers appear at first with a sense of reserve, but they rapidly draw closer like two lovers. Key words such as ′delight′ and ′living′ are emphasised through melismas.

From bar 37 the 4/4 time signature gives way to 3/8 and a rustic dance ensues, a happy event which seems to evoke characteristics of both the minuet and the gigue—-sweeten my heart, vanish sorrow and anguish. A short reprise of the first section ends the movement, the continuo having the last word as the principal melody quietly melts away.


The third chorus simply confirms and ruminates upon what has gone before—-be content my soul, for the Lord comforts you. This is a long (over 200 bars) and fully developed movement in which the tenor (latterly the soprano) sings a verse of the hymn, enclosed within a tapestry of counterpoint wrought by the other three voices. The chorale stanzas make the point that sorrow is meaningless and simply brings more woe upon itself—-think not that you are forsaken and that God only favours the fortunate. Soprano, bass and alto entwine around each other in carefully balanced falling, then rising, scales.

The effect is one of measured and committed acceptance, the Soul is convinced and reassured; doubts have been fully dispelled. It is a sumptuous and tender setting, giving the congregation an opportunity to reflect upon the main thesis of the work.

The assurance, development of musical material and lack of sections manifested in this movement contrasts markedly with the more segmented earlier chorus, suggesting that C 21 may well have been amassed from different sources drawn from works produced over the previous decade and a half.

Tenor aria.

In a sense the final aria for tenor might be considered musically one of the slightest; it is a continuo aria without an obbligato instrument and its infectious jollity lacks the profundity of earlier movements. But the joy of the redeemed Christian is not a complex, intense or philosophical matter; it is a genuine and uncomplicated reflection of human pleasure and satisfaction. The listener might, perhaps, have expected the soprano, previously the voice of the soul, to have presented this assertion of affirmation, as indeed some recordings do (see note above). But perhaps the universality of acceptance of faith is best emphasised by its expression through a different voice.

The theme is one of rejoicing and banishing sorrow, the images are of tears transformed into pure wine, singing and the burning of the uncorrupted flame of love. The rolling bass line is probably intended to reflect them all, the overt pouring of wine with the rhythmic catches perhaps reflecting the flickering flame.

But above all, the mood is one of joy and acceptance; and might there also be a hint or suggestion of relief?

Closing chorus.

If the aria seems a trifle superficial to some, the same criticism cannot be made of the closing chorus. At last the Leipzig congregation is to hear what Bach can to with three trumpets and timpani, forces he frequently calls upon for celebratory events but which he has so far kept waiting in the wings. The stately and dignified opening proclaims the worthiness of the Slain Lamb—-it may now receive power, wealth, wisdom and glory; a fitting conclusion for a work which is preoccupied with rediscovered faith.

But Bach is not yet finished. At bar 22 he erupts into a grandiose fugue subject based upon the initial notes of the first trumpet. The voices enter, symbolically, from lowest to highest, B, T, A and S. The countersubject is a stream of semiquavers which leads naturally into the deluge of amens and alleluias which conclude this extraordinary work. Redemption has been offered and accepted and it is now appropriate to give honour, praise and glory to God for now and for all eternity.
Fugue subject followed by the rolling countersubject.


Although Dürr is of the view that this cantata was not conceived as a single artistic unity, and this essay presents some evidence supporting the idea, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that structurally it is an almost perfect, holistic expression of the narrative of alienation followed by the regaining of faith and intimacy. If indeed, Bach did extend it latterly, it demonstrates the degree to which he was able to re-enter into the essence of an earlier work and perfectly recapture, and extend, its spirit.


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