Chapter 44 Bwv 8587108

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Chapter 44: BWV 85, BWV 108 and BWV 87, each commencing with a bass aria.

The forty-fourth, forty-sixth and forty-seventh cantatas of the cycle.

These three cantatas were composed in April and June of 1725 in the order as stated above. They have certain characteristics in common, specifically the fact that all are based upon, and begin with, the words of Christ expressed in the first person. This would explain why Bach dispensed with the opening choruses, replacing them with arias for the bass, the voice traditionally used to depict the authorative words of God or Jesus.

That aside, there are a number of ways in which these three works differ, not only from the bulk of the second cycle cantatas but also from each other. In some ways they remind us of several of the less constricted and more free-ranging structures of the first cycle. They retain a balanced mix of arias and recitatives in addition to the expected concluding chorales.

Bach approached the repertoire of chorales in different ways at this time, having apparently temporarily lost interest in the fantasias derived from them. Immediately after the Easter celebrations he wrote a large-scale choral movement for C 103 but not for Cs 42, 85 or 87 and he waited five weeks before presenting the first of the two last fantasias of the cycle (C 128). Of these three cantatas commencing with a bass aria, only one (108) contains a chorus, the other two making do with the closing chorales.

It has often been suggested that this may have been in order to give his singers a well deserved rest after the performances of Cs 4 and 6, the Saint John Passion and Easter Oratorio, all presented in under a week. But if this were the case, why saddle them with the complex choruses in Cs 103 and 108? And in the latter work, why position the single chorus in the middle of the cantata rather than at the beginning?

If it were the case that Bach’s librettist for the first part of the cycle had died in January 1725, he would have been seeking a new collaborator. It is known that for a few weeks he worked with Maria von Ziegler who created texts for the final nine; Cs 103, 108, 87, 128, 183, 74, 68, 175 and 176 (Wolff p 279) although it has been suggested that Bach was not always satisfied with her efforts as he made a number of textural alterations (ibid p 279). It is possible that von Ziegler also provided the libretto for C 85, in which case all three cantatas described in this chapter would be attributable to her. Schweitzer (vol 2, p 331) certainly considered this likely.

In any case Bach would have found it entirely appropriate to set the words of the Saviour for a bass soloist. They could be articulated simply and directly without the elaborate polyphony of a complex and possibly fugal, chorus. All three opening movements are expressed in the first person:—-I am a true shepherd—–You have not asked me—-Now I depart. Having Christ state his own words clearly and directly in this way is logical as well as artistically and liturgically satisfying. It just doesn’t fit into the established ′chorale fantasia′ pattern of the second cycle.

However, it is worth mentioning, in passing, that all three arias commence with a weighty and serious instrumental section suggesting the sort of ritornello that might herald the entry of a choir. Such moments of significance are appropriate for the words of the Saviour certainly, and each of these musical statements conveys a gravitas reminding us of earlier fantasias. Perhaps the sounding of the first few bars might even have led the Leipzig congregations to expect choruses of this type.

Could this possibly have been a subtle Teutonic prank on the Cantor’s part?

Whatever Bach’s circumstances or attitudes at the time, these three cantatas are not works thrown off in haste. They are carefully crafted pieces indicating Bach’s punctilious observation of text, meaning and imagery. Each has its own character, the first (85) being the most elegiac and the last (87) the most poignant and heart-rending. C 108 lies somewhere in between.

Cantata BWV 85 Ich bin ein guter Hirt

I am a true shepherd.

Aria (bass)–aria (alto)–chorale (sop)–recit (tenor)–aria (tenor)–chorale.

The forty-fourth cantata of the cycle for the second Sunday after Easter.

Despite its shadowy undertones, this is the most lyrical of these three works. The tone is pastoral and poetic throughout, although it is worth noting that of the six movements, three (first, second and the concluding chorale) are set in minor keys. It may, of course, be that because the dominant chorale is in C minor, Bach felt it appropriate to extend the ′minor feel′ throughout other parts of the work; the opening bass aria is also in that key, It is, in fact, uncommon to find the outer movements in different modes, Cs 42 (chapter 42) and 108 being two rare examples where the opening movements are major and the closing chorales minor.

But as we have come to expect, Bach’s tonal sense was often influenced by a deep, complex and intuitive insight into the text.

Bass aria.

The opening aria is underpinned by a feeling of gravitas from the first bar. Christ’s immediate assertion is that He is a True Shepherd, and as such He would always sacrifice Himself for his sheep; this becomes the central theme of the cantata. Bach depicts these statements as being true, significant and consequently potentially soul-saving for the rest of us. The minor harmonies reflect the seriousness of this claim and its implications for mankind.

The point is further driven home by Bach’s setting of the opening words, ‘I am a shepherd true’. This is declaimed simply and clearly on the bass’s entry with a minimum of competition from the ensemble (in this case a conventional string orchestra, continuo and single oboe; a second oboe will be introduced in the third movement). This commanding statement is immediately repeated. But, a few bars later when it is declaimed for the third time, everything stops for a brief moment on the word Hirt—-shepherd (bar 15). This is unusual, in that Bach seldom comes to a complete halt at an intermediate cadence unless it is to make a specific point. This is not a significant structural cadence as might mark the end of the A section before embarking upon the middle one in a da capo movement; it is an imperfect or unfinished cadence in Eb major, a key which has a minimum of structural significance in the construction of this movement.
Clearly Bach is creating a pointed punctuation mark, grabbing the attention of his listeners and allowing a moment for the message of the true Shepherd to sink in.

Similarly noteworthy is the fact that Eb major would have been the obvious key to move to for a central structural cadence, but it is here touched upon very lightly. The reason may well be that Bach wanted to retain the sombre minor mode feeling throughout much of the movement as, indeed he does, by keeping mostly to the keys of C and G minors.

The attentive listener may observe the opening notes in the continuo line. The motive they form dominates until the bass voice enters–with the same shape!

Further investigation reveals that this four-quaver motive has been taken from the opening notes of the chorale tune in the same key. It will also emerge again in the opening bars of C 108, another example of Bach’s cohesive structural planning and ability to extract the maximum expressivity from any given idea.

The feeling of gravitas is somewhat mitigated by the flowing semiquavers of the upper strings and oboe. This imitative counterpoint employs a series of descending scalic passages and possibly depicts the aimless wandering of grazing sheep. However, the minor key and somewhat unusual orchestration both underpin the serious side of the movement. The violas frequently double the second violins giving a slightly dark, rooted feel to the ensemble.

At fewer than fifty bars this is, by Bach’s standards, a short aria. Nevertheless it is packed with fascinating features illustrating the composer’s consummate attention to detail. This was not a movement thrown off in a hurry at a moment of crisis. It encapsulates, most beautifully and in around three short minutes, the very core of Christian dogma.

Alto aria.

The second movement does little more than affirm and reflect upon the message of the first but through the eyes of an observer rather than those of Christ himself—-Jesus is a good Shepherd having already sacrificed His life for His sheep. Again Bach uses minor keys from beginning to end, thus moderating the potentially joyous flowing semi-quavers of the cello piccolo. One might have considered the violin to be the more appropriate instrument to declaim this virtually continuous line but the darker cello sound is in keeping with the mood of seriousness which Bach seeks, in what might otherwise have been a more trivial, pastoral concoction.

It is worth noting when Bach elsewhere employs members of the cello or gamba family when expressing sombre moments in the life of the Saviour e.g. the staggering under the cross in the Saint Matthew Passion.

Soprano chorale.

The third movement is unusual, but not unique, in that it introduces a second chorale; we found this also in C 6 performed a fortnight previously and, of course, in a number of works from the first cycle. It is not presented as a straightforward four-part harmonisation or as a complex choral development of the basic melody, but as a form of chorale prelude, the soprano embellishing the set melodic phrases amidst an intricate and, at times, almost dense texture of two oboes and continuo. The chorale chosen, The Lord is my Shepherd is, of course, well known to English speaking Christians as the Twenty-Third Psalm. Bach follows an established practice of having the oboes and bass line discuss, as equal partners, each phrase before the soprano enters with her own embellished versions.
Oboe followed by the soprano entry.

The chorale, originally set by Cornelius Becker (Boyd p 226) must have been a favourite of Bach’s. He used it to close C 104 from the first cycle and C 112, one of the later chorale/fantasia cantatas.

It may be that the inclusion of this hymn tune in the body of the cantata solved an aesthetic problem for Bach. The images are almost wholly pastoral e.g. the leading to lambs, green meadows and fresh waters and consequently they contrast with the solemnity of the opening movements. The unifying factor throughout is obviously that of the True Shepherd but now seen within the context of a world of beauty, grace and plenty. The aria thus acts as the pivot whereby Bach moves from statements of serious dogma to a scene of Elysian bliss; he presumably considered that he had stressed the serious aspects sufficiently and now is the time to ′lighten up′ a little. Whatever the reason, he moves from minor to major keys in this and the following two movements.

It is significant, though, and fits well with his interpretation of the message of the text, that the closing chorale will return us to the seriousness and weight of the minor mode.

Tenor recitative.

The next movement is the only recitative and it begins in a basking of rich, string, major harmonies. This short musical statement illustrates the  subtleties of Bach’s representation of textural images. It begins with a reassurance that the one faithful shepherd, Jesus, will always be there to watch over us, ensuring that we continue to enjoy the pleasures of the peace and nature articulated in the previous movement. The last lines give an example; if the wolf comes to devour us, the good Shepherd will restrain him. These are clear and straightforward depictions, almost begging for musical illustration.

The obvious thing would have been to portray the snarling and potential dangers of the wolf but Bach avoids this. He constructs the recitative so that the first sign of unrest, a burst of rising string triplets, comes as the tenor reassures us that the Shepherd is watching over us. The message would seem to be: He watches and protects us, even as danger continues to surround us.

A little later (bars 7-8) mildly disturbing minor harmonies interject whilst the text refers to the flowing streams of life. By the time the wolf is mentioned (bars 9-10) the danger seems largely to have passed; and the recitative ends, as it began, in a glow of major chords. Whilst the wolf may not endanger us when we are watched over, his presence serves to remind us of the perils that threaten when we lack Divine protection.

The individual images are only lightly expressed through the music; they are not forced vividly upon us at the expense of greater truths.

Tenor aria.

The tenor aria is a pure pastorale in 9/8 time with evenly flowing string quavers and a wash of Eb major harmonies. It is a direct affirmation of the Saviour’s love for us—see what Christ’s love has brought about!
Combined upper strings above continuo.

But without entirely losing sight of this feeling of endearment and goodwill, there is a temporary return to the minor key in order to underpin the serious notion that all this was at the expense of Christ’s blood. The insistent repeated notes on the words Und hat am Kreuzesstamm vergossen—- and on the trunk of the cross has poured—-(precious blood)—-bring, from bar 33, a moment of chill to the mood of pastoral peace. The rustic, flowing quavers take a temporarily, more ominous turn as they suggest the flowing of the precious Blood upon the cross.
                         Und  hat am      Kreu…………………….zes         stamm

This pastorale tenor aria pre-empts another, for the same voice, in C 87. It is instructive to study these two movements side by side.


The closing chorale generates some of the ideas for earlier movements, most notably the initial motive c-b-c which forms the declamatory basis for Christ’s opening assertions.

More importantly though, it now returns us to the minor mode of the bass and alto arias. However, in its short space of fourteen bars it manages to cadence on two related major keys, Eb and Ab before returning to and settling in the tonic Cm. Tonally, then, it sums up the message of the entire cantata; the fact of the Shepherd, our Saviour, is a matter of seriousness and gravity; but it also enables the true believer to discover the simple and natural environment of pastoral redemption and contentment.

Once again one wonders how much of the subtlety of imagic expression in this cantata Bach’s congregations would have recognised; and how much was simply intended for God?


Cantata BWV 108 Es ist euch gut, dass ich hingehe

Now I depart for you.

Aria (bass)–aria (tenor)–recit (tenor)–chorus–aria (alto)–chorale.

The forty-sixth cantata of the cycle for Cantate.

This cantata is based upon Christ’s words of farewell. Over a hundred years ago Schweitzer noticed what he labelled Bach’s frequently used ‘step motives’, usually to be found in a heavy, regular tread in the bass. It was, of course, very much a feature of the late baroque style, certainly not restricted to Bach’s compositions, to make use of a solid, marching, striding bass. It therefore comes as no surprise to find Bach employing it to depict explicit imagery whenever the text suggests it.

However, although Schweitzer (vol 2, p 333) particularly notes this in the first movement, he does not explore the fact that much of the entire cantata makes use of, or is based upon, the imagery of walking, moving and treading. It is a leit motive used as a unifying structural device as well as an obvious image which the congregation, one guesses, would be expected to recognise.

Bass aria.

The opening aria has Christ singing of his departure—-I am leaving but I shall send your Comforter to you. The physical activity of movement is represented by the ′stepping′ quavers in the bass line. In fact so persistent is this image that every single bar of the aria (until the last) is made up of quavers in the bass line, sometimes broken (as if the one departing were to pause a moment, perhaps in thought) but otherwise continuous.

Even at the intermediate cadence points Bach maintains this consistency and there can be little doubt that the intention is to strongly suggest the actions of walking and pacing.

But this aria’s text contains a second image of movement. Christ’s words refer not only to his departing but also to his sending the comforter (or Holy Spirit) in his place. There is, therefore, a dual concept, one of departing, the other approaching. Bach represents these movements not only through the aforementioned bass but also by means of a re-iterated figure in the strings. This is similar to the bass line and is also rhythmically bare, constructed from just four quavers. It is notable that this motive, heard as the upper strings enter in bar 2, is identical in shape to that used at the beginning of the opening aria of C 85 a fortnight before—I am a Shepherd True!

An accidental self-borrowing? Or a conscious musical reinforcement of conjoined ideas across the weeks?

The only departure from these quavers comes when the strings imitate the dotted rhythms of the oboe d’amore solo line, usually at places where the oboe has long notes (see, for example, the latter half of the second bar). This is clearly a musical imperative, because the upper strings need to carry the musical inertia forward, especially when the other lines are doing little or nothing. But the dotted notes, with just a hint of the feel of a French Overture, also convey a feeling of solidarity, movement and trust.
Schweitzer (ibid) interprets the ′vaporous arabesques′ of the oboe line as the ′passing away of the transfigured Saviour′ and this is not unreasonable. However, the contemporary listener might perceive this aria as a duet of complimentary textural images. Firstly, as described above, the bass line and upper strings represent the steps, moving away thence returning. At the same time the flowing melodies of the voice and oboe interweave fluidly as a spiritual contrast to those earthly movements. In these two more fluid lines lies, if not the complete feeling of the ′transfigured Saviour′, then possibly the calm, peacefulness and complete trust the good Christian might seek to find through Christ’s actions and, in particular, His ultimate sacrifice.

It is worth dwelling upon this first aria because it is the key to the whole work. This is not always the case; it may be the chorale that determines, or even dominates the structure and mood of the cantata; sometimes it is a late aria and frequently an opening chorus. But here there is a case for arguing that the setting of Christ’s opening words is the force that  drives the remainder of the work.

Tenor aria.

The following tenor aria maintains the bare quaver bass line, accentuating the step-like quality by using a continuously recurring figure of three repeated notes in the bass.

Again there is a clear contrast drawn between the pedestrian quality of this line and the much more fluid tenor and obbligato violin melodies entwining above it. As in the first aria, their mellifluous interweaving conveys a feeling of the spiritual realm, indescribable but not unattainable. Schweitzer describes the violin obbligato (p 333) as ′wandering aimlessly′ and expressing doubt (although the text is, perhaps, more about the banishment of doubt and its replacement by comfort and certainty—-no doubts will deter me).

Bach never wanders aimlessly, but Schweitzer does perhaps, have a point in that there is a lesser sense of ‘rooted certainty’ implied in this flowing line than is suggested by the melodic contours of the tenor and continuo.

However one chooses to interpret the imagery of these lines (and it is certainly true that part of the greatness of Bach’s religious music is that, whilst almost everything he does is derived from his minute observance of text, he nevertheless allows his audience a substantial latitude of personal and subjective interpretation), the keen listener will observe that the two melodic lines convey quite diverse emotions. The fact that they do so simultaneously accentuates their combined emotional impact.

It is worth noting how Bach sets the words Ich glaube—-I believe—-in the middle section of this aria (from bar 41). Here the fluidity of the tenor line temporarily abates. The syllable ‘glaube’ is maintained on a single note for three full bars and shortly afterwards for two. Faith and belief in the Saviour is, of course, basic to Bach’s Lutheran ideology and they are recurring themes in the cantatas. The doubts expressed by the violin still weave around, but the extended long notes convey certainty and conviction.

Perhaps no composer has ever made single sustained notes as expressive as Bach. Of course it is not just the extended note itself which produces such heart-wrenching emotional power. It is its setting; that which goes on above, below and around it (in this case the already established ′aimless′ violin semi-quavers and the stepping bass figure). Additionally, Bach frequently contrives carefully controlled degrees of dissonance through which the single note may voyage. But technique aside, this is an excellent example of Bach’s making a very direct, almost pejorative point for his congregational listeners to note.

One cannot ignore the powerful, repeated declamation: I believe!’

Bach’s choice of particular keys is, apart from the general ones of major and minor, somewhat beyond the scope of this volume. However it is worth noting that he chooses the key of this piece, F#m very particularly and often for slowish movements of great expressive force. The alto aria ‘Grief for Sin’ from the St Matthew Passion is a well known example, others of which may be found earlier in this cycle.

Tenor recitative.

The short tenor recitative requires little comment except, perhaps, to highlight the ending. The text puts a question—-I ask; is He not here, even now? Bach paints this melodically by the rising last interval of the vocal line. Tonally, he moves from the established key of Bm to finish upon an unresolved triad of A, implying a dominant chord of D major. This unfinished effect is both imagic and structural; the former since it reinforces the feeling of an enquiry and the latter because it leads directly to the key of the next movement.


The central chorus and opening aria are the only movements to be set in major keys, in this case D, the traditional key of exultation. There are, however, no trumpets or drums to reinforce any mood of jubilation. In fact the motet-like chorus employs virtually no independence of instruments except for a few bars when the basses are resting and the continuo continues its support of the upper parts. Otherwise, strings and oboes merely double the four-part choral counterpoint.

The movement is in three sections, each commencing with a series of fugal entries. The basses lead in section 1, the tenors in section 2 (from bar 15) and the altos in section 3 (from bar 30). All three fugal themes make use of the repeated-note treading idea.

The text describes the coming of the Holy Spirit to proclaim to the world what the future holds. The structural concept of a fugal exposition is ideally suited to conveying the idea of the one (first theme or subject) transmuting into the many (the consequent combination of all available voices). The Spirit comes alone, but then addresses all humankind. The musical metaphor is strengthened by the fact that Bach gives us not one but three short expositions, very probably suggestive of the Holy Trinity.

Bach has plundered the chorale for motives rather less often in this cantata then elsewhere but the chorus is clearly linked to it. The opening motive of both movements consists of three repeated notes followed by an upward leap and a stepwise descent. In a microcosmic sense these three shapes within the one phrase encapsulate much of the cantata’s message: treading/departing, assertiveness and a subsequent return to the port of welcome.

Fugue subject.

Does this read too much into the composer’s intentions? I do not think so. Any intensive study of his music indicates his preoccupations with number, symbol, shape and metaphor. The only question which remains is: who did Bach intend to recognise these abstruse symbols; God, the congregations or, perhaps, the students and musicians he was directing and educating?

Alto aria.

If the central chorus is the extrovert expression of faith and trust in the truth of the Lord, the following aria communicates a more introverted and individual conviction—–what I seek from You, shall be bestowed upon me through the pouring of Your rich blessings. The minor mode, used in four of the six movements, returns. The full string band accompanies the voice and an active violin obbligato entwines itself around them all.

Immediately this aria declares itself to be an indisputable part of the overall conception of the cantata because it brings together a clutch of motives and imagic ideas from previous movements. The continuo is again completely constructed of quavers. Bach’s bass lines are normally vibrant, lively melodic lines and it is unusual to find three movements in the one cantata in which they are so rhythmically bare. This further supports the contention that a pervading notion of the work is that of stepping, walking or treading. Furthermore, the shape of the bass line is formed from a reconstitution of intervals from the first two movements, the falling octave from the tenor aria combined with the three-note motive taken from the strings in the bass aria. That idea, inverted, gives us the first three notes of both the violin and alto melodies.

Thus the stepwise feeling continues rhythmically with the use of bare quavers and melodically with the versions of motives one of which, as we have seen, is traceable back to C 85. This is truly an art that conceals itself, more likely intended for God than for earthly listeners! Nevertheless, it bespeaks a grasp of detailed compositional control and structural planning which borders upon the awesome.

But there are still explicit images for the human audience, such as the representation of the blessings of the Saviour ′poured′ upon the trusting Christian. This action is represented by the violin figure first appearing in bar 5. (Similar representations of images of pouring may be found in C 5 although in that case it is Christ’s blood, rather than His blessing which cascades, ever downwards).

The aria ends with this repeated image in the violin line preceded by the tenor′s final melisma (bars 43-45) depicting the raising of one′s eyes upwards in order to seek out and glimpse the Lord′s glory.


As previously stated, the closing chorale offers us a rare example of Bach’s beginning a cantata in one mode/key and ending it in another. It is summative, both tonally and in the concepts it expresses. The text refers to our steps being led and directed by God upon the pathway to salvation.

The bass is again almost entirely constructed of marching quavers, but for the first time they are continuous and unbroken, pausing briefly only at the cadence points. Here, surely, is the symbol of steadfast certainty, the dispelling of doubt and the attainment of goals.

This chorale is both the starting point and the culmination of a cantata notable for its extreme subtlety of construction and organic development. Nevertheless, the final image of the marching bass line is clear, direct and unequivocal.

This is part of the genius of Bach, that he could be so obvious and yet so subtle at the same time.


Cantata BWV 87 Bisher habt ihr nichts gebeten in meinem Namen

You have not, until now, asked of anything in my name.

 Aria (bass)–recit (alto)–aria (alto)–recit (tenor)–aria (bass)–aria (tenor)–chorale.

The forty-seventh cantata of the cycle for Rogate.

Of the seven movements of this dark and austere work only one, the tenor aria, is in a major key. The first and last are set in D minor and the spiritual depths this tonality has already brought out in Bach may be found in the opening movements of C 101 from this cycle, and C 109 from the first.

C 87 is the most severe of these three cantatas commencing with bass arias, somewhat surprisingly, since the text appears to offer little in the way of powerful images likely to stimulate creative imagination.

The words of Christ are set in both of the bass arias (nos 1 and 5). With the exception of the tenor aria, the tone is serious to the point of pontification. Whilst there are a number of these works where we cannot escape the feeling that we are being lectured to, sometimes quite pedantically, it seldom comes across more strongly than in this cantata. Doubtless the congregation would expect to get more of the same from the ensuing sermon!

But Bach, even when at his most sermonising, has the saving grace of redemptive optimism. Seldom, if ever, does he set out merely to depress. When he does accentuate the more negative emotions, it is principally in order to contrast fears, concerns, personal tragedy and the burdens of sin with the light and joy of redemption that the Grace of God makes available to us

In this cantata the denouement arrives through the tenor aria, more of which later.

The theme of the work is repentance and contrition. The seriousness associated with these aspirations is conveyed in a number of ways, not least by the instrumentation, bassoon, oboes and oboe da caccia added to the usual strings and continuo. No flute, trumpet or horns here to lift the spirits!

Bass aria.

The opening aria is powerfully minor and sombre in tone, the three oboes doubling the upper string parts. The attitude is accusatory, with Christ complaining that until now nothing had been requested in His Name. It seems as if we are to have a ritornello movement or even a da capo aria, but nothing so traditional for the words of Christ! Once the bass voice enters there are no instrumental episodes; nor is there even a repetition of the introductory theme at the end. In fact the proportions are quite odd in that the introduction comprises a third of the complete movement!

What we have, then, is a short but uncompromising arioso in which the strings and oboes set the seriousness of the mood for Christ’s direct and unambiguous warning.

Musically there are a number of points of interest to be found within these few bars. Firstly, note the rising interval of a 6th (d to b flat) in the string and voice entries. This is a simple but powerful and authoritative statement that Bach also makes use of (in the same key) at the beginning of the chorus for C 109, from the first cycle.

Secondly, although the piece principally conveys a sense of stern admonition, the three-note ′motive of joy′ is used throughout. The tone is severe but not hopeless. The Saviour is like an experienced schoolteacher, strict but not unkindly.

Finally, the feeling of the melodic lines and harmony is of continuous upward stretching. The symbolism may be of a reaching towards Jesus or of the effort required from the good Christian in order to grasp redemption; or, indeed, both. Whatever the effort, it will be worth it; and this the tenor will explain to us later.

Alto recitative.

The alto harangues us, exploiting the theme of human neglect leading to holy offence—-you have deliberately sinned against both Law and Gospel. It ends with the firm command that we must all mend our ways.

Alto aria.

This is a penitent hymn of repentance—-forgive us, speak to us plainly and help us to become more faithful. The repressive minor mode still dominates and the oboes da caccia accentuate the mournful poignancy through the reiterated use of the three-note figure of weeping or sighing developed from the opening bar. But, as so often is the case with Bach’s music, it is not as straightforward as it seems.

There is no strong image dominating this text. It is more an admonition and plea for forgiveness—-Christians may have failed and they should repent and request assistance—-that is an important part of the teaching and, in itself, is not a matter for celebration. But the light is always at the end of the tunnel and the reward is there for those capable of claiming it. Within the opening ritornello, the oboes have not only the motive of distress but also a group of rolling semi-quavers (bars 3-4) extending ever upwards. Similarly the harmony of bars 4-8 also climbs, expressing a constant yearning for something that should, ultimately and hopefully, be within our reach.

Thus, in a mere dozen bars does Bach create a complex emotional tapestry; sadness, regret, yearning, hope and possible attainment; all uniquely combined into one collage of great beauty.

The continuo has its own persistent figure, a rising arpeggio, combining a sense of firm rootedness with more upward striving as the instruments, on each utterance, stretch to attain the upper note.

The words of the second line ‘and bear with us, even yet’ provide an obvious example of word painting as the singer tries, but seems unable to rise above the re-iterated note of c (bars 14-16).

The structure of the aria is that of a traditional da capo.

Tenor recitative.

The tenor recitative also contains images of striving upwards. It mentions our guilt which ‘to heaven climbs’—- Himmel steigt—and here the melodic line is characterised by upward leaps. The following twisted and tortuous melody expresses the soul attempting to emerge from a condition of guilt and searching for that place of comfort which the final string cadence underlines.

Dürr (p 323) interestingly notes that this stanza was absent from the printed text and he conjectures that Bach may have written it himself and inserted it, principally for structural reasons.

Bass aria.

Christ returns to address us in another arioso, now accompanied only by the continuo. His words are consequently clear and unimpeded by the complexities of contrapuntal texture. This is, in effect, a piece of overt tub-thumping—-you have suffered—-(He informs His flock)—-but you should now celebrate and be happy because I have subdued the world! It seems more of a boast than a statement of genuine concern for the sinners of the world; but be that as it may, Bach gives his Lord generous voice, allowing him to proclaim His potency and purpose.

The sinuous writing for the continuo brings to mind Bach’s portrayal of the devil in earlier works, notably the tenor arias in Cs 107 from this and C 76 from the first cycle. There is no explicit mention of the devil in this text, but God’s boast of overpowering the world does imply a victory over Satan. The accompaniment is strongly suggestive of the bustling malevolence which Bach often associates with the devil.

There is no necessity for large instrumental forces to trumpet God’s strength or victory. We need merely to be reminded of the insidious evil that He, with His superior powers, has overcome.

Tenor aria

The darkest of moods may be allayed by Bach’s ability to convey different feelings simultaneously and it has to be admitted that so far this work has hardly been a hymn of jollity. However, everything changes with the tenor aria. It is still not an uninhibited outpouring of joy; that would hardly be credible within the architecture of the whole piece. Nor would it adequately express the essence of the text which has been carefully contrived so as to convey a sense of balance and proportion; on the one hand we will expect to suffer, on the other, Jesus will aid and calm us.

But we are now told plainly—-with the help of Jesus, I will survive! I will suffer silently; but Jesus will help me in my pain.

Few composers expressed these complex emotions more surely or more certainly than Bach and this is, arguably, the most eloquently beautiful movement of the cantata. Schweitzer calls it ‘one of Bach’s most beautiful creations’ (vol 2, p 334). Bach creates a pastoral mood generated by the dotted rhythms of 12/8 time (see also C 42 and the Christmas Oratorio C 248/2). He takes the Italian ritornello structure as his model but he transcends it. He creates an impression almost of sublime improvisation as the violin and voice weave their gentle melodies around each other and the peaceful and unquestioning certainty of Christ’s comfort is quietly celebrated.
   Violin above voice, from bar 9.

This is the keystone of the cantata, an expression of quiet, personal acceptance as opposed to extrovert jubilation.


The closing chorale is one of Bach’s favourites; in fact it has been suggested that the keys of the six English Suites were chosen as a tribute to it; A, Am, G, F, E, Dm thus spelling out the notes of the opening phrase in this key:- a  a  g  f  e  d.

We have no way of knowing if this was the case, but one feels that it would have appealed to Bach’s sense of order and appropriateness. What is certain is that he used this chorale on several occasions, notably in the motet Jesu meine Freude where it forms the opening and closing movements.

Here it returns us to the reflective mood of the minor key and an opportunity to consider the moral of the ‘lecture’. Why should I continue to be careworn? If Jesus truly loves me, my worst sorrows will be turned to joy.

Clearly, a thought for the devout eighteenth century Lutheran to conjure with!


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