Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

-Sunday 10th October 2021-19th Sunday after Trinity-J.S.Bach cantata BWV 48-,Ich elender Mensch,wer wird mich erlösen,‘

Sep 30, 2021

A 7 movement cantata: -opening chorus with choral melody, -extended accompanied alto recit, leading to a chorale, forming the end of an unofficial first half, -aria, short recit and aria (tenor), -closing chorale.

2 x oboes, strings, continuo, chorus, alto/tenor soloist -and tromba (or trumpet.)

1/(chorus, with choral melody.)

‘Wretched man that I am, who shall redeem me, from the body, of this death?’

Two important musical details, that dominate this opening choral movement, are very prevalent, from the start: a dropping bass, followed by a rest, in the continuo and a rising ‘scalic’ figuration, first heard on strings, with a final leap of a 4th, before it drops back, a 6th, to its opening note.

Harmonisation is ambiguous, with pathos, chromatically, chaconne-like.

This leap, as time, slowly, moves on, changes, to a diminished 5th.

A motif inversion leads toward the vocal entry.

As the sopranos begin, -with the three note ending of the first line of accompanying choral-tune, no less-, the trumpet intones, -with the same melody, of the closing chorale, imitated by canonical oboes-, and while the sopranos, continue their droops, in a series of tearful appoggiaturas, the whole, -with its wailing souls, almost Purcell-like colour and texture and withering trumpet, takes the form of a lamentable tableaux, a static snapshot, a picture of some dead-strewn battlefield, one of utter woe, -real, and not contrived, the deepest sorrow, of the Christian, as he laments, the body, of this death. At 21, that ‘deepest sorrow’, is reflected in the pitch, of the altos, as they drop, as low, as they dare.

As the lament continues on its slow and measured journey, the choral entries, mostly canonical, continually change their order of entry, -and response, and texture, as first, the soprano is followed, by alto, then, bass is followed tenor and then soprano, then tenor is followed, by bass, and alto is followed by soprano is followed by tenor is followed by bass and finally, in classic order. Through it all, Bach makes sure his lamenting trumpet pitches in at the end of each orchestral interlude, like an irrigation bucket, scooping tears of woe with which to water choral episodes, this is, apart from the first appearance, where his trumpet has no choice but to meshes with the (2nd) alto entry, the only way, to get onto this wheel of axion.

At 99, a new rhythmic figure, with faster-moving semi quavers, appears, the lament reaching levels of almost self-reproach, the tearing of the flesh, all this signalling to Bach that he can start to embellish not only the music but his own daring.

How much longer can this movement go on hating itself.

Well, not much longer.

Bar 99 marks the beginnings, of sorrows, really, the culmination, being reached at 129, where just about everything takes it, upon itself, not to fit, with a g minor, Bb bass note.

From then on, time, calls-time on an intense coda, a picture of woe, that has, very reluctantly, to end, we suppose, sometime?

2/Recitativo: alto, with strings:

After a long pause, in the world of g minor, we might feel, that we can place, our hearts, anywhere that we may, so Eb Major seems as good a place, as any?

Strings remind us of the saviour, and the vox Christi.

Yet this is not He, but perhaps, more, a morning-after appraisal, of a harrowing dream:

‘O pain and misery, afflicting me, sin’s poison, rages in me, the world has become, for me, a house of sickness and death. The body must carry its torments, to the grave. The souls feels, the strongest poison, which infects it. When pain strikes, this body of death, when the cup of the cross, tastes bitter, to the soul, it derives, from it, a fervent sigh.’

Again we must bear it all, again, in all, its passionate detail.

Despite the text and the stark harmonies, -breath-taking, as both are, we feel some hope, that a lightening light and a lightening load, may be, soon, our lot?

The opening, downward sigh, on ,Schmerz’, (pain) is followed by, some ambiguous harmony, at ,Elend’, (misery) which settles, firmly, onto affliction. ‘Rages-in-my-heart-and-breast’, is pitched low in the alto ‘fach’, deliberately, by Bach.

Philosophically, and warmly, the singer appraises, the un-patable, but honest truth, that, ‘…the world, is, to me, a house of sickness and death.’

‘Torments’, must be carried, to the ‘Grave’.

Bach makes a big emphasis, on all this.

Then, we are moved on, to the tetchy subject, of ‘,Den Gift’ -or the poison, and then, the, ,angestecket’, -or the ‘infection’, and finally to the cross, and the, ‘fervent sigh’, of the soul.

And if we still failed, to understand all that, the orchestra lets out, a final and extremely fervent sigh, just to remind us.


‘If it has to be, that punishment and agony, must follow after sin, then, let me continue, here on earth and spare me, the ‘there’, giving me the time, -and chance, to truly repent, here?

This welcome, -if unexpected choral, is a fervent prayer, to ‘buy’ some time, as a result, of the experience, -so far, of words and music.

Bach’s chorale is suitably harmonised, not only in relation to the weighty and heavy context, but more so in the light….or shadow, of these words.

‘Suitably’, implies that, he is respectful, or ‘in-keeping’ with, he Sunday-morning context, of kith and kin and church, chapels and chattels.

Not a chance.

An open listening though, immediately launches us, on an almost vomit-inducing-roller-coaster, of daring and decadent, intensely chromatically coloured harmonies, where, just as we find ourselves thinking:

‘Did I really hear that?’

we are dragged back, into the ‘normal’, familiar world and we find ourselves thinking,

‘No, definitely not. Far too outrageous. Must have imagined it,’

only to experience, that same feeling, over and over again.

But is it a feeling, or is it actually happening, within our very ears?

Does Bach really take, the ‘Punishment’ and the ‘Pain’ and the ‘Spare-me’, onto the switch-back and does he then, settle us down with the most astonishing dose of psychedelic penance, -leading to deliverance, of course, that most of us, will ever get, even a whiff of?

Listen carefully. He really does

4/Aria: tenor, with oboe obbligato:

This is an awkward text to grasp, with unusual imagery:

‘Give up the sodom, of my sinful members, -if it is your will(?) Spare my soul and make it pure so that it may be a sacred Zion, to you.’

The poet, is contrasting and comparing, the attributes, of the two opposite and opposing cities and comparing them, to his own make-up, -or members, and in doing so, asking, for them, -i.e. his members/make-up, to be changed, from being like the one, to becoming, more like, the other.

But something is not ‘ringing -true’, in the melody, the dance-like swing of which, is angular and awkward, in its accent and turn-of-phrase. Bars 3 and 4, are dreadfully stuck, whilst bar 3 and 10, through 13, are coarse in construction and the ‘renching-nature’ of 14, the restoration, of Eb major, without sounding an Eb, is crude, to say the least.

Is there more than a little parody in this, where reality is just not in the air, and sham is more than a little prevalent?

Imitation and canon, interesting as they are, seem hollow and shallow and not beautiful.

,Nur schone der Seele’,

or ‘Spare my soul’,

seems more convincing in construction and counterpoint, but the following move, to Ab major, unnecessary and un-convincing.

Despite interesting chromaticism, daring combination and aural confusion, this movement does manage, to stabilise itself, back onto the home key.

I cannot help feeling, that Bach is using his insightful understanding, of human failing, to very successfully, for him, paint, for us, a totally unsuccessful picture of aspiring human goodness.


‘But even here, the hand of The Saviour, is working wonders, even amongst the dead. As your soul seems dead and your body weakened, -even ruined, Jesus’s power, is made known to us. Even in midst of very weak spirituality, He knows how to make, the body healthy and the soul strong.’

In a brief ‘secco moment’, Bach reestablishes him self with his own unmistakable normality, with an opening rise on ,Hand’ or ‘Works’, ending in triumphant vein, at the thought of sound-body and mind.


This Aria suffers from a heart murmur, as the three-in-a-bar, is constantly undermined by two bars becoming one, -or three crochets becoming three minims, helped in this, by a strong top-line, or ‘tune’, as first violin is reinforced, with the constant addition, of first oboe.


Time to check the text:

‘If Jesus forgives me, my sins, my body and soul, shall be healed. He can bring the dead, back to life and show His power, to the weak. He keeps, the long, contracted covenant, in which, we shall find help, in faith.’

The murmuring heart, is a symptom, of the mouldering body.

The contract, or covenant, is where, in faith, we shall find health.

But there seems no end, to unsettled-ness, despite the voice, desperately trying, to apply heart massage, with long notes, -,Gesund’ ‘health’ and ,Schwächen‘, ‘weakness’.


‘Lord Jesus Christ, -my only comfort, to you I will turn.

My heart’s distress, is well known to you. You can, -and will, end it. Let it be done, dear God, as you please. Yours I am, and will remain.’

The ‘return‘ ,or

‘…turning to Christ,’

is carefully marked, by Bach’s bass line, at 3/7, where it travels downwards, only to travel upwards, in its turning.

This is of course repeated, where, of course, in its upward motion, it,

‘…ends’, or ‘dispels’ afflictions.

The bass then descends,

‘…on your will, may it all depend.’

as we submit and rest, followed, of course by the support, the holding and the assent, as,

Yours I am, -and will remain.’





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