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Cantata BWV 81
Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?
Discussions - Part 2

Continue from Part 1

Discussions in the Week of February 19, 2006

John Pike wrote (February 19, 2006):
BWV 81: Introduction

As we proceed with our chronological survey of Bach's cantatas, in order of composition, the cantata for discussion this week (beginning 19th February 2006) is Cantata BWV 81 "Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?" ("Jesus sleeps, what hope is there for me?"). This is the last cantata which I will be introducing before handing over to the very capable hands of Doug Cowling.

Basic Information

Event in the Lutheran church calendar: Solo Cantata for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany

Readings: Epistle: Romans 13: 8-10; Gospel: Matthew 8: 23-27

Composed: Leipzig, 1724
1st performance: January 30, 1724 - Leipzig

Text: Johann Franck (Mvt. 7); Matthew 8: 26 (Mvt. 8); Anon (probably Erdmann Neumeister) (Mvts. 1-3, 5-6)

Short Commentary

Notes by Klaus Hofmann (2002) taken from liner notes to recording by Masaaki Suzuki [7].

In terms of both text and music, Bach's cantata for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany is wholly determined by the gospel that is traditionally read on that day and then explained by the preacher. it is the story of the quietening of the storm according to Matthew 8: 23-27: Jesus and his disciples are travelling across the sea; he himself is aslepp. a storm arises, and the ship is covered with waves. greatly distressed, the disciples wake Jesus. he, however, "arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm". this episode, which is also related by Mark and Luke, has caught the imagination of many artists through the centuries, and evidently inspired Bach and his unknown text author as well. With this cantata, for 30th January 1724, the Cantor of St. Thomas comes strikingly close to the operatic genre, and thus to a stylistic level that had been decisively banned from church music in Leipzig. It may therefore be the case that this work provided the more conservative members of what Bach described in 1730 in a letter to his old friend Georg Erdmann as the "wondrous authorities who have but little devotion to music" with their first bone of contention. We know nothing, however, about the reactions in Leipzig to Bach's sacred music.

Bach's cantata consists essentially of a dramatic sequence of scenes. At the beginning there is an idyll: Jesus is asleep, the boat is gliding across calm waters. the gentle sound of recorders determines the sound image; the vocal line and the strings seem to be holding back, "in order not to wake Jesus". This, however, proves quite literally to be the calm before the storm: apprehension starts to blend in, with sighing figures and pauses in the wind and string parts, and questions in the vocal line. Jesus sleeps on; he does not react or take any action; what hope remains in the face of death? The text author manages almost imperceptibly to reinterpret the perilous situation on the ship as a reflection of the problems faced by Christians in his own time.

In the second aria (third movement), Bach lets loose the powers of nature. Now the waves foam, the storm rages; and behind it all stands Belial, the epitome of evil, Satan. amid all the wild activity, however, the Christian stands firm, like a rock; this, too, is shown with great flexibility by Bach, who asks the tenor to maintain his long-held, high notes against all the turmoil in the strings.

Now the scene changes again: Jesus enters. As usual, he is represented by a bass voice. In an arioso accompanied just by the continuo (fourth movement), a strictly imitative, often canon-like piece of writing, he literally reproaches the disciples (and thus also the Christians of his own era): "Ihr Klein-glaeubigen, warum seid ihr so furchtsam?" ("Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith"; Matthew 8: 26). And then he takes action: in the following aria (fifth movement) the sea again rises up and Jesus commands it to be still - and indeed, there are moments at which Bach's wild, turbulent music falls silent.

A brief alto recitative (sixth movement) leads into the final chorale, and this seems to formulate the quintessence for the Christians of the time; "Unter deinen Schirmen bin ich vor den Stürmen aller Feinde frei" ("Beneath your protection I am free of the storm"). With the beautiful, simple final strophe by Johann Franck (1653) to a melody by Johann Crüger (1653) - well known from Bach's motet "Jesu, meine Freude" (BWV 227) - Bach leads his listeners back into the more familiar world of undramatic, meditative music for church services.

Masaaki Suzuki adds "The principal surviving materials relating to this cantata are! the full score in Bach's own hand and the original parts, together with the vocal texts that were printed to be handed out among the congregation. These texts include those of six cantatas. Among the parts, the continuo parts include one transposed for organ and one untransposed part with figuring attached, suggesting that a harmony instrument of some type was used". Suzuki uses a harpsichord for his performance.

"Considering that numerals do not appear in the tenor recitative that constitutes the second movement, it is not inconceivable that the Harpsichord was absent from this movement. But, since the tenor melody appears in this piece, there are no problems involved in performing the harmony even in the absence of figuring, and we decided to include the harpsichord throughout the work on this occasion.

"The word "Felsen" ("rock") in the passage "Ein Christ soll zwar wie Felsen stehn" in the third movement, Aria, appears in Bach's manuscript as "Wellen" ("waves"). But the expression "like waves" seems inappropriate for conveying the notion of Christ standing upright in the midst of billowing waves, and "like a rock" as appears on many occasions in the Bible is surely correct. Ulrich Leisinger, editor of the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (New Bach Edition), writes in his commentary to this work that it seems likely that this was an error that appeared in the source from which Bach copied the text, and in accordance with his recommendation we have therefore decided to sing "Felsen" rather than "Wellen".

The order of the cantata is: 1. Aria (Alto); 2. Recitative (Tenor); 3. Aria (Tenor); 4. Arioso (Bass); 5. Aria (Bass); 6. Recitative (Alto); 7. Chorale

Useful information

Link to texts, translations, details of scoring, references, provenance, commentary, vocal score, music examples, and list of known recordings:

Link to previous discussions:

Chorales used in this cantata

Bach used the chorale melody Jesu, meine Freude in this cantata. See:


Strover the internet, it is possible to hear Leusink's recording of the complete cantata [5] and a MIDI file of mvt. 7 by M. Greentree:
Please note that the link to Harnoncourt's recording [2] is not working.

You can listen to short examples from other recordings through the links to Amazon provided at the Recordings page.

I look forward to reading your comments about this cantata and about the available recordings.

Julian Mincham wrote (February 19, 2006):
BWV 81 - As mentioned in the introduction a highly 'operatic' work.

Of some interest is Bach's choice of keys--E minor for the aria and bass arias and the closing chorale. It would seem that this key had a symbolic significance for Bach. There is only one movement in this key in the B minor Mass (BWV 232) --the Crucifixus!. It is also the key of the opening movement of the St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) and the key used for every movement of BWV 4.

Here it is used in the first movement to convey an extraordinary quality of resignation. Who will save me while Jesus sleeps? But there is no terror or tension here--the mood, largely carried on in the following recitative, is purely one of accepting resignation interrupted only by the Christian's struggle against the raging elements (tenor aria).

One is reminded at this point of Roger Norrinton's comments on the first movement of Beethoven's 5th symphony (made during his introduction to his broadcasts of the complete cycle during Christmas 1990.) It is, he claimed, when played on the original instruments and at Beethoven's tempo, right at the edge of the musicians' technical abilitities. There is a real sense of stress and tension in the getting out of the notes which is not always present when a 'modern' orchestra plays it at a somewhat slower tempo. This tension communicates itself and becomes a part of the tension/stress which the music is about.

I feel the same is true of this movement in which the tenor, no matter how good, is stretched to the limit both by the tessatura required and the speed of the notes. This tension is relieved, physically, technically and artistically at the moments of recitative when the faithful Christian finds respite at the shore.

The struggle over, the bass reasserts Christ's forceful presence with the question whyare ye of little faith so fearful? (the arioso even ends with a musical question) and His presence is reaffirmed by the powerful octave driven motives representing his commands in the bass aria. The winds and rages have returned (instrumental semiquavers) but are now controlled at His command.

Note the little chromatic passage which occurs (only the once) at the end of the middle section just before the da capo, representing the idea of 'disaster'---even though it is no longer impending. When Bach does something just the once in a movement is is really worth noticing.

Many years ago someone drew my attention to the fact that the first phrase of the chorale of this cantata, when played in D minor, spells out the keys of the six English suites A, A -, G-, F, E-, D-. Possibly it means something, possibly not; although I can't help feeling that Bach, with his sense of pattern and number might well have done consciously for some reason.

Peter Smaill wrote (February 19, 2006):
BWV 81, "Jesus schlaeft, was soll ich hoffen", appears to break new ground, variously described as "operatic" and "painterly." John Pike refers to the persistence of the image of the stilling of the waves. The explanation of BWV 81/3 which reads "Ein Christ soll zwar wie wellen stehn" as actually a mistake for "wie Felsen stehn" (A Christian should indeed stand like a rock) does in fact take the imagery almost unaltered to a painting - one by the nineteenth century Dresden artist, Caspar David Friedrich.

It is his "The Cross on the Baltic", in the Schloss Charlottenburg which resonates with the imagery of this Cantata. A cross is silhouetted against a stormy sea, a sailing boat coming through choppy seas to the shore illumined by moonlight, always in Friedrich the image of Jesus. "The ship pressing on towards the shore signifies that life is approaching death, already orienting itself towards the Cross which is the sign of Christ's death. The rock is a symbol of faith. The hope of resurrection is symbolised by the anchor.…" (cf. BWV 56/2; "Mein Anker aber, der mich halt" (My anchor, however which holds me, is Thy compassion.....).

Thus it can be seen that these mystical images, associated with the medieval "navigatio vitae," were translated through baroque texts such as that of BWV 81 and BWV 56 to nineteenth-century Romanticism.

Friedrich unwittingly offers illustrations of many Bach texts: "Ach wie fluchtig," BWV 26 is paralleled by his 1821 "Ship on the River Elbe in the early morning mist ":" The seemingly optimistic mood intimated by the activity of the fisherman is once again associated with death.The unusually prominent bank of grass and flowers in the an allusion to the rapid passing of life.....the ship is the ship of life moving downstream, the river representing death... the motif of the lifting mist is also concerned with time" (Börsch-Supan).

The key to the subset of images which associated the voyage of life is the line in BWV 56/2 "Mein wandel auf der welt ist einer schiffart gleich" (My life in this world is like a voyage). Bach goes on to set "So tret ich aus dem Schiff in meine statt, Die ist das Himmelreich". This is precisely the image of Friedrich's "On the Sailing Boat": a couple sail towards disembarkation in a heavenly city of gothic spires.

I can in no way state that Friedrich knew the Bach texts but, living in the axis of the Baltic, Saxony, Silesia and Bohemia, the north German spiritual tradition seems to have provided a strong impulse to the handing down of these mystical images, as if the enlightenment was being rejected by the artist in the 1830's just as it had implicitly been by the musician Bach a hundred years previously.

A mystery remains: according to Whittaker, the manuscript score of BWV 81 ends with a sketch of the first movement of the Epiphany Cantata BWV 65, "Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen". Was this cantata BWV 81 therefore composed at least five weeks before its actual performance, and probably in 1723? Both works, and others at this time, have interesting structures. BWV 65 puts ideas into pairs of numbers; BWV 81 divides into life without Jesus (BWV 81/1-3) and life with Jesus (BWV 81/5-7) , with the biblical text in the central spot, BWV 81/4. BWV 63, "Christen ätzet diesen Tag" is completely symettrical even to the point of the central recitative having seven verses so as to emphasise "lauter Heil und Gnaden ", "pure Salvation and Grace".

So at this time we find Bach not only developing the device of hermeneutical cantata structure, but also even in allegedly simple chorales, unusual harmony; and with BWV 81, using mystical imagery and an unusual key sequence in which the drama of the storm-tossed Gospel become also the spiritual voyage of the believer.

Thomas Braatz wrote (February 19, 2006):
Peter Smaill wrote:
>>The explanation of BWV 81/3 which reads "Ein Christ soll zwar wie wellen stehn" as actually a mistake for "wie Felsen stehn" (A Christian should indeed stand like a rock) does in fact take the imagery almost unaltered to a painting - one by the nineteenth century Dresden artist, Caspar David Friedrich.<<
Wustmann (1913) was the first to suggest this correction from "Wellen" to "Felsen", but he may not have consulted the DWB (the extensive dictionary of the German language by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm). Some of the meanings of "Welle" include 1.) an upstanding bundle of wood or other material rolled together and 2) The circular (or semi-circular) base upon which a column of wood or stone stands or the cylindrical upright column itself (the stability of the base being important to supporting an upright column/pillar properly).

With such a definition available to the unknown librettist of BWV 81, it does make sense to think of "Ein Christ soll zwar wie Wellen stehen..." in terms of Christian being compared to a pillar/column standing firmly amidst all the turbulent winds and floods that might surround him/her.

The NBA correctly indicates "Felsen" in italics thereby alerting the reader of the score that it is not clearly discernible from the original sources that this word is intended and that the NBA editors have supplied something which cannot be definitely ascribed to Bach's intentions.

Dürr, in his book on the cantatas, has it as "Wellen", explaining in a footnote that "Wellen" appears not only in the original autograph score, but also independently in the libretto booklet (relocated in St. Petersburg).

This latter observation coupled with the correct definition of the word from the DWB favors the use of "Wellen" instead of "Felsen" in BWV 81/3.

Scott Sperling wrote (February 20, 2006):
Text in Cantata 81

The Readings for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, for which Cantata BWV 81 was written, are Romans 13: 8-10 and Matthew 8: 23-27. The passage in Matthew tells of Jesus and some his disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee. Unexpectedly, a furious storm came up, such that waves were sweeping over the boat. Yet, Jesus was asleep. The disciples cried out to Jesus, "Lord, save us!" Jesus awoke and replied, "You of little faith, why are you so afraid?" Then Jesus "rebuked" the wind and the waves, and "it was completely calm." The disciples were (understandably) amazed at this.

Cantata BWV 81 concerns itself with the passage in Matthew, but somewhat tangentially. As is often done in the Cantatas, the feelings of the people in the Reading are projected onto contemporary Christians; the specific distress experienced by the disciples in the Reading (the storm on the lake) is extrapolated to be any general time of trouble faced by a Christian. And so, the Cantata does not so much act out the physical events found in the Reading; rather, the Christians depicted in the Cantata reflect the emotional state and feelings of the disciples in the Reading.

The 1st Mvt Alto Aria begins "Jesus schlaft, Jesus schlaft, was soll ich hoffen?" ("Jesus sleeps, Jesus sleeps, what hope is there for me?"). Note first, that the connotation of the lament "Jesus sleeps" is somewhat different for the Christian in general, than it was for the disciples in their boat. Jesus was in the physical presence of the disciples in the boat. His act of sleeping in the boat during the storm should have served as an example for the disciples: Jesus was in the same boat and in the same storm, yet able to sleep. Jesus faced the storm with peace, and was confident that He was in His Father's hands. The disciples were physically with their Lord in the storm, yet fearful. In fact, they were crossing the lake as a result of a specific command of Jesus (see Matthew 8:18), and so, they should have known that they were travelling completely within the will of their Lord. In short, Jesus slept, and so the disciples too should have been at peace in the storm.

The situation for the Christian in general, who laments "Jesus sleeps", is different. For the Christian, Jesus is not physically seen to be sleeping in the other room; the Christian cannot physically stir Jesus to action by waking Him. When the Christian cries "Jesus sleeps" (as in the Alto Aria), she is lamenting that she does not see Jesus act, as she faces dire circumstances. In fact, she cannot (except through faith) even be certain that Jesus knows or cares of her troubles. All she knows is that, without Jesus, she is lost: "Was soll ich hoffen?" ("What hope is there for me?").

The 2nd Mvt Tenor Recitative continues with the sentiment of uncertainty by the Christian, with regard to where Jesus is, and whether He cares that the Christian is in trouble: "Herr! warum trittest du so ferne? Warum verbirgst du dich zur Zeit der Not?" ("Lord! why do You step out so far away? Why do You hide Yourself in my time of need?"); and then: "Ach, wird dein Auge nicht durch meine Not beweget so sonsten nie zu schlummern pfleget?" ("Ah, will Your eye not be moved by my distress, that normally is not prone to sleep?"). The singer requests guidance through the storm (equivalent to the disciples waking Jesus): "Ach leite mich durch deiner Augen Licht, weil dieser Weg nichts als Gefahr verspricht" ("Ah, lead me by Your eye's-light, since this way promises nothing but danger.").

This leads to the magnificent "Storm" Aria in the 3rd Mvt, in which the Christian struggles in the midst of the storm. But, this is not a physical struggle, it is a struggle of faith. These are not normal waves in the sea, but they are "Wellen von Belial's Bachen" ("waves of the devil's streams"). The struggle for the Christian is to, by faith, stay calm in the storm. In the Aria, the stormy Allegro is interrupted briefly by the Adagio, which reflects the calmness of heart which a Christian, victorious by faith, would have: "Ein Christ soll zwar wie Felsen stehn, wenn Trubsalswinde um ihn gehn" ("A Christian should stand like a rock, when the winds of trouble blow around him"). Such an attitude would imitate Jesus, who slept in the midst of the storm on the Sea of Galilee.

In the 4th Mvt Bass Arioso, Jesus awakes: "Ihr Kleinglaubigen, warum seid ihr so furchtsam?" ("O you of little faith, why are you so fearful?"). These are the words Jesus spoke to His disciples, as He awoke in the storm. And, I must say, it was a deserved admonition. In many ways, when it comes to faith, the disciples had a much easier time of it than we do. They witnessed first-hand the miracles of Jesus; we must believe the Word of God by faith. They physically followed Jesus into the boat (see Matthew 8: 23), and so, were assured that they were on the Lord's right path; we must step by faith, seeking by prayer to be guided by the Spirit of God in the Lord's right path. When the storm came upon them, they could physically shout in the Lord's ear, even jostle Him awake; when the storm buffets us, we must shout in prayer, "Lord, save us!", and by faith, wait for His rebuke of the wind and the waves.

The 5th Mvt Bass Aria is the rebuke of the waves and the wind: "Schweig! schweig! aufgeturmtes Meer!... Verstumme, verstumme, Sturm und Wind!" ("Quiet! Quiet! Towering seas!... Die away, die away, storm and wind!"). Note: the fact that Jesus "rebuked" the wind and waves implies that they really were "Wellen von Belial's Bachen" ("waves of the devil's streams"). In other words, it is the devil's work that is getting the rebuke; it is the devil bringing the storm on God's people. In the Aria, Jesus speaks to the devil: "Dir sei dein Ziel gesetzet" ("Your bounds are set for you"). This mirrors how God set bounds upon Satan with respect to Job (see Job 1:12). It also reflects the words of Paul: "God is faithful. He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it" (I Corinthians 10:13).

In the 6th Mvt Alto Recitative, the Christian responds to his deliverance with joy: "Wohl mir, mein Jesus spricht ein Wort, mein Helfer ist erwacht" ("Joy is mine! My Jesus speaks a word, my helper is awake."). The 7th Mvt Chorale summarizes: "Unter deinen Schirmen bin ich fur den Sturmen" ("Under Your protection, I am safe from the storms").

Let me note here that the textual structure of this Cantata, and many Cantatas, is similar to that of many Psalms (esp. those of David). At the beginning of many Psalms, the psalmist finds himself in the midst of great trouble, pleading with God for deliverance. By the end of the Psalm, he ifull of praise, for he realizes that his deliverance, if not already attained, is at least within sight of his eye of faith. One could even say that Bach (and his librettists) have given us Psalms for the New Testament church. Sadly, we do not have the music that went with David's psalms, but we all well know, through the Bach Cantatas, how the power of music, combined with meditations on the Word of God, can inspire the soul.

Neil Halliday wrote (February 20, 2006):
BWV 81

The opening alto aria combines lamentation, or despair, with the comfort of a lullaby, this latter reinforced through the singer's long held notes on "sleeps" and "open". The harmonic structure within the E minor tonality is often quite rich; indeed, all three arias feature scoring for full strings, plus two `block-flutes' in the case of this aria, and two oboes d'amore in the case of the bass aria.

The tenor aria (BWV 81/3) has some remarkable demisemiquaver coloraturas (reminiscent of Handelian opera) on `verdoppeln'. Kraus (Rilling [3]) punches these out with rapid-fire accuracy. The writing for strings is equally brilliant; learner violinists watch out! The G major tonality is first disturbed by the diminished chord tonality on "Belials", and later on by the chromaticism on "schwaechen".

[BTW, apropos the recent discussion on neglected composers, listen to the disturbing augmented chord tonality on "death", in the otherwise G major consonance of this gem from Orlando Gibbons:

Listen carefully; the words being sung are those in brackets].

Back to 81/3, Thomas Braatz' indication that the librettist may have been aware of two meanings of Wellen" (`column' and `wave') makes for a pleasing solution using the text as handed down, ie, with Wellen in both the 1st and 3rd lines; and, in the intervening three short adagios involving the second and third lines of the text, the Christian, standing firm like a column, is each time threatened (musically) by the resumption of the allegro storm waves, on the final words of these lines, namely, "stehn" and "gehn" respectively.

The bass aria (BWV 81/5) alternates powerful, allegro, unison continuo and string figures, with animated writing for the oboes, and is an effective representation of the divine forces needed to bring an end to a threatening, raging storm. This aria, like the tenor aria, must have disturbed those among Bach's employers who wanted him to refrain from excessively "theatrical" musical representations in church!

In the bass arioso (BWV 81/4), I like the addition of the `heavenly tones' on the upper register of the organ in the Richter [1] and Koopman [4] recordings (ignoring the noisy mechanism of the latter's small instrument). Suzuki's [7] alto aria (with counter tenor Blaze) deserves special mention - very moving - as do the lovely voices of the female altos with Richter [1], Rilling [3] and Koopman [4], in this movement.

In general, IMO, the tempi of the period performances of the tenor aria (BWV 81/3) are too fast for a clear execution of the brilliant vocal coloraturas as performed by Kraus, mentioned above. My personal favourite for the whole cantata (to judge from the amazon samples) - Rilling [3], closely followed by Richter [1] (both of whose recordings I have) with various attractive movements from the other recordings.

Peter Smaill wrote (February 25, 2006):
I am grateful again to Thomas Braatz for providing a deeper insight, this time into the puzzling text in BWV 81/3, "Ein Christ soll zwar wie Wellen stehn." (usually given as "The Christian shall stand like waves").

The obscure, but effective, alternative translation, suggested by Thomas - "pillar" for "Wellen," solves the obvious problem that the manuscripts extant clearly state "Wellen" and not "Felsen," the latter substitution being the "mistake" theory of Wustmann and followed by Unger, who alters the text according to this position without any explanation of the mystery. This is I think due to reliance on the Gospel rendering of St Matthew 7:24, "A wise man built his house upon a rock, and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock."

It is the proximity of this reading to Matthew 8: 23-27, the calming of the storm by Jesus, which has emboldened the "mistake" theory in which "Felsen" ("rock") is substituted for "Wellen". would be good to find the alternative, archaic meaning of "pillar" elsewhere in literature or art as a final corroboration. Duerr in its most recent, English translation, (by Richard D P Jones) hedges his bets - the existence of the St Petersburg text, clearly stating "Wellen", is noted; but the English translation is given out as "rock." The Harnoncourt series booklet achieves a marvellous compromise-the French translation is "roc," while the English talks of the Christian "making the shore," an ingenious attempt to make sense of the wave idea!

"Wellen" meaning a bundle of wood was, in dictionaries contemporary to Wustmann, an apparently established translation, seemingly what was in the past innocently refers to in English as "fagots." Unless there is a further allusion to the wooden stakes placed near the shore for nets, or the poles used by sailors to determine depth (both images are frequent in Caspar David Friedrich), then of all the options, the "pillar" idea seems to be the most unforced solution.

Since we have drifted into an architectural feature, it may be of interest to consider the influence of the sea-voyage of life image on Catholic Baroque structures at the time. At the church of Maria Verkuengigung in Altenerding in Bavaria, built in this very year 1724, the pulpit is modelled in the form of a ship with Christ and St Peter. The companion piece by the architect Kogler, at Niederding, has a merman and fishes. Most famous of this type of nautical allusion is Irsee, the pulpit "modelled and rigged like a ship's bow and foremast with sail, figurehead and ropes up which putti are climbing and, prominently, anchor!" (Bourke.)

If the writer had known the text of BWV 56, the anchor as symbol of faith would have come as no surprise. What is interesting is that Lutherans and Catholics were responding to the need for mystical representation using the same traditional metaphysical devices, albeit expressed in contrasting artistic output. This is related to the impact of the study of Baroque forms by Kenneth Clark in his epic series "Civilisation", where he juxtaposes the heavily Baroque (RC) pilgrimage church of Vierzenheiligen with the opening chorus of the "Christmas Oratorio" (BWV 248).

Thomas Braatz wrote (February 25, 2006):
Peter Smaill wrote:
>> would be good to find the alternative, archaic meaning of "pillar" elsewhere in literature or art as a final corroboration." <<
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)

Welle: (als geometrische Figur eine Verdeutschung von "cylinder" )cylinder: wann es rund ist und nider, so wollen wirs ein täller nennen oder ein rad, ist es aber hoch oder lang, so heisst es ein runde seule, wann es aufrecht stehet; ligt es aber, so haist mans einen walger, eine waltzen, eine wellen (opera omnia 5:520) ("Welle" a German equivalent word for a geometrical figure: cylinder. if it is round and flat, then we call it a plate/disc or a wheel, but if it is tall or long, then it is called a round column when it stands upright. If it lies flat, then it is called a ,rolling log'/cylinder or barrel")

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)

Welle: (Wulst, cylinderförmiges Rundstück an einem Säulenkapitell, anderem, neben anderen deutschsprachigen Ausdrücken für Architekturformen im 16. Jahrhundert)
"auch mag man in die dicken der blatten mancherley machen von fasen, wallen, holkelen und anderen linien, dardurch sie auszgehauen und etwas darein geschnitten wirdt
. *=(Unterweisung der Messung - 1538) ("Welle" = "Wulst" = Torus (see below), the cylindrical, round part of a column capital, among other things, an equivalent for other German words/expressions used to describe forms in architecture during the 16th century - "you can also create in the raised sections of pilasters various kinds of edgings, columns, pilasters and other lines according to which they are chiseled out and something else is hewn into them.")

Translation of Vitruvius by Rivius (1575): ,darvon (von der Säulenplatte) wird ein Viertheil genommen zum obern Toro (Säulenwulst)" ("a fourth of the column base is removed to the upper tore" = tore [OED] = element in architecture= quote from 1704 (J. Harris) 1. Tore and Torus . is that round Ring which encompasses in the Column, between the Plinth, and the List. This is the third Member of the Base of a Column")

From an early 16th century contract with a stonemason (1517): "item 2 gehauwen thü holkelen und ainer wellen, jede 3 schuch wit" ("Item 2: hewn doors.with pilasters and a column 3 shoes [an antiquated measurement] wide").

Raymond Joly wrote (February 26, 2006):
BWV 81: mvt. 3

[To Thomas Braatz] Thomas Braatz (see above) is right: there are quite a number of occurrences of WELLE having nothing to do with flowing water or waves. Things are a bit more ambiguous than he states, though.

He quotes various authors collected in the Grimm dictionary:
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) has a series of words for «cylinder» but makes it clear that a standing one is called a column (SÄULE), whereas a WELLE lies flat: precious little help against engulfing waves!

The excerpt from Dürer would be more easily interpreted if we had the context (and illustrations?). Anyway, it is nevertheless clear that for the authors of the dictionary, who certainly had that material before them, a WELLE is neither a column or a column's capital, but just part of a capital. And I beg to differ with Mr. Braatz about his translation. Dürer mentions all sorts of flattened edges (FASEN), grooves (HOHLKEHLEN) and «other lines», but I can see no «pillars» and no «columns». The excerpt from Vitruvius makes it clear that a WELLE is by no means a column, but just an ornamental part of a part of it.

As for the stonemason's contract, it is arbitrary to posit that the prescribed WELLE is a column and not just a bulging counterpoise to the groove, the HOHLKEHLE. If you insist on WELLE meaning something long and strong, then I would resort to Grimms', col. 1401, B.1), with reference to the obviouly much more usual (though in the meantime obsolete) WELLENBAUM. Here we have a log or shaft, but as a revolving element in a machine, not as an unshakeable pillar.

Two questions remain:
1) Would it make any sense to use WELLEN meaning «waves» in a nautical context and WELLEN again two lines later with a far-fetched technical meaning in order to produce an absurd metaphor («Let us stand like pillars in the ocean»)?
2) Has it been proven that composers are immune to human frailty and can copy line after line without ever making a clerical error? One of the most typical of these is repeating a word one has just written instead of another one sounding vaguely similar (v.g. WELLEN-FELSEN).

Thomas Braatz wrote (February 26, 2006):
Raymond Joly wrote:
>>Things are a bit more ambiguous than he states, though....Two questions remain:
1) Would it make any sense to use WELLEN meaning «waves» in a nautical context and WELLEN again two lines later with a far-fetched technical meaning in order to produce an absurd metaphor («Let us stand like pillars in the ocean»)?
2) Has it been proven that composers are immune to human frailty and can copy line after line without ever making a clerical error? One of the most typical of these is repeating a word one has just written instead of another one sounding vaguely similar (v.g. WELLEN-FELSEN).<<
To resolve this issue once and for all:

The NBA KB I/6 p. 162 has included in its appendix of facsimiles a handwritten copy of a portion of the text of BWV 81 by Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732-1795) who was the probable owner of the set of parts before Poelchau acquired this set. The date of this copy is approximately 1742-1763. It was inserted before and bound together with the autograph score of this cantata which went to CPE Bach. [Staatsbibliothek Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz. Signatur: Mus. ms. Bach P 120. The NBA comments that "it could be reasonably expected that J.C.F. Bach's handwritten text booklet must have originally belonged to (or were part of) the original set of parts which were in his possession. Only much later (after C.P.E. Bach's death) was this text booklet bound with the autograph score. This must have taken place by 1842 at the latest.

Here is the result of the latest evidence regarding 'Wellen' vs. 'Felsen' in line 3 of the text for mvt. 3 of BWV 81:

1. The autograph score has clearly written by J.S. Bach himself: "Wellen"

2. The Tenor part from the original set of parts copied by Johann Andreas Kuhnau from the score has what appears to be "Felsen"

3. The original cantata text booklet printed in advance of the first performance of this work in 1724 indisputably has "Wellen"

4. The handwritten text booklet written by J.C.F. Bach, who was the most likely owner of the original set of parts after J.S. Bach's death, clearly has in German handwriting "Wellen"

5. The NBA KB further gives a reference to J.K.B. Jacobsson's "Technologische Wörterbuch" (published 1781-1795) in which the concept of the "stehende Welle" ("standing wave") is mentioned.

Raymond Joly wrote (February 26, 2006):
[To Thomas Braatz] I do not think that this last message from Thomas Braatz «resolves the issue once and for all». One thing is plain, though, and that is his devotion and his care in marshalling evidence from the best possible sources. We must be very grateful to him. If I ever broach the matter again, it will be after having studied all the clues he provides. Let us stand firm against the waves of slipshod scholarship!

Thomas Braatz wrote (February 26, 2006):
Re: "Wellen"

How about this image from the DWB:

"die senkrechte welle am göpel, um die sich die ganze maschine dreht" ("the vertical 'welle' which is part of the 'göpel' around which the entire machine turns") where 'göpel' means: "eine alte Drehvorrichtung zum Antrieb von Arbeitsmaschinen durch im Kreis herumgehende Menschen oder Tiere" ("an old turning device used as power for a machine which is driven by humans or animals who move around it in a circle")

In short, the center pole (essentially the trunk of an upright-standing tree) remains rooted to the same spot while people or animals move the spokes extended horizontally around the same circle.

Now the image is one of the Christian constantly standing upright like these "Wellen" (upright center posts which never move from the spot upon which they firmly stand) although buffeted by the winds of grief, sorrow or misery.

Raymond Joly wrote (February 26, 2006):
[To Thomas Braatz] You are cheating ! I wrote that I would ponder all the information in your last message before broaching the matter again, and here you come with new material!

I will go back in due course to the former email, but allow me for now to refresh our memory of the text:

Die schäumenden Wellen von Belials Bächen
Verdoppeln die Wut.
Ein Christ soll zwar wie Wellen stehn,
Wenn Trübsalswinde um ihn gehn,
Doch suchet die stürmende Flut
Die Kräfte des Glaubens zu schwächen.

Though a clerical error (WELLEN repeated instead of WELLEN and then FELSEN) is not at all unlikely, and though the image of Christ (faith, the Christian soul grounded in faith, etc.) as a rock in a stormy sea is Biblical and was very popular withwriters of cantatas, you would have us believe that the singers and the community understood that stanza thus: We are at sea, battered by WELLEN (waves) from hell (lines 1-2); gales and the raging flood attempt to destroy us (lines 4-6). But careful! When line 3 mentions WELLEN again, forget the waves, the storm and the sea (and the day's reading from the Gospel): what the wind is blowing about is winches and coal-gins.

That is beyond me. If one insists on keeping WELLEN instead of FELSEN, I would rather interpret that the Christian should whip himself up as high as the attacking waves, though this would lead us to read in lines 5-6 that the raging flood wages war on the Christian's waves, which makes for rather convoluted hydraulics, I am afraid.

No, the issue is not resolved once and for all !

Chris Rowson wrote (February 26, 2006):
Please see (a much-respected on-line dictionary) and look up "Welle". As well as "wave" etc. it shows English equivalents such as "shaft", "spindle", "axle", "cam lobe".

These mechanical interpretations obviously have little to do with the cantata text, but they clearly indicate that the word has senses associated with rigid elongated objects. Taking this modern evidence together with Mr. Braatz´s evidence of earlier usage of "Welle", I don´t see any basis for doubting the text as written by the Bachs.

Thomas Braatz wrote (February 26, 2006):
Raymond Joly wrote:
>>Though a clerical error (WELLEN repeated instead of WELLEN and then FELSEN) is not at all unlikely....<<
But it is unlikely when you consider that

1. Bach must have read through the text for this cantata before submitting it to the printers

2. Bach then clearly used the word in question ('Wellen' instead of 'Felsen') again when he placed it under the tenor part in the autograph score

3. Bach failed to correct the word "Felsen" that Johann Andreas Kuhnau may have written under the tenor part in the original set of parts. The NBA KB does not indicate the condition of this word on the tenor part. Somewhere I thought I had read that it had been corrected, but that it was impossible to ascertain who might have made the correction: Was it Bach, was it from a later performance even after this part had left J.C.F. Bach's possession? There is nothing definitive about this, hence one may reasonably speculate that it was a later correction (after Bach's death) which had nothing to do with Bach's original intention.

4. J.C.F. Bach's handwritten text (not written before 1742, but possibly as late as 1763) contains the word 'Wellen' and, as we know, he had the complete set of original parts, including the disputed reading in the tenor part, in his possession for many years. This would indicate that after its first (or any later performances under Bach's direction) performance, this mvt. would very possibly still have been performed with 'Wellen' and not 'Felsen'.

5. There is clear lexicographlc evidence that 'Welle' can mean an upright standing pole or tree, as indicated in a previous message: "arbor erecta in machina tractoria apud fodinas" and in the language of boatmen along the Rhein, the same word "Ständerbaum" can mean "ein aufrecht stehender baum, unbehauener balken" and the 'arbor erecta' just referred to. The 'arbor erecta' is a fitting image for the text of this aria: the first onslaught a Christian needs to withstand is that of the 'winds of misery', but the 'stormy flood' can even undermine the roots of such a tree (to weaken the power of one's faith).

6. There is, somewhat more remotely, a melding of images in the 'sich bäumende Welle' ('the towering wave'), but this might be going too far astray from the notion of a tree trunk standing firmly amidst the wind and raging storms and floods.

Peter Smaill wrote (February 26, 2006):
At the risk of shifting ground again, Thomas' suggestion that the boatmen of the Rhine used "Wellen" in the sense of an upright, not so much a pillar, but a stake of wood presumably used in navigation prompts another solution .

This observation brings us neatly back to Caspar David Friedrich's sparse "Cross on the Baltic", of which the artist said ,writing to a friend of Goethe:

"The picture for your girlfriend is already begun, but ut will not contain a single church, tree, plant, not even a single blade of grass. The cross is erected on a bare seashore; to some a symbol of consolation, to others simply a cross"

The Frierich expert Borsch-Supan goes on, however, to describe something sitting beside the Cross on the rock:

"The poles lying [in a bundle] in front of the cross are like those used by sailors to test the depth of the water and to manoeuvre their boats; here they represent the security which faith offers the Christian at the moment of death".

I agree that "Wellen" is borne out by the texts but with this nautical reference to the Rhine and the fact that Friedrich uses five other symbols all with known meaning, suggests that the bundle of rods depicted are "wellen". (The others are a sailboat coming to shore= approaching death, The Cross, Moonlight= Jesus;Rock, Anchor= Faith).

In this case, the word "Wellen" is used in two meanings in Cantata BWV 81, in the nature of a pun.

An illustration of this picture can be found at _www.artmagick.com_ ( - simply put "Baltic" in the search facility to view, and click as per usual to enlarge.

John Pike wrote (February 26, 2006):
BWV 81

Bach's music beautifully captures the sense of trepidation in the first movement, and the feeling of the swelling waves elsewhere.

I have listened to Gardiner [6], Suzuki [7], Rilling [3], Harnoncourt [2] and Rilling [3] and I enjoyed them all.

Thomas Braatz wrote (February 27, 2006):
BWV 81: mvt. 3 Zelter's Reformulation

Between 1800 and 1832, Carl Friedrich Zelter, as director of the Berliner Singakademie, prepared a number of J. S. Bach's cantatas for performances (in private homes and in public). Among these was BWV 81 for which Zelter personally prepared an almost completely rewritten text, fearing, most likely, that contemporary audiences would not be able to identify with the words and images of the original libretto. This modified text was kept together with the original autograph score and is preserved as part of the history regarding the reception of this music, a performance of which very likely took place under Zelter's direction during the first quarter of the 19th century.

Here is Zelter's version of the text for BWV 81/3:

>>Es schäumen die Brecher von Wellen der Lüste | und rasen im(?) Blut | Wie soll ein Herz dann(denn?) | Und nicht im Sturm zu Grunde gehn | drum wehre* (corrected from Zelter's original ,strebe') der tobenden** (corrected from Zelter's original ,stürmenden') Flut | daß sie der Glaube nicht verwüste<<

* corrected from Zelter's original word choice ,strebe' ("strive against"? - the preposition 'wider' or 'gegen' is missing in the text - this may be the reason why Zelter abandoned this choice)

** corrected from Zelter's original word choice 'stürmenden' ("raging, stormy") which was also in the original libretto as "die stürmende Flut"

("The breaking waves of desire create spume and they rage as well in your blood. How is it then possible that your heart should/would not sink to the bottom of the sea in a storm? For this reason, you must stand firm against the raging flood so that it will not destroy your faith.")

Thomas Braatz wrote (February 27, 2006):
These facsimiles taken from the Appendix to NBA KB I/6 pp. 160-162 (Bärenreiter, 1996) give:
1. The complete text of BWV 81 as printed in Leipzig, 1724 before the 1st performance

2. A portion of the handwritten text by Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (probably after 1750 and before 1763)

Thomas Braatz wrote (February 27, 2006):
BWV 81: mvt. 3 Facsimiles

For those interested in viewing facsimiles of the evidence supporting the appearance of 'Wellen' twice in the same aria text, Aryeh Oron has kindly provided space on the discussion page of BWV 81:

for the inclusion of

1. the printed libretto from the cantata text booklet which Bach had personally prepared in advance of the first performance in 1724 (This was the text J. S. Bach used as the basis for his setting of the words in BWV 81)

2. a portion of Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach's (1732-1795) handwritten copy of the cantata text as further confirmation of the actual words which appear in the autograph score (In 1750 when the distribution of the Bach cantata scores took place, J.C.F. Bach became the recipient of the original set of parts for BWV 81 and they remained in his possession probably until his death.)

Raymond Jolly wrote (February 28, 2006):
[To Thomas Braatz] Wonderful ! This shows that the Web can be of marvelous assistance to scholarly discussion when wielded by devoted and competent partakers. Now, Belial is very wicked indeed and can goad his followers to frightful obstinacy. I never doubted that WELLEN stood in the sources, but I am still not entirely convinced that it did rightfully so. Those who believe it is right:

1) Still have to satisfy us that that poet could conceivably have intended such a pun (then it is one, as Peter Smaill very aptly dubbed it) -- and please do not come around with the notion that any pun is typically Baroque;

2) Must explain what kind of contraption exactly is supposed to rise suddenly from the storm-tossed depths and thereafter stand unmoved. You would not go out of your way to use a technical term in a poem if you did not mean something very precise.

I will not write on this matter again until I am have found something sufficiently rock-like to engage the attention of our Circle.

This is all great fun, thanks to everybody.


Continue on Part 3

Cantata BWV 81: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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