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Cantata BWV 38
Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 8, 2001):
BWV 38 - Commentaries:

Until the middle of the 20th century, the commentaries by Bach scholars on this particular cantata were generally negative, if there were any commentaries at all. Voigt comments: This cantata is a very somber composition almost all the way through, and where Bach intended to insert material to provide a lighter contrast to the whole, it does not succeed.

Mvt. 1 has a very terse style with a tendency to becoming very austere. This is a style which befits the Luther chorale upon which it is based. The tenor aria is conspicuously dismal. The opening, dissonant chord (Sekundakkord) of the final chorale is remarkable. It is a clear example to prove how Bach expected almost no separation between the mvts. of the cantata. Voigt's suggestion: Cut as much of the tenor aria as you can to avoid repeating the entire 1st section again.

Schweitzer goes even beyond Voigt's final statement: "It is as well to omit the solitary aria the cantata contains. The unendurably wretched declamation proves the music to have been borrowed from another work." [All subsequent research has turned up nothing that would support Schweitzer's supposition.] "The 1st mvt. is in the form of a concise chorale motet. The final trio also has a motet character; it should, of course, be performed by a small chorus, not by the soloists. "

Smend notices that the somber mood of the 3rd mvt.(tenor aria) is brightened up at the end of the middle section at the words, "Sein Trost wird niemals von dir scheiden." This tenor aria is based on the opening chorale melody. Smend is the first commentator to notice how unusual the 2nd recitative (soprano) is: It is the only example in Bach of a recitative being 'carried' by the bc which plays the chorale melody. (Dürr uncovers another unusual aspect: this is a recitative written and performed 'a battuta' [Bach's own indication] which simply means that instead of the freer recitative style normally used, a strict rhythm is maintained throughout.) In this recitative Bach moves from the a minor of the preceding aria to the d minor of the terzetto.

The Esoteric Bach (Gematria):

Smend points out the following: The 1st mvt. contains 140 measures. (10 X 14) . Unless the accompanying voices/parts are automatically forced to conform to the chorale, the number of melodic lines is significant. There are 29 melodic lines that appear in the contrapuntal voices, 7 are in the cantus firmus and 22 of these in the accompanying voices [in the final chorale line, the altos have a corrupted imitatory figure and the bass/bc enters one last time with the incipit melody of the chorale.] The total number of Bach's name [14] and his monogram (J.S.B. [9 plus 18 plus 2]) are represented in this figures. For those unfamiliar with gematria, allow me to explain some of the ground rules.

The creative number alphabet that Bach used looks like this:

A = 1 G = 7 N = 13 T = 19
B = 2 H = 8 O = 14 U/V = 20
C = 3 I/J=9 P = 15 W = 21
D = 4 K = 10 Q = 16 X = 22
E = 5 L = 11 R = 17 Y = 23
F = 6 M = 12 S = 18 Z = 24

Examine the name "BACH". Expressed in numbers, as you substitute numbers for the letters, it is: 2 1 3 8. This number can be 'read' in a number of different ways: as a sum [14], as a product [48 from 2 times 1 times 3 times 8] or even [798 from 21 times 38]. The sequence or the grouping of the numbers may vary as well: the sum [59 from 21 plus 38] or simply in a different arrangement: [3128]. The all important number 14 can be reversed in crab-like fashion to become 41 [which happens to be the total of "J.S.BACH"]. 158 is derived from "JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH". Adding a zero (a decimal increase) is also allowed, resulting in numbers such as 1580 from 158 plus the additional decimal, 1400 from 140, 384 from 3 times 128, 576 from 32 times 18, or even 1660 from 2 times 1 times 830.

The Libretto:

As a chorale cantata, BWV 38 follows the usual scheme: the first and last verses are maintained unchanged from the original chorale by Martin Luther based on the 130th Psalm. The unknown librettist then poetically transforms the inner verses while still retaining some of the important ideas. Only the text for the 4th mvt. has no direct connection with the chorale text. Dürr points out that the Leipzig churches had a longstanding tradition to link this chorale with the 21st Sunday after Trinity, particularly since it reflects a key thought contained in the Gospel reading (Joh. 4: 46-54) [Jesus heals an official's son]: that the official "aus großer, tiefer Not" ("out of a great need") "Rufen/schrei ich zu dir" ("calls and cries out to Jesus for help" because his son is terminally ill. Important emphasis is placed upon the words, "Trost" ("comfort" or "consolation") and "Trostwort" ("a spoken word that consoles" = Jesus' statement "Go thy way; thy son liveth. And the man believed the word that Jesus had spoken unto him, and he went his way.") This is then expanded to include the listener who recognizes Jesus' power to do miracles, such as save a sinful individual from eternal damnation, if the individual has the power to believe in Jesus' word just as the official did.

The Music:

Just as Bach did in BWV 2, he applies here the stile antico, eliminating the orchestral, concertante ritornello in favor of the older motet style. The intended effect is to return to an earlier style of singing which was much more serious and strict. The instruments follow the vocal parts colla parte with only the bc deviating from the vocal lines at times. Each line of the chorale melody is presented in the fashion of a Pachelbel chorale prelude for organ: the accompanying vocal lines first present, each line separately and building upon the ones that went before, the chorale melody in a fugal style before the cantus firmus (soprano) enters in augmentation (the notes are given double length) while the accompanying parts attempt to interpret the text being sung. For instance, in the line with "erhör mein Rufen" ("hear my call"), Bach introduces an upward leaping interval that imitates such a call; in the line containing "neig her zu mir" ("incline your head (your hearing) toward me") there are motifs which move scale wise downwards; and the most obvious one on "Sünd und Unrecht" ("sin and injustice") contains a chromatic figure that needs further explanation. It appears first at the very beginning in the bc as it moves upward, then downward. At ms. 226, when "Sünd und Unrecht" is sung for the first time, this figure is reversed, beginning with the downward motion which is then followed by the upward motion. Did Bach have a theological connection in mind with this musical device? Is the instance beginning at ms. 226 an image of Christ coming down to us (chromatically through all the sin and injustice) and then rising victorious above all this dissonance, after we have called to him (ms.1 ff.)? In mvt. 4, which, based on the text, that is the farthest removed from the chorale text, Bach decides to 'reconnect' the missing link by introducing a unique feature: the a battuta recitative which has the entire chorale melody in the bc, thereby forcing the recitative to move forward in strict time.

Thomas Braatz wrote (October 19, 2006):
BWV 38 Chafe commentary

The following is an excerpt from Chafe's book on tonal allegory in which he expounds his theory on anabasis and catabasis in Bach's sacred vocal works:

>>If the meaning of Bach's tonal allegory in Cantata BWV 109 is the hidden granting of faith and its overt manifestation only after a period of doubt, the same is true of Cantata 38, "Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir," of the following year. A chorale cantata based on Luther's well-known hymn, Cantata 38 is a free version of Psalm 130 and sung to the ancient Phrygian melody.. From two elements of text and chorale melody, with perhaps the additional aid of Luther's commentary on the psalm itself, Bach produced an allegorical structure that is profoundly dependent on tonal directions, using catup to the final verse of the chorale:

CANTATA 38: "Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir"

1. Chorale motet: "Aus tiefer Not," in E Phrygian
2. Recitative ending with Phrygian cadence in A minor (i.e., E Phrygian)
3. Aria: "Ich höre mitten in den Leiden ein Trostwort," in A minor
4. Recitative with chorale cantus firmus in bass: A Phrygian-D Phrygian
5. Trio: "Wenn meine Trübsal als mit Ketten," in D minor
6. Chorale: "Ob bei uns ist der Sünden viel," in E Phrygian

The keys used are similar to those in Cantata BWV 109, but now a falling circle of fifths rather than a rising scalar model determines their arrangement; the final chorale restores the original key.

It seems at least possible that Bach developed the idea for his structure from Luther's conception of Psalm 130 as the cry of a "truly penitent heart that is most deeply moved in its distress." Luther continues, emphasizing that sin and torment must be acknowledged before faith makes salvation possible: "We are all in deep and great misery, but we do not all feel our condition. . . Crying is nothing but a strong and earnest longing for God's grace, which does not arise in a person unless he sees in what depth he is lying. " Bach, like Luther, takes as his starting point the word "deep," to which he adds the dimension of the initial falling fifth of the chorale melody. Bach needed a sustained catabasis to create a tonal analogy to the experience of the "many depths" mentioned by Luther. This need is evident in the development of the melodic material of the aria and trio from the first line of the chorale. [Examples will appear on the BCW in the Score Samples for this cantata.] Although the A minor aria stresses hope in the midst of sorrow-and Bach represents it faithfully with melodic lines similar to the final movement of BWV 109 (on "Trostwort" and "sein Wort besteht")-the overall tonal direction nevertheless continues downward throughout the following two movements. The explanation for this seemingly contradictory procedure is found in Luther's commentary, which emphasizes the "blessing" of "contradictory and disharmonious things, for hope and despair are opposites"; we must "hope in despair" for "hope which forms the new man, grows in the midst of fear that cuts down the old Adam. " The catabasis must, of course, be interpreted as a positive force; it is the necessary "other side" of redemption; or, as John Donne, for example, expresses it, "therefore that he may raise the Lord throws down"

The trio of "Aus tiefer Not" presents first the image of our troubles forming the links in a chain that binds us until it is loosened by Christ, then that of the rising of the "morning" of faith amid the "night" of trouble and sorrow. Modulation in the flat and sharp directions associated with darkness and light respectively appears in several other works as well (e.g., Cantatas BWV 21, BWV 61, the "Christmas Oratorio"). The trio is pervaded by circle-of-fifths motion developed from the chorale-derived themes. Chains of suspensions precipitate a downward motion through the minor keys (d, g, c, f, then B flat [major]; mm. 17-38). The dawning of faith ("Wie bald erscheint des Trostes Morgen"; mm. 70-82), by contrast, reverses the direction upward, until the idea of the "night" of doubt and sorrow turns it back again (mm. 82-94). In this last section, however, the words "Wie bald erscheint des Trostes Morgen" return for a time (mm. 96-111), overlapping and forming a new counterpoint with the "night" melody (which is the same as the Trübsal melody at the beginning of the movement). The extension of the "Trostes Morgen" idea is sung to the melody of the ritornello, set to text now for the first time (mm. 96-108). Surely the flats are to be "redeemed" from their pejorative associations. Although on the whole the text of the trio voices a positive message, the absence of a regular da capo means that the movement ends with the "night" image; and the idea of catabasis remains with us through the final ritornello as well.

But Bach's ingenious combinations joined the night of trouble and sorow to the morning of trust. Because the psalm itself and, even more, Luther's exegesis emphasize two ideas at the end, Bach's plan likewise does not allow the prevailing catabasis to reverse itself before the very end. The first idea is the necessity of waiting-through the night watch: {Therefore the psalmist says: "I wait for the Lord; that is, in this crying and cross-bearing I did not retreat or despair; nor did I trust in my own merit. I trusted in God's grace alone, which I desire, and I wait for God to help me when it pleases Him.". . . That is, my soul always has its face directed straight toward God and confidently awaits His coming and His help, no matter how it may be delayed.} As in Cantata 109, Bach's structure delays the full message of help until the last possible moment, the final chorale. The concluding idea of "Aus tiefer Not" is redemption at the hands of God: "That is, with Him alone there is redemption out of the many depths mentioned above, and there is no other redemption. Although our sin is great, yet His redemption is greater." The message of salvation is effected in the final chorale, "Ob bei uns ist der Sünden viel, bei Gott ist viel mehr Gnade." The chorale returns to the original E Phrygian, but not through anabasis, which might, in this case, suggest that salvation was attained by human effort; Luther stresses that we cannot "work our own way out." A transformation suddenly effects the shift of key for the final chorale: the final low D of the aria ritornello is retained in the bass as the chorale begins on an E major chord with the adversitive "Ob" ("although"). Thus, an initial dissonance in the new key, the D, symbol of Trübsal and Nacht, is given new meaning by the change.

Perhaps the most fascinating tonal allegory in this cantata appears in a movement that is not based on Luther's text but is derived directly from the Gospel. Between the aria and the trio Bach introduces a recitative that is constructed on the melody of "Aus tiefer Not" as a bass cantus firmus, taking its tonal departure from the preceding A minor aria. Its first Stollen is in A Phrygian, beneath the freely composed recitative text, "Ach! daß mein Glaube noch so schwach, and daß ich mein Vertrauen auf feuchtem Grunde muß erbauen!" From this point the ground shifts down to D Phrygian for the second Stollen and the entire Abgesang, for Bach an unprecedented procedure within a single cantus firmus statement. The beginning justifies the continuing catabasis: despite the "Trostwort" within the foregoing aria, faith remains weak. The second Stollen begins, "How often must new signs soften my heart?"-a line drawn from Jesus' words to the father of the healed boy in the Gospel for the day: "Wenn ihr nicht Zeichen and under seht, so glaubt ihr nicht" (John 4:48). The words "neue Zeichen" and "erweichen" suggest the concept of softening, which relates the shift to flats (G minor)
to the ancient usage of mollis to designate flat keys.

To appreciate how Bach emphasizes the word "signs," we must compare the Phrygian scales of A and D as they were understood in Bach's time. The variable third degree of the scale is usually used in its sharp form harmonically and in its unaltered form melodically, as in numerous Phrygian chorales such as "Herzlich tut mich verlangen" and "Aus tiefer Not." Here, to maximize the difference between the scale and its transposition, Bach sharpens the third degree, even though it alters the melody significantly; the result is a disparity of three pitches between the Phrygian scales on A and D: E/E flat, C sharp/C, and F/F sharp respectively. Bach then forms the diminished seventh chord on "Zeichen" with the aid of all three of the new signs, one sharp (F sharp), one flat (E flat)-the outer voices-and one natural (C); this, then, is the chord that, with its dominant function, brings about the G minor softening. Since John's Gospel is known as the "Book of Signs", and since the tonaplan of Bach's "St. John Passion" appears to have been conceived as a form of play on the three musical signs (i.e., sharp, flat, and natural key areas), this important detail in the plan of "Aus tiefer Not" perhaps possesses a wider significance, relating it to Bach's tonal-allegorical procedures in general.

Footnote: Many German music treatises of Bach's time list chorales according to the old modes. There is, of course, a thin line between a close on the dominant in a minor key (especially one of the Phrygian type) and a cadence intended to represent the Phrygian mode itself. Bach merges the two, especially when the cadence expresses a rhetorical question, and the duality or ambiguity regarding complete and incomplete closure is intended (see the final line of Cantata BWV 161, "How then can death harm me?"). The linking of the minor scale (especially the harmonic minor) the Phrygian mode, and a version of the same scale that begins on our dominant to the Hypophrygian can be found in Athanasius Kircher's "Musurgia universalis", p. 51; Kircher calls the scale of A harmonic minor, Phrygian (and places it in "cantus durus") and the sequence of E, F, G#, A, B fiat (I), C, D, E (also "cantus durus"), Hypophrygian.<<

quotation from pp. 218-223 (sans footnotes and musical examples) of Eric Chafe's "Tonal Allegory in the Vocal Music of J. S. Bach" University of California Press, 1991.


Cantata BWV 38: 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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