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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

Cantata BWV 178
Wo Gott derr Herr nicht bei uns hält


Thomas Braatz wrote (August 9, 2001):
With the exception of an extensive quotation from Eric Chafe's book on "Tonal Allegory in J.S.Bach," I will dispense with the usual chronological approach citing numerous sources from the past and present, in order to try something different.


See: Cantata BWV 178 - Provenance

Mvt. 1:

After the initial long note played by the 1st oboe, the bc begins alone with the dotted-note figure. It is as if Bach wrote himself into the part as the conductor who provides the model which the other string players will follow when their parts begin a measure later. This may have been done out of necessity because there was insufficient time for rehearsals. Who knows? Perhaps they were virtually sight-reading this music on the Sunday morning of the first performance.
There is a wonderful correspondence (intentional, of course) between the word, "hält" ("hold") and its musical representation of tied whole notes lasting for 2 1/4 measures.
Sometimes the accompanying voices, A,T,B, have fugue-like entries, at other times not. In the section, "im Himmel hoch dort oben" ("up in the heavens above") the fugal entries jump up for an interval beginning with the bass, whereupon the tenor repeats the entry at a higher pitch level reaching even higher.
Note also the contrast achieved by having a slowly moving (long note values)
cantus firmus on the one hand, and on the other hand all the activity that
surrounds it (running 16th notes not only in the instruments, but the voices
as well.)

Mvt. 2:

Bach underscores the difference between the chorale and recitative sections by repeating the opening notes of the chorale very quickly in the bc, as if to say, "This is definitely the chorale section." But when the recitative begins, he marks it clearly as "Recit." Here, in the bc, he has a half-note tied over to another half-note. Why would he do this, if performance practice dictated only a quarter note or less? Why would Bach waste his precious time writing out extra notes which are not being sounded, because some musical performance practice of his day automatically demanded something else?
Where the chorale states, "Er sitzet an der höchsten Stätt" ("He (God) sits in the highest place,") the chorale melody (which Bach could not change) moves downward, but Bach puts the bc at its highest range in this entire mvt. In "Er stürzet der Verkehrten Rat" he makes the voice reach its lowest point in this mvt.
I could not help but think of another cantata when the tenor sings "durchs Kreuzesmeer, in das gelobte Land." It is the famous bass cantata, BWV 56 "Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen." I looked up this cantata and found that the first time that the bass sings, "in das gelobte Land” ("into the promised land") mvt. 1, measures 88-90, it is reasonably close to what is in this recitative, not an exact copy, but close.

Mvt. 3:

Bach creates a 'built-in' ritardando just before the voice enters by changing the the longer phrasing marks to short two-note phrases. In a way he takes the larger waves and breaks them into smaller ones. Here you can see how Bach really does try to achieve musical effects by writing out quite specifically what he wants, so that he does not leave much open to the whims of the performers. A wonderful, unexpected shift in key occurs in measures 64-67 on the word "zerscheitern" (representing the potential shipwreck that never occurs because it finds its way back to the main key of G major.)

Mvt. 4:

The line: "Sie stellen uns wie Ketzern nach" ("they keep following [pursuing] us around as if we were heretics") is very aptly described musically by having the numerous short fugal entries enter frequently without ever developing into anything more than they are.

Mvt. 5:

Having already set this chorale here in a higher key than the closing chorale, Bach does not need additional theatrical effects to accomplish "the opening of mouths." Notice in the last phrase of the chorale, "Sie werdens Gott nicht wehren" how the harmonies slip or slide downwards (back into hell.)

Mvt. 6 (See Chafe below.)

Eric Chafe in "Tonal Allegory in J.S.Bach" (1991) has made the last aria (mvt. 6 for tenor) the subject of an entire chapter in his book. With his usual carelessness [or do we blame the editor for not proofreading before submitting to print?] he begins his 8th chapter entitled: "'Schweig' nur, taumelnde Vernunft' Reason contra Faith in the Cantatas" as follows: "The title of this chapter, "Schweig' nur, taumelnde Vernunft"-- which can be translated as "Silence! tottering (or reeling, even intoxicating) Reason"-- is the first line of the soprano [sic] aria that is the sixth movement of Cantata 178, "Wo Gott, der Herr, nicht bei uns hält," composed in 1724 for the eighth Sunday after Trinity. It is one of a small number of Bach's works in which the battle cry of the Enlightenment, reason, is directly confronted. Within Bach's church cantatas the word "Vernunft" appears some ten times in nine cantatas." Then, on the next page, he gives the information correctly, that this is not a soprano, but a tenor aria. If you look up this cantata in the index, you will find that the reference given is off by 100 pages! As it turned out, it would belong to this chapter, only that it appears later on. Chafe then has to explain why the usual catabasis/anabasis does not appear the way it should according to his theory. This time I will include all that he has to say about this cantata, then you can judge for yourself rather than rely on my possibly prejudiced

"Cantata 178, "Wo Gott, der Herr, nicht bei uns hält," is a chorale cantata whose hymn is based on Psalm 124, in which God's protection is invoked against the ravages of one's enemies. The Gospel for the day warns against false prophets, and the text of the cantata identifies these prophets with the enemies referred to in the psalm. In the final choral reason is described as fighting against faith, which is emphasized in the aria "Schweig' nur, taumelnde Vernunft." It is surprising, therefore, to find that the tonal plan of "Wo Gott, der Herr" reverses the kind of pattern just described. It ascends first--from A minor through C major, E minor, G major, and B minor (two movements)--then descends through successive movements in E minor and A minor. The aria "Schweig' nur, taumelnde Vernunft" is the penultimate movement in E minor; that is, it marks the turning point from ascent to descent. The purposeful ascent by thirds from A minor to B minor here signifies the upward direction of human aspiration, while the descent represents the overthrow of reliance on reason by faith. This cantata most conspicuously demonstrates Bach's treatment of human aspirations in a religious context.

The opening chorale fantasia in A minor paints a striking picture of man's inability to attain salvation, if left entirely to his own resources. Against an insistent dotted rhythm, Bach sets a long line of descending sixteenths that is the second main theme of the movement, the meaning of which is certainly the fall of secular, human power in the absence of God. As the cantata proceeds it becomes clear that the enemies and the false prophets use independent human aspiration, and reason in particular, as the weapon against faith. In the first recitative, in dialogue with the second chorale verse, "Menschen Kraft und Witz," "Klugheit," and the like, are set in opposition to God's way: "so geht doch Gott ein' andre Bahn; er führt die Seinigen mit starker Hand, durch's Kreuzes Meer, in das gelobte Land, da wird er alles Unglück wenden;" this moves from C major to E minor. The G major aria that follows represents the waves of the "Kreuzes Meer" as it attempts to wreck the ship of faith. Its theme is based on falling thirds, but its rising sequences are associated with the line "mit Ungestüm ein Schiff zerschellen, so raset auch der Feinde Wuth." The middle section moves to the mediant key, B minor; Bach then astonishlingly transposes much of this music to G minor. sudden introduction of an unrelated key a third lower illustrates the text's description of enemies attempting to broaden the realm of Satan and dash the Christian 'Schifflein' to pieces.

In "Wo Gott, der Herr" B minor is the highest in a series of rising keys; its juxtaposition with G minor is but one instance of the meaning of conflicting direction in the work, namely that a strong upward movement will precipitate its reverse. The next two movements, both in B minor, voice the antithesis between the raging of the enemies and the expectation that God will overthrow such violent falsehood. The tenor chorale-aria with oboes d'amore begins with the ravages of the enemies and false prophets perpetrated against the believers in God's name but ends with the assurance that God will uncover the hypocrisy. The melody of its ritronello descends
in sequences as well; since it is a chorale setting modulation is limited, but the descent was probably meant to indicate the uncovering to come. To this point the chorale melody has appeared three times descending in pitch by fourths through the soprano, alto, and tenor voices, while it ascends in key signatures through A minor, E minor, and B minor. This simultaneous descent in pitch and ascent in tonal levels represents the false humility of the enemies, called "wolves in sheep's clothing" in the Gospel. After the tenor chorale, another verse is heard, again in B minor, with troped recitative insertions between the lines, not in a four-part setting with the melody in the soprano, its highest pitch in the cantata. Throughout the entire movement the basso continuo has ascending arpeggio figures in sixteenth notes, twice per measure, for a total of fifty-two times. These surely summarize the overall ascent of the cantata to this point, revealing the aggressive character of human aspiration. When the text describes the baring of teeth ("sie fletschen ihre Mörderzähne") the bass soloist has a decorated form of the ascending figure, but when God's overthrow is predicted the bass introduces a descending form of the idea ("und stürzen ihre falsche Lahr.")

The stage is set, so to speak, for the E minor aria, "Schweig' nur, taumelnde Vernunft," in which not only the wide-ranging descent of the violin lines but the declamatory tenfold repetition of the words "Schweig', schweig' nur" at the beginning represent the rejection of reason. This aria is the single instance in Bach's cantatas where the exercise of reason is credited with emotion. The association of reason with 'Taumel' suggests passion, abandon, headiness, and the like, all of which seem opposed to the 'Stricken' mentioned in Cantata BWV 186. With its extravagant leaps and runs, augmented and diminished intervals, strident emphases, syncopations, sudden rests, and generally dramatic expression, Bach's aria certainly is full of 'Taumel.' Reason is shown to be surprisingly emotional, a notion underscored by images from earlier cantatas of a blind leader and an errant compass that suggest instability. Reason leads man arrogantly to seek personal goals; its style is dramatic, exaggeratedly emphatic, and not without an element of fear, pointing to the individual's struggle for inner control in details such as the almost hysterical beginning of the vocal line. In contrast, the middle section voices the familiar message of the theology of the cross: "Sprich nicht: die Frommen sind verlor'n, das Kreuz hat sie nur neu gebor'n. Denn denen, die auf Jesum hoffen, steht stets die Thür der Gnaden offen; und wenn sie Kreuz und Trübsal drückt, so werden sie mit Trost erquickt."

The final chorale--back in A minor--mixes the assertion of God's power over enemies and his aid to the faithful with a final reminder of the opposition between reason and faith and a prayer for illumination from God's 'light' ('dein Licht lass uns helle werden.')"


Cantata BWV 178: Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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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