Cantata BWV 21Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis


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First thoughts

Interesting to see in the last chorus (#11) Bach setting the same words as his exact contemporary Handel did, in Messiah! (The words are actually a more-or-less exact quotation from Revelations 5).

There are other Biblical quotations  sprinkled through the text: the start of the middle chorus (#9), for example, and the start of the first (#2).

The overall mood seems to me rather bleak and sad, in a profound way -not just someone being a bit grumpy: I had much sorrow; tears gnaw at my heart; God has forsaken me; I look into the jaws of Hell, streaming tears.

Then of course, there’s a bit of a mood-change around #6: have hope in God; Jesus is coming to be with me; Jesus consoles me with heavenly pleasure …and then a rousing chorus of ‘blessing and honour and glory’ to round it all off. It’s clearly in two parts and you can well imagine that the sermon might have intervened around about the end of movement #6, when a slight scintilla of hope had been offered to rebut the deep gloom offered by the previous five movements.

(I’ll just mention here, too, that Suzuki’s opening movement is sublime: if it doesn’t reduce you to tears, you have no soul! But Gardiner’s last movement has excellent timpani to summon up a complete change of mood -celebratory and a right-royal send-off; Suzuki’s doesn’t really do enough to dispel the overall gloomy mood in my view: plenty of lovely Baroque trumpet, but not enough timpani in my view. Suzuki’s first movement is so wonderful, however, that I have stuck with him for all the audio samples for this cantata).

Movement #3 is the killer, I think: an incredibly moving oboe solo leads on to a sad soprano lament: music and words in complete alignment at this point. Wonderful discords on ‘Schmerz’ (distress or pain), too!

The second part of the cantata opens with a recitative-duet for soparano (“the soul”) and bass (“Jesus”) that is quite dramatic or operatic in its way.

Listen out for the additional trombones/cornets in the chorus (#9): an interesting sonic effect.

Second thoughts

This is a very complicated cantata and it has taken me a long time to begin to like it a lot. I think that’s because it’s a cantata that progresses the emotions, rather than just writes an essay about one of them. That is, it describes an emotional journey -from sadness, to despair, to deep, dark feelings of utter abandonment… and then creeps slowly back from the brink with a promise of hope, to a dialogue with Jesus affirming his love, to a final resounding affirmation of joyful Alleluia! You would not know, nor expect movement #11’s mood having heard movement #1’s lamenting sighs.

Compare that with Cantata BWV 1, for example, where it opens joyful, sparkling and bright and pretty much stays that way throughout. (BWV 1 is a lovely cantata, by the way: there’s no implied criticism of it here). You could, I think, take pretty much most cantatas and say the same thing: they are predominantly soliloquies about, or an inquisition of, a mood, not a progression of several or many of them.

Dürr states that “Within Bach’s output of cantatas, [this one] stands out like an erratic block”. I think the above has something to do with that.

It’s also a pretty long cantata -around 40 minutes. It takes some concentration to follow the emotional story over that length of time, I think, and it’s easy to get lost along the way… not unlike the lost sheep of the parable, in fact!

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