Chapter 53 Bwv 166

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Chapter 53 BWV 166 Wo gehest du hin?

Where are you going?

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

The fifty-third cantata of the cycle for the fourth Sunday after Easter.

This is another new cantata composed for this cycle. Bach, never predictable, again refuses to be constrained by any one particular movement structure; there is, for example, no chorus other than the closing chorale. The reasons for this may very well lie within the text because the opening verse has a sense of uncertainty which, Bach may have felt, was conveyed more successfully by reduced forces. It is simply set as a short aria for bass, supported by strings and continuo, an oboe doubling the first violins.

The conciseness of the movement reflects the fact that the text is one of the briefest in the canon—-where are you going? The significance of the question relates to Bach′s choice of singer, the bass taking the part of the voice of God addressing Mankind. This contention is reinforced by the fact that the importunate bass also commands the single recitative, a mini lecture on the dangerously ephemeral pleasures of the world. The cantata may, therefore, be seen as a dialogue between God and the Christian, the former demanding of the latter a clear vision of his ultimate direction. The Christian muses briefly upon this thought, the general rudderless state of Mankind and the unexpectedness of death, whilst at the same time seeking God′s help in remaining steadfast.

Bass aria.

The opening aria is packed with musical suggestions of uncertainty and lack of clearly defined direction. This raises the fundamental aesthetic question: how does one communicate a sense of meandering or  ′unfocus-ness′ through music which, particularly in the eighteenth century, would be expected to have well defined forward movement? Or, to take another example, how to depict boredom or lack of purpose without becoming tedious or pointless? Bach, in keeping the aria very short (well under two minutes) was obviously attuned to the risks, but, consummate artist that he was, he goes much further in fashioning the images. The rhythms of both the instrumental lines and periodically, that of the singer, are fragmented and disjointed with rests. The ritornello theme is an odd and unsettled mixture;  three phrases each  of three bar lengths are followed by one of six bars. There is no hint here of the more symmetrical, steadying four-bar pattern.
   The opening three-bar phrases (oboe, first violins and continuo only).

There are three melismas, each of them different, on gehest—-the core of the basic question that God is putting. And finally, and most subtly, something which only God and Bach are likely to have noticed, the singer concludes his contribution, not in the key of the piece but in that of the dominant, F major. It requires the final nine bars of ritornello to lead us back to Bb, the home key! Even between voice and instruments there would seem to be some difference of opinion as to the appropriate musical direction to be taken!

Tenor aria.

The tenor aria which follows has not, unfortunately, survived complete but there are a number of reconstructions which enable us to enjoy it. The voice was to be supported by an oboe obbligato, continuo and one other instrument, generally thought to be violin (although Ton Koopman has produced an effective part for oboe da caccia). It is not difficult to determine the general pattern of the line, for it clearly was planned to enter half way through the first bar in exact imitation of the oboe. Similarly, the long notes in the existing part (from bar 4) imply direct imitation between the two parts. The added line can never be precisely as Bach wrote it, but it nevertheless provides us with the experience of enjoying an excellent aria.
    Opening bars of existing oboe melody.

The text falls into two parts, easily accommodated by conventional da capo form—-I think on heaven and will not give my heart to this world—-but whether I stay or not the question remains, Man, where indeed are you going? The first part of the text is dealt with in the repeated A section, the long melismas on denken—-thinking—-thus putting the emphasis upon a frame of mind rather than an action. As the middle section makes clear, there is still some doubt about the direction Man is taking and the pleas to humanity—-Mensch—-are emotional and sincere. The assertive continuo line does imply a sense of direction and moving forward, but it is still counterpointed against a long note on the word stehe—-remaining or standing fast.

It is a beautifully wrought aria with many appealing and expressive turns of phrase. Its momentum contrasts with the hesitancies of the bass aria implying that we are, in fact, headed the right way. But there are still sufficient musical intimations placed to remind us that mankind, as a genus, may not yet have fully discovered his sense of Christian purpose.

Soprano chorale.

There is, of course, good reason to pray for help in holding to the true path and the function of the next movement is to make this thought abundantly clear. The soprano sings a completely unadorned line of a chorale melody, not that which completes the work but one which presents a verse succinctly summing up the cantata thus far—-I pray to You Lord Jesus, hold me to my intentions not to waver until such time as my soul leaves this nest for its journey to heaven. The upper strings combine to provide an obbligato line of vigour and determination, urged on by steady continuo quavers.
   Strings and continuo.

There are numerous bursts of semi-quavers in the upper line, possibly suggesting the waywardness of doubtful thoughts but equally probably, poetic images of the soul′s passage to heaven. The movement offers an excellent example of Bach′s amalgamation of established forms; it is, at the one time, both binary and ritornello, aria and compact chorale/fantasia. Although not precisely the central movement of the cantata, it provides the key to its basic theme. The energy and resilience of the music suggests the resolve that the Christian requires when salvation should be his objective.

Bass recitative.

Assuming the bass′s recitative continues with the words of God, we note the sermonising tone but it is moderated, to a degree, by the colourful metaphors—-as the rainwater dissipates and colours fade, so do the world′s pleasures—-though many hold them dear to themselves, they should be aware that the last hour can strike both suddenly and unexpectedly. This is, of course, the cantata′s secondary theme: prepare yourselves in mind and spirit now and do not wait until the moment strikes, for then it will be too late. The movement is set throughout in minor modes adding gravitas to the message. Two melodic bursts of scales provide a limited degree of word painting, the first descending (bar 2), suggestive of flowing rainwater, and the second ascending (bar 4), providing a brief glimpse of the world′s pleasures.

Alto aria.

The second, third and fourth movements were all set in minor modes but with the aria for alto Bach returns to the major. The text reaffirms the message of the recitative—-take care when fortune laughs—–on this earth a day can quickly turn out quite differently from the way it appeared in the morning. Again, each of these ideas is taken as a basis of the two sections of a da capo movement. The instrumental support is the same as that for the bass aria, strings, a doubling oboe and continuo.

The mood of this aria is light and frolicsome, perhaps surprisingly so considering that the fundamental warning remains severe; or at least the consequences would be were it to be ignored. It is probable that Bach felt it necessary to lift the mood at this point since the previous three movements, although hardly tragic in tone, all had a somewhat bleak quality about them. Besides, the themes of the cantata, although meant to be taken seriously, are hardly wretched ones; we are simply asked about our intentions and warned of the general waywardness of Mankind and the specific dangers of not preparing ourselves for a good death. We can easily avert the horrors that disregard of this advice would bring about, and if we do ignore good counsel, then it is our own fault; no-one can say that we have not been warned. Bach, therefore, must have felt it both aesthetically and contextually entirely appropriate to place this jolly and almost pantomime-like movement before the closing chorale.

The key word that seems to have taken his eye is the ′laughter′ of fortune. This is pictured in the various oscillating semi-quaver figures in the strings (first heard in bar 2) and the long soprano melismas on the word ′lacht′.
   Upper strings, bar 2.

It is probable that Bach intended these references to be interpreted ironically; true fortune might be laughing but what it has to offer us may well be misleading; it may well be laughing at us rather than with us. This feeling is strongest in the middle section where the minor modes and gently mocking falling figures on the upper and lower strings combine to suggest a satirical picture of earthly events, one where the sudden falling of the axe could always catch us unawares. Bach′s own experience of continual bereavement throughout his life must have made him sensitive to the likelihood of unexpected tragic events.


The final chorale is almost stark in its elemental simplicity. Minor mode, and the almost complete lack of passing notes (except in the final phrase) combine to endow the cantata with a particularly austere ending. The text brings to the listener′s mind C 8, the as yet unwritten cantata from the second cycle—- when, Oh Lord, will I die? (Vol 2, chapter 16). Here the sentiment is similar if a little more anxiously phrased—-who knows when my ending will come—-as time passes the death agony may come upon me with great swiftness—-I pray by Christ′s Blood, make my ending good! There can be little doubt that the natural fear of death, as here expressed, is a reminder that some will still waver when it comes to consideration of our prospective progression to heaven through the grave. This aspect of uncertainty was, indeed, the point at which the cantata began and it seems that, unlike several of these works, the matter has not been entirely resolved. There is little of the benign and passive acceptance of sweet death in this verse.

Students might like to compare other of Bach′s settings of this chorale, although they vary in detail only. A third higher and harmonised somewhat more ornately, it ends the secular wedding cantata C 197 (chapter 75). In the same key and with a few minor alterations it also closes Cs 88 and 84 (vol 3, chapters 18 and 37). Clearly it was a well known and often used melody, attested to by the fact that two different sets of verses were assigned to it.

The bleakest version, however, remains this one for C 166, a cantata that reminds us of Man′s natural apprehensions about death, whatever reassurances his church and his religion might offer him.


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