Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21)

COMMENTARY

1. Introduction

According to a note written by Bach himself, this cantata was performed on the third Sunday after Trinity, 1714. It is believed, however, that this was not the first performance. An unconfirmed oral tradition says that the cantata was performed in the fall of 1713 as part of Bach's application for the job of organist at the Liebfraukirche in Halle. According to Martin Petzoldt (Bach Jahrbuch 1993, 31-46), the sections 2, 6, and 9 go back to a funeral music for Aemilie Marie Harress (1665-1713), the widow of a member of the city council of Weimar. Another characteristic pointing in the direction of an older origin is the multiple use of bible texts. This was less common in Bach's cantatas around 1714, when a transition had already taken place to cantatas of the Italian opera type with freely conceived recitatives and arias. This cantata shows this transition in the sense that, next to bible words, it also contains free recitatives and arias.

Alfred Dürr assumes that these texts were written by Salomon Franck. This conjecture is, apart from the fact that Franck was Bach's usual text writer during these years, based on the dialogue between Jesus and the Soul (sections 7 and 8), which is a common feature of Franck's poetry. It should be realized, however, that this was a conventional theme, introduced into music (as dialogue) by Andreas Hammerschmidt in 1644. For the biblical bride and bridegroom motif, see also Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV 1 and particularly Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen, BWV 49. The erotic approach to the union of Soul and Jesus is usually based on an allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs and goes back to the Provence of the troubadours and romantic love. Erotic mysticism was well-established (even as part of mainstream Catholicism) by the 12th century. Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), for instance, was very explicit in this respect in his famous sermons on the Song of Songs. Both Bach and his text writers seem to feel quite at home in this tradition, which was not really interrupted by Luther's reformation. In fact, Lutheran Germany was directly influenced by the Catholic tradition, which culminated in the 16th century poetry of Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross. Throughout Bach's cantatas, Jesus is addressed as "bridegroom", which is, according to the tradition justified by Matthew 25. In the King James version of the bible, this begins as follows:

1 Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps,
and went forth to meet the bridegroom.
2 And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.
3 They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:
4 But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.
5 While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.
6 And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.
Especially the last sentence (Behold, the bridegroom cometh; ye out to meet him.) has been a source of inspiration for Christian mysticism of all times, including Bach's.

This cantata was also performed in Köthen and in Leipzig (June 13 and also afterwards). The instrumentation of section 9 was reinforced with trombones in the Leipzig performances. It is also believed that the cantata was performed in Hamburg in 1720, as part of Bach's application for the post of organist at the Jacobikirche (see the second Köthen page of the biographical section). Johann Mattheson of Hamburg criticized the cantata for its triple use of the word Ich (I) in the opening chorus.

The content of this cantata is based on the opposition distress-relief: distress because of the soul's solitude and suffering in this world and relief thanks to God's grace and interference. This kind of strong opposition is typical of Baroque poetry (religious and non-religious) and is comparable to the clair-obscur that can be found in the paintings of Caravaggio and Rembrandt.

Bach has exploited the clair-obscur opposition in several interesting ways, both in the overall design of the composition and in some of the individual parts. This is in fact a double cantata, twice the size of a normal one. The first part (before the sermon) is the dark part and exclusively utilizes minor tonalities. The second part (after the sermon) represents light and relief and is based on major tonalities (with the exception of 9).

2. Individual sections

FIRST PART

1. Sinfonia [oboe, violini, viola, fagotto, organo, violone] (c/d, 4/4) (3'00)

The introductory Sinfonia is like the slow part of a concerto, with oboe and violin as solo instruments. According to Alfred Dürr, it is stylistically related to the Sinfonia of BWV 12.

2. Coro [S, A, T, B, oboe, violini, viola, fagotto, violone, organo] (c/d, 4/4) (3'44)

The text of this opening choir is based on Psalm 94, 19. It consists of only two lines but artfully introduces the basic opposition on which the whole cantata rests. The first line introduces the "dark" part. The theme is derived from Vivaldi's Concerto in D Minor, op. 3, Nr. 11 (Alfred Dürr) and receives a fugue-like treatment (recall that the music of Vivaldi was one of Bach's preoccupations during these Weimar years). The second line, the "light" part of the opposition, introduces a faster tempo (vivace) in pairwise imitative polyphonic style. The opposition between first and second part is stressed by an emphatic chord accent on the word aber. This small section really is a masterpiece of Affekt-expression and compositional skill, with its small scale mirrorring of the opposition on which the whole composition is based.

3. Aria [S, oboe, violoncello, organo] (c/d, 12/8) (4'46)

This is a "modern" free-poetry aria. This text of this moving piece is less pompous than Nr. 5 and again a masterpiece of Affekt-expression. Note the breath-taking accent on the word Schmerz.

4. Recitativo [S, violini, viola, violone, organo, fagotto] (c-f/d-g, 4/4) (1'34)

Free-poetry lamentation, which echoes several biblical examples. Note that it is sung here by the soprano (later Leipzig practice) instead of the original tenor.

5. Aria [S, violini, viola, violone, organo] (f/g, 4/4) (6'34)

Free-poetry aria sung by the soprano (see section 4.). The text sounds pompous to a modern ear but gives ample opportunity for dramatic and varied musical expression. It is quite interesting to follow Bach's treatment of the text here: Sturm und Wellen find their musical expression and the word Grund is accentuated by an appropriate dissonant.

6. Coro [S, A, T, B, oboe, violini, viola, fagotto, violone, organo] (f-c/g-d, 3/4) (3'35)

The text is based on Psalm 42, 12. Each line receives a different treatment with changing Affekt-expression (motet style), while it all ends in a strict permutation fugue (beginning at ...,dass er meines Angesichtes...).

SECOND PART

7. Recitativo [S, B, violini, viola, violone, organo, fagotto] (E fl-B/F-C, 4/4) (1'35)

This recitative reintroduces the basic light-dark opposition. The soul in the dark meets its light, Jesus Christ. The soul is represented by a soprano and Jesus, as always, by a bass. This also introduces the erotic metaphor which is so central to the mystic tradition and which is fully exploited in the subsequent aria.

8. Duetto [S, B, violoncello, organo] (E fl/F 4/4, 3/8, 4/4) (4'26)

Personification of abstract concepts like "the soul" was still quite common in the 18th century. The erotic metaphor is all too obvious in this love song of "soul" and Jesus and there can be little doubt that 18th century Germans had the same associations with phrases like ich liebe dich (I love you) as we. It is hard to resist the idea that this is a parody of a tender love song of a very worldly kind.

9. Coro [S, A, T, B, oboe, violini, viola, fagotto, violoncello, organo] (g/a, 3/4) (5'39)

This section combines a bible text (Psalm 116, 7) with a chorale, in accordance with the old motet tradition. Because of the pragmatic and contemporary-moralistic tone of the chorale text, I find this combination quite odd here.

10. Aria [S, violoncello, organo] (F/G, 3/8) (3'18)

Again, the aria is sung by the soprano instead of the tenor in accordance with Bach's later practice. The violoncello accompaniment of the soprano is quite suggestive.

11. Coro [S, A, T, B, trombe, timpani, oboe, violini, viola, fagotto, violone, organo] (C/D, 4/4) (2'53)

The addition of extra instruments gives this conclusion its triumphant character. It all ends in a permutation fugue.

3. Concluding remarks

Bach gives a great deal of cohesion to this impressive double cantata by mirroring the basic dark-light opposition in several subparts (2, 7). Apart from the skillful choir sections with permutation fugues (6, 11), this cantata has moving highlights such as the soprano aria (3), while the "love duet" (8) gives the whole composition a mystical touch.

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