Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

– Second Sunday after Easter – 1st May 2022 – J.S.Bach cantata BWV 104 ,Du Hirt Israel, höre‘ –

Apr 26, 2022


‘You, The Good Shepherd, of Israel, give us your ear, you, who lead Joseph, like sheep: Shine, you, who is enthroned, upon the cherubim.’

This cantata, which, on top, of the standard orchestra, chorus and continuo, requires an additional two oboes, plus taille, is, as its opening line suggests, all about The Good Shepherd and all things pertaining to, Good Shepherding: shepherds, -most particularly, good ones, sheep, flocks, folds, green pastures and fresh waters, -in fact, all those good things that come together, to make up the good, rural life.

On the musical side, we might expect, to find ourselves, using a vocabulary, similarly pertaining, to shepherding and sheep: the music of shepherds, -or the pastorale , with its country setting and atmosphere, with related off-shoot type words, for this type of, almost, idealistic vision: peace, calmness, faith, love, innocence and refreshment, -all of these, woven into, a prayerful and pastoral mix.

We might also expect to hear, within the orchestration, that pastoral feel, some aural signs, of shepherding-types, of musical instruments, rustic fiddle or combination, of fiddles and lower strings, pipes, and drones, or, flutes and oboes, long and sustained, pedal points, illustrative and imitative, of rustic, country bag-pipes.

-and we are not disappointed, as this opening movement, displays all of that.

But what makes, for pastoral writing and sound?

Three devices: compound time-structure, -or, as in this case, triplet-structures, rustic fiddles, played, in that triplet-y mode, and broad pedal points, which create the illusion, of rural, shepherd-ing bagpipes.

And do we see on paper?

From the beginning, a rocking, triplet texture, from upper instruments, over a sustained ‘G’ pedal, immediately sets up the above, and all of this, is set, into a three time.

What do we hear?

A two bar phrase, -rocking, second violins, ‘pointed’, at the first, strong beat, bar 1 crochet, by staccato winds and violas, the whole, joined, in the second bar, by lazy, triplet first violins and underpinned, by a ‘droned’, ‘G’, bass line. The flattened F sharp, or F natural, for the moment, locks the whole feel, into the world, of G harmony.

This is repeated, for two bars, at and in, a higher harmony and immediately, the winds take up the lazy-triplet, for three of four bars, the last of the four, allowing these winds, to prepare, for some inevitable counterpoint, which begins, bar 8, as the bass is released to move, downwards and a C# is, strangely introduced, after a more revealing ‘G’ sharp manoeuvre.

This move towards an A major feel, is really a false lead, in a slow and almost contrived direction, that this opening ritornello is delivering, this C sharp, allowing, what our home-grown F sharp, was not, that of a forward leading, colour change.

There is a nice bass drop, 10, -and another, 15, which sets a trend, to be fulfilled, 20, through 22, after an almost real, bedding down to ‘D’ major, for some further, measured, dropping and drooping, -in themselves, seemingly symptomatic, of this whole unfolding picture, as Bach, pastorally speaking, returns, harmonically, to the subject, in his hand.

The triplet-y, in-keeping chorus, joins in, naturally at 25. It is almost a serenade, and the genuine cries of ‘give-us-your-ear‘, seem to resonate, in the most natural way, among and around the ricks and haystacks, fields and folds.

As this choir becomes more and more animated and the orchestra continues its droning triplet-ing, the whole scene, blends together, into a summer water-colour landscape, a pastoral idyll, of artistic dimensions.

A fugal break, 52 and the ‘leading of Joseph’, elongates the phrases. The orchestra carries on, oblivious, as more shouts of ‘hear us’, lead back to opening words and continuing serenading sentiments, 72 and more comforting dropping and drooping, 103.

The only hint of a cloud, in this rural sing-song, is that persistent and penetrating flattened ‘F’, 112.


‘The Highest of the highest, -in this world of shepherds, is providing, for me. What is the use of my being, full of woes? This Shepherd’s loving kindnesses, are new, every morning… and so, my dear heart, compose yourself: God is indeed faithful.’

Considering that this text is really, rather up-beat, it is a shame, that this soul, is so faltering. It seems, it can raise, hardly anything, including a smile, as it sings and contemplates this really rather good news.

-and contemplate it does, but only in a faltering attitude, only managing to pluck-up, this most depressing and half-hearted tune, 6, through to the end, and that sung, in a very ‘sotto-voce’ attitude.

What should be, good news, in rich pastures, seems lost, in fields of unbelief.


‘Even though, you, my Shepherd, seem hidden from me, for far too long, and even though, the wilderness, of my life, seems to continue, to frighten me, my feeble steps, still seem, to be able, to hasten me on. I cry out to you and your word, helps me to utter this word: Father.’

This aria, is just all about walking and the steps we take, as we walk.

In fact, it is not just about stepping, as such, but the type of steps, -in this case, feeble ones.

And from the off, this is what we hear, a single stepping soul, (or two souls, stepping together, after a staggered start?)

If the former, it is definitely a trudge, rather than a trot.

Are spirits, high or low?

The very pleasant, opening choral-idyll, is, in the stable and inviting world of G major and the previous recit, settles, somewhat reluctantly, into e minor. But, this aria, pitches in b minor. What does this tell us?

After the first vocal utterance,

‘…you, my shepherd, are hidden, from me.’

the oboes seems caught up, in some uncontrollable wailing, -and for over two bars, presumably, at the thought of the hidden shepherd, -and this is reflected in the very long F#, 13.

The ‘frightening wilderness’, from 15, generates chromatic uncertainty and insecurity, really right through, to 22. Yet, still, feeble or not, the steps keep coming, and carefully placed steps they are, shown in the second oboes imaginative leaping and creeping. There is also more than a hint of breathlessness, in their progress, 24/25.

Crying, 26 through 29, is replaced by the acknowledgement, of ‘you word’, and an eventual ‘Abba Father’, at 34/35.

But the line is so beset with leaps, chromatic notes and irregular rhythm, it must be certainly assumed, that any peace, from the opening chorus, is long long gone, indeed, the ‘da-capo’, is full, of woeful melismatic singing.


‘Um. Yummy! This word, is food to my soul and balm to my breast and this pasture, -which I call my delight and my all, is a foretaste, of heaven. Gather together, Good Shepherd, all of us poor and bewildered creatures and bring us, soon, to the end of our journey, which will be, your sheepfold.’

A feast, to behold, -and a yummy one, at that. Triumph, at the foretaste of heaven, but angst, at the poor and bewildered.

Journey’s end and the security of that sheep-fold, is a relief to all.


‘Happy and lucky flock, the sheep of Jesus. The world, to you, is a heavenly kingdom, where you are already tasting the goodness, of Jesus. There is also hope, faiths reward and a sweet slumber, after death.’

A happy flock indeed and another rocking pastorale moment, this time, full of the the hope and contentedness, of the goodness of Jesus and the gentle slumber of death.

The good old old traits, of a country idyll are back on show, -rustic pipes and fiddles, -lilting compound time, a slow gigue, really, groups of three notes almost becoming, a rocking berceaux, the slumber of death? -a drone-like bass line, emphasising, the first, of each, of those three beats.

Three, one bar phrases, are followed, by an extended three bar phrase, with a little shuffle, to end this leisurely trot.

All is sweetness and light, with even a little vocal shuffle, at the mention of the ‘…heavenly kingdom…’ 9 through 12, and the contemporary realities, of that experience.

The happy and lucky status, of these happy and lucky sheep, ‘Beglückte Herde’, is really, for the first time, truly reflected, in the ecstatic shape of the musical line, 12 through 15 and 25 through 28.

The middle section, 33, is all about taste and hope and 37, through to the return, the slumber of death, the Todesschalfe. This is low and low-down, in pitch as well as mood and marked pianissimo, 38, in the score, with an even lower pianissimo, at 46.

Correspondingly, ‘…hoffet’, hopes, rise high, 24…and higher still, 43.


‘The Lord, is my faithful shepherd, in whom, I put, all my trust. He leads me, -the little lamb that I am, to feed, in the most beautiful, green pastures. He guides me, to fresh and cool water, to thoroughly refresh and nourish, my soul, through His blessed word, of grace.’

A sort of Ps 23 text, this simple choral, is a simple and unsophisticated musical realisation, of the good shepherd, His actions, provisions and His care.

The ‘guiding and leading’, to the fresh and cool water, seems, to me, ambiguous, -as, in fact, does the nourishing, of the soul and both places, are associated, strangely, with a special and individual part, that Bach has written, into the score, for the Taille, as well as the only use, of semiquaver movement, in the whole of this choral setting.

The last line, -an almost, -in the soprano part-, repeat, of the first line, but rising, only to the sub-dominant, instead of the dominant and ending, on the tonic, instead of the mediant, is a statement of faith, in that blessed word, of grace, that is helped along, by the simplest simplicity, of the 642 chord, last beat, of bar 13.

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