Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

-Sunday 11th July 2021- 6th Sunday after Trinity-J.S.Bach-cantata BWV 9-,Es ist das Heil uns kommen her‘-

Jul 5, 2021

1/ A choral ‘chorale’.

‘Salvation has come to us, through grace and pure goodness. Good deeds will no longer help us… …Faith looks to Christ… …He has become our mediator’

Key words:

‘Salvation‘, ,Es ist das Heil..‘

‘good works’, ‚Die Werk‘

and ‘faith’/belief, ‚Der Glaube‘

Salvation is the foundation of this opening movement.

However, energy is generated, centred in the tussle between ‘good works’ and ‘faith’, in their quest for that salvation.


Bach sets this up, with his orchestration:

Strings and continuo act as accompaniment, -sometimes using imitative strands, derived from the soon-to-be-named soloists- but mostly, they ‘point’ and manage ‘time’, throughout this concertante minuet.


he creates a scenario, where ‘GOOD WORKS’ and ‘FAITH’, take on an instrumental identity, -in this case, the now-named-soloists, flute and oboe d’amore. Who is which, what and why is unimportant. The two just become.

The beginning, of this becoming, is one of planting, growth and contribution.

Growing and climbing, inter-twinning, around and about each other, in unison, as well as in counterpoint, -their relation to the crochet time of 3-in-a-bar, is in seemingly fast moving semiquavers.

…’seemingly’, because the chorus, with its impressive arrival, as a florally decorated chorale with pronouncements of SALVATION, in its soprano part, are in long notes, of mainly 3 crochet beats.

This arrival acts as a strong brake, on the generous, perhaps even ‘out-of-control’ growth, -a creeping foliage- of FAITH and GOOD WORKS, that seem to be, trying their best to dominate the foreground, of the musical landscape.

The fussiness and triviality of these spiritual climbers and their quest for recognition, in the process of salvation, is an annoyance and a threat, to the survival of all.

Nice and pretty as our flute-and-oboe-climbers are, they can certainly be seen, but surely must not be heard? Somehow, a relegation, into the background of the musical undergrowth of this musical garden, must be achieved.

The important thing, is that the bedding plant of SALVATION, in order to make a good show, must certainly be seen and must, most certainly be heard.

Nevertheless, that top-heavy growth continues and Bach’s efforts to give them a good musical clip, round the lintel, comes to nothing.

GOOD WORKS and FAITH are unlikely bed fellows, and even in their fight for supremacy they seem to bed down quite nicely together.

Bed down they do, and in the process, are joined by the lower chorus, who are seeded, in the main, with Bach’s harmonic clips and contrapuntal cuttings, that drop to the ground.

Unfortunately, a rich under-belly of soil is attractive to anyone, looking for growth, and anything grows, taking root as it does, from alto to bass.

Feeding on those ‘imitative strands’ that drop down from above, they are thriving, in this musical environment.

However much faith you seem to acquire, it seems that good works, in that delicate process of Salvation, are a problem to get rid of.

Stubbornly, but attractively, they seem to grow and flourish in the very soil and conditions, that support that same salvation.

Even so, SALVATION wins out in the end, and FAITH and GOOD-WORKS are probably still, somewhere, slogging it out.

(See movement 5?)

A least sometimes, they do agree, as in 3 unusual unison moments, where they are, both, -albeit only for a few moments, not only fighting for that same ground, but actually together, -of course still fighting- on that same ground

2/Recitativo: ‘God gave us a law. We were too weak to keep to it and we went after sin. Our spirit stuck to the flesh and dared not resist it.

We should have gone by the law.

There we would have seen, as in a mirror, how wicked we are. We did not change and in our own strength, of course, we can not.’ ————————————————————————————

As always, listen for Bach‘s attention to the detail of the text:

,Wir gingen nur den Sünden nach.‘ ‘We pursued our sinful ways.’

,und wagte nicht zu widerstreben,‘ ‘and dared not resist it (sin).’

,Wie unsere Natur unartig sei.‘ ‘How wicked our natures are.’

‚Und dennoch blieben wir dabei.‘ ‘and yet we did not change.’

and finally…

‚Er mocht auch alle Kraft zusammenfassen.‘ ‘Even though he (we) summoned up all our strength.’

This one comes twice, the first, a keen, triumphant and successful arpeggio, -as if all will be successful,

and the second, a not quite so enthusiastic outburst, one faltering on a diminished chord.

3/Aria: ‘We had already sunk too deep, the abyss swallowed us…threatened us with death.

And yet, in such distress, no-one could lend us a helping hand. ————————————–’——————————————————————–

2-bar phrases, or two dotted semiquavers to one beat, gives to start with, 3 phrases, and then one long 12 beat phrase.

A sinking and feeling violin, drops right down, into this abyss, -and all in just one phrase. It takes a further two phrases more, to even begin to find the will, to find a way out.

There then follows an enormously long, slow, tedious and concerted effort -and this in itself faltering, stuttering and intermittent- to begin to try to get out of this abyss.

There is indeed no-one to give a hand,

-not even our singer, who sinks, as far down as he possibly can, right down to low D# and then, even lower down, to that low down D natural.

He wallows around, in that mire, a little more, and then, even for a little longer more.

Again, our violin, does the same, again, with an exact repeat of that first tedious, sliding descent down that slippery slope, followed by the equally faltering ‘depth-charged’ ascent.

Then, amazingly, at the next tenor entry, -as if in anticipation of any sort of helping hand reaching out at all- he begins to vocally inflate, rising up, like a hot air balloon.

That imagined hand, is tinged with Bb, a sort of reference to the flattened supertonic. (very uplifting!0

We really are in trouble.

Nevertheless, with a textual repeat, he does manage a top G and eventually, at the end of this mammoth effort, even a top A… and with more hot air and fair wind, his next bout of G & A’s do sound more convincing, he…and we, almost believing that a hand is actually there, reaching down.

This abysmal abyss is almost counteracted by his really abysmal efforts to raise, perhaps even permanently, the heights of his own tessitura .

Unfortunately, our violinist is having none of it, and immediately pulls the chord, releasing hot air everywhere and along with that, all those dizzy-heights of imagination. Despite a brave effort to remains in those heights, he sinks, like his highly strung partner, back into that sticky mire.


‘But the law had to be fulfilled.

So came the salvation of the earth.

The Son of the Highest, fulfilled it Himself and in doing so, appeased His Fathers wrath.

Through His innocent death, He let us purchase help.

Whoever trusts him, and whoever builds on His passions, shall not be lost.

Heaven is chosen for those who bring true faith with them and fling their arms around Jesus.’ ——————————————————————————————-

Every phrase and even, if not every word, but certainly many words, in this recit, -and probably all similar by Bach- are carefully hi-lighted and coloured, by Bach, with harmonic or rhythmic gesture, or both. Even the direction of the line, -up, or down- is not by chance.

A close look at the German, along with the score, will always be a revelation…

The exact meaning and in many cases, a hidden meaning, or Bach’s, or the poet’s ‘take’, or wisdom, on the sense of the whole, is always ‘worth-its-weight’, as any recit can be a summary, or commentary, on the proceedings, so often a rudder, that can turn the ‘action’ of the direction, or act as a curtain-raiser to what follows, chorus or aria.

in the final line of this example, Bach slips, so naturally, into ‘arioso-mode’, – a half way between the essence of spoken words and the essence of sung words- turning the ‘flinging of arms around The Saviour’ into a restrained dance of love.


‘Rather than looking at our good works, You, God, look at our heart -and its strength of faith.

Only faith is acceptable to you, in justifying us. Everything else shines poorly and doesn’t help us.’ ——————————————————————————————-

Flute+oboe return with continuo…and two soloists, Soprano+Alto.

This is no duet, or for that matter, a return bout, after that opening movement -of fierce contested and close fought growth and delicate trellis-work truth- but a quartet, -albeit complicated on many levels- with continuo accompaniment.

It could even be described as a quintet, but it is not really totally integrated. The bass line does not, -except at 24, and then only for 9 bars- contribute any borrowed or imitative part, to the fabric of the sound, other than simply continuing to ‘point’ harmony and rhythm.

The opening ‘singers-duet’, a perfect canon for 10 bars, is joined by flute+oboe, at bar 32, and they too are in perfect canon, until they cease, suddenly, at 41, -and of course, all this is working together, with all other parts, 5 in total.

And so it goes on.

Much mention of, ‚Nur den Glauben nimmst du an‘, ‘Only faith is acceptable to you (God),’

In the middle section of the da capo, a change of season occurs.

The last 2 lines of text are repeated,

-‘Only faith is acceptable to You to justify us, Everything else is poor and doesn’t help us.’

and the texture drops down to an accompanied 2-part, as the parts double up in 2’s. The phrase length also changes by a factor of two, halving from 1-in-a-bar to 2-in-a-bar.

What is Bach suggesting to us?

From the start of this cantata, out of our three opening characters, SALVATION, GOOD WORKS and FAITH, only two now re-appear here, -SALVATION certainly established as winner, by the strength and impressiveness of that opening movement chorale, sung by the top soprano line- again in their alter egos as Violin and Oboe d’amore, -although, as at the start, who is playing what, is neither clear nor important.

New, appearing in the garden, and for the first time -and together, in a sung duet- are an alto and a solo soprano voice.

They take on, and are, the vocal mouth-piece, or voice of GOOD-WORKS and FAITH, although, again, who is playing which, or singing who, is unclear and unimportant.

throughout the opening chorus, No 1, SALVATION showed itself as broad and steady, whereas, GOOD WORKS and FAITH appeared decoratively fussy,

There, it was SALVATION that determined the pace and truth of all.

Here, nearing the end of this cantata, the situation, has moved forward.

It is GOD now, Himself, who is doing the determining, it is He who is doing the measuring, our hearts being measured in their faith, according to a measure, that He has determined.

all this is reflected in the complexity or the 4 (or 5) part musical weave.

The halving of the counterpoint, that thinning-out that Bach undertakes, in the middle section, is a telling moment, as a thinning out of notes and movement, a clear-out of noisy clutter, helps to clear the ear and focus the mind.

-remember Bach clipping away around the lintel?

The results is a lighter but stronger and clearer structure.

Is Bach suggesting a solution, to the problem, of GOOD WORKS and FAITH, -the one seemingly mysteriously and mystically elusive, to find in the first place, and the other, so stubbornly difficult to get rid of in the last- and possibly saying to us, through the music, and particularly, in its structure:

‘This is what it is like when they, faith and good-works, work together, under normal-life circumstances and if you allow God to clear anyway excess, the results may not be so counterproductive, but, in fact, they could be, although complex, extremely harmonious.’

From the text, it is clear that FAITH wins the day. (-of course, second to salvation!) The working-out of that is a process of counterpoint, or, a working-out, to the point of unison, and that with God Himself.


‘When, through the law, we recognise sin, it strikes our conscience.

Our consolation is that, in the gospel, we can take heart again and become glad.

This strengthens our faith.

We look, with hope, to the time, that God’s goodness has promised us, -the exact hour of which, He has concealed. However, we may be content.

He knows when it is necessary and does not deceive us. On Him alone, can we build and trust.’


The recognition of the existence of sin, is a key to strengthening faith.

Bach treats this section in a rather horrific way and almost as if it were a film score, -a testimony, perhaps, as to how seriously he viewed this text.

a grinding opening,

-a 2/4/7(lowered) chord,

reminds us of the starkness and brutality of the law, in that, it is nothing more than a cold comfort- even though, through it, we recognise sin.

This is followed by a vocal descent, ‘it strikes down our conscience.’

Listen for E major arpeggio of ‘Contentment’…or joy.

…and listen for the concern, transmitted through the harmony, at the news of the concealment of ‘the hour’ and ‘practice no deceit.’


‘Though it may seem, at first, that He is unwilling, let that not dismay you.’


Concern and uncertainty can be heard in Bach’s harmony.

Is it ever easy not to be dismayed, at first?

In the 5th line, despite the serge of optimism over, -‘…let His word be more certain for you.’- I detect more uncertainty, in an A#-A natural-A# tussle, this time, between alto and bass,

and a beautiful prepared, yet important ‘warning’ dissonance, at the ‘Nein’, of an uncertain heart.

-and still Bach is not convinced that we (or he?) has understood…or ’got-it’, the message and places yet another, and this time the final warning, at ,Grauen‘…

‘And though your heart should say ‘No’, do not let yourself shudder.’

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