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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 50
Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft

Philipp Spitta | Woldemar Voigt | Albert Schweitzer | W. Gillies Whittaker | Alfred Dürr


Thomas Braatz wrote (March 18, 2003):

This is a mighty torso of a church cantata in the form of a double choir with a rich instrumental accompaniment based on the words from Revelations 12:10. This has to be called a torso because it is obvious that in this form it would not have been used as part of any church service, because it is simply too short: as a motet it could not be used because of the extensive concertante instrumental accompaniment; and the textual content would forbid its use during communion. No other situations in church would fit. It must, most certainly, have served as the introductory mvt. to a complete cantata for Michaelmas, and it can also be assumed that an instrumental sinfonia would have preceded it. The warrior spirit which it embraces has a crushing force and an almost wild jubilation that accompanies a victory.


Although this is not a complete cantata, the introductory chorus as such is without a doubt very complete. Beginning directly with a single fugal subject is not unusual [Voigt suggests that the organist should play a composition by Bach as an introduction and/or ‘lead-in’ to this great mvt.] Also, the orchestral accompaniment never points to a possible ritornello which might have preceded the opening of the mvt. This is a fairly late ‘discovery’ of Bach’s music which causes rejoicing whenever and wherever it is heard. It definitely belongs among the greatest compositions by Bach as it treats its themes of incomparable power and plasticity in a highly original development. There is a double choir which is, at certain times, independently opposed by fanfares played by the orchestra consisting of strings, oboes, and trumpets.

There are two corresponding sections: 1) both choirs appear opposing each other with compact segments of the main theme; 2) voices singing the same part in each choir are joined together in a double fugue. At the point where the 1st part ends with cadence, the 2nd part engages in a deceptive cadence after which it quickly reaches a conclusion in simply 4 brilliant measures.

Naturally, this mvt. can only be sung by a competent choir with sufficient strength supplied by well-trained voices. The 1st trumpet has certain passages that are unusually high even by Bach’s usual standards. A truly successful performance by an incomparable choir will always be an artistic accomplishment that will sweep you off your feet.


In his discussion of ‘step’ motifs, Schweitzer refers to the opening fugal theme (a ‘step’ theme of BWV 50) as follows:
“When the intervals are more widely spread, they symbolize strength, pride, and defiance. This pictorial idea is carried to still further lengths in BWV 50.”
“Bach not only places motifs of different signification in conjunction or in succession, but tries to express composite feelings by welding two motifs into one theme. Here we see how fully conscious he was of his own musical language, and how daring it is; examples of combined themes of this kind can hardly be found in other composers. A typical specimen is the theme of BWV 50, which consists of a combination of the motif of strength and the motif of joy. In this way Bach expresses thematically the whole substance of the text, the subject of which is the triumph of God and the rejoicing over Stan’s fall (Revelations 12:10.)”

“Of the Michaelmas cantata (BWV 50), only the 1st double chorus has been preserved; but this is so powerful in plan and execution that we can dispense with the remainder, and almost regard the lack of the solo pieces as a blessing. The theme is constructed out of the ‘strength’ motif, --that occurs also in inversion – and the ‘joy motif. This choral double fugue is one of Bach’s mightiest pieces of vocal music."


Nothing is known as to the composition of BWV 50, whether it is part of an otherwise lost or uncompleted cantata, or, indeed, whether it is from a cantata at all. For want of a better classification it is numbered among the cantatas, though it is but a single number. The date is not known, though it must, by virtue of its consummate mastery, belong to the closing years of Bach’s activity as a church composer. The manuscript does not specify the occasion, but as the text is the 10th vs. of the Epistle for the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel (Rev. 12:7-12), it must be for that day. It is the only 8-pt. chorus in the cantatas. Only in four motets, in the SMP, and once in the Mass in B minor do we find a similar combination, and in all cases the writing is for a double choir, not for one group divided into 8 parts. The orchestration is the same as in the Sanctus of the Mass in B minor, beside which it stands in sublimity – 3 trumpets, timpani, 3 oboes (the lowest descending to A,) strings, Organo e Continuo. The vs in the English Bible unfortunately does not fit the opening;’Now is come salvation and strength, and the kingdom of our God’ fails to bring the important words ‘Heil,’Kraft,’ ‘Reich,’ ‘Macht,’ and ‘Gottes’ on the successively rising peaks of the tremendous fugue-subject: [1st 8 ms. of the score – all following examples are from the 1st chorus bass part.] The English version of the remainder of the verse—‘for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night’ – also does not fit because in the German ‘cast down’ comes before ‘accused.’ Against the steadily mounting crotchets of the subject, ‘verworfen,’ in the countersubject, rolls downwards in a mighty passage covering a 12th, embodying the motif of joy: [ms. 8-14.] ‘Verklagete’ is not part of the countersubject, but is heard 1st in the basses when the altos take up the subject; it rises from the tonic by crotchets to the ominous flattened 7th of the scale: [ms. 15-16.] ‘Gott’ occurs in the basses when the sopranos sing the chief theme, a 4-bar note indicative of the long-continued accusation of Satan: ‘Tag und Nacht vor Gott.’ The normal 4-pt exposition is assigned to Choir I; the continuo doubles the fugal lead and the countersubject, and afterwards exploits the joy-motif in powerful arpeggi. The upper strings, in ascending order, double the other entries. When the exposition is concluded Choir II and the remainder of the orchestra burst in with tremendous force. Tromba I rings out a 5th entry, the drums and the other trumpets crash with chords on the 1st beats of the bars, and afterwards add a clamorous fanfare to the mass of sound. The oboes play the arpeggio joy-motif and are answered by the bassi. The upper strings double the 3 upper parts of choir I. Choir II has a special mission. Against the florid counterpoint of its partner it moves in massive simultaneous crotchets, the soprano singing a freely inverted form of the fugue subject. The basses of Choir I now sing the answer and the oboes play against it in the manner of Choir II, which is silent for a few bars. Brass and percussion retire from the field for a while. When Choir II re-enters, again in simultaneous crotchets, the sopranos give out the subject in its original form, Choir I continues its florid mvt., upper strings and bassi alternate the arpeggio joy-motif, and the oboes sustain. Choir II now ceases, the upper strings repeat its passage, oboes and bassi alternate the arpeggio, and Choir I still maintains its animated counterpoint. Against a repeated ‘verklagete’ for the 1st sopranos the remainder of the voices toss about short tumultuous phrases, oboes and strings answer each other with arpeggio, and the 1st trumpet peals out a solitary 3-note ascent. This leads to a magnificent passage where ‘der sie verklagete’ descends stepwise in pairs of voices, culminating in a splendid sweeping phrase for 1st sopranos suppoby ‘Tag und Nacht vor Gott’ tossed with cross-accents from choir to choir.

A new version of the fugue theme follows. The 2 choirs, each in simultaneous crotchets, hurl fragments to each other, the subject being divided between the 2 sopranos, the 3 instrumental groups, brass, oboes, and upper strings, moving against them with the arpeggi, 1st ascending, then descending, then ascending again and culminating tutti in both directions. 3 bars of Choir II, with continuo only, lead to a recapitulatory series of entries. The sopranos of Choir I, doubled by the 1st oboe, mount to high A with the subject; the sopranos of Choir II, doubled by violin I, sing a modified form of the countersubject rising to the same pitch, a section of the utmost brilliance and exaltation. The 2 altos and then the 2 tenors deliver original and inverted themes simultaneously, the remainder of the oboes and upper strings joining them while the bassi let us hear the arpeggio of joy in fragments. When the 2 basses enter with the combined theme, the continuo aids the chief idea, brass and percussion accentuate the main beats in sharp chords, and the two groups, oboes and upper strings, answer each other with the arpeggi. The Choir II, in the same manner as before, hammers out crotchets with the original them in the sopranos. Choir II is permitted to possess this only twice in the whole number, and in both cases in the top line. The short antiphonal choral phrases come again, with a moto perpetuo of the joy-motif in the bassi, and upper instrumental groups introduce antiphonally a figure derived from it, short outbursts of repeated chords [ms. 57-61, 118-124.] An extended versions of the ‘Tag und Nacht’ idea concludes, the arpeggio theme, now always rising, passes from upper strings through the oboes to the trumpets, supported by a thundering out of the rhythm by the timpani, and ascending in the 1st trumpet to a brilliant high D and a trilled C#, a blaze of triumphant glory. This is one of the most superb of Bach’s choruses, a great masterpiece of the highest order. One is glad that it is a torso, that one may listen to it in its solitary grandeur, not preceded or followed by arias and recitatives, which could only be overshadowed by its colossal stature.


This entire mvt. is a large-scale choral fugue, in which the theme and its fixed counterpoint are constantly being switched around (one replacing the other) according to the permutation principle. The development takes place in two halves, each of which is very similar to the other (each lasting exactly 68 ms.) and each consisting of an extensive fugal section followed by a non-fugal postlude. The counterpoint in the version that has come down to us sounds much more like a chordal, rather than a linear thickening (becoming more dense) of the fugal polyphony. Schematically the structure of this mvt. can be visualized as follows:

A The fugue with 8 permutation phases
Postlude (exchange of imitative motifs between both choirs)

A’ The fugue with 7 permutation phases
Postlude (exchange of imitative motifs between both choirs)

Bach creates a very impressive effect upon the listener by artistically applying various techniques among which one deserves particularly to be mentioned: a kind of pseudo inversion of the theme. By combining this theme with the theme in its original form, the listener receives the impression of an immense spatial expanse and splendor. To quote Werner Neumann: “[Dieser Satz] stellt die erschöpfende Verwirklichung aller im Permutationsprinzip beschlossenen Gestaltungsmöglichkeiten dar und wird so zum Gipfelpunkt der Formgattung“ [„{This mvt.} presents the exhaustive realization of all the form/structure possibilities inherent in the principle of permutation and, by doing so, it has attained the highest point of development in this form genre.”]


Cantata BWV 50: 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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