Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

-Sunday 4th July 2021-5th Sunday after Trinity-J.S.Bach-cantata BWV 88-,Sieche ich will viel Fischer aussenden‘-

Jun 27, 2021

A two part cantata, 3×1 -the first movement of which I am going to deal with in two halves.

and ,nach der Predigt‘, 4×1, -the opening recit, being in two clear parts.


Parte Primo:

1/Aria: first section-Vivace. -opening text:

,Siehe, ich will viel Fisher aussenden, spricht der Herr, die sollen sie fischen.‘


I want to start, by taking a look at the words from the opening to Part 2, movement 4, and the the Gospel text, for this particular Sunday, as they, together, form the textual heart of this cantata.

Luke 5:10, for instance, says:

And Jesus said unto Simon, ‘Fear not. From now on, you shall be catching men.’

Infact, a thoughtful reading of the first ten verses of Luke, ch 5, will set the scene. All the elements, -words or themes, that will appear in the written.. and un-written musical narrative, are laid out.

Here they are:

-the lake (of Gennesaret), -the boats, -the fishermen, -the nets, -the men, -the man (Simon-Peter), -his disillusionment at catching nothing, -his compliance with the Christly command to ‘let down nets (again) for a(nother) draft’, the fish…. -and their, all the men’s astonishment, at the vast size of the catch, -and Simon-Peter’s strange response to this, identifying himself as a sinner, which Jesus interprets as fear, -and finally, the famous Christly mandate, just to simply ‘fish for men!’


Now, back to the very opening text:

Jeremiah and the 16th verse of the 16th chapter, word for word:

‘Behold, (Listen-up!): I will send out many fisherman,’ says The Lord ‘-and they shall fish them.’

This gives even more clues as to just exactly what God is going to do with these fishermen.. or fishers, as they have now become.

In combining all this information together, -Jeremiah, the actual, and Luke, the implied …if you like, we now have a sense of the raw materials that Bach had on his mind and in his heart, and at his disposal, as he began to put pen to paper.


Now to the Music:

What then transpires when that pen starts to write on that paper, appears, not as a chorus, but as an solo aria, -and that in two distinct parts, with two separate and contrasting texts, although both taken from that same Jeremiah text. -probably set for single bass voice as traditionally the voice of Christ…or God, Vox Christi, was always set so.

…remember, I am, so far, only dealing with the first half of this movement.

To support all this, musically speaking, a not so unusual combination of, initially, strings, with oboe d’amore x2 and taille (alto oboe) plus the usual continuo support, is set in place.

What then inspires in sound, as a result of that pen on paper, is nothing short of beguiling and sits and then stands, firmly, upon a rocking, pastorale-like, 6/8 motion, where wave-like figurations, in the colouring of strings and oboe (d’a), rise and fall, peacefully and stoically, all of course in the manner of this lake scene and its watery-waves, which sometimes surge forwards, sometimes drag backwards.

The ‘rock’ derived from the pastorale theme, begins, with enthused and enhanced encouragements, in the form of shimmering semiquavers from a first oboe+violin, to roll, as well as to rock and Bach realises he must quell human passions:

fishing for game is not really on this Sunday’s lunch menu, -there’ll be no Captain Ahabs on this vessel, or indeed, any sort of lashings to that mast.

-And neither is love in the text, or in the air…. or on the waves, but for us romantically inclined C20th/21st humanoids, we cannot resist Bach’s 7th’s, suspenders and suspensions, as we react, with 200 years of history, on-from Bach. Nevertheless, something is in the air, as future arrangers like Busoni and Stokowski sense, only too well.

Pedal points pedal away, like pedalos, -sometimes pulsating, other times punctuating- but always energizing, as Bach looks for strong sea-legs to support those soon to be heavy and filled nets.

And indeed, as our voyage really gets underway, the weight of water and catch is getting seriously heavy, and Bach sets and trims his harmonic sails accordingly.

Repeated colours, although the same, sound and seem different, as inner parts, spar with each other, to change direction, interchanging with each other, as they do, across the staves.

Still, this is a gentle experience, albeit with expectations of solidity, substance and solace.

Light twinkles on those breaking waves and there resounds, throughout the whole, an inevitable security, -and that in a vast eternal sense, as the present becomes the now and the past and the future begin to fade away.

‘Brotherly- love’ transcends the fishing itself, and the orchestration, that weave that makes the fabric, breathes, as if, itself, it is’ becoming’, beyond the wind and the waves and the whole experience.

The horizon blends into the sea and the sky blends with the whole.

Everything dissolves into everything else.

Yet, all is still harmony, with a sense of counterpoint, -in so far as any familiar landmarks remain to distract us back to those previously heard figurations, appearing again across the stave. But, in reality, there is, really, no counterpoint at all.

Rather like the string, or the bulk, that forms those nets, they were all dropped into the water, in the preliminary act of fishing itself.

‘Inspirations’ and ideas that we hear and feel, in this listening experience, are drawn from the implied elements: the breeze, the wind, the ripple, the movement, the waves and their rollers.. are fashioned into figurations or units of sound an rhythm.

The text itself, under Bach’s genius, enables these to find themselves, ‘beings’, dropped into the mix. And within that musical mix, the lake becomes the sea becomes the oceans becomes the world, the blowing of wind instruments becomes the winds of the air, the scratchings and scrapings of strings, and the plinking’s, plonking’s and plucking’s of harpsichords become the energies of the movements of the whole, the boat becomes the foundation, the net becomes the word and the fishermen become the fishing-men and women, the mass of humanity.

Everything blends into everything else. Bach has become an impressionist.

The ‘astonishment-of-disillusionment, -a ‘no-catch’, becomes the joy and fulfilment of a ‘catching-on-to’ a new vision, one that expands to fill, not only the lake of Gennesaret, but one that overflows into the seas, the oceans -and eventually the vastness of the universe.

Bach goes out of his mind -and we are bound to follow.


This gently rocking barcarolle achieves all this and I suppose much more.

A nocturne to end all nocturnes and a sea idyll as idyllic as any and possibly the greatest water music ever written, -although no-one will believe me.

And certainly more watery than Handel, who doesn’t really voyage, he just boats. Water off a ducks back, in comparison?

Romantic enlargement to all this is evident to us as far back as Mendelssohn’s Venetian gondolier songs, and then again in Chopin’s Barcarolle, -one of the greatest gondola songs ever sung, although this boat is certainly canal bound…. and definitely Rimsky-Korsakov (Scheherazade) sets out to sail Bach’s boat right out onto the very high seas.

Notwithstanding Vivaldi and Vaughan-Williams, Britten and Debussy, Faure and Les Berceaux (op23.No 1) and even Wagner himself, Bach manages to capture something more, and all of the above owe of course owe something of their achievement to him.

But let us not forget Sibelius and his Oceanides, op73 ….or sea nymphs, a romantic enlargement, par-excellence, where not a single voice seems to be in sight, or sound, but lurking underneath, at least at first, and then in full view, some 3000 nymphs, -enough to shiver-the-timbers of any fisher.

Do you remember the twinkling lights on the tips of those waves..? and the passions that Bach had to quell?

Are these perhaps timeless moments, captured by Sibelius, but tastefully and timelessly first expressed and managed so sensitively by Bach?

As usual, he nods and waves from afar, but continues his journey, ever onwards.

Incidentally, within the Sibelius piece, you will hear the biggest wave every recorded in musical history.

The point is this- Bach predates, out-rows and out-sails them all.

-and of course, baroque and classical sea meant Venice and the med…. But Bach journeys in and on 7 seas and beyond.

It is worth remembering that, throughout this far, the text has been that same text.

I count 7 vocal entries, where Bach sets the same relatively small amount of text, in more-or-less the same word order, seven times and yet, there is so much variety.

Time does not allow a detailed look at exactlty how he does this.

-most probably with unimaginable and unthinkable tweeks and tucks, -figuratively and harmonically, especially in his middle section, where there really is a sense of sailing unknown waters wonders, seas and universes.

What is for sure, is that each and every word, with its accompanying music and line, will illustrate some, or other, or every, definite, or implied, possible and almost impossible, expression, implication of, or twist or turn of aspect and mood, -and that from any emotional starting point, finishing point…or vanishing point, of a word or a phrase.

Schubert and Hugo Wolf would..or may indeed have been impressed.

All this is what we call appreciation, both in him, the composer and in us, the listener. Without that, there would no discussion and no experience, commonplace or ecstatic.

The task of the teacher, is to teach this, planting what and where there is not and watering what there is.

Cosmic energy…. what Freud terms literally the Oceanic, abounds in this music.

We are drawn and taken long past fish, boats, commerce, men, women and thankfully the ocean itself.

Bach is a true mystic.

His visions are powerful. We are caught up and lost. All familiar navigational points of reference disappear and we are left with new ones, ones that cause us to re-evaluate, re-think and re-live… as we ‘re-find’ and are ‘re-found’.

This is a no-expense spared, First class cruising experience.

Bach has transcended himself, achieving not only his own potential, but everyone else’s, -bar One, as well.

My favorite poet puts it all rather well, I feel:

“My whole being falls silent and harkens, when the tender surge of the air plays about my breast. Often, lost in the wide blue, I look up at the ether and into the holy sea and feel as if a kindred spirit opened its arms to me, as if the pain of solitude, dissolved into the life of the divinity.’

Friedrich Hölderlin

Hyperion, or the hermit of Greece

An extraordinary piece of music that you may wish to return to again, both now and in the future.

The second half of this first number, continues, without any break, immediately .

1/Aria: second section- allegro e presto

Like Athena, who was born from the forehead of her father Zeus, suddenly and similarly, two horns are born, from two oboes of love, and two hunters are suddenly on-hand to play them, -the only time in this cantata they are seen or heard. What other instruments could possible be played by any self-respecting hunters?

We are transported, from water, straight into, or onto, the German countryside and back in time, a possible 13 years, to a world of Brandenburg concertos, and No1 in particular.

The ‘Romantic’ piece, par-excellence, for horns, is the Concerstuck op86, 1849, by Schumann, for 4 of them!

,Und darnach will ich weil Jäger aussenden, die sollen sie fahen auf allen Bergen und auf allen Hügeln und in allen Steinritzen.‘

‘and afterwards, will I send out many hunters, and they will hunt them on all the mountains and on all the hills and in the crevices in the rocks.’

The key-words here are ‘hunter’ and ‘hunt’ and the very difficult horn parts do their very best in driving this hunt forever onwards, towards the hunted.

Who are the hunted? Those unfortunates, cowering on mountains and hills, and in cracks and crevices, they do not seem to have any part, -or even a counter-part, or point, or any voice at all, in this fast and furious celebration of the hunt itself.

The words ,fahen‘, to look, or hunt, in this context,

and ,Jäger‘, the hunter,

are given a good outings.

Swiftly and quickly, we find ourselves making a timely arrival back at the Lodge, where the horns are again hung-up on their wall hooks, and we fin ourselves, just in time, for a short lecture on a ‘reprobate, or perverted mind.’


‘How quickly can God dispense with us, when a reprobate and perverted mind starts working within us.’

The last line, startlingly set by Bach, is a question:

‘Does he abandon us to the enemies of deceit and spite?’

…to which the next number provides the answer.

3/Aria: ‘No no! It is God’s purpose at all times, to know that we are set-on the’ good way’..’

A comforting ‘three-part’, that starts out as a ‘two part’, -tenon + continuo, then, tantalisingly, continues on as a different ‘two-part’, -continuo, now joined by a lone love-oboe, and finally, at 17, completing and fulfilling itself, all together, in fulfilment of the text, ‘..whenever we have strayed…He will even have us searched for.’

A three-fold chord is not easily broken?

By starting with voice and continuo only and delaying the arrival of the Christ-like oboe, Bach heightens the bleakness and lonely-ness of the reprobate or perverted mind.

As we might expect, Weg or ‘right’ gets a nod, as does ,Ja! Ja!’, in the middle section, with reference to ‘Yes, yes, whenever we have strayed…’, balancing, nicely the ‘Nein, nein!’, heard at the beginning.

The beautiful line, -searching in its wandering and constant embracing and embellishment of the potentially lost soul- is rewarded with its own Ritornello. In this, it looses its voice, but is rewarded by the reappearance of another lost soul, -that of the strings, whose reappearance, after an absence, is all the more heartfelt and all together, they dance the act out, the humble strings taking a subservient role in their very discreet and welcome accompaniment.

Absence does indeed and all the more here, make the heart grow fonder.

End of Part One.


Part Seconda:

4a/Recitativo: ‘and Jesus said unto Simon:’

…a very short ‘Evangelists’ recit, and this sung by and earnest singer, accompanied by sympathetic strings.


‘Fear not, for, from now on, You will catch men.’

Lone Bass voice, -minus strings- for reasons of ‘Vox Christi’.

An ostinato bass line contrasts with ordinary and then ornamental voice line.

The continuo encourages us to plumb the depths, in our catching and catch.

This section is marked Arioso, so there must be evidence of freedom of speech.

The ‘depth-charging-continuo is obsessive and continuo-ish, and this, in itself, gives voice, to encouraging a freedom of vocal movement, itself now pluming new depths.

Food for thought for Simon Peter, a man always associated with freedom of movement…and thought.

5/Aria Duetto.

‘If God Himself calls, then His blessing must rest abundantly on all our doings, -even though fear and care stand against us.’

Vocal duet this maybe, but the reality is, that here we have a quartet…. Strings+oboe, 2 x vocals + continuo… each and everyone of them contributing substantially, to the mix.

…and to start with, we have a nice two-part.

Space time does not, this time around, permit time to go, in depth, into the phrasing and its bar lengths, the counterpoint, -vocal and textual(!), i.e. which text is laid against which ,and why? etc, etc. And could our two voices be actually named ‘fear’ and ‘care’?

Listen out for ,Furcht und Sorg‘, and where eventually, they take a decidedly ‘minor’ part in the proceedings, where previously one had become a sort of bass line to abundant counterpoint.

In the middle section, we get a map of buried treasure and a lesson in economics. Listen out for ,Das Pfund‘

-and finally some gardening tips!

This is a fascinating, extraordinarily conceived and musically written aria, with an interesting text, one that needs a good deal of looking into.

It is a product of itself, and in that, it produces moments of extreme beauty. But is this just a product of Bach’s counterpoint and our modern eared interpretation of that, or is it just Bach’s genius?

And is it possible that those nymphs, so prevalent in the Sibelius, and only just under Bach’s surface, are here, and now, in this section, and at last, making their voice heard, fished and landed? Understandably, they feel somewhat disgruntled, wrenched from their natural habitat, now ‘free’, but stranded, with those old fears and cares and of course, digging and gardening would be a problem for under-sea dwellers.


‘What can frighten you in the course of your life, if, my heart, God reaches out his hands? Before His very wink, all misfortune retreats.’

There then follows a list of troubles that might befall you… -including the plague.

Another heartfelt moment and this time, to the heart itself.

Another word painting and mood colouring moment for Bach, and in this instance, one his very best.

Again, check the written notes against the German and note his care and attention to the mood, the phrase and the moment…. and particularly the optimism that is expressed in the music, from ‘go forth joyfully, at all times, despite the disappointing fact that this ‘going forth joyfully’, will inevitably involve hardship.


This text is a sort-of, ‘If you will do this.. -sing, pray, perform you tasks, faithfully, and trustingly, then I will do that… renew myself in you and not forsake you.

Bach captures perfectly the mood and the harmony of reconciliation and the process that is taking place, in us, when reading or singing this text.

Again, check the German to see, for instance, in the first phrase, how the music follows the mind in its train of thought, via singing, praying and finally walking, in God’s ways… -moving inner parts at ,..geh auf,‘ are telling.

A memorable but exhausting Sunday-morning experience, and yet, at journeys end, a simple and calming conclusion, to a personal voyage of discovery and calling.

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