Aus der Tiefe rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (BWV 131)


1. Introduction

This is probably one of Bach's oldest surviving cantatas (only BWV 150 is said to be older), probably composed in 1707 in Mühlhausen. It combines the complete text of Psalm 130 with two stanzas (2 and 5) of Bartholomäus Ringwaldt's hymn Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut (1588). This cantata is another example of an artful opposition, this time between the Old Testament de profundis-motive of the psalm text and an allusion to the unravelment of the human drama in the New Testament in the choral stanzas. The Old Testament text's misery leads to hope and expectation that are fulfilled in the New Testament by Christ's sacrifice. This kind of dramatic juxtaposition is typical of Baroque poetry and is masterfully exploited by the 22-year old Bach. In 2. and 4., the choral stanzas are sung as a cantus firmus background to the main text, which, in this case, is musically expressed in a form that is reminiscent of the 17th century Geistliches Konzert (Alfred Dürr). This intermingling of a main text (in aria or arioso) with a choral melody at the background, which creates a secondary semantic level, is one of Bach's favorite procedures. According to Peter Wollny, it goes back to the North German practice of older composers, like Dietrich Buxtehude, Nikolaus Bruhns and Johann Valentin Meder.

Traditionally, it has been assumed that this cantata was performed (or even composed) in connection with the catastrophic fire that devastated more than 300 houses in Mühlhausen on May 30, 1707. Even if this is true, it should be noted that this cantata has a general theme that both fits the Christian tradition and the Baroque taste for dramatic juxtaposition of motives (human misery next to Jesus crucification as God's answer). In that respect, this cantata is a work of art with an applicability that goes beyond any specific occasion.

The texts of this cantata were probably selected by Bach's friend, the pastor of St. Mary's Church in Mühlhausen Georg Christian Eilmar. According to a note left by Bach, the cantata was commisioned by Eilmar.

2. Individual sections

1. Sinfonia + Coro [S, A, T, B, oboe, fagotto, violino, viole, violone, organo] (g/a, 3/4, 4/4) (4'18)

Both the calm tempo (adagio, 3/4) and the minor tonality set the stage for this penitential service cantata. After the slow introduction of orchestra and chorus (expressing human misery), the tempo changes to vivace (4/4) to express humankind's restless attempts to draw God's attention for its miserable state. The musical expression of the text is most remarkable at the word Flehen (supplications). This form of expression culminates in the measures 88-90, with echo effects which sound like the change of manual (forte-pianissimo) in many compositions for church organ.

2. Aria [B + Choral, oboe, violoncello, organo] (g/a, 4/4) (4'20)

The bass arioso is artfully "mixed" with the second stanza of Ringwaldt's hymn. The bass part expresses fear of the Lord (on the word fürchte) with special emphasis and "trembling" semiquavers.

3. Coro [S, A, T, B, oboe, fagotto, violino, viole, violone, organo] (E fl-g/F-a, 4/4) (3'35)

The first measures of this section must have sounded archaic at the beginning of the 18th century. Waiting for the Lord (harren) is musically symbolized by prolonged melismas (more than one note per syllable).

4. Aria [T + Choral, violoncello, organo] (c/d, 12/8) (6'05)

The tenor aria is mixed in this section with the fifth stanza of Ringwaldt's hymn. This time, the word wartet ("wait") is musically expressed by melismas. Like the preceding section, this one is somewhat repetitious, but one might say that this serves an expressive purpose (repeated complaints to God).

5. Coro [S, A, T, B, oboe, fagotto, violino, viole, violone, organo] (g/a, 4/4) (3'57)

The final chorus begins with three measures of three times repeated notes. This is no doubt a form of number symbolism ("trinity"), which is well-documented in Bach's music. It also reminds the listener of the masonic symbolism in Mozart's Zauberflöte, which exploits the same number three. Very few of Bach's later Leipzig cantatas contain such elaborate chorus sections. It is composed in accordance with the 17th century motet style, in which each part of the text receives a different treatment. The different parts have different tempos and form a kind of chain:

(adagio) Israel... (un poc'allegro) hoffe auf den Herrn... (adagio) denn bei dem Herrn is die Gnade... (allegro) und viel Erlösung... (adagio) allen seinen Sünden (last three measures). This section ends with an impressive fugue (und er will Israel erlösen).

3. Concluding remarks

This is a typical early Bach cantata, without recitatives or free-verse arias, and with several archaic, 17th-century stylistic elements (motet style). In style and composition, it is related to the famous "Actus Tragicus" (BWV 106), which stems from the same period.

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