Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

-Sunday 19th September-2021-16th Sunday after Trinity-J.S.Bach cantata BWV 27-,Wer weiss, wer nahe mir mein Ende‘-

Sep 9, 2021

6 movement cantata, opening chorale-fantasia, with cornetto support, -with vocal insertions- 2 x recits and 2 x arias, -one with Oboe da caccia, Orchestra consisting of 2 x Oboe (-one doubling caccia) strings, 4 soloists + 4-part chorus, organ and harpsichord obbligato and continuo.

1/(Chorale fantasia interspersed with recitativo insertions)

A tragic, in character, opening movement, again the theme of death, returning, yet again -and with a vengeance.

And yet, we must remember, that, in times past,throughout Christian Europe and the wider world, this theme of death and death itself, was considered really believed to be the gateway, into life itself.

This attitude is starkly reflected, in the aria, movement 3.

Nevertheless, at the start, and as we face, orchestra and chorus and the paraphernalia of what is happening, front-of-house, as the weekly process begins, the curtain rises, on the subject of death:

‘Who knows how near is my end? Time goes by and death approaches me. How swiftly and nimbly, can I see my own trial of death, drawing near. My God, I pray, through Christ’s blood, grant me, a happy end.’

Cleverly, this chorale text, sung in 4-parts, is interrupted, by three, recitative-like insertions, one each by soprano, alto and tenor, and each commenting, briefly, on the previous, choral line.

All is accompanied by an independent orchestral texture.

From the start, we are confronted, with a solemn, pendulum-like, continuo bass, steadily repeating C after C, after C, in alternate octaves.

Immediately comes to mind, The Dream of Gerontious and the prelude, where, this time, a clock, is heard, ticking away time. Also, Richard Strauss, Tod und Verklärung, where, this time, a heart-beat, is heard, albeit, falteringly, ticking away.

Bach’s beat is strong and regular, yet framed, by intensely, drooping string arpeggios, which drench the whole, in perhaps tears, of sorrow, or maybe, of uncertainty.

Eventually, a lone Oboe is heard, creeping, around and about, with a wailing tune, -in fact, very similar, in outline to the opening soprano line, when it arrives, in C minor, with accented dissonance and a well prepared, downward diminished 4th leap.

Despair is in the air.

Long and ‘on-the-beat’, dotted pleadings, wallow, in there own misery, -or even some panic-breathing, oxygenated by an arpeggio bass that has, momentarily, succumbed, to its emotions and forgotten its very strict time-keeping.

Impending doom arrives, in the shape of rising, ‘twisted’ semiquavers. These lead, comfortably, into the first sung verse.

At 18, the first commentary arrives:

‘Only God alone, can know, if my earthly pilgrimage, will be long, or short.’

Droppings and risings, frame these wise words that are sung, by a soprano, in the hope, that they will be believed.

The metronomic bass ticks on and the second line of chorus inevitable.

This time, they get stuck on ‘Tod’,

‘Time goes by, and death approaches.’

and, again, the bass line steps out of line and leaps, emotionally, a diminished 4th oboe style.

-and still, the time line in the bass plods on.

The alto notices all this, and must contribute, really something so obvious:

‘The moment arrives, when they, (time and death) must meet each other.’

that one wonders why it needs to be said, at all.

On we go.

The Tenor is moved to contribute:

‘Who knows, whether, today, my mouth will utter, its last words. This is why I always pray.’

This is really not getting us anywhere fast, and the bass line knows this, plodding on, now emotionally secure, with no figurative or harmonic outbursts.

However, Bach always knows how to pick out from textual dross, key words and attitudes. He hi-lights the last line, a line of prayer, and gives the tenor, the only really long sustained note, so far. Everything has, so far, been chopped up, into crochet moments, or short bytes of sound and vision. With a longer note, we can see further, -and with real vision.

As the last choral line arrives, Bach notes ‘Christ’s blood’ and then ‘Grant me a happy end.’

But it is a happy end, made up, of mixed emotions, themselves being built-up, by and on, increasing vocal layers, culminating with the longest note of the movement, this time, not on prayer, but on blood.


A dramatic and serious start:

‘My life has no other aim, than that I may die blessed and then, inherit the portion of my faith.’

Then, the mood lightens, mostly, at the somewhat surprising confession:

‘I shall always live, ready and prepared, for the grave.’

-although the mood drops again, at the mention of the grave.

From then on, it is a little difficult to believe, in the honesty of the singer, as, for us, the startling revelations and confessions, can only come from faithful soul:

‘And as for the work, of my hands, it is as if, I knew, for certain, that I must die today. For all is well, that ends well.’


This long aria welcomes, into this somewhat deathly Sunday morning, something of the world of Vivaldi.

A brilliant harpsichord, -or a windy organ, whichever is chosen, trots out, what is, in effect, a ‘keyboard-prelude’, -the sort of thing, that almost any young student, or ideally, any one, of Bach’s young children, should be able to trot out, without a problem.

This ‘prelude’ though has two supportive strands. A slightly boring and predictable continuo part, and a keen and colourful hunting oboe, or Oboe da Caccia.

It is the sort of piece where Bach, had he chosen to, may have resorted to his old stand-by, the violin-cello piccolo.

Not today.

As a quasi trio-sonata-like group, with their unusual instrumental combination, they set out, on their musical journey, one of a colourful and attractive medium, of melody, muse and mode.

But, hold on a minute, we must, as usual, carefully check the text, before proceeding:

‘Welcome!, is what I shall say, when Death comes, to my bedside. Gladly I shall follow, when he, death, calls. And, into the grave, all my afflictions, shall I take with me.’

This seems hardly the sort of text, -a warm welcoming of death, to be set, to the, almost pastoral music, that we are hearing.

But give a closer ear to the musical line.

Confused, angular, chromatic and long winded, this hunting oboe, appears to be hunting around, for some sort of stability.

Pastoral it appears, but pastoral, it is not.

Even the continuo players, from the start, seem unsure, as to where to change to the dominant harmony, getting constantly -and continually, stuck, on those constant and continual E flats, bleated out like bleating sheep.

When the alto singer eventually begins, after that over-long introduction, if feels awkward.

A very low B flat, becomes a spring-board start, to a vocal run-up, as death ‘runs-up’ too and arrives at, the bedside, complete with comic laughter, from the oboe.

Musical baroque-horror, might be an improvement, on this rather insipid and comic attempt, to ‘Willkommen’ and portray death, as a welcome visiter. (see movement 1, ref remarks on death.)

Rapture at the bedside, collapses into a nothing, as, presumably, the sight of the grim-reaper deflates the breath so much, that the singer plunges, vocally downwards and nearly out range, right into that inaudible nothing.

And so it goes on, bad and embarrassing harmonic‘cul-de-sacs’, one after the other and all the time, harpsichord and continuo just keep on going, on and on, oblivious to everything and anything. .

It all just does not seem to work, although our singer insists that,

‘Gladly I will follow, when he calls.’,

but sadly, again, loosing both voice -and breath, in the very low-slung notes, of ‘Gruft’, crypt, tomb…or grave?

Listen out for the astonishing chromatic descent at 51, ‘Plagen’!

and the utterly astonishing, ‘Der Tod’ at 70, where Bach, with total and utter delight, writes, into the vocal part, a catastrophically low and almost un-singable, A natural.

What are we to make of all this?

Is Bach making light of the Christian belief in a better life to come?

Or is he carefully warning that complacency, in his eyes, -and ears, is the biggest problem we face.

You must decide.

Of course, any genius, -Michelangelo, Mozart, Shakespeare, etc, etc, will almost always never miss an opportunity, to ‘cock-an -ironic- snoot’, at anything at all, that catches and takes, their fancy…. whatever or wherever, the context.


‘If only I was in heaven now. I want to depart and be with The Lamb, -that Bridegroom, of all innocents, and just revel in salvation. Come on, give me wings! ( Ah! Who would not rather be in heaven, now?)

This is a rather different sort of recit, to movement 2.

Strings return, in Halo mode, bringing to mind, the very presence, of The Savior.

It is a measured and reverent affair, and at ‘…mich in der Seligkeit..’ becomes passionate and expectant.

Listen out, for the appearance of those soon-to-be-flying wings, as they expand and prepare, for that flight, into heaven.


A solitary reading of the text, before looking at the score, will give us, in our own, musical imaginations, a certain picture, feel, or even sound:

‘Good night, worldly torment. Now I take my leave of you. Already, -and with one foot, I stand, with my dear God, in heaven.’

I bet that nobody could have had the picture, feel and sound that Bach comes up with.

The sombre and full sound of rich strings takes us, minuet style, into the dead of night and perhaps a nocturnal farewell, to a dreadful world. Much more though, that security, albeit reverend, of a simple step, out of dark doom and dread, into a certain heaven?

At 8, a Vivaldian operatic world of tumult, literally, erupts, rather violently, around us, taking us quite by surprise, at the scal,e of its ferocity, right into, the realities, of the horrors and the ghastliness’s, that is this world, so soon to be, literally, just stepped out of.

As the singer commences, we are returned, -as if a door has been shut on that noisy tumult, to the lamentable dead-of-night minuet.

It does not last. The mere mention of ‘Weltgetümmel‘ and strings of turmoil engulf is all.

And so it goes on. Even the minuet is tainted with tumultuous turmoil and our Bass has to sharpen his coloratura…as do they continuo player.

At 46, an uneasy minuet, is re-established.

Note the continuo Ab at 60.

At 81, it seems that we are returned, back into turmoil, but it is the death-throes, of turmoil and, for the moment, we are left, just with and in, the dead of the night.


‘Farewell world. I am weary of you. I wish to enter heaven, where there will be true peace and eternal, splendid, repose. World, with you, there is nothing but fighting, war and true vanity. In heaven, there will always reign peace, joy and salvation.’

Two things about this choral, which must be said:

Firstly, it is the only choral, in the whole of Bach’s output, of cantatas, that is harmonized, in 5 parts, with divided sopranos.

And secondly, it is not by Bach, but by Joseph Rosenmüller.

View more Cantata articles