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Cantata BWV 136
Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz
Discussions - Part 2

Continue on Part 1

Discussions in the Week of August 14, 2005 (2nd round)

Santu de Silva wrote (August 14, 2005):
BWV 136 - Introduction

BWV 136: "Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz "

[Note: I am posting this in plain text; if there is a strong preference for a more jazzy presentation -- which would take more space in your mailboxes -- let me know.]

The Epistle is Romans 8: 12-17
(...For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live....)
The Gospel is Matthew 7: 15-23
(... Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.)

Both excerpts are, in their own way, about right living, and hypocrisy - i.e. misrepresenting oneself as being right-living.

[1] Chorus: "Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz"

This music bursts on one with glorious joy; one is reminded - - if one had ever forgotten - - why one loves Bach. To me it is surprising, even startling. If I were to write "search me, O God," it would be a penintential piece in a minor key. But Bach's invitation is joyously trusting. (In Harnoncourt's recording [3], the innocent voices of the trebles, particularly joyous in this piece, are particularly effective. I must say that Harnoncourt does beautifully with happy choruses.) Either Bach was a complacent, arrogant man, or he was a good one who had made his peace with god, and trusted that he had nothing to fear. The horns, as always, add to the celebratory mood of the music.

[Since I wrote the above, I listened to Koopman's recording [4], and to my dissappointment, we find brilliance instead of joy. It was too fast, too perfect, almost Gardineresque in it slickness. More below on this.]

Alec Robertson surprisingly sees no connection between this chorus (Search me O God, from Psalm 79, evidently), but to me seems broadly on the same track. Search our hearts, because our hypocrisy is often hidden from ourselves. He calls the melody 'pleasantly ambling,' clearly he has heard it performed even slower than on the recordings I own.

[2] Recit - tenor (+ continuo)

This is all about the fall of man. From the curse we have risen, and despite our pretense, we are truly disgusting beings. And so the day of reckoning will be terrible.

Robertson considers that the uncompromising text gives Bach no chance to produce good music. (I must agree, though appreciation of recitatives comes very hard for me, and I have no hope of enjoying them at even fourth hearing.)

[3] Aria - Alto (+Oboe d'Amore, Continuo)

"Es kömmt ein Tag, So das Verborgne richtet, Vor dem die Heuchelei erzittern mag.
Denn seines Eifers Grimm vernichtet, Was Heuchelei und List erdichtet
(There will come a day . . . when Hypocrisy will tremble.)

This is a harsh diatribe against wolves in sheep's clothing. (You have to think that Bach had an axe grind somewhere. We are fortunate, indeed that Bach is not a member of our list, or he would certainly have things to say.)

The first part in a rocking duple time sets out the idea that on the day of judgement, liars and hypocrites will get their just deserts. Then a startling middle section in compound quadruple expands on it, saying that these people will be struck dumb and destroyed.

I listened to Bogna Bartosz afterwards, and instead of the edgy performance of Harnoncourt's alto (Esswood?), Ms Bartosz gives a performance that is warm and mellow. The angry outburst of the middle section becomes simply a section in contrasting rhythm. (In Harnoncourt one hears a fierce indignation that is dramatically very effective, as if the singer rebukes the congregation for being too relaxed and complacent. I had not realized that Harnoncourt was so insightful an interpreter; my respect for him increases daily. Well, weekly.)

[4] Recit - bass (+Continuo): (The heavens themselves are not pure; how shall a mere man [stand] before this Judge?)

[5] Duet Tenor and Bass (+unison violins, Continuo [according to Robertson])

The text is about original sin, and the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus.

[Robertson claims that it is a strange text for a duet, and that as a result the music is of a 'routine nature.' I initially felt that that it was a perfectly reasonable duet, but the counterpoint is minimal. The waltzy rhythm (of Koopman's recording, at least) is in strange contrast to the somber tone of the words.

(I have heard the dancing introduction to this duet somewhere!)

[6] Chorale (Robertson: Verse 9 of Johann heermann's hymn 'Wo soll ich fliehen hin' set to its associated melody, 'Auf mein lieben Gott')
[What does this mean, exactly, I wonder? The tune is present in the "Bach Chorales Website": brought to our attention recently (by Brad Lehman?) under the name Auf mein lieben Gott," but the line 'Wo soll ich fliehen hin' does not appear in the list of chorales. Maybe members of our our Chorale Project can tell us the facts.]

Dein Blut, der edle Saft,
Hat solche Stärk und Kraft,
Dass auch ein Tröpflein kleine
Die ganze Welt kann reine,
Ja, gar aus Teufels Rachen
Frei, los und ledig machen.

(Thy blood, that liquid rich,
Hath such great force and strength
That e'en the merest trickle
Can all the world deliver,
Yea, from the jaws of Satan,
Set free and disencumber.
(Philip Ambrose?))

This lovely chorale, with a simple, running embellishment in the high violins that simply provides a shimmering texture that brings out the richness of the texture of Jesus's blood, which is what the words are about. (The melody in the violin is not really noticed; it is even silent during the breaks between the lines. Perhaps it was played too fast, because Robertson says that the violin i has 'an expressive melody high above the voices.')

This is a memorable cantata; I will remember mostly the startling break in the Alto aria, unfortunately, though a general impression of joy will remain. Personally, for me the idea of divine retribution is more comprehensible than that of original sin. I believe much of the doctrine of original sin - -which must have had some limited purpose in the early church- - having served the church well over the ages, has been made a central doctrine. I will retreat now, before I get into trouble.

General information on the Cantata: <>

Previous discussion: <>

Aryeh Oron wrote (August 14, 2005):
CM & CT 'Wo soll ich fliehen hin'

Two additions to the database of Chorale Melodies (CM) & Chorale Texts (CT).

CM 'Wo soll ich fliehen hin / Auf meinen lieben Gott'
Contributed by Thomas Braatz.

CT 'Wo soll ich fliehen hin'
Contributed by Francis Browne.

Both the CM & CT are used in Mvt. 6 of of BWV 136, the cantata for discussion this week.

The format of the pages have been revised and expanded, mostly based on input from members of the BCML. I would like to thank you all.

Two pages were also added:
Hymnals with which Bach possibly may have been acquainted

Links to other sites

You are invited to send corrections/ad/suggestions for improvements.

Neil Halliday wrote (August 16, 2005):
Santu de Silva wrote:
<<"[2] Recit - tenor (+ continuo)
This is all about the fall of man. From the curse we have risen, and despite our pretence, we are truly disgusting beings. And so the day of reckoning will be terrible.
Robertson considers that the uncompromising text gives Bach no chance to produce good music. (I must agree, though appreciation of recitatives comes very hard for me, and I have no hope of enjoying them at even fourth hearing.)">>
I presume you mean `secco' recitatives? (Accompanied recitatives are often as interesting as arias and choruses).

Have you heard Rilling's recording [2] (again with Equiluz).? This is presented in the manner of an accompanied recitative, with the harpsichord improvising the music above the bass line. It's easily enjoyed, and the music flows naturally to the next movement, unlike the scrappy effect resulting from Harnoncourt's method [3].

[Another solution, for those who dislike the inflexibility of long-held chords on the organ, would be to make use of the variety of expression that a piano can bring to long-held chords (loud or soft; see the score at the BCW); a harpsichord has to resort to arpeggios and other decorative effects, as in the Rilling performance, which is nevertheless a fine example].

If you only have Harnoncourt [3] or Koopman [4] to go by, I can understand your antipathy to secco recitatives, entirely.


Rilling's opening chorus is perhaps too fast; it's certainly vigorous and lively, with fine horn playing by Ritzkowsky. An annoying portable organ can be heard at the start, but this is soon covered by the music's complex texture.

Harnoncourt is possibly too slow, but allows some beautiful choral writing to be savoured. The horn player struggles with the ancient instrument, with most of the short notes having a splattered attack. (One only wishes Bach could have heard the modern instrument, if Harnoncourt's instrument is in fact similar to what Bach heard).

Rilling has lovely instrumentation for the alto aria, but as usual Watts' strong vibrato is less than attractive.

Harnoncourt's sempre staccato continuo plods somewhat (in the outer sections), but Esswood's singing is preferable to that of Watts.

I enjoy the tuneful T,B duet in both recordings; likewise the lovely chorale, with Harnoncourt giving us one of his less disjointed, more flowing examples.

John Pike wrote (August 17, 2005):
BWV 136 - Erforsche mich Gott

[To Neil Halliday] This week's cantata was for the 8th Sunday after Trinity. First performed July 18, 1723.

Schuhmacher comments that there are indications in the history of the work which suggest that Bach had resource to earlier compositions not known to us today.
I have listened to Leusink [6], Harnoncourt [3] and Rilling [2].

The splendid opening chorus was parodied by Bach in BWV 234 Mass in A; "cum sancto spiritu" (6) and in "In Gloria Dei patris". I found Rilling and Leusink both thrilling in this. Harnoncourt sounded a bit muted and muddy for my taste in this opening chorus, but I enjoyed the rest of his performance.

The recitative which follows contains some wonderful disharmonies, and Leusink particularly makes the most of this. I strongly disagree with the comments of Alec Robertson quoted by Arch above. I think there is asome fine music in this cantata, especially the first two movements.

I found the alto vibrato obtrusive again in Rilling's account of the 3rd movement.
Otherwise, all enjoyable performances.

Peter Smaill wrote (August 17, 2005):
The textual interest in BWV 136, Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz, is the span of biblical images and the seeming peculiarity of some, as if cooked up by an overwrought mystic. Yet each has a biblical source according to Unger, and here are the more striking ones:


so dass sie Suendendornen nen bringet
Und Lasterdisteln traegt

(the Fall) "thus yields thorns-of-sin
and bears thistles of wickedness"

The Cantata, after the penitential prayer of the Chorus BWV 136/1, is in the recitative starting out in Genesis:

3:17-18 "To Adam [God] said, because you eaten of the tree which I commanded you, "You shall not eat of it," cursed is the ground because of you; in toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to you..."

The text alludes to several parts of scripture, OT and NT, concluding in Revelation 5:9:

"and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation"

(BWV 136/6)

Dein Blut, der edle saft,
Hat solche Staerk und Kraft
Das auch ein Troepflein kleine
Die ganze welt kann reine"

Thy blood, that noble liquid,
Hath such power and strenghth,
That even a droplet small
Can purify the entire world.

The span from OT to the end of the NT is a striking example of a number of texts in which the(anonymous) librettist is creating a fusion of Old Testament penitential writings with the upbeat conclusions of the new, in the way that within the fourth Gospel the use of "midrash" allows reference back to Jewish concepts from Christian doctrines.

The odd-sounding opening reference in the bass recitative BWV136/4 to the "Heavens themselves are not pure", (Die Himmel selber ind nicht rein)" grates to ears used to hearing the first line the Lord's Prayer. But the sentiment is in the OT, Job15:15-16 (Robertson calls this text "obscure":

"Behold, God puts no trust in his holy ones, and the heavens are not clean in his sight; how much less one who is abominable and corrupt, a man who drinks iniquity like water?"

Also of note is the "Wolf in sheep's clothing" image in BWV 136/2, Bach deploying (Whittaker) a sinister D in the bass of the second chord to effect.

The construction of text and music from so many disparate sources, with the religious sentiment the equivalent of a mixed metaphor ( thorns and thistles,grapes, sheep and wolves, redemptive blood, terror for hypocrites, devil's jaws) has generally put off the critics. It is tempting to agree that the work is redeemed by the beautiful final Chorale but there is nevertheless some logic to the progression of the text from fall to redemption, OT to NT, which leads to greater appreciation of the theological purpose of this work.

Neil Halliday wrote (August 17, 2005):
John Pike wrote:
< I have listened to Leusink [6], Harnoncourt [3] and Rilling [2].>
Thanks for mentioning the Leusink recording [6], which I hadn't listened to.

In the opening chorus, it's amazing what a difference the right tempo makes; somewhere between Rilling [2] and Harnoncourt [3], the music here (Leusink [6]) is relaxed yet lively.

I like the acoustic surrounding the choir, and the singing of the `prove me' section is most effective, creating an effect already noticed in BWV 186, with the sopranos followed by altos, then tenors, then basses entering on and holding the notes (in descending order) E, C sharp, F sharp, B (2nd time D,B,E,A) respectively.

In the tenor recitative, I would prefer longer accompaniment; with some chords, the interesting disonance is only briefly expressed, but it's an improvement on Harnoncourt, who has even shorter accompaniment.

It's in the Bass recitative that Leusink abandons Harnoncourt's method, and presents an accompanied version of the music as written, for the most part, with long notes throughout. This is the second example of this I have heard from Leusink, thus far in our traversal of the cantatas, and is another pleasing example from this HIP

Doug Cowling wrote (August17, 2005):
[To Peter Smaill] I've lost the link to the downloadable recordings. Would someone please post ti for me?

Many thanks

Aryeh Oron wrote (August 17, 2005):
[To Doug Cowling] Here it is:

There are links to this page from:
Main page of Cantata BWV 136:
Main page of Music Examples:

Bradley Lehman wrote (August 17, 2005):
[To Doug Cowling] Do you mean this one, having the Bach-Gesellschaft and a vocal score, plus at least one recording for almost every cantata?

Lew George wrote (August 18, 2005):
[To Bradley Lehman] Please accept my heartfelt thanks for posting this link. I have been searching the web for months without success to find full scores I could afford to supplement my meagre collection, and here they all are (well, practically all)! My printer will be running hot now for some time. Thanks once again.

Lew George wrote (August 18, 2005):
[To Aryeh Oron] And thanks to you too, Aryeh, for the links to cantata scores. This bach-cantatas site has so much on it; as a relatively new member it will take me forever I think to navigate it expertly. By the way, I visited the chorale project the other day and was knocked out by the wealth of detail. What a fabulous project!

Santu de Silva wrote (August 18, 2005):
[To Neil Halliday] To correct two things: (1) a serious error, and (2) a false impression I may have given

Santu de Silva wrote:
<<"[2] Recit - tenor (+ continuo)
This is all about the fall of man. From the curse we have risen, and despite our pretence, we are truly disgusting beings. And so the day of reckoning will be terrible. >>
My apologies: the text is about, I believe, false prophets!! Unforgivable error on my part.

I went on to say:
>> (I must agree, though appreciation of recitatives comes very hard for me, and I have no hope of enjoying them at even fourth hearing.)" >>
Neil expressed concern, and wondered whether it was secco recitatives specifically that I could not appreciate.

I must clarify; it simply takes me much greater familiarity with the recitative to appreciate it. It is a matter of fluency in German; I must translate it laboriously, word by word, and it just doesn't come quickly!

Those recitatives that I do know well, I like. (E.g. the first recitative in the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248).)

Neil Halliday wrote (August 17, 2005):
Santu de Silva wrote:
<"My apologies: the text is about, I believe, false prophets!!">
Actually, you're first summary of the text is quite reasonable - it is about "der Fluch", or curse of mankind's original sin tainting our very souls. There is no mention of false prophets as such, but of children of hell appearing as angels of light, and wolves dressed up in sheep's clothing; and the terror that awaits the hypocrites on judgement day.

Dramatic stuff!

I see you were not making a point about the musical impact of the recitative.

Personally, I consider the musical impact of these recitative movements to be paramount.

The first chord in this recitative is a diminished seventh chord, followed by two inversions of dominant 7th chords, and so forth, all very interesting and striking in impact, provided the musicians present the material in an effective manner.


Continue on Part 3

Cantata BWV 136: Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Recordings & Discussions of Cantatas: Main Page | Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Cantatas BWV Anh | Order of Discussion
Discussions of General Topics: Cantatas & Other Vocal Works | Performance Practice | Radio, Concerts, Festivals, Recordings


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