Cantata BWV 153Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind
Discussions - Part 1
Discussions in the Week of June 29, 2003
Aryeh Oron wrote (July 2, 2003):
The chosen work for this week’s discussion (June 29, 2003) is the Solo Cantata for the Sunday after New Year [2nd Sunday after Christmas Day] ‘Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind’ (Behold, dear God, how my enemies). It might seem strange to define this work as a Solo Cantata, whereas it includes three chorales. These chorales were probably intended for congregational participation when they occur. Nevertheless, the major assets of this cantata are the two splendid arias: for tenor (Mvt. 6) and alto (Mvt. 8). The theme for this Sunday refers to the flight into Egypt described in Matthew 2: 13-15, but this is only briefly mentioned in the recitative for bass (Mvt. 7), while all the other movements deal with the attack on Christians by their enemies, their appeals to God for help and their trust and confidence in Him, which are mentioned in the Epistle for this Sunday in 1 Peter 4: 12. It is thought that Bach wrote the libretto.
The details of the recordings of the cantata can be found at the following pages of the Bach Cantatas Website: Cantata BWV 153 - Recordings
As a relatively early work (composed in 1724), Cantata BWV 153 is included in all five recorded cantata cycles: Helmuth Rilling (1978) , Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1985) , Ton Koopman (1998) , Pieter Jan Leusink (1999) , and Masaaki Suzuki (2001) . A sixth recording, actually the earliest, is by Hans Grischkat (1950’s, LP only) .
Through the page of the Music Examples from this cantata: Cantata BWV 153 - Music Examples you can listen to two complete recording: Harnoncourt  (at David Zale Website) and Leusink  (at Leo Ditvoorst Website in its new location).
In the page of recordings mentioned above you can also find links to useful complementary information:
The original German text and various translations, three of which were contributed by members of the BCML: English (Francis Browne), French (Jean-Pierre Grivois), and Hebrew (Aryeh Oron).
There are also links to the Score:
Vocal & Piano version: Score Vocal & Piano
BGA Edition (newly added): Score BGA [N/A]
Links to commentaries: in English by Simon Crouch (Listener’s Guide), and in Spanish by Julio Sánchez Reyes (CantatasDeBach).
I hope to see many of you participating in the discussion.
Neil Halliday wrote (July 3, 2003):
The wonderful movement of this cantata, for me, is the tenor aria "Storm now, storm, you trouble-tempest" (Mvt. 6).
In the key of A minor, it is built around an ostinato bass, which, while this is separated by other material, occurs five times throughout the movement. The chordal sequence of the music above this 'ground' figure is magnificent, and, combined with its dotted rhythm strucure, endows the movement with a mood of determination, defiance, and triumph.
Of the two examples available at the Bach-Cantatas web-site - Harnoncourt  and Leusink  - the latter is preferable; he maintains the power more constantly throughout the movement, and Equiluz, with Harnoncourt, seems to employ the 'barking' syndrome more than is necessary; Schoch (with Leusink), gives a fine performance.
Thomas Braatz wrote (July 7, 2003):
BWV 153 - Provenance
See: Cantata BWV 153 - Provenance
BWV 153 - Commentary (Dürr, Chafe, Little & Jenne)
See: Cantata BWV 153 - Commentary
Thomas Braatz wrote (July 8, 2003):
BWV 153 - The Recordings:
This week I listened to the following recordings of this cantata:
Rilling (1978) ; Harnoncourt (1985) ; Koopman (1998) ; Leusink (1999) ; Suzuki (2001) 
The Total Timings (from slowest to fastest):
Rilling (15:11) ; Harnoncourt (15:06) ; Leusink (14:10) ; Koopman (13:03) ; Suzuki (12:45) 
[Anyone who has been following these reports week after week should have become aware of the fact that the general tendency toward faster performances in the HIP recordings of recent years is quite well established and not simply an imagined characteristic noted by ‘uninformed’ listeners. Since I have already shared some theories as to why this phenomenon is taking place, I would welcome other thoughts and opinions that might help to explain this obvious change in performance practice. What will these tempi be like in 10 or 20 years from now? Will these performances/interpretations eventually run into threshold separating barely perceptible music from almost complete chaos?]
The Chorales (Mvt. 1, Mvt. 5, and Mvt. 9):
For the overall best choir sound, I would choose Suzuki  over Koopman . Both choirs achieve an excellent blending and balance of voices that surpass the choir sound heard in the Harnoncourt  and Rilling  recordings. Leusink , as usual, suffers greatly from the bad quality of certain voices that stand out over the group and disturb the unified sound that should be present in such choral mvts. Rilling’s choir, due to the overuse of vibratos, is unable to match the more perfect, harmonious sound of either Suzuki or Koopman, however Rilling’s choir sings with stronger conviction than any of the other choirs. Koopman opts for a much more reticent [than Suzuki] choir sound which borders on sotto voce singing: it is pleasant to listen to, but lacks the firm stature that a chorale representing congregational singing ought to have.
From the standpoint of interpretation, most of the HIP renditions (Suzuki  excepted, for the most part) tend not to take the texts very seriously, but rather treat the chorales as ‘something to play around with’ as they hope to draw attention to unimportant details through over-accentuation, and fast, dance-like tempi, while simultaneously de-emphasizing the unaccented endings/syllables of each phrase as if these did not really matter much at all. There is some deliberate ‘poking’ at each quarter-note syllable which destroys completely the overall arch of the phrase and the flowing cantabile of the chorale melody. Wonderful passing-notes are sometimes imperceptible to the human ear. Even Suzuki  gets carried away by interpretations that lead away from the actual chorale text, as in the final chorale where he (and Leusink , and even Koopman ) choose to treat this as a fast dance leading to heaven. Here, as in other instances of a similar type in other Bach cantatas, the aspect of ‘Joy’ is nonetheless rather seriousas the congregation prays and exhorts God and Christ to help the individual to carry his/her cross cheerfully (without complaining) and to provide assistance in overcoming potential sin and shame by controlling human flesh and blood on the path of life here on earth as well as in the moment of death. Listeners will need to ask themselves whether a light-footed dance mvt. is appropriate in this situation. For me it is not. A conductor can choose from a great number of ways available to him in his interpretation. He may have all the freedom in the world to interpret as he pleases this music. The question nevertheless remains: “Is he really doing justice to the text and the musical setting of the chorale in a Bach cantata, if his interpretation is more intent on being different for the sake of being different, or if it is based on only a partial, incomplete understanding of the text, or if the text is being treated as being only secondary to the music itself, or if the setting within the church service for which this composition was intended is considered to be really quite irrelevant?”
The tenor aria, Mvt. 6:
The usually very excellent singer, Kurt Equiluz [Harnoncourt] , is ill-suited for singing Bach arias of this type, arias which call for many interval leaps that need to be delivered forcefully. His voice, which here resorts primarily to barking out the notes, finds only momentary relief in the section after the fermata on “Ruh” (ms. 24 ff.) [It is only Equiluz’ interpretation to take this section as ‘piano’ which is not marked this way in the original part. This is an intelligent move on Equiluz’ part since otherwise his singing of this aria would have suffered even more.] It is quite evident, that Equiluz is, for the most part, forcing his voice to perform beyond its limits (evidence of some demi-voix weakness.) You would never hear Peter Schreier running into this type of difficulty because his voice is much stronger. Adalbert Kraus [Rilling]  finds these interval leaps difficult as well, but listen to how precisely he executes the coloraturas consisting of many 32nd-notes. There are few singers, using a full voice, who can do this as well. Another excellent rendition is given by Prégardien [Koopman] , which, although less forceful (generally Koopman’s performance lacks the sharp edges that this aria demands), is quite successful vocally and is a definite improvement musically over Equiluz. Although quite good, Gerd Türk’s [Suzuki] performance  is vocally not quite as good as Prègardien’s. Türk sings the coloraturas with a vibrato that smears the accuracy of the individual notes. Knut Schoch’s [Leusink]  singing is somewhat more clear and accurate, but the overall expression is rather flat. In general, the HIP versions lack the bite and intensity of Rilling’s version with Kraus . The HIP versions feature mainly demi voix that are unable to provide the necessary stamina that would translate into convincing versions of this aria.
The alto aria (Mvt. 8):
Although Ann Murray [Rilling]  has a full voice that is able to sing audibly with the necessary strength the low notes in this aria (all the other altos in this group have quite obvious deficiencies in this regard,) her wide, very operatic vibrato detracts considerably from what might have been a very good performance of this aria. Stefan Rampf [Harnoncourt] , a true boy alto and not a counter tenor, gives the best performance of this aria, assisted by Harnoncourt who has discovered the appropriately slow tempo of the minuet. This allows this mvt. to be presented in such as fashion that the listener does not ask, as in the case of the remaining HIP renditions: “What was that? Is the mvt. over already?” For various other reasons, the counter tenors, Landauer, Buwalda, and Chance, fail to fulfill what might reasonably expected in an aria of this type.
Mvts. for bass, Mvt. 3 & Mvt. 7:
My preferences from the top down: Heldwein [Rilling] ; Mertens [Koopman] ; Kooy [Suzuki] ; Hampson [Harnoncourt] ; and Ramselaar [Leusink] 
Aryeh Oron wrote (July 8, 2003)
BWV 153 - The Recitative (Mvt. 4) & Aria for Tenor (Mvt. 6) - Background
After hearing this cantata many times, I see the recitative & aria for tenor as the centrepieces of this cantata. Although a chorale is sandwiched quite artificiality between them, I find that there is sense of continuity both in the text and the music of these two movements. The singer has to use all this dramatic powers to convey convincingly the message of these movements. He has to show despair, hope, distress, consolation, awe, courage, and determination. With the modest accompaniment Bach supplies him, almost all the burden of bringing these movements out successfully lies on the singer’s shoulders.
Here are what commentaries wrote about the recitative & aria for tenor in some of my favourite accompanying books:
Alec Robertson (1972)
Recitative: The soul is, however, not long consoled, but breaks out in anguish its enemies who shot at it with bows and arrows. An arioso follows ‘ I shall die at their hands’. ‘Die’ is set to tortured vocal intervals and dissonant harmonies in the continuo. The movement ends with another and even more despairing arioso ‘Help, Helper, help, save my soul’, in which the voice rises an octave to a high-pitched phrase at ‘soul’.
Aria: The mood changes again to defiance. The score of the aria is black with semi- and demi-semiquavers in both voice and instrumental parts.
W. Murray Young (1989)
Recitative: In secco, as for the alto recitative, he listens to God’s consolation, but immediately thereafter relapses into despair, saying that his enemies have bent their bows to loose their arrows at him. His life is in danger; the whole world is for him a torture-pit. His only help can come from God, as he pleads in arioso: ‘Hilf, Helfer, hilf! Errette meine Seele!’ (Help, Helper, help! Rescue my soul!)?
Aria: With all the defiance he can muster, he invites the evil elements to descend on him, if only he knows that God is his protector and his Saviour. In amazing florid fashion, Bach combines the tumult and the wave motifs to paint a storm scene, in which the tenor invites the waves of misfortune to break over him. The flooding waters and inundating fires present, in allegory, the evils which beset him.
Stephen A. Crist (1999)
Recitative: In the tenor recitative it becomes clear that God's words of comfort have not yet fully penetrated the believer's heart. After a perfunctory acknowledgement of God's comfort, the desperate and plaintive tone of the earlier movements returns. The present recitative is far more substantial than the first: it is over twice as long; it contains several notable instances of word-painting (e.g. chromaticism in bar 3 for 'Leiden' ('suffering') and in bar 13 for 'sterben' ('die'), and a melismatic flourish on 'Bogen' ('bows') in bar 9 to illustrate the trajectory of the arrows aimed at him); and it concludes with a brief arioso passage. "
Aria: After a chorale that reiterates God's promise to accompany his people through their trials, the point of greatest dramatic intensity is reached: a tenor aria that employs the imagery of a raging storm to portray affliction, misfortune, and spiritual warfare. The tempest is represented by rapid scale figures in demi-semiquavers, dotted rhythms, and disjunct motion (including octave leaps in the continuo). The surging of the flood is brilliantly depicted by a whirling sequential fon 'wallt' ('rush'), sung and played in unison in all five parts (bars 9 and 13). A more sedate feeling temporarily intervenes, beginning on the word 'Ruh' ('peace', bar 23), which, characteristically, is sustained through a full bar and beyond. The texture thins to a duet (bars 24-5), then a trio (bars 26-9), before returning to the full-blooded intensity of the beginning.
Last week I have been listening to 6 complete recordings of Cantata BWV 153. Here they are:
 Karl Markus w/ Hans Grischkat (1950’s?)
 Adalbert Kraus w/ Helmuth Rilling (1978)
 Kurt Equiluz w/ Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1985)
 Christoph Prégardien w/ Ton Koopman (1998)
 Knut Schoch w/ Pieter Jan Leusink (1999)
 Gerd Türk w/ Masaaki Suzuki (2001)
Here are my personal preferences:
Kraus, Equiluz = Prégardien, Markus, [gap], Türk, [big gap], Schoch
Although Equiluz and Prégardien are both capable singers, who have shown their sense for drama many times in previously discussed cantatas, my final choice goes with Kraus. His approach could be described as extrovert and liberated, where theirs is more introvert and restrained. Helped by energetic accompaniment, he manages to bring out the many facets (sometimes even contradictory) embedded in these two movements with exemplary control and admirable balance. Türk sounds relatively weak in relation to the above three masters. Markus is not bad, with interesting interpretation, but somewhat obscure voice. Schoch has nothing to offer. Just listen to the recitative and see how he is getting lost along the way, giving you nothing but the plain notes.
Footnote: In a similar aria for tenor ‘Die schäumenden Wellen von Belials Bächen’ (Mvt. 3) from Cantata BWV 81 ‘Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?’, discussed in the BCML about 40 months ago (!), my favourite rendition was Peter Schreier with Karl Richter. This kind of aria was tailored for this couple. Alas, both have not recorded Cantata BWV 153.
Movements to take away: the recitative & aria for tenor with Adalbert Kraus.
Peter Bloemendaal wrote (July 16, 2003):
BWV 153, an inspiring discovery
The theme of this cantata is not a pleasant one to start the new year with. We would expect an atmosphere of good wishes and upbeat expectations in order to make a new beginning on a high note. Instead we are confronted with an epistle reading about the sufferings of a Christian and the glad tidings of the Gospel are about King Herod’s intention to kill baby Jesus, the Holy Family’s hasty flight to Egypt and the tragic massacre of the Innocents, the first martyrs “avant la lettre”. Today, in our “free” Western welfare state, most of us have not experienced war and hardships in our lifetimes. Many of us do not immediately relate to this message anymore. And even those who have, in former Yugoslavia, Eastern Europe, Israel and the USA, do not consider war as the work of Satan, as our ancestors once did. Nor do they realize and recognize the concept of sin as transgressing the laws of God. Even many Christians today are having difficulty in believing what every Christian in Bach’s time knew: we are sinful people and our trespasses will lead to perdition but for Christ’s redeeming sacrifice. So this is heavy stuff at the beginning of a new year.
The Church named the day “Sunday after the Circumcision of Christ”. In our era New Year’s Day is exactly the eighth day after the birth of Jesus, so it would be the actual day of his circumcision. Yet, this festive ceremony is not even mentioned in the cantata. Does any one know why the circumcision was hushed over in this cantata as well as in BWV 58 - “Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid”, also composed for this particular Sunday? One could argue that circumcision is a typically Jewish, non-Christian feast, but then why was the first Sunday in the new year given that name?
Anyhow, in January 1724, it was only the second day of the year. The day before the choir had sung BWV 190 – “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied”, and in the preceding week three more cantatas, a Sanctus and a Magnificat. Therefore Bach wanted to give his choristers some physical compensation at the end of an exhausting Christmas season. So he did not compose an extensive chorus to begin the cantata with but, in Dürr’s words, a “simple chorale for four parts”. To support their tired voices, he had the first and second violins and the viola play colla parte with respectively the sopranos, the altos and the tenors.
However, the contents were not relaxing at all. Bach was quite relentless towards himself, shifting tonalities and creating wrenching chords in contrapuntal polyphony. The shifting modes and the harmonies of this anything but simple chorale on top of the frightening text made it quite audible to every one in the church that they were all in dire straits. The final words “leicht in Unglück stürtzen” are so cleverly composed that you almost physically feel that you are loosing balance and poise on the brink of the abyss, only to find your equilibrium again when turning to God for help. This is the alto’s recitative, begging God for support lions and dragons, symbolic for Satan, are on the verge of doing us all in completely.
This outcry to Heaven is answered by the arioso of the bass soloist with the words of the prophet Isaiah. Beautiful, reassuring words, “Fear not, for I am with you!” They are supported by an expressive basso continuo and strengthened by repeating “Ich helfe dich” in the bass line. Who would not love to hear those comforting words in days of personal crisis, especially when they are said by the person whom you love and trust more than anyone on earth or in heaven.
Here ends the first part of the cantata.
Then doubt strikes again. It is the voice of Satan, sowing the seeds of despair. Tranquillity and comfort make place for mortal fear and distress. You hear the arrows leaving the bow, the fear for perdition on “verderben” and the even deeper death agony on “sterben”. A renewed cry to the divine helper concludes the tenor recitative.
The following chorale assures us again that in spite of the opposition of all the devils God will redeem his promise. The melody in the sopranos Bach would use again several times in SMP (BWV 244). Again the sopranos, altos and tenors are being supported by the violins and the violas.
The tenor aria (Mvt. 6), which concludes part two, is a very remarkable movement. The violent violins symbolize the charging enemy. As usual at the time, the tempests of life are accompanied by and reflected in calamities in nature: disastrous weather, floods and wretched fires. The tenor ends with God’s comforting pledge : “I am your shelter and saviour.” But then Bach does something very strange. Instead of changing the mood at this point, the atmosphere remains very agitated. The words of comfort are in shrill contrast with the musical message. There is no sublimation in the accompaniment, no relief, no return to calm confidence. In spite of God’s pledge, there is no inner peace. “La lutte continue.” It is as if Bach is saying that Satan will never give up. There will always be moments of doubt in spite of God’s promises. An extraordinary conclusion of part two of this interesting cantata.
The beginning of the last part, a recitative for bass, is a straightforward incitement to remain patient in times of suffering. For God will lift you up when the time is ripe for it. Look at Jesus, his life was already in peril as a baby. Hear what Bach does on “Flüchtling”. I really would hope that every one who feels pity for Jesus because of Herod’s persecution, will draw parallels to our present-day refugee problem. I know that Bach did not have any 21st century problems in mind, but still …And once more the bass confir“andante” that Christ will welcome in Heaven all those who suffer with him here on earth. But in contrast with the conclusion of the tenor aria (Mvt. 6), here there is comfort and faith.
The soothing voice of the bass prepares us for the hermeneutic alto aria, an elegant, melodious minuet. The opening ritornello of the strings is taken over by the singer and after the first sentence there follows a da capo. In this way Bach makes sure that the comforting promise of heavenly bliss after worldly misery will stick to the minds of the congregation.
Then a new musical theme is introduced on more or less the same thought, be it in different words. Dürr calls it a swinging end to the alto’s contribution. Finally the strings pick up the interrupted repetition of the first theme again and lead us to the finish of this lovely aria.
The final chorale in three stanzas is beautiful in its simplicity. Like in the previous chorales, the voices are doubled by the strings. The first stanza is a very personal resolution to bear any cross in my lifespan, praying God for strength, knowing it will be for my own good. The second verse elaborates on this idea and asks God to keep me from sin and shame. The final verse is a plea to God to keep my heart pure and it closes with my last wish to be with my Saviour. What more can I ask?
It is fascinating that after recording the choral parts of all these cantatas, most of the complete cantatas are new to me, when listening to the CD’s. This one I remembered for the chorale movements. I was not very attracted at first hearing, but –as so often with Bach - the more and deeper I got into it, the more I was impressed. The most interesting aspect I found in the end of the tenor aria (Mvt. 6), where Bach confesses that real faith is always on trial. We believe God on his word, that He is our lifesaver. But it is not always easy to get a grip, when things get really tough in your life.
Francine Renee Hall wrote (July 16, 2003):
[To Peter Bloemendaal] What can I say but that your cantata write-up is an absolute joy to read! You combine scholarship with humanity, a personal touch that really moves everyone, even atheists like me! (lol)
Continue on Part 2
Cantata BWV 153: Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3