Chapter 88 Bwv 208

Download in Microsoft Word format

Chapter 88 BWV 208 Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd

All that I love, is the merry hunt.

Recit (sop)–aria (sop)–recit/arioso (tenor)–aria (tenor)–recit/arioso (sop/tenor)–recit (bass)–aria (bass)–recit (sop)–aria (sop)–recit (sop)–chorus–duet (sop/tenor)–aria (sop)–aria (bass)–chorus.

A cantata of homage.

Composed in 1713 this is not, as sometimes stated, Bach’s first secular cantata; the civic cantata C 71 predated it by five years. But it does appear to be the first work, at least to have survived, which was composed as a part of the celebrations of homage to an important personage. Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels was, to all accounts, a keen hunter and so it would be surprising if a substantial composition presented as a part of his extensive birthday celebrations did not make references to this activity.

In fact the lyricist, Salomo Franck, bases the entire work, all fifteen stanzas, around it and there are clear signs of influences from seventeenth century Italian opera. The main characters are drawn from mythology rather than from real life. The alternation of recitatives and arias reflects the traditions of using the former for the advancement of the plot and the latter for contemplation upon, or consideration of, some of the key images and ideas. This gave Bach the opportunity of experimenting with the recitative layout although, as yet, he confines himself to secco movements with the voice supported only by the continuo.

But, as we shall see, when appropriate he makes the bass line a significant part of the musical texture, sometimes virtually raising it to the status of an obbligato voice.

His use of instruments in this work is particularly interesting. He has access to a large band, two horns, three oboes, bassoon strings and continuo but he only brings them all together, with a four-part choir, for the rousing finale. He prefers to use the instruments to provide a different and continuously varying soundscape and character for several of the arias: two horns for the first, continuo only for the second, three oboes for the third, two flutes for the fourth and so on. It is only towards the end, perhaps to provide the maximum of contrast with the ebullient finale, that he places two continuo arias together.

In a work of fifteen movements destined to last for well over half an hour, Bach was clearly aware that a variety of presentation of the numerous arias would have been welcomed by the audience!

Soprano recitative.

Diana, Goddess of hunting, opens the proceedings with a short but arresting recitative. Bach’s familiarity with the form may have been limited but he has already grasped the notion of its flexibility, particularly its potential for moving in and out of flowing arioso, a technique he was to make use of consistently throughout his career. The initial declaration of a love for the early morning hunt melds into a semi-quaver scale on the word pfeil—-arrow. The bass line adopts this rapid movement, clearly a representation of the winging projectile as Diana contemplates the agreeable target.

Soprano aria.

The scene has been set, quickly and efficiently. Diana’s first aria extols the pastime, linking it with nobility and the divine—-hunting delights the Gods and is also an appropriate activity  for heroes—-retreat those of you who mock us.

Two horns suggest the excitement of the hunt; they enter on the same F major chord with which Diana introduced herself, above the sounds of the arrow winging  its way in the continuo line.

The aria itself is slight and short, but Bach’s attempts to create unifying devices are noticeable. It is a simple ritornello movement in which the first half is largely repeated and somewhat extended (from bar 28).

Tenor recitative/arioso

Endymion, the handsome youth and would-be lover, provides what little there is of a plot. His recitative takes us to Dm, the key of his following aria as it asks of her—-do you forget me?—-have you freed yourself from the bondage of love?—-is the pursuance of hunting all you now seek? This final line is delivered with flowing scales in both parts, a musical reminder from the opening movements of the joys of hunting, just in case we have been momentarily diverted by his (rather unconvincing) love sickness!

Bach’s ‘in-joke’ should be noted in that from bar 11 the continuo line follows that of the tenor in strict canon, a clear example of musical ‘pursuance’; just as Diana chases the hunt and Endymion love, so does the one musical part follow the other. And since the continuo line persists at the end for a further three bars, it would seem that Endymion never actually catches up with it.

Tenor aria.

If there is any doubt on the matter, he presses his question more fully in his aria—-do you no longer delight in Cupid’s nets within the bondage of which one may cultivate the greatest of pleasures?

Although only written for voice and continuo, this is a much more fully worked out aria than Diana’s. It is in unmistakable da capo form with a clear middle section (from bar 21). The continuo provides a combined harmonic bass and obbligato line, its complexity suggesting the entanglements of Cupid’s nets. Although frequently repeated, the initial ostinato-like ritornello theme has an unpredictability which is totally in accord with images of twisting and knotting.

Soprano/tenor recitative/arioso.

One is more likely to encounter recitatives for two (or even more) voices in the secular cantatas simply because of the interaction between the mythical or metaphorical characters that form the basis of the (minimal) plots. Many of the recitatives for ecclesiastical use are overlaid with references to chorales and incorporate elements of ritornello and/or arioso to create a particularly non-operatic richness of texture. From his earliest use of the recitative Bach, presumably driven by his natural leanings towards highly expressive melodic shapes, saw the possibilities of forging it with arioso segments. But for the most part his secular recitatives are now less hybrid in structure than they later became, despite the frequent use of multiple voices.

The third recitative follows a similar pattern to the second; Diana states—-I love you still but I must welcome Pan (here a symbol representing the Duke) and celebrate his birthday. Endymion seems easily persuaded but perhaps it is because he is happy to join her on any pretext. The movement then proceeds to an arioso duet in which they declare to carry forth their torches of cheer and joy.

This section is twice the length of the introductory recitatives and is marked by the constant imitation of one voice by the other. But now no one leads or follows predominantly. They have become joint partners in this matter, further represented by the parallel movement of their lines, and, frolicsome though they might be, the musical structure reflects their union.

This extended section also has the practical purpose of separating two secco recitatives; Bach very seldom places them together, for obvious reasons.

Bass recitative.

Pan, part man and part goat, God of hunting and country music, now makes his rather imperious entrance.—-I, the God Pan, lay my staff down before the Christian’s sceptre—–famous Pan makes everyone happy and even the fields and forests laugh. Bach shows no interest in painting any of these images in the very bare melodic line. Not even the word ‘laugh’ is given any musical emphasis.

Bass aria.

Pan’s aria is supported by continuo and three oboes, a combination which Bach used on numerous occasions with the bass voice. It is a stirring piece in which he declares—-a Prince is the Pan of his country and, just as a body cannot live without a soul, so must a country perish without its most precious part, its prince and leader. Oddly enough, the cackling oboes seem entirely appropriate for the depiction of the goat-like Pan, although Bach did not feel the need to change the instrumentation when he reused the aria in C 68. He did, however, make a number of other alterations in order to accommodate the new theme and text, discussion of which may be found in vol 2, chapter 49.

One may, though, pause to wonder what the duke thought of the implied comparison between himself and a half-man, half-goat, albeit a God. Or perhaps there may have even been a hidden, and not entirely complimentary comment here that only Bach, Franck and some of their closest colleagues might have appreciated?

Soprano recitative.

Pales, Goddess of shepherds and sheep makes her entrance and by now the general structure of the cantata has become clear. It is less sophisticated than C 205, which Bach was to compose a decade and a half later (see chapter 91), in that it has become little more than a succession of characters introducing themselves with a recitative and thence proceeding to an aria. The latter either allows them to develop the scanty plot or delivers homilies that are contrived to please and flatter the prince.

Pales (a second soprano) becomes the next deity to declare support for the birthday celebrations and her recitative ends in a burst of semiquavers over a dogged quaver bass line on freud—-an expression of the sheer delight of the occasion.

Soprano aria.

Along with Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, Pales’ aria is perhaps the most popular of Bach’s cantata movements. Known as Sheep may Safely Graze, it was popularized by William Walton in the Wise Virgin Suite in 1940. Perhaps one of the most bizarre of its many arrangements is that by the Australian composer and pianist Percy Grainger, entitled Blithe Bells. It comes as a relief to turn to the original, more minimal Bach score written for soprano, continuo and two pastoral recorders.

This simple da capo aria has the quality of a restrained chorale prelude with Bach managing to combine a sense of rustic idyll with one of religious awe. Perhaps it is this combination of hymn-like melody with recorders acting as one instrument, all supported by a gently throbbing bass line, that has endeared this aria to so many. The message of the verse is simplicity itself—-sheep may graze safely under the shepherd’s eye just as a land may enjoy peace and contentment under a good ruler.

Soprano recitative.

Very short recitatives usually have syntactic purpose. That which follows for soprano (Diana) is only three bars long—-let us join together and make the day complete.


The first of the two choruses might have ended the cantata but for the fact that the main protagonists will all be required to ‘sum up’ in their own ways. The text is a conventional and general expression of contentment—-flourish our sun, as Diana watches at night and the forests turn green—flourish sun! The structure both looks forward and back. In one sense it has the sectional qualities of many of the formal models that Bach grew up with and which he himself adopted in his earliest works. But these are integrated within a clearly thought out da capo framework.

The A section begins with a fugal exposition based upon a descending scale, instruments doubling voices in the traditional motet style.

It ends with a slightly longer instrumental passage which allows the horns to return to their original F major hunting fanfare, discharged against the string and oboe adaptations of their original material.
             Horns above oboes.

In the short middle section, the writing for choir is more homophonic, set against occasional instrumental reminders of the descending scales. This movement marks an important crossroads in Bach’s development as a composer as he seeks to accommodate both traditional and innovative structural elements.

Soprano/tenor aria.

The three remaining arias allow each of the main characters to voice their final words. Diana and Endymion begin, appropriately, in a duet which proclaims their joint delight when the shafts of joy adorn the heavens and the prince revels amidst his roses. The union of the couple is encapsulated within the vocal writing, both voices moving together in parallel harmonies. Gone now is any sense of chase and pursuance; although the continuous quaver violin obbligato theme may still suggest echoes of the hunt and the flight of arrows. Despite the simplicity of the vocal writing, the movement is sophisticatedly constructed around the Italian operatic ritornello principle.

Soprano aria.

This aria of Pales is a little more difficult to deal with. It too was used by Bach in C 68 and it is much better known, and deservedly so, from that context. It would appear that Bach saw the unredeemed potential of the cello continuo line from the C 208 version and he added to it the splendidly joyous soprano melody that we all know. This makes Pales’ version almost unlistenable; even the words are dreary in the extreme—-while the wool-laden flocks are happily grazing in these fields, may the prince live happily.

The dance for oboe, violin and continuo placed at the end of the score is puzzling. Where should it be played? After the aria or following the concluding chorus? Bach solved the problem elegantly in C 68 by adding a full continuo line, which partly doubles and partly reinforces the existing cello, tacking it all on to the end of the revised aria. It results in a movement that is uniquely out of balance. But it also leaves the listener with the impression that the new soprano theme is so joyous that the composer simply did not wish to relinquish it.

It is difficult to argue with that!

Bass aria.

The final aria is for Pan with continuo. Its 3/8 time signature and dotted rhythms are particularly dance-like although the oddly truncated six-bar ritornello theme suggests otherwise.

The A section of the da capo structure calls upon nature to reveal itself and exclaim ‘vivat’. The B section, almost wholly in the minor, wishes the prince to live in prosperity and peace. It is an odd movement which seems, at times, to be at variance with its message. It contains a few rare and seemingly unaccountable dynamic changes from piano to forte and some even more quaint vocal trills. It has drive and energy and, on the face of it, seems to be a rollicking tribute to the elevated personage.

But one cannot help feeling that it may not be quite all that it seems.


There can be little doubt that the final movement demonstrates something of the composer’s potential for writing massive commanding choruses; this one is certainly leagues ahead of that which concludes the otherwise excellent C 205. Bach’s sensitive orchestration is apparent from the opening bars where the themes are imaginatively passed amongst horns, oboes and strings. The hunting horns make their presence appropriately felt; it is amazing how characterful and authoritative they can be, even when only repeating a low note as they do in the first three bars. Similarly, their joint trills (bars 12-13) are totally arresting.

The choral writing is direct and largely homophonic not, one suspects, through any lack of inspiration but rather through a desire to create an effect of one voice speaking for many. Additionally, it makes the words easier to understand. The writing in the middle section (it is a da capo movement) is broadly similar, except towards the end. The line of ‘conquering sadness’ is expressed through a most powerful passage of rolling semiquavers in the choir against phrases of the original ritornello theme in the orchestra, culminating in an unexpectedly powerful Neapolitan sixth approach to the final cadence. This is music of real authority and shades of things to come!

The only question about this fine movement is when to bring it to a conclusion. There are two stanzas, although whether they were both intended for the original performance or not is unclear. Different conductors have different solutions but Bach’s seems to have been to end the reprise of the A section before restating the original ritornello theme (bar 55). This has the advantage of finishing on a full, impressive chord involving everyone proclaiming the prince and princess’s names.

(Koopman takes a different view, playing it through twice fully and ending with a restatement of the ritornello. It matters little. It is a fine chorus and it is a moot point as to whether we can get too much of it).

As with a number of the large (i.e. over a dozen movements) secular cantatas, C 208 is not wholly consistent in quality. But it still provides much to enjoy and remains a triumph for an ambitious man, not yet thirty years old.


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