Background Information
Performer Bios

Poet/Composer Bios

Additional Information

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 40
Dazu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes

Craig Smith | Philipp Spitta | Woldemar Voigt | Albert Schweitzer | W. Gillies Whittaker | Alfred Durr | Christoph Wolff


Aryeh Oron wrote (February 24, 2003):
Background [Craig Smith]

The extensive commentary below, quoted from the liner notes to Emmanuel Music’s recording of the cantata, was written by Craig Smith, the music director of this choral & instrumental ensemble (1999) [6]:

The second day of Christmas has two assigned Gospel readings: the shepherds corning to Bethlehem and Jesus' description of the rejection and persecution of the prophets. The second reading is attendant to the story of the Stoning of St. Stephen as recounted in Acts. Of the Bach cantatas for that day, only the second part of the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) deals exclusively with the Christmas story. All of the other cantatas have elements of the paranoia and fear that permeates the St. Stephen story. This accounts for the strange tone of the Cantata BWV 40 that, even though it quotes the great passage at the beginning of the Gospel of John and makes other references to the birth of Jesus, is full of battle cries against the devil. The sole purpose and meaning of Christ's birth, as seen here, is to do battle with the devil.

The opening chorus is a superb example of Bachian military music. Two horns, two oboes and the strings trade off a fanfare figure, that grows into a full-fledged battle cry. The chorus enters with blocky statements of the text. They eventually shout out the idea of the battle with the devil in regimented and disciplined rhythmic precision. Occasionally Bach will present texts in two contrasting ways. We see this startlingly in the bass aria of Cantata BWV 101 where each phrase of the chorale is set both slowly and in an agitated character. After the initial outward brilliance of the opening BWV 40, the chorus sings the same text as a rather lyrical and inward fugue at half the tempo of the previous material. The ultimate integration of this fugue with the previous material is a great tour de force of the first Jahrgang (cycle of Leipzig cantatas). The way that the counter-subject of the fugue subtly works itself back into the opening character is a marvel. There is something devilishly subversive about that theme. The fugue is very extended with a full return to the original battle music. The chorus is in a modified da capo form with a fugue as the B section, a distinctive and unique idea in the cantatas.

The secco tenor recitative begins with a pedal point as the singer intones the words, "the word was made flesh." As surely as Mozart changes the scene in Figaro by little scale passages in the recitatives, Bach here sets off the quote from John by accompanying the commentary with an ascending scale passage in the continuo.

Four-voice chorale harmony usually stands in the cantatas as a pillar of congregational wisdom. Chorales almost always stand back from the action and often have a rather cool, almost dignified, response to the more passionate recitatives and arias. There are three chorales in Cantata BWV 40. They have a folksy, almost rough, quality to them. The sophistication of the previous material is reduced in the first chorale to "Sin makes sadness, Christ brings joy." The words are superbly coloured both by the marvellous ambiguity of the major/minor harmony and by the block-like chord presentation. The pithy little opening statements are followed by a marching tune accompanied by a descending eighth-note bass line.

Compare this treatment to the elevated, almost angelic, presentation of this chorale tune at the end of another Christmas cantata, BWV 110.

The cantata then plunges into more devilish music. Here the serpent's tail is portrayed by the twisting whiplashes of the first violins. The terse oboes and strings punctuate it almost brutally. The aria is marvellously grotesque. Notice how the misshapen voice line lurches almost drunkenly on top of the subversive bass. The snake turns from lashing dragon to sinuous serpent in the alto recitative. The alto line meanders languorously between the rolling string figuration and the sparse bass. It is as secretive and inward as the aria was blustery and aggressive. The recitative is one of the few moments of quiet in the whole cantata, reminding us that this is the same serpent that brought down Adam and Eve.

The next chorale is even more folk-like than the first. Its blocky wisdom is in extreme contrast to the silky sophistication of the previous recitative. The ending passage into the realm of joy is one of the great moments in all of the chorales. Daring and complex wind writing, as seen here, separates Bach from all of his contemporaries. In the tenor aria that follows we have a major wind-band tour de force. Bravura oboes and horns accompany the virtuoso and high-flying tenor part. The melismas on the word "freuet" accompanied by dazzling horn and oboe fanfares give the aria an inimitable heroic flavour. There is an interesting sense that this passage is cut from the same cloth as both the serpent's tail in the bass aria and the "work of the devil" in the opening chorus. This cantata could sound like a brilliant string of unrelated pieces if it didn't have the underlying unity of similar musical material.

The final chorale "Freuet euch ihr Christen alle" begins similarly to "Jesu meine Freude." Its deep seriousness gives the cantata a surprising close after the bravura of the tenor aria. This chorale has the same shape as the second chorale, with folk wisdom leading to a sublime and surprisingly profound conclusion. While not exactly unknown, this cantata is greater than it is usually given credit for. The progression of ideas and the unusual, even unique, way in which the chorales function make it sui generis in the literature.

Thomas Braatz wrote (February 28, 2003):
BWV 40 - Commentaries:


After discussing the cantata (BWV 63) „Christen, ätzet diesen Tag“ and the Magnificat (BWV 243a) for the 1st Day of Christmas, Spitta begins his discussion of BWV 40 as follows:

While BWV 63 expressed the feelings of Christianity which moved in a procession around the altar of the God who would bestow healing upon mankind, and while the Magnificat (BWV 243a, Eb version) derived its expression from the background of old, naïve holiday customs, the cantata for the 2nd Day of Christmas, BWV 40, presents Christ as the brightly radiant hero who has been sent into this world to conquer the powers of darkness: From the beginning of the Gospel of John: “The light shines through the darkness -- The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was going to come into the world -- So the Word became human and lived here on earth among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father.” These are the foundation thoughts behind the text of the cantata. The 1st recitative was inspired by these thoughts. The great chorus that precedes it is based upon 1 John 3:8 “Dazu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes, daß er die Werke des Teufels zerstöre.” More than in most other cantatas by Bach, the greatest emphasis lies within Mvt. 1 even though the chorale is amply included with not less than 3 4-pt chorales in one cantata. In regard to innovation, boldness and breadth of the structural concept, it surpasses all the choral mvts. of thMagnificat and the cantata for the 1st Day of Christmas. The instrumental prelude is not really a ritornello, but rather is dominated by the concertato principle that resembles quite closely the 1st chorus of the Magnificat, in which Bach already had tested his wings for flying. The material presented by the instruments in a condensed form at the beginning is then expanded and developed by the choir. At first it would appear that the material of the instrumental introduction is quite independent, but a closer examination will make clear that it contains the kernel which will later develop into the fruit in the choral sections. The characteristic of the 1st choral section is its almost entirely homophonic nature. In short sections there is a dialog established with the instruments, but when the defiantly declaimed words, “daß er die Werke des Teufels zerstöre” are sung by the defiant masses that have been assembling for battle and grouping themselves together, Bach has them eventually reach a point where they sing an ‘Unisono’ (ms. 24) as if to indicate thereby their unified presence. This is a moment when it appears as if the center of light breaks forth with a burst of rays before which the shadows of night must disappear as the light is poured out in all directions. Just as the chorus unfolds out of the instrumental introduction, so also does the double fugue issue directly out of the 1st choral section. The 1st theme is created by extension, the 2nd maintains the note values of the 1st. With unheard of audacity the theme makes a leap eventually to a surprising 7th, and, as if this were not enough, the 1st horn doubles this in sixths and a wild victorious tumult of battle ensues. Then a transition from the subdominant leads back to the beginning the same way as the Magnificat does. The elements of this Mvt. 1 continue to have aftereffects in the following mvts. After a high-spirited, jeering bass aria (Mvt. 4) “Höllische Schlange wird dir nicht bange?”, it is possible to detect in the alto recitative (Mvt. 5) certain instrumental motifs that hearken back to Mvt. 1 Even the motifs of the final aria (Mvt. 7) do the same and create a powerful unity within this cantata.


Bach is interested in uncovering the various ways in which the librettists can view the differing aspects of Christian holidays. This cantata is all about battle/war and victory, and it even contains very grim humor and challenging defiance. The short choral statements in the 1st section of Mvt. 1 are to be understood as triumphant in nature. What a powerful gratitude is expressed when the fugato begins (this should be taken somewhat more slowly), but the audacious counter theme (derived from the final measures of the bass in the 1st part) initiates a return once again to victorious jubilation. There is an incomparable intensification and build-up until the appearance of the final ritornello.

The solos here are also excellent. The wild power of the bass aria is almost without equal in Bach’s entire oeuvre. The tenor aria can be shortened slightly (the portions to be cut are indicated.) Special mention should go to the chorales, which are all splendid. The less known melodies of the 1st 2 chorales are supported well by the instruments and the final chorale has a radiant beauty. The entire cantata is noteworthy for its extremely well-unified character and grandiose stature.


Mvt. 1:
In the cantata for the 2nd Day of Christmas (BWV 40), the music is of the ‘characteristic’ order. In the 1st chorus the words “daß er die Werke des Teufels zerstöre” [“that he may destroy the works of the devil”] are always scanned thus (a scan of the rhythm is given) giving the effect of something monstrous and horrid. Bach treated this chorus badly by using it for the ‘Cum sancto spiritu’ in the F major Mass.

Mvt. 4:
A very characteristic Satan motif (the 1st violins have the twisting ‘serpent’ motif, while the remainder of the orchestra represents the heavy trampling of the conqueror) is found in Mvt. 4 (bass aria) of the cantata (BWV 40.) In the music we not only see the contortions of the serpent, but hear the angry stamping of the heel which, according to the old prophecy, is to crush its head: (opening 4 ms. of the aria are indicated.) At the words “Der dir den Kopf als ein Sieger zerknickt,” the serpent motif touches its lowest point in the bass [Schweitzer is referring to the fact that the motif that was originally in the violins, now descends to the bc under the bass voice line (ms. 52-59, 76-85).]

Mvt. 5:
The next recitative for alto speaks of the serpent in paradise. It is represented by a gently rocking phrase (upper strings), suggestive of the seductive reptile swaying to and fro on the tree before the eyes of Eve. Bach visualizes it hanging down from the tree before the woman, and deluding her with its crafty speech. Therefore the accompaniment too is suspended in the air; only here and there does a supporting bass note enter.

W. Gillies Whittaker:

This is one of the most perfect cantatas, every number being of superb quality, and is truly representative both of the composer’s religious outlook and of his supreme inventive and imaginative powers, not the Cantor in his official position, but the real man, passionate in his spiritual fervor, believing in the personal activity of the Evil One and in the all-conquering might of the Savior. There are few choruses in the whole range of the cantatas which can equal in dramatic power and vivid representation the opening number of BWV 40, 1 John 3:8. Every detail has its inevitable place in the scheme, diverse elements are melted together into a mighty structure, orchestral and vocal effects stir listeners as potently as anything in the immensely widened range of musical language of subsequent times. In addition to 2 oboes and strings, 2 horns are included in the score, the instruments of regal dignity, welcoming the appearance of the Holy One. They give out a short phrase which is answered by the rest of the orchestra: (ms. 1) Then a longer phrase (ms. 2) is answered by the horns and then the oboes. Now comes a swirling figure: (ms. 5 – strings) then taken up by the 1st horn and oboes, and a short figure (ms. 8 – strings) in close imitation, which dashes up and down above a tumultuous continuo (ms. 8-9). There are 4 elements in the choral portions. The world hails the appearance of the Christ in brief cries of exultation: (ms. 12-13 choir.) This fits in with a repetition of the opening instrumental material. During the restatement of (ms. 5 – strings) comes a vocal motif which becomes of supreme importance later, a rapid repetition of a single note: (ms. 22) sometimes hurled out by the whole choir. Its vital rhythm and its vehement force are the hammer-blows of the powers of evil. It also explains the significance of (ms. 5 – strings) which is heard against it. Surging semiquaver ideas (ms. 8-9 bc) for the basses, a form of (ms. 8 – strings) for the altos, with modification of (ms. 22) in parallel motions for sopranos and altos, with (ms. 22) in the basses, part of the treatment of ‘zerstöre,’ add to the description of the confusion among the forces of evil. It stops suddenly and a plain fugue begins with continuo only, subject: (ms. 29) and countersubject: (ms. 31-32). The accentuation of ‘der Sohn’ is peculiar, but it is consistent throughout, as will be seen in (ms. 12-13 – choir; ms. 29). One would have expected the stress to be on ‘Sohn.’ The Savior is moving calmly and serenely through the tumult which ranges round Him but which does not disturb Him. One is reminded of the incident on the Sea of Galilee. With the 5t entry of the subject the orchestra begins to reappear. And the tenor, doubled by the 1st horn, hurls out (ms. 22) in place of the countersubject which henceforth appears in a partial and ornamented form only, and the ‘zerstöre’ runs to the modification of (ms. 8-9) spread over the canvas. Technically the fugue shows the common scholastic devices, stretti, various combinations of the 2 themes, and so on, but one never thinks of this. It is the tremendous conflict which occupies our attention, the noble figure of the Christ, the vehemence of the actions of the devil (for it is these which Bach paints, rather than their destruction,) the bewildering tumult and the mighty strength of the combatants. One of the most thrilling moments is where the altos ring out (ms. 22) on high Eb. A reconstruction of the 1st section closes this remarkable chorus. It was a strange idea to adapt it later as the ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ of the Short Mass in F. While all the imagery is lost there, it sounds astonishingly well in its new surroundings.

A fine tenor recitative secco contains an upward semiquaver run in both voice and continuo to illustrate ‘bestrahlt’ (‘illuminates’) and a thoughtful passage of the bassi, dropping to F# at ‘Bedenkt doch diesen Tausch’ (‘Remember then this exchange’), Christ becoming man in order than man may become a child of heaven. The excellent text is : [text given.]

The 1st of the 3 chorales is richly endowed with chromatic harmonies…. Lines 1 and 2 are awe-inspiring; the chromatically ascending bass at the beginning of the last line answers the question while it is being asked, by indicating the maliciousness of the Evil One.

The next 3 numbers are dominated by the representation of Satan as a serpent. In the bass aria an almost unbroken succession of semiquavers in violins or bassi shows us the writhing of the ‘Wurm.’ [ms. 1-4 of Mvt. 4). The chief melodic figure, announced against the previous figure by unison oboes, and repeated many times by the soloist, its time-pattern outlined by the lower strings: (ms. 17-20) suggests the twisting upwards of the monster and the smiting of it down. The introduction with voice added is repeated in an extended form, to emphasize its salient features….The 2nd syllable of ‘zerknickt’ is twice flung up picturesquely, the phrases being clipped off abruptly….The vocal writing of this splendid aria is finely declamatory, the singer is called upon to negotiate many sevenths, major, minor, and diminished, and to deal with difficult passages.

Picturesque writing is also found in the succeeding alto accompanied recitative. The upper strings bend and twist throughout, and, as the continuo puts in a note only occasionally, we feel that the creature is suspended in mid-air. As the text speaks of the serpent no longer exciting fear, because the coming of the Savior has brought salvation to the seed of woman, it is evident that Bach had in his mind John 3:14 – “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.’ The vocal line is beautifully expressive and superbly declaimed….

Victory is now assured and the tenor aria (Mvt. 7) calls upon all Christians to rejoice. It is one of the most extraordinary arias the composer ever wrote. When one reads the score one doubts whether the number will ‘come off.’ 2 horns and 2 oboes, without upper strings, are given most elaborate parts against which it seems impossible for the singer to struggle, especially as his line is the most difficult in all the cantatas. Yet the result is magical; voice and orchestra blend perfectly, the instrumental color is masterly and splendidly effective. The Savior is depicted as conqueror, and the group of instruments is chosen because of their association with military music of that day. The middle section provides ample opportunities for word-painting….The texture of the aria is rich, 8-pt. counterpoint being frequent. The vocal line is superbly declamatory and descriptive. At the end terror finally gives way to joy, and during the concluding pages of this notable aria, a reconstruction of the 1st section, there are immensely long runs to ‘freuet.’


Mvt. 1:
The most impressive mvt. in the entire cantata is the ceremonial introductory chorus, which attains its festive atmosphere by means of the 2 horns. In the opening instrumental ritornello, the horns open with a horn signal that seems to announce a battle. This is answered by two oboes transposed to the dominant, after which there is a vacillating change of instrumental choirs (1) horns, 2) oboes, 3) upper strings) until the main section with the choir begins. This main section is, in essence, and expanded version of the instrumental ritornello which is interrupted and extended at the beginning by repeated short choral inserts which are then followed by the concluding section of the ritornello with ‘Choreinbau.’ The middle section features an artistically constructed choral fugue. The very singable fugal theme/subject now ‘steals the show’ from the instruments that have played such an important part until now. The 1st development is carried out only by the voices and the continuo. In the second development section which adds a few, only partially independent, instrumental parts, a 2nd theme/subject is added with the words, “daß er die Werke des Teufel zerstöre” [“that he may destroy the devil’s works.”] After this point the entrances come faster and sooner than they have before “Engführung” until the fugue ends in freely streaming polyphony and the repeat of the initial instrumental ritornello occurs.

Mvt. 2:
This plain secco recitative points out the miracle of God’s incarnation in the flesh.

Mvt. 3:
The 3rd mvt. connects once again with the main theme of the cantata: Christ as the victor over sin. This occurs not only in the text, but also in the chromaticism which characterizes this 4-pt. chorale.

Mvt. 4:
The tone of this bass aria is full of fighting spirit with serious drama and continues the tone already established in Mvt. 1. In the colorfully shimmering harmonies a picture of the “höllischen Schlange” [“the infernal serpent”] is created, but, at the same time, there is a triumphant character expressed by means of the strongly punctuated 3/8 rhythms and the clear periodic structures that point into the direction of a dance. The entire mvt. is based upon the basic scheme of 2 + 2 + 4 ms. which only occasionally expands by doubling the 1st sections and only has a single instance where an extra measure (ms. 105) is inserted just before moving into the final section.

Mvt. 5:
The motif in the string accompaniment of this alto accompagnato recitative conjures up the image of “Die Schlange, so im Paradies” [“The serpent, as in paradise.”] The prophecy has been fulfilled and Adam’s sin has been removed.

Mvt. 6 & Mvt. 7:
After another simple 4-pt. Chorale (Mvt. 6), the 2nd aria (for tenor) of the cantata (mvt. 7) follows. This aria sounds even more like the introductory chorus, but with more emphasis on the festive nature of the composition: use of the horns, melodies base on chords, and the shift of the vocal part to the subdominant. The artistic coloraturas that the tenor sings on the word, “freuet” [“be joyful”] serve the purpose of text illumination. This is just as effective as the halting pauses on “erschrecken’ [“be frightened”] in the middle section.

Mvt. 8:
The work closes with a simple 4-pt. chorale.

Christoph Wolff:

In order not to exhaust the choir(s) during the Christmas to Epiphany holiday season, Bach used more chorales in his cantatas and avoided using solo soprano voices.


Cantata BWV 40: Details & 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


Back to the Top

Last update: Friday, September 01, 2017 13:33