Chapter 40 Bwv 156

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Chapter 40 BWV 156 Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe

Here I stand, one foot within the grave.

Sinfonia–aria/chorale (sop/tenor)–recit (bass)–aria (alto-)–recit (bass)–chorale.

For the third Sunday after Epiphany.

This is the fourth and final extant cantata for this day; brief contextual comments on the other works may be found in chapter 13 of this volume.

It is the only one of the four not to contain a large-scale chorus, maintaining just the closing chorale. All four voices are used in the arias and recitatives and it is assumed that these singers declaimed the chorale one voice to a line, without the need to call upon others. One oboe, strings and continuo make up the rather sparse instrumental forces so, with a call upon fewer than a dozen musicians, this work has very much the feel of a chamber cantata. Whether this was an artistic choice by the composer or one of economy thrust upon him by tight-fisted authorities remains a matter of conjecture.

Reliance upon the Lord′s good counsel is still a recurring theme and the piece has a quality of serenity despite its preoccupation with death and indisposition. The mood is firmly established by the opening sinfonia, a sumptuous melody for oboe, lightly accompanied by off-beat string chords. It has been suggested that the pizzicato quavers suitably suggest the tolling of funeral bells (Wolff, Koopman′s complete cantata recordings, booklet 20, p 23) although clearly this is fortuitous, the movement having been composed some years before the rest of the cantata. Nevertheless, Bach may have chosen to recall it here for that very reason.


This adagio is best known as the middle movement of the Fm keyboard concerto itself, it is generally thought, an arrangement of a lost violin or possibly oboe concerto in Gm. It is likely that for this cantata Bach went back to the original version. The oboe line is simple and unadorned when compared with the richly embellished harpsichord melody, suggesting that its model would have been a sustaining instrument capable of holding long notes without the need for decoration.

The ending has been altered as well. In the keyboard version, the main key of the movement is Ab but the last bars are contrived so as to bring the tonality back to Fm, the key of the outer movements. In this cantata Bach simply ends it on the dominant chord of what is here the tonic key of F major, thus leading neatly into the first aria, also in that key.

Soprano/tenor aria/chorale.

This is an extraordinary movement, in character like no other in the canon. It is a duet, the soprano intoning the six phrases of a chorale melody around which the tenor weaves his own line. From his earliest attempts of composing music for the church, Bach had shown interest in combining chorales with arias as well as with choruses, and it seems that in these later works his interest was re-kindled. Certainly, and if this aria is anything by which to judge, he must have realised that such possibilities of experiment and artistic innovation had by no means been exhausted..

The chorale by Schein (Dürr p 213) is not that which concludes the cantata. It will, however, be known to those familiar with the St John Passion where it appears in part 2. Here its text is that of a simple prayer—-deal with me, oh God, as Your generosity allows—-do not refuse to aid me but accept my soul when it departs from this world. It ends with the quasi-Shakespearean phrase ′All′s well that ends well!′

The words sung by the tenor, however, are concerned more specifically with the imminent arrival of death itself—-I stand, one foot within the grave, my sick body decaying—-Come and bless my demise, I have now set my house in order. It is from the images evoked by these lines that the main musical building blocks for this strange movement seem to have been derived.

The upper strings unite (the violas contributing a particularly distinctive doleful sound quality to the violins) to play the one obbligato melody. It begins on a long, sustained note of f, presumably suggesting the inactivity of standing motionless at the graveside. The descending continuo line against it depicts the imagined act of being lowered into the grave, but its syncopated notes make it quite impossible to detect the rhythmic structure of the piece without recourse to the score. Time stands still, or perhaps it has no further meaning for man as he stands at the very brink of death.

In bar 4 the continuo introduces a new idea incorporating a little run of falling semi-quavers, immediately taken up by the upper strings and repeated sequentially, the direction of which is also downwards. Just four bars before the tenor entry the clouds suddenly darken, minor-mode colourings in the harmony unexpectedly touching upon Cm, a key not even related to that of the movement! In fact, this partially explains why Bach chose to set a piece dealing with death and sickness in a major key. He wanted to use the contrasts between the established major and the darker minor to act as metaphors for these ominous events. This tonal dichotomy continues to assert itself throughout the movement.

The dark sound of the low writing of the upper strings, never aspiring to extend above the treble stave, colours the movement from start to finish.

The tenor line is largely derived from the material of the continuo theme but still contains many delicious moments of particular emphasis e.g. the tortuous writhings of the decaying body (bars 32-6), the declamatory—-Come dearest God—-(bars 40-42) and the latter emphasis upon selig—-blessed [as we request our ending to be].

This is a haunting movement, powerfully conveying those moments approaching death. Once heard, it is not quickly forgotten.

The bass recitatives.

Both recitatives are for the bass, one placed on each side of the alto aria, the sole movement of the entire cantata which can truthfully be labelled cheerful. The first does little to lift the mood which still centres around death—-my very existence and demise lie within Your hands, oh Lord—-Should You, because of my sins, strike me ill, then I beg for Your kindness and charity—-but if they are not forthcoming I must be prepared. The last line—-the longer I must endure here, the later I will arrive there—-is set as a mini-arioso over a marching quaver bass line. The obvious inference is that those who wish for an early end to this long period of waiting may, even now imagine themselves setting out on that significant journey!

For the most part, the melodic line of this recitative is angular and forceful, the mood immediately set by the opening phrase—-my dread and suffering, my life and death.

But the request for God′s kindness is sung over a sustained e flat in the bass and here the melodic line becomes more imploring (from bar 9). The point of the stanza is unequivocal—-I do not wish to remain here in this earthly life of tribulation and sorrow any longer than is absolutely necessary!

The second recitative, although still largely dominated by minor-mode harmonies is, by comparison with the first, somewhat lighter in mood and spirit. It offers God gratitude should He limit our suffering and it furthermore requests His help so that we may maintain healthy bodies and souls. Nevertheless if they should fail, God remains our rock and comfort. The message is: we should hope for the best whilst continuing to rely upon Him, particularly in times of need. There is a simple, direct, almost colloquial character to this message designed, one assumes,  to strike an immediate chord in the minds of the Leipzig congregations.

Alto aria.

Between these two secco recitatives lies the keystone movement of the cantata, an aria for alto with continuo and obbligato violin and oboe. Everything about this movement is designed to ensure that it stands out from its context. It recalls the oboe, only heard elsewhere in the opening sinfonia. It is in a major key; so, indeed, are the first and last movements but here it is the major of ebullience and joy. This is surely Bach′s expression ′of true faith′ couched in the most optimistic of terms.

The text begins with an unequivocal affirmation of fidelity—-Lord, whatever You do will gratify me. The violin and oboe imitate each other, beginning with a rhetorical figure of four quavers pre-empting the vocalist′s significant and rhythmically marked opening statement—-Herr was du wilt—-Lord, whatever You may do.

This motive, merging into a flowing haze of rolling semiquavers, conveys the message of the words whilst imbuing them with an additional feeling of pleasure and joyfulness—-whatever You do is pleasing to me. The two obbligato instruments set the tone, and the alto confirms the significance of their happy figuration with the long melisma on gefallen—-pleasing (from bar 12). The ritornello and first vocal block each perfectly encapsulate the rhythm, meaning and emotional depth of the words through musical shape and line.

This is the epitome of flawless communication—-words, feelings, faith, musical textures, shapes and rhythms are all brought together in the creation of an art form, so apparently effortless that it completely disguises the inherent complexities.

The structure of the movement is A B A although the reprised A section is somewhat altered; see discussion of this issue in the previous chapter. The B section begins at bar 31 and takes up the words—-let joy, anguish, death and entreaty happen to me only as You will them. Bach takes every opportunity of emphasising the key words; two initial tripping melismas on Freude—-joy—-lead to a more convoluted one on Sterben—-dying (bars 34-6 and 49-50).

But Bach does not dwell for long upon the allusions to death; the emphasis is now fully upon more positive emotions. The return of the reprised A section (from bar 59) is comfortingly reassuring of our fundamental faith—-the Lord′s counsel is best and, whatever it may be, it shall always please me.


The final chorale returns us to the major mode but to a key, C major, not before used in this work. It is a strong assertion of God′s will to dispose as He considers appropriately fit, allied to a request for both patience within ourselves and the continuance of His favour.

The structure of the melody is more suited to the chosen verse than is often the case. The second, fourth and last of the seven phrases are each three bars long creating a contrast with the others, all conventionally symmetrical two-bar statements. They have the effect, in this context, of extending thought and feeling. Once again there is a hint of timelessness, or indeed the irrelevance of time itself at the point of death.

The second phrase ends on the word Sterben—-death, the fourth verderben—-destruction. The elongated phrases create the effect of drawing out one′s last breath on the edge of death, the place where, indeed, we began our journey in this cantata.

The last phrase declaims that God′s will is best and its extension to the third bar is a final echo of that which has already been joyously declaimed in the alto aria. This is the key to the entire cantata and the contention upon which we are left to reflect.

Did Bach choose the chorale melody? The verse? Both? Neither? We do not know. But if the confluence of phrase and meaning in this case was fortuitous, it was, indeed a happy event which must have pleased both Bach and God!


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