Chapter 48 Bwv 74

Download in Microsoft Word format

Chapter 48 BWV 74 Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten

He who loves me will obey my commands.

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

The fiftieth cantata of the cycle for Whitsunday.

Since the Easter celebrations of 1725 we find little in the way of truly festive cantatas. If we leave aside the sinfonia to C 42, only C 128 seems to radiate a truly joyous mood. C 74 stands, therefore, as a second  rare example of overtly festive writing in the cantatas of the final quarter of the cycle.

In this case, the reason is not difficult to determine. Written for Whitsunday 1725 it radiates the joyousness of the faithful Christian, open to and duly receiving, God’s noble gift. True, the chorale suggests that we are still unworthy of this offering and the latter two arias remind us of the chains of hell and Satan’s wiles. But overall, the mood is one of celebration and rejoicing.

One characteristic of this cantata is the re-workings of earlier movements. The opening chorus and second aria originate from C 59, the Whitsunday cantata from the first cycle. (It is recommended that this essay be read in conjunction with that on C 59, vol 1, chapter 58). Bach is well known for the re-cycling of his own works, but much less in the second cycle than anywhere else, so this rare event is noteworthy. The obvious explanation would seem that working under great pressure he was forced to cut some corners. But when we examine the scale of this cantata, that argument has less force. It has eight movements, it is richly scored throughout and contains four arias, the norm for much of the cycle being two or three. Only C 20, a work in two parts, has more. Furthermore, the first of the borrowed movements has been very substantially reworked.

It would seem then, that Bach, rather than attempting to cut back on his workload, went out of his way to produce a work of considerable scale and substance

On the other hand, none of the movements is particularly long. The opening chorus would only last about three minutes in performance, shorter than the average. But it is still surprising that Bach should have reused movements that had been presented to the Leipzig congregations only a year previously. There are numerous occasions, particularly in the first cycle when he brought back cantatas and individual movements from his pre-Leipzig years but they would have been new to the Leipzig congregations.  C 4 aside, to repeat movements heard only one year previously, was unusual.

A further explanation is that C 59 may have been originally composed not for performances at the Leipzig churches but for a celebration at the university (see Dürr pp 350-351 and chapter 58 in volume 1). Performances in different circumstances and environments would make it more plausible for Bach to reuse works in the great churches within a short time scale.

And let us not forget the position of crisis that Bach may have found himself in if he really had lost his regular librettist (see chapters 1 and 41). He certainly would not wish to present a substandard work for the Whitsunday celebrations but his constant deadlines must have put him under continuous pressure. This cantata is fully fit for purpose; but perhaps the time saved in not actually having to compose two new substantial movements cut him a little slack.


The opening chorus employs the traditional instruments of celebration, a trio of trumpets and tympani. These combine with the usual strings and continuo as well as three oboes, the third being the lower oboe da caccia. The strikingly terse opening string motive is immediately answered by the oboes, trumpets interjecting.
Trumpets above oboes and strings.

Oboes then double violins for the rest of the ritornello theme which is fully repeated at the end of the movement. Once the choir enters on the fanfare-like call to attention—-Wer mich liebet—-whosoever loves me—-the orchestration becomes delicate, interspersing announcements of the ′head′ theme with discrete counterpoints.

There are no extended ritornello sections, although oboes and violins declaim lengthy contrapuntal lines, the trumpets reinforcing sparsely and drums joining in as their limitations allow. The minimal writing for the third trumpet suggests a late and rapidly executed addition.

In virtually eliminating ritornello episodes in the middle of the movement, Bach is employing a well established  structural principle that he employs an various occasions, particularly when seeking a less discursive and more focussed effect.

The vocal writing is transparent, frequently relying upon pairs of voices in imitation: soprano/alto, bass/tenor and alto/tenor. This betrays the genesis of the work; the original version was a duet for soprano and bass and the continuing echoes of this two-part texture further suggests that the re-working may have been accomplished quite quickly. The pairs tend to progress towards two main sections of substantial four-part writing (from bars 27 and 46), thus encapsulating the idea of ‘coming together’ for the purpose of making our dwelling with the Lord. (The re-arrangements of duets to produce four-part choral movements is also to be found, with varying degrees of success in a few of the secular cantatas).

Soprano aria.

The second movement is a reworking of C 59/4, originally for bass with violin obbligato, here for soprano and oboe da caccia. The higher voice is very much in tune with the sentiments of the text—-come, come, my heart is open to You—-I do not doubt that I will find my comfort in You. But why the choice of the lowest and least bright member of the oboe family when its higher cousin was clearly available?

The reason is partly due to the transposition of the movement to a different pitch but it may also relate to Bach’s frequent distinction between the communal and individual expressions of faith. The first movement stressed the former. Here the accent is on the personal—-My heart is open to You. The darker sounds of the oboe da caccia catch this intimate feeling in a way that the brighter instrument might not.

Nevertheless, the joyous melisma on erhöret—-the granting of the proffered prayer—- underlines the fulfilment of the blessed Christian.

For Bach, the effectiveness of the musical structures and the portrayal of the text are always of paramount importance. But might one muse as to whether he may also have reworked the movements partly so as to disguise, from congregation members with good memories, the fact that they had been re-presented from the previous Whitsunday? To do so would only be human!

Alto recitative.

The alto recitative is short and to the point—-the dwelling, my heart, has been prepared—-I will never allow myself to be parted from You. The vocal line ends on a diminished chord prior to the final conventional cadence, suggesting a punctuation mark of emphasis.

Bass aria.

Bach’s apparent inability to resist portraying images of ′stepping′ has often been commented upon in these essays. This bass aria, the first movement other than the recitative to use a minor key, provides us with yet another example. The text is again in the first person, a characteristic of von Zeigler’s personalised stanzas. It begins, somewhat enigmatically—- I depart from here but return to You—-if You loved me, You would rejoice.

Bach may have had in mind the opening aria from C 108 written only three weeks previously (see chapter 44). Despite their differences, similar images of moving to and fro dominate both texts. Both are set for the bass voice and use sequences of ‘treading’ quavers in the continuo line. Both vocal melodies begin with a very similar shape—rising and falling as if to suggest movements to and from.

But there the similarity stops and this is a good place for the student to consider how rarely Bach repeated himself, even when portraying similar or identical images. C 108 is major and accompanied by strings and oboe. C 74 is minor and uses continuo only. In C 108 the repeated bass figures break for odd moments as if the one departing (or approaching) is pausing for thought. In C 74 the quavers are almost continuous and consequently more relentless.

Thus these arias are quite different in character, the waves of oboe obbligato suggestive of the ethereal in the one, the implied ground bass rooted in the earth in the other. And this is all the more logical because in C 108 it is God who is speaking; in C 74 it is mere man.

Nevertheless, the concluding long miasmic melismas on freuen—-rejoicing—-somewhat mitigate the effects of the earthbound bass line.
(Students may also find it instructive to compare both these movements with the duet from C 78, chapter 14, which embodies a pattering of footsteps in the continuo line).

Tenor aria.

The last two arias are more lavishly accompanied. Bach’s boys and young men must have had a good foundation of musicianship to have balanced and integrated with these forces, most particularly in that for alto. That for tenor uses only strings and continuo certainly, but the string parts are particularly active; and so they should be, when the first line of text calls upon us to tune our strings and rejoice in song.

Bach does not actually give us a representation of strings being tuned; that would be left to Mozart in another age! But the violins are actively ebullient and dominate throughout. All parts are extremely demanding, once again reminding us that the quality of instruction provided for the musicians must have been of the very highest. Not only were the parts technically difficult, they had to be mastered within days and performed with probably no more than a single rehearsal.

The first violins swirl around the vocal line continually. Even if the listener has no German the emphasis Bach puts upon the opening words Kommt—-come, and Eilet—-hasten, can hardly be missed. The melismas on the latter must surely have stretched lung capacities! The first section of this combined ritornello and ternary form movement is given over wholly to the ‘rejoicing anthem’ offered to the Son of God.

The last lines of text, however, require a change of mood as we are reminded that Satan will ever be presenting himself as an obstacle between God and the Christian. The mode changes to minor, the harmonies darken and the first violins bustle about  with an increased feeling of menace (from bar 38).

But the main changes of focus are apparent in the tenor’s melodic line. This becomes ever more convoluted and bizarre, clearly representing the wiles of the devil. But through the texture also emerge long, sustained notes, always on the word glaube—-faith. The message is once again unmistakable; faith is enduring and will ultimately emerge and defeat the activities of the cunning Satan.

The return to the joyous first section is simply a further confirmation of the important Christian truth—-He shall return—-and the consequent joy that ensues.

Bass recitative.

A structural feature of this work is that the arias are long and complex, the recitatives short and simple. That for bass is, unusually, accompanied by three oboes which create an encompassing but nevertheless somewhat doleful aura. (Compare this with the opening recitative of C 175 using three recorders).
The text contains a single thought—-those who live through Christ cannot be condemned. Note the particular warmth in the melodic line on the words—-Christo Jesu.

Alto aria.

The alto aria is richly orchestrated using the full string section, all three oboes and a solo violin. The ritornello contains many of the elements of joyous exaltation, though lacking the available trumpets and drums presumably because of the danger of swamping the singer. But the oboes, strings and a particularly energetic solo violin are quite sufficient to capture the mood. The opening ritornello has a fanfare quality and the repeated semi-quaver ideas push the music along with an infectious vigour.
Opening theme: solo violin below three oboes.

All this is to convey the victorious realization that it is the blood of Jesus that delivers us from the very chains of hell!

Long, convoluted melismas convey the impression of hell’s Ketten—-chains or shackles (from bars 22, 36 and 68)—-but even mention of these cannot inhibit the exultant, persistent energy. Sections of repeated notes on wind and strings push the music forward with undiminished momentum and vigour.

But in the middle section (from bar 111) all this changes when the text states a fundamental Christian truth i.e. that which we inherit from Christ’s sacrifice is of great value and it enables us to laugh at the anger of hell and the devil. The instrumental accompaniment becomes more sparse, leaving little but the voice and continuo. The mode changes from major to minor. The bizarre triplets on the word lache—-laugh—-represent a sort of manic chortling. But this is a deliberately mocking mirth, not a spontaneous outpouring of happiness. It is the representation of a formal religious stance rather than the expression of a sincere, personal emotion. Key words—-Sterben—-dying, and Erben—-an inheritor (of God′s benefice)—-are reinforced with forte chords on wind and double-stopped strings.

And of particular interest is the relative proportion of the two sections. Bach is often quite happy to make his contrasting B sections shorter than the outer ones which enclose it. But here the middle section is a mere twenty-four bars long, about a fifth of the length of the substantial A section. Hell’s anger is depicted, but allied to the notion that we can brush it aside and even disparage it. It is not, however, something to dwell upon when we are celebrating our union with Christ. Even the musical proportions are constructed so as to make a didactic point!


The closing chorale, along with those from Cs 42 and 108, completes in minor mode a cantata which begun in the major. This is something that Bach could not do in the first forty works where the opening movements were tied to the modes of the closing chorales. But in the final thirteen cantatas he has no such restraints, although it is interesting that while he uses the pattern major transforming to a minor, he seems not to have reversed it. Perhaps he thought that the minor mode best encapsulates appropriate feelings of gravitas and reflection; or possibly it just turned out that way.

Here the final message is typically austere—-no-one on earth is really worthy of the gifts of Christ’s love and blessing. There is a sober, slightly depressive quality about this semi self-castigatory assertion.
Perhaps the somber characteristic of the minor mode was the only possible artistic choice.


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