Bach’s Cantata, BWV 56

by Matthew Raley

A cantata like this one, given complete in the two videos below, was at the center of every Lutheran worship service in Johann Sebastian Bach’s day (1685-1750). It would have been newly composed for that particular Sunday, and part of a year-long cycle of cantatas. Notice several features:

1. The wide range of emotions: sorrow, confidence, pleasure, joy, fear. There is an arc that takes the worshiper from grief to delight. The composition is designed to minister to our conflicted spirits.

2. The depth of the lyrics. The words are few and frequently repeated, direct and unsentimental. They are also filled with emotionally-charged imagery, applied theological truth, and biblical allusions. You are not told what to feel, but are shown ideas and reasons to change what you feel. (The lyrics are translated on-screen from German to English. Where three is no translation, the lyrics are being repeated.)

3. The sound world that is created to accentuate the truths being sung. There are changes of harmony and instrumentation, there is rhythmic complexity, and there is virtuosity that captures our attention and holds it.

4. The length of time devoted to ministering so attentively to the emotions. The emotional arc is slow. You can’t minister to people without spending time. There is no such thing as an edification gimmick.

This performance by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and bass Klaus Mertens is led by Ton Koopman.

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