Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

-Sunday 18th July 2021- 7th Sunday after Trinity-J.S.Bach cantata BWV 107-,Was willst du dich betrüben.‘

Jul 12, 2021

A 7-section-‘choral’-cantata, with one recitativo and an embellished chorale, front and back.


‘Why are you distressed, O my dear soul? Devote yourselves to Him who is called Emanuel. Trust in Him alone. He shall make all things good and promote you affairs, so that you will prosper.’

A chorale fantasia.

2 x flutes, 2 x oboe d’amore, Strings, chorus and continuo, with a single Corno di caccia, -hunting-horn, to strengthen and reinforce the chorale line, -and which makes no more appearances in this cantata, until it appears, in a similar use, during the finale movement.

Although assuming that vital role, it is mostly unknown and largely unheard, a bye-product of this anonymity, being its part in a certain flavour, of orchestral colouring, -a factor towards grasping an understanding of the implication of the words, in this setting- a blending of sound, not unlike setting the stops on the organ, -registration, reflecting a blending of words, and sometimes, importantly, in this cantata, a blending of musical themes, drawn from throughout the work.

As always, after a first hearing, of the whole and after of course, a first reading of the text, is always of the music, -how it sounds and, after that, the big question:

Why does the music sound the way it does?

The answer, to that question, is obvious…. instrumentation, rhythm, etc, so, to re-phrase,

Why did Bach set this text, to this music?

Why did he decide, -or to put it into a more mystical language- why was he moved, or inspired, to write this music, in this way, to this text?

This line may go some way to answering that question:

,O meine liebe seel’,

‘Oh my dear soul’,

Such a line may have been the trigger that energised the direction, motion and mood, for Bach.

A possible rich orchestration is channelled towards doubling, -flute 1 and oboe 1- followed immediately and imitatively, by flute 2 and oboe 2, but only for 2.5 bars- doubling, similar to that, I have already highlighted, in the case of the horn.


-flute 1 and violin 1 and flute 2 and violin 2,

until 5.5.

Listen for the vital violin ‘B’, high up, as this, when it drops, sets off the rising winds.

The mind is challenged as the mystery unfolds.

Then, 2 flutes with discreet strings, -no continuo, enjoy a ‘concertino-moment’, followed immediately by oboe/flute doubling, and then the same pattern.

The mixed, or doubles sounds produced, give a sense of duality, and then another duality, of that duality, perhaps, a ‘Quad-ality’?

This ‘buzz-word’, describes a situation, where, our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual realities, exist, simultaneously and equilaterally.

We experience all four, of these ‘dimensions’, simultaneously, -and yet, can be aware, as well, of each of them, individually.

As Bach considered this text, in his head, and working away, through his spirit, he surely begins to express, in music, his own soul and not only the whole of it, or the surface of it, but also, the parts of it, some parts of it, like our elusive hunting-horn -seen but no necessarily heard- remaining mostly unknown throughout…. although colouring the whole and being coloured, by the whole.

He, his soul, expresses the text, from many view-points, all at once.

The doubling of the same notes doubles, for the the doubles, of the soul.

All this is reflected in, slow moving and creeping, dark, tasteful, meek, but penetrative, ethereal music, imitative, decorative, and ascending, at first, then, -with its varied accompaniment and allusions to the soon to be heard choral melody- setting off, on its journey, towards union, with the approaching choral presentation, of the text.

It twists and turns, itself navigating its own implications, by following those same implications, its own rudder, so sensitive to its own leanings and rejections, those dissonances, pushing through, as they do, until they find something, or anything, in common with something, or anything, to cling to…. by then, of course, its far too late.

It chooses its own destiny.

How soulic.

As the chorus eventually steels in, with its soprano up-beat… +horn, of course, time is shown to be moving too fast, and the rhythmic rhythm, -despite its semiquaver foreground, is forced to acknowledge, a slower moving pulse, with a controlling dominance, that is affecting foreground -and background activity.

We pull back.

This is beautiful and yet strangely unexpected music, profound, thoughtful, even haunting, slowly and carefully, unpicking and pulling apart, seemingly, strands of, cerebrally based matter and thought, -not all of it, though, simply a matter of fact.

The ‘break’, on the movement of time, is giving us time to assess and reassess.

Profundity is difficult to talk about in any words, and in any times, -particularly in these times, but try we must, if this music, as we and Bach understand it, -with all its unique and vital properties, physical and metaphysical, as illustrated by this one example alone, is to survive, ‘ere, a moment longer.

Listen for the last note of the chorus, which holds on for a full 2 beats, a long time, while the orchestra, continues on, almost oblivious, to their ending. The last notes smudge those last lowering and rising lines in a way that says again, something of the soul with its layers and its depths and its life.

2/Recitativo: -the only one in this cantata-

‘God forsakes no-one, who trusts in Him. He remains true to His own who trust firmly in Him.

If things seem strange, do not be afraid. With joy, you will see Him deliver you.’

This is all about the soul.

Even so, two oboes are on hand -not only to bridge those vocal gaps, or caesuras, but, like a beating heart, they remind us that, a soul, in order to be anything at all, must have a heart, to be party too.




get very florid, -melismatic even, treatment, almost, finally, turning, easily and naturally into arioso.


‘You may stake your life on Him, with fearless courage.’

The un-a-frightened-heart, -a result of God’s busyness, in being true to His people, is represented, with scurrying semi and demi-semi-quavers, in and on, two violins and first heard, in a rhythmically-diminished form, during the long continuo up-beat, then to be augmented, into top place, first violin.

-and all this, now taking place, in an opera house, that Bach has dramatically, yet mystically, created in our midst, transporting us into its seats, almost unknowingly.

Listen to the vocal-emphasis on ,erjagen’, where the German has a double meaning, ‘achieve’ or ‘hunt’.

Is the significant?

-and also, at the end, and three times over,

‘His decree is final.’


‘Even if Satan himself should come-up against you, from hell, and rage, in front of you, he will be mocked and forced to abandon his intrigues and wiles, with which he hoped to catch you.’

‘God supports your cause.’

With typical devilish devilment, the devil introduces himself -and that, with an angry ‘cello’ between his legs- by somehow dancing, as well as playing, a dastardly dance, -and that, nearly a bare-boned-solo, lacking any real fleshed-out continuo support- -and, of course, with a dastardly difference:

a bar of 2, followed then, by a bar of three, this all repeated..

and then,

6 bars of 3… and all this, in three time!

How irregular and unpredictable.


All this then gets going, yet again, -although, again, on a wrong footing.

‘Is it 2 time, or is it 3 time?’

He continues his dastardliness, dancing what has, again, already been blocked out, choreographically speaking and for a second time.

And now, yet again, our singer, narrates for us, -incidentally, with a vocal entry, that inverts the opening downwards ‘cello arpeggio upwards, immediately setting up conflict- that same sorry, sad tale, of the devil’s devilish downfall.

There is:

,entgegenstellen’, ‘opposition’ (to you = us),


,toben’, ‘rage’, or romp, (or rant?) and most probably rave(ing).

and, of course, much ,Spott‘, or ‘ridicule’

and all this yelled out to a poor and rubbishy tune, full of bad and awkward, angular leaps and uneven phrases.

Especially bad is:

,Von seinen Ränken lassen‘, ‘abandon the wiles.’

Yet, the worst is saved till last,

‘For God supports your cause.’

This sticks so much in his gut, that he just cannot stop himself yelling and screeching out, in high pitched notes, barked-out on the last two beats of the bar, of course, totally in the wrong place.

I wonder how many Beckmessers there were in Bach’s church?

Like Wagner and Beckmesser, Bach has made the devil look like a fool, because he is made to sound like a fool.

Beckmesser is caught out, because his music is badly conceived and because, he has a wrong self-image.

But, as is usual, it is Bach who has caught both of them out, by 140 years and out-done, sung-out and un-sung, the poor old devil himself.

The final vocal entry is a direct copy of the opening ‘cello arpeggio… albeit starting one tone lower, on D.

-Some sort of uneasy alignment has been reached, perhaps?

…the devil it won’t last…


His honour, our salvation.

Hovering over these two, is a sense that, what is not to be, will not be and must remain unfinished.

Two oboes come forward to take up the roles of these two noble attributes, honour and salvation

Long phrases-

but within them, much ambiguity, as to a beginning and an end, especially in the first bar.

There is a certain halting-ness about them, speaking perhaps of a long and difficult job ahead.

They weave and meander, around and about, and each other, both dependent, for strength and nourishment, on each other, crossing parts, significantly in the final bar, just before the soprano entry.

At that vocal entry, -incidentally, an embellished version of the opening chorale, oboes, with spiky quavers, deliver staccato-like pokes:

‘He disposes, (Er richts‘, ‘He judged,’) things to His honour,’

The only time this will happen again is at bar 17, a very similar textual moment:

‘But what God would not have,’

-surely a nod towards God’s ability, -and at any time, to cut short, exactly what He wants, to cut short?

Then, at:

,Solls sein‘, ‘if it is to be,’

the voice seems lilting with sadness, the lack of continuo perhaps reflecting Gods sadness, at his own, very necessary decisions?

Those of you who are attuned will realize that, the last vocal entry, is an exact quote, or copy, of the last 6 notes, of the chorale, from the end of the first section,

‘What God wills, that is done.’

its first appearance, in that first section, you will remember, set to the words:

‘So that you may prosper.’

These two, added together, sum up God’s plan.

Was Bach aware of this?



‘That I surrender myself, is up to Him, I shall only strive for that which He approves… His will is the best way, however He may act.’

Dance-like flute and muted violin, -this time, are in perfect unison, throughout.


Again, organ registration is in the air, but also, there is surely, an obvious, cooperation of mind, humanity and spirit.

(Movement 4 is a good example of non-cooperation)

‘Nach nichts’, ‘after nothing’(I am striving,’)

He sings, as he skips, as he sings along, -incidentally, to the exact same devil-rhythm of the very opening of section 4, freed, of course, from its devilish lilt, now, song-like and festooned, with a click-of-the-heels, the second group of 4 semiquavers, accented in some bars delivering this.

There seems no end, to his joy and composure, Bach even allowing him a considerable time to reflect on ‘,Drauf wart‘,


‘wait for it.’

and again at

,steif und feste, ‘stiff and firm’


rigidly and steadfastly, (I believe.’)

The last line,

‘..however God may act.’

is too cleaver for words, but not too clever for Bach, who sets it 6 times, with such an unspeakable skill, in 3 long phrases.

Every wanna-b should take note, and a close look, at this… and then see, (and ‘ear), if he still wants to even b, just a wanna-b’.

7/chorale (an accompanied prayer)

‘Grant, oh Lord, that I may sincerely, all my living days, increase your honour.’

All personal required now, -including poor old and forgotten horn, for this, a swift, committed and pastorale, siciliano accompaniment, for this really heart felt prayer.

-although Bach does not, even in the slightest, wallow in his, or anyone else’s emotions, as he knows how damaging this would be.


He gets straight down to business with an an introductory ritornello and although sounding as if his oboes and flutes have been replaced by sackbuts and shawms, on and off he goes, straight into the heart of the musical matter, the text, making a heroic lunge towards ,Ehre‘ or ‘Honor’, and of course ,Leben lang‘, ‘living days’, complete with a nice long G# -clashing nicely with F# and A#.


And then, a terrific, ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’, -a sort of doxology, with a stunning and daringly well prepared dissonance, one of Bach’s best, I do believe, so good, that I am certain it must surely have made, at least, some of the congregation, wince on their wafers.

Then, on to

,Gnaden‘ or ‘Graces’

-or mercy

and then,

,Schaden‘ or ‘damage’ or harm,

‘Avert distress or harm.’

and finally

,gepreist‘, ‘praised’

which, like the final word of the opening choral, carries on, and on, blending into and over into, the muddle of the sound of the orchestra, hovering as it does and eventually landing, just in the nick-of-time, nicely onto B major, a D# making that so important tonal difference, so ‘not’ present, in that very mystical, opening movement.

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