Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

– 3rd Sunday after Epiphany – Sunday 21st January 2024 – J.S.Bach cantata BWV 156 – ‘Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe’ –

Jan 20, 2024

A small, 1 x oboe orchestra, with 4-part chorus and soloists,
– although the tenor voice in fact has no solo,
accompany this short and compact cantata.

The score suggests that a violone should be included in the continuo line-up.


The questioning and somewhat ambiguous music for this introductory sinfonia is,
– in true Bachian tradition,
most probably at least twice borrowed,
coming down to us, in it’s most familiar form,
as the the slow movement from the concerto in f minor, BWV1056 for harpsichord and orchestra.

This quite famous tune, in this version by Bach, takes on a plaintiff character, in the light of a solo oboe,
with lightly caressed antiphonal string and continuo support and accompaniment.


‘I stand with one foot in the grave.’
(c) ‘Do with me God, according to your loving kindness.’
‘My sick and ailing body will soon fall in.’
(c) ‘Help me in my suffering.’
‘Come, dear God, when it pleases you.’
(c) ‘What I request, do not refuse me.’
‘I have already put my house in order.’
(c) ‘When my soul must depart, take it Lord, into your hands.’
‘Let my end be a blessed and blissful one.’
(c) ‘All is good, if the end is good.’

The ambiguous introduction, gives way to this long, fascinating and beautiful aria, with choral.
A strange world of rhythmic uncertainty, as the up-beat quaver string line, is off-set by off-beat crochets,
from the continuo part, further emphasised with the use of the octave-lower violone.

Bars 5, through 8 have almost a 2-time feel
and a minor inflection, bar 8, further de-stabilises.

A sudden imitation, bar 9, led from the continuo and picked up by strings, adds almost a 3/8 time feel,
as we are taken forward, towards the tenor entry, bar 12.

The long held F is certainly a long time standing,
-one-foot-in and at 15, we just seem to topple forward.

Certainly at 17, this toppling fall, is complete.

The soprano chorale,
-best sung really with more than one voice,
seems oblivious to the subtle rhythmic imitation, phrase manipulations and harmonic shocks,
generated by the all encompassing and surrounding threesome of strings-tenor-continuo,
going on, around and about.

Notice the continuous use of quaver rest – quaver – 4 x semiquavers – quaver x 4

This questioning and un-easy threesome-mix, contrasts well with the prayerful choral text,
and does seem to form a perfectly seamless ‘…blessed and blissful…’ cradle,
for this ‘all-good’ ending.


‘My fear and distress,
my life and my death,
they lie, dearest God, in your hands.
Then, you will turn towards me, your gracious eye.
If, because of my sins,
you would put me onto my sick-bed,
My God, then I beg you,
let your loving kindness be greater than your justice.
Yet, if you have intended for me,
that my suffering should consume me,
I am ready.
Let your will be done to me.
Do not spare me,
and have your way.
But do not let et my afflictions last long.
The longer here, the later there.’

This secco recit speaks for itself, Bach hi-lighting here and there, any word that he deems to be interest.
The 3 bar arioso, bars 17, through to the end,  nicely endears the ending proverb.


‘Lord, what You will shall be good for me,
because your council is considered the best,
-in joy, in suffering, in dying, in prayer and in pleading,
Let it always happen to me Lord, as you will.’

This alto aria should be better known, both as an aria that students and professionals can sing,
-if suitable forces are available, as a piece of music that is more than agreeable,
and as an example of Bach at his most benevolent and almost undisturbed best.

The trio sonata texture gets going,
-in strict canon between the two soloists and up to the violin’s 12th semiquaver, bar 3,
jogging along nicely, thank-you-very-much, as the text, and eventually the joining singer,
-and very much in keeping with the spirit of the text,
bask together, in the simple joys of living.
In doing so, they together turn a lively 3-part texture, into a freely growing and developing 4-part one.

The text does ever-so-slightly darken, as joy is contrasted with a selections of challenges,
-suffering, dying,
and two possible responses to such events,
-prayer and supplication.

Accordingly, the music too, also take’s a darker turn,
-bars 32, through 38 and 44, through 53 and particularly 49, through 51,
where Bach writes into the vocal line some leaps and intervals,
that challenge both singing technique and listening ears.


‘And if you will that I should not be sick,
then I shall thank you, from my heart.
Yet, grant to me, as well,
that in my healthy living body,
and my soul, may be free from sickness
and remain healthy at all times.
Tend to it, through Spirit and Word,
For this is my salvation.
And if my body and soul should fail,
then you, my God, are my comfort,
and a portion, of my heart.’

This secco recit rises and falls as we may expect.

At bar 11/12, the voice is strangely required to negotiate a diminished 2nd, on ‘…Trost…’.
This seems odd, especially as Bach perhaps might have created a separate and special arioso moment, for this final line of text.

Not today, it seems.


‘Lord, deal with me, as you will,
in living and in dying.
My desire is for you alone.
Lord, do not let me perish,
preserve me in your grace and favour.
Just as you will, let me forbear, with patience,
because, Your will,
-it is the best.’

This highly free-metred and mostly step-wise tune,
-bar 14/15 slightly aside,
is full of harmonic twists, turns and wonder upon wonder,
both to the student of harmony and to the ears of any listener.

May both find their own abundant joys.



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