Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

-Sunday 15th August 2021-11th Sunday after Trinity-J.S.Bach cantata BWV 113-,Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut.‘-

Aug 10, 2021

An 8 movement cantata.


Introductory chorale-fantasia, in B minor.

‘Lord Jesus Christ, the highest good, and the fountain of all grace, see how, within my spirit, I am burdened with sorrows.’

Sorrows again and this time, led on by two loving, lilting, but sorrowful oboes, -oboe d’amore, supported by strings and continuo.

Yet, there is a certain whimsical feel, -a playful, even fanciful nature, in the way that Bach handles this opening.

Three-time, with dotted, childlike skips and violin virtuoso semiquavers, grouped in swirling fours, each well balanced and proper, -or stately and ornamental? are surely, the the wellspring, or the fountain of mercy?

-and there is an inevitability, in God’s mercy, in that, it really is going to manifest itself, bar 8, -first fiddle lead, as is there an inevitability, in the anticipated choral entry.

When it arrives, it is strong, and continues stronger, fully harmonised and with embellished melody, -in the sopranos, interdependently supported, by that accompaniment of semiquavers and dotted feature, just described.

We hear the connection of the lilting dotted figure with the outline of the tune, -and all surrounded, by certain mercy.

This chorale tune appears, -in one degree or another- in every subsequent movement in this cantata.

This inevitability, of God’s mercy, is reflected, in the inevitability of Bach’s music, laden with that sorrow and oppressed with those arrows, in both our conscience and his music, -through the vulnerability of both- in the carriage of the text, and all this, portrayed, in the lilt of those semiquavers, the dotted feature, -with skip and the full harmony-, which does not distract, form, the again, inevitable forward motion, of the whole.

Occasionally, oboes scream out, like lost souls, 41, but they are scooped up, even in the continuo, 47, as part of, the mercy of God.

There is a ‘breathing-in’, as those arrows fly, which then oppress the sinners heart.

Yet, the moment passes and we continue, on our journey, albeit, ever more fancifully beautiful, yet certain, in the faith, of that mercy, the final wailing soprano note, hanging on, -this time in triumph- and in its own, right and proper time, dying and extinguishing, inevitably, now, into, its own silence.


Simple and sung, an alto voice, with violin, two parts, with continuo, forming a three part texture, where the continuo bass line, is, an integral part of the whole fabric and not just an independent accompaniment.

‘Have mercy on me, in such torment. Remove that torment, from my heart, since you have atoned for it, with pains of death, upon the cross, so that I do not, from great woe, perish in my sins, or despair for evermore.’

‘…from great woe,..’ seems to be the starting point, as violins drop and droop down, picked up by a dropping and drooping continuo and then re-joined, at the interval of the 6th, again by the fiddles, repeated, in the related major key.

It is classic part writing, effective enough, the weight of that burden constantly pulling down the music, -and the sinner.

The violins immediately panic, leaving reality behind, gasping, under the weight of both burden and torment.

As the chorale is presented, in all its simplicity, the two other ‘players’, make philosophical and theological comments and speculation upon this, -on the face of it, a straight-forward text.

But nothing is ever straight forward, in the affaires of the human heart and Bach, of course, knows this and his rising and falling commentary, in musical form, rises and falls, reflecting, on these possible woes and pleas, from the heart, to remove them, from that heart.


‘In truth, when I see that I have not walked righteously, and have ignored Him, -on a daily basis-, I am tormented, by trembling, fear and pain and I know that, if His word, did not promise me comfort, my heart would break.’

It is a sincere text, so is a jaunty bounce, really appropriate?

The ‘key’ to understanding Bach here, are those curious, and un-accompanied, three-quaver-groups, voiced by the oboes, -for instance, on the first beat of 4 and 5.

They are playful, but does God playfully accept them and us, if we, even ‘playfully’, abuse him?

This is the question and it is further ‘played-out’, by windy trills and harmonic turbulence, at the second half of 5,through 6.

Actually, all is well, at least in God’s heart, as these oboes remain, mostly, in harmonic unity, throughout, reflecting God’s unity, with human-kind, throughout.

However, is our singer of the same persuasion?

He goes ‘off-on-one’ at:

‘…that I have not walked right, before God,’

Is this guilt?

At the terrible trio of ‘trembling, fear and pain,’ the true meaning of those harmonic-turbulences, heard in the intro, is un-masked and our singer is so horrified and worn down, just by the trembling, that he hardly has any energy left, to sing of fear or pain, and just bows out, breathlessly.

,ich weiss‘

He sings, at least 4 times, but does he really know? as, again, he is off, with more worries, about rising terrors and harmonic-turbulences.


,Herz zerbräche‘

I can’t help feeling, that, in singing of the comfort and promise, that God’s word might bring, to him, he, himself, is unsure, as here, Bach’s line is contorted and not easy, either on the voice, or on the ear,


,Herz zerbräche‘

is chromatically highlighted, with an extra-long held note, to finish with, as if to let us gauge, carefully, his real persuasions.


‘Your healing word, -with its sweet singing, makes my breast, -which once knew nothing, but anguish, find new strength and courage.’

Sweet words -and these flow, from the bottom down and then upwards, again. -and on a rather wordy ‘cello.

This recit is an example of troping, -the insertion of freely invented words, within a prescribed text, -in this case, the ‘arioso’ moments, with semiquavers, accommodating the prescribed words and the recit, the insertions.


‘Jesus accepts sinners. -sweet words of comfort and life, are these! He dispenses true peace of mind and consoles all, with the words: ‘Your sins are forgiven.’

A beautiful interlude, an intermezzo, with many more sweet words -and these ones certainly flow, between continuo and this time, a flute.

But it is a flute with a message, as we shall see.

For now and in abundance, those words flow, words of comfort, life and peace of mind -and of course, words of forgiveness- and all, from that sweet-sounding flute, enlivened, by the breath of life.

When the tenor voice joins, Bach evokes the texture and the spirit, of a trio sonata, a charming picture, of peace, consolation, contentment and of course, acceptance.

It is a fantasy- picture, of that 17th century world of Watteau, where all is sweetness, light and beauty.

Listen for ‘sweet-words’, 16/17. sung twice, -the second time, with its last note, turned upwards-

,Trost und Leben‘, ‘comfort and life,’ 28/29

and also, ‘peace-of-mind’, 37/38,

,Er schenkt die wahre Seelenruh,‘

where the final note, lingers, on and on,

-and its apotheosis repetition, at 47-49.

This aria does go on and on. Bach is aware, and also, of the fact, that the forgiveness of God, also goes on and on.

But, referring to the flute and its message, notice, that there is, undeniably, a rhythmic ambiguity, throughout and the four in a bar has, an unmistakable 3/2 feel, in that, for every three bars of continuo, there are two, of flute. or to, perhaps, put it another way, for every two trespasses against Him, there are three promises of comfort, for us.

This flute is an honest flute, hiding a life-changing message within a rhymical uncertainty.

Unfortunately though, all good musical things must come to an end, and this aria must stop somewhere, -and Bach knows that, reluctantly, bringing it to a stop and that, just when its sweet words, seem at their sweetest and most abundant.


‘The Saviour accepts sinners and these are the sweet words of comfort and life. He gives true rest to the soul, saying, -Come unto me, come to the fountain of grace. I have chosen you, to be my friends-.’

This is set reverentially and with a ‘halo-spirit’, or a holy-spirit of strings, -these having been absent now, for 4 movements, surrounding.

Notice the enticement, at 4, semiquavers, energising the, ‘come unto me,’ although sinking soon afterwards and with that heavy burden.

More semiquavers, for the ‘fountain-of-grace’, and for the ‘…chosen as friends.’

‘At these words, I will come to you, like I did, to the repentant publican, who prayed, ‘God be gracious to me, comfort my weak spirit and cleanse me, through your blood, like David and Manasseh.’

At the ‘penitent-publican,’ -or tax gatherer, Bach sets these words, against repeated quavers.

We get a sense of those heart-felt words, of this repentant, repeated, over and over, persistent in their spirit and powerful in their humility -and we echo them.

At, ‘weak-spirit’, (or ‘foolish mind’) that ‘halo-of-spirit’, resumes.

,blut’ gets a minor chord, as the seriousness of, the shedding of blood, is not lost on Bach.

Notice ‘David and Manasseh’ are harmonically shaped.

‘If I constantly embrace you, in love and loyalty, and with my believing arms, I shall be a child of heaven.’

Again, energizing semiquavers, shape the ending.

7/Aria Duetto:

No introduction and a ‘not-much-more’ ending.

8 strict bars, of strict, 2-part counterpoint.

This is an accompanied duetto, -really three parts, with an accompanying continuo, although, cleverly, this never interferes, with the 2-part weave, just plinking and plonking, discreetly away, in the background. It doesn’t contribute any material and only slightly, at 52 and enormously, at 63, until the end, does it borrow any material, at all.

‘Forgive me, for having made you angry. Destroy the heavy yoke of sin that Satan has imposed, upon me, that my heart may rest, contented and live, in praise and glory, and in childlike obedience, according to your word.’

The choral melody appears, in and out and on and off.

For an extended 9 bars, both voices, seem in harmony, with God’s anger.

There is seriousness about in the air and this is music, that understands God’s words and ways.

-and the same with,


although, the harmony at

‘…Satan has laid upon me…’

is still strict, -and unreasonably so, as the bars go on and the time goes by.

-and notice the false relation, d/d#, at 23.

‘Praise and Glory’, as you might have guessed, gives Bach, the excuse, he needed, to indulge himself, and of course,

‘child-like obedience,’

gives the continuo their excuse, that they have been looking for, to steal Bach’s wonderful counterpoint, for themselves, and as the voices linger on, this they do, and in the process, end this fascinating piece of musical engineering, just as if it was, their very own.

How audacious.

Every pair of singers, should sing this, unaccompanied, and every pair of musical hands, should sight-read these two voice parts, on any keyboard, -not only for the sheer joy in doing so, but also, for the technical problems and rhythmic interests, that such an exercise, will throw up, -and if only, for pianists and organist.

The last four bars, of can, of course, be practised… with feet only!


‘Strengthen me, with your spirit’s joy, heal me, with your wounds, wash me, with the sweat of death, -in my final hour.

Take me, when it pleases you, -and in true faith, out of the world, to your chosen ones.’

Apart from some spectacular tenor writing, -particularly the last two lines,

‘…in true faith…’


‘…chosen ones…’,

this chorale is, for Bach, all-in-a-days-work.

But it does cause us, to stop, think and realise, that this music, that has been captivating and enthralling us, so intently, has been, in the main, been inspired and forged, from the chorale melody, of this final, closing section.

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