Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

– 15th Sunday after Trinity – 24th September 2023 – J.S.Bach cantata- BWV 138 – ‘Warum betrubst du dich, mein Herz’ –

Oct 30, 2023

This is indeed a fine and memorable six-section cantata,
-see note below*,
with a double-oboe d’amore-orchestra and the usual 4-part chorus/soloists + continuo.

This is an almost totally ‘through-composed structure’ and in any case, is one of the best and most complex structures that Bach wrote,
flowing almost seamlessly through-out,
-albeit with interruptions, alternations, linkages, insertions and metamorphosis, permeating its choral and recit-like structures.
These characteristics are the defining features and inspirations of this cantata, which is, really, for all intents and purposes, as I have said, through composed throughout.

There is only one aria, movement 4 and even this one runs in, from a previous linked recit.

*There is some confusion as to whether the second recitativo, ‘Ich bin veracht’  is part of,
or separate from, the next number, which of course will reduce the number of movements,
from 7 to 6.
I have decided to follow the complete edition, which sees the recit as an integral part
of the next, but I have indicated the textural ‘seam’ below, with a dotted line. .

1/(chorale + recitative)

(C) ‘Why are you troubled, Oh my heart?
Are you grieving and suffering pain,
over just this mere temporal pain?

(I)  Ah! I am poor and wretched,
oppressed by heavy cares and disappointments.
From evening until morning my distress seems to endure.
God take pity.
Who shall deliver me from the body of this evil and wicked world?
What a miserable situation I am in.
Ah! I wish I was dead.

(C) Trust in your Lord and God,
Who has created all things.’

The 5 bar introduction paints perfectly a picture of the extreme pains and sorrows that this text,
-certainly in the first two movements, offers to us.
Noticeable chromatic intrusions throughout, set up a palate of heart trouble, grieving, suffering, pain, oppression and distress.
This is from the start, clearly heard.

The first 5 bars are in two sections,
-3 bars of prelude, leading towards the entry of the choral tune, bar 3, on the 4th beat, oboe d’amore,
-three bars of choral tune, accompanied,
and finally, the entry of the tenor soloist,
-seemingly one bar too early?

A three part string-structure starts us off, a dialogue between violins 1 and 2, with imitative writing in the second violin,
-final beat of the first bar and the same in the viola, bar 3, with a chromatic E#-E natural shift,
-last quaver beat of bar 2, which leads into the final introduction bar
and the first appearance of the choral, on oboe d’amore 1.

The second oboe underlays, with chromatic droops,
-which become a feature of the choral vocal writing and texture,
starting at bar 4 and continuing really, until an unexpected and seemingly early vocal entry, imitative of the opening d’amore.

The first statement of the vocal-choral proper, is accompanied by continuo and bass voice, with imitation via the d’amore droop, bars 4, through 5,
and the choral melody is stated, not only on top of the soprano voice, but also during the instrumental interludes, between each choral verse.

There are three choral statements of the first three choral phrases, at bars 8, 18 and 28, then the final phrase comes at bar 43.

Notice the biting C#, bar 20, on ‘…schmerz.’

In between each verse, there is an enhanced restatement of the material from bars 1, through 5,

At 31, a recit insertion, over sustained strings, bar 31, is added, before the final verse, bar 43 and 4 separate oboe figurations,
derived from similar, at 22, first oboe, punctuate the accompaniment at bars 33,35, 38 and 40.

A final one, bar 41, is extended and a derivative hooks in the chorus, via the basses, into the final verse.

2/Recitativo e coro:

‘I am despised.
The Lord has made me suffer on the day of His great wrath.
My provisions, laid up for self-keeping, are small.
They have now all been poured out for me,
-and in place of the wine of joy,
a cup of bitter tears.
How can I now calmly carry out my duties,
when sighs are my meat
and tears my drink.’
(C) ‘He cannot.,
-and will not, forsake you,
He knows full well what you lack,
Heaven and earth are His!’

soprano voice-

‘Ah, what?
God indeed cares for the cattle,
He gives the birds His food,
He satisfies the young ravens.
Only I do not know, in what way,
-I, a poor child,
shall receive my scrap of bread.
Where is He, who shall deliver me?’

(C) ‘Your Father and your Lord God,
who stands by you, in your every need.’

alto voice-

‘I am forsaken, it seems,
as though God would hate me in my poverty,
although He has always meant well by me.
Sorrows and cares, are you renewed then, every morning and every day?
And so I continually cry: “Ah poverty”,
-a cruel word.
Who then will stand by me in my grief and distress?

(C) ‘Your Father and your Lord God,
who stands by you, in every distress and need.’

The first movement continues, seamlessly, straight into this second, a bass recit.

These recit passages are set,
-sometimes startlingly, but always with the text in mind.

Listen out, bar 5, through 7, for the wine of joy, turning to the cup of bitter tears.

The choral continues, bar 12, with vocal and string parts that are thinner and clearer, but oboe commentaries at the end of each phrase, are still pertinent, cohesive and derivative.

At 19, the choral is interrupted by a soprano recit.

At 27, the bass and tenor voice ‘anticipate’, entering too soon and with more than a hint of choral melody.

The choral parts intensify, in a similar vein, 29, through 34, where the alto voice, recit-like intervenes and at 46, the final statement of the choral voice is heard, full on orchestra and chorus.

These two, or three opening movements, represent some of the best of Bach, and not only musically.
Structurally, this is a complex opening progression, difficult to analyse and best understood with a keen eye and memory, as regards the text, the notes
and, most importantly, an appreciation, of a profound progression, from despair in humanity, to faith and trust, in God.


‘Ah, sweet comfort!
If God will never leave me or forsake me,
then I can compose myself, in repose and tranquillity.
The world may still hate me,
but I can still cast my cares, with joy, upon The Lord.
And if He does not help me today, then, He will yet help me tomorrow.
Now, with all my heart, I can lay my cares under my pillow,
and be satisfied, for my comfort, with this.’

Faith has now been realised and established and this recit is defiant and jubilant, bar 7
and makes a seamless introduction, straight into the only aria in this cantata.


‘In God lies my confidence, my faith lets Him rule.
Now, no worries can eat away at me and no poverty can plague me.
Even in the middle of great suffering and sorrow,
He remains my father and my joy.
He will wondrously and marvellously uphold me.’

This jubilant and faith-inspired three-time dance movement, is, eventually, after a somewhat plain three bar introduction, driven on by its constant yet varied semiquaver energy.
The jubilant and defiant text is clearly drives itself and the music forward in positive and full faith and the rhythmic bounce is propelled forward by the ever resourceful bass line, spiced-up, with ties,
-and a spectacular rest, 98, where every and any sef-respecting continuo player, is surely duty bound to make the most, harmonically and strategically, of this once-in-a-movement gap in the texture.


‘Well then.
Now I shall rest in gentle and peaceful repose.
Sorrows, now receive a letter of release.
Now I can live, as though in heaven.’

This short and to-the-point secco recitative leads, again, almost seamlessly, into the final choral movement.


‘Since you are my God and father,
you will not leave your child,
you the Fatherly heart.
I am of the wretched dust of this earth
and on this earth, I know no comfort.’

A compound time signature of 6/8, allows the choral texture ample space, for this ‘…wretched dust of this earth and on this earth…’ to kick up and be kicked up.

The independent and spikey orchestral texture, which surrounds the five choral pronouncements, clearly contains the energy required to be both the dust,
-and the ‘kick’, as furious demi-semi quavers rise up and down, from within the violin section.

This is a focused movement, sealed tight, with a solid and immovable ‘B’ pedal, bar 39 through 41,
-and, in the complete edition, the implied and re-constructed one bar ending, with its open and bare 5th closure, not only seals in all the dust, but signs the ending, of what is fascinating and landmark cantata.


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