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Cantata BWV 85
Ich bin ein guter Hirt
Discussions - Part 4

Continue from Part 3

Discussions in the Week of April 9, 2017 (4th round)

William Hoffman wrote (April 10, 2017):
Misericordias Domini, Cantata 85: Ich bin ein guter Hirt: Intro.

In his 20-minute long Cantata BWV 85, “Ich bin ein guter Hirt” (I am a good shepherd, John 10:11) for Misericordias Domini 1725, Bach returns to the use of the violoncello piccolo, the somber key of c minor, and the support of two Easter chorales for the Johannine theme of the Good Shepherd, both in the Old Testament Psalm 23 of God as the protector Good Shepherd over his people Israel and Jesus as the sacrificial Good Shepherd of the Christian. To emphasized the Good Shepherd theme, found only in John’s gospel, Cantata 85 begins with the vox Christi Gospel, which is reinforced by the alto and emblematic violoncello piccolo free da-capo aria, “Jesus ist ein guter Hirt” (Jesus is a good Shepherd). Later (no. 5), the tenor sings the pastorale, “Seht, was die Liebe tut” (See, what love does, 1 John 3:1a/16a). The two chorale settings are the soprano aria (no. 3), Cornelius Becker’s Psalm 23 paraphrase, “Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt dem” (The Lord is my faithful shepherd in whom), and the closing plain chorale (no. 6), Ernst Christoph Homburg's "Ist Gott mein Schild und Helfersmann" (If God is my shield and protector), Stanza 4, “Ist Gott mein Schutz und treuer Hirt” (If God is my protection and faithful Shepherd). The lone tenor accompagnato recitative (no. 4), “Wenn die Mietlinge schlafen, / Da wachtet dieser Hirt bei seinen Schafen” (While hirelings sleep, / the shepherd watches over his sheep), is a reference to the Gospel (John 10:12) that the true shepherd stays with the sheep when the wolf threatens.1

Cantata 85 was premiered on 15 April 1725 at the early main service of the Nikolaichirche before the sermon of Superintendent Salomon Deyling on the Gospel, John 10:11-16) and Epistle, I Peter 2:21-25 (Your were as sheep gone astray) for Misericordias Domini, reports Martin Petzoldt in Bach Commentary, Vol. 2, Advent to Trisityfest.2 The readings for the Second Sunday after Easter (Misericordias Domini) are the Gospel of John 10:12-16, “I am the Good Shepherd” (found only in John’s Gospel) and the Epistle Lesson, I Peter 2:21-25 (You were as sheep gone astray). The German text of Luther’s 1545 and the English Authorised (King James) Version 1611 is found at The Introit Psalm for Misericordias Domini is Psalm 23, Dominus regit me (The Lord is my shepherd), says Petzoldt (Ibid.: 787). The full text (KJV) is found on line at

Misericordias Domini, Cantatas

Misericordias means the "Goodness (literally "tender mercies") of the Lord." It comes from the incipit of Psalm 89, “I will sing of the mercies of the Lord.” This Sunday is also called "Good Shepherd Sunday." It is so called from the incipit of the Introit "Misericordia Domini plena est terra . . ." ("The land is filled with the mercy of the Lord") from Psalm 33. Motet & Chorales for Misericordias: Introit, “Misericordia Domini”; Motets, “Alleluja Serrexit,” “Surrexit Pastor Bonus”; Hymn de Tempore, “Christ Lag in Todesbanden”; Pulpit Hymn, “Christ ist Erstanden”; Hymns for Chancel, Communion & Closing, “Der Herr is mein getreuer Hirt” (Source, “Musical Context of Bach Cantatas, Motets & Chorales for Events in the Lutheran Church Year,” BCW

Bach’s three Leipzig cantatas for Misericordias Domini all are inspired by by Psalm 23, observes John Eliot Gardiner in his Bach 2000 Cantata Pilgrimage on Soli Deo Gloria recordings.3 “Hard on the heels of Bach’s magnificent cantatas for Low Sunday [Quasimodogeniti] came three pastoral cantatas (BWV 104, 85, and 112) all inspired by the twenty-third Psalm. I feared a certain monotony of mood and Affekt. How wrong this proved! One should have guessed that Bach was capable of more than a single pastoral idiom, and as so often there is an enthralling quality to his inventive and sensitive responses to the same seminal Gospel ideas present in these three cantatas. It is worth remembering that in a predominantly agrarian society like eighteenth-century Saxony there was a much closer linking of the seasons to the preoccupations of Christianity than there is today, as well as an unselfconscious transfer of rural imagery to contemplative religious texts. So there would have been nothing quaint or folksy even to Bach’s townish audience [Basilique St Willibrord, Echternach] in hearing pastoral music as a metaphor for their own Lutheran community watched over by Jesus as the good shepherd, a world away from the contemporaneous French vogue for bergeries and urban aristocrats, like second-home owners today, indulging in an idealised, wholly unrealistic image of rural life – one thinks of Marie Antoinette and her perfumed sheep.”

The three appropriate Shepherd Cantatas with pastoral music Bach composed for Misericordias Domini are BWV 104, “Du Hirte Israel, höre" (You Shepherd of Israel, Give Ear), composed in 1724 with an opening pastorale-gigue chorus and a siciliana bass aria; Cantata BWV 85, “Ich bin ein gutter Hirt” (I am a Good Shepherd), composed in 1725, with a pastorale tenor aria; and Chorale Cantata BWV 112, “Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt,” with a pastorale alto aria and a bouree soprano-tenor duet, probably begun in 1725 with the opening chorale fantasia and completed in 1731. Cantatas BWV 104 and 85 have the same cycle 1 form with the opening biblical dictum and internal chorale setting, and presumably the same librettist, possibly Christian Weise Sr.

Cantata 104 was the first of five sacred “Shepherd Cantatas” with pastoral music Bach for two Easter season services: three for the Second Sunday after Easter (Misericordias), BWV 104, 85, and 112) and two for Pentecost Tuesday (Pentecost Festival Third Day), BWV 184 and 175. For Pentecost Tuesday, the two Shepherd Cantatas, BWV 184, "Erwünschtes Freudenlicht" (Desired Light of Joy) and BWV 175, "Er rufet seinen Schafen mit Namen" (He Calls His Sheep by Name), are based on the Gospel of John 10: 1-11, Jesus as the true Shepherd. Cantata BWV 184 preserves the three Köthen dance-forms: minuet, polonaise, and gavotte. Cantata BWV 175 of 1725 has two pastorales, a newly-written aria, and a parodied aria from Köthen Cantata BWV 173a/7.

Bach’s Leipzig performance calendar for Misericordias Domini (Second Sunday After Easter), and the chorale usages are:

04/23/1724, BWV 104 “Du Hirte Israel, höre," No. 6, Becker "Der Herr ist meine getreue Hirt" (S.1)
04/15/1725, BWV 112, “Der Herr ist meine getreue Hirt" (S.1), ppd. until 1731 (see below)
04/15/1725, BWV 85, “Ich bin ein gutter Hirt; No. 3, Becker "Der Herr ist" (S.1); No. 6. Homberg "Ist Gott mein Schild" (S.4)
05/05/1726, JLB-12, Und ich will ihnen eninen Hirten erwecken; No. 8, ?chorale (no information available)
05/01/1729, Picander text P32, “Ich kann mich besser nicht versorgen” (text,; No. 5=?BWV 358, Franck "Jesu meine Freude" (S.1)
04/08/1731, BWV 112/1-5, Meusel "Der Herr ist meine getreue Hirt" (S.1-6).
04/15/1736, G.H. Stölzel: “wird seine Herde we,” Mus. A 15:163

Cantata 85 Context

The context of Cantata 85 as a solo work with Ziegler-texted 1725 Cantatas 108 (Cantate Sunday) and Cantata 87 (Rogate Sunday) for the 4th and 5th Sundays after Easter respectively, is discussed in Julian Mincham’s Introduction to the Cantata 85 (BCML Discussion Part 2, <<This is the first of only three cantatas of this cycle which begin with an aria. Cantatas BWV 85, BWV 108 and BWV 87 were composed in April and June of 1725 and have characteristics in common, specifically the fact that all are based upon, and begin with, the words of Christ.

There are a number of ways in which these three great works differ, not only from each other but also from the bulk of the second cycle cantatas. In some ways they seem to return to the less constricted and more free-ranging structures of the first cycle. They do, however, retain a balanced mix of arias and recitatives in addition to the (almost) inevitable closing chorales. . . . Bach planned well in advance and, aware that these three cantatas would have texts opening with the words of Christ, may have decided some time before to drop the chorale fantasias in favour of the more appropriate bass arias.

All three opening arias are [in Cantata 85] expressed in the first person: “I am a true shepherd,” “You have not asked me,” “Now I depart.” Having Christ state his own words clearly and directly right at the beginning is logical as well as artistically and liturgically satisfying. It just doesn't fit neatly into the previously established musical pattern of the first part of this cycle. However it is worth mentioning in passing that all three arias commence with a weighty and serious instrumental quasi-ritornello: appropriate for the words of the Saviour certainly, but in each case these musical statements convey a gravitas which reminds us of the beginnings of many of the chorale fantasias from earlier in the cycle. Perhaps the sounding of the first few bars might even have led the Leipzig congregations to have expected yet another chorus. Could this possibly have been a subtle and slightly Teutonic joke on the Cantor's part?

Whatever Bach's circumstances or attitudes towards them, these three cantatas do not appear to be works thrown off in haste. They are carefully crafted pieces indicating Bach's punctilious observation of text, meaning and imagery. Each has its own character, the first (BWV 85) being the most pastorale and the last (BWV 87) the most poignant and serious. Cantata BWV 108 lies somewhere in between.>>

Cantata 85 movements, scoring, texts, key, meter
German text and Francis Browne English translation, BCW

1. Arioso/Aria concertante, vox Christi, Gospel dictum (John 10:10), ”Largozz’ [Bass; Oboe, Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo]: “Ich bin ein guter Hirt, / ein guter Hirt lässt sein Leben für die Schafe.” (I am a good shepherd, / A good shepherd gives his life for his sheep.); c minor; 4/4.
2. Aria three sections (free da-capo form, same text: A, A’, A; 1-22, 22-40, 41-61) with ritornelli [Alto; Violoncello piccolo, Continuo]: “Jesus ist ein guter Hirt; / Denn er hat bereits sein Leben / Für die Schafe hingegeben, / Die ihm niemand rauben wird. / Jesus ist ein guter Hirt.” (Jesus is a good Shepherd; / for he has already given his life / for his sheep / And nobody shall rob him of them. / Jesus is a good Shepherd.); g minor; 4/4.
3. Chorale aria BAR Form with dal segno (instrumental intro., mm 1-17, repeat mm. 83-98), paraphrase Psalm 23:1-3 [Soprano; Oboe I/II, Continuo]; B-flat Major; ¾]: A. (mm 16-37) “Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt, / Dem ich mich ganz vertraue” (The Lord is my faithful shepherd / in whom I have complete trust); A’ (music repeat). “Zur Weid er mich, sein Schäflein, führt / Auf schöner grünen Aue” (he leads me, his little sheep, to the pasture / in a beautiful green meadow); B. (mm 37-82) “Zum frischen Wasser leit er mich / Mein Seel zu laben kräftiglich / Durch selig Wort der Gnaden.” (he leads me to fresh water / to give powerful refreshment to my soul / through the blessed word of his grace.); B-flat Major; ¾.
4. Recitativo accampagnato [Tenor; Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo]: “Wenn die Mietlinge schlafen, / Da wachtet dieser Hirt bei seinen Schafen, / So dass ein jedes in gewünschter Ruh / Die Trift und Weide kann genießen, / In welcher Lebensströme fließen. / Denn sucht der Höllenwolf gleich einzudringen, / Die Schafe zu verschlingen, / So hält ihm dieser Hirt doch seinen Rachen zu.” (While hirelings sleep, / the shepherd watches over his sheep, / so that each in longed for peace / can relish the meadow and pasture, / in which flow living streams. / for if the wolf of hell should try to break in / to devour the sheep, / this Shepherd keeps wolf's jaws shut.); E-flat to A-flat Major; 4/4.
5. Aria free da-capo with ritornelli “Larghetto” [Tenor; Violino I/II, Viola all' unisono, Continuo]: A. “Seht, was die Liebe tut.” [See, what love does.] B. “Mein Jesus hält in guter Hut / Die Seinen feste eingeschlossen / Und hat am Kreuzesstamm vergossen / Für sie sein teures Blut.” (My Jesus in his own safekeeping / keeps those who are his own firmly enclosed / and on the beam of the cross he has shed / for them his own precious blood.); E-flat Major; 9/8 pastorale style.
6. Choral plain [SA, T, B; Oboe I/II, Violino col Soprano, Violino coll'Alto, Viola col Tenore, Continuo]: “Ist Gott mein Schutz und treuer Hirt, / Kein Unglück mich berühren wird: / Weicht, alle meine Feinde, / Die ihr mir stiftet Angst und Pein, / Es wird zu eurem Schaden sein, / Ich habe Gott zum Freunde.” (If God is my protection and faithful Shepherd / no misfortune can touch me: / go away, all my enemies / who cause me anguish and pain, it will turn out to be your own harm, / I have God for my friend.); c minor; 4/4.

Cantata 85 Shepherd Chorales

The words of the third movement of Cantata 85 are the first stanza of Cornelius Becker's "Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt, dem ich" a translation of Psalm 32:1-3, which appeared first in Seth Calvisius' Harmonia Cantionum ecclesiasticarum (Leipzig, 1598), and thence in Becker's Der Psalter Dauids Gesangweis (Leipzig, 1602). The three-stanza, seven-line (ABABCCD) hymn, is found in Das Neu Leipziger Gesangbuch (NLGB) of 1682 as No. 251 (Psalm chorales), and is the Hymn of the Day for Misericordias Domini in the various other Leipzig hymnals, as well as in Wessenfels, says Günther Stiller. 4 Becker’s three-stanza text with music is found at Becker’s hymn also can be set to the alternate melody, “Es ist gewißlich an der Zeit,” since his 1602 Psalter hymnbook uses popular Lutheran melodies. The Becker (1561-1604) BCW Short Biography is found at

The melody (Zahn 4457) of the third movement (BWV 85/3) is Nicolaus Decius' (or Hovesch) "Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr" (To God alone on high be glory), first published with Decius' rendering of the "Gloria in excelsis," in Valentin Schumann's Geistliche Lieder auffs new gebessert und gemehrt (Leipzig, 1539). The melody was formed by putting together phrases 3-4, 7-8, 11 of the "Gloria paschalis." The melody also is set in the another chorale paraphrase of Psalm 23 by Wolfgang Meuslin (1530), “Der Herr ist mein gerreuer Hirt, halt mir,” 5 stanzas, NLGB 252 (Psalm chorales, text and Francis Browne English translation, BCW The German “Gloria” melody occurs also in Easter Season Cantatas BWV 104, BWV 112, and BWV 128, as well as various organ chorale preludes. Bach uses the Meuselin text for pure hymn chorale Cantata 112, observes Stiller (Ibid.), and this hymn setting is found in the Dresden hymn schedules for Misericordias Domini. Further details of this chorale paraphrase of Psalm 23 are found at Cantata BWV 112, BCML Discussions Part 4, The German Gloria melody association with Becker's text is very general (see BCW text and melody details, There is a plain chorale harmonization, BWV 260 in A Major. The Luther German Gloria setting is a Communion hymn found in the NLGB as No. 145, Trinity Chorales.

The words of the concluding choral (no. 6) of Cantata 85 are the fourth stanza of Ernst Christoph Homburg's seven-stanza "Ist Gott mein Schild und Helfersmann" (Fischer-Tümpel, IV, #342), or "Gott ist mein Schild und Helfersmann," first published, with a different melody, in Part I of Homburg's Geistlicher Lieder (Naumburg, 1659 [1658]). The text is found in the authoritative Dresdener Gesangbuch 1725/36 where Stanza 4 relates to Romans 8:31, “If God be for us, who can be against us?,” says Petzoldt (Ibid.: 797). The associated melody (Zahn 2542), "Ist Gott mein Schild und Helfersmann," was published, with Homburg's hymn, in Hundert ahnmuthig- und sonderbahr geistlicher Arien (Dresden, 1694), a collection from which few melodies have passed into common use. The Homberg (1605-1681) BCW Short Biography is found at The melody has been attributed incorrectly to Bach. He has not used it elsewhere and material is not available to enable the originality of his variations of the tune to be tested.

Bach also used two other chorales attributed to Homberg. One is associated with “Herr Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht” (Lord Jesus Christ, my life’s light), plain chorale BWV 335, NLGB 374 (Death & Dying), Martin Behm 1610, 14 stanzas (, melody Seth Calvisius 1594, Rex Christe factor omnium, ( The other is the seven-stanza sacred song (1659), "Jesus, unser Trost und Leben" (Jesus, our trust and life), set to the anonymous 1714 melody, "Auf, auf, weil der Tag erschienen" (Up, up, while the day is shining), and published in the 1736 Leipzig “Schemilli Gesangbuch” under the heading "Resurrection of Jesus Christ," BWV 475 [text and translation, BCW:]. Homberg's biography is found at BCW: He and Johann Rist were members of the Elbe Swan Order that Rist founded in 1660 (Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship, Fortress Press, Philadelphia PA, 1981: 196f).

Pastoral Emphasis, SMP Thematic Links

The pastoral emphasis in cantatas for the beginning of the Easter season, as well as Cantata 85 thematic links to the St. Matthew Passion [SMP] beginning to be composed, are explored in Gardiner’s notes (Ibid.). <<Bach approaches the same pastoral field by a different route in 1725. BWV 85 Ich bin ein guter Hirt is the third of three cantatas on consecutive feast days (the others are BWV 6 and 42) that form a coherent sequence, each a fresh response to the increasing anxiety of the disciples, then and now, at life in the world without Jesus’ physical presence. All three feature Johannine themes in contemporary texts, possibly by a single author, compiled the year before and intended by Bach for his first Leipzig Jahrgang of 1723/4. This had to be put on hold, perhaps as a result of the colossal effort which went into the completion of the St John Passion for Good Friday 1724, obliging him to turn to pre-existing material for some of the [feast day] cantatas in that post-Resurrection season. Cantata 85 is the culmination of this sub-group, focussing on the image of Jesus as good shepherd, melding the power of the protector with the gentleness of the friend. St John’s famous quote, ‘I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth His life for the sheep’ is set as an opening arioso for bass. Its forty-four bars constitute an intriguing expansion of two thematic germs heard together in the very first bar, the one burgeoning into a wistful, lyrically moulded oboe melody, the other appearing first in the continuo and later as the singer’s first phrase. The way the oboe’s held note turns in on itself and then blossoms, inviting an answer by the violins, suggests an affinity both in melodic shape and in key with the slow movement of Bach’s C minor Double Concerto BWV 1060. The prevalent mood is contemplative rather than genuinely bucolic, more a musical equivalent to a gentle ‘Umarmung’ or embrace, yet tinged with sadness.

As a meditation on Christ the good shepherd the choice of cello piccolo as obbligato instrument for the ensuing alto aria in G minor (No.2) is inspired. One would so like to know whether Bach was reacting to the chance availability of this particular, smaller cello (with E as its top string), and/or to a particularly talented exponent of it, or being proactive in seeking it out as central to his poetic and interpretative approach to the sequence of cantatas in the spring of 1725 (he uses it five times within the ‘great fifty days’ between Easter and Whitsun). Whatever the truth, it seems that this particular instrument with its plangent, tenor sonority tugs on the listener’s heartstrings as only two other of Bach’s favourite instruments, the viola d’amore and the oboe da caccia, can in not dissimilar situations. You sense that with this mantra-like sound, any ‘lamb’ would feel confidently armed against the sheep-rustler – wolf, fox or human. As in BWV 6, heard thirteen days earlier, Bach uses the four-string version of the cello piccolo with its extra ‘glow’ to mediate between the vocal soloist and the continuo, both in range and in harmonic function. In these two cantatas the instrument seems theologically associated with the believer’s personal relationship to Jesus, providing an element of stability in a world of increasing darkness (BWV 6) and as an emblem for the loving, protecting ‘arm’ of the good shepherd (BWV 85).

Next [No. 3] comes a chorale setting of the twenty-third Psalm in Cornelius Becker’s translation, with two oboes weaving an elaborate two-part invention – in effect a trio sonata texture, since it encompasses the continuo around the soprano’s delicate ornamented melody. In the cantata’s only recitative (No.4) the tenor refers to Jesus as head shepherd, forced to step in, as the hirelings sleep on, to rescue his flock – the cue for abrupt string arpeggios in contrary motion as the ‘Höllen wolf’ (‘the wolf of Hell’, or Satan) threatens to break in. It anticipates the recitative in the St Matthew Passion where Christ, having arrived with his disciples at the Mount of Olives, reminds them of the prophecy that the shepherd will be slain and the sheep will scatter.
The cantata’s most inspired movement is the ensuing tenor aria in E flat, ‘Seht, was die Liebe tut’, again a pre-echo of the St Matthew Passion and the sublime alto aria ‘Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand’ in the same key which epitomises the pastoral love emanating from the cross, Jesus’ outstretched arms offering a haven to the sinner and gathering in the like ‘lostchicks’. With its rich, flowing melody and gently rocking rhythm the cantata aria presents a complementary image of sheep safely penned and folded, watched over by the good shepherd who, when hanging on the cross, ‘shed . . . his precious blood for them’, the first four syllables ‘nailed’ with a single repeated note by the singer. These thematic links to the St Matthew Passion are too close to be accidental: its music, though not completed in time for Good Friday, was never far from Bach’s thoughts in the run-up to Easter 1725, his original plan being to insert it as the central jewel in his second Jahrgang of cantatas, so as to complement and balance the St John Passion of the previous year.
>> © John Eliot Gardiner 2007, From a journal written in the course of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage

Cantata 85 Context, Chorales, Mood

The context of Cantata 85 within the cantatas composed for the beginning of Easter Season 1725, the Cornelius Becker and Ernst Christoph Homburg chorales, and the opening “mood of tranquil seriousness” are the subjects of Klaus Hofmann 2008 Cantata 85 liner notes to the Masaaki Suzuki BIS complete cantata recordings.5 << The five cantatas on this CD [Vol. 39 - BWV 28, 68, 85, 175, 183] date from 1725; four of them belong to the period after the premature discontinuation – shortly before Easter 1725, apparently as a result of external factors – of the year-long cycle of chorale cantatas that Bach had begun in 1724. Finding himself in this situation, Bach turned once again to the traditional type of cantata that takes the gospel reading for the day in question as its point of departure. For the first three of the cantatas Bach used texts by unknown authors, although the decidedly didactic character of their diction suggests that they were written by a theologian. For the remaining Sundays and feast days until the end of his second year of service in Leipzig, Bach could evidently secure the services of the Leipzig poetess Christiane Mariane von Ziegler (1695–1760). She provided nine texts, including those for the cantatas BWV183, 68 and 175 on this recording.>>

<< Bach’s cantata Ich bin ein guter Hirt begins with the opening verse of the Sunday gospel reading, John 10: 12–16, a text to which he makes close reference elsewhere in the cantata as well. The libretto, by an unknown author, presents the image of Jesus as the good shepherd who watches faithfully over his flock, defends the sheep and is prepared to give his life for them – indeed, he has already given his life for mankind on the cross. The first of the two chorale strophes [no. 3], ‘Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt’ (‘The Lord is my faithful shepherd’; Cornelius Becker 1602, to the melody ‘Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her’ by Nicolaus Decius, 1523), creates a connection to the Old Testament, by paraphrasing Psalm 23, which is traditionally associated with Misericordias Domini Sunday. The final strophe [no. 6], ‘Ist Gott mein Schutz und treuer Hirt’ (‘If God is my protector and faithful shepherd’; Ernst Christoph Homburg 1658, melody from Dresden 1694) brings – with theological prudence – the person of God into the image of the good shepherd, and confirms the Christians’ trust in the faith of God.

Sometimes Bach’s uniqueness reveals itself through that which he does not do. Probably none of his contemporaries would have missed the opportunity to illustrate the opening words of the cantata, with the key concept of Jesus as a ‘shepherd’, with typical pastoral sonorities. For Bach, however, something else is to the fore: Jesus does not only speak about being a good shepherd, but also about the death that he will suffer on behalf of his sheep – the faithful who are entrusted to him. A mood of tranquil seriousness dominates the opening movement. The words are given to the bass, the traditional ‘Vox Christi’, and the orchestra – oboes, strings and continuo – creates a ceremonial atmosphere around them.

In the alto aria [no. 2], which continues the message of the opening movement, the inner motion of the string parts is, so to speak, delegated to the violoncello piccolo which has a concertante role. In the soprano chorale ‘Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt’, with an accompaniment of two oboes, models taken from the field of organ chorales prove themselves equally valuable in the area of vocal music. The pastoral tones absent from the beginning of the cantata finally put in an appearance in the tenor aria [no. 4] ‘Seht, was die Liebe tut’ (‘See what love can do’), a movement full of in tense melodiousness.
>> © Klaus Hofmann 2008

Violoncello Piccolo, Cantata 85

Bach’s use of the violoncello piccolo in his cantatas and its application in Cantata 85 are explored in Giles Cantagrel’s liner notes to the 1985 recording of Christophe Coin.6 << Bach, who took a keen interest in instrument making and did not hesitate to combine instruments old and new, rare and commonplace, in the same work, experienced that happy moment when the cello co-existed with the viola da gamba, before soon supplanting it. Rather than taking a stand for one or the other, this artist, who was extremely sensitive to instrumental colour, took pleasure in using each of them for its distinctive expressive qualities.
The fullness and forcefulness of the cello seemed at the time to be more suited to supporting the tutti in the continuo, and devoting a set of suites to the solo cello was then proof of a resolutely avant-gardist spirit. To harmonise with the solo voice in a cantata or a passion, Bach always made his choice with great discernment, readily calling upon the resources of the viola da gamba or the Violoncello piccolo, the cello then participating in the execution of the basso continuo.

The Violoncello piccolo was briefly popular at the beginning of the 18th century. It is thought to have been a smaller version of the cello, extended upwards with a fifth string (tuned to the fifth above, on the e'"), thus enabling fast movements in the high register, with lightness and delicacy of sound. Having eliminated the almost mythical viola pomposa, it was supposed, on the strength of the inscription . . . that the instrument called for in the sixth of the Suites for unaccompanied Violoncello was this Violoncello piccolo; but perhaps it was simply an ordinary-sized cello with an additional high String. Whatever the case may be, Bach expressly mentions the use of the Violoncello piccolo in nine of his extant cantatas, in which the instrument provides a timbre that is bath warm and delicate, and appropriate for the expression of indulgence or trusting tenderness - that, for example, of the Christian for the Good Shepherd.

Eight of the cantatas calling for the violoncello piccolo belong to the second cycle written for the Thomaskirche, i.e. in the year 1724-25 (successively, cantatas BWV 180, 115, 41, 6, 85, 163, 168, 175). We may imagine that at that time the Cantor had at his disposal a pupil or student who possessed and played this instrument and of whom there is, so far as we know, no trace anywhere else in the documents on Bach. A ninth cantata, BWV 49, was composed a little later: it may have been written on the occasion of a visit by the person concerned to Leipzig, for example. It is also highly likely that Bach used the Violoncello piccolo in one of the instrumental versions he gave of his cantata BWV 199. Finally, one of the missing parts of cantata BWV 139, of 1724, may have been written for the Violoncello piccolo, but that is merely a hypothesis.

The cantata “Ich bin ein guter Hirt" (“I am a good shepherd") BWV 85 was intended for the Sunday of Misericordias Domini (the second after Easter); it was heard for the first time on 15 April 1725. The anonymous author of the libretto based his text on the parable of the Good Shepherd, taken from the day’sgospel lesson (St john 10:11). Notin the text indicates the need for a large number of instruments, but Bach chose to add two oboes and a violoncello piccolo to the continuo and strings, for their symbolic and affective commemoration; the words are sung by four soloists and the chorus, which only comes in for the final chorale. The cantata is in six pieces, apparently arranged in two similar groups of three (recitative-aria-chorale); this symmetry between the two groups is deceptive, however: the voices are distributed differently, the first recitative is in fact an arioso while the second is a simple accompagnato, and the chorale, performed by the chorus at the end of the work, is sung the first time by the solo soprano voice [no. 3].

The work thus begins with a generous arioso. In the deep voice that is his (the vox Christi) and with the appropriate fullness of contrapuntal texture, Christ addresses Christians; using the exact words of the Gospel according to St John, he tirelessly repeats the words: “I am a good shepherd; a good shepherd gives his life for his sheep". The traditional instrument of shepherds, the oboe, here concerted, immediately associates the Redeemer with the good shepherd, but the unusual key of C minor gives this solemn piece a character of thoughtful gravity. In the following aria, it then falls to the alto to comment on these words from the gospel. “Jesus is a good shepherd": the am of faith affirms that henceforth no one will come and carry off the sheep from their shepherd, since the latter has already given his life for them. The aria is thus marked by the idea of sacrifice, which is further emphasized by the use of the particularly sorrowful key of G minor and the concerted role played by the Violoncello piccolo over a discreet continuo. The oboe has disappeared: the pastorale has been abandoned in order to concentrate on this outflow of meditation. The soprano, representing the Christian soul, once again afiirms that “The Lord is my faithful shepherd”, but this time borrowing the old familiar tune from Luther’s Gloria, delicately embellished and combined in a trio with the intertwining of the two oboes working on the motif from the ornamented Chorale. In the more peaceful key of B flat major, any believer can easily identify the “Glory to God alone in the heavens": that is the means devised by Bach to emphasize the fact that we must praise God in that he sent his son to help mankind. Supported by the strings, the tenor explains, in recitative, the significance of the evangelical message -- in their sleep, the shepherd watches over his sheep -- before generalising its teaching in the following aria. The image of the shepherd has moved into the background, making way for the glorification of Christ and his sacrifice, the oboes have fallen silent, but the compound time (9/8) with its gentle bounce, a certain sweetness, the expression of a personal feeling - all this still evokes affections usually associated with the shepherd. And in a simple Chorale harmonised on the liturgical melody “Ist Gott mein Schild und Helfersmann" (If God is my shield and helper), the chorus sings “If God is my protector and my faithful shepherd”; the images are more tender than those of the original text and the reappearance of the two pastoral oboes identify Christ one last time with the good shepherd. There is inevitably a brief return, in conclusion, to the C minor of the beginning.
© Gilles Cantagrel 1985


1 Cantata 85 BCW Details & Discography, Score Vocal & Piano,, Score BGA, References: BGA XX/1 (Cantatas 81-90, Wilhelm Rust, 1872), NBA KB I/11.1 (Reinmar Emans, 1989: 123), Bach Compendium BC A 66, Zwang K 118.
2 Martin Petzoldt, Bach Kommentar: Theologisch Musikwissenschaftlicke Kommentierung der Geistlichen Vokalwerke Johann Sebastan Bachs; Vol. 2, Die Geistlichen Kantaten vom 1. Advent bis zum Trinitatisfest; Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2007: 797).
3 Cantata 85 Gardiner notes, BCW[sdg131_gb].pdf.; BCW Recordings details,; recording
4 Günther Stiller, Johann Sebastian Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig, ed. Robin A. Leaver (St. Louis MO: Concordia Publishing, 1985: 240).
5 Cantata 85 Hofmann notes, BCW[BIS-SACD1641].pdf; BCW Recording details,
6Cantata 85 Cantagrel notes, BCW


To come: Cantata 85 commentary, Easter Season, theology and biblical references, provenance.

William Hoffman wrote (April 13, 2017):
Cantata 85: "Ich bin ein guter Hirt," Part 2

Bach’s wholly original solo Cantata BWV 85, “Ich bin ein guter Hirt” (I am a good shepherd) is the bridge between the Easter festival with its celebration of the resurrection central to Christianity and the ensuing Great 60 Days of the Easter-Pentecost Season with the darkness of the disciples external threats without the protection of Jesus but the promise in his Farewell Discourse (John:16) that the sanctifier Holy Spirit will provide the Christian Trinitarian link of the advocate and protector to the figures of God the Father and Creator and Jesus Christ as the Son and Reedeemer serving as the Good Shepherd of the Psalm 23 people of Israel under the law and the Christian Church under the Gospel, bringing a new sense of trust.

The pastoral metaphor is retained almost throughout, observes Nicholas Anderson in his Cantata 85 essay in Oxford Composer Companions: J. S. Bach (Oxford University Press, 1999: 225f). It “develops the image of Christ the Good Shepherd who gives his life for his flock,” based on the Miserericordias Domini (2nd Sunday after Easter) Gospel (John 10:11-16). Bach responded with music of “intimacy, declamatory fervour, and delicately wrought instrumentation” in a free paraphrase of the Gospel.

The opening bass vox Christi aria/arioso with two oboes and strings (

is “sonorous and contrapuntally woven,” says Anderson (Ibid.). In arioso form it is through-composed with flowing melody while it also has the aria form of repetition of text in vocal mottos, articulation by internal ritornellos, and concertante oboe parts, says Richard D. P. Jones.1 It is quite similar to the vox Christi that opens Cantata BWV 108, “Es ist euch gut, daß ich hingehe” (It is good for you that I should go away, Gospel John 16:7 Farewell Discourse), for Cantata Sunday (4th after Easter), presented two weeks after Cantata 85, on 29 April 1725, to a text of Mariane von Ziegler.

The succeeding alto aria with violoncello piccolo obbligato, “Jesus ist ein guter Hirt” (Jesus is a good Shepherd, ( is a meditation on Jesus giving his life for his sheep that features the text given three times with a “richly figurative motion” in the violoncello piccolo, says Alfred Dürr in the Cantatas of J. S. Bach (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005: 302). The obbligato is “a running stream of limpid water” thsoothes the “incursion of thieves intthe peaceful scene,” says W. Gillies Whittaker in The Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach (London: Oxford University Press, 1958: II:132). Cantata 85 is part of a series of exemplary, wholly original solo cantatas, along with BWV 87 (Rogate), BWV 183 (Exaudi) and 175 (Pentecost Tuesday), with Ziegler texts, observes Whittaker (Ibid.: 131).

The central chorale aria for soprano, “Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt” (The Lord is my faithful shepherd), is Cornelius Becker’s paraphrase of Psalm 23:1-3 (, “overtly pastoral in character due to its text” with two oboes and continuo in “a well-integrated, homogeneous quartet texture,” says Jones (Ibid.: 165).

The second half of the six-movement Cantata 85 begins with the solo tenor recitative (accompagnato), “Wenn die Mietlinge schlafen, / Da wachtet dieser Hirt bei seinen Schafen” (While hirelings sleep, / the shepherd watches over his sheep) is a dramatic “synoptic sermon” on the day’s Gospel, observes Dürr (Ibid.), with string accompaniment interpreting text phrases ( Of particular note, says Whittaker (Ibid.: 133), are the triplet arpeggi at bar 3 which echoes Christ’s accompagnato in the St. Matthew Passion where he prophesies to his disciples on the mount of Olives that “I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad” (KJV), premiered in 1727 (

The fifth movement, the tenor 9/8 pastorale free da-capo aria with unison violin and viola, “Seht, was die Liebe tut” (See, what love does,, is a “profound reflection on the celebration of the Holy Sacrament,” says Jones (Ibid.: 226). It is best known as the instrumental arrangement of William Walton, “See what his love can do,” in the “Wise Virgins Ballet” suite (; BCW Recording details, An elaborate tutti chorale with expressive harmonization closes Cantata 85, “Ist Gott mein Schutz und treuer Hirt (If God is my protection and faithful Shepherd,

Context, Theology, Focus

The six Sundays after Easter are essential to the narrative of the Great 50 Days, observes Eric Chafe in his chapter, “Spring 1725: An Overview, Easter through Misericordias: Cantatas 249, 6, 42, and 85.”2 The naming of the Sundays and their meaning are outlined (Chafe, Ibid.: 385) in Bach contemporary theologian Valentine Herberger’s summary: The first two Sundays emphasize that all believers are “new-born children of God” (Quasimodogeniti) and that the earth and all hearts “should be full of the goodness of the Lord” (Misericordias). These two engender a sense of thankfulness in the remaining four Sundays: “Make a joyful noise unto God (Psalm 66:2, Jubilate), “Sing unto the Lord a new song” (Psalm 98:1, Cantate Dominum); voices of gaiety (Voces jucunditas, Rogate); and “God will heart it” (Audit ubique Deus, Psalm 147:1, Exaudi).

“Running throughout the season is the idea that human attributes, especially reason and the senses, are inadequate to sustain the life of faith, which inevitably succumbs to worldly pressures,” says Chafe (Ibid.: 389). “Something more is needed – the Holy Spirit -- and it is the purpose of the season as a whole to set fourth both the need and the solution.”

For the initial three days of Easter Monday, Quasimodogeniti, and Misericordias, five of the six chorales that appear in Bach’s 1725 cantatas are found in the Dresden and Leipzig hymnbooks under the omnes tempore category of God’s Word and the Christian Church,” observes Chafe (Ibid.: 386) They are: Cantata 6, “Ach bleib bei uns” and “Erhalt uns Herr”; Cantata 42, “Versage nicht” and “Verlieh uns Frieden,” and Cantata 85, “Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Her.” The closing chorale of Cantata 85, “Ist Gott mein Schild und Helfersmann” (If God is my shield and protector), “relates to the others very closely in its thematic content.,” says Chafe.

Cantate 85 centers on the perspective of God’s protection in a personal context, says Chafe (Ibid: 390). Following the biblical narrative in Luke’s Gospel of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, Cantata 85 returns to the mood of the Easter Monday Emmaus chorus Cantata 6, “Bleib bei uns,” which implores Jesus to remain with the disciples and give them protection. Bach returns t the key of c minor and brings back the violoncello piccolo which has “the central expression of longing for Jesus’s continuing presence,” says Chafe (Ibid.). Now, Cantata 85 “conveys the equivalency of the resurrected Messiah (Christus Victor) and the good shepherd, accompanying the first verse of Becker’s paraphrase of Psalm 23, which is sung to the Trinitarian melody, “Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Her,” equating the Good Shepherd to both Jesus and God. This theme resounds again in the second Easter/Pentecost shepherd’s solo cantata, BWV 175, “Er rufet seinen Schafen mit Namen” (He calls his own sheep by name, Gospel John 10:3)), for Pentecost Tuesday 1725, where there are three Trinitarian images, the good shepherd, Christus Victor, and the Holy Spirit, a Johannine theme throughout the post-Easter season “but not yet fully articulated in Cantata 85,” says Chafe (Ibid.: 391).

“Trust in the shepherd dominates the tone” of the first three solo movements (first-half) of Cantata 85, says Chafe (Ibid.: 426), progressing from a scripture-driven text to the alto solo aria, then a personal soprano chorale aria. The second half of Cantata 85 progresses from a dramatic tenor recitative that echoes the prophecy in the St. Matthew Passion, to the tenor pastoral free da-capo aria that emphasizes in its middle section that the shepherd is the sacrificial Passion symbol of the atonement substitution of his own life for his “sheep.” The closing chorale affirms Jesus’ protection of the believer.

Cantata 85 Provenance Score, Parts Set

The Cantata 85 manuscript division of 1750 shows that as part of the third cycle the score went to Emmanuel and the parts set presumably went to Friedemann, since the score and doublets were found in the former’s estate catalogue of 1790. Score, D-B Mus. ms. Bach P 106,

Bach Digital, e://; Provenance: J. S. Bach - C. P. E. Bach (Estate Catalog 1790: 77) - Sing-Akademie zu Berlin - BB (now Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz) (1855). Parts Set, D-B Mus. ms. Bach St 51, Copyists: Kuhnau, Johann Andreas (1703–after1745) = Main copyist A; Bach, Johann Heinrich (1707–1783); Anon. Il; Anon. IIf; Bach, Wilhelm Friedemann (1710–1784); Meißner, Christian Gottlob (1707–1760); Bach, Johann Sebastian. Provenance: J. S. Bach - ?Friedemann - Voß-Buch - BB (now Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz) (1851). Dublettes (Violino I, Violino II [Basso continuo-Dublette lost]): J. S. Bach - C. P. E. Bach catalog - Sing-Akademie zu Berlin - BB (1855).


1 Richard D. P. Jones, The Creative Development of Johann Sebastian Bach, Volume II: 1717-1750. “Music to Delight the Spirit” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013: 167).
2 Eric Chafe: J. S. Bach’s Johannine Theology: The St. John Passion and the Cantatas for Spring 1725 (Oxford UPress, 2014: 379ff).

Aryeh Oron wrote (March 31, 2017):
Cantata BWV 85 - Revised & updated Discography

Cantata BWV 85 "Ich bin ein guter Hirt" (I am a good shepherd) was composed by J.S. Bach in Leipzig for Misericordias Domini [2nd Sunday after Easter] of 1725. The cantata is scored for soprano, alto, tenor & bass soloists; 4-part Chorus; and orchestra 2 oboes, violoncello piccolo, 2 violins, viola & continuo.

The discography pages of BWV 85 on the BCW have been revised and updated. See:
Complete Recordings (18):
Recordings of Individual Movements (18):
The revised discography includes many listening/watching options as part of the recording details. When you click a link to video/audio, a new window will open above the discography page and the video/audio will start to play.

I also put at the BCW Home Page:
2 audios & 2 videos of the cantata. A short description below the audio/video image is linked to the full details at the discography pages.

I believe this is the most comprehensive discography of this cantata. If you are aware of a recording of BWV 85 missing from these pages, or want to correct/add details of a recording already presented on the BCW, please do not hesitate to inform me.

You can also read on the BCW the recent discussion of the cantata in the BCML (4th round):



Cantata BWV 85: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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