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JS Bach:- the developing composer:- a critical examination and comparison of BWV 1 & BWV 4 from the Second Cycle of Leipzig Cantatas

By Julian Mincham (January 2006)

The cantatas BWV 1 and BWV 4 were performed within a week of each other during the Easter celebrations of 1725.1 However for reasons which will be explained, nearly two decades separated their composition. A close examination of the works therefore, reveals much about Bach's personal development as a composer of church music.

When he took up his position of Cantor and Director of Music at Leipzig in May 1723, Bach was determined to provide the city with a new repertoire of appropriate ecclesiastical music. His letter of resignation from his position of organist at Mühlhausen in 1708 specifically mentioned his goal of providing a canon of "well regulated" church music;2 an opportunity denied him at that time. Ironically, he had to wait fifteen years and take two more appointments at Weimar (1708-17) and Cöthen (1717-23) before he was in a position to fulfil this ambition.

Immediately upon his appointment at Leipzig he set upon a frenzy of composition of cantatas which was to last for several years. This involved producing a cantata for every Sunday and Feast day of the church year (excepting Lent), a total of around 60 annually. The Obituary of Bach, written by Johann Friedrich Agricola and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was published in 1754, and it makes specific mention of five full cycles of cantatas which would have amounted to around 300 in all 3.

If this is true, then, tragically, around 100 of these works, after the two first cycles, have been lost. However, it is the case that Bach did embark upon highly ambitious projects, such as the Orgel-Buchlein, which he did not complete either because he lost interest or because other demands upon his time prevented it. If this was the case, the loss may not be as severe as the obituary would have us believe.

The first cycle covers the period May 1723-June 1724 and, if we set aside the Magnificat (BWV 243a) and the St John Passion (BWV 245) there are 62 cantatas surviving.4 The fact that Bach appeared to begin planning the first cycle (beginning with BWV 75, composed at Cöthen) before he took up residence in Leipzig indicates his enthusiasm for the task. He must also have been motivated by the fact that he knew he was neither the first nor second choice of the Leipzig authorities and this is likely to have driven him to wish to establish himself as quickly and decisively as possible.

Thus Bach embarked upon a project so ambitious as to have been unattainable for most mortal beings. He was moving his family and setting up a new home, fulfilling a variety of teaching, rehearsing and other compositional responsibilities, as well as producing cantatas, most of them new, on a weekly basis. It is no wonder that this most disciplined and orderly of composers did not immediately develop a specific plan or pattern. He simply did not have the time. He took texts where he could obtain them, and he recycled earlier works as appropriate. Thus the first cycle, although it produced many great pieces, cannot be viewed as a fully unified or consistent canon. But there is little doubt that this is precisely what Bach set out to achieve in his second year at Leipzig.

Clearly, his first year of developing and experimenting with the genre had provided him with the means, experience and opportunity of formulating a clear strategy for the second cycle.

Here, each cantata would be based upon a chorale related to the particular occasion. The first movement set the words of the first verse as a large scale choral piece, usually in the form of a traditional motet, an Italianate ritornello structure, or a combination of the two. The last would be a simple four part harmonisation of the concluding verse. Between these would be alternating arias and recitatives each using, modifying and/or paraphrasing other verses from the chorale. Furthermore the chosen chorale would provide a source of musical ideas for the other movements. Bach devised an almost unlimited number of ways in which melodic lines and motives might be extracted from the chorales in order to provide materials for the rest of the work. He thus created a unity of both musical and religious purpose.

It is important to note that the idea of the cantata based upon a chorale was not new and BWV 4 is an early example. But it is Bach's changing and developing approach to the genre which is of particular interest.

The second cycle plan worked for the first forty cantatas, at which point things changed. Wolff 5 suggests that this was caused by the sudden death of his librettist Andreas Stubel. Whether this was the reason or not, it is the case that Bach abandoned his pattern in seven of the final thirteen cantatas. These, which I have entitled the "Exception Cantatas" are BWV numbers BWV 4, BWV 42, BWV 85, BWV 87, BWV 108, BWV 175 and BWV 183. It is generally the first movement which departs from the established pattern in that none of these works commence with the expected large scale chorus. BWV 4 and BWV 42 begin with an orchestral sinfonia, BWV 85, BWV 87 and BWV 108 with a bass aria (depicting words of Christ) and BWV 175 and BWV 183, most unusually, with a recitative.

The first of the exception cantatas, number BWV 4, is an early work which Bach had already resurrected for the first cycle and was later to re-use yet again, with added brass. It is unsurprising that Bach should have chosen this particular work to fill the gap. He would have been under great pressure to provide and supervise rehearsal of the Easter music which required performances of three cantatas and the St John Passion (BWV 245) and Easter Oratorio (BWV 249) within eight days! If Bach had lost his regular librettist, practical circumstances would have virtually forced him to bring back a tried and trusted work rather than risking composing a new one, in a matter of days, with an untested collaborator.

Reasons, which may explain Bach's deviation from his established pattern in the remaining six exception cantatas, lie outside the scope of this article which seeks only to compare two works from the latter part of the cycle. BWV 1 is the last of the cycle before Bach departs from his pattern and BWV 4 is the first of the exceptions. The latter was written sixteen or seventeen years previously, very probably as the audition piece for Bach's application for the post of organist at Mühlhausen 6. Differences in the works highlight changes in Bach's development as a composer.


BWV 4 Christ Lag in Todesbanden Christ lay in the bonds of death

Sinfonia--Chorus--duet (sop & alto)--aria (tenor)--chorus--aria (bass)- -Duet (sop & tenor)--chorale

Bach sets six of the verses of thechorale in a carefully balanced sequence of choruses (two) duets (two) and arias (two).

BWV 4 and BWV 42 are the only two of the cycle to begin with a sinfonia but this statement is somewhat misleading because these two first movements are vastly different in scale and function. In fact the "sinfonia" of BWV 4, a mere fourteen bars long, is simply not comparable with the large scale instrumental movement which begins BWV 42. This is almost certainly an arrangement of a previously composed concerto movement as, for example, are the sinfonias some later works e.g. BWV 49 and BWV 146. In these cases the sinfonias are known arrangements of existing harpsichord concerti, themselves almost certainly arrangements of lost violin concerti.

Bach could, of course, have dropped the sinfonia so as to conform to his now established practice of commencing with a large-scale chorus; which, in this case forms the second movement. However, in the experimental period of his early twenties, Bach frequently used short preludes for structural or functional purposes. Examples may be found in the early keyboard toccatas although the function here was less structural and more to display keyboard virtuosity and act as a call to attention. The prelude to BWV 4 has structural purpose in that it stresses both the significance of the first chorale phrase and the constantly recurring two-note motive derived from it. Bach, the ultimate musical architect, may have felt loathe to tamper with the overall design simply in order to conform to the established second cycle pattern. If so, this is a good example of Bach's ensuring that musical structural function prevailed over pattern and precedent.

One must not assume, however that Bach broke his pattern lightly. The haste with which he had to revive this work is suggested by the fact that he made few changes to the score for the 1724 performance, with the exception of a reharmonisation of the final chorale. And whilst, differing stylistically, this work has a number of characteristics common to the second cycle pattern, a fact that may well have influenced his decision to re-use it here.

But whilst this works sits well in the second cycle, closer analysis reveals a number of characteristics, in addition to the opening "sinfonia", which mark it out as different. One is the lack of any recitatives within a lengthy work of eight movements. (Bach generally resisted the use of recitatives in his early cantatas 7.) Another is the almost overly obvious manner in which each movement quarries the chorale melody. The variety of ideas and range of inventiveness in each movement is incredible; but possibly just a little over-stated. The relentless repitition of, particularly the first chorale phrase, is, dare we say it, slightly wearisome, particularly as it demands and accentuates the repeated use of the minor mode for each of the eight movements. Not only that, but uniquely amongst the cantatas written for the second cycle, every movement is in the same key, that of E minor! There is simply not the light and shade of contrasting major and minor keys which, for Bach, was by this time the norm.

But when we remind ourselves that Bach was only in his early twenties when he wrote it, and if he intended it as an audition piece, the picture becomes clearer. Would not an ambitious young man wish to demonstrate how clever and inventive he was? Would not youth take great pride in the sheer brilliance of its powers of invention and contrive to display them as extrovertly and obviously as possible? At Maulhausen he may well have expected a less sophisticated, and certainly less well educated audience than he was later to have at Leipzig. So it makes sense that he would choose to parade his work with explicit uses of the chorale theme, and, to similar purpose, some very obvious tone paintings of textual images.

Finally this work relates a story rather more obviously than do the later cantatas. It paints Christ dying for our sins and then tells how death overpowered us, a situation brought about by our sinfulness. Christ, however, has since removed death's sting, and in the battle between life and death, the former has triumphed. Christ's blood on the cross marks our pathway to peace and contentment and now, with the grace of the Saviour, our souls may partake of the true bread of Christ and of Easter. Other second cycle cantatas often tend to be less preoccupied with narrative, concentrating more upon the substance or core of a particular thesis, moral, ideal or religious value . It is, however, interesting to observe that with all this text and narrative to play with, Bach chose not to employ the obvious device of recitative.

All this becomes understandable if we think of the Young Turk flexing his musical muscles and making efforts to ensure that his human audience observed and appreciated his cleverness. The more mature Bach of later years had no need for this. Increasingly his tone painting and musical expression becomes subtler, less reliant upon the striking individual image and more attuned, perhaps, to the ears of the Almighty than to those of mankind.

Any negative views of the piece must, however be balanced by the fact that this is still a highly inventive and expressive cantata; an astounding achievement for a largely self taught composer not long out of his teens!

The first two notes of the chorale melody form a drooping motive of the falling second, derived from the first phrase of the chorale. Bach seizes upon this idea immediately at the beginning of the sinfonia. This figure, supported by the unrelenting minor mode of this and all subsequent movements, places emphasis upon the sadness of the crucifiction. Later cantatas may tend to press home the more joyous aspects of mankind's redemption arising from Christ's sacrifice. The artistic dilemma is, how does one reconcile these two contrasting moods of grief and joy within single movements whilst maintaining an appropriate stylistic unity? Bach was certainly aware of the problem as he attempts to mitigate the expression of tragedy with rounds of Hallelujahs at the end of every movement. It is very probable that he conceived of each movement as a transformation of feeling within itself; progressing from the sadness of Christ's sacrifice to a mood of joyous redemption. If so, he set himself, as he continued to do so often throughout his composing life, an artistic challenge of colossal proportions.

The second movement is the chorus which Leipzig audiences would have expected to hear first. It is, in many ways, a traditional motet with the chorale tune (in long notes) given to the sopranos and the other three voices commenting upon the various phrases. Interestingly, the violas are divided into two sections one of which doubles the altos and another the tenors. With the bass vocal line generally doubled by the continuo, the three most difficult vocal parts were reinforced; helpful to the singers (given little time to learn demanding parts) and possibly another reason why Bach chose to present this particular work at short notice. The two violin sections retain their independence however, and their flickering semiquaver motives introduce a slightly more Italianate concerto-like feel to the motet style. Even at this early stage in his career Bach was experimenting with the incorporation of varied stylistic elements.

The final section of the movement is triumphant in every sense. Nearly thirty bars of swirling hallelujahs at double the speed and punctuated, at the end, by jabbing violin octaves! Bach shows no reticence in expressing a complete transformation of mood in this movement.

The third movement is a powerfully expressive duet, the first of two in this work (there are only fourteen duets in the whole of the second cycle). Schweitzer considers the reiterated octaves of tbass line to express ideas of "power" and "force" 8. The image is about death overpowering us and holding us in his kingdom and certainly the relentlessness of the bass conveys the impression of might and powerful oppression. In passing, though, it is interesting to note how Bach employs a bass line, descending by step with octave leaps, to very differing expressive purposes. The Air from the third Orchestral Suite and the Gavotte from the French Suite in G are but two examples.

Deeply moving, and of great structural significance, is the deployment of the two note figure first heard in the opening bars of the Sinfonia. The soprano and alto almost vie with each other to see who can make it sound the most expressive; and on her third statement, the soprano stretches the motive into her version of the chorale's first full phrase, almost as if to remind us of its origin. The weeping idea, groaning suspensions and the relentless minor mode ensure that the feelings of death and sadness predominate and the artistic problem of transmutation of mood is at its most acute. Consequently, the hallelujahs are a very muted affair, staying in character with the tragic temper of the movement. These are, perhaps, the attempts of the unredeemed dead to look beyond their condition towards some beacon of hope. But whilst lying in death and crushed by sin it is an attempt doomed to failure and deserving of no celebration.

The tenor aria is, perhaps, the most immediately attractive of the movements. The bustling and virtually continuous semiquavers in the violins represent the joy that comes from the casting aside of both sin and death. It is an uncomplicated chorale prelude, with the tenor singing the phrases virtually unembellished whilst the violins enjoy a life of their own. The movement demonstrates a point which is more characteristic of the younger than the older Bach: a distinct interruption of the musical flow in order to paint a particular image. The violins double-stop extrovertly on a phrase which calls forth Death's name while the musical energy continues unabated as the basses take on, for the first time, the incessant semiquavers. But the next phrase comes almost to a halt on the words, "nothing remains of Death but his shape". For a moment time stands still, there is no relentless movement forward and we have a glimpse of the void where death once reigned. The depiction of the moment takes precedence over the movement's architecture.

The point is not that this doesn't work or may be inferior to Bach's later more subtle approach. It is simply more extrovert and obvious. He achieves a marvelous moment of drama, the temporary hiatus of momentum made all the more powerful because of the constant movement which precedes and follows it. The image is forthright and egalitarian; contrasting with the expression of a more private and personal faith of later works.

The tenor's final Hallelujahs are very different from those of the previous movement. They, by contrast, convey a convincing celebration of the victory over death. For the first time the tenor takes up the joyous semiquavers which propel him to his final cadence.

The next movement is a traditional motet without instrumental accompaniment. This time the alto has the phrases of the chorale and the other three voices weave a rich tapestry around it, sometimes, as in the opening bars, imitating each other with clear statements of the tune. The business of the counterpoint reflects the war between life and death but perhaps the most notable feature is the ending. The text refers to the "mockery" of death and somehow the music conveys this feeling. The final hallelujahs resound to a marvelous soprano phrase transforming the now sequenced two note figure into a gradually settling arc of contemplative confidence.

The opening continuo line in the next (bass) aria is another example of the overt underlining of a single idea. It is a descending chromatic scale from tonic to dominant. He used this idea as a harmonic generator on many occasions (e.g. the keyboard Fantasia in C minor, fugue 6 from Book 2 of the Well Tempered Clavier and the many instances from the Musical offering). However, it is not a coincidence that Bach associates this idea with death in general ( he was not alone in this; see Purcell's "Dido's Lament") and the crucifixion in particular. Further, the much later Crucifixus from the B Minor Mass uses the same idea, also in triple time and in the same key! But in BWV 4 , Bach does not employ the figure as an organic structural device. It only comes twice and it is most unusual, perhaps unique, to find a Bach opening theme so little used or developed.

The reason has to be that it is a reminder of the cross with Christ's blood upon it. One wonders whether Bach's idea of using this phrase, albeit so sparingly, determined the decision to choose E minor as the pervading key of the entire work!

The penultimate movement is the second duet in which the singers delcaim the chorale phrases in turns and overlapping each other. The dotted rhythm of the bass line is one which Bach often uses to depict solemnity and the echoes of the French Overture suggest grandeur and celebration. Without trumpets and drums the celebration is muted but becomes uplifted as the vocal lines transmute themselves into streams of triplets. Celebration and joy is here to be found in the context of civilised, courtly festivity, a fairly obvious image which Bach would have expected his listeners to note.

The cantata ends with a simple harmonisation of the chorale the phrases of which had dominated the entire work.


BWV 1 Wei schon leuchtet der Morgenstern How beautiful is the Morning Star

Chorus--Recitative (Tenor)--Aria (Sop)--Recit (Bass)--Aria (Tenor)--Chorale.

Perhaps the most obvious point to strike the listener when comparing these two works is the contrast of major and minor keys. Whereas all the movements in BWV 4 were in E minor, here major keys predominate. Only the first thirteen bar recitative is predominantly minor.

It is, of course, entirely fitting that the joyousness of the Annunciation is reflected in the choice of major keys. And it is to the arias and choruses that we should mainly look when analysing Bach's tonal planning. Bach's recitatives are often structurally quite free. They may begin and end in different keys and frequently migrate through strident chromatic progressions without establishing the keys they imply. This is not to say that they are devoid of imagery; in fact sometimes the representation of textural images is quite blatant. But one ought not to draw the same sorts of conclusions about tonal planning from these movements which one is able to do from the arias and choruses. In the recitatives the harmony's main function is to support and colour the melodic line. The shape of the line is tailored to express the feeling of the words whilst he chords provide a frame such as that surrounding a painting. But Bach's frame is organic, moving, supportive and frequently surprising: it is never static.

The choruses and arias in BWV 1 are all in flat major keys; major to depict the joy which the blessing of the Lord brings and flat keys (F, and Bb) partly for practical reasons which suit the the horns but also because the joyousness of this cantata is personal and contemplative. It is not the rousing, communal sharp major key joy of, for example, the Gloria from the B minor Mass.

The opening chorus is one of Bach's grandest. It is very long, averaging about eight minutes in performance. It is scored for a large ensemble; strings and continuo, two additional solo violins, two oboe di caccia and, somewhat unusually, two horns. It is built around the phrases of the chorale which determine both its structure and scale.

The opening could not be more different than that of BWV 4. The long orchestral ritornello might lead the unwary listener to expect a sinfonia although Bach's congregation should not have done. Its structure is particularly noteworthy. The beginning is, at thsame time, both typical and untypical of the Italian tradition of which Bach was fully aware, where the full band (tutti) enunciates the main theme(s) and the solo instrument emerges later. Bach presents us with two highly contrasting ideas of one bar each. Firstly comes a "solo" theme played by one of the two violins accompanied only by continuo. There is hardly time for this to sink in when the full orchestra presents its one bar contrasting "tutti" idea. Schweitzer 9 described Bach's "joy" motives as often being a succession of rapid notes, or a repeated skipping rhythm of two semiquavers and a quaver. In this ritornello we have both; the swirls of rapid notes built around the tonic chord of F (bar 2, Ex E) and the skipping rhythm coming a little later in bar 9. This is the language of joy, beset with a pastoral feel. Also, the opening contrast of small and larger forces is an inherent part of the movement structure. Bach was always sensitive to the need for both communal and individual expressions of faith, love and salvation and he frequently underlines the point, giving particular emphasis to one or the other as the texts suggest.

The plan of the chorus is simple in concept if complex in execution. The sopranos sing each line of the chorale in augmented notes, separated by statements of the ritornello. The rest of the choir makes imitative use of the first solo violin idea in support of the sopranos. However, before the soprano reaches the second phrase of the chorale, the tenors and altos, in turn, pre-empt it, singing the phrase in notes of normal length and pitted contrapuntally against the initial violin tune! It is possible that Bach had considered introducing each of the chorale phrases in this way but realized that it would lead to a movement of gargantuan proportions. As it stands, it is still a huge movement, thoroughly planned from the first bar. The very first melodic idea announced by the single violin transpires to have been conceived as a counter melody to the second chorale phrase. It is not immediately obvious to the listener; but Bach must have planned it before he wrote a single note.

The Tenor recitative holds no surprises. The tenor is, for Bach, the traditional voice of the narrator and there is a lengthy verse to be got through including, as it does, some historical background about the ancient patriarchs. Bach dispenses with this in a dozen or so bars and then returns to the real business of the cantata. This is a good example of Bach's having learnt to use the recitative to provide plot or background, leaving the arias and choruses to delve into the human condition.

The soprano solo with oboe obligato is another joyous major key expression of the elation which the love of God can bring to the breast of the true believer. Once again Schweitzer's two joy movements, running semiquavers and the skipping rhythm, form the bulk of the compositional material. Schweitzer 10 suggests that the latter rhythm might also have been intended to represent the flickering of the divine flames, and that may well be the case. However, one finds that in his maturity, Bach frequently forgoes the depiction of the individual word or image if there is a danger that it might interrupt the over-riding emotion, thesis, architecture or message. One is sometimes surprised to find a strong physical or emotional image apparently missed by the master. The truth is that he has not missed it. He declines, in a way that he was not always able to do in his youth, to underline obvious images at the expense of the deeper, more fundamental truths.

The bass recitative makes the point. Images of light and flesh and blood need no particular emphasis. The pervading mood is one of calm acceptance of the gift of God's signal of joy. The one obvious example of word painting is the melisma on the word Freudenschein, a sign of joy (from God). It is intended to mark both the significance of the holy sign and the surge of emotion it generates.

The penultimate movement, the tenor aria, does point particular images from the text. It uses a substantial string group illustrating the first line calling for the sounding forth of voice and strings. The later line "as with song" produces a virtuoso burst of fast notes from the tenor. Nevertheless the overall flow is not disturbed by the word painting. The reiterated mood of gratitude and grateful acceptance of the word of God bubbles throughout. It is undisturbed by the minor pieces of finger pointing and underlining directed at the congregation; they do not interrupt the clear and crucial message intended for both congregation and God himself.

It should also be noted that the main theme (strings, bars 1/2,) with its emphasis upon the third, fourth and fifth scale notes, echoes the solo violin motive of the first movement, and in the same key. This is the sort of structural leit motive which reveals Bach's planning of these cantatas as complete entities rather than as collections of individual movements. It has the effect of leading the listener to feel, almost subliminally, the overall coherence and the confident and integrated unfolding of the text's main theme.

The final chorale is big and bold, employing the full choir and orchestra. All of the instruments double the choral parts, as is traditional, with one interesting exception. The second horn has a florid, ear catching counter melody cutting through the four-part chorale harmony.

It is interesting to speculate as to why Bach did this. Perhaps it was a playful challenge to the musician in the same way that Mozart was later to write tricky passages in order to test his friends. Possibly Bach, the most practical of musicians, felt that the horns, with nothing to do since the first movement, could do with a little waking up. The fact that the second rather than the first horn was given the challenge is probably also a practical matter. The first horn doubles the chorale melody; a striking sound. This requires it to rise to the top of its tessitura and the baroque practice was for the individual brass players to specialize in specific ranges. Thus the first horn would naturally take the high chorale melody leaving the second with nothing to do; but as it transpires, he is given his own particular challenge. Whatever the reason, it makes a striking finale to a cantata which, in its use of horns and oboes is reminiscent of the earlier, and equally magnificent first Brandenburg Concerto.

In performing these two works a few days apart, Bach clearly considered them to have sufficient in common to carry forth his vision of a cohesive, integrated canon of "well regulated church music". He was right, of course. But close investigation shows the degrees of subtlety which Bach had developed since his Mühlhausen days. This manifests itself in the delicate uses of keys and tonal colouring, complex and far seeing structural planning, a more understated approach to the painting of individual images and a concentration upon the depiction of the fundamental sentiment, values and themes embodied within the text.

The miracle is just how often, and how quickly, Bach was able to produce such highly original and individual masterpieces whilst remaining within the social, musical and religious constraints of his day.



[1] Christoph Wolff: Johann Sebastian Bach the Learned Musician: Oxford University press 2001 p277
[2] bid p 253
[3] bid pp268/9
[4] bid pp270-287 (in these pages Wolff lists all of the extant cantatas, and their dates of performance, cycle by cycle)
[5] bid p278
[6] Christoph Wolff: notes for the Ton Koopman complete recordings of the cantatas vol 1, p37
[7] Christoph Wolff: The World of the Bach Cantatas W W Norton and Company 1995 p 94
[8] Albert Schweitzer: JS Bach Adam and Charles Black first Published 1923 (from the German edition 1908) vol 2 p161
[9] ibid vol 2 p 109
[10] ibid vol 2 p 362


© 2006 Julian Mincham
(This article was first publised in 'In Medias Res' the music research journal of middlesex University)
Contributed by Julian Mincham (Januar2006)

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