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Cantata BWV 39
Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot


Thomas Braatz wrote (June 20, 2001):
BWV 39 - Commentary

Probably because of the popularity of this cantata, Spitta (1873ff) gives a rather detailed description of it as follows: "The 1st chorus based on two beautiful verses of Isaiah 58:7-8 further develops their meaning to include the statements contained in the Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are the merciful because they will attain mercy." It becomes a moving example of Christian brotherly love, showing how it, with a tender heart and melancholic empathy soothes the suffering of other members of the human race, thus earning the best reward that life can offer. The peculiar instrumental accompaniment, divided between flutes, oboes, and violins, probably came to Bach in the image of the "breaking of the bread." The fact that he did not think of this musical idea simply as a cheap, musically entertaining device, becomes clear to us when we consider the further development beyond the words to which it refers. It even continues on when other words are being sung. It gives the entire piece its own tender and light touch. This is mainly what Bach wanted. At the beginning of the 2nd part is a quote from Hebrews 13:16 "Wohlzutun..", which the bass sings in the usual manner. Both arias have an endearing, stirring, but friendly expression. The Gospel for this Sunday is about the rich man and the poor man, Lazarus."

Schweitzer(1905) reacts strongly to Spitta's assessment of this cantata:
"BWV 39, 1st mvt. is another example of Bach's representation of movement. The music seems at first curiously disjointed. Spitta surmises that it is prompted by the conception of the breaking of bread. He feels bound, indeed, to add a saving clause: "How far," he says, "Bach is from mere triviality is see in the sequel, where the same accompaniment continues to quite other words. It simply gives the passage a peculiarly delicate and pliant character; it was this that Bach was chiefly aiming at."

Here both the explanation of the tone-painting and the excuse for it are wong – the excuse, because we could not reproach Bach with anything worse than retaining a picture in his music after the necessity for it in the text had gone by; the explanation, because no one who listens to the music can take it to be a picture of the breaking of bread. What then is the meaning of it? The monotonous instrumental accompaniment, with regular crotchets in the bass, has more the character of a march. A certain unrest enters with the vocal parts; it is as if we heard uncertain tottering steps defiling past us. One of the chief themes runs thus: -----[you will see this on the example from the score, but I believe the editors chose the wrong example. I found one in the basso continuo which would support Schweitzer's contention much better, which would still leave the breaking of the bread as it was before.]

The music thus depicts the wretched ones who are being supported and led into the house. As soon as the words, "führe in das Haus" ("lead into the house") have been uttered, the picture ceases in the accompaniment, which is now constructed of other themes.

The establishment of a musical language in Bach is not a mere pastime for the aesthetician, but a necessity for the practical musician. It is often impossible to play a work of this kind in the right tempo, and with the right accent and right phrasing, unless we know the meaning of the motive. The simple "feeling" does not always suffice. The serious errors that even judicious commentators can commmit when, without taking into consideration Bach's musical language as a whole, they try to explain pieces that call for elucidation, may be seen from Spitta's remarks.There is only one way to avoid falling into the fantastic, --- a comparative study of all the cantatas. They explain each other. No one can conduct one cantata properly unless he knows them all.

The first part of the opening chorus is dominated by a representation of a man wearily dragging himself along, for Bach, fastening on the words "Und die so im Elend sind, führe ins Haus" (And those who are in misery, take them into they home.", paints a procession of tottering figures being conducted under the sheltering roof.

Founded on two Biblical passages, it is then planned in two parts. The peculiarly unsteady accompaniment in the 1st part of the chorus, mvt. 1, represents the procession of the poor and the suffering, who are being supported and led to the house in accordance with the biblical precept, the second part abandons this motive, and is expressive of praise and thanksgiving.. The arioso upon "Wohlzutun und mitzuteilen, vergesset nicht," which opens the colla parte of the cantata, is not as satisfactory as the setting of the 2nd bible passage in BWV 187.

Woldemar Voigt (1918, but Schweitzer refers to him 10 to 15 years earlier) writes in his book on the Bach cantatas: "The didactic, sometimes soberly moralizing text was understood by Bach with such deep sincerity that this cantata, if it receives a worthy performance, can be assured of having a deep effect upon the congregation/audience.

The 1st part of the introductory chorus is among the most moving compositions that Bach composed. Audaciously he transforms the heavenly command into a request to help the suffering. The fragmentary, one could almost say, plaintive sounds which emanate from the various instrumental groups unite in forming a single motif to establish the prevailing mood right from the beginning. When the voices enter, they add the special nuances required by the text. The fugal subject is incomparable. Just listen how penetratingly "Elend" ("suffering") cries for help! The second section of mvt. 1 is benevolently kind, and the third initiates a new upswing, but in very muted tones as demanded by the context. The manner in which Bach declares the 3/8 time signature seems to demonstrate that he wishes to have an almost equal emphasis on all three eighth notes -- this is understandable as based on the reasons that come from within the composition -- this type of time signature is used to restrain conductors from treating this part to lightly. (Are you listening, Gardiner, Koopman, and Leusink?)

In the bass recitative take out the phrase, "sie sind der Probestein" and use instead "sie sind die Boten sein." This will be more easily understood by the audience. Take out, "Barmherzigkeit, die auf den Nächsten ruht" and replace it with "die man am Nächsten tut."

The congenial alto aria allows for a shortening by removing measures __ to __ [I am unable to determine without his edition, how many measures and from where to where.]

The bass aria, because it is so solemn, can be sung by chorus members. Shorten this aria from __ to __. Take out "ich schon mit dem Meinen dankbar wollt' erscheinen" in the soprano aria and insert instead the words, "spendend von dem Meinen, ich schon
wollt' erscheinen."

Outstandingly beautiful is the last alto recitative, particularly in the place toward the end that makes a reference to death.

Alfred Dürr (1971) refers to a legend that sprang up concerning the circumstances surrounding the occasion for which the cantata supposedly had been composed -- a special festive Sunday service in 1732 for the Protestants who had been driven out of Salzburg, Austria, hence its nickname, "The Refugee Cantata." But further research into this matter has revealed that this work already had its first performance on the 23rd of June 1726. Possibly, Dürr continues, this cantata was pressed into service for such an occasion, but there is absolutely no credible evidence to support this contention thus far.

By comparing the Gospel text in the parable about the rich man and the poor man, Lazarus, the unknown author of the text conceived the idea of inviting the readers/listeners to help actively other human beings that you happen to meet, and then give thanks for God's blessings. The text author was also used by one of Bach's distant cousins, Johann Ludwig Bach.

Here (J.S.) Bach is demonstrably at the hilevel of his artistic abilities. This is particularly evident in the opening chorus which is conceived on a grand scale. In the 218 measures we can see all the musical devices that Bach had acquired and developed further until he was the complete master thereof. Following the model of the motet, Bach abides by the principle of connecting a series of individual phrases that represent different thoughts in the sentence: Each grammatically separated protion of the sentence receives an individualized musical treatment. There are three
large sections, A,B,C, each of which contain subsections of rich variety and complexity. The middle section, B, is relatively short, set more in the choral style. This can be seen by considering how the harmony modulates from d-minor deominant to the subdominant in c-minor, thereby allowing a similar harmonic development of the two outer sections, A,C, to the dominant that prevails at the end of each section: g - d and c - g.

The introductory instrumental sinfonia, with its series of chordal blocks separated by rests unmistakably pictures the gesture of breaking bread. Dürr (1975) in his notes for the Teldec Harnoncourt/Leonhardt series mentions the "Meiningen Pattern" and the connection with Johann Ludwig Bach. He also revises his statement (1971) about each section in mvt. 1 being individualized. He now says, "The fugal section "Alsdenn wird dein Licht herfürbrechen," which introduced the third (last) major part, is the same subject and the concluding section "Und die Herrlichkeit des Herrn.." In this way Bach succeeds in rounding off the form of the final section, just as he had managed to do so in the opening section by repeating the same text as at the beginning." He continues stating about the 1st mvt. "Where the instruments are dealt with independently they also serve to interpret the text, especially significantly at the beginning, by distributing the chords among the recorder, oboes and strings, whereby the "distributing" of bread among the hungry is illustrated." Dürr uses "aufteilen" ("distribute") instead of the original idea contained in the title of the cantata – a 'handing out' of the parts to separate sections of the orchestra loses some of the picture image of "breaking" which then explains the short notes, followed by rests much better. Dürr then goes on to state, "In conspicuous contrast to this is the setting of the New Testament text in the continuo mvt as a symbol of God's personal preoccupation with manking in its new union through Christ. For this reason the text is also given to the bass (as the 'vox Christi' of the passion tone) and the meagerness of the instrumentation permits an inexhaustible richness of supple text declamation."

Mark Audus (1993) mainly repeats what Dürr had already, but he puts the description of mvt. 1 this way: "This cantata shows the mature Bach, and nowhere more so than in the opening chorus. Organized in three sections in the old motet style, it starts with a fragmented motif (the breaking of bread) before highly expressive chromatic writing suggests the tribulations of 'the poor that are cast out.' The 2nd section, 'So du einen nacket siehest,' acts as a formal and musical pivot, before the final part, an impressive fugue which is recapitulated at the words 'und die Herrlichkeit des Herrn.'"

Konrad Küster, a musicology professor at Freiburg University (who did his masters' thesis on Johann Ludwig Bach) (Oxford Composer Companions: J.S.Bach [Boyd], 1999) does not really add too much to the discussions of this cantata. He points out that the 1st performance of this cantata was really an anniversary celebrating Bach's installation as music director in Leipzig. Since both were on the same Sunday of the church year with the same Gospel reading, the subject of the 1st cantata of the 1st year cycle is BWV 75 "Die Elenden sollen essen" ("The poor should eat.") Küster also refers to the "Meiningen Pattern" of Bach's cantata structure with two parts, one before, the other after the sermon, the 1st part beginning with a quotation from the Old Testament followed by a recitative and an aria, the 2nd part with a New Testament text again followed by a recitative and an aria. In this case, the idea of helping the poor connects both parts. None of the arias is in da capo form, the central one (mvt. 4) being bipartite (A-A'), the other two having differentiated sections (A-B).

Dingeman van Wijnen (2000) calls this cantata "one of Bach's most eminent creations." Then goes on to state: "It presents a 'social gospel,' urging Christians to help those in need. The two-note motive repeated throughout the magnificent opening chorus indicates the breaking of bread of which the text speaks. (Albert Schweitzer, however, thinks it expresses the tottering of the weak)"

See: Cantata BWV 39 - Provenance

What is important here (mvt. 1) for the listener to consider? 1) The breaking of the bread, 2) the weak, halting steps of poor people that just make it to the house that will give them what they need, 3) are they coming elegantly dressed in good decorum or 4) are they dirty and tired from their long walk, 5) the distribution of the bread rather than the breaking of it, 6) a urgent command by God to feed the hungry or 7) a request for help that insinuates its way into your thinking and feeling and awakens your conscience to do something about it.

Mvt. 1 A structural synopsis based on Dürr

3 major parts or sections

Section A 3/4 time g-minor to d-minor
Measures 1-94

Measures 1-22 a) an introductory sinfonia is expanded to include Measures 23-47 the chorus "Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot." with little further development of the material already presented
At measure 41 a stretto entrance of voices occurs in this order S A T B.
Measures 47-70 b) Fugal exposition Order: T A S B while orchestra repeats the two-note motif from the beginning.
Measures 70-94 c) Transposed to dominant - a repetition of the beginning with pairs of voices switched:
Instead of S A pair answered by T B , it is now reversed at measure 88 the stretto is also reversed

Section B Cut time d-minor to c-minor Text: "So du einen nacket siehst."
Measures 94-106
Imitative, but also chord-structured at times
The accompanying instrumental figures are entirely new
This is the shortest section.

Section C 3/8 time c-minor to g-minor Text: "Alsdenn wird dein Licht herfürbrechen.."
Measures 106-218

Measures 106-138 a) Fugal exposition with order of entrances: T A S B
some instruments colla parte, others with new material
Measures 138-145 1) 1st chord-structured section
Measures 149-164 2) 2nd chord-structured section
Measures 167-207 b) Fugal exposition with theme somewhat altered/modified
Fugue now begins with B T A S in that order
Measures 211-218 c) Ending with chordal-structured finale.


Cantata BWV 39: Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | 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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