Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

– Fifth Sunday after Easter 22nd May 2022 – J.S.Bach cantata BWV 87 – ,Bisher habt ihr nichts gebeten in meinem Namen’ –

May 16, 2022

Orchestral strings and continuo, are joined by a pair of oboes, -with an oboe da caccia option, and the 4 solo singers, join with all, tutti, for the final choral.


‘Up-till-now, you have asked me to do absolutely-nothing at all, in my name.’

For Bach, I think the question is, what might we have asked Him, Jesus, to do? This is an interesting, valuable and vital question and one which Bach answers cleverly.

The 5-part counterpoint is not strict, more polyphonic than fugal, more imitative than free, but nevertheless, it is ingenious and musically satisfying.

The 3 bar ‘theme’, appears first, in the continuo part, 1 through 4.

Several main ‘units’ of rhythm, are apparent, in their use by other instrumental parts and lines:

-quaver rest, 2 x semiquaver, 2 x crochet, -2 straight crochets, -dotted crochet, 2 x semiquavers.

The whole mix, is made up of a mixture, of these units and their extensions, where imitation, varied canon and uneven phrases operate, freely.

The result, is a concise and tightly organised musical experience, where the bass voice, 6 times, in its one continuous entry, uses the same words, ‘…in my name…’

Fugal in sensibility and tight in execution, but free in structure.

Bach answers his own question, but constructing a 5-way interplay of notes, ‘units’ and phrases, -questions themselves, where words have become music and the answers are to be found, in the combination of the whole.

If we listen attentively, carefully and correctly, these answers, sometimes imaginative, to those questions, they themselves, sometimes innovative, are as plain as the notes on the paper and the sound in our ears.

Try the extended question, 8 through 11, oboe/violin one, or the extended and very long, detailed answer, viola/oboe de caccia, 23 through to the end.

Jesus wants us, to ask questions, as He has answers, that cannot be heard, unless those questions, are asked.


‘Oh! that Word, which fills our spirit and soul, with fear. Humankind, listen to and understand what lies behind it. Because you have deliberately infringed, both the law and the gospel, therefore, now, pray, and in serious humility.’

The rise and fall, of the musical line, follows the contour of the text, in the most simple way. Notice the sort-of-supertonic Ab chord, at, what I have very loosely translated, as

‘serious humility’,

which is actually,

‘penitent-reverence, or/and devotional repentance’

…take your pic!


‘Forgive, Father, our guilt and still have patience with us. When we pray respectfully, and say things like, ‘in your own time’, please do not speak any more, in meaningful stories, but just help us, ourselves, just to pray.’

Bach sees this text, as one of an intense pleading, where we are, sincerely, asking for time, in order to change fundamentals, within us and so, the music follows on, along similar, pleading patterns.

The continuo opens with a series of ‘split-chords’, 5 initially, followed by another 5 and then 3, bars 1 through 11.

These, in effect, spread, before the object of this pleading, the main requests, or the main issues, that of guilt and its perceived remedies, patience and reverence, -or as I have presented it, humility.

Accented and unaccented appogiatoras speak for themselves.

The held Bb, second oboe, perhaps might be waiting, or forbearance and the semiquaver passage, 3 through 4, second oboe, those pleading prayers, themselves.

Bar 8, more patience and forbearance, oboe 1 and pleading prayers, oboe 2.

The use of oboes da caccia, themselves, perfectly capture the natural woody-process, of prayer and intercession. This music begins dark and darkens as it continues, -see the Ab, bar 4.

The forgiving-pleadings, of the opening text, are imitated, by the passing notes of the oboes, bars 12 through 13, followed by forbearance, patience and pleadings, for forgiveness, 13 through really, right up to 31.

Note the repeated notes of the soloist, 14 through 16 and 24, through 25 and the coloratura, at ‘reverent respectful prayer’, 37, through 28 and, as well, the thinning texture, 31 through 35, where the text again, talks of respectful payer and reverence.

At 46, the texture thins, as the oboes retreat and the continuo, as a result, appears to come forward and as it does, laying-out, with those split and spread chords, this specific prayer request, one that simply requests, ‘no more stories, just prayer’.

‘At thy bidding’, or, better, ‘…in your own time,’ 47, the intercession of the oboes cease, except for skeletal-references, tiny reminiscences, which demonstrate their ability to be quiet and allow prayers, words and supplication, to be simple and focused.

They soon creep back, 50 through to the end of this middle section, with intercession, pleading, more-so and more desperately, as the soloist extends the intensity to triplet semiquavers, at ‘…vertreten…’, represent or intercede.


‘When our guilt rises, even up to heaven, you will see and know, that my heart, can hide nothing at all, from you. So, seek to just comfort me.’

Strings only, accompany the tenor voice and the change of colour is deliberate, as Bach seeks to establish the pathos, of reality.

The opening 6/4 chord, + 5, shifts, into a diminished chord, on ‘…Schuld …’, or ‘fault’, or trespass/(guilt) and back again, at, thoughts of heaven.

Again, at, ‘…du siehst…’, ‘you see’, a deeper sense of that guilt, is apparent, with an emphasis, on the seeing, into the heart, which ‘…can hide nothing at all…’

The subtlety, of the impossibility, of trying to hide, even by keeping silent (verschweight) is cleverly coloured, by the unexpected and stunning 6/4 chord of Bb major, + Ab.

The pain, that needs the comfort, articulated in an almost, arioso manner, is evident, in the flattened 6th, Ab, at 6 and then, the Db, followed by dissonant clashes, Ab/F#/G, bar 7, finally to be resolved with that comfort, trösten, at the end, of 8.


‘In the world, you will have tribulation. But be of good cheer: I have overcome, the world.’

John 16:33

This 2-part, is formed, from the time and shapes, of the opening 8 bars.

There are three ideas, or ‘units’, that make up the whole, of these first 8 bars:

-2 repeated quavers, which happen 4 times,

-an upward flourish, which appears twice,

-4 lots of semiquavers, in groups of 6, all of which start with an upward leap, diminishing, in the third appearance and changing, to downward droops, in the fourth and final appearance, which is by half a bar.

Aggressive, angular, severe and grumpy, is this the epitome, of tribulation and angst?

‘…Angst…’ itself, 11, droops form an F# to an F natural and at 14, the line drops down, into the tribulations of the world, only to rise even higher, to C and then B and Bb, with a trill!

The most impressive ‘angst’ is 32 through 33, cruel chromatic.

‘…aber seid getrost…’ sets a different pace, with, initally, some held, longer notes, on ‘…trost…’, confidence/(good cheer) and the tonal colour, shifts, a little, towards the major.

It does not last long, as überwunden takes on the character of an angst, -59, through 64, perhaps reminding us, that overcoming is an active ingredient, of faith.


‘I shall suffer in my silence. Jesus will show me how, as He comforts me, in my pain. Begone, cares, sorrows and sadness’s, because, why should I give up hope? So, pull yourself together, troubled heart.’

This siciliano, for strings and continuo only, with the tenor voice, is all comfort and peace.

A steady and stable heart-beat persists, despite all this suffering. Bar 5, A natural, and bar 8, chromatic notes, and in silence, bar 6 through 7, inner parts rests.

‘S’ is the letter, that sets the pace:

suffering and silence, sorrow and sadness.

Serenity might be added to those four, as the long, sustained and throbbing, monotoned bass-line, mirrored by sustained inner string parts, easily establishes that quality.

Silence itself, rather than just silent moments, is just not possible, where music is in play, so any silence, must be a state of mind, a resolve, achieved during and before any end, is in sight.

‘Jesus wird mir hülf erzeigen‘, 16 through 17, is pleading, in intensity, leading into two bars, of exquisite pain, bar 20, through 21.

The vocal flourish, 24, sends sorrows, sadnesses and sufferings off, into oblivion.

Bar 29 is a message of resignation, simple, bland and stark, musically as well as textually.


‘Must I always be troubled? If Jesus loves me, all my pain, should be sweeter than honey. A thousand sweet kisses, He presses onto my heart. When any pain does come, even bitter suffering, it should be turned, by His love, into joy and gladness.’

This well known choral melody, is ‘laced-up’, with some notable moments:

-bar 1, ‘…sein…’ and ‘…Honnig…’ in the repea, is hi-lighted.

-bar 13, the alto tie, at ‘…Pein…’

-the textual subtly, of pain, being turned, into gladness, via love, bars 13, through to the beginning of 17. Perhaps that transmutation, makes a start, at the A7chord, on the last beat, at 15?

The bitter suffering, 18/19, speaks for itself.

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