Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

-Sunday 1st August 2021-9th Sunday after Trinity-J.S Bach cantata BWV 94-,Was frag‘ ich nach der Welt.‘

Jul 25, 2021

An 8-part cantata, -with two, large, long, complex and creative recitativos- all sections of the cantata, dominated by the same opening and closing chorale melody.

Flute, oboe x 2, strings, chorus, + continuo.

Does the high profile use, of the transverse flute, -unusual for this period, 1720, imply, that Bach had a gifted flute player, available to him?

In a different vein, I have recently read this, -and in so lofty a volume, no less, than Alfred Dürr, ‘The Cantatas of JS Bach:

‘Bach’s music characterises, only individual concepts, such as “the world” and not what is asserted, about (it or) them, in the text.’

…and further:

‘…in Bach’s day, such concepts, together with the musical inventio, correlated with them, were, to a large extent, rationalized and typified. Here, the music responds to the type ‘world’, and not to its specific characteristics, -blindness, wickedness, and so-forth.’

‘No psychological role is demanded, of the music, such as, seeking to evoke, in the listener, a disgust, for the world.’

‘(We must be) cautioned against, conceiving Bach’s music, too much, as exegesis, of the text, and against evaluating his art, for its textual representation, rather than, for its, purely aesthetic, musical value.’


This is interesting stuff, and not without a word of truth.

This short quip, ‘in Bach’s day’, worries me, as, whilst those things, in-Bach’s-day, may or may not, have been true, for and to, the congregation, then, and for that matter now, it was perhaps less, ‘never-necessarily-true, for the composer.

As Dürr says, the music will speak for itself, and the text certainly will do no more. -and no less, than that.

As to whether the music can speak for itself, on its own and for the text, or, just, on its own, -and perhaps even for a third party, the two of them together, in this question, I can only offer, as help, this well known text:

‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’


‘Why should I bother, to enquire, after the world and all its treasures, when I can only, rejoice in you, my Jesus.’

After one firm chord, of D major, a solo flute, is suddenly, centre of stage, its first three notes, doubling back, as if carefully placing, some sort of ornament.

This is important.

Then begins an upward climb, continuing upwards and yet, continually doubling back, on itself.

Eventually, we realise, that we have climbed, up one octave and we end up, on top D, a sort of summit.

As the orchestra joins in, they add a tightly energised, triplet figure, with which, the flute, immediately, takes up, in answer.

These two ideas become Bach’s building blocks, as he begins to form and moulds his whole opening section.

In my appreciation, I immediately hear the rising flute, as the, ‘…enquire(ry), after the world,’ and the triplet ‘answer’, as the, so-called ‘treasure’, -sparkling and chinking around and this energised triplet, prefigured by that important and crucial turning- aspect, at the very start of the flute’s ascent, -or, if you like, the ‘triplet-figure’ is a representation, of an ever keener and eager, pursuit, or research, into the ever higher heights of the many aspects, of the world.

And as a final gesture, that flute, which struggled, so heroically, to reach its high D, instantly, -and as the chorus takes over, gives up all that high ground and falls, in one single arpeggio, right back down to where it started from, as if to show, that this was, and is, all so pointless.

Without that sort of approach, to the text and music, where can we start form? Only from somewhere, within our own imagination, or fantasy. And then we will be bound to miss the signposts, along the way, get lost, and end up, at the wrong destination.

All this enquiry, into the world, carries on and with it, the sparkling and chinking, of treasure, carries on -and on, including a spectacular, triplet-jangling duet, between flute and fiddle, and all this, until the chorus, with its words of wisdom, bursts in.

Incidentally, the shimmering, triplet ‘motif’, is derived from a filing-in of note gaps, in the opening chorus chorale-melody.

There are diminishing rests between each choral utterance, of the first verse, 9, then 7, then 6 beats.

The first line is a little frosty, for a first line, and especially for those spiritual-falterers, in the congregation.

Bach will have been aware of those types, so maybe he felt, a larger musical space, after the first line, might give people time to lift their jaws off that cold floor?

No such luxury for the second and subsequent, -but is it needed?

The same happens at 32, Zur Wollust fürgestellt‘, ‘provided for lust’, or as we would say, pleasure, and the next line, at ‘repose’.

And, of course, the last word, -and the last note, is given to ,Welt‘, ’the world.’

Bach always clearly makes his musical and textual points.


Is it too fanciful, to think of the opening ‘cello semiquavers, as the ‘smoke’, and the descending quavers, ending in a crochet, as the ‘shadow’, disappearing down, into the depths, ‘vanishing and passing away’? -as, after all, that is what the text says and Bach must start somewhere?

‘The world resembles smoke and shadow, soon to vanish and pass away.

It lasts only a short time.

When all falls and breaks, Jesus remains my confidence, to whom my soul shall cling.

Why bother inquiring after the world?


The voice, understandably, gets stuck on


and ,Schatten’, gets a variety of treatments.

,bald’/soon is repeated, -of course, referring to the world, soon to disappear and not the smoke and shadow, hence the fact that the ‘cello, keeps on, keeping on.

A long vocal note on

(Zeit) besteht/‘time exists’,

alerts us, to the fact that, this disappearance, will be soon.

After the last of these, bar 18, our ‘cello tries to bounce-up, on the energy of an inverted smoke-bomb, managing, firstly a major seventh and then, incredibly, an octave and a major seventh.


The interaction and co-operation between ‘cello and voice, is symbiotic, each borrowing from the other’s motif, and feeding off their mutuality’s, a sort of pic-and-mix, as neither is, exclusively smoke, nor shadow, so they exist, as one, bi-part, moving picture.

This, of course, is in anticipation of, the good news of Jesus, as an adhesive, for the soul, bleibt‘/‘remain’ of course the sicking element, to seal that deal.

This is a fascinating aria, if only for the ever growing innovation of combination, of ‘shape’, upon ‘shape’, carried through, into a shifting of bar lines, moving the placement of semiquaver time. – and quaver time.

Bach does not hesitate to use every technique and whim that he can, and these, in ever new ways.

3/Recitativo, marked arioso.

This is a long, multi-section, arioso-recit, -the tenor voice singing a much embellished version of the opening chorale, these moments, forming the ‘arioso’, these ‘spaced-out’, or interspersed, with recit sections.

The text is long and detailed.

The world seeks glory and fame…. the proud man builds (and seeks) splendid (things) -and places… he does not reflect on how quickly, these may slip away…but that which exalts my heart is Jesus Christ alone. Why enquire after the world?

Imitative dancing and bourrée-like oboes, introduce our tenor, with a dance, surely more than a little high-and-mighty, -certainly considering the circumstances. But Bach sees the world of the high and mighty as full of the glory of, the fame seekers.

-It has to be said, that these oboe figurations, are somewhat ‘breezy’, in that they are textually connected to bar 40, where

‘gleiten’/‘slip’ leads nicely into

‚Oft bläset eine schale Luft‘, ‘…a faint breeze will often suddenly blow..’

Opening text:

‘The world seeks glory and fame amongst the high and mighty.’

As the text continues,

‘the proud man builds…’

and the dancing ceases, for a moment of teaching, where, we learn, what these sorts of people, get up to.


‘ …his arrogant babel tower, sticks up and penetrates, upwards, into the air and through the clouds,…’

a return, to the dance of ‘high things’, for 7 bars, as then:

‘…as a stale air, all of a sudden, blows the proud body, into the grave,’

Speechless, or not, our shocked voice, quivers on:

‘…all splendour vanishes, as this (poor) little earthworm has made such a display.’

The oboes join in, but, this time, too soon, which puts them ‘out-of-step and starting on the second beat of their imitation- as our now revealed, tenor-earthworm, tries his chance, -or dance, at another bourrée:

‘But that, which above all, exalts my heart…‘

Bach rises up, toward ‘Ruhm’, ‘fame’, and then at, Hoffart liebet’ or ‘inordinate pride, the oboes re-start their bourrée-breeze, defiant in the face of the truth.

All stops at

,und dieser…’ And He it shall be forever’,

and after a few bars, the bourrée restarts, again, and this time, for the last time, even though the words remind us that, ‘inquiring after the world, is foolish. So, why do it?’


‘Delusion: an idiosyncratic belief or impression, maintained, -despite being contradicted, by reality, or rational argument- typically as a symptom of a mental disorder.’

The deluded, when they occasionally can think rationally, can only become disillusioned.

The text: Deluded world. Even your riches, possessions and money are a deception and an illusion…’

This is possibly the most delusional aria, that Bach ever wrote.

The slow harmonic rhythm with its dithering flute-like, ‘not-really-going-anywhere’ meander, complete with some pointless triplets- all ends up tumbling down, with all those treasuries, -notice the ‘tumbling-down motif, again on flute- back, down into the depths, with, also, that, by-now, familiar downward arpeggio, from the first section, ending the proceedings.

The very opening word,

,Betörte‘ or ‘deluded‘,

is clearly highlighted by Bach, an A# followed, 4 notes later, by an A natural, is un-nerving, -almost horrific.

-Edgar Allen Poe-like, I think?

Note well, a feeling of pleasure, as we pass through Gelt’ ,or ‘Gold‘,

followed by the uncertainty at ,falscher Schein’, ‘illusion’, -or better, ‘false appearence.’

And so it goes on.

Then, at 27, some of this depression, or again, to put it in better language, uncertain insecurity, lifts and falls away.

Time for a dance.

Dancing can get you out of depression, -especially if you have something personal and meaningful to dance about.

‘Though you count on, -and count up, mere riches, I shall choose my Jesus.’

But, notice how, all the way through this dancing-moment, that old cash register is chinking-away, as a veritable torrent of coins, treasuries, riches, -and notes, are gushing fourth, from that flute of plenty…. still complete with those ‘pointless’, or perhaps depressing pointless triplets?

The mood and the speed, now resume sobriety, as it all becomes, strangely, a little bit nostalgic, perhaps for the good-ol-days of Jesus.

Depressives do get nostalgic, and that life of cashing-up, -and cashing-in- takes on a pleasurable, though somewhat distant sort of memory, although, our seductive flute continues to splash-that-cash, continuing, right up, to the ‘bitter’ end, with a torrent of loose change, albeit also with, a double helping, of those pointless, depressive triplets, -the bonus prize, perhaps?

The question is, who is the lucky winner?

Is it the world, or is it the soul?

The struggle seems not yet resolved, especially in the light of what comes next…

5/Recitativo: -with adagio-arioso moments.

Again, the chorale melody, -showing itself in these adagio-arioso moments- appears, again, slowed down and embellished.

A transformation.

‘The world worries, is aggrieved and distressed.

This text, is accompanied with some of the most extraordinary harmonic progressions, that Bach penned.

To quote Dürr,

‘un-thematic, chromatic-scale motions, in counterpoint.’

Analysing them, as regards key, kind and kindred-ness, is, I think, pointless. We must let them stand, as they do and as they are, shedding light on the words, that they so impressively underpin.

Aggrieved: feeling resentment, at having been, unfairly treated.

Lets be clear.

We are, in this instant, informed, as to how the world is feeling, not how the the soul is feeling.

And why does the world feel so?

Because, one day, it will be despised, totally, -and by all.

There are no real surprises, as to how Bach sets these spoken interludes, -with his usual and thoughtful, turns of musical phrase.

But, in his settings, of the chorale, Bach is breath taking in his audacity.


The ‘key’, is within these bars, 16/17:

,Ich trage Christi Schmach‘, ‘I suffer Christ’s reproach… or disgrace.’

As the text says, it is better to suffer, in the way Christ suffered, than it is, to strive, -and that with cunning, for the honour of the world.

These tough truths are, in any case, difficult to harmonise with and Bach harmonises them, with difficulty, and a great difficulty for, even for our ear, to hear and except.

One wonders how the C18th ear, might have accommodated such sounds?

Difficult truths, difficult to harmonise with..


‘The world will never exalt itself enough, with its illusions of vanity.’

This beautiful, dance-like pastorale, sees Bach in his confidant compositional-genius-mode.

And why not, as the constraints of the text seem to be loosened, and he rewards us, with music that is, both, moment-in-time and without time.

Our singer sings a seemingly genuine song and our composer writes a genuine tune, -but all is not as it seems.

The naïf monkey-singer, is truly made a monkey of, and that, by realist, arch-organ-grinder, Bach.

Unfortunately, beautiful music as it is, -and designed to be, it is doomed, to first disappoint and then, to destroy, both singers and listeners alike, who, according to the text, -and this is, not reflected in the music, are transformed, into moles, -we are told- that burrow and ‘buy-into’, yellow excrement.

…and yes… it is, what you are thinking it is…

thereby, unfortunately, loosing everything.

-and ye think Bach didn’t know what he was up to?? Course he new!

We should have smelt a rat…. before anything else, of course, as we are required in this country dance, to set off, on the third beat of the four, …Gavotte-like.


-and also that bass line, two beats before the vocal entry, teasing us, with its A,G#,A quavers.

Incidentally, this bass line, is a model, for any composer, in how to write bass lines.

Just take a closer look, and see -and hear.

Nevertheless, the 8-and-a-half-bar introduction, does truly delight us, especially with its second bar, ‘going-round-again’, and leading on, into even more, of that pastorale countryside, and the frolicking, with pitch-fork and hay rick, that might go along with all that sort of thing…

Then, -perhaps, in longing, more than logic- the phrase is extended, to a whole 4 bars in length, complete with another, ‘going-round-again’.

For the final closing 4 bars, there is more delightful, but ultimately depressing countryside nostalgia, and along with that, a near miss with a late D#, nearly knocking us off track and transporting us all, off into E major.

Listen out for the ‘enchanting’ though, bitter-sweet ripples of ,Lust und Freud’ or delight and joy, truly joyful in their delights.

-and a little later on, 21/22, the whole line, wonderful… but wistful,

and, of course ‘descant-type-variants’, that Bach just cannot stop doing, almost, one suspects, by happy accident.

What a shame, that, in the end, this is all going to end, not only in mole-hills, in the garden and tares, in the ground, but worse still, tears in the heart.

In bars 22-23, a nasty smell gets right up the nose of the first violin, who just can not stop himself from passing it onto our singer, who takes it all, to a higher level of nasal-nausea, with some really stinking-stonking-singing.

Listen for nauseating irony, when, at 46, when we learn that, singing along, to this particular little song, amounts to, nothing less than, sinning-along, towards a no-entry sign, for heaven.

Beautiful music, does bring tears to the eyes. Bach knows this and he knows how to make it happen, for any reason he, -or the text, chooses.

I award Bach a golden-gong for his efforts here… in the Tudor sense, -if you understand my meaning.

The world is really evil, -in every sense of the smell.


‘He can side with a blind world, who cares nothing for his soul.

I am disgusted with this earth.

But I will love my Jesus and exercise repentance and faith, then I will become rich and blessed.’

This, another bourrée, opens with a jaunty oboe, that also keeps doubling, back in itself, this time though, although it keeps rising up, almost, in a way, as if, it just cannot stop itself, as opposed to the flute, in the first chorus, that was deliberately striving, for those worldly heights.

Perhaps the attitude to the world is changing?

As the voice enters, it too is pulled downwards, and that upward trajectory is capped, in that, even though, it rises up to F, a careful equilibrium of pitch balances an overly high assent.


,Ich will nur meinen Jesum lieben‘ , ‘My Jesus alone, shall I love.’,

a melodic balance, or, a balance of the rising and falling melodic shape, is achieved, and at 24,

…selig werden… or ‘blessed’,

the voice enjoys, really perhaps, for the first time, some genuine vocal freedoms.


‘Why inquire after the world? In a moment, it must disappear.’

We hear the, -by now, very familiar- Chorale tune, twice through, with, as led, a poetic licence, from the performers, to add light and shade, as needed and as they see fit, to both verses.

The text speaks for itself and Bach’s imaginative -contrary-motion, in the main- part writing, particularly those, all-important, inner parts, profoundly hi-lighting, the inner teachings, of the text.

But, by now, the world, with all its dangers, has been, well, truly and thoroughly explored.

This final section, settles the proceedings, -for now, and not with an easy answer, but with a calmness, a serenity and a security, for all, clergy, lay and musicians included.

This is a part, of Bach’s genius, that may have been overlooked: an ability, to in-still into listeners, an acceptance, of The Now.

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