Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

-Wednesday 29th September 2021-Michaelmas-The feast of St Michael-J.S.Bach cantata BWV 50-,Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft’

Sep 28, 2021

A one-single-movement cantata, with large, 8-part-chorus, or double choir and full, unusually-large orchestra, 3 x trumpets + drums, 3 x oboes, strings and continuo.

This is a splendid movement and on a large scale, a choral fugue, really of quite breath-taking power.

But, the fact is, that, this is a one-movement cantata, -an oxymoron, and as a result of that, there are all-sorts of difficulties, problems and uncertainties, surrounding this movement, both from the point of view, of the music and of the scholarship: -why is there only one movement? -why is it, unusually, written for a double choir and in that, did Bach have enough singers available for such a choir? -where is the rest of it, (BWV Anh. I 5. ?) and, most controversial of all, is it really by Bach at all?

All these questions are asked , -and answered, in all the usual places.

I shall assume that it is by Bach and restrict my comments, as always, to discussion and observation, of the words and the music, as they appear in the Barenreiter Urtext, of the New Bach Edition and heard, in a performance, according to that text.

‘Now the salvation and the power and the might, of our God and His Christ, have come.

For he, who accused them, day and night, before God, is now, cast down.’

The occasion, for this text, can be pinned, with good probability, onto St Michael’s day and the reading, for that day, from the book, of The Revelation, the twelfth chapter and verse 10, words, possibly as spoken, by Michael, the archangel, himself?

You will remember that, in verse 7 of chapter 12, we are told, that war is made, -and thoroughly won, against the dragon, who is thoroughly beaten and then, thoroughly cast down.

For this we have Michael, the Archangel, -as he is addressed, in The Testament, book of Jude- and his angels, to thank.

The sung bass and continuo line, in un-harmonised octaves, is the beginning of a strong and measured, massing of textures, almost akin, to the massing of armies, ready to do battle.

And you will notice, that the musical line, of that opening subject, steps up-and-down, in detached declamation, from a pedal D, to first, F#, ‘Heil’, ‘Salvation’, then to G, ‘Kraft’, ‘Strength’, then to ‘Reich’,’ Kingdom’ and then, with a leap of a 4th, up to the next D.

The Grand old Duke of York comes to mind, as he marches his men, up to the top of the hill, only then, to march them down again….

The the tenor voice joins-in, and so it goes on.

And this measured start, is absolutely essential, as immediately, the countersubject, moves away from crochets, into tricky and fast moving quavers and semiquavers, -tongue twisters for singers, if allowed to become speedy and ‘un-ruley’.

The articulated text first becomes sustained, -as opposed to detached, at 17 with held continuo notes, the first step in a cohesion of sound, which builds the character of the music, ‘massing’ of textures, with reference to the words, as well as the build-up, itself.

The expected and anticipated trumpet entry at 29 initiates ‘call-and-response’, between all three main orchestral ‘choirs’, strings, wind and brass/drums, creating a scenario, and actual feel, of battlefield and battle.

2 distinct sections emerge, the first ending, in ominous silence, at 68, as the second begins, with antiphonal call and answer.

The fugal theme, -and its countersubjects, are regularly interchanged, really according to musical permutation, where false inversions and new embellishments, create an overall impression, of enormous spatial power and breadth.

And all this unusualness, -double choir and stage-craft effects, etc, could of course, be the composers imaginative response, to what is, really, an extremely pivotal, biblical moment.

And there is, about this movement, a touch of the Cecil-B.-Demille and we can think of other examples of similar, ‘staged-music’, -Beethoven battle-symphony, Tchaikovsky 1821 overture, Mahler second symphony, etc etc.

In this relatively short movement, the composer explores and exhausts, many, if not all, realisations and structural possibilities.

Yet, there is a dark-horse, greeting us, towards the ending and you will notice that, at125, the music moves away, from D major, towards g minor, b minor and the, rescuing itself, via b minor and an ecstatic E major, back to its home key.


Well, of course, it is the shadow, of the accuser, who, we are clearly told, accuses us, before God, day and night.

This is still, of course, a shadow of darkness, as accusation is never proven proof, -until it is.

Perhaps only Johann Sebastian, could cast, such a dark shadow over such a powerful triumphant piece, -and that within 9 bars of the end, and still bring it to a satisfactory and believably jubilant end, tonally and totally.

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