An introduction to BWV 21. Ich hatte viel bekümmernis

Posted on 28/10/2012


[After some messages sent by people from different countries letting me know their interest in the Soli Deo Gloria project, I have decided to translate some of the posts into english. I appreciate the interest shoown and beg you patience with my rough translations.]

I. Introduction

Choosing BWV 21 to start listenin to Bach cantatas can be risky: for years it has been my favourite and it is also, undoubtedly, one of the most performed and recorded cantatas. At the same timeIch hatte viel bekümmernis is among the most magnificent cantatas -it’s length doubling most of the others- and, as I will try to explain, among the most significant also.

II. Structure

Although its relation with both texts is far from direct, this cantata refers to Peter 5.6-11 and Luke 15.1-11. The work is divided in two parts. In such cases like this one, the first part used to be performed before the sermon and second part after it.
Although BWV 21 is considered as a cantata for the Third Sunday after Trinity -and indeed the two Bach conducted performances of which we know the date for certain took place during this feast- the only original score that has arrived to us defines it as per ogni tempo, wich makes sense given the loose relation of the piece with the readings corresponding to that date of the Third Sunday after Trinity.
The selection of the texts may seem, compared to other Bach cantatas, rather old fashioned, with most of the chorus texts coming from the Bible -Psalm 94 for the second movement, 42 for the sixth, 116 for the ninth and from chapter 11 of the Book of Revelations for the final chorus. The remaining movements were likely written by poet Salomo Franck. The ninth movement -situated last in the cantata’s original version- contains ¿one text / some texts /part of the text? of a chorale written by Georg Neumark in 1641: Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten.

First Part

1. Sinfonia
2. Chorus: Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis in meinem Herzen
3. Aria (soprano): Seufzer, Tränen, Kummer, Not
4. Recitative (tenor): Wie hast du dich, mein Gott
5. Aria (tenor): Bäche von gesalznen Zähren
6. Chorus: Was betrübst du dich

Second Part

7. Recitative (Dialogus soprano, bass): Ach Jesu, meine Ruh
8. Aria (soprano, bass): Komm, mein Jesu, und erquicke/Ja, ich komme und erquicke
9. Chorus: Sei nun wieder zufrieden, meine Seele
10. Aria (tenor): Erfreue dich, Seele, erfreue dich, Herze
11. Chorus: Das Lamm, das erwürget ist

III. History

The origin of this cantata is unknown to us, although we have a good number of hypothesis refering to it. What seems to be clear is that the cantata is a version of a previous piece of smaller length and complexity. Some musicologists thinks the original piece would be a dialogue-cantata going from the first chorus to the third (and thus conformed by parts 2-9). Other historians sustain that it was even shorter and talk about a piece reaching from part 2 to 6 and ending in part 9.
What we do know for sure is that Bach premiered the work in June 17, 1714 in Weimar, where he was an organist in the ducal court. In June 13, 1723, Bach performed it again in Leipzig. It was his third performance of a cantata there since he got his work as Cantor of the Thomaskirche and Bach was likely to know it would be an outstanding success during his first weeks in the city. For this occasion he made some changes on the score: he divided some of the soprano parts between the soprano and the tenor, added some trombones to the ninth movement, added four ripienists and doubled the oboe parts from the four choruses. Nowadays, this has come to be the most performed version..

IV. Notes towards an interpretation

One of the main reasons for opening this project with Cantata 21 is what we could call its programatic nature, the way it seems to expose the message underlying many other cantatas and even the very core of lutheran theology. A message that we could simply express as, first, the fundamental contradiction between the world as tribulation and the experience of the faith as consolation and, second, the christian life as the ascent from one to the other. According to this, the cantata not only follows but also exposes the hermeneutical matrix of lutheran theology, considering life as the path that -through the reading and interpretation of the Scriptures and the experience of Faith- leads, from the physical and hystorical world, to the spiritual consideration of future life.
In this context, the fact that the cantata ends with a quote from the Book of Revelations is no triviality, in the same way that in the liturgical year, the last weeks before Advent are devoted to the consideration of scatological subjects.
This progress makes itself patent not only in the text but also in the music. Each movement in the first part is in minor mode, while the whole second part -with the only exception of the ninth movement, which as said before would together with the first part conform a previous version of the work- is in major mode and tonally organized in an ascendent pattern.
In this regard, the contradiction between the static condition of the first part (dealing with the block of the soul experiencing anguish) and the ascending dynamic character of the second part (pointed just from the beginning of the irruption of Jesus’ voice) is essential. This irruption of Jesus’ voice talks to the troubled soul and initiates a chain of antithesis in which the soprano’s language is confronted by Jesus’ voice and with its climax in the tenth movement, the aria for solo bass, where Weinen/Wein and Ächzen/Jauchzen are juxtaposed.

Posted in: English