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Cantata BWV 127
Herr Jesu Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott
Mvt. 1 - Melody Variants

This is based upon the NBA study score that can be viewed at:

Some of the various ways that Bach can treat a melody:

He can

1. embellish it

This involves special way of including additional notes between the basic melody itself.
‘division’ : a florid musical passage; a variation of a theme; a succession of long notes are divided into many short ones.

This is a type of variation form where it often becomes a matter of ‘seek and ye shall find’ because the listener must contend with ‘Umspielung’ = ‘a playing around’ the melody which remains embedded in the texture of the passage. Some of the techniques used involve standard embellishments such as trills and turns, but others can be extended to become melismatic demonstrating extremely florid treatment which seems to cover the melody so that it becomes almost unrecognizable; however, in most instances, the melody will still be present even though certain notes of the melody will appear in unaccented, secondary positions where they are not expected.

2. hide it where it might not be expected, but state it directly note for note

Examples for this technique are found in Bach’s quodlibets where the melodies, although appearing unchanged from their original form, appear unannounced/unmarked in the middle of a movement or composition. A similar use occurs in the cantatas when Bach presents instrumentally an unsung chorale melody in the form of a chorale incipit or one even the entire chorale melody stretched over an entire movement. In the former instance, the melody may also be embellished as well.

3. transform it

While the limitations imposed upon the above techniques usually require that each note of the melody must occur in the correct sequence albeit with a note or several additional notes intervening, this type of treatment dispenses with this requirement and relies simply upon the ‘Gestalt’ of a melodic sequence. This means that Bach can depart from the restrictions imposed by embellishing or quoting a note-for-note version of the melody in an unexpected fashion where the listener must be able to recognize the statement of the theme or it presents itself clearly upon closer examination of the score. Now Bach is able to rely upon the mind’s ability to register the “Gestalt,” a shape or general outline of the melody. Just how far Bach is able to take this technique of modifying a melody is nothing short of amazing. Out of the 8-note sequence that identifies the chorale incipit [in this case, the chorale “Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott” upon which BWV 127 is based], Bach is remarkably able to change up to 5 of these 8 notes and still have it be in a recognizable form. Think of it! Almost 2/3 of the melody has been changed to different notes with different intervals between some of them and the listener will still be able to perceive these as representing the same chorale melody. Of course, the given context plays an important role here and if the correct shape or form of the melody is ‘hammered’ in by repetition (about ¼ of the iterations of the melody are correct or exact), then the chances are definitely enhanced that the variant forms will also be recognized. My own experience upon hearing this movement (BWV 127/1) the first few times is that I was simply not aware of the great number of changed forms of this melody and simply assumed that most of them were exactly alike. Only upon closer examination did all these variants present themselves with their sometimes astounding deviations from the original melody.


Compositional Strictures?

The question that comes to mind after making this discovery is:

Was Bach forced to make all these variants because of compositional strictures such as key shifts, harmonic progressions, ranges of instruments and voices, etc.? My personal view on this is that Bach controlled all these factors, they did not control him.

Bach’s major objective in which he succeed superbly was to find ways to musically illustrate the text. Having established this objective (to focus on the latent and inherent musical possibilities in a chorale text or libretto), Bach made the music do his bidding, not vice versa.

If we assume this observation to be true, then we should be able to find instances where Bach manipulates the melodic shape of a fixed chorale incipit in an effort to illustrate by word painting certain images, concepts, or feelings that are prompted by the text. It is one thing to illustrate thunder in the basses or the tearing of a curtain in a recitative because there is a much greater range of compositional freedom allowed in such instances than when working with much more closely defined structures as the chorale melody which still needs to be recognizable for the listeners. The following description of the variants of a single chorale incipit within the course of a single movement should reveal how Bach carefully considered almost each occurrence, specifically the ones which deviate from the norm, and made almost each one represent an aspect of the surrounding text with which it is associated and which it attempts to illustrate musically. Variants of the chorale incipit reveal important aspects of the text as different things are being emphasized at different points throughout the chorale cantata movement.

The following was written earlier than the foregoing, but I will leave it stand as is. [Forgive the unnecessary repetition!]

Some important definitions:

Permutation (a changed form) , transmutation (change of condition); mutation (alteration or change in form or qualities) variation (the fact of undergoing modification or alteration, especially within certain limits) variation (a modification with regard to the melody by which on repetition it appears in a new but still recognizable form

Gestalt a ‘shape’, ‘configuration’, or ‘structure’ which as an object of perception forms a specific whole or unity incapable of expression simply in terms of its parts [e.g. a melody in distinction from the notes that make it up.]

In the course of movement 1 of BWV 127, Bach uses the eight-note incipit of the chorale melody “Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott” a total of 84 times within the 80 measures/bars of the entire movement. There are generally 7 eighth notes followed by a single quarter note. These notes are moving twice as fast as the cantus firmus which is in the soprano part.

The number 84 is significant for Bach since, according to a standard form of gematria, B = 2; A = 1; C = 3; and H = 8. In this instance the numbers 2 and 8 (‘B’ and ‘H’) are combined, according to a permissible operation under gematria, to form a single number ’28.’ Now we can calculate according to these rules: 3 (for ‘C’) times 1 (for ‘A’) times 28 (for ‘B’ and ‘H’ combined) = 84, or simply 3 * 1 * 28 = 84, the number of short 8-note incipits in the entire movement. Bach has thus placed his musical ‘signature’ in this movement which stands out as the most important one in the entire cantata and may have served in a prominent position in a lost Passion by Bach.

It should be remembered here that, as explained earlier, in this movement Bach is juggling a number of other unsung chorale melodies in addition to the expressly sung main chorale which appears in the cantus firmus sung by the sopranos. These unsung chorales are the Agnus Dei “Christe, du Lamm Gottes”, “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” and “Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her.” Most of these move in long notes in contrast to the faster moving incipit of „Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott,“ which is the subject of this investigation.

Upon closer examination many interesting details will be revealed regarding the latter. The most important of these is the fact that upon hearing these 84 separate iterations of this melody, it always remains recognizable to the listener who may even come to think that they are, with the exception of a few startling variations, essentially the same. The human ear apprehendthis incessantly repeated motif as being a reference to the same chorale melody despite the fact that it undergoes subtle transformations, but, at times, some astounding permutations which are easily overheard because there are so many other things to be concentrating on in this movement. I have found 21 different forms of the original incipit! These can be classified into families or groups as seen in the illustration below. With the aid of capella software, I have been able to highlight in red the changed notes which are not part of the original melody pattern. At first you will see some which have only a single note changed (often only at the beginning or the end of the incipit) but as the movement progresses, Bach uses more and more notes that were not part of the original until he has a few variations of the theme with more than half of the notes not appearing in the original motif. What is truly remarkable is that the listener can still recognize them as representing the same motif. Bach must have tested the limits of a normal listener’s ability to discern a changed melody as still being essentially the same as the original motif. What is at work here is the mind’s ability to perceive a ‘Gestalt’ (definition: a ‘shape’ which is the object of perception; this ‘shape’ forms a specific whole or unity which can not simply be expressed in terms of its individual parts {e.g. a melody in distinction from the notes that make it up} or as mathematical relationships or formulae.) Having an intuitive grasp of this phenomenon, Bach is able to change/vary the individual notes and use these changes/variations for expressive purposes to bring out certain aspects of the text that are sung by the cantus firmus.

Here is the list of all the variants with a list of occurrences within the movement. The numbers refer to the numbers I used when I counted all the instances on the NBA score. The only exception is the final variant which I discovered subsequently. Here the numbers refer to actual measure numbers.

For the purpose of easy comparison, I have transposed about 2/3 of the iterations to make them appear the same on the page. Anyone should now be able to play the notes on a keyboard (or perhaps some other instrument) and hear the differences between the variants. I have divided these 21 variants into 7 families/groups that have a certain element in common such as a drop of a major or minor third, an extra repetition of the same note, etc.

The chorale incipit in its pure form looks like this:

Group 1. The only significant change occurs on the final quarter note which is sometimes different because Bach is quickly shifting harmonically away from the established key/mode of the chorale. However, sometimes the final note indicates a special word such as the unexpected F# [14 Alto, 1st Violin] (remember that the bulk of these examples have been transposed so that in reality the note in question in this instance is really a B natural) on the word ‘Gott.’ [God is raised or high above?] The final note becomes the highest note in the motif phrase:

The second example [10 bc] drops back down a full step but I see no reason harmonically for this change unless it is to prepare for the beginning of “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” which begins immediately on the next note that is played. Perhaps this dropping back alludes to a common depiction of Jesus’ head leaning to one side on the cross, all of this referred to in the chorale that follows directly:

Group 2. The ‘new’ element common to all the members of this group or family is the narrower drop of a minor third after the first four notes rather than a major third as in the chorale melody. The motif with only one change of this particular note occurs only once near the beginning of the movement with the oboes [3 Oboes.] This happens in the same measure that introduces fragments of the Passion Chorale that are preparatory to bc’s first statement of this unsung chorale:

The same motif as the latter, but with a drop back to the minor third on the last note as well can be found in six separate instances [6, 54, 64 Flauti, 12, 43, 77 Oboes] all of which are related to the Passion chorale as follows: they anticipate by one beat a similar figure in the bc which illustrates the unsung word ‘Wunden’ [‘wounds.’] from the Passion Chorale:

The connection between this variant motif:

and the exact position where ‘Wunden’ occurs is maintained in every instance throughout the movement. Note how the incipit of the Passion Chorale enters on a different note each time it is played in the bc. Here are the first two notes in each instance with measure numbers given: 6 G, C; 14 C, F; 43 E, A; 52 A, D; 65 G, C; 77 C, F. Here are the corresponding notes on which the 5 variants of this type enter: Eb, Ab, C, F, Eb, Ab. The linkage between the two sets/motif variants is clear.

A single occurrence of a leap upward by an interval of a seventh followed three notes later by a drop of a minor third is perhaps the most remarkable variant that Bach uses of this incipit motif:

It stands out easily by virtue of the unexpected: it is the only time that the sopranos sing something other than the cantus firmus. Being placed high in the sopranos’ range as they need to jump up a 7th and land on a high Ab, it serves as a climax and high point of the pleading and praying of human sinners who are begging for mercy. A listener may be able to perceive the anguish with which the pleas of each voice are cried out, but this soprano entry is particularly poignant because it is near the top of the sopranos’ range.

A further modification occurs when Bach adds yet another raised note (sharps) to the basic sequence of the main motif: not only the 5th note has a sharp before it, the 6th and the final note are also raised by a half step. This change occurs only twice in the bc [41 and 52 bc] where stands directly before the unsung Passion Chorale which is found only in the bc. The connection with pain and suffering [“O sacred head now wounded”] is announced/anticipated by inserting these additional ‘raised’ notes which stand out clearly to draw the attention of the listener to this event:

Group 3. This is the largest family/group of variants almost solely because of the various ending notes that appear. Basically the major change here is in the fourth note as the step down from the third to the fourth note is not a half-step or semi-tone but rather a whole step/tone down:

With only this single note changed, the character of the chorale melody undergoes a qualitative change that is quite recognizable to the ear when attention is called to it. In this movement there are a total of 9 examples of this. The key linkage of the variant to the text occurs when the tenors [27 Tenor] sing these notes to the words “der du littst Marter, Angst und Spott” [“you who have suffered martyrdom, fear and ridicule.”] This gives Bach the opportunity to express the ‘Affect’ of this phrase and contrast it with the incipit as it appears in its original form where it describes the nature of Jesus Christ as human being and God. The lowering by a whole step at this critical point in the main motif suddenly introduces a ‘flattening’ effect on the keyword “martyrdom” which is being emphasized here. Later on, both the altos and tenors [65 Alto; 66 Tenor] sing this lowered interval on the word “Sünder” [“sinner”] when asking for mercy. Certainly ‘sinner’ is a lowered state just as ‘martyrdom’ would be. Only the alto [45 Alto] has a text that does not relate in the same way as the others (here the word in question is ‘Vater’ {“father”}), but this is not of any great consequence since an objective study of Bach’s opening chorale movements will reveal that Bach, in treating a barform chorale with a ‘Stollen’ which repeats the same notes but with different text, rarely composes different music for such a repeat. T means that a keyword linkage involving word painting may fit perfectly the first time, but upon repeating the ‘Stollen’ with different words the connection between the music and the words is lost. But what about the other instrumental instances of this variant? Do they also show any kind of meaningful connection with their musical environment?
The strings [5, 11, 42, 53, 63 Str.] announce this variant of the motif each time in conjunction with the appearance of the Passion Chorale in the bc. Now the connection with Jesus Christ’s ‘martyrdom’ which was required to save the ‘sinners’ is expressed through the related image of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.”

All the other variants in this group bear one resemblance with each other: in addition to having the fourth note lowered by a whole step, the final note differs as well from the established pattern. Actually, the altos [17 Alto] and tenors [17 Tenor] sing the motif in parallel 6ths, but end it by dropping down with different intervals for the last note:


and altos:

The keyword connections here are with the fourth note lowered/flattened on the word “Christ” and the last note being sung to the word “Gott” [“God.”] Perhaps the parallelism between both vocal parts helps to underline the harmonious connection between “Christ” and “God.”

The occurrence of non-colla-parte statement of the variant motif [16 Flauti] while the full choir is singing is unexpected and perhaps for this reason Bach makes it stand out more by using such a modified variant of the motif. Otherwise it might not be registered by the listener as being truly distinctive.

The non-colla-parte statement of this variant by the recorders [44 Flauti] is clearly anticipatory of a very similar one by the altos [mentioned above as 45 Alto.] All of the entrances [4, 52, 62 bc] of this modified motif by the bc precede directly the Passion Chorale which follows each time.

We are left with two separate instances [24, 36 Bass, bc] of word painting on the final note which matches up with the text as follows: the 24th iteration of the motif has the bass voice landing on the word “Spott” [“ridicule.”]:

This carries some meaning connection, but not as strong as drop by an interval of a 7th to the word “starbst” [“you died”][36 Bass, bc.] This is incontrovertibly word painting par excellence since only the change of a single note is fraught with great meaning/significance:

There still remain the upward leaps from the first to the second notes of the motif:

These occur in the final choral segment that treats the plea for mercy. Each voice in turn repeats the insistent and now persistent cry by leaping upward to continue the main motif. Each entry is different here as if emphasizing the individual nature of each human being. Compare this with the first three entries of this motif at the very beginning (in all but the soprano part which is the cantus firmus) and you will find that they are all exactly alike. Is Bach representing the body of the church or the congregation as being unified in their beliefs while at the very end the individuals stand apart from each other in their personal appeals for mercy?

Group 4. There is only a single variant in this special group which is characterized by the lack of a drop by an interval of a 3rd after the fourth note in the motif. After this there is a stepwise, scalar ascent not to the original note but to a whole step above the one that is expected:

There is only a single occurrence of this variant sung by the alto voice together with the 2nd violins playing colla parte. It comes at a crucial (pun intended) point in the entire movement when the cantus firmus sings “Kreuz” [“cross”] just once in this chorale verse text. The soprano and tenor voices both have a ‘raised’ note (B natural where a Bb is expected from the key signature) and the altos overshoot even the other high ending (the final note in the motif) [14 alto; 1st violin] which has a single instance of F# to attain a G, which is the highest note of all in this final position. In this way the ‘raising’ of the cross is illustrated musically by Bach. Why would he otherwise have selected from the entire movement only this particular beat on the word “Kreuz” [“cross”] for marking this moment with an extreme gesture? Play this variant by itself in order to hear the special meaning that Bach has assigned to it. This is not sheer coincidence, use of a filler note or something that is unavoidable because it is required by a harmonic progression. Bach controlled the musical progressions he used; they did not control him and force him to use these notes which did not conform to the established chorale incipit motif.

Group 5. The main characteristic of the 5th group/family of variants consists of a drop of a minor third right after the repeated three-note pattern instead of drop of a semi-tone/half step as in the original pattern.

The first example from this group is [47 Tenor, Bass; 49 Bass, bc]:

Here we have the tenor and bass voice singing this pattern in parallel thirds, an effect which definitely places an emphasis on this particular variant. It is immediately repeated by the bass voice and bc for further emphasis. The words sung here are: “Und mir deins Vaters Huld erwarbst” with special emphasis on “Vaters” [“Father’s”] All I can think of here is that the sudden drop of a minor third on “Vaters Huld” signifies the direction of the Father’s bestowing of benevolence upon mankind: coming from above to human beings here on earth.
The remaining instances of this variant [67 Bass, bc; 69 Bass, bc] occur twice only sung by the bass and played colla parte by the bc. Now the emphasis is on “Sünder“ [„sinner“] as part of the prayerful plea:
Du wollst mir Sünder gnädig sein” [„Have mercy on me a sinner“] which, in essence, awaits goodness/kindness to be bestowed from above. This also seems to fit the dropping down by a minor third instead of the usual half-step in the basic incipit.

The second and third members of this group of variants not only drop down by a minor third in the position indicated above, but they also follow this with either a drop of a major or minor third as well.

The pattern with the major third is found in [46 Oboes; 48 Flauti; 50 Str.; 51 Oboes; 55 Alto; 56 Tenor; 57 Bass; 68 Flauti; 72 Oboes]:

We should best be able to find a clue for this pattern emerging from the vocal lines where the text should lead us to an interpretation [55 Alto; 56 Tenor; 57 Bass.] All of the vocal parts involved in ‘interpreting the words with separate entries that follow one another in a descending pattern from highest to the lowest pitches are here helping to express particularly the word “bittre” [“bitter”] which clashes with the word “Leiden” [“suffering”] which is either being played or sung simultaneously [this is the pattern of notes in the 7th group which is discussed below.]
[46 Oboes; 48 Flauti; 50 Str.] These are all associated with the unsung words of the Agnus Dei “trägst die Sünd’ der Welt” [“you carry the sins of the world”] which leaves [68 Flauti] that appears which “Sünder” [“sinner”] is being sung. Only [72 Oboes] seems to be unrelated to anything in particular.

The last variant in this group is distinguished by a minor third (rather than a major third) drop to the fifth note after which the pattern rises in scalar fashion as the one just preceding this:

The first instance [9 Flauti] occurs as the unsung word of the Agnus Dei “Gottes” [“of God”] is being completed by the oboes. Then there are 4 repetitions [28 Flauti; 29 Oboes; 30 Flauti; 31 Oboes] in succession in the section of the “Trinity” motif (where the nature of God is explored musically with the ‘3-in-One’ motif. Finally in [40 Flauti], there is no recognizable connection with the text.

Group 6. This group of variants stands out conspicuously from all the others by virtue of its extra repeated note at the beginning. Instead of 3 repetitions of the first note thare now 4.

What happens now is what distinguishes the members of this group from each other:

a) there is a drop of a minor third after which the notes ascend in scalar fashion until reaching a semi-tone above the original starting note. This is found in the section where “Kreuz” [“cross”] and “starbst” [“you died”] are being sung or played simultaneously. Such significant words call for a very special treatment which is apparent here [34 Bass; 35 Oboes]:

b) there is a drop of a major third, then ascending by whole steps until dropping by a fifth to the last note
This is already set in the long range for the strings. Perhaps the drop off interval to the final note prepares for the octave jump which the bass voice performs immediately thereafter:

c) this is the same as (b) but with an octave jump to the second note and no drop off interval at the end

This is the plea sung by the tenor voice as the final iteration of the motif. It repeats the pattern of the upward leaping intervals of the other voices, but then maintains the final to match the other occurrences of it, giving us a total of 5 or 6 repetitions of the base note (F in the examples) depending upon whether the lower octave note is included in this count. This is more than any other variant except the following which is in a class by itself.

Group 7.

The unique character of this variant prevented me from counting it at first along with the others. This is the reason why, on the NBA score which I provided with each variant counted separately, it was not included my initial counting where my final number in measure 79 listed as ’78.’ I was very intent at the time in seeing how close Bach came to having the chorale incipit pattern occur in each bar of the movement.

You will find this unusual variant of the motif marked with red numbers instead of blue. There are 6 instances, each occurring either with one of the 3 vocal parts (the cantus firmus does not enter into this form of expressive embellishment) where other instruments play colla parte, or with instruments or voice alone. What may seem confusing is that this variant appears in the voices as counterpoint another voice or instrument singing or playing another variant of the motif. What is important to note here, however, is that Bach, in this section (marked as line 5 of the main chorale,) does not, as would usually be the case, have the instruments play colla parte with the initial motif (i.e. 55 Alto; 56 Tenor; 57 Bass; 58 Alto {Flauti not in unison}; Bass {only here together with the bc.}) The fact that this motif does also stand alone [55 Flauti; 59 Oboes; 60 Flauti – note carefully that these are measure numbers and not iterations of the motif!] announcing poignantly the suffering of Jesus Christ, means that Bach has elevated it to greater importance than simply secondary material (counter-subject and the like.) If there is any particular variant which a listener would pick up upon first hearing, it would have to be this one, since it stands out above all others by its very unparalleled nature. There is only a single note which deviates by only a half-step from all the others! Such an economy of means in expressing effectively all the trauma and emotion associated with “Leiden” [“suffering.”] Yet, at the same time Bach is still able to have the listener relate to the motif which is hinted at by 4 notes which have still remained the same as the original motif. These are the important notes at the beginning and the end. This coupled with the three repeated notes representing the Trinity allows the listener to perceive the connection with the chorale incipit which dominates this movement.


Contributed by Thomas Braatz (January 24, 2005)

Cantata BWV 127: Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Examples from the Score: Mvt. 1 -
The Chorale Melody and Text | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Melody Variants

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Last update: ýSeptember 12, 2008 ý16:32:57