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Cantata BWV 45
Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist

Whittaker | Schweitzer | Spitta | Voigt | Dürr | Eric Chafe | Nicholas Anderson | Braatz | Summary


Thomas Braatz wrote (July 24, 2002):
BWV 45 - Commentaries:

The following commentaries are mainly about mvt. 1, but some refer to the cantata as a whole. Again, it is amazing that there are some which are very negative. I will put these first to get them out of the way as quickly as possible.


Nicholas Anderson (in the Oxford Composer Companions: J.S. Bach – [Boyd]) quotes Whittaker (which I do not have) as saying: “ In spite of much fine music, it [this cantata] lacks the qualities which are needed to make it one of those cantatas to which we are attracted again and again. The libretto is cold and wanting in imagery, though not devoid of skill.” This comment is probably based in part on Schweitzer’s criticism of the text and Bach’s attempt to set the biblical quotation in mvt. 1 in a choral form when a simple arioso might have done just as well:


“Even Bach could not cast into a correct musical period the formless passage from Micah on which the 1st chorus of the cantata is based. The many reiterations of the “It is said unto thee” at the commencement are quite disconcerting. It is incomprehensible why Bach should set himself the impossible task of making a chorus of this verse, instead of declaiming it in a simple arioso, as be does in the 2nd Part with Christ’s words, “Es werden viele zu mir sagen an jenem Tage.” Zelter revised and corrected parts of the cantata. [These changes and revisions] throw a doubtful light on his way of relieving Bach’s work of its thin tinsel….

So now we know that Bach should have never set the text as a choral mvt. The result we have is boring and uninteresting, or as Schweitzer put it, it is ‘thin tinsel.’

The remaining commentaries are not quite as negative, although, as you will see, there is a characterization of the cantata, in particular its 1st mvt., as being didactic and strict, and therefore, generally inaccessible to audiences who would tend to favor the more famous cantatas over this one.


This is a mighty Protestant sermon about responsibilities, the fulfilling of which God demands of Christians so that they may in the future be judged favorably by God when the time of accounting comes. There is a very strict character imposed upon the entire cantata. The main theme of the 1st mvt. (Chorus) seems to be hammering away on the same place again and does not lack a certain air of strict orthodoxy. However, there is no sense that the words have become frozen in dogma, but rather that the words and music demonstrate a lively enthusiasm for a noble goal. This feeling permeates the foundation of this extensive 1st. mvt. from beginning to end.


This cantata belongs to the category of didactic cantatas, and because of this there are some aspects of this music that are not as accessible to an audience, but, nevertheless, it can be of great interest. It seems appropriate to have the performance strive for a gradual development of the general atmosphere throughout by moving from the majesty of the OT law, which is expressed in mvt. 1 to the joyful, tender devotion which is heard in the final chorale. Both arias can be performed in contrasting fashion to create a transition between the beginning and the end. The fugue theme of mvt. 1 is declaimed in an excellent, beautiful manner. Its development streams by like a splendid river.


[Mainly his comments on mvt. 1] The old motet principle which involves having the text subdivided into individual sections is here ‘cancelled out’ by the insertion of 2 sections of text (“Es ist dir gesagt” and “nämlich….” [“You have been told” and “specifically”] into a concertante orchestral mvt., brought out by an extended instrumental introduction: motet and concerto principles thus become interwoven. There is a shift from a general (mvt. 1) to a personal plane of thought (the later mvts.)

Mvt. 1 is one of the most outstanding examples by the mature Bach for the multi-form chorus consisting of many varied sections, and yet all of them have been developed from a single theme. This variety of form is accomplished through the insertion of an introductory tri-partite section consisting of repetition (imitation) after which there is a fugue and then “Choreinbau” while the ritornello is being repeated.

Eric Chafe:

[Although Chafe has no comments on BWV 45, he does have something important to say about the choice of key, E major, which this cantata has in common with a number of others that he mentions.] The E major (of BWV 9) represents the sharpest tonal region in Bach’s cantata oeuvre. E major has positive associations that accrue to it from Bach’s aligning it with pivotal points in the salvific or soteriological message of the passions. Bach associates E major in the cantata with positive qualities, among which blessedness (BWV 8, BWV 60, BWV 124), salvation (BWV 9, BWV 17, BWV 49, BWV 86, BWV 116, BWV 139), resurrection (BWV 66, BWV 67, BWV 80, BWV 94, BWV 145), and trust (BWV 3, BWV 29, BWV 34a, BWV 107, BWV 139, BWV 171, BWV 200) are the most characteristic.
[Notice that Chafe forgot about this cantata, BWV 45! Into which category do you think he would put this cantata?]

The following quote from an entirely unrelated context in Chafe’s books seems to be important for the proper understanding of the 1st mvt. of BWV 45:

The “stile antico”, the gallant style, and the conservative 17th century manner combine harmoniously with many other techniques on Bach’s expressive palette. It is meaningless to ask whether Bach is “really” traditional, modern, expressive, rationalistic, or whatever: he transcends such narrow categories.

Nicholas Anderson:

In this cantata Bach unfailingly demonstrates [his superior compositional skills] in each and every section of this subtly conceived and powerfully declamatory work. The opening mvt. of the cantata is an architecturally complex but magnificent concertante piece in the form of a choral fugue for 4-pt. chorus with pairs of flutes and oboes, strings and continuo. The brightly colored key of E major, the frequently reiterated opening words, “Es ist dir gesagt,” and Bach’s supple vocal writing contribute to the joyful affirmation of this vigorously declaimed music, in which an older motet style is blended with concerto writing of consummate skill. [The definition of “motet style” from the same book is: “In the cantatas he [Bach] used motet style for texts that would have been appropriate in a motet proper….its use in Latin works reflects the musical connections between motet style and the “stile antico.” Motets and motet-style mvts. use biblical texts, chorales, or a combination of the two….prominent use of counterpoint, and --most striking in a concerted vocal work—no independent instrumental parts. In most motet-style mvts. instruments play “colla parte” with the voices, as they often did in motets….Bach chose motet style almost exclusively for the oldest chorale melodies, suggesting that the style hestrong historical associations for him….Bach also used motet style for biblical “Spruch” or “dictum” texts….These settings all use imitative counterpoint, often giving each phrase of the text its own musical treatment….it was during Bach’s Leipzig years that archaic procedures assumed greater consistency and importance, as can be seen in many cantata mvts. written during his 1st years as Thomaskantor.

My commentary:

Notice that Dürr did not even attempt to give his usual detailed structural analysis of the main choral mvt. of the cantata. Let me try to give my own analysis:

So you thought this mvt. would be like last week’s introductory choral mvt. (BWV 187) “Es wartet alles auf dich” [“Everything and everyone is waiting for you”] where the anticipation that Bach creates before the grand fugue in the middle section is strong indeed. There, in the middle section, is this great fugue, that everybody has been waiting for and no one can be disappointed with the results. After the fugue finishes, Bach rather quickly brings the composition to a close because “the main show is over.” Here in BWV 45, mvt. 1, there is no anticipation because the fugue is ‘always hanging around’ from beginning to end. Yes, but there are definite sections of instrumental ritornello and “Choreinbau,” you might point out. Looked at that way, we can come up with the following:

Ritornello (Orchestral Introduction) ms. 1-37

Choreinbau with 3 mini-fugues ms. 37 -54

[3 different repetitions of “Es ist dir gesagt” with just the first few notes of the fugal subject. The entries in the order of their sequences are as follows:]

a) (BSAT) ms. 37 – 42
b) (BTAS) ms. 43 – 48
c) (TBSA) ms. 49 – 54

Choral Fugue ms. 54 – 79

[This is the only place in this mvt. where the voices present the full fugal subject in a sequence with each voice following the other.]

S(oprano) ms. 54 – 60
A(lto) ms. 60 – 66
T(enor) ms. 67 -73
B(ass) ms. 73 – 79

Choreinbau ms. 79 - 96

A(lto) voice has a single complete fugal subject ms. 96 – 101

Ritornello (for instruments only – very short) ms. 101 – 106

Choreinbau beginning with a double statement of “nämlich” ms. 107 – 116

S(oprano) and A(lto) each have the full fugal subject ms. 116 - 128

Choreinbau beginning with a single statement of “nämlich” ms. 130 – 158

Ritornello (for instruments only) ms. 159 – 169

Choreinbau with 3 mini-fugues ms. 169 – 198

[Compare above – but now the sequence of entries has changed:]

a) (BTAS) ms. 169 - 174
b) (SATB) ms. 175 – 180
c) (TASB) ms. 181 – 186

Choreinbau with superimposed full entries of the fugal subject by S(oprano), then A(lto), then S(oprano) ms. 186 - 228

As you can see, there is not much of the grand upward- and downward-stepping ladder of the fugal entries of the choir, for instance, B, T, A, S and/or S, A, T, B. Actually the fugal theme can occur as follows:

1) all the 1st-chair instruments (Flauto traverso I, Oboe I, and Violino I) playing as one [I will call this the ‘I’s’]
2) all the 2nd –chair instruments (Flauto traverso II, Oboe II, and Violino II) playing as one [the II’s]
3) viola or bc always play colla parte with a specific vocal line and never have the fugal subject by themselves.

Here are the fugal subject entries:

1) II’s alone ms. 1-7
2) I’s alone ms. 7-13
3) S(oprano) + I’s ms. 54-60
4) A(lto) + II’s ms. 60-66
5) T(enor) + viola ms. 67-73
6) B(ass) + bc ms. 73-79
7) A(lto) + II’s ms. 96-101
8) I’s ms. 101-107
9) S(oprano) + II’s [in minor key] ms. 116-122
10) A(lto) + I’s [in minor key] ms. 122-128
11) II’s ms. 153-158
12) I’s ms. 158-164
13) II’s ms. 164-170
14) S(oprano) + II’s ms. 186-192
15) A(lto) + I’s ms. 192-198
16) S(oprano) + I’s ms. 223-228

The full vocal entries with the fugal subject are:

SATBASASAS = 10 entries for voice (notice AS AS AS appears 3 times)
There are 6 entries for instruments alone.
The 10 entries for Bach can be related to the 10 Commandments, the Law of the OT, a very suitable number as this text is from the OT.

3 = the Trinity
3 = the number of times “Es ist gesagt” appears in both mini-fugue sections
3 = the number of times the instrumental ritornello appears


“halten” [“to hold, also to keep on going”] Bach uses whole and half notes here for the most part. There are 3 instances of 'halten' used in this descriptive way:

A(lto) and T(enor) sing this word longer than the other voices from ms. 111 – 116
A(lto), T(enor), B(ass) sing this word from ms. 132 – 136
S(oprano), T(enor), B(ass) from ms. 202 – 206

“nämlich” (“specifically”) occurs with special emphasis on two half notes. This is repeated 4 times: in ms. 107, 109, 130, 200.

“demütig” (“humble”) is accompanied by or sung as a descending pattern of notes (often whole and half notes): ms. 117 – 121; 123 – 126; 140 – 143; 153 – 156; 210 – 214; 223 – 225

The descending pattern of notes can also be found underlining the text, “Was der Herr von dir fordert” (“whatever the Lord demands of you”) implying submission and humility: ms. 83 – 86; 97 – 101; 189 – 192


There are many sections that are repeated with or without some modifications:
ms. 1 – 8 = ms. 101 – 108, 158 – 164
ms. 7 – 12 = ms. 116 – 122; 122 – 128; 164 – 169
ms. 12 – 18 = ms. 128 – 134
ms. 16 – 37 = ms. 80 – 101; 139 - 158
Even in the fugue, the instrumental background (except bc) for the A(lto) entry in ms. 60 - 67 is like ms. 1 – 7 and for the T(enor) in ms. 67 – 73 the accompaniment is somewhat like ms. 7 – 12


As the more recent commentators have pointed out, Bach has managed to blend the old with the new: the motet style with a concertante instrumental accompaniment, the formal fugue structure is blended with Choreinbau (the fugal subject is even embedded in the Choreinbau at the end of the piece.) As you can see from the radical change compared to last week's cantata BWV 187 (very similar in the way the cantata text was structure) Bach was constantly attempting to find new musical approaches without abandoning what was good about the old forms and structures. His merging of styles is truly a miracle here. Despite all the strict counterpoint involved in the fugue form and the stile antico/motet style, Bach manages to add the concertante style (the instruments, although they do a lot of colla parte playing, there are enough independent sections (ritornellos) to give the impression that the instruments are 'contending' with the vocal parts.


Cantata BWV 45: 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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