Judging by the text and lamenting style of their opening choruses or opening arias, all cantatas for this Sunday (155, 3, and 13) are very sad at first glance. Which seems strange, since the reading for the day is the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine at the Marriage at Cana. So let’s dig a little deeper in the cantata for this Sunday that I love the most, Cantata 3 Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid, from 1725.
My favorite interpretation of this cantata the one by Bach Collegium Japan. The choir sopranos (including Dorothee Mields) sing a truly heavenly “zum Himmel” in the opening chorus, bass soloist Peter Kooy does an excellent job in his on purpose difficult aria and doesn’t hold back in the chorale tune in the opening chorus, and last but not least: fabulous singing by soprano Dorothee Mields and counter-tenor Pascal Bertin in the duet.
If you can’t listen on Spotify or prefer not to, you can find Gardiner’s recording here on YouTube. Soprano: Joanne Lunn; Counter-tenor: Richard Wyn Roberts; Tenor: Julian Podger; Bass:Gerald Finley.
Bach was not just a strong believer but also a self-taught theologian, and stated several times that his church music was not intended for the glorification of God and to instruct his “neighbor.” On this day of the Marriage at Cana reading, he might have been compelled to illustrate the deeper meaning of the Bible story: earthly troubles can turn into heavenly bliss if you are patient and believe strongly enough that Jesus will lead you. So either he himself or his librettist decided not to mention the Bible story at all in the the text of this cantata.*
It is then not so strange anymore that in the music of this cantata Bach keeps, brilliantly, combining the struggle and the salvation in almost every part of the work.
The achingly beautiful opening chorus at first just sounds like a lament, but has some hidden messages which reveal the salvation. First, in the instrumental introduction, there is an ascending (the way to salvation/heaven) line in the violins at the same time as there is a chromatic descending line (the struggle/affliction) in the oboes, illustrating the last two lines of the text of that chorus:
Der schmale Weg ist trübsalvoll,
Click here to see that visualized by Thomas Braatz on the Bach Cantatas website.
While the Leipzig congregation might have missed this first hidden message, they would have gotten the second: the text communicated through the well-known chorale tune. The same way my Dutch calvinist great-grandmother had all the verses of all the Psalm texts memorized, the Lutherans in Bach’s time knew all their chorales and would immediately think of the text when hearing the tune. For this opening chorus, Bach chose the tune of O Jesu Christ mein’s Lebens Licht, so there was some glorification of Jesus right there amidst the lamentation:
O Jesu Christ mein’s Lebens Licht
Mein Hort, mein Trost, mein Zuversicht
Auf Erden bin ich nur ein Gast
Und drückt mich sehr der Sünden Last.
O Jesus Christ, light of my life,
my refuge, my comfort, my reassurance,
on earth I am only a guest
And the burden of sin presses down heavily upon me.
And to make this stand out, Bach uses his “pay attention!” trick again, letting this chorale melody appear in a for him very unusual place: the vocal bass line. To emphasize it, he doubles it with a trombone (which is probably also the reason why this cantata is almost never performed today, because who is going to hire an expensive trombonist just to play along with the choir in one part of the cantata?).
In the other outstanding part of this cantata, the soprano/alto duet, this is all reversed: the music sounds absolutely happy, but if you look at the score, you see a visual illustration of the text in the middle section: Mein Kreuz hilft Jesus tragen
(Jesus helps to bear my cross). When the oboe line goes up, the continuo line goes down, and when one vocal line goes up, the other vocal line goes down. On top of that, there are four sharps in the key signature (in Bach’s manuscript this would look like four crosses and a sharp is also called a “cross” in German). We know from other works that hidden messages like this are not a coincidence in Bach’s writing.
Wieneke Gorter, January 16, 2016. Links updated January 10, 2018.
*Seen in the context of the chorale cantata series of 1724/1725, this is not unusual at all. On Several occasions before this Sunday in 1725, Bach had decided to focus more on the text of the chorale he had chosen for the cantata than on the Gospel reading for that day. See for example my post about December 31, 1724 and January 1, 1725.