Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

-Sunday 8th August 2021-10th Sunday after Trinity-J.S.Bach cantata BWV 46-,Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgendein Schmerz sei.‘-

Aug 7, 2021

A six section cantata, with a long opening movement, -a large-scale lament, 2 x recits, 2 x arias and a closing, accompanied chorale, with episodes.

Orchestration calls for: -2x flauto dolce, -or recorders, -1x corno di tirarsi, possibly a slide trumpet, an instrument that appears, only in three or four Bach cantatas. -strings, -continuo -chorus.

A ‘heavyweight’ feeling, in this cantata, raises the possibility that a performance may need at least two basses in the mix, -certainly in the misery/anger section in the opening and in ‘the-storm’, movement 3.

There is also evidence, that Bach doubled his recorders, at least in the final chorale, and possibly, elsewhere.


Sorrows, upon sorrows, miseries upon miseries -and angers upon angers.

‘Look and see, if there be any sorrow, like mine, which has been, inflicted, on me.

For The Lord has made me, full of misery, on the day of His fierce anger.’

The question is, experiencing, this overwhelming sorrow?

The first line is a direct quote form Jeremiah 1:12.

So, is it Jesus, himself, who is suffering?

The second movement, -recitativo, informs us that, Jesus’ tears, have been rejected, by the holy city.

Be-that-all-as-it-all-may-be, someone, somewhere, is experiencing, unspeakable sorrow.

Unspeakable it may be, un-singable, it is not.

-and a sorrow, that is singable, is bare-able, and in a way, the singing of it, transcends its terribleness, and in a way, that helps us cross a barrier of cognition, into a new world, not necessarily a better one, but certainly a bare-able one, where we can see (and hear) our sorrows, differently.

Is Bach alerting us, to a possibility, that, in finding a way, out of our sorrows, we do, in fact, begin to find a way out, of the bondage, of our own thinking, -a way out of ourselves?

And, in finding that way out, we find that place, so much better and yet, so much different.

This opening, is a lament, the nature of which, may out-lament, all others and it is worth pausing, for a moment to consider, again, how Bach’s congregation, may have received such music? What might have been the effect, -emotionally, spiritually and even physically, on them all?

Moving on, the effect, on Bach himself, we know, was profound, and he certainly, thought twice, about his efforts, using this opening section again, in the ‘Qui tollis’ section, of his own B minor mass.

What gives this music such a sense of despair and feelings of despair?

A starting place, in trying to answer, that question, is to take a look at the way Bach has constructed his music, and in particular, the viola part, endlessly rocking, first, upwards-rocking, 5ths and then, downwards-rocking, 4ths.

This is then taken up, by other strings, with very occasional semiquavers, thrown in, -almost ghostly borrowings, that can be seen, almost as potential development material, lifted from those two recorders, who busy themselves, with daring imitation, false relations, diminished 2nds and spectacular leaps, beyond-belief, and certainly beyond the octave.

I didn’t think they had it in them.

(-amazing what you can do, when you are depressed!)

This, so far, is the ‘really-present- opening-world’, of sorrow, a sort-of 16 bar prelude contains really nothing different or innovative in it, just pure sorrow.

In really no way at all, does it prepare us, for this, ‘really-more-present-another-and-more-different-world, of misery, that, with deeply serious and profound, dropping choral announcements, we now find ourselves in, at bar 17.

In the psychiatrists chair, sorrow is followed by misery, is followed by anger.

Sorrow is heart-felt, misery is death felt and anger, hell-bent revenge felt. -the first two, passive, the last, very much active.

With these choral announcements, we have arrived, in certain misery.

But Bach is thoughtful, in how he creates this strange new world, -almost a new universe, of misery.

He creates it, in harmony, although, he keeps his prepared and unprepared emotions, in almost repressed-check, allowing only a few such indulgences, -bars 20/30, for instance, and it is, within his harmonic sequences, -or sequence of chords, that stark differences are hi-lighted, his bringing of them together, closely, creating strange new comforts, -ones that are so arresting, that they cause us to struggle, in this and strange new sea, floating on strangely engrossing and endearing connections.

We find ourselves thinking:

‘There is no greater sorrow, than to be mindful, in misery, of happy times.’

‘Yes, I know my Dante, and I am miserable, -and I think I should be feeling miserable… but, actually, I do feel, strangely up-lifted, as if I am looking, into the face of God…’

The musical writing, resists its own desire, to become dense, Bach allowing some intoxicating, but dangerous semiquavers, -recorder material, to seep in, but, in reality, we are just being rocked, in a world of poetic harmony, our emotions, rounded and smoothed and our sorrows, hi-lighted, 55 and then reduced, in height, 56, but not in depth, because, at 68, the altos strike out -and that, with a left-hook.

Our ‘air-bed’ of soothing, pops, quickly and suddenly and bars 1-66 become a dream and we find we are full of anger,


in our being, -uncontrollable.

A few words about this angry moment.

It starts, in control, of itself and its object, and objective.

What is the object, of its object and objective?

Is it ME, or is it HIM, -or is it US, or is it THEM?

Whatever or whomever, it is unleashed.

Starting frugally, with correctly balanced entries, continuing fugally, although unexpectedly restrained it is not as strict, in character, as you might have expected.

Bach’s leap, at 68, a third,

‘The Lord has…’

finds itself augmented, in the tenor shout, up to a fourth, at 73 and in the bass shout, it is further augmented, into, a fifth.

Everyone is Angry, especially the sung bass, and the played bass, -now we know why we hired that extra bass, and don’t they play just so well and imaginatively, and aggressively, the more they get angry…

-and another thing, where exactly are those recorders? Lost in the massive mix, I s’pose? Remember Bach’s doubling? (Sensible Bach!)

Anger is increasing and increasing, and not only that, semiquavers are increasing, density is increasing, everything is increasing. The weight of an angry orchestra and an angry chorus risks implosion, straight into, our own, very angry selves.

Are we still in control?

Bach is, and he can just keep going on, like this and on, and on and on…and he does, allowing the anger to fuel the fire to fuel the anger, of formation, of parts and lines, -furious-as-hells-teeth double basses, semiquavers and harmonies -and counterpoints and ultimately, we will all just collapse, right in on ourselves.

However, before we get to that stage and before we know it, Bach has done, and we are done, everyone and everything is done, right in, and that, -with a major chord, is that.



‘You did not heed Jesus’s tears.

Heed now, the tidal wave of zeal, that you have brought, upon yourself, when God, after great forbearance, now, breaks the rod of judgement.’

The recorders pick themselves up after all that anger, but they can only summon up some emasculated remains, from their lilting lamenting semiquavers, supported by sustaining strings.

But lament they do, and as they do, they bring, ‘…streams of tears…’ that help us, catch our breath, -on every other beat, as all anger subsides.

‘…an irreplaceable loss…’

Notice, emphasis and ornament, at ‘Gomorrah’.

‘Better, that you had been razed to the ground.’ (Jerusalem) he sings,

and, ,..jesu Tränen…‘, ‘you ignore Jesus’ tears,’ and the tidal wave, to come.


‘Your storm, gathered, from a far.’

This storm, -we are told,

‘…is more than can anyone can bare, because, an overflowing, accumulation of sins, is going, to ignite the wrath, of the lightening, which will now, bring about your downfall.’

Our slow moving slide trumpet ,now slides in, and with the aid of some regal and royal dotted rhythms, gives this brewing storm, a seal of divine sovereignty.

But, is this Bach’s only motive, for using this instrument?

Most probably, as his real motive, here – and especially, with this text, is to fashion and unleash, a storm.

And for this, he needs strings, -lots of them, or as many as he dare, basses, (doubled?) and vigorously bowed, loads of repeated figurations, repeated notes and a combination of the two, scales, running up and down, and this is exactly, what he provides, what he does and what he fashions, -and what he unleashes.

This movement starts out as, right royal enough, then turns into a right royal storm, still rhythmically and royally driven, with all its royal dottiness, but is it really regal?

-only up to a point.

The ‘beam’ or ,Strahl’, is really what flashes into Bach’s eyes, at 27 and he lets his bass voice, thunder and lightening away, but it is at 27, that the tide and the weather, turn nasty and stormy, – a right royal let-down, followed by a down-pour.

And down-pour, it does.

At 46, after gathering clouds, 44, -with arpeggios, the sky turns black:

‘It must be unbearable for you?’ he sings,

and we are subjected to a deluge of those semiquavers, this time, in the form of repeated semiquavers, and on strings, egged on by a rising tide, of trumpeting.

There is a musical feeling, of reprieve, 59-64, although this is not reflected in the words, reminding us of sins upon sins upon sins and at 71, more driving arpeggios, reminding us, of,

‘…the lightening of vengeance -and our downfall.’

By 88, Bach has made his point and parted the clouds, in a clean,- nearly-, return, to Bb major, but there is still an opportunity, for our singer, to make a final big splash and a final lightening-dash, right over the finishing line.

This movement owes something to the spirit of Vivaldi and of course, when we think of musical-storms, we think, firstly, of Beethoven, then Mendelssohn and then, maybe Strauss and Verdi -and don’t forget Berlioz- and finally, of course, Wagner.

But if is Beethoven’s storm, sixth symphony, that will always be the finest.

How does Bach fare, in the storm-stakes?

Really quite well and especially so, from 46 onwards, where we have a real sense of threat, foreboding, black-clouds, down-pouring and drenching, -and not only a down-pouring of water, but an outpouring of Devine wrath. And of course, the flashing brilliance of that sparkling trumpet, albeit, slipping and sliding, as it does, on those flooded and slippery surfaces.

This storm should be better know than it is.

I hear the two things, that make a good orchestral storms: incessant scales and arpeggios, and what amount to tremolos, -and both played by strings.

Guess what, that is exactly what I hear in the Beethoven.

Great minds…


‘It is not just Jerusalem that is sinful. That judgement, can well be read, to you.’

‘As you grow more sinful, you must perish, -and in the same dreadful way.’

The remnants of the storm, rumble on and particularly so, towarsd the last line,



At long last, the clouds do abate and the sun comes out. All good storms must eventually, come to an end and this is marked and even celebrated, -normally, by a shepherd- with a pipe and a song, of thanksgiving,

Beethoven…and Bach are no exception.

‘Jesus shall, -even whilst dispensing punishments, shield the just and the devout. He fathers them, together and most lovingly, like his own sheep and chickens.

Storms of vengeance, will reward sinners. but, He will help the righteous, to dwell in safety.’

Unfortunately, this song of thanksgiving, is only so-called.

It’s a rum do, as these shepherds are no nymphs, -except one, of course- just jobbing musicians, and without even any continuo at all, as none seems to be available, out there, in that lonely, sodden field.

With no strings attached -and nothing at all, to string them along- this quintet, -or possibly septet, if those doubles are still hanging around- of windy warblers, set off on their half hearted hymn.

It all seems and sounds, a little worn out. Perhaps they are drenched after the storm? Either way, there is very little go left in them,

Their tune is unimaginative and their accompaniment woefully boring, bar 2 repeated, and that, half heartedly in bar 3, -and only half of it.

They get stuck, on those, by now, knackered semi-quavers.

One wonders if they just have got too much time, on their hands and they should just give-up, with their music and just concentrate on the day-job, that of shepherding.

-And why are these shepherds keeping chickens? They just don’t seem to know their trade.

It’s all hardly thanksgiving, or is this all happening in America?

This text could appear and sound slightly pompous, if interpreted by the pompous, -and Bach knows that.

He sees this forlorn group as no-hopers and does, indeed, writes a somewhat pompous tune, with a dreadfully pompous and plod-dy bass line -and all of it, pompously played by our pompous plodders.


In many ways, they might be better off, not bothering, as, on and on it goes and with no end in sight.

And how does our lone nymph singer cope with all this? Well really rather poorly, and just going-along with it all.

Even at the words:

Als eines seiner kleinen Küchlein‘, ‘like his chicks, lovingly’,

there is really no surprises.

But and surprisingly, when

‘The storms vengeance,’ arrives,

,Wein Wetter der Rache die Sünder belohen,’.

the texture becomes less contrapuntal, more descriptive and lively, with repeated figurations. At last we are getting somewhere. Sadly and very soon, it slackens off and back to boring boredom again..


All hands, including those of the slide-trumpet, -soprano reinforcement- now drop the pumps of pomposity and attend, thankfully, to the exquisite wonders of this movement.

Beautiful interludes, like beautiful pictures or tableau’s, enchant us, where our recorders, with their original semiquavers, now redeemed and refurbished, are now, presented, re-fashioned, into dripping tears of wonder, that drip down, in droplets, as we gaze on the wounds, of the saviour, in adoration and contemplation, -those recorders, giving us these special spaces, interludes, to do just that- each interlude, a transformed reminder, of the storm of trouble, that may await, the unrepentant sinner.

‘Look upon those wounds, of His, His torment, fear and grievous pain and for His sake, spare us. Do not, reward us for our sins.’

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