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Bach Cantata Notes

BWV 55

Bach’s solo cantatas are, in some sense, his only true cantatas since the term `cantata’ was drawn from an Italian genre which was designed for solo voice. The solo cantatas offer a more contemplative approach to the text since the standard form for a single soloist was the aria, the form that so poignantly and passionately expresses, and internalizes emotion.

Cantata BWV 55, Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht, belongs to a series of solo cantatas that were composed in 1726. The solo tenor in this cantata personifies the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant as described in Matthew 18: 23-35. The over-arching formal structure of the cantata devotes the first two movements to reflections on the sinfulness of man, with the remaining three movements focusing on the mercy of God.
The opening aria and secco recitative that follows express the antithesis of the merciful Lord and the hard-hearted servant. Of special interest is the role the woodwinds play, coupled with the absence of the viola in this initial aria. The flute and oboe d’amore frequently move in parallel thirds and sixths with both violins. These instruments, together with the continuo, create a five-part musical structure that opens up to six parts upon the entry of the tenor. By leaving the violas out of the texture and writing with a preference for the high range of the tenor, Bach creates the effect of a sinner writhing in pain as he attempts in vain to rid himself of the great burden that he is carrying. In the first recitative, the unknown librettist uses some of Psalm 139: 7-10 to portray the omnipresent God. He cannot escape the 'switch of sin' and the presence of his Maker, no matter how high and tortuously he sings.

In the third and fourth movements, the subject now turns from sinful humankind to divine mercy. The second aria, "Erbarme dich", with an obbligato flute, is filled with the anguish expressed in the first aria. The pleading of the sinner is presented by means of interval leaps of a sixth and falling seconds, but also by virtuoso passages on the flute. The rising minor-sixth, which was banned from the strict polyphonic idiom of the Renaissance, is exploited here for special effect as a means of conveying 'exclamation.' In the B section, the second statement of the words "deinen Zorn…stillen" (still your anger) elicits a sudden silence, making all the more dramatic the following repetition of "Erbarme dich."

It is interesting to note that both the third and fourth movements begin with the exclamation "Erbarme dich" (Have mercy), the opening words of the great alto aria from the St. Matthew Passion. The latter was written only a few months later, so it is likely that this cantata influenced Bach’s later ideas. The final chorale (Bach sets the same verse in the St. Matthew Passion) is a simply harmonized, comforting expression of God’s mercy.

© Ryan Turner


One of the emotions which artists of the Baroque period were wont to portray with intense realism is religious confession of sin. In realizing the enormous guilt of sinful man in the expiatory death of Christ, Schütz and Bach join issue in warmth of expression with the greatest accuser of the human heart – St. Augustine. One of the most powerful compositions of this character was the Alto Rhapsody by Heinrich Schütz entitled “Was hast du verwirket, o du alter holdseligster Knab’ Jesu Christi” from the Kleine Geistliche Konzerte of 1639. Others, including North German masters, followed suit, but nothing of equal value was produced until the advent of Bach. His tenor cantata “Ich armer Mensch,” written about 1731/32 for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, intensifies the pathos of Schütz to a confession of sin amounting almost to spiritual self-torture. Hardly ever – not even in Wagner’s Parsifal – has the nullity of human nature and its need for redemption been expressed so passionately and so acutely as here, with no glimmer of hope or comfort till the end.

The poem of the unknown author formed a strong frame upon which Bach could work. The two arias and recitatives evoke powerful pictures which are enhanced and strengthened by the music. The instrumentation in itself is singular: flute and oboe in close combination, contrasting with the string orchestra in three parts. The absence of the viola enables the unusually high tenor part in the cantata to explore at will the whole range of tone between the bass and second violin, the full gamut in the complete work extending from E flat to B flat. The first twelve bars of the prelude typify melodic development, together with sobbing phrases in the violins constitute the immediate atmosphere of grief which pervades the whole; the consecutive sixths in the two wind instruments denote tribulation rather than despair. With the entry of the voice unbounded hopelessness reigns supreme. This entry comes as a surprise, as something new and unpremeditated, a wailing heartfelt cry of the soul, echoed in the high register by the oboe. Bach now gives expression to the further self-accusations of the tenor in a wonderfully constructed six-part movement, in parallel and contrary motion, which later, together with the employment of single parts, in cantabile or detached phrases, lead to an unequalled intensity of passion.

For Bach, self-persecution was ever synonymous with self-questioning; hence arises the main, vocal, thematic material of the movement. The appearance before God is announced in a diatonic measured theme, which is immediately resolved into lamenting, and a few bars later into whining, chromatic, figures, which in their scantiness of accompaniment, exhibit a tragic picture of utter helplessness. In the middle of the movement the righteous and unrighteous are deftly symbolized by those invisible yet clearly defined means which Bach employed during the course of his creative activity with utmost scientific clarity of spirit. But this middle section is by no means independent, for it is constantly interrupted by the cry "I pitiful man, I slave of sin". The last two, also unaccompanied, condense and unite all previous expression, and conclude a composition which makes the highest intellectual and technical demands upon the singer.

There was, at that time, no poet who, on seeing a Bach aria complete before him, was capable of following it up with anything on an equally poetic level. It would have required the trenchant speech of the psalmist to give adequate answer, instead of which, however, there follows in the recitative only a weak imitation of Psalm 139. But Bach’s imagination, still aglow with the design of the aria, was able to invest this with extraordinary energy and bold gradations of light and shade.

The cry for mercy follows the confession of sin. The spiritual condition undergoes but little change; the feeling of unworthiness and the consciousness of slavery in sin remain unaltered. Though the music (now only in three part harmony) is more even, and flowing in motion, it is no less strong in expression. In it there is something of the repentant spirit which permeates the "Erbarme dich" of the Matthew Passion, and which is recalled by the wailing and imploring figures of the solo instrument. But in contrast to the pure B minor key of the latter, Bach begins here in the key of D minor veiled by E flat. The fact that the section as a whole is of shorter duration, and grants longer pauses to the singer, was determined by the foregoing music. In the accompanied final recitative the poet and composer elucidate the meaning of the soul’s state once more, but unfortunately without achieving complete unity pf purpose at the end. The concluding chorale is founded on the 4th verse of Joh. Rist’s "Werde munter, mein Gemüte."

Prof. Dr. Arnold Schering, Berlin 1930