Chapter 49 Bwv 134

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Chapter 49 BWV 134 Ein Herz, das seinen Jesum

The heart that knows that Jesus is living.

Recit (tenor/alto)-aria (tenor)–recit (tenor/alto)–duet (alto/tenor)–recit (tenor/alto)–chorus.

The forty-ninth cantata of the cycle for Easter Tuesday.

The ′dialogue′ writing for two voices in four of its six movements betrays the secular origin of this cantata, C 134a, composed in Cöthen around five years earlier (Dürr p 284). Bach clearly considered it to be suitable for his first Leipzig Easter celebrations although, oddly, he appears not to have appended a chorale. He reused the cantata in the 1730s and on this occasion re-composed the three recitatives while making some minor amendments to the other movements (ibid p 284). Some albums offer both versions; Koopman, for example, has recorded them in their complete forms in box ten of his cantata set.( Note that due to the dialogue legacy of this cantata, there are no solo roles for soprano or bass).

Whilst it is clear that in the original secular version the tenor and alto represent Time and Divine Providence respectively, it is not clear whether this still applies to the sacred arrangements. It could be that here they represent, as in Bach′s later dialogue cantatas, Christ and the Soul. However, in those works the Soul is usually portrayed initially as an unwilling and tremulous bride; the drama of these works, such as it is, comes from Christ winning its confidence and commitment. If in C 134 the alto represents the Soul, it is a very compliant one from the start, offering little more to the dialogue than agreement with, and reinforcement of, the tenor′s maxims.

The three recitatives.

We will begin with an overview of the three recitatives where the situation is somewhat complicated. The text remains the same for the 1724 and 1730s versions but the music is different. The music seems unchanged, except in detail, for the 1719 and 1724 versions but the text is different. It is perhaps simplest to concentrate principally upon the first cycle version.

The cantata begins with the first of these recitatives and the tenor gets straight to the point—-the heart which accepts the Living Christ feels His affection and thinks only of His words. The alto responds with the simple confirmation that a soul believing, is a happy one (the secular text, by contrast had mused upon the nature of eternal time). The alto′s melodic line (1724) is florid and generates a moment of imitation with the continuo, a suitable flourish for the expression of joy. Interestingly, this line is much less ornate in the final version. It is noted within some of the essays in volume 3 (see, for example, chapter 50) that the mature Bach′s re-writing of earlier works tended to lead to a simplification of lines rather than the addition of more notes as, perhaps quite consciously, he sought to eliminate any unnecessary (and possibly distracting?) detail.

In this case the short alto phrase appears less excited and animated and, as a consequence, seems more sincerely committed to the notion of Divine Love.

The second recitative begins with a long tenor peroration reminding us how fortunate we are that He lives, offering salvation, humbling Satan and providing us with strength. The concluding dialogue reveals the alto to be as acquiescent as before, fully accepting God′s protection. Musically, the later version seems less obviously passionate but again, more deeply felt. A number of images (e.g. of Satan, Hell, the grave and death) are graphically set in the original version but more restrainedly so in the later one; see for example, bars 6, 7 and 30. Similarly, some of the operatic phrases swooping over an octave or more, are now moderated.

The tenor retains the same dominant character in the third and final recitative, reminding us to give thanks, to remember Him and His work and, bearing in mind that which may be ultimately attainable, the ensuring that our devotion is perfect and unending. The alto, clearly not a companion you might choose for any in-depth debate, agrees, offering full thanks and praise. Bach does allow himself one flourish (bar 6) which was not in the original vocal line, perhaps to emphasise the significance  of remembering His work. But the original little skirmishes between alto and continuo in the last bars are omitted.

The student may well wish to analyse the changes in the revised versions, setting note against note and, through the process, learn much about Bach′s ever developing approach to his craft.

One final observation. Bach keeps the same tonal plan for the rewriting of the first two recitatives. But he commences the last one up one tone and finishes it a fourth lower in F. In the first version the tonal scheme made perfect sense in bridging the aria and chorus; the Cm beginning was clearly related to the previous aria′s key of Eb and it proceeded to Bb, the key of the concluding chorus. Bach doubtless made the changes in order to better accommodate the ranges of the newly composed recitative lines. But this serves to indicate that he was not always as scrupulous about the tonal functions of the recitatives within the wider key schemes as we might like to imagine.

There appears to have been no chorale attached to this cantata, a most unusual event. Did Bach take one ′off the peg′ at the last moment so as to conclude the piece in a conventional manner? Or did he plan to end with the chorus, perhaps because a triumphant and joyful choral paean of praise might be viewed as a more appropriate ending to the Easter celebrations than a reflective hymn?

Yet to be considered are an aria, a duet and a chorus. All three are in da capo form as, indeed were a number of the movements from the preceding cantatas. It seems that Bach was particularly attached to this structure and its possibilities whilst in Cöthen where he certainly became a master of it. In successive years he devoted much creative effort exploring the extent to which he could extend and even distort its conventional boundaries.

Bach′s attachment to the da capo form at this time may have been because it gave him the opportunity to write extended instrumental melodies which could also provide all the motivic material for the remainder of the movement. It was also an economical way of composing because an enriched ritornello theme, heard at the beginning and end (and sometimes in the middle) of the repeated opening section, could account for as much as half of the entire movement! Certainly he was highly attuned to the endless possibilities of combined da capo and ritornello structures. He also became increasingly interested in devising the melodies of arias and choruses from the images residual within the texts.

Tenor aria.

The tenor aria provides us with a lilting, dance-like, highly metrical melody played by the oboe and first violin.

The text exhorts us to arise and sing beautiful songs—-a new light shines upon us, obligating us to make our offerings of thanks. Bach selects the words Lieder—-songs—–and scheinet—-the glow of the Divine light—-for particular emphasis through some busy melismas but, in adapting new words to the existing music, he is obviously limited in the picture painting that he can create. He does, however, make a particularly sturdy feature of the repeated interjections—-auf, auf—-in the context of ′rising up′.

The middle section deals principally with the Saviour′s blessings and our responses and, whether by good fortune or not, the two sections of imitation between the oboes and violins are well suited to images of dispensing Divine balm, albeit in a context of some restraint.

Alto/tenor aria.

The oboes are given a rest for the alto/tenor duet, but the strings are kept busy.

The souls have been roused and instructed in their duties which they now fulfill—-we thank and praise You with our lips—-the Saviour comforts us and strengthens the dissenting church. This is a rather odd line to include in a cantata of worship in a conservative trade city. We certainly come across rages against infidels, the Pope, Jews and heretics (see C 126, vol 2 chapter 39) but a reference to the church militant is most unusual. Perhaps it was acceptable within the context of allusions to Mankind in conflict under the protection of Jesus the Uniter.

But whatever the politics may have been at the time, there can be no doubt that this is a wonderfully jubilant expression of praise and singing. The text calls for songs of joy and the singers give them to us (and of course, to the Saviour) almost without break. It would seem that Bach himself may have been caught up in the sheer infectiousness of the movement for he completely ignores the obvious place where he might have ended the first section (bar 54) and carries on, resetting the same words for nearly forty more bars! The violins have a persistent figure, sometimes alluded to as ‘Baroque sewing machine music’, but the constant interaction between instruments and singers ensures that one does not tire of it. The emphasis that Bach is able to give to key words in this section highlights the linked concepts of gratitude and offerings.

The middle section takes us on an excursion through related keys but never at the expense of the energy. Bach manages to work in further moments of emphasis, in this case (again) at the mention of songs of joy and, secondly, the comforting appearance of the Redeemer. The da capo return is achieved with great subtlety as Bach, perhaps realising that the movement was already of a considerable proportion, completes the middle section with a truncated version of the ritornello before reverting to the original vocal entry.


The chorus, like the two arias, begins with a militantly major ritornello theme recalling the two oboes. One oddity about this cantata is that this and the first aria are both in 3/8 time, a sign that Bach had deliberately set out to exploit the physical and psychological impact of the dance, clearly appropriate to a cantata of celebration, be it secular or spiritual. In fact the rising scales and hornpipe-like rhythm of the chorus remind one strongly of the bass aria from C 66 heard the previous day and both movements, in general terms, are about the raising to heaven of songs of gratitude in return for Christ′s comfort and compassion. In a sense the meanings could be interchangeable and so it is hardly surprising that they have marked musical similarities. Even so, it is unusual to find Bach repeating himself in this way and particularly in works presented on, if not originally composed for, consecutive days.
   Extract from C 66/3 followed by that from C 134/6.

The legacy of the dialogue cantata is again clear in this chorus. Much of the writing is for two voices, with the tenor and alto predominating while the four-part textures tend to be largely chordal and lacking in intricacy. Comparisons may be made with C 74 (vol 2, chapter 48) where Bach transcribed a duet (from C 59, chapter 58 of this cycle) for chorus and similarly in Cs 173 and 184 (vol 1 chapters 59 and 60). The fingerprints of the earlier scores are manifestly clear in all of these examples and are also to be found in some of the secular cantatas.

Although some may find that this chorus lacks a little of the drive and invention of the aria and duet (a point possibly explained by the insistence upon broadly similar themes and the recurring time signature), nevertheless it is full of small delights. The moments of solo oboes, making their presence felt even within the ritornello theme, offer delightful nuances of colour. The extended alto and duets in the middle section are highly inventive even if the character seems a little subdued for the subject matter. The chorus interpolations are well judged, providing musical contrast and reminders of the fact that this is, after all, a cantata of communal celebration. The emphasis upon the Saviour as victor, and the comforts He affords us, are articulated charmingly but forcefully in the closing bars of the middle section.

The enigma remains, why no concluding chorale? Bach did not inevitably end a cantata with one but it was unusual not to present a hymn tune at least somewhere within the structure of the work. Perhaps we are driven back to the conclusion that, although he seems to do nothing without good reason, it is not always possible to divine what his intentions might have been. Perhaps we simply have to assume that he was still experimenting and testing the waters as to what might constitute the most effective structuring of ′well regulated′ church music.


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