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Cantata BWV 109
Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben!
Commentary

Stephen A. Crist (OCC) | Alfred Dürr

 

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 13, 2005):
Here are two commentaries also worth reading:

From the OCC (Oxford University Press, 1999):

>> "Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben" ('Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief). The central theme of this cantata (BWV 109), the conflict between belief and unbelief, is implicit in the Gospel reading for the 21st Sunday after Trinity, the occasion of its first performance on 17 October 1723. The appointed passage (John 4: 46-54) relates an incident in which Jesus's spoken assurance to a royal official leads to the healing of the official's son, and this becomes the occasion for him and his entire family to believe in Jesus. For the first movement, however, Bach's anonymous librettist chose a different text--one that also involves the healing of a man's son, but in which the father verbalizes his inner conflict by exclaiming, 'Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief (Mark 9:24).

Musical contrasts, emblematic of the polarity between belief and unbelief, are woven into the texture of the entire cantata. In the opening chorus they are manifested in the frequent juxtaposition of smaller and larger groups of instruments in the manner of a 'concerto grosso.' This is heard already in the first bar, where the opening gesture, played in unison by first oboe and first violin, is answered by the entire ensemble (horn, two oboes, strings, and continuo). Similar contrasts are indicated by the markings 'solo' and 'tutti' in the first violin part, as well as by the dynamic indications 'piano' and 'forte.' Opposition between a portion of the group and the entire ensemble is also seen in the choral writing, which thins to a single part much more frequently than usual.

The struggle between faith and doubt is dramatized at the level of the individual Christian in the next two movements, both for tenor. The recitative (mvt. 2) contains three pairs of statements: each affirmation of trust in God's loving care, marked 'forte,' is countered by an expression of doubt or fear, marked 'piano' and prefaced by the words "Ach nein" ('Ah, no). (Dynamic markings such as these, common enough in the instrumental parts, are extremely rare in the vocal lines of Bach's works.) In the final passage the anguished cry "Ach Herr, wie lange?" ('O Lord, how long?'), sung 'forte' and in tempo ('adagio'), calls forth a graphic melisma (illustrating the word "lange"), whose upward melodic motion at the end imitates the proper inflection of a question. Diametrical opposition is represented in the movement's tonal plan as well. The modulation from Bb major to E minor entails not only a shift to the opposite mode but also root motion from Bb to E (pitches separated by the distance of a tritone and therefore tonal opposites).

In the tenor aria (movement 3), the agitated mood associated with the Christian's intense doubt and the trembling of his terrified heart is graphically depicted by jagged melodic contours and dotted rhythms as well as by illustrative melismas (triplet semiquavers) on the word "wanket" ('trembles'). The unusually adventurous harmonic structure of the B section embodies the polarity between belief and unbelief (D minor at bar 32 and F# minor at bar 39 are equally remote in opposite directions from the tonic, E minor). The abrupt turn away from the dominant (B minor) towards A minor just before the da capo is also emblematic of psychic uncertainty.

The alto recitative (movement 4) turns from inner struggle to faith by pointing to the sure fulfillment of God's promises. The subsequent aria, in which the alto is joined by a pair of oboes, affirms that the Savior is aware of his people's struggles and will come to their aid. The predominantly calm mood of this lovely movement is broken only by the 'virtuoso melismas' in the B section, which illustrate the word "straiten" ('to fight').

Instead of a simple four-part chorale, this cantata concludes with an elaborate concerted setting of one of the earliest and most famous hymns of the Lutheran Reformation, strophe 7 of Lazarus Spengler's "Durch Adams Fall" (1524). SAC<<

>>SAC Stephen A. Crist is associate professor of music at Emory University. His articles have appeared in "Early Music, Bach Studies, Bach Perspectives, The Cambridge Companion to Bach," and elsewhere. He has also published a facsimile edition of a Low German hymnal dating from Luther's time and is working on a book on the Bach arias. He is secretary and treasurer of the American Bach Society.<<

From "Johann Sebastian Bach: Die Kantaten" [Bärenreiter, 1995 (latest revised edition)] by Alfred Dürr, here is his commentary on this cantata:

The liturgical readings for this Sunday (19th Sunday after Trinity) concentrate on the question regarding belief. Jesus says in John 4: 48: "Must I do miraculous signs and wonders before you people will believe in me?" and yet the government official does believe Jesus when he says in John 4: 50: "Go back home. Your son will live!" The Gospel reading is trying to say that, because he does believe, he then receives help.

The unknown poet of this cantata text places another similar passage from another Gospel at the beginning: Mark 9:24 "I do believe, but help me not to doubt!" The words with which a father of one possessed addresses Jesus are indicative of the inner conflict between Belief and Doubt that anyone can experience. The following mvts. almost constitute a kind of "Dialogus" between Fear and Hope of the type which Bach set to music only 3 weeks later in BWV 60, or here, in this cantata, between Unbelief and Belief. Mvt. 2 vacillates constantly between confidence/optimism/trust on the one hand, and despondency/despair on the other, so that it becomes easy to think of this as an inner dialogue after which follows mvt. 3, the aria, with its emphasis upon Unbelief. In mvts. 4 and 5, this Unbelief is once again encouraged to 'stand up straight.' To be sure, it remains uncertain whether the poet intended this type of dialogue (or even, if this were the case, why Bach did not set mvt. 2 as a dialogue between two different voices.)

As in many other cantata texts, the poet's use of language not only approximates and imitates that of the biblical texts, but it also contains several very obvious allusions. This is particularly true in mvt. 2. where the beginning lines "The Lord's hand has not grown short, I can still be helped" not only is a reference to Numbers 11:23: [Luther unrevised 1545] "Ist denn die Hand des HErrn verkürzt? Aber du sollst jetzt sehen, ob meine Worte dir können etwas gelten, oder nicht." [New Living Testament] "Is there any limit to my power? (Has the Lord's hand been shortened?) Now you will see whether or not my word comes true!", but also at the same time to Isaiah 59:1 [Luther unrevised 1545] "Siehe, des HErrn Hand ist nicht zu kurz, daß er nicht helfen könne; und seine Ohren sind nicht dick worden, daß er nicht höre" [NLT] "Listen! The LORD is not too weak to save you (the Lord's hand is not too short), and he is not becoming deaf. He can hear you when you call." The phrase "sein Vaterherze bricht" ["his heart as a father is breaking"] points to Jeremiah 31:20 [Luther 1545] "Ist nicht Ephraim mein teurer Sohn und mein trautes Kind? Denn ich denke noch wohl daran, was ich ihm geredet habe; darum bricht mir mein Herz gegen ihn, daß ich mich sein erbarmen muß, spricht der HErr." NLT "Is not Israel still my son, my darling child?" asks the LORD. "I had to punish him, but I still love him. ['for this reason my heart breaks for him'] I long for him and surely will have mercy on him." and "es bleibet mir um Trost sehr bange" ["I am still very concerned/worried about getting help/of being comforted"] Isaiah 38:17 [Luther] "Siehe, um Trost war mir sehr bange. Du aber hast dich meiner Seeleherzlich angenommen, daß sie nicht verdürbe; denn du wirfst alle meine Sünde hinter dich zurück. [NLT] "Yes, it was good for me to suffer this anguish, for you have rescued me from death and have forgiven all my sins." and the final question: "Ach Herr, wie lange?" Psalm 6:4 [Luther] "und meine Seele ist sehr erschrocken. Ach, du HErr, wie lange!" [NLT] "I am sick at heart. How long, O LORD, until you restore me?" In the doubt expressed by the following aria [mvt. 3] in the words of Doubt expressed in "Des Glaubens Docht glimmt kaum hervor, es bricht dies fast zustoßne Rohr" ["Of faith the wick but dimly glows, Now snaps the almost broken reed" - Ambrose] there is also the hopeful feeling expressed in Isaiah 42:3 [Luther] "Das zerstoßene Rohr wird er nicht zerbrechen {"the crushed reed he will not break"} und den glimmenden Docht wird er nicht auslöschen {and the still smouldering/glimmering wick he will not extinguish.} Er wird das Recht wahrhaftiglich halten lehren." [NLT] "He will not crush those who are weak or quench the smallest hope. He will bring full justice to all who have been wronged."

The change/reversal of the preceding problematic tug-of-war occurs in mvt. 4: Jesus will, just as he had done in the past, continue to perform miracles and save those who believe in him even today, even if the fulfillment of this still seems far in the distance, for "Der Heiland kennet ja die Seinen" ["the Savior really knows his people."] Compare this latter statement with John 10:14 [Luther] "Ich bin ein guter Hirte und erkenne die Meinen und bin bekannt den Meinen." [NLT] "I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me." and John 10:27 [Luther] "Denn meine Schafe hören meine Stimme, und ich kenne sie, und sie folgen mir." [NLT] "My sheep recognize my voice; I know them, and they follow me."

As a conclusion to the cantata, there is the 7th verse of the chorale "Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt" by Lazarus Spengler (1524.)

Bach composed this cantata for performance on October, 17, 1723 as part of the 1st yearly cycle of cantatas in Leipzig. In a similar manner as he did for the repeat performance of a Weimar cantata BWV 162 on the preceding Sunday, Bach belatedly added a 'filler' part for the 'Corne du Chasse,' a part not in the original score (in mvt. 1 it mainly plays colla parte with the violin 1 and in mvt. 6 it plays the chorale melody along with the sopranos.) The range of notes which it needs to play demands a 'Corno da tirarsi' since it would be impossible to play this part on a natural horn.

The opening mvt. has a noticeably 'loose' structure which contains obvious concitato elements in the orchestral accompaniment as well as in the scoring for choir. Quite noteworthy is the thematic independence of the instrumental parts vis-à-vis the vocal parts. The extended introductory ritornello of the orchestra consists of a varying succession of tutti and solo sections in which the 1st oboe and 1st violin are pitted against each other. The ritornello is developed from a motif which, to be sure, is used again and again as accompaniment to the vocal parts by the instruments, a motif which, despite its speech-like gesture, nevertheless is considered inappropriate/unusable for the choir parts. For this reason it appears completely transformed at the beginning of the vocal section as the following comparison demonstrates:


The shifting of the accent in the transformed vocal motif is clear from the illustration. Similar to the preceding instrumental ritornello, the continued development of the vocal section with various groupings of 1, 2 or 4 part passages while the orchestra continues its independent direction, sometimes even dominating the vocal parts (while the choir parts are overlayed ('Choreinbau' mm 36ff.), but otherwise taking second place in an accompanying role. The exchanging of parts even in the repeated sections constitutes an important element of this mvt. It might be possible to view all these elements both as interpreting the text on another level, but also as one necessitated structurally by presenting an extremely short text.

In the following secco recitative there are moments of hope and doubt expressed by 'forte' and 'piano' dynamic indications in the vocal part to contrast these two emotions. The final question "Ach Herr, wie lange?" ["O Lord, how long yet?"] is composed as an arioso section.

Mvt. 3 is a mvt. for a full set of string parts with the strong dominance of the 1st violin. It characterizes the vacillation between Fear and Hope of which the text speaks by using prominent/distinctive rhythms and wide intervals. The continual change of mood created by the many switches back and forth between string accompaniment and one where the continuo dominates when the soloist sings, may well have been intended to underline the text.

Starting with the recitative (mvt. 4) in the form of a short secco recitative, the musical section devoted to Belief is taken over by the alto voice. The solo alto voice also sings the following aria which is characterized by its dance-like rhythm and clearly defined periodic structure and which comes close to being a sarabande (notice the gravity/heaviness of the 2nd beat in each bar.) The calm symmetry/balance is increasingly enlivened in the middle section by the stimulation caused by the word "streiten" ["fight, quarrel."] This takes place until, in this B-section of the aria, the words "der Glaube siegt" ["Belief conquers/wins out"] change the music over to an 'adagio' after which the A-section in repeated unchanged.

The final chorale is not in the usual form of a simple 4-pt. chorale with instruments playing colla parte. Each line of the chorale is presented separately with the choral section having the chorale melody presented in half notes in the soprano while the accompanying other vocal parts move more quickly with quarter and eighth notes mainly in chord-block fashion, interrupted by the orchestral interludes between these chorale lines. The choral sections are embedded in extended, figural instrumental sections.

 

Cantata BWV 109: Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2

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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Last update: żNovember 4, 2010 ż17:17:07