Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

Third Sunday after Trinity – 20th June 2021 – J.S.Bach cantata BWV 21- ,Ich hatte viel Bekummernis’ –

Dec 13, 2022

A large and long, two-part cantata, 11 sections, 6+5, ‘Nach der Predigt’. Timps and trumpets, in the final chorus and trombones, as support to the choral parts, movement 9. Slow tempo-ed and mostly keyed in c minor, this setting reflects a text, in the main, obsessed with suffering, grief, tears and death. A masterly blend, of developed motet, on the one hand and operatic arias, with recit, on the other.


A concerto-like, slow movement, where a long-lined oboe, draws out a similar violin. These, very slowly and tenderly, cry-out, chromatically, to each other, unceasingly, each, out-doing the other, in their clashing suspensions,
-so evocative and pleasing to us, as romantic musical metaphors, for familiar emotional pains, yet, to the C18th ear, so much more un-pleasing, to them, as a real pain in the ear,
and all the time, underpinned, by a plodding bass-line, importantly moving by step, downward, at the beginning and over two bars and also, again, at 12, so that the whole, surely, sets-up a picture, of a grief-stricken soul, looking for consolation.

After these two, twice pause, lost in their own space, we all, lost in our own space, seem now more than adequately prepared, for the first chorus to come, where both grief and its antidote, consolation, are indeed, on offer.

Surely comes to mind a Bruckner symphonic introduction?


‘My heart was so deeply troubled,
but your comforting words, have revived me.’

The opening repetition, of ‘Ich’, three times, being frowned upon, as bad form, Bach attempts, to win back hearts, by constructing a cleaver blend of canon and fugato, these in themselves, exploring the thoughts and feelings, of these
-and maybe every deeply troubled heart
and this, certainly, more than three times, in each and every-way possible and almost impossible, Bach fits these notes together and together, again.

One wonder’s, if the heart is perhaps more deep, than troubled?

After a sudden stop, musical and cerebral, that is almost unwelcome, we are reminded of the possibility of not wallowing in our pity, as the text announces the fact, that comforting words, revive the spirit.
It is almost a shame, that the vivace speed increase, drags us away, from such comforting self-pity, into an almost unwelcome revival, of our spirit.  But, revived, it is.

Bach lifts us up, onto his baroque horse with its comforting trot and almost instantly, we forget our wallow-days and settle, into the saddle-days, of revival. We sing of ‘our souls’ and of comforting words, and this at the top of our voices. Before we can get too carried away, Bach pulls on those reins.

The reviving and freshening of ,erquicken’ is deeply impressed in us, by the withering and slowing down of the pace.
-luckily, for Bach, bearing in mind those critical souls at the start, redeemed, by a major chord.


‘Sighs, tears, grief and distress,
Anxious yearning, fear and death,
eat away at my distressed heart.
I feel misery and pain.’

Overwhelming expression, inspires a lone oboe, as, very slowly and deliberately, it pains itself and us, as during its seven bar introduction, it becomes, musically speaking, the text, that inspired it.
Four times, it repeats its rhythmic template, following up, with a considerable wail, before returning to its by-now, familiar routine. Voice and oboe, proceed to accompany, answer, intertwine and distance each other, in silence, harmony, dissonance, agony and ecstasy.

Their personalities tell of those pains, but, of course, the telling-of, is different, to the feeling-of and experiencing-of. At any time and at all times, both are all…and one.

The astonished continuo players are almost mute, in that they can only nplonk, fore-square chords with an occassional passing note, here, there, but never everywehere.

I hear a foreshadowing of Mozart, passing slowly over this poor, gnawed-at heart.


(s) ‘Why, in my distress, fear and dismay,
Have you turned, away from me?’

(G) ‘Do you not know child?
Do you not know the cry of those who are bound to you, by covenant and faithfulness?’

(s) ‘You were my delight, but now you seem to have become, cruel.
I look for you everywhere and call and cry but you seem unaware, of my woe and lament.’

This dialogue-approach, is repeated, in No’s 7 and 8.

Listen out, for the tremor, at trembling, ‘Zagen’ and the exclamation mark…semiquavers, at ‘und bist mir grausam worden’.


‘Streams of salty tears, floods everywhere
Storms and waves are destroying me,
The sea is full of tribulation,
-weakening my life.
and the mast and anchor are broken.
I am sinking into the deep.
There, I face the jaws of hell.’

A world of absolute pain, where we are told, even mast and anchor are about to break and we stare into the jaws of hell. All this is served up for us on a familiar dish of accented and unaccented appoggiaturas. The singer limps and lilts his way through his own catalogue of horrors and terrors, but at ‘storms-and-waves’, 24, Bach quickly leaves the church and drags the congregation, hook, line and sinker, across the road, into the opera house and into a maelstrom of Vivaldi,
– only for 4 bars though, but just enough for us to get a good soaking and for our singer, to demonstrate, how to stay afloat, despite those salty tears, on his flexible soft-pallet and all this, despite deep wounds afflicted in this sorrow-laden sae.

At 28, a calmer sea, but not so prosperous voyage, continues and he limps and his lamentable way, slowly on, although not quite into the jaws, of hell, just yet.

Exhausted, he sinks, right down into the deep depths, of ‘Grund’, seemingly determined to stay there, in those watery places, and with those very salty tears.

But, life does go on and back in church, waiting patiently, are a very keen chorus,
– and very keen they are to help too…


‘Why are you cast down, my soul?
Why are you uneasy?
Wait for God.
I shall thank him, for being a help, to my countenance
and my God.’

More cleaver choral writing, this time perhaps blending fantasia and fugue together, within a motet format.

An opening of alternate solo and tutti voice combinations, as part 1, comes to an end, really four sections, identified, according to the text;

-‘Why are you cast down…’ The quartet of solo voices are answered by the tutti chorus of four voices, adagio.

-‘Why are you uneasy…’ Semiquaver flourishes, image the restless soul and at 18, the rhythm cuts across three beats in one bar with four beats, in 2, real restlessness.

After a return, to a short adagio, ‘…im mir’, the mood changes again;

-‘Wait for God…,’ A set of four imitative entries, with sustained waiting wind chords, that lead into;

-‘I shall thank him…’ again leading into;

-‘…a help to my countenance’. Four solo imitative vocal entries, herald a solo ‘stretto-entry’ oboe, at the wrong place, which is answered, with violins and joined, eventually, by tutti chorus, the entries of which work upwards, from the basses and ending in an adagio, a re-emphasis of the idea of ‘my’ personal God.

‘Nach der Predigt’

‘After the sermon’.

During these next two sections, Bach again takes us out of the church,
-the building and the setting, migrating this time, although not quite so starkly, but definitely, into the opera house.

Two movements of vocal dialogue, where a soul, seeks comfort, from its Saviour:


(soul) ‘Jesus, my rest, my light.
Where are you?’

(Jesus) ‘Soul. I am with you.’

(s) ‘With me? Here, is nothing but night.’

(J) ‘I am your faithful friend, who watches over you,
-even in those dark places, where the demons live.’

(s) ‘Then, break-in, with the radiance and light, of your comfort.’

(J) ‘The hour has arrived, when your struggle,
shall be crowned with sweet refreshment.’

This desperate dialogue flows sweetly and naturally along, until, at 13, a short and sweet ‘arioso’ movement arrives and the soul is informed that;

‘…your struggle will be crowned, with sweet refreshment.’


(soul) ‘Come, Jesus, refresh and delight, with your look.

(Jesus) ‘I will come and refresh, with my look, of grace.’

‘This soul shall not live and not die, in its misfortune,
perish and yet inherit.
Doomed to live in grief waiting for salvation, through the vine.
Lost and yet chosen, hated, yet loved.
Jesus, sweeten my soul and heart. Depart cares and pains.
Rejuvenate with your glance of grace.’ [summary]

Immediately and literally, we are transported by Bach, again, into Watteau’s world of Arcadia, a place, where pastoral idylls of love and peace are the normal state and where soul and saviour, walk hand-in-hand and together, through the elysian fields, in blissful and eternal union.

Thankfully, this time, gone are the sugary-sweetness’s and the frolicking’s of fancies. Gone is the nonsense, of swinging, up in the trees today and down in the bushes tomorrow, Caritas with a touch of Eros. Not a trace of it.

This is the stuff of seriousness, a deep ground-level relationship, forged in the trust of a different sort of love, Agape love.

The accompanying musicians reflect this. No more to be heard are those ‘low-slung’ sounds of strings, strummed by egotistical soloists, fiddling with themselves and everybody else. Serious and sober, is the order of the day and night. Playing away in the background, means what it says.

Listen out, for a long and painful ,Kummer schweben’, or grief-hover affliction’, in the soprano voice and at the same time, a long soothing and healing ‘juice-of-the-vines’, from the bass voice., the two of course cancelling each other out in everything, except the music, which evolves, word and winds, disappearing, only to be refashioned, heard but unheard-of.

Having said that, they all do allow themselves time and interlude, for a little bit of dance together, where the soul asks for sweetness and The Saviour command’s cares and pains to vanish, accompanied by discreet, delicate and restrained instrumental skills.

Mutually intertwining and twining, in an eternal embrace of consecutive 6th’s and 4th’s, replenishing each other with ‘…deinem Gnadenblicke’, ‘your gracious glance’.

A truly memorable aria/recit. Worth pausing, for another hearing?

9/Chorus (with chorale):

‘Soul, be content.
The Lord, is doing you good.
What good are woes and laments?
What good is daily complaining?
By moaning, we make our ‘cross-bearing’ and suffering far greater.
Do not concentrate on the ordeal,
-that God has forgotten you,
and He only cares about those with good fortune.
The future will alter everything and reveal each ones goal.’

A cleaver setting of the chorale, where tenors remain silent while the rest of the chorus/continuo accompany with falling and rising lines, ‘Soul, be content.’

In the second verse of the choral, ‘Do not concentrate…’, the sopranos take the choral lead and the full band is joined by a quartet of trombones, reminding us, of these ‘ordeals’.

These two simultaneous texts, compliment each other, reflected, in Bach’s somewhat static but powerful presentation of both and more far-reaching in the optimism of verse two.
An almost mesmerising combination of texts and sounds, that transport and transfix.


‘Rejoice soul and heart
Vanish, go, pain and sorrow.
Tears, transform yourself, into pure wine,
Moaning, in turn, to singing.
The pure candle of love and comfort, burns in my soul and heart.
Jesus comfort’s me, with heavenly joy.’

At last, a real sense of optimism.

An opening ‘cello line, dropping down from the heights, picks itself up, four times and in the middle section, the singer speaks of transformations and (salty) tears are transformed into pure wine and moaning’s are turned into cries of joy. We hear his joys written into the musical line, as he proclaims that Jesus consoles him, with heavenly joy.


‘The lamb that was slain,
is worthy to receive
power, riches, wisdom, strength,
honour, praise and glory.

Blessing, glory, honour and power,
be to our God, from eternity to eternity,
Amen. Alleluia.’

Full band, including three trumpets.

‘The Lamb…’ A thoughtful contemplative opening, where the orchestra comments on each important point of this weighty text and we are given time, during these orchestral comments, to make and register, our meditative reactions.

Allegro: ‘Blessing, glory, honour…’ The second entry of the four solo voices, is accompanied, with appropriate decorative brilliance. When all these are exhausted, the full orchestra joins in and only then do all voices follow, completing Bach’s carefully graded build-up, to total involvement, for all.
Listen for an Alleluia and then an Amen, both of these being combined together in the stirring, yet sober and concise end to this triumphant movement of praise.









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