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Cantata BWV 78
Jesu, der du meine Seele

S.W. Bennett | L. Finscher | T. Braatz


Aryeh Oron wrote (September 18, 2001):
BWV 78 - Background

This is the week of Cantata BWV 78 according to Peter Bloemendaal, the seventh one in his proposed list of cantatas for discussion. In connection with last week’s horrible events, I believe that many members of the BCML would find comfort in this cantata, both its text and its music. It includes one of the marvellous opening choruses in the form of a fantasia, one of the best duets Bach has ever written, two recitatives which seems to be taken directly from a passion, two wonderful arias, variety of moods, and more surprises and delights. The main theme of the cantata is consolation and that is something all of us need now. As a background to the review of the recordings of this magnificent cantata I shall use this time the linear notes to the recordings on Vanguard Classics (Prohaska) written by S.W. Bennett, and on Teldec (Harnoncourt) written by Ludwig Finscher. In some way these notes are complementary, because they look at the cantata from different angles.

S.W. Bennett

The Cantata BWV 78, Jesu, der du meine Seele, is a product of Bach’s Leipzig period, having been written for the 14th Sunday after Trinity. It was at Leipzig that Bach, between 1732 and 1744, developed and perfected the form of the ‘Chorale Cantata’. The essence of this form is that the entire chorale becomes the basis of the cantata. The two pillars are the first movement, always a great chorale-fantasia, and the last movement, which presents the chorale in its unadorned setting. The arias are concerted movements in between each interpret a different stanza of the hymn, and embody variations of and counter-melodies to the chorale. The invention is often so free that only occasional phrase will seem to come from the original chorale melody. Yet the listener, as the great Bach biographer Phillip Spitta, write, ‘will feel that not a moment has past during which he has not been hearing the chorale, either in its material form or in its inner spirit.

The Cantata BWV 78 opens with a magnificent chorale-fantasia. Along with the chorale, its basic material is provided by a poignant theme four bars in length, chromatically descending by a fourth. Bach has used this theme in his early Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, and he also based the Crucifixus of the B minor Mass (BWV 232) on it. This recurring theme gives the movement the form of a chaconne. The movement starts with alternating orchestral and choral passages, and reaches a climax in which the full resources of orchestra and chorus are called upon, while the most complicated strands of melody are set in into motion.”

The second movement, a duet for soprano and alto, is melodically one of the most enchanting movements written by Bach. The ability to move from the complexities and emotional depth of the opening fantasia to the idyllic feeling and transparent texture of this duet typifies the genius of the Leipzig cantatas. The heartrending tenor recitative, depicting the sinner in deepest penitence, opens up still another realm of emotion, and the tenor aria that follows, adorned by a flute obbligato, provides a consoling answer. This must undoubtedly have been followed by a sermon, which may have closed with a reference to the passion. It is the thought of the passion that the bass takes up, with the opening words of his intensely dramatic accompanied recitative, ‘Die Wunden, Nägel, Kron und Grab’ (The wounds, the nails, the crown and grave). Then comes the bass aria, with a mood of serenity and confidence. It is followed by a chorale.”

Ludwig Finscher

Jesu, der du meine Seele (BWV 78), written for the 14th Sunday after Trinity (September 10) 1724, is a ‘modified’ chorale cantata. Thus the first and the last verse are played unchanged at the beginning and end, whereas verses 2 to 11 are condensed and transformed into madrigalesque poetry. Thanks to its richness of form and its power of expression, it is one of the best-known Bach cantatas altogether. The formal and tonal framework (G minor) is achieved by the choral movements, which are related to each other by contrast. The opening chorus is an enormous Passacaglia above a chromatically descending motif frequently used by Bach as a symbol of suffering and pain. Into this he builds the chorale, played line by line by the slide trumpet and first flute and expanded on by the chorus in motet style. Contrasting with this is the markedly uncomplicated concluding chorus, which renounces all development of text details and strands for the consolidated faith of the congregation despite all the weaknesses of the individual. The solo numbers mediate between these two extremes. In this connection the arias represent the ever-increasing consolation to be found in faith, while the two recitatives paint a picture of sinfulness of man and the inseparability of terror and consolation in the redeeming sacrifice of the Saviour to a musically drastic degree which is unusual even for Bach. Compared with this, the arias have an almost elegant effect: the duet, with the ‘weak but diligent steps’ of the thoroughbass and of the succeeding symbolism of the imitative voice entrances, the tenor aria with its integration of differentiated text interpretation in the singing part and sustained joyful tone in the flute figures, and finally the bass aria with its optimistic concertante style. Within itself the sequence of arias is, over and above this, arranged as intensification: from a thoroughbass by the way of the flute aria to the aria with concertante oboe and tutti strings.”

Thomas Braatz wrote (September 18, 2001):
Some specific quotations from the cantata text that seem to connect with last week's (September 11, 2001) events:

Aus des Teufels finstern Höhle ("out of the dark cave of the devil") (Mvt. 1)

Sei doch itzt, o Gott, mein Hort! ("O God, be my protector now!") (Mvt. 1)

Ruft mich der Höllen Heer zum Streite, ("If hell's army forces me to fight")
So steht Jesus mir zur Seite, ("then Jesus will stand by my side")
Daß ich beherzt und sieghaft sei. ("so that I will be brave and victorious")
(Mvt. 4)

Nun du wirst mein Gewissen stillen, ("Now you will calm my mind/conscience")
So wider mich um Rache schreit ("As others are crying out for revenge against me") (Mvt. 6)


This is one of Felix Mendelssohn's favorite cantatas, the group of favourites consisting of BWV 7, BWV 8, BWV 68, BWV 78.

Spitta praises "the calm control of all the artistic means and methods of composition, that have a deep masculine earnestness imprinted upon them. All this can only come from such an abundant artistic life such as Bach's."

Schweitzer: "One of the most expressive cantatas ever written by Bach."

Simon Crouch quotes from a Marshall essay, "I can think of no more spectacular demonstration of Bach's powers of synthesis, his unparalleled combinatorial genius."

The opening mvt. which sets the tone of most cantatas, particularly those of the chorale cantata cycle, is singled out for special commendation:

Smend: "One of the most powerful chorale mvts."

Simon Crouch: "One of the most glorious choruses in all music."

First Performance: The KB of the NBA indicates that it was most likely on September 10, 1724.

Authentic Source, Text:

See: Cantata BWV 78 - Provenance

Form and content of each mvt.:

Mvt. 1 (Introductory Chorale with all available vand instruments)

Description of the mood as determined by the content:

Voigt: a somber gloominess pervades the entire atmosphere of this mvt.

Schweitzer: a contrast of Christ's suffering and pain as opposed to that of the joy of salvation. The motif of grief as opposed to the motif of joy. The mighty tearing of the soul from the gloomy pit of the devil (the upward moving figure in the bc when the voices enter.)

Smend: a mood of suffering and anguish.

Nicholas Anderson: a profoundly expressive lament.


Passacaglia - This is not a dance, although some more recent recordings try to treat it this way. Bach also distinguishes between the Chaconne and the Passacaglia, although some individuals who have written the liner notes for the recordings of this cantata still want to call this mvt the former instead of the latter. A Chaconne has an open-ended bass 4 measures in length with an implied chord sequence, whereas the Passacaglia is a harmoniously complete 8-measure melody with the emphasis on the theme which can even appear in the treble as it does in this mvt. In a more general sense the Passacaglia is a set of continuous variations on a repeated short theme. In this mvt. the theme primarily and initially appears as a descending chromatic ostinato bass. This same chromatic theme was also used in BWV 4 (5th mvt.) [composed 1708/08] and BWV 12 (2nd mvt.) and can be found later (after the composition of BWV 78) in the 'Crucifixus' in the Symbolum Nicenum of the B-minor Mass BWV 232. A similar ostinato theme is found in BWV 150 where he also creates a fugue on this theme (it appears in almost all of the mvts.)

While this downward moving chromatic theme expresses the great pain, anguish, and suffering of Christ, Schweitzer also points to the opposing theme that points to the joy felt by mankind as Christ through his deeds succeeds in overcoming mankind's original sin and releasing our souls "from the gloomy pit of the devil." It is interesting to hear the drama created by the juxtaposition of these two main motifs or themes, but there is even more depth to this composition than one can comprehend on first hearing.

Smend and Dürr analyze the structure of this mvt. as follows: In the 144 measures of this mvt. there are 27 passacaglia repetitions, 2 of these are in inversion, and several times it appears in the highest treble part, or in other keys (subdominant, dominant, or the dominant-tonic parallels.) 22 times the units/repetitions occur in sequence. Then there are insertions ('patches') of a few measures here and there, insertions that seem only partially or unrelated to the main theme. At times there are stretto-like entries. Dürr observes "as much as the instruments are restricted in the mvt. by the passacaglia structure (no concertante or imitative passages following in close sequence occur,) the voices take on a much more significant role: Instead of simply introducing and preparing the chorale melody as in an organ chorale prelude before the cantus firmus (here in the soprano part) appears, the supporting voices present rather difficult and involved polyphony which changes as it interprets each line of verse. The three lower voices fulfill a specific function: they mediate between the cantus firmus and the passacaglia form: they are bound to the harmonic movement in the variations of the passacaglia, but are also used to interpret the text being sung by the cantus firmus (soprano.) Bach strives to find a characteristic expression fro each line of the text. Astonishing is Bach's ability to combine the chorale with the passacaglia while still giving unique expression to the individual chorale lines (ex. "kräftiglich herausgerissen" where he employs imitative upward moving motifs, adds a strong rhythmical component, and modulates from G minor to D major.)"

Smend sees the continuing transformation of the theme, putting it in various keys, using inversion, and changing the direction of the movement. It first appears in the bc, but in measure 9 it appears in the upper voices (1st oboe.) Immediately thereafter it is an octave lower in the 2nd oboe. In measures 25-28 it is found in the alto in 'motu contrario' followed by a canonic treatment in the tenor. Then the vocal bass has it in the subdominant. At measure 89 (end of the section) the sequence is temporarily discontinued, but then it appears to be leading again in the sequences (measures 95-102, 118-121, 136-143.)

Mvt. 2 (Duet for Soprano and Alto)

For many years this mvt. was a popular favorite of WFMT (a local, now world-class classical music station) listeners. They have always played the version that Aryeh singled out as being the best. It has always been popular, if not surprising as it appears directly, without any intervening recitative to provide a transition from the 1st mvt. to this one. Spitta asks, "How could Bach give this duet an idyllic-tender quality, when the text treats this as a prayer for help and aid to be given to the weak and infirm?" Spitta was extremely puzzled by this mvt. until he considered the 2nd verse of the original chorale and discovered the single line that inspired the librettist who accomplished a major transformation, but one that Spitta 'explains away' by stating that every listener, despite having a printed copy of the cantata text in hand, still had a much stronger identification with the original chorale text than with its transformation.

Here is the text of verse 2:

Treulich hast du ja gesuchet
Die verlornen Schäflein,
Als sie liefen ganz verfluchet
In den Höllen=Pfuhl hinein.

[Faithfully you searched
For the lost lambs,
As they were running into damnation
Directly into the hellish sink of iniquity.]

Somehow Spitta does not succeed in 'explaining away' or saving Bach for those who expect him to remain somber and gloomy because that is what Bach's congregation must have been thinking. Note that the verb, "liefen" ("were running") seems to be the only link between this verse of the chorale and the librettist's transformation. The direction of movement has been turned around 180 degrees.

Voigt: "There is nothing that prepares us for this duet that is so full of charm and grace. It has such a completely different mood from that of Mvt. 1. It is glowing and radiant.

Schweitzer, of course, notes the word painting in the "act of hastening away as charmingly suggested in the bc motif."

Dürr sees in the duet a contrast to the slowly drooping figure of the passacaglia. Bach now presents in a particularly charming way the image of hurrying to Jesus, the master. The accompaniment characterizes the fast, nimble steps of his followers and believers. Notable features are the canon-like chasing of one voice after the other, the many repeats of "o Jesu" and "zu dir," and the coloraturas on "erfreulich."

Voigt comments on the final "zu dir" as being "a very modern conclusion."

I find this final drop of a third in both voices to be highly unusual, but very effective. It is almost as if two people are calling out over a distance: "Yoohoo" as if to attract attention to themselves. Perhaps the singers are calling out to the members of the congregation, "Hello, here we are. Won't you join us on journey as we hurry on to join up with Christ?"

Bach marked the violone is "staccato e pizzicato" and since the steps are described as "weak, but nevertheless zealously moving forward," the recordings should reflect these thoughts by not using heavy voices or a loud instrumental accompaniment (Bach personally marked the instrumental parts 'piano' whenever the voices enter.)

In some recordings the conductor has decided to destroy the beautiful effect of the final "zu dir" by inserting an appoggiatura before the final note, thus weakening and undermining the effect.

Mvt. 3 (Recitative)

The despair of a sinner is dramatized in the large interval jumps in the voice. The final arioso, with a veexpressive melody, relieves the secco portion of the recitative and puts greater emphasis on the words. There is a rare 'piano' marking in the bc. Such a marking in a recitative only occurs once more in a recitative for BWV 99.

Mvt. 4 (Aria)

The text points to the eradication of our sins through Christ's suffering. In the flute passages we can imagine the 'crossing off' of man's guilt (the linear, scale-like passages) and the relieved heart that jumps for joy (staccato.) An element of word-painting occurs when in this G minor aria there is a change to major on the words, "macht mir das Herze wieder leicht."

Mvt. 5 (Recitative)

This recitative is rich in chromaticism. The secco changes to a sophisticated accompagnato style. Using as an accompaniment all the strings, this recitative is reminiscent of Bach's passions. There are wide interval jumps to increase the expressive power of the words, and also many sudden changes in tempo: vivace - adagio - andante. The indication, "con ardore," (in the vivace section) increases the dramatic effect. The chorale melody is cited at the end of the mvt (this is an exact musical quote from the chorale) with such great artistry and embellishment that you really have to listen to this a few times to recognize it.

Mvt. 6 (Aria)

Smend indicates: "Here you have a contrast between the cry for revenge and that of the calmed conscience."
Dürr: This is more like a concerto for bass voice and oboe with the insertions of tutti passages for the strings. Bach achieves an 8-measure 'regular' type introduction by doing the following: [This is the explanation of the scheme - Section (form) (# of measures)] Tutti (a) (1) - Solo (b) (2 1/2) - Tutti (a) (1) - Solo (b') (2 1/2) – Tutti (c) (1) This division is maintained throughout the major A section (1-32.) There is a Vokaleinbau (36ff.) Major section B (subdominant) is treated less freely. The end of this section has an apparent Da capo with the voice participating in the unchanged ritornello, after which the instrumental ritornello concludes the mvt.

Mvt. 7 (Chorale)

Smend states: "The multiplicity of form as well as any emotional unrest is now unified in the final chorale."


Cantata BWV 78: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
Program Notes to Jesu, der du meine Seele, BWV 78 [S. Burton]

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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Last update: Friday, September 01, 2017 13:26