Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

– Quinquagesima – Sunday 19th February – J.S.Bach cantata BWV 159 – ,Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem’ –

Feb 18, 2023

This cantata employs a simple orchestration, strings + continuo with a 4-part chorus and soloists, although there is no soprano aria or recit. One single oboe is added in the 4th movement aria.

1/Arioso e Recitativo:

Jesus: ‘Behold!

Soul: Come and see my heart and soul.
Where is Jesus going?

J: We go up,

S: Up?
It a cruel path and my sins are like a monstrous mountain.
How difficult a climb it will be.

J: To Jerusalem.

S: Ah!
Do not go, because a cross is being prepared for you, on which you shall certainly bleed to death.
Here they are looking for scourges and making rods, with which to beat you and fetters that will be waiting for you.
do not go there yourself.
If you stay here, I will not not have to climb up to that heavenly Jerusalem,
-but, Ah!, regrettably, I will be going down, into hell instead.

This text is a highly dramatic declaimed dialogue, between Jesus, -bass voice and a soul, -alto voice. This becomes immediately apparent, with an impassioned and bold melismatic cry by Christ, ‘Behold!’, to be followed later, by ‘We go up’, bars 7, through 10, and ‘Jerusalem’, bars 124, through 23.

An alternation, between arioso and recitativo, clearly distinguishes the calm and controlled voice of Christ and the concerned and fearful voice of the soul.
This difference must clearly be heard clearly, in performance.

The ‘…going up…’, of Christ, 7, through 10 is characterised with 7th leaps and climbing lines, the soul’s sin in terms of a mountain, coloured with accents, for instance, Gb, bar 13.

‘…Jerusalem…’, is singled out by Christ as the destination, bars 14, through 23 and from thereon, the soul, alone, recounts the fact that remaining here, bar 30, Ab, and without that entry into Jerusalem, sins will be paid for, with a permanent visit to Hell. Notice the shriek of horror, 32, followed by the literal descent, down into the abyss.

2/Duetto (with chorale)

Soul: ‘I will follow after you,

Chorale: I shall stand by you,

S: through spits and insults.

C:so do not despise me.

S: I will embrace you once more, on the cross

C: I will not leave your side, until your heart breaks.

S; and will not let you leave my breast.

C: When you head turns pale, in the last moments of death,

S; When you must finally go,

C; even then, I will hold you

S: you shall find, in me, your tomb.

C: to my chest and in my arms.’

To fully understand this text, it is helpful to read each part straight through, separately.

The ‘following’ soul is anticipated in the walking and wandering-like bass line of the continuo and taken up by the alto voice, the whole covered by the chorale melody, which continues, almost unheard by this unconcerned soul, who just continues in her committed, stoic and impassioned song, 13 through 17.
Both texts are similarly committed to the saviour, come what may.

Mention of the cross, 35/36, darkens the the musical landscape,
-only momentarily, as the stoicism continues.
The key to understanding this, may be found in the somewhat alarming text of the closing Corale.

Notice the intensity and commitment, of soul to saviour, 60, through 74, as a determination to hold on and to Christ, is emphasised in the music.


‘Now, my Jesus, I shall grieve for you, in my own space.
The world may continue to indulge itself in the poison of worldliness,
but I shall comfort myself, with my tears,
-not yearning for any pleasures,
until I myself, have seen you in your glory
and been redeemed by you.
Then, I shall be refreshed, by you.’

A rather up-beat, light and sunny feel, seems perhaps, to miss the point of this serious text.

Nevertheless, Bach does let us know what this grieving corner is like, bar 3 and we do hear the horror-of-hedonism, 4 through 5.
The ‘…comfort of tears…’, 6 and the pain of not yearning for pleasures, 7/8 are, as well, clearly defined.

A change of mood is needed, in the declamation, bar 8. We must fully grasp and appreciate this revelation of glory, as seen by the countenance, bars 8 through 9, with its close following redemption and refreshment.
Both of these must clearly be heard and understood, by the listeners.


‘It is finished.
The suffering and pain is over.
From the fall into sin, we have now, by God, been justified.
I rush to give thanks to my Jesus.
Good-night, to this world.’

The slow moving bass line, is mirrored by the slow moving harmony, sustained by a slow and rich fulness from strings, ‘halo-ic’, ethereal and mystical, full-bodied music telling, story-like, the truth, of a sustained progress, to a final victory.

Nevertheless, a lone and plaintiff oboe, shapes the reality of a strange present, where an ongoing awareness, of pain and suffering, reminds us, of what has been achieved,
-an arrival in g minor, bar 3, serving either as a despair, or an accomplishment, depending how you ‘feel’ the approach.

This aria seems a long haul. To reap the benefits, we must be focused throughout, on harmony, line and text, as all three will interact, in confirming our faith, as a vehicle in continuing to believe what has been achieved.

The voice mirrors the oboe and suffering is already apparent, bar 11 and the ‘…sinful fall…’, 13, through 14, drops down. But the justification, bar 15/16 rises, with semiquavers, throughout 17-18, arriving, just about and with difficulty, at C major, bar 19.
Notice the harmonic leanings, 15/16/17/18.
All this is ‘sealed’, with a semiquaver oboe, 21, through to 23.

The differences in this musical re-statement, 27 are important, as the restatement of the text, 32/33, is now, of course, sung to and in, a different light.

‘…rushing…’, or ‘running’, is now a priority and those oboe semiquavers come in their own, led firstly by the voice and followed-on, by the oboe itself with strings energizing¬† the ‘…thanks-giving…’, 36, through 38 and leading on, to this great farewell-to the-world, 39, the voice, bowing low, via a c minor arpeggio, dropping not only low, but also long.
Bars 48, through 55 reiterate, with noble sincerity, a final finishing with the things of this world, a restatement of faith, 56, through 58, finally signing off.


‘Jesus, to me, your passion is just pure joy,
and your wounds, crown and disgrace,
are, to my heart, a pleasure.
My soul walks on roses when I think of this,
-and the result of this,
that a place in heaven, is given to me.’

This beautiful harmonization starts by leading us, literally, into understanding that the Passion must be, to us, a pure joy. In doing this, we realise not only this fact, but we also experience the vehicle, through which this fact is so impressed upon our spirit, the music itself. This process comes in two sections, a presentation, of the passion itself, bars 1-2 and then, of the ‘…pure joy…’, of the realisation, of that event.

The next 2 lines of text may, to our ‘contemporary’ ears, be alarming.
Bach soothes this impact, with 4 bars of ‘flat’ and almost bland harmony and movement.

‘Meine Seel auf Rosen geht’ translates into fine poetic English,
-yet Bach remains reasonably un-moved.


Because the final 3 lines of text, set in motion by bar 11, ‘…consider this…’, are where the real sweetness lies.


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