Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

– 21st Sunday after Trinity – 6th November 2022 – J.S.Bach cantata BWV 109 – ,Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben’ –

Oct 29, 2022

An oboe orchestra, with 4-part choir is joined by a single Corno da caccia, where it appears only twice, firstly in the opening chorus, where it has a mostly, independent part and secondly in the exciting orchestral choral, the final movement, where it simply reinforces the chorale melody.


‘Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.’

The long and convolute opening phrase, four-and-a-half-bars, sets the pace for this faltering and somewhat pleading text and this is further reinforced, in the long, thoughtful opening ritornello, that Bach weaves throughout the orchestra, -with lows and highs, solo and tutti, to spice-up, the color, of unbelief.

An alternating Eb/E natural is responsible for harmonic ambiguity, always a bi-product of failing faith.

At the eventual entry of the chorus, the all or nothing option is stark, where solo and tutti seems a reasonable option, bearing in mind the changing orchestral options, concertante-like, piano, or forte.

Choral and orchestral theme is linked only by initial upward leaps and independence is guaranteed, between belief and unbelief.

Plaintiff ‘hilfe’, 23, are not as common as they might be.

The climax begins, 58 and reaches its point, 68, with a series of accented appoggiaturas, culminating, at 75, with ,Unglauben’, unbelief.


‘The hand of The Lord, has not yet shortened, so much, that I cannot be saved. Oh dear, I am already worried, that I am sinking down to the earth, which is sending me to destruction. The Highest is still willing, but His fatherly heart is breaking. Oh no, He does not seem to hearing, or listening, to sinners. Surely He must soon rush to help, to heal destress? Oh dear, still I remain very anxious, for your consolation. O Lord, how long?’

Despite this desperate text, it appears, that time, is not yet out.

Nevertheless, that sinking feeling, -bar 4, is still unsettling, right down, in those deep-dumps and fear, 6, seems even dump- deeper.

But The Highest is still willing, 7/8, even if He appears deaf.

He says, He will hasten, -with semiquavers, 11, to help and heal.

But dumps seems still the order, of the day, 14.

The last arioso utterance, bars 15, through 17, ‘Lord, how long?’, is a cry of anguish, the anguish leaving its anguished mark, on a high ‘A’.


‘How uncertain, is my hope. How my anxious heart wavers. The wick of my faith, is hardly burning at all and this almost broken reed, is now snapping. Fear is creating, evermore fresh pain.’

This is a troubled and self-centred soul indeed and questions of uncertainty and hope, are constant, -note the dotted figuration, bars 2, last beat, through 3, third beat, are constantly and obsessively, beaten into our conscious and subconscious ears, as Bach selects French dots, to set this moody and depressive text.

Unnatural leaps, 7ths and 9ths abound throughout the texture and on occasions, the orchestra disappears completely, as the texture thins and varies.

The vocal line, alternates, between the angular and the ‘fluide’ creating total uncertainty, as triplets, on this occasion, leaving aside baroque protocol, do not easily fit, with dots.

The obsession seems always, as is so often the case, the heart, the self, see 23, through 25.

The central section is dominated by this faltering wick, the snapping reed and, mist importantly, the fear, 33, through 36, that, we are told, is constantly bringing, evermore, fresh pain, -this point being made, so forcibly, that we cannot possibly miss it, 36 and again, 39, through 45.


‘Take hold of yourself, doubting heart, Jesus can still work wonders. The eyes, of faith, shall witness the healing power of The Lord. Even though fulfilment seems to be so distant, you can rely on his promise.’

Taking hold of yourself, is the drive behind this opening, although talk of faith, is questioning and probably, far too close to the sentiments of the previous aria. Defiance seems more appropriate, than the fulfilment, through the promise, that is on offer.


‘The Saviour knows, those, that are His. When their hope lies destitute, when the flesh and the spirit, war within them, He himself, shall stand by their side, and in that, faith, shall finally triumph.’

This, minuet-sarabande-like, ‘stress-on-the -second-beat’ aria, is a duet (+continuo), with a difference, in that imitation, between these two oboes, is slow off the mark, unity, rhythmic mirroring, being chosen over a difference-of opinion, imitation and counterpoint.

‘The Saviour knows his people..’ and so, he stands by their side.

The text, is the music.

With the vocal entry, a three-fold-chord (+ continuo), is spun, with increasingly independent wind parts, -first seen, at imitative and innovative.

Notice the profession of low-down-destitution, 24 through 27 and similar, at 44…and 52.

Destitution is one of the most persistent professions.

War is professed, 72 and yet, so is Faith, 80, through 83.

In the Christian faith, neither, is possible, without the other. 83.

This flesh-spirit-war really gets going, 100, through 115. The battle is won, adagio, 119-120: Faith wins.


‘Whoever hopes in God and trusts in Him, shall never be put to shame. Those who build on this rock, -although they suffer misfortune, here on earth, I have never seen a single person fall. If they, the faithful, trust, in God’s comfort, He will help them.’

This is one of Bach’s boldest, greatest and most terrifying chorale settings.

A Vivaldian nightmare, -with shocking surrealist chromaticism, bar 4, and devoid though, of really any, Venetian niceties.

The chorale itself, sleep walks in another world, of profile-nicety, standing alone in splendour.

But it finds itself immersed and caught-up, in ‘The descent into the maelstrom’. (Edgar Allen Poe).

There is a 10-and-a-half-bar introduction, before the chorus arrives.

Is this not strange and uneven, in our western tradition?

From the start, the chorus is at odds with the orchestra.

Is there is a sense, in which the setting, is at odds with the text, -in the opening three lines, anyway?

Maybe the 4th line, ‘misfortune’, is a key, to an understanding and this coupled, with a war, -spirit against flesh and visa-versa, from the previous number, shows us that the sub-text, is truly dreadful.

Something terrible is festering away, not far beneath the thin surface.

This is what Bach sees and seizes upon…with relish and gusto.

The 3 stringy onslaughts, of bars 4, through 6, are not heralded in the stabbing wind, 1 and 2, although they are quick and eager to pick these up, but only x2, 6 through 7, strings smashing in, second half of 7, followed by 3 slashes of that opening oboe blast, second half of 8, through 11.

All of this is rough, tough stuff, leaving us disorientated.

Bach purposely knows best and the onslaught is on…and on.

This is an Orwellian onslaught:

-Faith is war

War is faith-

Bar 45, sees winds stand down and strings stand in the breach, as this terrible bloody and brutal engagement, is contested, to the end and to the death.

The closing ritornello is a pleasing and the closing 12 bars, a multiple of 4.

There is a tendency for conductors to pull the emergency chord somewhere around 88, thereby, bringing this express-delivery, to a reasonably manageable stop, -but why?

The text tells us nothing, as to the extent of this war, or its time frame. And there is a momentum, that seems eternal.

Stopping is only a Sunday morning nicety.

Consolation and comfort is the real matter here.

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