Chapter 52 Bwv 12

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Chapter 52 BWV 12 Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen

Weeping, wailing, grieving, fearing.

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

The fifty-second cantata of the cycle for Jubilate (third Sunday after Easter).

The division of the violas into two parts marks this as another early work and Dürr (p 307) places it as Bach′s second cantata to have been composed at Weimar in 1714. The casual listener may first be struck by the thought—I have heard this somewhere—before realising that the second movement is the basis for the Crucifixus of the Bm Mass. Here it is a section of a longer movement; in the Mass, partially re-written and transposed down to Em, the key Bach associates with the crucifixion, it stands as the central focus of the entire composition. Its history, therefore, stretches over three decades: from its inception before Bach had turned thirty, to its presentation to the Leipzig congregations in 1724, possible re-calls in the 1730s and its final flowering in the Mass from Bach′s last decade.

A great proportion of the texts Bach set for his first Leipzig Easter celebrations were essentially optimistic. The pastoral C 104, presented the previous week, revealed little of the suffering so often deemed to be an essential part of the journey to the Kingdom of Heaven. It seems that it is now time to return to the notion of anguish and distress and remind the good folk of Leipzig that salvation is not simply a gift; it is a rite of passage that has to be earned and the penalties for ignoring God′s word can be extremely severe. The first three stanzas of this cantata place emphasis upon this theme and we should, perhaps, be grateful that they did so as such sentiments often stimulated Bach’s most sublime music.


An excellent example of this may be found in the opening sinfonia for oboe and strings. Here the main musical interest is invested in the highly embellished oboe line, the sort of ornately baroque melody that we find in a number of Bach′s slow movements (the middle movement of the Italian Concerto provides a perfect example). Here the violins ′fill in′ the gaps with a repeated five-note figure that turns about upon itself, and the violas and continuo offer the essential harmonic support without intruding too obviously upon the oboe′s grief. The music migrates briefly to the dominant key Cm and returns for a full close in the home key of Fm.

There is practically nothing of major modes, and the serpentine meanderings of the oboe melody prepare the listener for the outpouring of grief expressed in the chorus that follows.


The original version of what was to become one of the best known religious movements in the repertoire saw life here as the repeated A section of a da capo chorus. Its text is concise and unequivocal—-weeping, wailing, grieving and fear within anxiety and torment, all these mark the very bread of tearful Christians. The contrasting middle section has one single line —-[those are the Christians] who bear the sign of Jesus. The division of the verse in such a way as to create a ternary form movement allows the composer to place maximum emphasis upon the miseries of Christian existence.

Bach′s choice of musical structure, the ground bass, was, for him, rather unusual. He was less interested in repetition forms, such as theme and variation and chaconne, than in those based upon organic harmonic development but, as the Goldberg Variations show, when he did turn his hand to them he showed everyone else how they should be done! That is also the case with the ground bass underpinning the Passacaglia and Fugue for organ in C minor.

The chromatic falling scale from the tonic to the dominant note (doh to soh) had already become a musical cliché expressing thoughts of death, misery and torment. Quite independently (and there is no evidence of Bach′s having known any of his music) Purcell used an almost identical idea as the repeated ground in Dido′s Lament from the opera Dido and Aeneas. In the chorus of C 12, this eight-bar idea is stated twelve times by the continuo beneath sustained weeping figures, often employing suspensions on the voices and bare chords on the upper strings, mostly on the first and third beats of the bar. The effect is sadly tragic and, if one did not already know the Crucifixus, one would find it difficult to imagine how this original version could be improved upon.

Happily Bach had no such inhibitions and it is worth spending a moment isolating the main changes that he made in adapting this music for the Mass. They are mostly details but they combine to invest the modified movement with an undeniably greater dramatic intensity.

Firstly, the bass line is changed from a series of minims to a succession of crotchets. This has the effect of creating a pulsating heartbeat as the very foundation of the music. Secondly, the four syllables of the word ′crucifixus′ invest the vocal line with a throbbing quality that the previous, more sustained phrases had lacked. Thirdly, the accompanying chords are now shared between flutes and strings, imbuing the soundscape with an ever-changing kaleidoscope-like colouring. And lastly, Bach changes the beginning and end. He commences the Crucifixus with one statement of the ground beneath the wind and string chords before the voices enter. And he ends on a magical and totally unexpected move to the major mode, pre-empting the joy of the resurrection without detracting in any way from the deep sadness and personal agony of the central event.

There are other changes, but those described above are the main ones that have cause to deepen the emotional intensity of the earlier version. (Readers might like to turn to vol 3, chapter 50 where comment is provided on a similar process of refinement of the Agnus Dei).
   The ground as it appears in C 12 and later in the mass.

The middle section of the cantata movement is slightly faster except for its final eight bars. It is less concerned with the misery of the Christian than the fact of identification with the Lord′s sufferings. The sense of affirmation is heightened by the motet-like quality of the music, instruments doubling voices throughout.

The ground bass section then returns in full to remind us of the sufferings sustained by Man and Saviour alike.

Alto recitative.

The brief alto recitative concisely encapsulates the essence of the cantata—-we must endure great hardship in order to enter the Kingdom of God. Still seeped in the dark shadows of Cm, the harmonies are spelt out in four-part chords by the divided violins and violas and the bassoon doubles the supporting continuo. The word Trübsal—-tribulations—-is heard four times, the first three carried by a sorrowful, falling, three-note motive and finally, with a trill that suggests the freezing of the blood.

Alto aria.

Now Bach indulges us with one of his most ravishing alto and oboe obbligato arias. The theme is the inevitable and natural (at least in this earthly life) unity of hardship and triumph—-cross and crown, challenge and prize; all unite as one, as do Christians with their torment—–and yet comfort is to be found in the wounds of Christ. This is the first hint we have had in this cantata of better things to come and that thought is, perhaps, presaged by the temporary movement from minor to major in the first two bars of the ritornello theme.

The remainder of the theme is dominated by a series of sequences, perhaps suggestive of the opposites that are bound together as one. But this thought is itself symbolically interrupted by the unusual cadence over bars 5 and 6, perhaps a moment to assimilate the realisation that whatever the challenges, comfort may still be sought in the wounds of Christ.

This interrupted cadence, incidentally, is one of a large number used and probably devised by Bach. The first movement of the double Harpsichord Concerto in Cm makes use of precisely the same unexpected hiatus; for the technically minded, it is chord V leading to a secondary dominant chord built upon the supertonic (second) note of the scale.

The aria is in simple da capo/ritornello form with the repeated A section focussing upon the uniting of opposites. The B section is more devoted to notions of Christ′s solace achieved through His agony as the melisma on Wunden—-injuries—- makes clear. The shiver of apprehension on the word Kampf—-conflict—first heard in bar 15, is not quickly forgotten.

Bass aria.

Unusually, Bach has three consecutive arias with no intervening recitatives. The second for bass, two solo violins and continuo is the work’s first in a major mode, despite being the fifth movement. The Christian resolution is now clearly affirmative; the necessity for torment in following Him has been acknowledged and now we need to confirm that despite this, we shall follow and not lose contact with Him. Bach has clearly taken the notions of ′following′ and ′adhering to′ as the starting point for his musical thinking as the two violins and continuo lines pursue each other in close imitation.
Opening bars.

The singer also enters with the same motive. The continuo throughout has an assertive quaver line which implies optimistic forward movement as the text declares—-I will follow Christ .and not desert Him—-in wealth or sickness, in life and death I will embrace and never leave Him.

This is a concise ritornello movement which simply sets the text against the positive urgings of the instruments and then stops. It has no need to repeat the message. Its succinctness is worthy of notice however; on the mention of the kissing of Christ′s abuse (from bar 26) there is a feeling of a contrasting middle section, the act of kissing actually suggested by the violins. But it only lasts a moment and we return to the original material a mere half a dozen bars later.

Tenor aria/chorale.

The third in this sequence of arias is for tenor and continuo and, despite its constructive and encouraging message, it returns us to minor modes. The reason is, however, quite explicable; the trumpet declaims a chorale which is itself a minor melody and that determines the mode of the movement. One cannot know which particular verse of this hymn, Jesu meine Freude, Bach may have had in mind but it hardly matters; a melody as well known as this must have struck strong resonances with congregations.

(Students who wish to study Bach′s harmonisations of this chorale may seek out Cs 81, 87 and 64. In the essay on the first of these (chapter 39 of this volume) some comparative observations may be found. Furthermore, a superb motet of the same name is based upon this tune).

Returning to the tenor aria, one notices that Bach has embellished the chorale slightly, though not enough to make it other than fully recognisable. Most of the changes are made to accommodate the harmonies generated by a continuo figure which gives the impression of being another ground bass, although that is not the case. The text is based around the metaphor of the garden—-after rain, blessings will bloom, all misfortune will seem as a trifle and the storms will pass—-be faithful and strong. The broken rhythms of the opening continuo melody may at first seem at odds with the call to be steadfast and resolute but to view it in this way is probably to miss the point of Bach′s approach to melodic structuring. The theme is clearly in two parts, one broken and one of continuous quavers (from the 5th bar).

In bars 5 and 6, the harmony also becomes ′resolute′ remaining on, and spelling out the chord of D7 for a full two bars. Most interestingly, Bach did almost exactly the same thing, also based upon the same D chord, in bars 3 and 4 of the sinfonia to C 18 (vol 1, chapter 43). And even more surprisingly, that movement was the prelude to a recitative which also talked of the rain watering the earth and giving rise to bud!

Bach′s mind moved in an extraordinarily complex way! And it is possible that he never really forgot anything that he had previously composed.

The tenor line of the aria proceeds, seemingly without regard for the trumpet chorale or the constant urgings of the five-note motive in the continuo. Its chromatic movement paints a graphic picture of the torments we need undergo. It also indulges in some complex bursts of semi-quavers when giving weight to fundamental concepts e.g. past afflictions, the trifles they become in proper context and the passing storms. Thus poetic metaphor, traditional hymn tune, the basic theme of the cantata and the efforts of the individual are all brought together in a seemingly unpretentious but beautifully crafted little aria.


The closing chorale returns to the major and its opening bars reveal the musical motive which Bach borrowed for the ′following′ imitations in the bass aria. It is very plainly harmonised, with a minimum of passing notes and chromatic harmony. It does, however, boast one important addition, a descant melody which might have been played by the violin or trumpet; or indeed both  in unison. The text is personal and affirms—-what God does is well done and I will be constant, no matter how demanding the journey—-God the Father will hold me in His arms and that is the reason I allow Him to prevail.

The added melody may be intended to represent God′s light and goodness resounding above all else. It does give the chorale a different character from those of the other cantatas which it also closes, Cs 69a and 144. Some comparative comments may be found in the essay on the latter of these works, chapter 41 of this volume.


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