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 55
Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht

JoshuaRifkin/Andrew Parrott | Alfred Dürr | David Schulenberg | Alec Robertson


Thomas Braatz wrote (November 2, 2002):
BWV 55 - Commentaries:

It is remarkable how an offhand dismissal of this cantata by Spitta at the end of the 19th century, affected subsequent commentaries, most of which simply dismissed this cantata casually with few or no comments at all. The commentaries by Schweitzer, Voigt, Smend, all the way to Eric Chafe’s two fairly recent books on the Bach cantatas have little or nothing to say about this cantata. I will include Dürr’s commentary from his book that is obligated to treat every cantata that Bach wrote. I found, however, Andrew Parrott’s book, “The Essential Bach Choir,” with its double reference to this cantata and 3 other solo cantatas, that were first cited by Joshua Rifkin as one of the three key strands of evidence for OVPP in all of Bach’s cantatas. This I will discuss first:


Essentially Rifkin says, “Look at BWV 55, BWV 56, BWV 84, and BWV 169, and you will see nothing unusual about the 4 vocal parts (S, A, T, B) involved in each cantata, but if you examine the autograph wrappers (folders) which contained the parts, the usual wording, “à 4 Voci” changes to a different wording (listing from each cantata will follow) because of the “rather uncommon distribution of voices within the works themselves. Each cantata, although ending with a four-part chorale, otherwise calls for only one singer throughout – a soprano in BWV 84, alto in BWV 169, tenor in BWV 55, and bass in BWV 56.” Parrott takes this as evidence for the fact that ‘ripieni’ can mean not only a ‘choral’ singer, but also a single voice. Here are the designations of interest in each of these ‘solo’ cantatas:

BWV 55: Concerto à 4 Voci. ò vero Tenore solo è 3 Ripieni
BWV 56: Cantata à Voce Solo è Stromenti S. A. T. et Basso conce.
BWV 84: Cantata à Soprano Solo è 3 Ripieni
BWV 169: Concerto à Alto Solo è 3 Voci Ripieni

Let’s examine some aspects of these designations, particularly those having to do with the present cantata, BWV 55:

Although this is not a complete list of solo cantatas, it becomes quite apparent that Bach uses the terms, “Concerto” and “Cantata” in ways that seem to defy analysis. A possible theory that “Cantata” is used only for solo cantatas and “Concerto” for other sacred, “Church” cantatas is quickly ‘blown out of the water.’

BWV 55 shows us how completely unreliable this theory seems and it may even help us to understand how unusual the circumstances behind Bach’s designations may really be. The scenario behind this designation, based on what has been presented above, might be as follows:

1) Bach, coming to the end of another very busy year of composing cantatas (he must have become quite exhausted from all this activity and was already beginning to experience difficulties in procuring good vocalists and instrumentalists for these weekly productions), began composing BWV 55 but only completed the 1st two mvts. when these discouraging developments along with the death of one of his children caused him to look elsewhere in his library of earlier compositions for something that might work.

2) It is possible that he realized that, through absence or illness, he could not employ his usual core solo singers (Concertisten) in their usual full capacities, or that he was suddenly forced to take other singers into the ‘Concertisten’ who were not as able or proficient enough to tackle difficult solo parts or arias. This forced him to rely primarily upon the tenor alone. He then searched and found an aria and a recitative from an earlier Weimar passion, music which had not yet been performed in Leipzig.

3) Because Bach found himself pressed for time, he did not even consider providing a new 4-pt. harmonization of a chorale for this cantata. Even this he ‘lifted’ from yet another source. All of this is quite atypical for Bach’s usual procedures in composing a cantata. The cantata is, in essence, a hodge-podge of unrelated segments, as far as the time of composition is concerned, and yet the text and mood, as somber as it is, serve to provide some semblance of unity.

4) After Bach had his ‘little army’ of copyists extract the parts from the score (remember that the score also consisted of loose sheets that could easily be separated and given individually to the copyists who might be copying simultaneously from different sections/mvts. of the cantata), Bach then wrote the new title on a the folder that would contain the parts. There is no evidence that Bach did any copying of parts or even made any corrections or added articulation, or the figured bass as he usually does with other cantatas. (All of this is evidence of the unusual circumstances surrounding this cantata.)

5) The new cover may have been a replacement for the original cover that normally contains the autograph score, but here it may have been possible that such a cover never did exist as Bach changed his intentions regarding this cantata after composing only the 1st two mvts. After Bach’s death, C. P. E. Bach created a new cover with a title to reflect the contents so that it might look like Bach’s original cover. The open question here is whether there still was an original autograph cover for the score, one that Bach would have created before beginning to write the 1st two mvts. of the score, but later did not change. C. P. E. Bach, discovering this discrepancy, would have discarded this and created the new one. In the 19th century, however, the covers for the parts and C. P. E. Bach’s cover for the score were switched. This is the way they are found today in the BB.

6) The unusual circumstances surrounding the designation of this cantata make it quite unreliable as ‘proof’ of Bach’s usual method of assigning singers for his cantata productions.

Alfred Dürr:

With the exception of the choral final mvt., this cantata belongs to a series of solo cantatas that also were composed in 1726. [My comment: it appears as if Bach was having difficulties in producing cantatas with his usual choral forces.] The unknown librettist makes a direct reference to this Sunday’s Gospel reading: the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:23-35) where the characteristic antithesis of God’s mercy and the hard-hearted attitude of man are expressed in the opening aria: “Er ist gerecht, ich ungerecht.” This spills over into the entire structure of the cantata: 2 mvts. treat the sinfulness of man (mvts. 1 & 2) and the God’s mercy (mvts. 3 & 4). In mvt. 2 the librettist alludes to the images of God’s omnipresence as described in Psalm 139:7-10. [NLT: Psalm 139:7-10 I can never escape from your spirit! I can never get away from your presence! If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the place of the dead, you are there. If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans, even there your hand will guide me, and your strength will support me.] The thoughts contained in the final pair of mvts. (3 & 4), and the final chorale as well, point ahead to SMP which would be composed soon thereafter (next spring.)

It is quite apparent that woodwinds play a very important role in this cantata: the initial aria has the concertante flute and oboe d’amore frequently move in parallel thirds and sixths with both violins. These instruments, together with the bc, constitute a 5-pt. musical structure which is expanded to 6 parts when the tenor voice enters. By combining this polyphonic structure with a preference for the high range of theinstruments and voice, Bach creates the effect of a sinner writhing in pain as he attempts in vain to rid himself of the great burden that he is carrying.

After a secco recitative, the 2nd aria, “Erbarme dich” with an obligato flute is likewise filled with the anguish expressed in the 1st aria. The pleading of the sinner is presented by means of interval leaps of a sixth and falling seconds, but also by virtuoso passages on the flute and the frequent use of the Neapolitan sixth chords. The words, “Erbarme dich” are given continually changing musical treatments even spilling over into the following recitative where the strings, with their long-held chords provide a calming effect as the sinner contemplates Christ’s suffering. A similar, comforting effect occurs in the final chorale, the expression of which is more moderate than the harmonization of the same verse in the SMP.

David Schulenberg [Oxford Composer Companions: J. S. Bach – Boyd]:

Although the tenor part is difficult to sing it lacks coloratura sections and is a very short cantata. This is why the cantata is relatively little known.

“The ritornello [of the 1st aria] combines twice with the voice in “Vokaleinbau,” once at the end of the first section, to lines 2-3 of the text, and again at the end of the aria, where the opening verse is repeated. The result is a sort of pun, as the tenor’s concluding chromatic line is appropriate for both “Furcht und Zittern” (“fear and trembling,” line 3) and ‘armer Mensch’ (‘poor mortal,” and recurring line 1.)

A recitative leads to a binary-form aria in D minor with a florid flute part. The subject has turned here from sinful humankind to divine mercy, but the affect remains quiet and expressive, and the chromatic opening motif of the ritornello is also used to set the recurring opening line, “Erbarme dich” (“Have mercy on me”), In the B section, the second statement of the words ‘deinen Zorn…stillen’ (‘still your anger’) elicits a sudden silence, making all the more dramatic the following repetition of ‘erbarme dich.’ These words return to open the ensuing accompanied recitative; here they are set to a motif close to that used in the alto recitative “Erbarm es Gott!” in the SMP.

Aryeh Oron wrote (November 2, 2002):
BWV 55 - Background

The background below is taken from Alec Robertson’s book: ‘The Church Cantatas of J.S. Bach’ (1972).

Mvt. 1: Aria for Tenor
Flauto traverso, Oboe d'amore, Violino I/II, Continuo
Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht
(I, wretched man, I, slave of sin)
As in the tenor aria ‘Ach, schlage doch, sel’ge Stunde’ in Cantata BWV 95 Bach keeps his singer at the top of the stave, and above, for the best part of this aria, which is poignant, whereas the other is severe. Both arias depend for their effect on a voice able to scale these heights without strain. The orchestral introduction pictures the sinner in phrases eloquent of his unhappy condition. He repeats his self-accusation five times and then ‘Ich geh vor Gottes Angesichte / Mit Furcht und Zittern zum Gerichte’ (I go before the face of God / with fear and trembling to judgement) his voice rises in phrase by phrase of awe, as he, the unrighteous, faces the righteous.

Mvt. 2: Recitative for Tenor
Ich habe wider Gott gehandelt
(I have acted against God)
He bewails not having followed the path God pre-described and cries out for wings to fly to Heaven, where dwells the God who speaks to him of judgement, Bach places God on a high B flat with startling effect.

Mvt. 3: Aria for Tenor
Flauto traverso, Continuo
Erbarme dich!
(Have mercy!)
The movement can be places alongside the alto aria in the St Matthew Passion, which begins with the same opening phrases. The tear motif comes here into both the voice and the flute parts, and prominently in the second section after the ritornello. The many agitated arabesques for the flute betoken the anguish in the sinner’s soul. There is no da capo in this superb aria

Mvt. 4: Recitative for Tenor
Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo
Erbarme dich!
(Have mercy!)
The string put a tender glow of tone round the very different sentiments, and as the singer ends the play ‘Amen’ cadence at a high pitch.

Mvt. 5: Chorale
Flauto traverso e Oboe e Violino I col Soprano, Violino II coll'Alto, Viola col Tenore, Continuo
Bin ich gleich von dir gewichen,
(Though I have abandoned you)
This is the 6th verse of Johann Rist’s Werde munter mein Gemüte (1642) set to Johann Schop’s melody of that date.


Cantata BWV 55: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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 13:35