Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

– Fourth Sunday after Easter- 15th May 2022 – J.S.Bach cantata BWV 166 – ,Wo gehest du hin’-

May 8, 2022

This ‘questioning’ cantata, is modest in length and forces, -strings and continuo, with oboe and one aria for each voice, with one bass recit, the whole, with chorus, joining, tutti, for the final choral, but overwhelming, in the passion, of its sentiment.


‘Where are you going?’

By the very nature of this being a bass-voice aria, it does bring to mind, the vox Christi, the voice of Christ.

In the biblical quote, Christ is bemoaning the disciples, that they themselves are not asking Him this question.

But could it be, that in this context, the librettist, Bach and Christ Himself, are in fact, asking us this question?

The questioning nature of this opening and this cantata, is reflected in the ambiguity of the musical metre.

Is it 3, or 2, beats in a bar?

The hemiola operates bars 11 through 15, but the phrasing also sets up a two-feel, particularly 11 through 13.

As this simple question, is repeated, over and over, -really ad-infinitum, Bach extends and develops, the original line, that of 14 through 18, by using, extending and developing, its musical combination, -of quaver and crochet pitch, and its rhythmic variety, -3 quavers, quaver + 2 semiquavers and quaver-rest-quaver, into a robust and rounded discussion, philosophical in attitude and intent, as to the nature, of this ‘where’ and as to whom, it might be addressed.

-24 through 31 is getting into and onto, a 6/8 time, -harmonic implications, 34 through 38, with the c minor chord, first beat of 36, the coloratura, 40 through 43 and beyond, the final 20 bars of vocal line, almost one phrase.

Notice the double ‘Wo’, 46 and the 3/4 bar, 60-61.


‘I will think and be mindful, of heaven and not give my heart to the world, because, -whether I go or stay, stand or don’t, the question in my mind is simply this: Where are we all going?’

The questioning continues.

This long (reconstructed) and beautiful dialogue, -a musical reality in this living uncertainty, takes place, between a single oboe and a single violin, beginning with 6 bars of mutual discussion, where an appraisal of the main ideas and arguments, -heaven, heart, mind and direction, are laid out, for all, to hear.

The mindfulness of heaven, and the presentation, of the heart, -not to the world, but, by implication, to heaven, is outlined 7 through 9.

But it seems a decision, reluctantly reached, with most probably, a degree of regret.

This is apparent, in the repetition, 9 through 11, where ,…Hertz…’ reaches up, to a high E natural.

13 through 17 is a closer look at this heaven-mindfulness, with the downward vocal drop, 14 and an extended melisma, in sad recognition, of, ‘…not giving (into)…’ the draw of the world.

Each instrumental interlude, may be thought of as musical reflection, of inward rumination.

The crossing of parts, e.g. 18/19, is a cleaver way generating new thought and fresh vision, within more, of the same.

The middle section, 31, begins with an upward walking shape and ending, with a lingering, at,

,…stehe…’ stay, or stand,

which is repeated, 31 through 34, both times, -with an octave drop, so that, at 34, -with an octave rise, we are all brought face-to-face, -again, with that certain regret, 35/36, with this big question, asked at bar 37, followed again, by distinct lingering on staying, or standing.

Confusion, as to whether this is all about where Christ is going, or where humanity is going, is perhaps another question and that, on top of the question, as to where are we heading anyway?


‘I beg you, Lord Jesus Christ, do not let my thoughts stray. At no time can you let me wander, from this resolve. Hold me firmly to it, until my soul, leaves its nest and journeys, on, into heaven.’

The simple chorale melody, is set out and sung out, clearly, by the soprano voice, solo or otherwise.

What makes it special, is the way that Bach prepares us, -1 through 6, to experience it, colouring and enhances it, using the two main ideas of the short introduction, and in that process and experience, transforming the latter, as the text unfolds.

The interest, of the opening 6 bars, is held in the thickened string part, -which would suggest a tutti soprano line and not just a solo, rather than in the continuo, which is only partly imitative, 1st bar, dropping down the interval, of a fifth, and following the strings, for only 4 notes.

There are many dead spots, or rests and it is left, to the top-line melody, on its own, to drive and energise, the direction of this music.

The text seems to centre in three ideas: begging, straying or wandering thoughts and the journeying to heaven.

The leaping aspect, of the first three-and-a-half-bars, with its erratic and jagged 5ths, 3rds, 4ths, sixes and sevens, -and this with precious little support, from a somewhat inert and insipid continuo, is surely this begging idea?

The last 3 bars though, are different.

Swirling and scale-like, these new semiquavers, must surely be those straying and wandering thoughts, -straying and wandering, we know not where?

It is worth noting, that the first 3-and-a-half-bars, divide up, into three unevenly and across-bared, sections:

bars 1 – second beat of 2, 6 crochet beats,

third beat, of 2 – second beat of 3, 4 crochet beats, and

third beat, of 3 – second beat, of 4, 4 crochet beats.

The final 2-and-a-half-bars, might fall into a very uneven phrase structure:

2 crochet beats,1 crochet beat, 4 crochet beats and 2 crochet beats,

-all very straying and wandering.

As this choral progresses, Bach weaves these ideas into and around the text.

firmly abiding/ continuo and the change, at bar 37.

At, ‘…hold me firmly to it…’, bar 37/38 there is a change. The top strings, imitate the choral metre, and the continuo adopt a partial-semiquaver-rhythm, one of only 4 broad areas, -14/15, 37/38, 43 and 51/53, where this happens, and all areas where those thoughts are evoked, either straying or firmly abiding, most often with the co-operation, of the soul.

In fact, the swirling scale-ic semiquavers, (those wandering thoughts), become, in Bach’s hands and heart, changed and transfigured, into the journeying into heaven, of the last line.


‘As rainwater flows away and colours fade, so it is with those pleasures, that so many think so highly of. Although sometimes, hopes and fortunes blossom, unexpectedly, while all is going well, the final hour, may suddenly strike.’

This recit is subtle, in its telling…

Just as that rainwater, has flowed away, downwardly, -bar 2, and those colours, have faded, mysteriously, -bar 3, worldly pleasures, literally, rise up, -bar 4.

Those who feel triumphant, about this, crow, triumphantly, on a top E flat… and ‘blooming good fortune’, rules, 8/9, albeit giving way, to a whimsical dark humour, 11/12, as that final hour strikes, so suddenly.


‘Let us all beware, when the goods times come, -laughing away, as they do, because it could all change, by the evening, in ways, that we could not, have conceived of, in the morning.’

Fortune does indeed laugh, -and out loud.

The ritornello, 1 though 8, dividing itself, into speech and laughter and the voice, the same, 9 through 16.

And so it goes on.

At 42, the laughing continuo, heralds the approaching evening, and as such, it becomes, the mouthpiece of doom, bars 51 through 54, swinging all of us, into ‘a’ minor, -a leading key, of Bb major?

Who would have thought that could have happened?

The continuo continues to bring the bass of doom, right to the very end of this middle section.


‘Who knows how near my end is. Time goes by, death approaches; how swiftly and nimbly, does the trial of death, seem to approach. My God, I pray, -through Christ’s blood, grant me a good and happy end.’

The, to a certain extent, frivolous music, of the previous number, to a certain extent, covers over the seriousness of its text.

No such luck here, as this is certainly sober music, funereal, in its sotto voce undertones.

At, ‘…time goes by…’ and the ‘…trial of death…’ Bach’s g minor 7th chord, sets the thoughtful swing, of these first 4 lines of text, at last, into some sort, of reality and, at the same time, prepares us, for the tone, of a prayer, of, and for, a safe passage, one delivered, in a tone of surprising optimism.

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