Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

– Eight Sunday after Trinity – 6th August 2023 – J.S.Bach cantata BVW 178 – ,Wo Gott der Herr nich bei uns halt’ –

Aug 5, 2023

Apart from a reinforcing horn in the opening chorus and closing choral, the orchestra for BWV 178 is a standard x2 oboe ensemble, with choir and continuo.

However, the text is large and long, the unknown arranger taking the majority of verses from the 8 verse hymn and expanding, arranging and troping,
-original insertions into the recits, this to be seen in movements 2 + 5, creating this 7 movement cantata.


(c) ‘If God the Lord does not remain on our side,
when are enemies rage against us,
if He does not support our cause,
from up there, high above, in heaven,
if He is not the protector of Israel,
Himself thwarting and destroying the cunning of our enemies,
then, for us, all is certainly lost.’

The musical settings in this cantata are of a broad, almost regal sweep,
-and no more so, than this opening ‘chorus’.

In point of fact, this opening offering is, strictly speaking, a favourite opener ‘type’ for Bach, an introductory ‘choral chorus’, where the choral melody,
-sung by the soprano voice, is reinforced by a lone horn and supported by part chordal and freely polyphonic/imitative lower voice parts.
The accompaniment is thematically and texturally independent.

The opening ritornello, as always, contains both musical flags and psychological reflections,
-in this case, a dotted spiky motif, first heard in the continuo and fast moving and intense semiquavers, first heard on two oboes, which are taken up, firstly sporadically, by strings and then spectacularly, on continuo, bar 10, all in the run-up to the choral entry, bar 14. the undertones

A thoughtful reading of this text reveals very dire consequences, if these three ‘ifs’ actually do happen.
An overall impression of lurking fear,
-a ‘what-if’ feeling of fear and depression, hangs over the whole.
Stabbing and grinding comes to mind.

The immediate effect, is of a future where God does not remain on our side, a world of worry, turmoil, tumult, fear and terror, an example of which might be, the straining harmony, bars 20, through 22, this leading into the break with chorale writing and venturing into the orchestral tumult, 26, through 32.
The persistent dotted rhythm and running semiquavers, particularly in the continuo, constantly energizes and directs this exciting, if terrifying opening.


(c) ‘What human strength and wit can do, must not, by rights, frighten us

(r) For Almighty God, the Highest, stands, by our side, freeing us from their snares.

(c) He sits on the highest throne, exposing their scheming thoughts.

(r) Those who embrace God, firmly in the faith, He will never neglect, leave or forsake.
He overturns the advice of the wicked, hindering their evil ways.

(c) When they are at their most cleaver and cunning,

(r)  -plotting with the guile of a serpent, their false intrigues, gaining evil ends,

(c) Then, God follows a different path:

(r) He leads His people with a mighty hand, through a sea of suffering, by the cross, to the promised land.
ad there, He will divert all calamity and misfortune.

(c) It is all in His hands.’

This recitativo is in fact, a troped chorale, where text is added between lines of chorale text and the choral lines themselves, are sung, minim length, presto and the recit itself,  is set and sung freely.

The most spectacular feature of this movement, to be seen, in the score and hear, by the ear, is this: in the chorale sections, the bass continuo line is set as a quaver diminution of the chorale tune,
and the witty and humorous atmosphere created, not only lampoons any ideas and thoughts of human strength, but cleverly draws the distinction between the serious statements of the chorale text and the pertinent comments, in the troped recitatives.


‘Just as wild sea waves violently smash a ship to pieces,
so the fury of our enemy rages, stealing the soul’s most precious parts.
They want to expand the kingdom of Satan, so that the frail boat of Christ will sink.’

From the start, we find ourselves transported to the high seas, where a raging and violent fury,
-set in motion, by unison violins and an initially static and pulsating bass line,
drives on, fast and furiously, for 12 bars, before the agitated bass voice joins in.
But it is all set in the major key of G major, so perhaps, this storm has a changeable center?

Phrase lengths, like the foam and spray, are indeed of changeable lengths and this adds to the unease that Bach is intentionally picturing in this music, leading up, of course, to the destruction and smashing,
of this unfortunate vessel caught up in all this, at bar 24.
It is so destructive, that even the voice takes on the destructive, ‘coloratura’ shapes, of those opening string runs.

There really is no ‘let-up’ and talk of an expansion of Satan’s kingdom fuels the fury.

Listen out for a ‘lighthouse-effect’, bar 64, where a Bb sinks into our musical depths, implying the tonic g minor, pulling us, literally, onto the flat side.
The boat is turned and surely does not sink, as this is not a dream where this story comes true, but a reality, albeit a bad dream, where, even though the storm continues, right to the end,
the ‘what-if’, sinks without even a trace.


‘They persecute us, as if we were heretics,
and they are looking for our blood.
Still, they seem proud to call themselves Christians,
who alone worship and esteem God.
Ah God, that precious name of yours,
must just be a cover for their villainy.
One day you will wake-up, to this.’

The chorale tune is preserved on a tenor voice, but surrounded by a constant and similar double-oboe-d’amore + continuo covering, made up of semiquaver rest +3 semiquavers-rhythm, which is imitated,
sometimes, after a third beat and sometimes after just one.

This jagged and uneven rhythm surely hints at these villainous persecutors?

5/Choral et Recitativo a tempo giusto;

(c) ‘Their jaws drop open!

(r) Bass: Like the noise that roaring lions make, they show their murderous teeth,
And would swallow us.

Tenor: However,

(c)           Praise and thanks be to God for evermore.

(r)            The hero of Judah protects us.

(c)            They will not succeed.

(r)            They will perish and be scattered like chaff, while the faithful stand like green trees.

(c)            He will altogether reveal their traps and destroy their doctrine.

(r)            God will kill the foolish prophets, with the fire of His anger, will utterly destroying their heresy.

(c)             They will be powerless before Him.’

The troped chorale verse is set, not for just one voice, but in a full, four-part texture.
Bach deviates from this, in only one place, at bar 18, ‘…utterly destroying their heresy…’, where the basses anticipate the choir.
-and here, also note the chromatic harmony in the alto part, bar 20.

The recitativo is set, alternately bass, tenor, alto and bass voice and because of the rhythmic bass line, is forced into what is actually, strict time.
Listen out for the bass part, bar 22 and the ‘…fire of His anger…’.

The interest here, is in the continuo bass line, independent arpeggios, strict and energized, with a bouncing semiquaver rest, assigned to both chorale and recit.

Is this both jaw dropping as well as lion roaring?


‘Be silent, unsteady and tottering reason,
do not say, ‘the devout are lost’.
The cross has given them a new birth,
and to those who hope and trust in Jesus,
the door of grace is open.
When oppressed by affliction and misery,
they will be refreshed and received, into His comfort.’

The strings-and-continuo-only-aria, is dominated by a rhythmically unbalanced first violin part, semi quavers and an overlapping tie, destabilizing the structure,
-Bach’s acknowledgement of this ‘unsteady and tottering reason’.

In amongst the ever increasing instability, at bar 11, the tenor voice continually calls for reference to this unsteady and tottering reason, to be silent and still.

Listen out for moments of repose,
-a long sustained F natural at bar 35, ‘The cross has given them new birth’
-and ‘…refreshed and received, into His comfort.’, with fermata, bars 57, through 62, where the unbalanced, unsteady and tottering rhythm is at last silenced, in refreshed balance.


‘Our enemies are in your hands,
-together with their thoughts.
Their plots are known to you Lord.
Help us not to doubt,
because reason fights against faith.
In the future, that will not be trusted,
as you yourself will offer us comfort.

Heaven and earth were created, oh Lord, by you,
so let your light shine brightly for us.
Kindle our hearts, in the true love of your faith,
and remain constant,
-and to the end,
whatever the earth might mutter.’

As always, all vocal parts in this 4-part setting are worthy of study, but in this case, particularly so, the tenor, with its constant and varied movement,
-no more impressive than during bars 11, through to the end.

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