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July 29, 2012

Bach Cantatas (41): Trinity VIII

The eighth Sunday after Trinity treats the theme of warning against false prophets and hypocrites.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

Romans 8:12–17, "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God"
Matthew 7:15–23, Sermon on the Mount: warning of false prophets


  • Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz, BWV 136, 18 June 1723

    1. Chorus: Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz
    2. Recitativo (tenor): Ach, daß der Fluch, so dort die Erde schlägt
    3. Aria (alto, oboe d'amore): Es kömmt ein Tag
    4. Recitativo (bass): Die Himmel selber sind nicht rein
    5. Aria (tenor, bass, violins): Uns treffen zwar der Sünden Flecken
    6. Chorale (violin): Dein Blut, der edle Saft

    ("Examine me, God, and determine my heart") The opening chorus (with horn) has an almost otherworldly beauty. The meandering theme may be symbolic for the text focusing on the words "searching" and "determining." The festive character of the movement is however at odds with the almost penitential tone of the text. The alto aria has an interesting line for the oboe d'amore. Despite the "cool" walking bass, the text pictures the trembling of the hypocrites at the Last Judgement. The bass recitative emphasizes the liturgical theme of the cantata: the exhortation to beware of false prophets. The duet for tenor and bass ("Indeed the stains of sin cling to us") is accompanied by insistent violins and emphasizes that the fall of Adam and original sin can only be washed away by the "mighty river of blood" of Jesus' wounds. Rather heavy Lutheran theology! A harmonization of "Auf meinen lieben Gott" provides a solemn ending for the work. (***)

  • Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält, BWV 178, 30 July 1724

    Chor: Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält
    Choral und Rezitativ A: Was Menschenkraft und -witz anfäht
    Arie B: Gleichwie die wilden Meereswellen
    Choral T: Sie stellen uns wie Ketzern nach
    Choral und Rezitativ B T A: Auf sperren sie den Rachen weit
    Arie T: Schweig, schweig nur, taumelnde Vernunft!
    Choral: Die Feind sind all in deiner Hand

    ("If the Lord himself had not been on our side") Again a chorale cantata "per omnes verses" that literally uses the text of six numbers of the eponymous hymn by Justus Jonas (1524) - one of four that Bach wrote in this ancient style. The text treats of God's support in times of human conflict. The opening chorus presents the hypothetical situation that God would desert his followers and leave them at the mercy of "raging foes," the phrases of the chorus set in simple block form symbolic for the stability of God, the unsettled and "wild" phrases depicting the raging foes. The chorale with interpolations by the alto soloist's commentary is another example of the ancient style. The energetic bass aria is the musical highlight of the cantata. It is a simile aria comparing a soul disturbed by the wrath of an enemy to a storm-tossed ship at sea. Bach fully uses this opportunity for word painting! Next the tenor sings another hymn verse, this time with an ostinato accompaniment of oboes d'amore. A chorale setting for full chorus plus one more interpolated chorale (now by bass, tenor and alto) is then followed by a second tenor aria. The text here speaks of "frenzied reason," which is transformed into a stormy seascape, with a disjointed rhythm, until the call "be silent!" comes. The cantata closes with a chorale setting that brings back stability with its block-like evocation of the power of God. (***)

  • Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist, BWV 45, 11 August 1726

    Part I
    1. Coro: Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist
    2. Recitativo (tenor): Der Höchste läßt mich seinen Willen wissen
    3. Aria (tenor): Weiß ich Gottes Rechte
    Part II
    4. Arioso (bass): Es werden viele zu mir sagen an jenem Tage
    5. Aria (alto): Wer Gott bekennt aus wahrem Herzensgrund
    6. Recitativo (alto): So wird denn Herz und Mund selbst von mir Richter sein
    7. Chorale: Gib, daß ich tu mit Fleiß

    ("He hath shewed thee, o man, what is good") A powerfully declamatory work of which the text focuses on Micah 6:8, which reminds man of his duty towards God. The cantata starts with a very fine fugal choral movement with an energetic orchestral introduction. There are frequent repetitions of "Es ist dir gesagt," a quote from Micah, one of the twelve minor prophets. This is top-drawer Bach, a magnificent concertante piece! The tenor aria has an attractive melody, although the text is a stern exhortation to prepare for the day of reckoning: "Misery and shame threatens your trespass!" The second half of the cantata starts with Christ’s ferocious words to the hypocrites from Matthew, conceived as a vividly dramatic arioso for bass. There is a crackling energy in the string parts to support the fierce denunciation. The wonderful alto aria is accompanied by a trio sonata with an irresistible flute that is almost independent of the voice line. It is perhaps a bit too friendly considering the text: "Whoever acknowledges God from the true depths of his heart, God will also acknowledge. For he must burn forever, who only with his mouth calls Him Lord." After another recitative, the cantata ends with a rich harmonization of “O Gott, du frommer Gott.” (***)
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