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December 17, 2015

Bach Cantatas (55): Trinity XXII

The twenty-second Sunday after Trinity. The cantatas for this day all take their lead from the parable of the unjust steward as recounted in the readings for this Sunday, contrasting God's justice with unmerciful and heartless humans - who are exhorted to show the same mercy towards others that God shows towards them.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

Philippians 1:3–11, Thanks and prayer for the congregation in Philippi
Matthew 18:23–35, parable of the unforgiving servant


  • Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim, BWV 89, 24 October 1723
    Aria (bass): Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim
    Recitative (alto): Ja, freilich sollte Gott
    Aria (alto): Ein unbarmherziges Gericht
    Recitative (soprano): Wohlan! mein Herze legt
    Aria (soprano): Gerechter Gott, ach, rechnest du
    Chorale: Mir mangelt zwar sehr viel

    ("What shall I make of you, Ephraim") A short cantata without opening chorus, forming a meditation on the fate of those who turn away from God. God's anger is a major factor in the opening aria for bass, two oboes, strings and hunting horn. The text here comes from Hosea 11:8, in which God’s wrath is directed against Ephraim and his fellow worshipers of false gods. The singing is almost closer to recitativic arioso than a true aria. In the ensuing alto recitative and aria the theme switches to the parable of the unjust steward. The sinning creditor is relentlessly denunciated. The alto aria is only accompanied by continuo. The final recitative leads into an aria by soprano with obbligato oboe in which the clouds part to reveal God's mercy. In contrast to the text which remains rather serious ("for the salvation of my soul I will count the drops of blood from Jesus," which sounds rather sinister to me), the music almost sounds too upbeat. The closing chorale is a straightforward harmonization of stanza 7 of "Wo soll ich fliehen hin" by Johann Heermann (1630). 

  • Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit, BWV 115, 5 November 1724
    Chorale: Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit
    Aria (alto): Ach schläfrige Seele, wie? ruhest du noch?
    Recitative (bass): Gott, so vor deine Seele wacht
    Aria (soprano): Bete aber auch dabei
    Recitative (tenor): Er sehnet sich nach unserm Schreien
    Chorale: Drum so laßt uns immerdar

    ("Make yourself ready, my spirit") Chorale cantata from the second Leipzig year based on the hymn by Dresden lawyer and courtier Johann Burchard Freystein (1697), which expands one theme loosely related to the readings of the day: be prepared by awareness and prayer. The opening chorus is a fine but brief chorale fantasia in the form of a passacaglia. The soprano sings the melody as a cantus firmus. The major part of the cantata is taken up by two very large arias. The heavy alto aria "Oh, sleepy soul, are you still at rest?" could have graced any opera of the time. The oboe d'amore plays a solo in a mournful siciliano rhythm, leading to a peaceful, quasi-sleeping tone. In a contrasting middle section, the text admonishes us to be vigilant, for otherwise the unwary, slumbering spirit could easily slip into "everlasting sleep," that is: death. The following soprano aria marked molto adagio is wedged between two recitatives and is characterized by an attractive accompaniment on the flute and piccolo cello. It is a penitent entreaty for forbearance. The closing chorale is a four-part setting of the final call to be alert, "for the time is not far off, when God will judge us and annihilate the world." Cheery words, indeed. This cantata has been called a "towering masterpiece."

  • Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht, BWV 55, 17 November 1726
    Aria: Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht ("I, wretched man, a servant to sin")
    Recitative: Ich habe wider Gott gehandelt ("I have offended against God")
    Aria: Erbarme dich! Laß die Tränen dich erweichen ("Have mercy! Let my tears move Thee")
    Recitative: Erbarme dich! Jedoch nun tröst ich mich ("Have mercy! However, I console myself")
    Chorale: Bin ich gleich von dir gewichen, stell ich mich doch wieder ein ("Though I have turned aside from Thee, Yet shall I return")

    ("I, wretched man, a servant to sin") A short solo cantata for tenor, the only one of that type extant by Bach. The singer for whom it was intended is unknown. Again stresses the contrast between God's justice and unjust humans based on the parable of the unmerciful steward. In the first two movements the vocalist reflects on his sinful condition, wallowing in self-accusations, in the following three he asks God for mercy. The first aria, which sets the scene, is accompanied by flute, oboe d'amore and two violins (but no violas); the halting rhythm illustrates the despair of the steward summoned with faltering steps before his master in the story from Matthew. In the second aria, with elaborate obbligato solo flute, the pleading of the sinner is represented by interval leaps. The closing chorale is a simply harmonized and comforting rendering of verse 6 of Johann Rist's "Werde munter mein Gemüte" (1642). This cantata (the three last movements of which may have stemmed from a lost Passion cantata) has been called a "passionate expression of the nullity of human nature."

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