Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

– The 4th Sunday after Trinity – 2nd July 2023 – J.S.Bach cantata BWV 185 – ,Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe’ –

Jul 1, 2023

This cantata comes down to us in two versions. The1715 first performance, in Weimar, was revived in Leipzig, 1723, for which Bach made some small changes, mainly concerning the pitch and the instrumentation.

It may seem right and proper to use the 1723 version, as the ‘final-thought’, although this may not be proper, or even appropriate, depending on the conditions and instrumental availability,
-just those same constraints that influenced the composer in his final re-think.

The voices Bach chooses for arias and recitativo’s, are always in the lower fach, alto and bass, mellow as opposed to shrill, which gives this cantata a particular character and mood.
The chorus does not appear at all, save the closing chorale.

1/Aria Duetto:

‘Merciful and compassionate heart of eternal love,
arouse and stir my heart, through you,
that I may show goodness and mercy.
Flame of love, melt my heart away.’

This vocal duet movement, builds upon a thematic continuo, that, for the most part, transmogrifies, eventually, into straight swift quavers.
The opening of this theme has just a ghostly reminiscence of the closing chorale, but the chorale tune, intoned, from bar 7 by the clarion, has much more subscene, than just just a simple reminiscence. .

Imitative moments set off the vocalization, bar 5, but a mirror image, for instance, bar 3, from the continuo, gives Bach so much more to do and think about.

This innovative movement is as profound as it is simple.
Bach evokes a powerful sense of gasping breathlessness,
-the quaver continuo pulsation, is a really fast beating heart, as the human heart is aroused to show ‘….goodness and mercy…’
and textural references to:
the ‘…stirring of the heart…’,
‘…flame of love…’ and
‘…melt my heart away.’ are really memorable, in their musical inflection.

There is throughout this aria, a strong sense of upwardly rising energy, in pitch as well as intensity.


‘You hearts that have turned yourselves into stone and rock, melt and soften.
Consider what The Saviour is teaching you.
Show mercy and while still on earth, try to become like The Father.
Do not obstruct,
-through the forbidden sentence,
the judgement of The Almighty,
or else His jealous zeal, will destroy you.
Forgive and you shall be forgiven
Give during this life in good measure,
Put by some capital, which, one day, God shall repay, with a good interest.
For, in the measure that you give, shall it be measured, to you.’

That it is a musical fact, that this is a strings-only, ‘halo-ic’ recit,
-and with a strong string orientated continuo bass line, is important with regard to the composers reading and execution of this text.

The long and full sustaining power of massed and pianissimo strings, generates a very strong sense of, ‘as-from-the-Lord’.
A calm, measured and balanced attitude is, from the beginning, carefully set up.
Nevertheless, drama leads to lyricism at bar 3, ‘…melt and soften.’

We are led through the showing-of-mercy, bar 6 and the becoming-like-the-Father, bar 8.
At 9, the section concerned with obstructing-the-judgement-of-the-Almighty, leads into three serious and memorable commands: Forgive, Give and Put-by.

Suddenly, at bar 19, the secco attitude grows into an arioso feel and the ‘measured’ text, repeated, as it is measured, is mirrored, showing the same imitation, between voice and continuo,
-and incidentally, in hindsight, loosing its, in somewhat restrictive string-like shell.


‘Try, at this time, O soul, to scatter seed abundantly.
If the harvest is to make you glad, in the abundant eternity to follow,
then, those that have sown good things, shall joyfully gather sheaves.’

Complete orchestral forces, minus Clarion, now assemble for this alto aria, which really should follow straight on from the previous recit, with its theme of ‘measure’.

The oboe part, although meshed in with the first fiddle part, twice appears in an extended solo moment, combining with the voice and continuo,
-for instance, bar 26, through 29, where textural ‘…abundance…’ is reflected in the solo oboe’s excessive coloratura. The voice reflects its own gladdened heart at 18, through 21,
-albeit, with some reserve, at the length of this eternity,
-low ‘D’, bar 21.

I also detect some uncertainty, during the wavering E natural-E flat, bar 16.

Despite this, the music is unmistakably pastoral in character, a gently lilting and dotted bounce, carrying the whole along, in the spirit of these rather encouraging words.


‘Self-love can be a deception.
First pull the log from your own eye,
before you concern yourself,
with any other.
Even though your neighbour is not perfect,
remember that you are no angel.
Rectify and reform your own fallings.
How can one blind person walk the straight-and-narrow,
properly and easily, with another.
Will they both not,
-and to their sorrow,
fall together, into the ditch?’

This slightly condescending text is set, by Bach, without surprise, but listen out for the the last line, where the musical line, as well as the blind, do indeed, fall right down together .


‘This is the art of being a christian:
Know God and know yourself.
Burn with true love.
Do not judge unduly, or destroy another’s work.
Do not forget to treat your neighbour well.
All this will bring good-will, both for God and for man.
This is the art of being a Christian.’

This rather unique bass aria, is, in its revised version, reinforced at the octave, with upper strings, giving even more weight, to what was already a vocal and musical, uninterrupted,
and unstoppable, tour-de-force.

Essentially a unison sound, the keyboard continuo contributes harmonies that just give the listener enough to fill out a fuller picture.

Listen for the unforgiving catalogue of ‘commands’, bars 27, through 35 as vocally challenging as it is spiritual demanding.


‘I call on you, Lord Jesus Christ,
and I pray and beg you:
Hear my cry.
Give to me, at this time, mercy,
And do not let me despair.
I think, Oh Lord, that you will show to me the right path,
so that I may live for you,
serve my neighbour,
and abide in and uphold your word.’

This is the first appearance of the full chorus.
The four parts are expanded into five, via an independent first violin part and all instruments,
including a reinforcing clarion that doubles the soprano part, participate.

The suspended violin part is higher in pitch, well above the soprano line.

Bar 1 and its up-beat, do suggest a prayerful and ‘crying’ attitude.
Indeed, the whole descant continues to suggest this attitude, in so many ways, summing-up the whole chorale.

Optimism, bar 9, a recognition, of this ‘…right path…’, gives way to some sober contemplation, bar 11, as to what that may actually mean
and the climax, of the whole,
-text and prayer, bars 15 to the end, seems somewhat bitter-sweet, in that, ‘abiding in’ and ‘upholding’ the word, may, at least according to Bach’s harmonic ambiguity, not be as easy as all that.


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