Chapter 55 Bwv 37

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Chapter 55 BWV 37 Wer da gläubet und getauft wird

He who believes and is baptised.

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

The fifty-fifth cantata of the cycle for the Ascension.

Although composed for the Ascension, the joint themes of this cantata are those of the significance of baptism as a pathway to salvation and faith as its bedrock.

We have noted Bach′s habit of producing small groups of cantatas with particular elements in common. This, for example, is the third of five consecutive works in which he has centrally placed a ′concerto′ version of a chorale, other than the closing one. In C 166 it was for soprano and continuo, all upper strings combining to provide a muscular obbligato. In C 86, the most energetic and vigorous of the three, it was for soprano, continuo and two oboes d′amore. In C 37 Bach divides the chorale between soprano and alto above a lively continuo line. Perhaps the most bizarre versions are those for tenor and continuo in C 44 and the ′concealed chorale′ duet from C 172 (chapters 56 and 57). It seems that having adopted a particular idea or technique, Bach determines to see  how many ways in which it can be presented and manipulated before moving on to a different challenge.

Soprano/alto chorale.

The chorale lying at the centre of the third movement in this cantata is also used to close C 36, conventionally harmonised in four parts. In this work, however, Bach extends the phrases, divides them between the two singers and quarries the melody for motives to be used in other movements. It is, therefore, such a significant movement, both musically and doctrinally, that we should look at it before turning our attention to the rest of the cantata.

The continuo begins with a two-bar ritornello theme which is heard again in bars 12-13, in modified form (bars 23-4) and at the end. It is constructed from alternating groups of quavers and semiquavers creating a character which is both playful and assured. The theme is an adapted and embellished version of the first half a dozen notes of the chorale.
   Ritornello theme followed by first chorale phrase as introduced by the soprano.

The first three phrases of the chorale are taken by the soprano with the alto attempting minimal ′stereo′ imitations. The text states—-God, Father, Hero You have loved me eternally through Your Son. The word geliebet—-here conveying the fact of God′s love—-is extended over two additional bars (10 and 11) also, perhaps, creating a musical image of something that continues or persists i.e. the notion of eternity mentioned in the text.

This takes us to what would have been the normal double bar-line of the plain chorale melody. As we would expect, the first phrases are repeated but now with the alto leading the soprano. The words present a metaphor of Christ and Soul as Man and Wife, the extended bars (21-22) now emphasising the natural joy of that event.

Two bars of ritornello take us to bar 25 and the rest of the chorale is similarly dispensed, the text simply offering eternal praise in return for Divine love. For the final phrase, the longest of all, the voices combine with a melisma in sixths and thirds, a musical manifestation of the praise that is owed to God and a symbol of our union with Him.

Thus the movement encapsulates fully the sense of mutual love between Man and God whilst the remainder of the cantata stresses the necessity for faith and belief as fundamental prerequisites for this perfect union.

Opening chorus.

Bach returns to the practice of beginning with a chorus, although this was  not to be his inevitable choice as the cycle draws to a close. In fact, of the last ten cantatas only three, Cs 37, 172 and 194 begin with one although in other works they may emerge later. It would be interesting to know if Bach had, at this time, determined upon the scheme of composing a cycle largely consisting of chorale cantatas. If so, he may well have thought that some relief from large scale choruses might be appropriate at this particular stage; the young performers and the congregations would certainly be getting plenty of them when the second cycle burst upon them with C 20 in less than a month′s time! Bach might even have begun planning and composing them  at this stage, although it should be remembered that he had to present seven (!) cantatas in the month of May 1724 and that cannot have left him a lot of leeway for the production of other compositions. But this may well explain why not all of them contain choruses.

Whatever the circumstances may have been of the composition of the opening movement of C 37, there is internal evidence that suggests that Bach took great pains to integrate it into the fabric of the overall composition. There are numerous examples in the second cycle where it is indisputable that he took motives from the closing chorale and used them as the building bricks of other movements. Here he applies the same technique. The opening two oboe notes call to mind those of the first chorale, the descending bass scales (from bar 23) its final phrase. The repeated notes of the violin melody from bar 2 are a reflection of the first phrase of the closing chorale. Such subliminal references to recurring musical shapes pervade the entire chorus.
    Opening theme, oboe above strings.

And what a charming piece it is! Although making the point about the necessity of baptism—-he who has faith and is baptised will be saved—-there is none of the starkly dramatic energy of the later cantata C 7 (vol 2, chapter 4) which pictures the baptism of the Lord in the River Jordan. This is a genteel and gracious piece, a refined reminder to the faithful. There is here, no trace of the thundering voice of the Pastor or of God raging about our transgressions.

In fact, it almost seems as if Bach had intended to begin the cantata with a sinfonia and then changed his mind. The instrumental introduction takes up virtually a third of the entire movement and ranges through a surprisingly large number of related keys before settling back in A major for the entry of the choir. But such is the charm of the interplay between the oboes and violins that the misbalance is hardly noticed. A restrained choir, the writing formed around very simple imitations of the voices, delivers the uncomplicated message with dignity. It only occasionally takes up the violins′ lilting, repeated-note figure in order to highlight the significance of baptism and faith.

Having entered, the choir sings continuously until the end but with numerous subtle variations of texture varying between one and four voices. There being no instrumental episodes or final repetition of the ritornello, it becomes correct to view the opening twenty-seven bars as an introduction rather than a potentially recurring ritornello. But the listener should be wary of such terminology. This is not an introduction such as we may find prefacing the main themes of a Haydn symphony. In Bach′s case the ′introduction′ often provides all of the music material for the choir and large slabs of it are integrated with, and incorporated into, the choral textures. Note that every figure with which the voices enter imitatively has been borrowed directly from the opening bars; compare, for example, oboe 1 bars 9-10 with the first choral entry, the oboe motive from the second bar with bars 50-60 and the bass figure from bars 2-3 with bars 63-4 and 71-2.

Tenor aria.

It is always difficult to say much about incomplete movements; the first aria for tenor, for example, has a missing violin obbligato. It is not too demanding an exercise to reconstruct an adequate line, particularly when one notices that the first tenor phrase is designed to fit snugly over the initial continuo bars.
   Tenor entry superimposed over the first two continuo bars.

Clearly the important sections where the violin needs to carry the main material (bars 1-8, 12-14, 26-33 and 39-41) can be made viable by drawing on the tenor line with a little imagination. The tenor is kept quite busy and, particularly in the middle section, the obbligato instrument needs to contribute little more than encouraging wisps of colour (Ton Koopman, amongst others, has produced and recorded an effective reconstruction).

The setting is loving but gently assertive as the text reminds us that belief is Christ′s pledge of love for His people—-He bestowed upon us this prize when He enrolled us in life′s Book. As in the chorus, Bach′s interpretation of the text clearly emphasises the loving relationship between Christ and Man rather than the Day of Judgement terrors that dominate other cantatas (see, for example, the opening aria of C 168 (vol 3, chapter 2).

Bass recitative.

Following the central chorale discussed above, the bass has a paired recitative and aria. In the first he is supported by sustained strings and delivers the nearest thing to a sermon that we are going to get in this cantata—-Mortals, do you seek to look at Him?—-do not rely only upon your good works, even though you should do them—-but it is faith alone that assures our place of blessing before Him.

One cannot escape the conclusion that there is something of the stick and carrot about this text. The gentle reminders came first but were they enough? It appears that, like children, we still need to be chastised from time to time! A fleeting flourish on the violins marks the concluding words, a possible tentative echo of God′s blessings.

Bass aria.

After the rant, the homily—-faith gives wings to the soul for soaring to heaven, baptism the grace that brings God′s blessing—-blessed is the Christian who believes and is baptised. It says little more than the opening chorus, but it says it more colourfully. It also provides Bach with the opportunity to compose a highly attractive and spirited movement which, although remaining in the minor modes of the recitative, has an infectiously appealing gusto.

The initial musical interest is invested almost wholly in the muscular violin/oboe d′amore melody based around the notes of the key-chord b, d, and f#. The central chorale also began with the notes of its D major tonic chord but inverted i.e. a,  f# and d. Whether this is accidental or a deliberate reference one cannot say. The main feature of the lower string accompaniment (and here it is just that, not a counterpointed melody) is a rhythmic grouping of three notes, da-da-dah. This imparts a sense of urgency to the melody and persists throughout most of the movement.
   Opening ritornello theme and continuo.

The text begins with an attractive metaphor—-faith gives the soul wings with which to soar up to heaven. It also offers baptism as God′s seal of mercy and it ends by taking up the theme of the opening chorus—-the Christian who believes and is baptised is blessed. The ritornello melody does ′soar′ but restrainedly so. The opening bars feature little bursts of rising notes and in bar 3 the melody has something of the feeling of floating above all else. But Bach addresses the image lightly, his main preoccupation seeming to provide a forceful and convincing declamation of the main message, the need for faith being paramount.

An interesting feature of the movement is Bach′s resting of the doubling oboe at times as a means of varying the tone colouring.  Just before the end, the final emphasis upon the two key words faith and baptism is achieved in different ways, the one with a sustained note (from bar 37) and the other with a flowing melisma (39-41). There seems little doubt that the first is intended to suggest the rooted certainty of belief, the second the act of pouring blessed water.


The closing chorale is not one of the best known and was presumably chosen because of the particular relevance of the verse—-give me faith through Your Son and forgive my earthly sins—-You cannot deny Your promise to absolve me of sin and all its burden. The melody was clearly harmonised with this particular verse in mind as indicated by the grinding harmonies underpinning the reference to sin (bar 5). The opening line of this particular stanza—-bestow faith upon me—-would seem to preclude the possibility of using the minor note (g natural) in the second bar. But the final, extended three-bar phrase, buttressed by Bach′s flowing quaver bass line, is entirely appropriate for the expression of the concluding  plea—-free me of this burden [of sin].


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