Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

– Second Sunday after Epiphany – 15th January 2023 – J.S.Bach cantata BWV 155 – ,Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange?’ –

Jan 17, 2023

A string orchestra + continuo form the main support to this cantata, the 4-voice choir, only appearing, during the final choral.
A large and fine bassoon part, rare in any cantata, is happily very present and correct, throughout the second movement Aria.


My God,
-Oh dear, how long?
My distress is so great
that I can see no end at all,
to pain and sorrow.
Your sweet, graceful glance, is hidden
under night and clouds.
The hand of love is also fully withdrawn.
I am anxious for comfort.
On a daily basis, I find that my cup of tears is empty
and the wine of joy is just not there.
My confidence has disappeared.’

The music is mindful of two aspects of the text, namely interminable waiting and distressed misery.
Bach succeeds admirably, in tackling both, the continually repeated heart-beat-bass-line, that, so slowly and almost stopping, timelessly seems to be getting us really nowhere, slowly.
-and only to change at bar 12, where we realise that our daily quota of tears is drained dry, daily,
and the overwhelming feel of despondency, hanging over our downwardly held heads.

The ‘sweet glance of grace’, bar 5, is indeed hidden and we can hear, at 8, the hand of love, literally being withdrawn, ‘…all the way back.’
‘…bange’, bar 10, comes as a shock to the emotions, even perhaps bringing that familiar, but anxious, rush of fear and dread, into most human hearts.
‘The cup of tears’, bar 12, is squeezed, rather than poured, twisting the gut, Eb/D/C sharp/D, as it empties.

We must remember, that this is recitative, so, despite the relentless and stubborn metronome-like tick and beat, there must be some sort of give in this experience. That comes, bars14, through 15, with a hallucinatory vision of ‘…the wine of joy…’, that, like a mirage, is glimpsed, fleetingly, only to be unmasked as a product, of wishful thinking.

The collapse of confidence, 16 through 18, is a sinking experience in itself and should be listened to, as if the foreground of the voice, is cradled in the background, of the orchestra.


‘Have faith and hope.
Be serene in God.
Jesus knows the right time to encourage you, with His help.
When the troubles are over, He will open His whole heart to you.’

This jaunty although stoic bassoon part is perfectly written for the instrument, extremely large leaps (faith?) are contrasted with short figurative flashes (hope?). They contrast well, as a sort of background ‘whistle’, to these two actual lovers, faith and hope, who, even in their measured fashion, dance along in perfect harmony, imitating each other. They are determined, with their simple message, to dispel any trace of that opening depression.
-And they succeed, splendidly, transporting us all, right into a serene and arresting serenity, 14, through 17.

One gets the feeling, bar 25, that the opening slow dance, almost a walk, now picks up, perhaps twice as fast, as the bass line becomes more note-y and talk turns to the timing of The Saviour’s intervention and the alto’s words of wisdom as reiterated, by the tenor. The bassoon’s hopeful motif is more forthcoming, 27, and serenity again is in the air, this potential polyphonic trio, turning perhaps even polyamorous.

At 31, ‘…when the bad times are over…’ the bass-line thins out, slowing back down again, to that stately trudge and the protagonists return to their proven form, albeit, with a different message, that, after those troubles are over, the whole heart of The Saviour will be opened.

Memories of those good and beautiful times reappear, 35, through 39, although the actual opening of the heart, appears muted, the bassoon,41, seemingly, in the end, dismissive.


Be content, Oh soul.
If, to you, it appears, that your best friend has left you,
If He does and it is true,
even just for a little time,
keep faith, O heart.
It will only be for a short time
and soon, in place of your tears,
there will be the comfort of wine and joy.
Honey will replace bitterness.
Do not think that He takes pleasure, in troubling you,
He is only testing your love, through suffering.
Your heart weeps in sad times,
so that the light of His grace, may appear to you, more telling and more lovely.
He will, at the end, reserve for you, the thing that really delights you.
So let Him prevail, O heart.’

This long recit is really rather good, Bach taking much care with music that gets to the heart of the words.

The departing friend, departs,
-albeit perhaps with uncertainty and definitely with reluctance, bar 4, bass line, but the resolute bass, confesses faith for the heart, bar 6.

This is followed by the bitter tears, 8 and the wine of joy, with its little skip, on Freudenwein, 9 and the ear-catching Eb, 10, bitterness, contrasted, with honey.
A scampering bass line is just that nasty taste left in the mouth and at bar 16, the ‘sad, troubled times’, composed from the heart, are contrasted with the, by now arioso-like ‘…light of grace…appearing all the lovelier…’ experienced, by the heart and a last plea, to the heart.

This wise vocalist winds up this word, with wiser ones, ‘…Let Him prevail, O heart.’ a three bar, overlapping continuo coda, dotting I’s and underlining both T’s…and utterances.


‘Cast yourself, O heart, into the loving arms of the highest,
so that He can have mercy on you.
Lay the burden of your worries and cares
-and all else that oppresses you,
upon the shoulders, of His grace and mercy.’

The ‘sing-a-long’ feel to this penultimate number is misleading, as this important text leaves Bach with no choice, but to attempt to show that the breadth of his musical shoulders are wide enough to accommodate the task of illustrating both grace, on the one hand and this yoke of cares, burdens and worries, on the other. This, of course, he does magnificently, employing a combination of sustenance and dissonance, whereby the weight of burden, is clearly contrasted with these highest, loving arms.

The dotted pastoral feel is full of trees to hug and yet the burden is no joke and contrasts starkly with the green idyllic landscape, cutting through the sustained undergrowth, bar 7, with a keen blade.
A triplet figure introduces both arms and love, and this is immediately developed, bar 16, going from fearful Eb, via less so C minor, to full acceptance, C major, 18.

Another burden is cast, 24/25.

A combination, of the arms-and-love ‘motif and the tree hugging idyll, gives us those ‘broad shoulders of grace’, 28 through 30, where the triplet figure, instead of hanging around on a flattened mediant, drips and drops, eventually bedding down, into the flesh and blood of these arms.

At 32 through 35, grace, with all its many faces, is revealed, in a triplet exchange of arms and love, between voice and continuo.


‘Although it appears that he is unwilling, do not be frightened,
because when and where He is nearest to you, He will be, at His most elusive.
Be much more certain of His word, and even though your heart will resist this,
do not be down cast.’

The first beautiful four chords give nothing,
– but their assumed Englishness away- and yet the last beat of the first full bar, betrays an uncertainty that has been prevalent in this cantata, namely, the uncertainty of unwillingness and this ends musically, in an interrupted ending, middle of bar two.

The next phrase, 9/10, wonderfully displays the certainty of His word, followed, 11 through 12, by the faltering heart.
A drop from F sharp to F natural prepares us for the nearly half-hearted ending, one that is, despite the words, downcast, this nicely coloured by a three-part texture on the first beat, of the final bar.

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