Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

– The Feast of St Michael – Friday 29th September 2023 – J.S.Bach cantata BWV 149 – ‘Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg’ –

Nov 26, 2023

A festive orchestra for this festive feast day:

3 x trumpets + timps,
3 x oboes,
four part chorus, with soloists,
-3 x arias + 2 recits,
and an organ continuo, strengthened with a single violone.

This cantata features an important, interesting and colourful bassoon part.


‘They sing with the joy of victory,
in the tabernacles of the righteous.
The right hand of The Lord wins the victory,
The right hand of The Lord is exalted,
The right hand of The Lord wins the victory.’

This jubilant opening,
-bearing more than just a passing resemblance to the final movement of cantata BWV 208,
reflects not so much the battle, but the victory.

The overall concept and construction seems simplistic.

Nevertheless, Bach just cannot help indulging himself in a little spiritual uplift, where,
-at bar 122, just as the right hand of The Lord becomes exalted, it seems that we too experience something of the same.

The bassoon pops up strongly, in the foreground,
-and for the first time, in bar 4, but certainly not for the last.

As this movement falls silent, so do the trumpets + drums.
This is the last we hear of them, until an unexpected
and drastically short return, in the final chorale.


‘Power and strength be sung to God,
and to the lamb that conquered and banished Satan,
-who accuses us day and night.
Honour and victory have come to the devout,
through the blood of the lamb.’

This continuo-only-accompanied-movement, is striking, as the opening arpeggio of b minor,
-with its compliment, of F# major,
ends up, not on the tonic, but on the sub-mediant, G.

This, coupled with a bottom heavy orchestration,
-continuo, plus bassoon,
and the welcome additional weight of a violone,
gives a much more aggressive and ‘no-nonsense’ attitude,
-coupled up with power, to the opening quote, one from the book of revelation.

The vocal part is similarly voiced,
-with shouts, leaps, syncopations and runs,
all of these painting a strong picture of a victory that is certainly final and non-negotiable,
– and this is fuelled, throughout, with a constantly energized, semiquaver bass line.

At 29, through 32,
-‘Ehr und Sieg…’, ‘honour and victory’,
the bars seem to stretch,
-2 becoming 1,
creating a sort of 4/2 in a bar,
and at 33, through, 35, it happens again,
this time, creating a sort of 6/4 feel, over three bars.
Thereafter, the bass line energizes intensely, towards bar 48.


‘I am not afraid, before a thousand enemies,
because the angels of God are encamped all around me.
Though everything should fall and collapse,
I shall still be at peace.
How could I ever despair?
God sends me horse, chariot,
and a whole multitude of angels.’

A 7/5 chord actually reassures us that,
despite fear, before a thousand enemies,
we really are not phased at all,
and the next phrase,
-bars 2, through 4, is longer and just long enough to tell us that those angels are encamped around and about.

The very next, forms a comforting sense of peaceful repose,
and bar 7, through to the end, seems a rather self-satisfied realisation, that horses, chariots and all those multitudes,
just banish despair, for ever.


‘The angels of God never retreat.
They are with me and all around me.
When I sleep, they keep watch,
When I go, or when I stay,
They bear me up, in their arms.’

This is an angels-delight, with a dance-like, English pastoral flavour.
It certainly delights us as much as it does our soprano singer,
-perhaps this is the hi-light of this morning’s music?

But is it simply because this music brings to us such a vivid sense of musical and psychological security?

All is certainly well, as these creatures do what they do,
-keeping watch and bearing up.

At bar 2, Bach raises his second violins and viola upwards, with consecutive 4ths,
-nothing wrong with that I suppose, but it does bring immediately a pastoral feel,
one of a sense of security,
-as it does a beautiful but somewhat inevitable sequence, bars 13, through 16.

The long and final phrase of this ritornello, bars 17, through 24, leads,
-albeit with an increased sense of semiquaver ‘wing flapping’,
to the inevitable and anticipated vocal entry.

These angelic characteristics,
-those of non-retreat, are very subtly alluded to, by Bach, in the rapid upward and forward string-flurry at bar 28.

Notice the vocal sequence, rising up, bars 33, through 37,
-and again, bars 48, through 52,
and yet another, 54, through 57.

The final vocal-flurry, bar 58, through 59, is answered by the ‘non-retreating-flurry, bar 60,
which sees our flying friends, ‘out of mind’,
-but not of sight.

The continuo, from bar 10, sets wings, gently-a-flapping.
It must be acknowledged that this continues,
-and to a much greater degree and joined by upper strings, as time flies by,
and particularly as the rather different and long middle section commences, at bar 76.

More vocal sequences, bars 77, through 84, ‘…When I sleep, they watch…’.

Bars 84, through 92, ‘…when I go, when I stay…’, introduces a D#, but  looses a G#.
A destabilisation of the harmony is enough to force us to notice this coming and going.

But listen to the long sustained ‘A’, bar 90, where ‘staying’, is sustained, over 2-and-a-third-bars.
-and again, at 112, through 116.

The last quaver of bar 100, through 104, gives new colours and new insights, into the juxtaposition, of ‘sleep’ and ‘watching’.

During the bearing me up, ‘…in their arms.’, the flapping wings become caught up in those textual hands, bar 93,
and thereafter becoming immersed in leaps, ties, sequences, elongations and vocal extensions, bar 120,
and in the sleeping, the going, the coming and the bearing, right up until bar 124.

Bars 125, through 132, is a complete repeat of the text of the middle section, but really in one phrase,
-and with a new rhythm, one that seems angular and jagged, and in c# minor, perhaps representing imagined or real fears.

Surely the greatest moment in this aria, is the beautiful, creeping-back-in, of the voice, during a foreshortened ritornello, bar 143,
where suddenly, we absolutely realise and understand, that these angels never do retreat,
even to the point that, sometimes, they can take us by surprise, at any moment,
-really, when we least expect it.


‘I thank you for this,
my dear God.
Grant that I may repent of my sins,
so that my angel may rejoice,
and on the day of my death,
carry me to you in heaven.’

This very secco recit,
-in actual fact, a prayer,
seems to move continually onwards,
forwards and upwards, on towards a faithful ascension.


‘Be vigilant, you holy watchmen,
the night is nearly over.
I yearn and shall not rest,
until I am standing,
before the countenance,
of my dear loving father.’

The jaunty bassoon part, accompanied by similarly jaunty-only continuo players,
must surely reflect the character of these particular holy watchmen,
who are not as those, huddled over a dead faith, during an eternal night,
but as those enlightened by the dawn, with a faith filled, yearning energy,
turned towards the countenance of the loving Father.

Happily, not one, but two holy watchmen have an opportunity to display their vigilance.

One does get a sense that Bach was in two minds, as to whether to bring back his two trumpeters
scratch out the bassoon part and fashion, out of its remnants, a vocal part, for perhaps one voice.

He didn’t give in to that particular scenario. Listen to what does emerges.

What we end up with is, in fact, are two trumpets anyway, although ones with words in their bore and tubes,
rather than just air.
They make a sweet imitative and intertwining celebration of watchman-ness,
spilling over into the fast ending nocturnal state.

Note the prophetic nod to Mozart, 32, through 36.

At bar 52, yearning for ‘…the countenance’, leads to our trumpeting singers extended their phrase lengths,
as the musical sustaining power, matches the human yearning for The Father.

The return of vigilance and sacredness, bar 84, demonstrates subtle and exquisite changes in the musical content,
that only Bach could have envisaged.

As we we may have suspected,
-perhaps via our jaunty bassoon,
this is not an all-serious-aria, all the time and Bach has presented and set this text within a musical setting,
that exhibits a considerable dose of musical comedy.

Might this have been missed on this particular feast day?


let your dear angel,
-and at the very end,
carry my soul to Abraham’s bosom.
Let my body sleep in its resting place,
gently and free of anguish and pain,
until the day of judgement!
awaken me from death,
so that my eyes may see you,
in sheer joy, O Son of God,
my saviour and my throne of grace!
Lord Jesus Christ,
hear me, hear me.
I will praise you for ever.’

The coloured ‘F’,
-at the third beat of bar 1, immediately sets our ears on edge.

This is qualified at bar 3,
-and all is well.

A fine and well shaped bass line, bar 4,
-coupled with a well decorated tenor/viola part, helps to underline the ‘carrying’, of this soul,
and the final phrase, of the first three, the ascent, to Abraham’s bosom.

The expected repeat of the music of course fits the continuing text,
up until ‘Alsdenn…’.

At 13, the whole builds and flows, onwards and upwards,
towards the sheer joy of seeing ‘O Son of God’, bar 18.

Accented passing notes, bar 19, through 20, emphasise concepts of ‘…my Saviour…’ and ‘…my Throne of Grace!’

The final three lines of text are memorable enough, for their demanding stance,
reflected magnificently by their accompaniment.

Apart from a slight enlargement to the oboe part,
-mostly confined to the first 6 phrases,
the greatest surprise in this final chorale and eclipsing all others,
is the sudden and extraordinary appearance, bar 25,
of the opening 3 x trumpets + drums, crowning all,
-and with majesty, at the final cadence.


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