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Cantata BWV 115
Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit

Gilles Cantagrel | Philipp Spitta | Woldemar Voigt | Albert Schweitzer | Alfred Dürr


Aryeh Oron wrote (November 14, 2001):
Background [Gilles Cantagrel]

As a background for the review of 6 complete recordings of Cantata BWV 115 and 2 individual movements from it, I shall quote this time from the liner notes to the charming CD of 3 Bach Cantatas (BWV 180, BWV 49, BWV 115) with violoncello piccolo directed (and played) by Christophe Coin (included in mini-series of 3 CD’s of cantatas under his direction).

Gilles Cantagrel wrote (translated to English by Mary Pardoe):
“With the parable of the ruthless servant, the day’s Gospel exalts the forgiveness of trespasses: heavenly punishment awaits those who have not forgiven their neighbours sins. No doubt in keeping with the theme developed by the preacher, the libretto (anonymous) moves away from the Gospel text but nevertheless exhorts the Christian to avoid sin in fear of the judgement and ‘watch, implore and pray’ to God’s clemency for his purification.

Like all the cantatas of that year, up till Easter 1725, this one is a chorale cantata, based on the different verses of a hymn, treated in the opening chorus and the final chorale, while the aria paraphrased the words of the other verses. The words of the hymn Mache dich…’ are by Johann Burchard Freystein, to the melody of the chorale Straf mich nicht in deinem Zorn, due to Rosenmüller (1655).

In G major, the powerful introductory portal is composed as a choral fantasia, a grand Sinfonia intended as a setting, at regular intervals, of the six periods of the hymn, which are entrusted to the four voices of the chorus. Instrumental composition in quartet, with a sophisticated play of canons and imitations launched by the insistent motif of a leap of an octave, a sign of the insistent exhortation to vigilance and prayer. The ritornello motif is worked by the three voices of the chorus supporting the hymn set forth by the soprano, in a cantus firmus brilliantly doubled by the cornetto.

Then follow, alternatively, two da capo arias and two recitatives, before the final chorus. With its siciliano rhythm, the alto aria (E minor) addresses, first of all, the soul heavy with sleep: ritornello from a poetic oboe d’amore with descending curves, with ostinato punctuations from the bass, which soon dialogues in imitation with the solo voice; the latter enters on a figure Bach was particularly fond of evoking compassion (we are reminded of the aria Erbarme dich, also for alto, in the St Matthew Passion (BWV 244)). The middle section of the aria contrasts sharply with the vigorous accents and instrumental runs of an allegro announcing the possibility of supreme punishment, followed by an adagio darkened by the slumber of eternal death.

Molto adagio (still the composer’s own indications), the second aria, in B minor – the key Bach used to express suffering and lamentation – gives the soprano a paraphrase of a chorale, ornamented with the exception of the two relentlessly returning key words: ‘Bete’ and ‘Bitte’, ‘Pray and ‘Implore’; this melodic line is set in the flowing festoons of an admirable counterpoint from the transverse flute and the violoncello piccolo, bowed in fervent, humble prayer to divine indulgence.

In conclusion, the last verse of the chorale returns to the key of G major, in four-voiced harmonization with the whole of the instrumental ensemble.”

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 15, 2001):
Older Commentaries:


The unknown librettist takes greater liberties with the text than in other chorale cantatas such as BWV 2, BWV 5, BWV 123, BWV 126, BWV 135, and BWV 180, which follow the text much more closely. This cantata, however, belongs to the group of the 'free paraphrase' type such as BWV 1, BWV 62, BWV 96, BWV 101, and BWV 121. The librettist maintains certain key words, but whole sections, verses 3 through 6 are condensed into one bass recitative.

I found a wonderful statement by Spitta on what the cantus firmus meant to Bach in his chorale cantatas: "Die Choralmelodie ist etwas heiliges und unberührbares. Die Kirchenmusik soll sich um dieselbe als festen Punkt krystallisiren, aber sie soll nicht selbst in die Bewegung des Gestaltungsprocesses hineingezogen werden. Höchstens ist eine Verbrämung und Umspielung derselben zu gestatten." ["The melody of the chorale has a sacred and untouchable quality about it - there is something holy about it. Sacred music should crystallize itself around this solid point. The chorale melody must not become part of the movement caused by the musical shaping process that surrounds it. At the most, only an embellishment or an effect similar to the lapping of waves around the chorale melody is allowed."] This statement underlines what I have felt all along: the cantus firmus, wherever it is found, must have a very special quality about it, one that does not allow for the same type of treatment found in the supporting voices. The cantus firmus must be strong, clear, unwavering (no vibrato) and pure in sound. It does not undergo any kind of modification (dynamic changes, foreshortening of note values) and no matter whether only two or many individuals are singing the part, they must be unified in sound so that they sound as only one voice, one individual singing.


Each mvt. is significant and worth performing (remember that Voigt is usually in favor of cutting or eliminating mvts.)

Mvt. 1: A powerful opening to a chorale cantata with a vigorous orchestral ritornello. Mvt. 2 (alto aria) clearly defines the contrast between dozing off and being shaken awake. The middle section has an 'allegro' section that very effectively returns to the 'adagio' of the 1st section.


Mvt. 1 is dominated, like that of "Wachet auf." BWV 140, by a soaring, animated motive that symbolizes the "wachen" ("waking"), the music will not be turned from its course by the concept of "beten" ("to pray"); all Bach does is to bring this home to us by a striking modulation. The ascending motive representing the act of rising to which text refers is also present in BWV 140. This chorus must be taken in a brisk and energetic tempo. The idea of someone raising and comforting himself is represented by means of many repetitions of a short soaring motive that is also found in BWV 140. This motive gives a bright and joyous complexion to the musical expression of the text.

Mvt. 2 (alto aria): The orchestra has a lulling slumber-song, through which we hear the warning and terrifying call of the alto voice. In the 'allegro' passage at the words "Es möchte die Strafe dich plötzlich ereilen" ("chastisement may suddenly overtake thee") there is a momentary start of terror in the accompaniment; at the end, however, where the text speaks of the eternal sleep of death, the slumber-song returns.

Mvt. 4 (soprano aria): There is a wonderfully intimate feeling in the soprano aria "Bete aber auch dabei" ("but also pray while remaining watchful") which Bach has marked 'molto adagio.'

More recent commentary:
[This is based on Alfred Dürr's material contained in his book on the Bach cantatas.]

First Performance: November 5, 1724


The libretto is based on the chorale text (not the melody which is known as "Straf mich nicht in deinem Zorn" ("Do not punish me in your anger") possibly by Johann Rosenmüller [c. 1619-1684]) by Johann Burchard Freystein (1695) and consisting of 10 verses that contain the following thoughts: a warning to remain awake and vigilant and to pray. The connection to the Gospel reading for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity is not with the main thought behind the parable (Mat 18: 23-35) of the unforgiving servant, which concentrates on the contrast between God's mercy and human mercilessness.

NLT: "For this reason, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn't pay, so the king ordered that he, his wife, his children, and everything he had be sold to pay the debt. But the man fell down before the king and begged him, 'Oh, sir, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.' Then the king was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt. "But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. 'Be patient and I will pay it,' he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn't wait. He had the man arrested and jailed until the debt could be paid in full. "When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him what had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, 'You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn't you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?' Then the angry king sent the man to prison until he had paid every penny. "That's what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to
forgive your brothers and sisters in your heart."

It is a minor aspect of the parable that Freystein singles out: the moment when the king suddenly demands an accounting from the servant who is unprepared for this moment. Applying this situation to a more general application, this means that it is necessary for a Christian to remain "bereit" ("prepared") at all times for the 'final accounting' that the Lord will demand of us. Another quote from Luke 21:36 "So seid nun wach allezeit und betet, daß ihr würdig werden möget, zu entfliehen diesem allem, das geschehen soll, und zu stehen vor des Menschen Sohn." ("Keep a constant watch. And pray that, if possible, you may escape these horrors and stand before the Son of Man.") may also have caused this chorale text to be sung on this particular Sunday: "So seid nun wach.

The librettist kept the 1st and last verses of Freystein's chorale text as is and transformed the remaining verses as follows:
Mvt. 2 from Verse 2
Mvt. 3 from Verses 3 - 6
Mvt. 4 from Verse 7
Mvt. 5 from Verses 8 - 9

The two first lines of verse 7 are used verbatim at the beginning of Mvt. 4 (soprano aria.) Bach makes no attempt to connect these lines musically with the chorale, but then Bach very likely realized that the chorale melody was only loosely attached to the chorale text.

The combination/coupling of the 1st aria and recitative (Mvt. 2 and Mvt. 3) makes the demand to remain awake, while the 2nd combination/coupling (Mvt. 4 and Mvt. 5) points out the need for prayer.

Mvt. 1:
The cantus firmus is in the soprano voice, supported by a horn (whatever that may mean nowadays!) and embellished by the remaining voices which sometimes engage in fugue-like entries, but at other times support it homophonically.

The instrumental ritornello has motivic material that is independent of the chorale and is unusual in that it begins with the violins 1, 2 and viola in unison which are contrasted with the woodwinds (flute and oboe d'amore). The entire ensemble forms a quartet consisting of a transverse flute, oboe d'amore, violins+viola, and bc. This grouping undergoes changes as the mvt. progresses. The ritornello begins with only two voices/parts (violins 1,2,viola in unison as one part, the bc is the other). The woodwinds do not enter until the second half (the duo-section consists of 6 ms. "a", and a quartet section of 5 ms. "b".) Dürr claims that the octave jump provides material for the imitative material later used by the supporting voices, but I personally think that Bach worked in the reverse direction: he had worked out the vocal parts first, played them on a keyboard [there is an account by one of his students who marveled at Bach's proficiency in embellishing a chorale melody in the way we hear them in the opening mvts. of the chorale cantatas] and had this conception in mind before beginning to write down the notes on the score. As it turns out, we are fortunate in this instance to have evidence of Bach's false start to this cantata as he wrote out in full score the opening 6 ms. of this cantata. In this false start, he already has a bc figure that he will retain, but in the orchestral parts, the oboe d'amore begins with an inverted figure of the bc accompaniment. The strings then answer this figure twice in imitative figures. After 4 ms. the oboe d'amore completes its figure and is relieved by the leading flute that takes over with running 16th note scale passages that move upward, before moving down again. What is remarkable is that Bach, in his revised version of the beginning of this mvt., decides to use the motif already assigned to the vocal entries of the 1st, 3rd, and 7th lines of the chorale text. There the motif consists of quickly moving octave jumps in eighth notes that move downward and upward in rapid succession. I wondered about this unusual motif and quickly made a connection with a piece by Telemann contained in his Musique de Table 3me Production. It is the mvt. entitled "Postillons" (the 4th mvt. of the Suite for 2 Oboes and Strings in B major.) In seeking further confirmation of this association I learned from Brad Lehman of a similar use of this octave-interval leap in Bach's Capriccio in Bb Major BWV 992 'sopra la lontananza del fratello dilettissimo' Mvt. 5 Aria di Postiglione and Mvt. 6 Fuga all' imitatione di Posta. This evidence establishes the connection that Bach easily may have had in mind as he used this interval in this cantata. Since the appearance of this motif at the very beginning of the cantata places it in a position of importance and increases its significance, the question that remains is "Why the difference in the note values?" The slower note values could indicate that Bach wanted to "announce the arrival" (just as a posthorn would herald the arrival of news and passengers) of the Day of Last Judgment. The faster note values, when used by the voices when they first enter, symbolize the greater urgency associated with the imminent arrival. It serves as a 'wake-up call' for those Christians who were still 'sleeping.' Unfortunately, many of the recordings do not recognize the meaning and importance of this motif. As a result, the octave jumps, not the easiest interval to sing at a fast tempo, are barely heard, if at all. Another important motif that Dürr points out is the 'tumult' motif. It occurs, significantly, for the 1st time very late in the mvt.: afthe lines, "Satans List/Über viele Frommen" Dürr attributes this location to the "Überhandnehmen des Satans" ("the getting out of control and increasing alarmingly of Satan's power"). At this point the violins 1, 2 and viola in unison begin 'sawing away' with this relentless motif. It is extremely effective (and even beautiful!) in the strings, but when the final occurrence of this motif in the concluding ritornello takes place, it is in the flute part. Here, in most HIP recordings, it gets lost among all the other instruments because it is in its low range. Certainly Bach must have known what he was doing here. Was this intentional? With the modern, silver/platinum/gold flute this does not seem to be a problem, but being given a wooden transverse flute a semitone lower than standard and a player who has not mastered this instrument (as you will hear in most recordings) the effect of the tumult at the end of the piece is lost as far as the listener is concerned.

Mvt. 2
This alto aria is primarily for strings with an oboe d'amore that sometimes stands out with a solo element. The conception of the whole is based mainly on the idea of a melancholy slumber song of the "schläfrigen Seele" ("the sleepy soul") in the form of a siciliano marked 'adagio.' The middle section forms a contrast in tempo and mood as it warns of the impending, sudden punishment. Then the aria returns to the 'adagio' to represent the "Schlaf des ewigen Todes" ("the sleep of eternal death.")

Mvt. 4
The soprano aria is marked 'Molto adagio', but has a more varied orchestration than the 1st aria. There are two concertante obbligato instruments: the transverse flute and the violoncello piccolo. Add to that the soprano part and the bc and you have a quartet. The soprano sometimes uses portions of the theme introduced by the instruments, but Bach makes no attempt to reconnect the direct quotation of the chorale text with the melody as already explained above.


Cantata BWV 115: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

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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