Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

-Fourth Sunday after Epiphany-Sunday 30th January 2022-J.S.Bach-cantata BWV 81-,Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen-‚

Jan 24, 2022

A seven movement cantata.

An opening Alto aria is followed, by a Tenor recit and aria. The mid-point is reached, with a Bass arioso and aria, for the same, with a very short recit and choral, to close.

The opening is scored for strings and continuo, with the addition of two Flauto dolce, their only other appearance,in the final choral.

The Tenor aria, movement 3, is scored only for strings and continuo and the mid-point arioso, no 4, for singer and continuo only, with double-bass.

Movement 5 sees a pair of Oboe d’amore supplementing strings, their only appearance in the proceedings, apart from the final tutti choral.


‘Jesus sleeps. What hope is there, for me? Do I not already see, -and that, with a pale face, Death’s abyss, gaping and wide open?’

This cantata raises a number of questions.

Jesus is sleeping and this slow, thoughtful opening, cris-crosses, between lullaby and lament, restful sleep or deathly slumber.

The choice of instrumental combination, and opening thematics, captures perfectly, that sense of, firstly, a rocking lullaby and secondly, the visual, rise and fall of the upper body and the sound of the intake and out breath.

Whistling and windy recorders, contribute to this picture, as they also do, to the, as yet unheard, singer.

Yet, when that singer does step up to be counted, it is not what we expect.

The downward leaps and low, sustained, tessitura, tells us, that this is a deep sleep.

Note the silence, deathly even, at 15 and at 18, even deeper, -abyss-mal even?

At the realization of the,

‘…gaping, wide open abyss.’

at 27, it is all lamentable stuff.

Is there any relief?

Are there any answers to this question of hope?

Downward scales, 32 through 35, seems to breath, perhaps, different direction into the same text.

The slumber seems longer than ever and the question of hope remains, despite upward recorder scales, at 43.

-And the singer ends on a supertonic, seemingly no resolution.


‘Lord, why do you you seem to stand, so far away? Why do you seem to conceal yourself, in times of trouble and need? -and particularly, when all things seem to threaten me, with some terrible end? Why doesn’t my distress, trouble your eyes, which, under any normal situation, never sleep?

Once, by means of a star, you did show some wise men, their direction of travel.

Now, lead me, by the light of your eyes, because, my way, seems to me, to be nothing, but trouble.’

Bach, as he asks yet another question, also rises his voice, in an upward direction. Yet, it all collapses, at 4, the imagined, pitiful and terrible end.

There is frustration, 7, at the sleeping and slumbering eyes of Christ, but a scale, certainly uneasy, at 9 through 10, fails to bring that proper path, that direction of travel, back, onto faith.

The ‘…lead me by the light of your eyes…’ is convincing, almost noble, although, the danger definitely remains, certainly at 13, if not at 14.


‘The foaming waves, of Belials waters, redouble their rage.

It is true, that a Christian, should stand, like the waves*, them-self, when the wind of afflictions, go round him.

*it seems uncertain if the text should read ‘…wie Felsem,’ rock, or ‘…wie Wellen,’ waves.

The storming torrents want to weaken the strength of faith.’

This Aria and its text are no real tonic to the previous recit.

Indeed our Tenor singer, finds himself, in the maelstrom, where the foam-crested and boiling billows, -those of devilish-waters, not only double, but redouble, their efforts, at weakening the faith.

As the strings-only (+continuo, of course) orchestra, rises and falls, billows and surges and crests and troughs, -listen out for seconds and violas as their waves crash early, 9 through 11, and that re-doubled rate, at 29 and 39.

There are, during this tempest, three, rather beautiful and profound ‘eyes’, -places of safety and extreme calm, oasis even, in-fact rocks, that have hand-holds, to grab onto, where he can rest and recover and think.

The first, 47, gives an unclear textual picture, of that very rock, or possibly, those waves, reminding him that his faith must be upright.

The second, 51, is a downward, negative thought, of the sorrowful wind of affliction.

The last, 55, is a combination of the two, the successful realisation of rising up, against those afflictions.

Listen for that ‘rocky’, or weakened faith, written into the music at 67 through 70, where Bach shakes up the orchestra, chromatically, with uncomfortable implications.


At long last, the Vox Christi, or the voice of Christ arrives, or wakes up and speaks, one of its most well known and pithy aphorisms.

Until now, of course, only the voice, of the ‘soul’, has been heard.

‘O you, of little faith, why are you so fearful.’

Another question, albeit, proceeded by the faith requirement.

This is a nice piece of two part counterpoint, a 2-part invention, for Bass voice and continuo only. The superb double-bass part, in many ways, rather unfortunately doubling with ‘cello, must be fully and richly heard, as Bach realises that the heavy truth of Christ’s voice, should be counterbalanced with this, equally heavy, imitative part.

This thin, stripped down texture allows no inner voices to weave any other counterpoints.

Bach wants us to hear only these words, but to hear them, over and over again, in the light of the commentary of that one single imitative line and not from any others that may colour or clutter, this truth.

With this in mind, every nook and cranny of every possible angle, in explored. The meaning of these words is exhaustive.

And of course, it ends with not only with a literary question, but also a musical one.


‘Be silent, towering sea. Be still, storm and wind. Boundaries must be set, for you, so that my own chosen child, should never suffer harm.’

This is another storm aria, but of a different type to movement number 3.

‘Be silent and be still.’ says The Christ.

Here, we become aware of the assurance, that the battle, is now won, as the sea is commanded ‘silent’, the wind and the whole storm, are themselves, stilled.

The urgent sounding 3-time of movement 3, is replaced by the less urgent 2-time, of this movement. The strings do indeed again rise and fall, but this happens by the bar and not within the bar.

Two Oboe d’amore, concoct, between themselves, a 2-part, just for themselves, a distraction from billowing and boiling.

Christ, the bass voice, speaks with, an authoritative voice, shaping his line, according to the textual content and the Oboes respond, musing on the shape of his utterances and in a real sense, they temper the possibilities of increasing storminess.

In the middle section, 51, the voice settles into a mainly 2-in-a-bar, -‘…boundaries must be set,’ or, – ‘…time must be set…’, where the emphasis becomes the wellbeing, of this chosen child.


‘Blessed and happy I am. My Jesus speaks the word and my helper has awoken. Those raging waves, -misfortunes night, and all sorrow, must now end.’.

This short narrative begin on a happy note, although downward in direction.

The good news is delivered firmly, but i an serious vein.


‘Under your protection, I am free from storms. Of all my enemies, let satan rage the most of all. Let the enemy grow bitter and exasperated. Jesus stands by me. Though lightening flashes and cracks about me and sin and hell strike terror, into me, Jesus will protect me.’

This chorale is serious and the chorus are called to declaim, especially when and where, sin and hell,strike their terror.

Bach hi-lights an uneasy ‘protection’, or cover, with that A#, in the bass line and a Picardy Cadence, to finish with.

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