Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

Easter Sunday – 17th April 2022 – J.S.Bach – cantata BWV 31 – ,Der Himmel Lacht! Die Erde jubilieret’-

Apr 10, 2022

This extraordinary and beautiful cantata allows Bach, to draw together a large ensemble: oboes, with a d’amore option, strings and continuo and a 5-part choir, with solo bass, tenor and soprano recits and arias, are joined by an extra oboe, taille and a bassoon, for that little extra, bass support, -incidentally, creating, a 5-part, reed choir as well. Three trumpets + drums, complete these ample resources.


There can be little doubt, at the Easter rejoicing, reflected here, in this jubilant and full orchestral, concertanto, opening movement.

The unison orchestra, steps up, -and up, on a C major arpeggio, -and all 6 bars of it.

Pairs of semiquavers, 1 through 7, on the fifth quaver beat of each bar, hint at the belly laughs to come and from 7 onwards, so they do, continually and in every single bar.

Listen for the bass/continuo versions, most spectacularly 44, through 50.

This musical curtain-raiser, tempered by occasion, sets the pace and the stage, for the textual setting of the next number.


‘Heaven laughs! The earth rejoices. -and what does she carry, within her heart! The creator lives and the Highest triumphs and is freed, from all constraints of death. He who choose the grave, for rest, -the Holiest, in-fact, will, after all, not see corruption and decay.’

This motet-like movement, falls into 3 sections, with a reprise coda.

There is a brisk, light-heartedness, in this lively and joyful opening, continuing, the mood, of the opening sonata.

A chorus, in fugal style, the ‘subject’ opening, three quaver up-beats, ornamented, 3, soprano 1 and 4, soprano 2, in semiquavers.

The somewhat primitive counterpoint, is punctuated, by tutti interjections.

The increasing and ultimately, full-on belly laughing, captures the textural drift, from heaven, on and into, the earth.

And what is all this laughing, really all about?

At bar 22, we find out…

The Creator lives and lives in freedom, from the constraints, or snares, of death.

Line 3 of the text is not a question. It is a confidence, in this event, this expulsion and emission, this birth.

A second section, -43 through 50, adagio, deals with the grave and corruption, emphasis on ,verwesen’, and a third section, -51 through 62, the release from corruption and decay, with a new ‘theme’ emphasis, on ,Heiligste’.

A final ritornello forms a coda.


‘Longed-for and welcome day. Soul, be joyful. The alpha and omega, which was cast into death’s prison, -because, of our guilt, has now been, snatched away, from distress. The Lord was dead and see now, He lives, again. If the head lives, then do the members. The Lord has, in His hand, the keys of death and hell. He, whose robe, was covered, in blood, during His bitter trial/passion, will today, be clothed, in finery and honour.’

The bass soloist sings this mixed bag, -part recit-part arioso and also, the following aria.

It charts the progress, of a doubting soul, as it tries to convince itself, into a joyful disposition, justifying, the present somewhat ‘doggy’ situation, ref an empty tomb, by telling itself, basic New Testament truths. This is played out, in an ever changing environment, out from one mood, adagio (recit) and into another, andante, or allegro (arioso).

The positive and joyful, vocal flourish, at 3, froh…’, is replaced, by the guilt and the prison, of 10/11, -notice the low pitch, and the hair-raising journey, snatched away, from distress, 12.

‘The Lord was dead, yet now, He lives again…,’ 13, leads straight into some teaching, referencing the body of Christ, and the members, thereof.

listen out, for an extended arioso moment, this time marked andante, ‘…Glieder…’, limbs or members.

Then follows, the keys and the robe, or cloak and an important moment, the ‘…bitter passion…’, 26/27.

The last line, ‘…finery and honour…’ is perhaps not the setting, we may have expected. Its questioning attitude, might be explained, in the mood and mode, of the next aria.


‘Prince of life and strong warrior. Highly exalted, son of God. Does the ladder of the cross, lift you up, onto the highest throne, of honour? Has what once bound you, now become, your decoration and precious stone? Must your purple wounds, now become, your radiant beams?’

Visually, the score reminds me, of the tenor/gamba aria, from the St Matthew passion, ,Geduld, wenn mich falsche Zungen stechen.’

Here, the texture is different, – not gamba, but ‘cello and bass voice, not tenor.

The rhythmic drive, is similar, dotted, angular and constant.

Why has Bach set this text, to such a driving and forwardly-energised ostinato, as this can only create, an unsettled, agitated atmosphere? This is further emphasised, by the almost grace-note-like ornamentation, of the ‘cello writing, in the second half, of bar 3.

I believe it has its roots in this,

,…Kreuzes Leiter…’

‘the ladder of the cross’

Is it that this whole aria, is just a giant ladder, with aural ‘step-ups’, for Messianic feet?

Certainly, from the word go, the vocal melody is always on ‘the up’, a step-by-stepwise ascent, bar 5 and more-so, bar 8, even if there is, a large step-down, before the next rise?

We actually hear with our ears and see with our eyes, the actual ascent of the ladder, bar 10 and indeed, the arrival, on the throne of honour, bar 11.

The quizzical 12 through 15 is followed up, by a more thoughtful appraisal, of the same, 15, through 17.

18 through 21, -the wounds of purple and the radiance of bright lights, are heard, alternately, slashing and cutting, threw the musical texture.


‘God devoted soul, rise up, spiritually, and with Christ. Set out, on life’s new course. Abandon the pursuit, of death. Let the existence, of the Saviour, in this world now, be now reflected, in your life. The vine that flourishes, bears no dead grapes. Branches flourish, on the tree, of life. A Christian flees, running quickly, from the grave. He leaves the stone and the shroud of sin, behind, wishing to be alive, with Christ.’

From the beginning, this God devoted tenor- soul, is on the rise.

life’s new spirit, is truly celebrated, with a flourish, 4 and ‘Lass’, is triumphant.

Next, we hear about the flourishing vine, 9, -one with no dead grapes, 10 and only living boughs, 11.

You can not miss the fleeing Christian, 13 and the (vocal) descent, into the musical description, of the grave, 14.

Stone and shroud of sin follow, 15 through 17 and living with Christ is ecstatic, 17/18.


‘Adam must decay, within us, if the new man, is to be saved, who is created, in God’s image. You must arise, in spirit and leave the grave, of sin, -if, indeed, you are a member of Christ.

This 2-in-a-bar tenor aria, is a full-string, up-beat, resolute one and not only, in its musical, double up-beat, -beat and a half of up-beat, firstly in the continuo and then strings, but also in its musical determination, to fulfil its own text, to the full.

The busy and highly ornamented, 8, leaping vocal part, 8, with its flattened 7th, 7, first heard, at the end of the opening ritornello, 6, is actually highly -and lowly ambiguous, in its textual fulfilment, -hence that double up-beat, again repeated, 15.

However, the arising, in the spirit, does happen, musically, 20 through 24 and even, despite that grave or cavern of sin, the arc of the musical line, rising, even, right up, to that ambiguous F natural, and returning, albeit only one degree higher than it started.

At, ,wenn du Christi Gliedmass bist,’ there is not a hint of ambiguity, or an F natural.


‘As the head draws the other limbs, with it, so nothing can separate me, from Jesus. If I must suffer,with Christ, then I shall, in time, rise, with Him, into glory and majesty, and in my flesh, shall I see God.’

This recit, -and its following aria, although late in the scheme, do form the central core, textually, musically and spiritually, of this cantata.

A slipping, into arioso mode, 7, after the thoughts and the subsequent, realisations, that, suffering, with Christ, means rising with Christ, lets our soprano truly rejoice, 8, and with a further and final, infinite observation, 9, that, like Job, she will see God, in her flesh.

8/Aria, with instrumental chorale:

‘Come, final hour and close my eyes. Let me see Jesus’s radiant joy and His bright light. Let me be like the angels.’

This aria, mystical and metaphysical, -out-of-this-world, in every way, is basically, a continuo accompaniment only aria.

But, what do we hear?

An oboe d’amore, with widely spaced, leaping movements, like unwilling eyelids, beguiles us, into sleep.

At 16, what do we hear?

Our singer, -beguiled enough to be mesmerised into following her oboe leader, so much so, that she gets stuck, 18, realises, that this is an eternal sleepiness, and so-much-so, that, stealing in, -unbeknown, and unknown, and unheard-of, in this world, an impertinent fiddle, on a lone mission to lift us, -unlike the Proustian world, into, or should I say, up-to, that world, of eternal sleep.

An imitative world, -one between oboe and voice, moves, fluidly and flexibly, into a world harmony.

And all this, in a movement, of 121 bars.

And what a harmony it is, rich, beguiling and comforting, the three parts becoming four, before we can register that event.

Radiant joy, 53, leads on, to more of the the same, 64, through 72.

The spiritual atmosphere, 85, is now, sufficiently spiritually charged, for talk of angels, and the possibility of being like them.

And still the instruments play on, a never ending backdrop of heavenly fare, dished up, on a platter of such musical matter.

Surely this can never end?

But it does.

Is this the end of joys?

No it is not, as the best wine, is left for the end…


‘Then, I will journey on, and towards Christ, and as I do, my arms, shall I outstretch. Then I shall fall asleep and rest well. No man shall ever wake me, for Jesus Christ, the Son of God, will unlock the door of Heaven, and lead me, into life everlasting.’

There is really nothing, that I can add, verbally, to enhance what Bach has said, musically, -with his pure and perfect, harmonic realisation and fine orchestration.

I do feel sorry, for trumpets 11 and 111, who are, in all probability, headed for an early lunch, having, according to my score, no part, to play, in this section, of their Easter Sunday experience.

I wonder, if, as they were leaving, they cast lots, as to who exactly, along with one lucky fiddler, might play the fine descant you cannot but help, or happen, not to hear.

Listen, -and with an extreme alertness, to what is, in all probability, the finest descant ever written, a lone line, towering, and forever, above everything, in heaven and on earth. drawing strength and nourishment, from harmony, far below it, and then, just soaring.

This, in itself, must surely go to show, that Music, and not actions, speak much much louder, than words.

P.S- Those of you, with a keen eye, in and on the score, will notice, Bach’s ever present and tempering, humble humanity: a lone Bb, in the alto part, bar 14, -just to keep us humble.

View more Cantata articles