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Cantata BWV 104
Du Hirte Israel, höre


Aryeh Oron wrote (April 29, 2001):
BWV 104 - Background

In the review below I avoid repeating the text, because you have both the original German text and a good English translation available on the Web, and links to them appear in the beginning of this review.

“The picture of Christ as the Good Shepherd clearly made a great appeal to Bach for his three cantatas on this theme (the others are BWV 85, which has already been discussed in the BCML, and BWV 112, A.O.) are among the loveliest he composed. Each of them takes an individual course. The libretto of the present one concentrates on the first verse of Psalm 80 in the opening chorus.”

Personal Viewpoint

This charming cantata is characterized by homogeneous atmosphere and unified message along all its six movements. The atmosphere is calm, peaceful, and the message is faithfulness to the Lord and confidence in him, As a proof you can see that the word ‘Hirte’ (‘Shepherd’) is mentioned in 5 of the 6 movements and in the remaining one (mvt. 5) it is explicitly hinted. There is also similarity between the musical themes (I am hoping that Thomas Braatz will enlighten this point). The atmosphere and the message are given to three messengers; each one of them has two movements to perform. The Choir has Mvt. 1 + 6, the Tenor – Mvt. 2 + 3 and the Bass – mvt. 4 + 5. It is very important that ‘they will speak the same language’. I mean that the listener should hear that the message and the atmosphere are carried along continuously from movement to movement in the same approach, without dramatic (and in this case irrelevant) changes in any parameter. It reminded me of reading sometime, a long while ago, that Brahms’ Double Concerto for Violin and Cello should be performed as if the violin and the cello are one huge 8-string instrument. I think that this statement is also applicable here, and in that sense this cantata is unique. Although there are not dialogue movements here - between the tenor and bass, the bass and the choir or the choir and the tenor - I think that a good ear of the performer is as important here to deliver the massage as are the other usual factors, such as good voice, sensitivity, intelligence, etc. We can call it chemistry or empathy, and such approach between performers is usually developed along a period of listening to each other and rehearsing and performing together. I checked if the performers in all the six recordings of this cantata, are long time acquaintances and if they are, if this is reflected in their singing. Let’s see!

Robertson’s description of the individual movements

Mvt. 1 + 6: Chorus & Chorale for Choir
Mvt. 1 - “The oboes are marked staccato on all single notes, as is the shepherd’s pipe, and in the course of the orchestral introduction all parts come to share in the pastoral motif. A fugue begins at the repetition of ‘Thou who leads Joseph like a shepherd’ with long phrases on the last word punctuated with cries of ‘appear’. This is repeated towards the end with all the voices crying out as if the Cherubim were joining in.”
Mvt. 6 – “The chorale is the first verse of Cornelius Becker’s hymn with the above title (1598) set to Nikolaus Decius’ ‘Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr’ (1539). And so with the promise of the green meadows and the fresh pastures this beautiful cantata ends.”

Mvt. 2 + 3: Recitative & Aria for Tenor
Mvt. 2 - “Here is a hint of disquiet so familiar in Lutheran librettos; it become more explicit in the aria that follows.”
Mvt. 3 – “The soul feels lost in the wilderness in this aria in the minor key, his distress emphasized by drawn-out phrases at ‘long’. He cries out to the good Shepherd ’O Good Shepherd teach me to know thee as “Abba, Father”’. The reference is to Romans 8: 15 (also Galatians 4: 6) ‘Ye received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry Abba, Father.’ The music vividly describes the ‘wandering’ of this disturbed soul.”

Mvt. 4 + 5: Recitative & Aria for Bass
Mvt. 4 – “The words go on to pray that all living sheep may be brought into the sheepfold (this recalls verse 16 of the Gospel text ‘other sheep I have which are not of this fold: them also I must bring’).”
Mvt. 5 – “This aria, in the tempo of a gigue, perfectly sums up the soul’s joy in having such a shepherd. In the middle section the words speak of faith’s reward after death. The enchanting pastoral motif persists in the orchestra.”

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 2, 2001):
BWV 104 - Commentary

What a wondrous cantata BWV 104 is, and yet I experienced many an unexpected twist or turn as I did some research attempting to add something interesting to Aryeh's presentation from that unique book by Robertson that he has. Not to belabor a I point that I have already made here about the 'dazzling' three volume set, "The World of the Bach Cantatas" by Christoph Wolff and Ton Koopman, I nevertheless decided to see how these books treat one of the more famous cantatas. The result is truly pathetic. On its 742 pages, the cantata is listed (just listed, no commentary whatsoever) in a list of cantatas for that specific Leipzig cantata cycle of 1723-24. But wait! In addition to giving the initial performance date and the occasion for which it was composed, there are some diacritical marks to identify special situations that apply to certain cantatas, such as repeat performances of an earlier work, etc. There is nothing special about this cantata to these authors, but there should be. What a cavalier treatment of this, and perhaps, many other cantatas! I simply can not understand, how such a book, as promising as it appears, can be such a 'piece of fluff.' What they missed was placing one of their special diamond shaped characters in front of the name of the cantata. If you are going to be so chary with information, then at least get the tiny amount of information that you provide to appear in a correct, up-to-date form. Here is what they missed:

The 1st mvt. of BWV 104 at least (this is confirmed by research--NBA I/11.1 KB) and that means that mvt. 5, the bass aria, could also belong in this category, is a parody of a lost 'Promotionskantate,' the type of cantata that celebrated the occasion of an individual's advancement or elevation in status at the University of Leipzig. Such a celebration of a promotion nevertheless took place in a church as part of a service held at a time other than the normal, Sunday-morning service. The cantata and the 1st mvt. are identified as BWV Anh. 15 ('Anh.' [Anhang] means 'appendix') and was titled "Siehe der Hüter Israel" ('See, the Herdsman of Israel' or possibly in church-English: 'Lo, the Lord of Israel'). This brings up another word study that becomes rather interesting: 'Hirte' in German can only mean 'herdsman' or 'shepherd' and in a biblical sense, of course, Jesus Christ. In contrast to the limited meanings applied to 'Hirte,' the word, "Hüter," can have figurative meanings that go beyond the idea of 'herdsman' or 'keeper' (as in "am I my brother's keeper?") to include such meanings as 'guardian' or 'protector.' So the key word that Bach usually zeroes in on is "Hüter" with a much more significant range of connotation than the rather narrow meaning of "Hirte." Here I immediately think of "He watching over Israel" set to music so beautifully by Mendelssohn in his "Elijah." What is really interesting, and this is the part of the proof that the researchers needed in order to come to this conclusion, is that we have sufficient proof of the existence of the secular cantata through Bach's own attention to the parts, some of which are autograph (in his own handwriting) and the fact that there is no written record that the score of this cantata ever existed. (By 'written record' I mean a record such as the one created at the time of the property distribution after Bach's death. CPE Bach received, according to that record a 'set of parts' for BWV 104, but nowhere else is the score for this cantata mentioned. This leaves us with the possthat Bach worked directly from the score of BWV Anh. 15 "Siehe der Hüter Israel.") In the vocal parts of BWV 104, the word "Hüter" appears at least two or three times, where it should read "Hirte." Did this happen as a result of copying directly from the score of the lost secular cantata? More than likely! This existence of BWV Anh. 15 would also explain for me the lack of an internal connection between the words "der du Joseph hütest, wie der Schafe" and the beautiful, ascending motif of the fugal passages. The direct, illustrative link is missing, but such things can happen when trying to make a new, if somewhat similar, text fit the original conception based on the ideas that gave rise to the music in the first place. Why did Bach 'plunder' his own secular cantatas? How come some of his best musical ideas were initially in a secular form, only later to be transformed into a sacred cantata? He received separate remunerations that were substantial for providing music for occasions that were not part of the normal church year. He was under great time pressure during this first Leipzig year to fulfill the sacred cantata requirement. Now I am no longer surprised to find the parodies in the Christmas or Easter Oratorios BWV 248 & BWV 249. Just consider the pastoral setting in the former or the original pastoral setting of the latter, then this cantata, BWV 104, will become more understandable, or possibly more wondrous as you hear the end results of a remarkable transformation.

What opinion did the commentators have of this cantata? Spitta (1873 ff.) comments (he did not know about the parody) that Bach had not composed anything like this up to this point in time and that the 'rocking' and 'wave-like' sound would only later appear in such works as the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248). Voigt (although my book is dated 1920, Schweitzer (1905) already refers to his writings on the cantatas) states that, even if BWV 104 is technically astonishingly complicated, it is nevertheless easily accessible to the listener. Schweitzer says, "it (BWV 104) is one of the most suitable (cantatas) for overcoming the common fear of Bach," and it is "useful for winning over a public that is musically cultured, but not yet intimate with Bach." Ludwig Finscher (1980) comments that it is strict, and at the same time endearingly tender.

Despite all these glowing reports, and those of you who have heard this cantata will probably confirm these statements, Schweitzer outlines the serious difficulties that this and a few other cantatas had in becoming acceptable, particularly in a church setting during the 19th century. Publishers at the beginning of that century had considerable difficulty with Bach's vocal works, while clavier and instrumental music fared somewhat better. Although Simrock and Nägeli promised to publish vocal works, there simply was no market for it. When, in 1821, Breitkopf & Härtel dared to publish BWV 80 "Ein' feste Burg" without achieving any financial success, it prompted Zelter to write the following to Goethe in 1829, that the publishers "regarded the work as a 'drug,'" which I assume means that they had hoped its effects would be like a drug, causing great clamor for the next cantata release. The great argument in the churches at that time was regarding whether Bach fit into the category of true or false church music, true being entirely objective and false indicating subjective inclinations leading toward the production of feelings. Carl von Winterfeldt (1784-1852) who, according to Schweitzer, revered Bach, was forced to admit: "Even the extraordinary impression he makes on the souls of his hearers, and the means by which he effects this, exclude the wonderful work of Bach from the church, which is a place of worship." It was right after the Berlin performance of the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) under Mendelssohn's direction in 1830, and very possibly because of the temporary improvement in the attitude toward Bach, that Simrock published this cantata, BWV 104 along with five others. But soon thereafter another setback for the Bach cantatas occurred: The second half of the 19th century found Bach, at a time when his cantatas were just beginning to be published by the BG, on one side of the conflict between conservatives (Brahms, etc.) and the progressives (Wagner, etc.). To quote Schweitzer here: "The conservative party maintained that true classical music should concern itself only with perfect form and the expression of indefinite feeling, and prove its true greatness by avoiding drastic tone-painting and far-reaching poetic pretensions. Bach was an old musician; therefore he was a classical musician; therefore he could not have thought otherwise than as one was entitled to assume the classical masters thought; thus he was a witness against Wagner. This thoughtless and polemical attitude was accountable for people not trying to find the real Bach, -- and this just at the time when his works were at last made accessible to the world."

Another problem causing a lack of acceptance of Bach's sacred cantatas was due to his (or his librettist's/poet's) use of quaint expressions and non-standard German word forms. The latter were generally easy to correct, as, for instance, the form of 'kommen' rendered as "kömmt" in the 3rd person singular of the verb. If you listen carefully to the recordings, you will notice that until and including the Rilling series, that this form does not appear to be sung with the umlauted vowel that Bach heard and intended. I believe that Harnoncourt/Leonhardt, when they began their series just after 1970, corrected this and almost always used the word forms as indicated in the score (some of the NBA scores had not yet been published, so they may have had to rely on older sources, but generally they did not 'tweak' the words to make them palatable for modern listeners.) Major problems occurred with pietistical texts, where Christ, sung by a bass, of course, and the soul, sung by a soprano, usually a female in this century, could easily be construed as an erotic encounter between a man and a woman. Situations of that type, which hearkened back to what most considered more appropriate for an opera, and the choice of 'quaint' expressions such as the one that Marie Jensen mentioned in her commentary: "I get wrong associations when the bass sings: "Und führe uns in deinen Schafstall ein!" but perhaps it is because we live in a perfumed century!" have caused many performers and listeners to seriously edit and revise the texts that Bach set to music. If you have an accurate copy of the original text as printed in the NBA, you would become much more aware of this problem of 'adulteration', well-meaning 'adulteration' on the part of the preservers, who wish to make Bach 'more accessible' by 'modernizing' and substituting the original concepts with 'more acceptable and more easily understandable' ideas and notions. What these pundits want to achieve is a Bach cantata that is not "anstößig" ("objectionable, offensive") in any way, whether linguistically or theologically. I suppose you could say that this reaction is to be expected, but it is all part of the arrogance of living at a later time and presuming that the advancement of our culture allows us to improve on Bach's intentions. To that I will comment (for those of you that consider the following topic an anathema, simply jump to the next paragraph) that this is further evidence of an esoteric Bach speaking to his 'disciples', the truly enlightened listeners, who receive instruction on an even higher level than (the) hoi polloi. (Yes, I do know that the poet who wrote these words is primarily responsible for the conceits and word choices, and that he remains unknown - which might have prompted Spitta to exclaim once again, as I quhim in the discussion of BWV 67, "if this is Picander's text, then he outdid himself," but if Bach had not set these words to music, they would not have come to our attention today.) Let me point out the text of mvts. 4 and 5, the bass recitative and aria, and paraphrase it as follows: I derive the deepest pleasure from being able to call out Abba and to realize within myself your presence which anticipates what I will feel even more of when I am with you in the spiritual world. [Now comes a rather selfish, if not but a purely unrestrained human desire:] Lord, why don't you lead us quickly through the experience of death, so that we can join you as timid sheep that you will then promptly lead into the place in heaven where we belong. Let's get this show on the road as quickly as possible! [In the aria that follows, there is an answer from an entirely different standpoint which attempts to correct the child-like, impatient attitude expressed in the recitative:] You lucky ones! Don't you even realize that your heaven is here on earth, where all the human action and interaction occurs, and that Christ is here with you in ways that you can't even recognize, as for instance, in the food that you 'taste' = "schmecken." Don't trouble yourselves too much about dying, which will be easier than you can imagine, if you look forward to a spiritual life continuing after your physical demise. And after this the 23rd Psalm in the chorale, a key higher than the introductory mvt. In contrast to this, allow me to cite Nicholas Anderson (1999) in "The Oxford Composer Companions: J.S.Bach [Boyd]" article about these two mvts.: "The uncertainty expressed in the preceding [tenor] aria is dispelled as the shepherd gathers his flock. In the aria, in 12/8 metre and with the character of a pastoral dance, Christ's flock is offered a glimpse of heaven and the hope of Chistendom." This I consider a 'watered-down' version of the text and seems to be more like the message that we would commonly hear from a pulpit in this day and age.

Now a word about the pastoral imagery which predominates musically in mvts. 1 and 5. Dürr (1971) correctly attributes this aspect of the cantata to the prevailing artistic notions/iconography that prevailed in the Baroque period, whether in painting, the written word, particularly poetry, and music. The rural setting, with its necessary distance from the turmoil and strife caused by various rulers and authorities, was idealized and desirable as the place where the development of true feelings such as Love, Faithfulness, Innocence, Friendship, etc. could flourish. "It's no small wonder," Dürr says, "that the religious faith expressed at this time (the Baroque period) could be kindled with great fervor simply by considering Jesus as the good shepherd, by including the 'Pastorale' directly as the symbol of the congregation guided by Jesus, and by remembering that a phrase such as "führe uns in deinen Schafstall" ("lead us into your sheep stable") does not have even a hint of anything comical about it, something that only a modern listener might perceive.” [Isn't it interesting, how Dürr feels obligated to defend Bach in this way?]

How this pastorale, particularly mvt. 5, but also mvt. 1, can be perceived as a gigue, I have no idea. Does this mean, if you have a time signature that a gigue might use, then the piece should automatically be considered gigue-like in nature? Nicholas Anderson says that mvt. 1 has a gigue-like rhythm, and Robertson states that mvt. 5 has "the tempo of a gigue." To obtain an answer to this terminological issue I consulted "Dance and the Music of J.S.Bach" by Meredith Little and Natalie Jenne, 1991. I found out that these scholars have distinguished three separate types of gigues in Bach's music. In Appendix B they list all untitled dance music by J.S.Bach. including the cantatas. For examples of gigues, you will find mentioned certain mvts. in the following cantatas and vocal works: BWV 40, BWV 49, BWV 66, BWV 79, BWV 96, BWV 145, BWV 192, BWV 207, BWV 208, BWV 211, BWV 214, BWV 215, BWV 233, BWV 249. Nothing about this cantata, BWV 104!

Some commentators' comments on the individual mvts.:

Mvt. 1 Spitta calls this mvt. 'a church-like pastorale' because it combines simultaneously, in a unique manner, feelings of tenderness as well as seriousness, and because it exhibits grace and charm without losing depth and profundity. The bass line sometimes remains quite stationary (a pedal point) illustrating the rustic bagpipe drone, while the schawms (the three oboes) are surrounded by a shimmering string sound. Schweitzer describes this mvt. as having "ravishing euphony and grace." Nicholas Anderson comments:" the pastoral imagery is so tenderly and imaginatively evoked." Dürr invites us to examine the structure:"Sinfonia - Chorus (mainly homophone) - Fugue - Chorus - Fugue - Chorus."

Mvts. 2 & 3 are set in a minor key. The aria is described by Anderson as follows: "wide-ranging, somewhat melancholy melodic contours and plangent sonority delicately colour the image of the lost soul in search of the shepherd." Spitta identifies an apprehensiveness present throughout. Ludwig Finscher (1980) says, "the confidence in salvation is still subdued and somewhat anxious." Dürr indicates that the word, "schreit" ["cry out"] links this mvt. with the first.

Mvts. 4 & 5 Dürr points out the unifying, but also contrasting elements between these two mvts. and the 1st mvt. The combining element is the pastorale rhythm. The 1st mvt. embodies the request, the bass aria the fulfillment. The 1st mvt. represents the Old Testament, whereas the Bass Aria the New Testament.

Mvt. 6 the chorale is in the 'brightly coloured key of A-major" (Anderson) and Finscher points out that this chorale is 'pitched one-step higher than mvt. 1," which is symbolically significant.


Cantata BWV 104: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Commentaries: Main Page | Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Other Vocal Works BWV 225-524 | Sources


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