Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

-Sunday 25th July 2021-8th Sunday after Trinity-J.S.Bach cantata BWV 45, ,Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist.‘

Jul 19, 2021

A bi-part cantata, 3+4, 2 x flutes, oboes, strings, chorus and continuo.


‘You have been told, Man (and Woman) what is good and what the Lord requires of you, namely, to keep His word, cultivate love and be humble before Him.’

An enlivening and motivational opening movement, transmitting vital and uplifting energy, -something within begins to respond to something without.

We must be careful, in our response, to any music, not to react, simply in our emotions, -mood, word or action and worse, maybe, with just one of those, or of the myriad of others, that may instantly and almost sub consciously, take our fancy, -and no-less so, with Bach, music originating from a time, now nearly 300 years ago.

This is actually, the defining cause of the predicament, that C20th popular music, finds itself in, at this moment, although, it is, blissfully unaware of that fact.

Music transmits something more than a simple response based either in ‘like’ or ‘loathe’.

The early C18th mind knew nothing of the many dominating factors, inherent now, in our own nature, which is centred, mainly, in that emotional response.

The question is not just, how should we respond? but with what? -the answer to this question, determining and defining, the depth and quality, of our appreciation.

A convenient starting point, to this inconvenient question, may be to consider something of how Bach’s congregation may have responded? -how would they have ‘heard’ the music? -and would they have ‘heard’ it, or understood it, in the same way as we do?

Even though these questions may be difficult to answer objectively, they are worth asking anyway, as, in asking them, they cause us to adjust and change, refining and sharpening our listening mechanisms and sensitivities, and ultimately, our appreciation.

We need to respond with something deeper and more probing, than just a raw response, centred in a raw reaction, as, after all, even Nietzsche tells us that, part of acquired reason, is a mastery of the emotions. (On the genealogy of morals. 1887)

Every instance is different.

In this instance, the place to begin, is with this opening text:

Keep His word, cultivate love and be humble before Him.


This is a tight, efficient and well crafted opening, and we must pinpoint and highlight, moments, that contribute, towards, that sense of enlivenment, motivation and vitality, elements of which, although they start, in the immediacy, of the moment, very quickly transcend this, -if we will allow them to- cutting beneath an easily grasped liked or loathed surface-like, emotional experience and drawing and plunging us, downwards and into, perhaps, unfamiliar and maybe disconcerting and uncomfortable surroundings.

The resulting and expressed response, must be to that, and that response, not in an exclusively emotional manner, or worse, to that emotional response itself, in a way, bypassing the actual music itself.

An understanding of the text must be the absolute start, and is necessary, as it shows us what to look for and where to look for it.

At the start, an opening ‘drop’, on flute, oboe and fiddle, G# E, is immediately counteracted by a strong, rhythmic, ‘motto’, on the other flute, oboe and fiddle.

This arrests us, captivating and activating enlivenment.

Quaver elements, in the ‘motto’, source an energy, as those top instruments ‘drop’, as well.

The scene is set.

Bach is surely showing us, what is good, God having already shown us, as the text says, that which is good.

This is then all repeated, in a seemingly ‘dominant’ tonality, -although we must, again, be attentive, not to use our C21st ears, brains and memories, with all their received and learned post C18th collectiveness, to push Bach and his music, through harmonic hoops and formulas, -or emotional reactions- just because they remind us, of similar, we may have heard before.

At 9, a persistent A# sounds so wrong, but IS so right, for a dominant B major. But is that really how Bach hears it, or how he wants us to hear B major?

Eventually, at 20, an E# initiates a consideration, towards F# something, -a dominant of B?.

But not really, for Bach, as, much more fun, is a bass A#, rising to a B pedal, setting us up for an E major choral entry.

Then, a dangerous, risk-taking D natural, although, perhaps inevitable, only heightens the resolve, to keep on pushing on, to E major.

The sheer movement and imitation of the part, a sort of ‘vibration’, of an intensely dense type, with similar, contrary, -at the same time and not, part movement- empowers the music, itself and ‘in-itself’, with drive, energy, and what could even be, akin to an ecstasy, an ‘electrification’, but this time, not a monster, of the Frankenstein type, made up of many parts, perhaps more of, a Golem type, fashioned, but mutable and whose previously, inanimate notes and sounds, have been enlivened and motivated, to life, although, not a hidden life, a shallow life, -an emotionally based life of fickleness, but one, not afraid to be reveal, a multiplicity of facets, that may contradict as well as supplement our own, perhaps emotionally driven first response?

-and all this going on, before the chorus, even joins in with the mix.

When they do, 5 times is stated, that opening statement,

,Es ist dir gesagt!‘,

‘He has shown you!’,

the German words, clearly announcing and articulating, the musical rhythm .

This happens again, although this time, a tone higher -and 5 times.

-and then all again, A major-ish, and all ending, on that longed-for E.

Listen out for sustained notes, holding on and through, meshing and strengthening the sound,

-so symbolic, of the principle of holding-fast to God’s word.

(see 111, below.)

After making his point, Bach gets going at 54, with fugal ideas, although these are far from frugal in construction and expression.

Every bar is worth a close look, with a view to colouring of language, by the music, and not least the ingenuity of ideas, -easy certainties and dangerous chances- that Bach must just thrill us with, -especially pedal note F# at 87, leading onto, -two accented passing notes, at 94, just before the rests the chorus.

Listen for, three times,

,nämlich‘ or namely,

the point where these three requirements of God, are to be laid out, this leading to 5 bars of sustained held notes, at 111, as I have said, symbolic of the German, at that point, halten’, ‘hold’, complete with a bass rise to D natural, and that, grinding with C#, at ,Gott es Wort’ , -although challenging an the A major direction- although, within that, nicely reminding us that ‘holding’ and ‘on-to God’s word’, when put together, do not always work so well, together.

Then follows a surprise, C# minor, implied by that E natural, following, unexpectedly, as again, God’s word is encouraged to be held on to and held on to firmly.

At 144, after an pedal E. and then at the words Liebe üben‘ or ‘practice love’, a D natural is slipped in, and this in the aural world of E major represents a thought:

perhaps the. ‘holding’ of God’s word’, is accomplished, not by ‘holding’, but by a new concept, known but perhaps forgotten so far in this music, ‘love’.

Listen as the musical direction is arrested, momentarily, as love enters the equation and at 153, we even begin to loose G#’s, as tonality drops, below the subdominant, as Bach ends this section, and in the process, taking our breath away,

Listen for the ‘false’ entry of 1st flute, oboe and violin, which eventually, -as the chorus returns for a re-run, will place ,ist‘ on the beat, rather than ,ge-SAGT‘, as at the beginning.

In this return, the ‘key-scheme sounds different, in the light of the recent ‘harmonic’ journeying, nevertheless, Bach continues on and on -and with his new ‘false entry’-and at 199, we sense that the end is neigh, -A natural the violas and 4 bars later, first flute + violin with their ornamental twist and octave leap- sends shock-waves into and through our sensitivities, and then that A#, in rising basses, which works round to a pedal B, all leading, of course, sadly, to the inevitable end.

This movement needs a thorough ‘analysis’, as there is much going on, really too much, for any Sunday morning, further evidence, in support of the possibility, that you probably do not know Bach, until you really know his cantatas and also, that, you probably do no know your Christian faith, until you really know Bach’s cantatas.

Martin Luther’s preface to his commentary on the book of Romans, may well be one of the greatest piece of Christian exegesis ever penned.

But Bach’s cantatas, as a whole, may be the greatest and most significant commentary, musical or otherwise, on the whole Christian faith, ever penned.


‘The highest lets me know His will and what pleases Him well; He has presented His Word, as a plumb-line, which I should follow diligently, with fear, humility and love, as a test of the obedience I follow, so that I may prove, to be a faithful servant.’

A simple recit, with a simple instructive text, although Bach begins with a leap, forming an added 6th chord at Die Höchste/the highest, -nothing is that simple, and then at Richtschnur/guideline -or plumb-line, a tone drop in the bass.

At Furcht/Demut/Liebe, fear, humility and love,

three different devices, -harmonic, arpeggio and ornament, draw our attention.

At Proben/ ‘tests’, or practice, -i e, rehearse,

a leap of the augmented 4th, really gets our attention towards


and a gentle leaning at Knecht/servant

reminds us of our true place.


‘If I know God’s justice, what is there that can help me? -especially when He demands of me, His servant, a strict account?

Soul! Think to save yourself.

Obedience brings reward.

-Torment and scorn threaten both.’


This pessimistic soul, sings this thoughtful, but ultimately faithless, 2-bar phrased, awkward little minuet-like aria.

In-fact, at 13, those two bar phrases distort, as the last note of each 6, ties into the next.

Just what exactly is going on in this poor souls head?

We limp, albeit stoically on, past these musical mutterings and on, into the sung words.

His lamenting, and his modal sort of tune, is twisted with many vocal hurdles, a trill, a leap and a descending wail, -and all this, in the first 4 bars, of 2 phrases, -leaning heavily down on and towards Rechte/justice.

In fact, he and it, just get worse and worse, and Bach lets him…and it.

Nice violin countermelody at 41 though…

At Rechnung/ ‘invoice’, or reckoning,

he just really does goes on and on, getting hotter and hotter, around his collar.

The language is very money-speak. One wonders if he had some sort of money problem?

Things get even slightly worse at,

,Fordert scharfe Rechnung an?‘ ‘..calls for a sharp or strict calculation..’

-a pair of phrases, which get more and more distorted, as he gets more and more distraught.

Listen to how Bach augments and fore-shortens that ‘stoic’ idea, at 68.

At ,Seele! denke dich zu reten/‘Soul, think to save yourself.’

the music becomes much more musical, helped by a major optimism and the sense of stability at

,Lohn‘ or ‘reward’(wage).

Then, terror and horror at the punishments, torment and scorn.

At 104, a moment, where time seems to hang, the melody oscillates between C# and D, as he pleads with his soul and in his soul, before the words again drive forward, onto thoughts of wages again, where it is almost too much, and he just, momentarily stops….

….almost as if, in mid thought…. before the horrors return.

There is momentary peace as a G# pedal emphasises those rewards, but again, he is threatened, during a long wail -,drohet‘ and we and him and his soul, come to a rest.

There is no dancing during the play-out, and no dancing soul partner, or in fact, any dancing partner at all, Just kicking of heels, as it just all seems, all too much.

What a ghastly way to end part one, of this two-part cantata.

Parte seconda:


After such a sad and challenged man, singing such a sad and challenging text, we come to, really, what is, in effect, the day of judgement, the time when, we are told, when it will be too late to change anything at all, to make a difference.

Serious stuff.

Well not really, if we take, on face value, how Bach has set this text.

Things start off well, -a touch of the Brandenburg’s, again, no 3, I do believe- But, hold on a minute, listen to those strings, they sound just like laughing voices.

And then, more of the same, imitating their own laughing.

And what a ridiculous bass line.

This is a laughing song, with a super-serious text.

Time to take a look at that text:

‘Many will say to me, on that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name? have we not cast out devils, in your name, have we not done wonderful things, in your name?

I will say to them: I never knew you. Depart from me, evil doers.’

Threatening words from the Vox Christe, or biting sarcasm?

A mocking exercise, designed not to mock God, but to mock us.

I wonder how many complaints Bach received, from those too pious, to recognize their own superciliousness?

If it wasn’t so seriously funny, one could literally die laughing!

I like the way the laughter, is incessant and also the voice, in imitating, the continuo bass line, when it drops down, too low, for the range, just in time, leaps up, an octave, -an obvious thing to do, but, in this situation, so comic.

There is also an overwhelming sense of dismissal, again, of the most comic type, a feeling of literally being just thrown away.

I am not going to go into specific textual settings, even though, much might be said.

It seems sufficient, to view this, from ‘above’ and this time, to see the whole forest, rather than the wood.

This must be a candidate for best bass aria ever written?

…and who would ever have thought, of setting the text, in this way?

Only a composer, writing a comic opera.

What a shame Bach didn’t have that opportunity. -but, of course, he did, didn’t he.

What a sense of humor.


‘Whoever acknowledges God, from his heart, will be acknowledged by Him.’

‘Whoever calls Him Lord, just with and from, his mouth, will just simply, burn forever.’


Following on, from number 4, this is a rather snide, tip-toey-like, creepy and obsequious setting of this text, for solo flute, alto and continuo.

It is received, as from a ‘mouther’.

Why a flute?

To answer that, we have to again, see what the composer has done with the text.

God cannot be acknowledged in any way other than with a genuine heart and a genuine spirit, or attitude.

This ‘creepy‘ grovel, based in cheap ‘mouthy apology, with pride, is not acceptable.

The emphasis must be on and in the heart, rather than mouth, i.e., the heart must reflect what the mouth is saying, or to out it another way, the mouth, really will reflect, what the the heart, really will be saying.

The German puts it well:

,…Der einzig mit dem Mund’, ‚..who only calls Him a gentleman, with his mouth!

I suppose this ‘mouthy-breathiness’ is best characterised by a mouthy-breathy flute, complimented by a low-down-ish alto?

The first two lines are set- and sung, from the viewpoint of this snide imposter.

The second two, speak for themselves.

The opening notes, of the bass line, are repetitive and restrictive, dance steps, -carefully placed, presumably, between of those hot coals- that literally, just keep going, round and round and over and over, again, the same old ground.

The flute follows on, with the same sort of thing.

,bekennen‘ acknowledge’ (-or confess) is given a mocking lilt -and particularly so at 20.

and ,Herzensgrund‘ as the voice lowers, speaks for itself.

,Denn der muss ewig brennen‘ ‘for he shall burn forever,’. seems certainly accepting, almost joyful, with those carefully placed feet, dancing now, on those hot coals.

In the return, things are a little different, in that, for instance,

‚aus wahrem…’ from true (depth of heart)’

is given serious time.

I wonder if a change of heart is a possibility?

It is a shame that Bach never wrote that opera. He is suited to painting character portraits and not just those flattering, skin deep ones, but ones, deep grained and wrinkled, pitted with deep, character analysis.

Like Mozart, not only human individuals, in human situations come into his musical vision, but the whole human condition.

Two character composers, with two character compositions, come to mind:

The very-well-known Enigma variations of Elgar,

and the not-so-well-known-as-they-should-be Soirées de Nazelles, suite pour le piano, 1930-36, by Poulenc, a set of variations on a theme, where the composer plays a series of portraits, for friends, gathered around the piano, at evening soirees.

They deserve better coverage, and show Poulenc, as the great composer that he really is, and of course for their wonderful titles, each a portrait, in its self.

I like the one entitled ‘le goût de malheur‘, or ‘the taste of misfortune’, variation 7, -preferred recorded pianist, Pascal Rogé- where, although this personality, slithers in and around, sugaring every pill, -and that, definitely with more than one Gauloises moment, one feels, a little, as if, he has been, just a little, hard-done-by, -perhaps even a little like our last singing character?


‘Then heart and month will be my judges and God will allot to me, the reward, according to my state of mind.

If my conduct is not in accord with His words, who will redeem the loss of my soul?

Why do I hinder myself?

The will of The Lord must be done, -but His support is also sure, that He might see His workmanship, accomplished, through me.’

————————————— Worth quoting in full.

,Den Lohn’, ‘…the wages…’

are Bach’s first high-light and then:

,…Seelen Schaden heilen…’ my souls loss/harm..‘


,Hindernis’ or ‘hinder (myself)

and of course ,sehen’

at the vert end, Where God will SEE, his own works, happening in and through, us.


‘Help me do, with diligence, what is befitting, -in-fact, what you say to me, to do, in my situation.

Help me to do that soon, and at the right time.

When I do do it, make it prosper.’


The harmony rises in the second phrase, as we do what is right and we rest at ‘what He says’, or the command.

The music rises, again, as we do just that -and that, in our situation.

Again, the music rises twice more, -with that idea of urgency and timing and again, at those thoughts, of a prospering blessing, at the end of it all.

Listen for the nice rising and lowering tenor part, -a classic piece of JSB part writing.

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