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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 25
Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe

Philipp Spitta | Woldamar Voigt | Albert Schweitzer | Alfred Dürr | Eric Chafe


Thomas Braatz wrote (September 8, 2002):
BWV 25 - Commentaries:


The main thought behind this cantata is a quotation from Psalms 38:4. One can imagine that the idea of penance which is preached in this cantata with fiery tongues completely fills the listeners’ hearts. The initial chorus is an independently existing double fugue with a sad, remorseful expression. Beginning with ms. 15 and appearing at measured intervals as played by flutes, zink, and trombones, the 4-pt chorale, “Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder” appears blended into the strings which accompany particular portions of the fugue. The 4-pt. chorale is an entirely independent unit and could be played alone to create its own special effect just as the fugal sections primarily sung by the choir could exist alone as a separate piece of music as well. And yet, these independently existing compositions become united as if they had grown from a single root. Inexpressible and unfathomable is the depth of feeling which is unlocked when the sacred chorale of penance is intoned as if coming from invisible voices and spreading over the penitent masses praying, as it were, in the dust. Before each of the ‘Stollen,’ [the 1st repeated line(s) of the chorale] the chorale melody appears in augmentation. On top of all this, both fugal subjects are formed out of the musical material found in 1st and last line of the chorale melody. The manner in which this is accomplished is reminiscent of other cantatas where Bach creates variations of the chorale to support the entire cantata text. This composition, however, is remarkable and entirely unique in the manner in which it develops its musical and poetic ideas. Compared to other similar cantatas, everything here seems to be turned around: the tasks usually assigned to the choir are carried out by the instruments. Here we have neither a free form applied to a biblical text, nor do we have the typical introductory chorale elaboration that we can find in many chorale cantatas. It boggles the mind just attempting to comprehend what Bach is doing here. A nice bass aria with an independent bc full of character helps to bring the listener to a more personal understanding of the text after the overwhelming effect of the 1st mvt. This aria still retains some of the feelings emanating from the 1st mvt., but begins to guide the listener toward the more comforting feelings with which the cantata concludes.


The introductory chorus stands in a very isolated position among all the Bach cantatas: a 4-pt instrumental chorale as accompaniment to fugal chorus with the melody of the 1st line of the chorale melody appearing as the bass in the opening ritornello. To the first 2 lines of the cantus firmus are coupled a first (fugal) theme, to the 3rd line the second (fugal) theme, and to the last line both fugal themes appear combined. The 1st recitative has a very tasteless text, that attempts to compare sins with certain illnesses. It is best simply to drop this recitative for this reason. The bass aria, with its continually repeating bc motif (it is reminiscent of some of the slow mvts. of certain violin concertos,) is harsh and unyielding in its treatment of the text and music, but, if treated properly, can be very rewarding. It would be better to replace the 5th line with “Meine Krankheit, meine Beulen kann kein Kraut noch Balsam heilen, kein Bemühen früh und spat” [„No effort, whether early or late, no herbal remedy or balm can heal my illness or my boils.“] A very valuable addition is the soprano aria with its rich (7-pt.) accompaniment. Instead of an entire da capo, there is only repeat of the opening ritornello.


Mvt. 1
m. 1 ff. The orchestral accompaniment is constructed out of a series of sighs

mm 40-53 in the bc: This motif of calmly-moving water is used to express the words, “peace.”

Mvt. 2 (tenor recitative): At a performance of this work, this recitative should be cut out. It goes beyond all endurable limits of tastelessness.

Mvt. 3 (bass aria) has a ‘step’ motif (ms 1) in the bc where Bach is depicting someone rushing about distractedly. These are the same hurried and faltering steps as we have in the theme of the aria “Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin,” in the SMP (BWV 244).

Mvt. 5 (soprano aria) is dominated by a beautiful colloquy between the strings and oboes on the one side and the three flutes on the other


The text, which contains drastically baroque comparisons, which is very difficult for us to stomach today and which appears to be anything but poetic, is connected to the Sunday’s Gospel reading which relates the healing of the lepers: [NLT] As Jesus continued on toward Jerusalem, he reached the border between Galilee and Samaria. As he entered a village there, ten lepers stood at a distance, crying out, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" He looked at them and said, "Go show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, their leprosy disappeared. One of them, when he saw that he was healed, came back to Jesus, shouting, "Praise God, I'm healed!" He fell face down on the ground at Jesus' feet, thanking him for what he had done. This man was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, "Didn't I heal ten men? Where are the other nine? Does only this foreigner return to give glory to God?" And Jesus said to the man, "Stand up and go. Your faith has made you well."

The librettist then applies this situation to that of all mankind. Since Adam’s fall the entire world has become a hospital because sin has sickened mankind. This thought is then developed further by introducing the quotation from the OT in mvt. 1: Psalm 38:4 My guilt overwhelms me-- it is a burden too heavy to bear.

The “balm from Gilead” refers to Gilead in East Jordan which was a region rich in balm. At the end of mvt. 3 the focus is directed toward Jesus, for he alone can heal the soul. And for this reason he asked to cleanse the soul from the “Sündenaussatz” [“the leprosy of sin”] in mvts. 4 and 5. Strangely enough, the expected theological reference to Christ’s sacrificial death on Golgatha is not even mentioned here. Despite all the drastic expressions used in the text, the characterization of Jesus as the performer of powerful miracles is rather pale in comparison with his personal sacrifice for our sins. Perhaps the most successful text is that in the last aria with its request to be heard, all with the hope that one will be able to sing a better song of thanks when one is among the choir of angels. The same thought is expressed in the final chorale, Treuer Gott, ich muß dir klagen verse 12 by Johann Heermann (1630) where glory and thanks to God here and in eternity becomes the concern of the entire congregation.

The formal structure of the 1st mvt. which is in the key of e minor, is very artistically conceived. Bach works simultaneously with three separate groups: 1) Vocal parts; 2) Strings + Oboes; 3) Trombones + Recorders.

In section A only the strings and oboes provide independent motifs as accompaniment to the incipit of the chorale in the bc. When the voices enter with their choral fugue (“Es ist nichts Gesundes”), the strings and oboes continue their independent motifs. Soon the trombones and flutes (also cornetto) enter with their 4-pt. setting of the chorale, 1st Stollen.

Section A’ consists of a repeat of strings’ and oboes’ opening ritornello, which is followed by the choral fugue A’ (so named because the voices change parts. The 2nd Stollen of the chorale is presented in in the brass + flutes.

Section B allows the strings and oboes to pause while the choral fugue B (“und ist kein Friede”) is presented. Into this the Abgesang (1st half) is heard played by the brass- +flutes group. Meanwhile the strings and oboes play colla parte.

In the final section C, the strings and oboes are stillplaying colla parte while both fugal themes are combined (A + B) in a double fugue. The chorale’s 2nd half of the Abgesang completes the 4-pt. setting of the chorale.

The 1st aria (bass) expresses accurately the feeling of not knowing what to do. This is apparent in the bc ostinato accompaniment which keeps repeating itself while going through many transformation. After three mvts. with continuo alone, the final aria for soprano brings relief by combining winds and strings in such a way that the strings and oboes contend with the recorders in a concertante style creating an echo effect with their short exchanges with themselves and with the voice. After all the torturing helplessness expressed in the earlier mvts. which are rather stern (mvts. 1-4) and sparse (mvts. 2-4) in instrumentation, a new perspective is opened for the listeners that are treated to a dance-like, minuet-like melodic figure. This music sounds tender, song-like, and etheric. It is easy to think of artistic representations of angels in sculpture and paintings of the Baroque. This is supported by the text as well.

The final chorale ends on a positive, optimistic note that comes after a brooding opening of a rather serious nature.

Eric Chafe:

This cantata begins with an E Phrygian chorale setting – based on the melody “Herzlich tut mich verlangen” – and ends with securely tonal C major/Ionian settings (aria and chorale.) Once again, Bach reserves the appearance of triple meter for the last aria, whose expression of the believer’s eschatological hopes in terms of music might even have had personal associations: “Öffne meinen schlechten Liedern, Jesu, dein Genaden Ohr! Wenn ich dort im höhern Chor werde mit den Engeln singen,k soll mein Danklied besser klingen” (Open Your ear of grace, Jesu, to my poor{I disagree here with Chafe’s translation which should read ‘simple’, not ‘poor’ or ‘bad’} songs! When I sing in the choir above with the angels, my hymn of thanks will sound better.) And the final chorale, likewise, ends with the anticipation of eternity, so that the turn to major for the final mvts. seems to have been associated with the believer’s anticipation of release from worldly tribulation, symbolized in the famous comparison of sin to disease and the world to a hospital for the deathly ill. The chorale, although not in triple meter, is sung to the melody of “Freu’ dich sehr, o meine Seele” (Rejoice greatly, O my soul,) which Bach had associated with the joyful anticipation of eternity as release from the world in Cantata 70.

In Cantata BWV 25, as in other cantatas that center on Phrygian modal settings, such as Cantatas BWV 135 and BWV 38, Bach causes the weakening aspect of the Phrygian tonality – its tendency toward the tonality of which its final cadence sounds like the dominant – to precipitate modulation in the subdominant (flat) direction. In the opening chorus and in the two recitatives that surround the first aria, in d, substantial modulations in the flat direction (to c in the first instance, g in the second) weaken the key in analogy with the believer’s characterization of the world as ridden by sin. In the opening mvt., above all, Bach introduces tortured-sounding flat accidentals into the first appearance of the second theme (mm. 41-45), a variant of the 1st chorale phrase, projecting a quality of unrest that exactly matches the text: “und ist kein Friede in meinen Gebeinen vor meiner Sünde” (and there is no rest in my bones because of my sins.) And again, toward the end of the mvt., Bach colors the harmony with flat modulations that cause another substantial weakening effect. When the turn to C occurs, at the close of the 2nd recitative, its positive tone contrasts strikingly with the tone of the ending of the 1st recitative, a cry of torment from the soul in dire distress: “Ach! dieses Gift durchwühlt auch meine Glieder. Wo find’ ich Armer Arzenei? Wer stehet mir in meinem Elend bei? Wer ist mein Arzt, wer hilft mir wieder?“ (Ah! This poison even bores through my limbs. Where will I, poor wretch, find healing? Who will stand by me in my suffering? Who is my physician, who will help me further?) The earlier recitative is one of the most harmonically complex in the Bach cantatas, modulating first from its initial a/d/g tonalities into sharp regions and back. From a suddenly introduced E# 6/5 chord, its ending phrases, whose text I have just cited, move toward b and e, before settling on the final Phrygian cadence to A. Behind the tonal juxtapositions lies a circle-of-fifths tonal motion that sets up the D minor of the central aria “Ach, wo hol’ ich Armer Rat?” (Ah, where will I, poor wretch, obtain counsel?), whose reduction in scoring to bass and basso continuo alone seems to express the patient/believer’s need for spiritual healing. After the 2nd recitative the shift to C and the return of recorders, oboes, and strings for the soprano aria both aid in projecting the believer’s hopes for the metaphoric healing and recovery of eternal life. Throughout the 1st half of this cantata the metaphor of deathly illness for sin prompted Bach to introduce tonal qualities of the kind that Werckmeister associated with the imperfection and mortality of human life (chromaticism) and that Kuhnau described as an incomplete recovery from illness (a strong tendency toward the subdominant.) After the “patient’s” cries of need and trust for his “physician” in the centralized subdominant aria, the second half of the work takes up the other side of the metaphor: diatonic, strongly tonal, major-key music as the mirror of the believer’s hopes for salvation.

In this book I have emphasized tonal qualities that arise as the result of the conflict or disparity between modal and tonal finals in chorale settings, above all the sense that certain choral melodies encourage harmonizations that do not confirm the modal final as what we call the “tonic” key. Sometimes there is a sense that such harmonizations, and hence entire cantatas, end on the dominant. When the designs of whole cantatas are considered, the question of modal versus tonal harmonization may involve shift from the one compositional style to the other over the course of a multimovement sequence, such as those of Cantatas BWV 25 and BWV 153. In this respect the cantatas discussed reflect issues that Andreas Werckmeister had taken up in relation to the correct modal finals of particular chorales. Analyzing these works in their musico-theological contexts enables us to advance hypotheses regarding Bach’s intent with respect to the relative completeness or incompleteness of their final cadences.

More generally, Bach often derives large-scale cantata designs from ideas that are latent in their chorale melodies. Thus, cantatas that feature the Phrygian chorale “Herzlich tut mich verlangen” often emphasize C major, which is prominent in the melody; compare Cantatas BWV 161, BWV 25, and BWV 135.

Cantata BWV 25 ends in a key different from that in which it began and turns from minor (even modal) to major as well: its 1st recitative makes the well-known comparison between the world and a hospital. Set in the key of E Phrygian, the opening chorus owes most of its thematic material to the chorale melody “Herzlich tut mich verlange,” whose 1st line ist quoted in augmentation twice in the bc and the entire chorale, two phrases at a time, in the upper winds (three recorders and cornetto!). Two themes are derived from the chorale and developed both separately and together as fugues. The 1st closely follows the outline of the 1st line, and the 2nd is similar to the variants in the “Actus Tragicus” BWV 106 and Cantata BWV 161. As in those works, the intrinsic meaning here is the longing for redemption. The melody accompanying the text that compares the world to a hospital, sin to physical ill, and Jesus to a physician leads down to A minor in the 1st recitative. The interval of a falling 5th, developed from “herzlich” in the main theme of the 1st mvt., returns prominently in the following D minor aria, “Ach, so hol’ ich Armer Rat,” the nadir of the work and the turning point to faith (the aria is in two parts without da capo, the 2nd section beginning “Du, mein Arzt, Herr Jesu nur weiß die beste Seelenkur.”) Another recitative expresses the turn to Jesus with a modulation to C major, in which are set the soprano aria with full instrumentarium, “Öffne meinen schlechten Liedern, Jesu, dein Genaden-Ohr,” and final chorale, “ich will alle meine Tage.” As we might expect, these latter mvts. Anticipate eternity, in keeping with the personal relationship between the believer and his “physician,” the text of “Öffne dich” seems almost to voice the hopes of the musician.

[Another statement out of context:] The trombone symbolizes God’s judgmental nature.


Cantata BWV 25: Details & Complete Recordings | 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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