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The words of this cantata are based on a hymn of Martin Luther’s, which was an adaptation of Psalm 12: Help, Lord; for the godly man ceaseth; for the faithful fail from among the children of men. It’s all about mankind turning away from God and falling prey to the godless ways of heretics. Bach keeps Luther’s text exactly for the first and last movements, but paraphrases it for the inner movements. This was the second cantata Bach composed for his second cycle of cantatas (in which he decided to base the music of each new cantata on a well-known Lutheran chorale tune). The first had been BWV 20, the week before. Since the theme of the Psalm bears little relation to the text of either the Epistle or Gospel appointed for the day, one wonders whether the choice of the Lutheran chorale tune had dictated the content of the cantata more than other liturgical factors.
In any event, the cantata text is not exactly jolly: and the music is correspondingly severe. The opening chorus, for example, is written in the style of a ‘cantus firmus motet’ (where the chorale melody is sung by the altos in long notes, with the other voices singing fugal treatments of that melody around them). The varying number of voices and the lack of orchestral parts means this tends to sound a bit antiquated (and would have sounded as such to people in Bach’s day). This is in contrast to the quite perky violin introduction to the third movement (the alto aria), which is very much in what would have been regarded as the then-modern concertante style.
There is a suggestion in Dürr that the 5th movement’s accompaniment (in the form of oboes and strings) may have been written to visually suggest a cross (there is a descending line on the part of the oboes and strings which meets an ascending line in the continuo -and vice versa. Thus, on the score, you see a slanting line of descending notes on one stave meeting and crossing with a line of ascending notes in the other stave, producing a kind of ‘X’ effect. If so, this is ‘intellectual’ music writing -and I don’t think you get any real sense of that ‘crossing’ -or its significance- by actually listening to it!
The overriding impression I get from the cantata is gloom, with little hope of reprieve to come. The chorale melody isn’t one I find attractive or memorable in any way, either. I accordingly mark this cantata down as a ‘C’ grade.