Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21)
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:
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.
- 1 Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took
- 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.
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
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
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
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
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...).
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.