Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

-Quinquagesima-Sunday 27th February 2022-J.S.Bach cantata BWV 23 (Fassung in h-Moll)-,Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn’-

Feb 22, 2022

This cantata, -apparently, first conceived, by Bach, in Cöthen, as a test piece, was extended and transposed downwards, -from c minor, to b minor, with oboes transformed into d’amore and trombones and cornett added, as reinforcement, in Leipzig.

A 4-movement setting, with opening duet, soprano and alto, followed by an accompanied, tenor recitativo.

The chorus makes its appearance only in the last two movements, where the third is a lively choral setting with specifies solo moments and the last is an extended chorale-fantasia, with an adagio opening, an andante middle, finishing with short but embellished Amen.

1/Aria Duetto:

‘God, also David’s son, who from eternity, -and a distance, has looked closely, upon my bodily affliction and my pains, Have mercy.

Grant, with your wondrous hand, which has repelled, so much evil, that I can be given help and comfort.’

This Italianate music, -which, taking the continuo as one part, is in effect a quintet, for 2 x oboe d’amore voices + 2 x sung voices, although billed as a duet(to), is an intense and highly canonic funeral march, a real threnody, where all voices move and twist together, in a common attitude, of lament.

There is also the constant juxtaposition of duplet and triplet rhythm.

But a lament for what?

Well, clearly, the affliction of the body and pain, in the body, is seen, -as we learn, from the recit following, somehow, as a sign of salvation, that is, just simply, and literally, passing us by.

This music does, just simply, seem to and inevitably, pass us by, and that passing, is couched, canonically, with an inevitability.

And within that, rising, chromatically, at:

affliction…’, Herzeleid’, bar 17

and at bar 21, although, initially pleading, in down-ward and accented woes, it rises, at 23,

,…erbam dich mein’, ‘have mercy on me.’

Do not miss the,

‘wondrous hand’, 32 onwards,

a truly wondrous one, where we get the feel of a moving-toward-us-hand, with its deliberate, but gentle, quaver movement, 32 through 34,

-and at 35, through 36, a fleeting and tantalising, almost Sistine-chapel glimpse, a sub-dominant moment with C naturals, of not just the finger of God, but the hand of God.

Plenty of time is needed, bar 39, to adequately negotiate and breath-in, the help and comfort, that is offered.

It is difficult not to believe, that in moments like these, Bach maybe writing, his own autobiography.

2/Recitativo- with accompanied instrumental chorale:

‘Do not pass me by. You, the Saviour of mankind, have appeared, here on earth, to serve, not the sick, but the healthy.

I partake of your power and I see you, on these paths, where people have left me. Even in my blindness, I pull myself together, and will not let you go, without your blessing.’

This, on the face of it, basic and straightforward secco recit, becomes something much more cleaver and distinguished, that introduces, for the first time, words from the first verse, of the hymn:

‘Christe, du Lamm Gottes’,

this tune appearing, both in the oboes and the top string line.

This tune appears, in full, and in its apotheosis, in the final closing movement.

Out of the two narratives, from todays Gospel, these words and this movement, celebrate the healing of the blind man, who stands at the roadside, crying out;

‘Jesus, you son of David,

-quoted in the opening movement,

have mercy on me.’

‘Do not pass me by…’

becomes the start, of a serious prayer for the whole church, and from this start, of a transcendent musical and spiritual experience, where we are transported, within a halo, of strings and wind.

Those very opening words are, from the beginning, coloured away, from a ‘D-major-tonality’, -F natural and C natural, towards a subdominant direction, which makes the C#, bar 3, ‘…Saviour of mankind…’ all the more impressive.

I love Bach’s little joke, bar 6,

‘…to serve the sick and not the healthy…’

where we have a restrained, but definite string chuckle.

There is some murky blindness, at 10 and a little vocal exercise, -physical not pedagogical, to help us, pluck up the courage needed, for that ‘pulling-yourself-together’, at bar 12.

The, ‘…I will not let you go…’ lingers on, in a sustained moment, held up by the oboes, refusing to let go of their held F#, and, of course, the final blessing is made all the more final, by the, by now, rather circumspect and reformed chuckle, bar 14 through 15.


‘The eyes of all, are waiting for you, -and mine in particular. Grant them strength and light. Do not forever, leave them, in darkness. In the future, your signal, will be the beloved focus, of all their work, until, one day, through death, you will decide, to close them.’

This opening violin ‘run-up’, in the ritornello, outlines 7th, -in this case, C natural, the same interval as the opening vocal leap, in the previous recit and the continuo, outlines the opening of notes of the hymn tune, ,Christe du Lamm Gottes’. The rising pitch, 1 through 5, sets up a sense of rising anticipation.

listen out for judicial use of F and C natural.

This restrained dance movement, is a rondo, -or perhaps, a Rondeau, featuring written-out duet sections, episodes, -or perhaps couplets, for tenor and bass voices, marked in the score, as solos:

32 through 45, 61 through 76, 85 through 96 and 105 through 128.

These duet-moments flow, sometimes imitatively, sometimes lyrically, in thirds and sixths.

At 117 through 127, the orchestra picks up on both of these, joining in imitatively and lyrically, creating an accompanied 4-part texture.

Listen for the episode, beginning at 139, for an extensive viola counterpoint with the continuo, leading to a final restatement of the opening ritornello.


A setting of the ‘Agnus Dei’,

‘Christ, Lamb of God, who takes away, the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.

——have mercy upon us,

——grant us peace. Amen

A sublime apotheosis, of the setting, of these words, so much better and more imaginative, than any of Bach’s contemporaries, and perhaps only bettered, by that, of Beethoven, in his greatest mass, and one in which we have to take, metrically speaking, the long view, as perhaps the first 4 bars are certainly one, long intake of holy- breath, before an exhalation, of these sacred sacred words.

It is rather like Mahler’s 8th symphony, where perhaps, that massive opening section, might be seen, as the biggest inhalation, of Holy breath, of all time, -a setting of the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus, resulting, in perhaps, that second and closing section, the greatest exhalation of human breath, of all time, -a setting of Goethe’s Faust, part 2?

A Genesis moment?

The orchestra, forms an independent ‘choir’, to that, of the choral-choir, which itself, is reinforced with, trombones and cornett, a standard practice, for Bach, if not for Beethoven, although they are present, at the opening of his Agnus Dei, with spectacular effect, bringing balance, and a sense, of completeness, to the whole, for both composers.

The oboes announce this Lamb, with short, almost impertinent, fanfares, that, continue, right up to a tempo change, at 19, reminding us of just who is responsible, for this peace.

They rise up, bars 5 through 6, drawing upwards, these words of recognition, that this lamb, really is, The Lamb of God.

In the opening 8 bars, the soprano voices bear the chorale melody and within this inhalation, the orchestra exhibits, harmonically, the movement of the upper thorax, of the living, breathing Church, the beautiful mix of sound, moving as a living and breathing being.

Note Bach nodding to his and our humanity, as he squeezes, or wheezes ,an ‘A’, in the continuo, with a later G#, in the first fiddle, bar 8, and this leading onto, sublime mercy, with sublime Music, bars 12 through 14, musically stamped, with those drooping lines, dropping down, from heaven, giving time, for us, to do two things:

meditate upon that revelation of the lamb,

and prepare ourselves, for the concept, of mercy.

14 through 19 is a moment of metaphysics, where we see, through hearing, the true meaning, of mercy, the sensory organs, under the influence of Bach’s music, change role, something that is not possible, where normal physical laws operate.

But Music gets to the heart of this matter.

A surprise Major colouring, at 19, and one totally within Godly taste, leads into an andante- saunter.

Gone are our fanfares, -and the sublimity, all being replaced by canon, syncopation and independence of parts.

New interludes comment on the text, in ways not possible to imagine, conceive, or contrive.

The busy counterpoint allows the long chorale notes to speak, over and above a complex and illustrative vocal and orchestral, contrapuntal substructure.

During this, the choral tune sticks to the soprano voice and all the time, cornett and trombones support and with their own unique colour.

At 51, ,Frieden’, or ‘Peace’, a dropping in pitch, inthe bass continuo, with the same overall movement in the oboe parts, prepares for the final Amen, which builds, imitatively, massing and continuing, its considerable force as the sopranos reach and sustain, their final and triumphant three bar, long sung note.

The peace that passes all understanding has, with Bach’s unique input, been grante,d -and reaches our understanding and our spirit.

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