Chapter 45 Bwv 103

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Chapter 45 BWV 103 Ihr werdet weinen und heulen

You shall weep and wail, though the world will rejoice.

Chorus–recit (tenor)–aria (alto)–recit (alto)–aria (tenor)–chorale.

The forty-fifth cantata of the cycle for Jubilate.

This is the fifth cantata after Bach had either lost his librettist or deliberately changed tack. It is the first of nine texts known to be provided by the Leipzig poetess Mariane von Ziegler (see the introduction to this volume and comments in chapter 44) and it is the second of the four post-Easter cantatas that opens with a large scale chorus which is not a chorale/fantasia.

But what a mighty movement it is!


The very first line of text establishes that it deals with one of Bach’s favourite, and often most inspiring situations, the simultaneous expression of contrary emotions or assertions—you will be weeping and wailing but the world will be joyful. How to convey, in the one movement, the seemingly opposing ideas of individual misery and communal rejoicing?

Bach, as always, rises magnificently to challenges of this kind and the scale and enormous complexity of the first movement indicates that he must have given it a great deal of thought. In fact, apart from C 6, this is the first extended opening chorus that he presented since the 1725 Easter celebrations three weeks previously. The choir has rested long enough; let’s now really put them through their paces! Bach may well have temporarily relinquished the idea of the chorale/fantasia but his penchant for composing massive, commanding opening choruses obviously remains.

The entire text comprises only four short lines but they encapsulate three different ideas; you will weep, the world will rejoice, your personal misery will ultimately be transformed into joy. It is reasonable to assume that, in order to effectively combine these ideas within a single movement, Bach may have felt relieved to have released himself from the strictures that the chorale melodies had imposed. As in two other of these last cantatas of the cycle (Cs 6 and 176), in dispensing with the chorale he permits himself to create a structure dictated principally by the text. (The opening chorus of C 74 was similarly not based around a chorale, but its structure was pre-determined; it was a reworking of a movement from C 59).

The chorus is tri-partite, but not in the conventional sense of being in ternary or da capo form; it simply inserts a recitative between two massive choral fugal statements. It begins with a long orchestral exposition which suggests an Italianate concerto/ritornello structure but this does not eventuate; it occurs only at the beginning and neither separates choral entries nor returns at the end. However, its persistent rhythms and predominant melodic ideas are never far away, first supporting and later being taken over by the singers. Thus it provides the essential material if not the precise skeletal structure.

Four factors determine the character of this movement and the listener will better navigate his/her way through the music by becoming thoroughly familiar with them. The first is the choice of minor, rather than major key; serious and somber and, incidentally, also used for most of the latter movements. The second is the three-note figure of joy heard at the beginning on the oboes, then strings and finally combined on both.

The third is the effervescent piccolo (or sopranino recorder) semi-quavers, sounding above everything.

The last is the sinewy fugue subject, first introduced on the tenor entry. Its mood is guardedly buoyant, edgy and uneasy but neither totally tragic on the one hand, nor overtly ecstatic on the other. It lies somewhere between the extremes. And do not fail to register the three repeated notes at the beginning; a motive which Bach makes use of, in various contexts, on many occasions throughout the canon.

But there is no doubting the boundless energy which drives it.

When the tenors usher in the beginning of the first vocal section, the mood alters. They introduce the new theme which Bach will treat fugally three times (from bars 27, 59 and 109). The second and third fugal expositions are separated by the short bass recitative and both conclude, as we shall see, with yet another clearly defined idea conveying the feeling of a codetta (beginning bars 92 and 146).

Bach first presents this vocal fugue subject in the order T, A, S, B. It is a theme of considerable tortuousness, intensified by the use of awkward (augmented) intervals and the (by now almost bizarre) lines of piccolo and oboes. This is the pain of the individual soul, dismal and potentially depressing, given even greater poignancy by the chromatically descending counter-subject. But on the words—-aber die Welt wird freuen—-the world will rejoice—-the voices take up the initial orchestral theme where the joy motive dominates (from bar 45).

At the same time, the bubbling piccolo returns.

This would have been enough for most composers but Bach, as usual, goes a step further, transcending all technical problems. In his second fugal exposition the original instrumental joy theme emerges as the countersubject to the tragic vocal idea; the one has been conceived as a counterpoint to the other! Thus are individual sorrow and communal fulfilment represented simultaneously as the two sides of the same coin.

But then Bach, just like a conjuror, reveals yet another surprise. The choir stops; but not in the tonic key, nor with a carefully prepared final cadence; it is clear that there is more to come and we are left savouring a moment of great expectancy. The music flows into a bass recitative (voice of the Saviour) articulating three times—-you will be the saddest of all. Time stands still and the piccolo adds wisps of heartrending dejection.

This recitative is a mere eight bars long but its context and piteousness give it enormous dramatic impact. Bach′s lack of respect for the conservative Leipzig authorities′ dislike of operatic styles in religious music was never more apparent!

But the act of transformation is still not complete. Bach now presents us with his third and final fugal exposition. Both ‘tragic’ and ‘joyous’ themes are heard, but the former is never stated without being surrounded by the latter and its streams of semi-quavers. If the individual’s transformational joyousness is not entirely unabandoned it is, at least, elated and infused with sparkling energy and purpose.

Nevertheless tragedy, whilst temporarily relegated, has not been completely obliterated.

Towards the end of each of the second and third fugal expositions we hear a codetta based upon the three notes of a descending triad.

This idea is highly reminiscent of that from the Incarnatus Est from the Mass in B minor. Listeners may wish to speculate as to whether this might have been accidental or may have had an intended connection through the processes of transformation!

The complexity of this magnificent movement may be better grasped if viewed thus:

    A Instrumental section introducing much of the musical material.

    B First vocal fugal exposition stressing weeping and wailing (from bar 27).

    C Second vocal exposition suggesting the world’s joyfulness and ending with a codetta (from bar 59).

    D Bass recitative expressing personal and individual grief (from bar 101).

    E Third vocal exposition culminating in the transformation of sorrow to joy and re-using the codetta   to conclude (from bar 109).

It is well worth paying heed to the peculiar quality of the piccolo or high recorder which, sounding an octave higher than written, dominates the soundscape of the entire movement. Bach used this instrument seldom (see Cs 96 and 8) and almost certainly for symbolic purpose. Commentators differ in their interpretations: does it symbolize rejoicing, a mocking of the sceptical world, or a vision of the celestial Christ? A good performance in this cantata may even suggest sardonic, bizarre and almost demonically scornful laughter.

But its expressive power is undoubted, especially when compared to the later (1731) version in which Bach seems to have been forced to replace the recorder with a less commanding flute, an octave lower.

The four central movements are, perhaps, most conveniently viewed as two paired groups of recitative and aria. The tenor recitative links the chorus to the alto aria and the alto recitative bridges the arias. There can be little doubt that Bach planned the overall layout of the work with great attention to detail even though, on this occasion, motivic links to the chorale are minimal.

Contrasting moods and the central thesis underpinning a text stressing the contrast between individual misery and communal joy; these are Bach’s principal preoccupations in this cantata.

Tenor recitative.

The tenor recitative is almost a justification or explanation of earthly sorrow at times of bereavement, something which Bach knew well. We are reminded that it is natural to lament at such times. Notable is the deeply moving melisma on the word Schmerzen—-sorrow. This is surely a moment when Bach’s personal experience of pain and alienation touches our hearts directly across the centuries. This beautiful, poignant phrase of arioso leads us convincingly to the arid beauty of the next movement.

Alto aria.

The text of alto aria offers little in the way of concrete images—-there is no doctor who can heal my sinful wounds; if You deny me, I must die—-only hear me—-I still have faith. But again there is that important divergence of ideas; hopeless misery on the one hand with the glimmering light through a personal faith on the other. There are some tenuous melodic connections with the chorale, but generally speaking, we do not find a great deal of motivic connection between the movements. But there is no doubt that this aria feels right in its context, just as there is no doubt that it is one of Bach’s most poignant.

The key, F#m, was sparingly used before Bach’s time and usually, in his hands, heralded a movement of haunting beauty. This aria never settles in a major key, unusual for Bach who, in a piece this length would generally be expected to move to the relative major, either for imagic effect or simply for musical contrast. The unrelenting minor and deeply emotive melodic lines convey feelings of individual sadness. The flickering piccolo, with echoes from the first movement but now employing a very different figuration ever striving upwards, moderates the underlying sense of potential tragedy.

But as so often with Bach’s expressions of sadness and sorrow, one never feels totally bereft or totally without hope.

Alto recitative.

We have already noted how often the final aria is crucial, not only to the overall musical architecture but also to the understanding of the work’s fundamental premise. Previously we have examined cantatas which are consistently minor until the penultimate movement (e.g. C 87) and this is precisely what happens here. Bach prepares us for the change, another example of his attention to detail. The alto recitative begins in the key of the opening chorus, Bm but, just as the individual’s misery will be transformed to joy, so the alto line moves exultantly from the darkness of Bm to the light of D major.

The point is underlined by the sweeping melisma on the word Freude—-happiness or delight.
Thus does Bach use a technical musical device not only to take us to the key of the final, decisive aria but also to suggest the idea of personal transformation.

Tenor aria.

The trumpet is used as a solo instrument just in this one aria, for tenor. Given the strong hint offered in the closing bars of the preceding recitative it hardly surprises as it bursts energetically upon us with a jubilation unheard, so far, in this work. The text is now entirely positive—-leave your sorrow, Jesus is appearing and nothing can now equal my happiness—-and all of this is perfectly matched by the music. The main theme is a combination of joy-motive and brass fanfare and the direction is one of ever reaching upwards. All is positive and joyful; or almost all.

But as early as the third bar, while the strings carry on with their ebullient fanfare figure, the trumpet strikes an unexpectedly flat note. This is one of Bach’s ‘blues’ excursions (see also C 8 and C 30) when suddenly the major third of the scale becomes minor. It does not last long; a tiny flash of sadness of the kind that Mozart, a half century later was wont to infuse into his phrases, suggestive of the teardrop at the back of the eye. But it makes its impact.

The tenor begins with extrovert fanfare figurations. But it is not long before the flat note appears on the word betrübte—-troubled, sorrowful—-with further implications of bereavement. It is, once again, an echo reminding us of what has gone before. Just as in misery there is always the hope of redemption, in joy, we should not forget the moments of wretchedness from which we have been transformed.

But these moments are now short and fleeting. The lengthening melismas on freude—-joy—-dominate the movement. The message is now clear, resounding and (largely) unambiguous.


The closing chorale melody has an interesting history. It can be found in the Saint Mathew Passion Part 1 and in Cs 67, 111 and 144. Further discussion may be found in the essay on C 111 in chapter 36 where the melody is also quoted in full. It is the only chorale used three times in this cycle (Cs 111, 92 and 103) and employed as the basis of two very different fantasias.

Once again it stresses the transformation from pain to happiness and the harmonization, alternating cadences in minor and major keys, is itself a metaphor of this process. Bach need not have harmonized it thus; it is perfectly possible to keep it within the minor keys of B and F# throughout. The movement between musical light and shade is thus both symbolic and summative.

The premise of the first movement is thus maintained until the very last chords.


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