"The Overlooked Richness of the Recitatives of Bach's Cantata 78"


Joyce Kelley

Music 230

Prof. Freedman

Oct. 21, 1997

accompanied by MCD 560 v.20

In "Expressivity in the Accompanied Recitatives of Bach's Cantatas," George J. Buelow writes that although many of the distinguishing properties of Bach's music have been studied over the years, few scholars have examined Bach's recitatives or have given them proper credit. He notes that these recitatives generally either are ignored by musical scholarship or are briefly discussed with "general errors" or "confusion." 1 For example, he cites Jack Westrup as stating that Bach's recitatives are "basically an adaptation of the idioms of Italian opera" (19), and he mentions others who term them "improvisatory" or unrelated to the text. Buelow asserts that "informed observations" about Bach's recitatives would lead to different answers; he agrees with Martin Ruhnke who writes that Bach's recitative style is "original," its melody not "subservient to the texts as practiced by Italian composers" or as "promulgated by German theorists" but "independent and richer" and also "more excited and dramatic" (19). Indeed, a closer look at Bach's recitatives discloses fascinating devices of text and narrative illustration.

In his article, Buelow explores these neglected recitatives of Bach's cantatas and discusses aspects of their originality, including their relationships between music and text. He notes how Bach chose for some of his recitatives to be accompanied and for others to remain "simple." Buelow writes that it seems likely that Bach often employed the accompaniment style because it required the singer to remain slightly more measured. He quotes Scheibe who writes in his Critischer Musikus that accompanied recitative "is more suited to rousing and increasing devotion" in church, moving the listener more and "penetrat[ing] deeper into the heart" (21). This form does seem more fitting to devotion, "guided more by the beat of the measure" (21) just as churchgoers wish to be guided by God and not left to stray about like free improvisatory gestures! Some of these instrumentally guided recitatives even contain arioso segments, melodious passages that may seem out of place in a standard recitative. Two such recitatives that Buelow does not mention are the intriguing movements 3 and 5 of Cantata No. 78. In the first of these two examples, the arioso section lasts for the last four and a half bars of the piece and helps show the shift from the sinner's inner monologue to an outward presentation of his grief to Christ. In the second, the arioso spans the last dozen "andante" bars of the piece and illustrates a similar shift from the text's discussion of Christ's strengthening of mankind through his suffering to an individual's placement of his own suffering heart before Christ.

To most Baroque theorists, recitatives were simply a form of sung speech, an "oration in tones" (25). Buelow points out that while Bach is a skilled rhetorician, he is also unusually sensitive to words in his recitative style, finding "such a variety of musical and rhetorical means to express them," an atypical accomplishment for the Baroque period (26). Buelow notes several approaches that Bach takes to express his text as he looks in depth at a specific cantata. Cantata No. 78 reveals similar trends, demonstrating Bach's expressivity through vocal and instrumental ranges, the emphasis of words through leaps and dissonant relationships, and expressivity through melodic figures and harmonic progression, all techniques rarely possible within the confines of aria. In addition, its abrupt "mood swings" of tempo and character setting highlight its deep and moving language in fascinating ways. These changes in tone seem to reflect the narrative style of the verse; in both recitatives Bach uses his music to make this transition markedly poignant, emphasizing the shift from the sinner's inward reflection to his outer appeal to Christ.

The cantata's first recitative, the third movement of the piece, is set for tenor and continuo. Throughout a large portion of the piece, the organ continuo leaves the singer to fend for himself, entering only occasionally to mark his words with an expressive chord. This setting is appropriate for the movement's first eleven lines, which are largely an introspective soliloquy. Here the singer condemns himself, crying, "Ach! ich bin ein Kind der Sünden" (Ah! I am a child of sin!) (line 1). "Ach! ich irre weit und breit." (Ah! I wander far and wide!) (2). He characterizes himself as a sinner and a wanderer, and as he does so the music echoes his musings. For example, the first two lines appropriately "wander" harmonically. The tenor's line jumps about chaotically, leaping especially high on the word "weit," meaning "vast" or "wide." In addition, the continuo's unnerving chords strike in odd places, making the singer seem truly out of sync with his accompaniment. (Play Example 1)* (see note) Just so, as the sinner wanders about through life he moves out of synchronization with God.

The man is not proud of his sins, however; his inner feelings move primarily towards goodness. As he laments that his will "inclines toward evil" (5), he seeks redemption. "Ach! wer wird mich erlösen?" (Ah, who will redeem me?) (6), he calls in line 6. In lines one and two we saw this same "Ach" followed by an introspective examination of his own shortcomings; the "ach" now leads to the first shift in the movement from the inside outward to encompass another. Perhaps he is not doomed to suffer alone; perhaps another will aid him. Appropriately, his harmonic wandering ceases at this moment to produce a fine melodious line and cadence on an A dominant 7th. (Example 2) In "Facing up, Finally, to Bach's Dark Vision," Richard Taruskin gives us his own interpretation about such variation in harmonic movement. Taruskin writes that Bach's music is, above all, a "medium of truth, not beauty." 2 Bach's words, Taruskin argues, reveal to us "that the world is filth and horror, that humans are helpless, that life is pain, that reason is a snare" (312). When Bach's music is beautiful, argues Taruskin, it is only "to point out an escape from worldly woe in heavenly submission" (310). Taruskin's words ring true; much of the beginning of this recitative is decisively unpleasing to the ear. The diminished 7th chords on each "ach" and the diminished triads in the continuo in the first eight bars are outlandishly harsh and grating for Bach's day, helping to add to the horror the sinner confronts in his self-exploration. These intensely disturbing harmonies are only appropriate to illustrate such wrenching lines as "The leprosy of sin found on me / will not leave me in this lifetime" (3-4). After such bitter sounds, the cadence in line six (measure 8) alluding to heavenly aid is decisively pleasing and welcome.

The sinner does not dwell on heavenly help for long, however, but instead returns to an analysis of his own predicament. The pleasant dominant seventh chord that once suggested a lead to better things resolves instead to an odd F# chord with a fifth and flat seventh as the sinner continues to discuss his weakness. "But to compel flesh and blood, / and to accomplish good / is beyond all my strength," he continues in lines 7-9. The high dissonant E flat of "aber" ("but," a word that shifts the text back in the previous direction) echoes, in tone and vowel sound, the "achs" of the opening lines. However, in measure 11 as the man speaks of the "good," the harmonies are again pleasing, ending on a nice G dominant seventh presumably again to illustrate the possibility of heavenly goodness. (Example 3) Again, however, as the sinner reverts to the impossibility of this feat, the harmonies remain unresolved. In line 11, "I cannot count how often I err," the harmonies become even more odd, seeming almost "wrong;" as the bass chords become more frequent and glaring, Bach cleverly demonstrates through the music the man's frequent errors. (Example 4)

As line 12 begins we encounter a more flowing sequence in the vocal line with more repetition of tones and fewer leaps in range. As the tenor sings "Drum nehm ich nun der Sünden Schmerz und Pein / und meiner Sorgen Bürde. . ." (Thus I now take the grief and pain of my sins / and the burden of my cares. . .) (12-13), Bach's music anticipates a switch in narrative, moving from the inside out. Already the music is becoming more lively and "extraverted." Indeed, the singer is about to turn his inner pains, which would "otherwise be unbearable to [him]," (14) over to another who is strong enough to support them. Finally he reveals this decision in line 15, crying, "I deliver them to you, Jesus, sighing." "Jesu" comes on a high G, the peak of the tenor's gradually rising melodic line. In addition, Bach allows the singer to truly "sigh" on the word "seufzend" (sighing) on his D flat eighth note, C sixteenth, and B flat grace note that lead down to A flat. At once there is a clear narrative shift as the line gains momentum, making the sinner's inner feelings more expressive and tangible. Appropriately, this is where Bach chooses to include a more melodious arioso section of the sort to which Buelow refers in his article. At once the continuo adds graceful eighth notes beneath the tenor's voice, completely uniting with his song for the first time. He is no longer "out of sync" with God, but now walks along by his side. (Example 5) The tenor employs a much more fluid and tonally coherent harmonic line as he speaks directly to Christ and presents himself before him. In addition, he even has a long melisma on "erzürnet" (angered) in the last line, an unusual characteristic of Bach's recitatives noted by Buelow.

Bach's second recitative demonstrates similar patterns in its narrative voice, although this recitative is tonally much more pleasing than the first. Bach makes the first unit of his second recitative out of the first four lines of text which discuss Christ's suffering and tell how his pain was transformed into "tokens of victory" (3) that extend "new strength" to the speaker (4). The movement begins with a large E flat major chord in the strings and continuo; this E-flat pedal extends over the first line of the piece which alludes to "The wounds, nails, crown, and grave" (1), all symbol's of Christ's suffering. The tone of this line is oddly sweet and tender; obviously Bach already anticipates the "victory" and "strength" of lines three and four. There is a slight rest setting off each word as the Bass sings through a joyful and clear progression involving an E flat dominant seventh on "Wunden" (wounds) and an A flat major chord on "Nagel," ascends to a high D to illustrate the height of the "Kron" (crown of thorns) atop Christ's head, and drops an octave and a half to a low G for the tonic chord on "Grab" (grave). This abrupt drop obviously illustrates Christ's descent into the grave and works well with Buelow's own examples in which Bach uses the singer's range to illustrate words in a recitative. (Example 6) We see already that Bach's voice line is indeed more "unique" and "rich" than the average recitative, something which will become even more evident as the movement progresses. Line two turns to minor and employs two diminished 7th chords on "schläge" (blows) and "dort dem Heiland" (the savior), showing a strikingly melancholy harmonic progression that illustrates these tragic words. Continuing in F minor, the bass notes rise a major sixth to a high D on "Seigezeichen" (tokens); as Buelow suggests, a raise of a sixth "suggests a heightening of the expressive impact of a vocal line" (33). This chord is also an inversion of a B flat dominant seventh, lending a brighter sonority to the music and promising a resolution in the E flat major of line four, which appropriately refers to the connection between Christ's victory and the man's newfound strength. (Example 7)

In these first four lines (measures 1-7), the instruments have mainly chimed in on beats one and three, lending a standard sort of recitative coloring to the work. For lines 5 and 6, however, they suddenly play a more active role as the tempo shifts to an aggravated vivace and the Bass sings "con ardore." The new furiousness of the tempo illustrates the shift in thought from his newfound strength to "when a horrifying judgment pronounces a curse on the damned" (5-6). The Bass's quick arpegiations and 7th leaps help to show the agitation of the sinner's mind as the strings and organ pound away at their framing groups of three sixteenth notes, arriving first on an interruptive A diminished 7th chord and then on two D dominant 7th chords leading to G minor. (Example 8) With line 7, the tempo changes to adagio and the strings and continuo return to their regular "twice a measure" accompaniment as the text reads, "you turn it into a blessing" (7). Here there is the first switch in the narration to the sinner's direct address of Jesus, much as we saw in the previous recitative. As before, the harmonies switch from a diminished sonority to a more pleasant G major dominant on "Segen" (blessing). Again this dominant sonority does not resolve in the next line, but concludes with other dissonant harmonies. As in the 3rd movement of the Cantata, the narrative switches back to the individual, who here suddenly changes to address Jesus in the third person, momentarily distancing himself. "No pain or grief can alter me, when my savior knows them," translate lines 8 and 9. The strings' coloration arrives irregularly only in measure 11, where all but the first violin change on beat two to a E diminished 7th on "Schmerz," allowing the biting quality of this "grief" to stand out. The first ornament of the piece occurs on the "Heiland" (savior) of measure 12, beginning to suggest a use of melismatic gestures like the ones Buelow discusses, which he calls "contradictory to all Baroque theory of recitative and unlike the Italian opera recitatives" of that time (24). (Example 9) The text now switches again to address Christ directly, saying "und da dein Herz vor mich in Liebe brennt" (And since your heart burns in love before me) (10). Here the harmonies move to major and the singer pulses on the A of "Liebe" (after another characteristic major 6th leap), perhaps to demonstrate the beating of the heart, then leads to the joyful B flat major of "Brennt." (Example 10)

From this point on, the singer continues to speak to Christ directly and brings himself even closer to the savior as he compares his own heart to Christ's. As he speaks to Christ of laying his heart "down before you" (12), his line drops to a very low B flat and A flat that are scarcely audible, underscoring the low placement of the heart and the bowing reverence of the sinner before his savior. (Example 11) As the singer speaks of his own heart, the violins pick up with a sweeping, duet-like melody line in measure 16, leading to a new more harmonically stable arioso section where the strings become equally important to the voice line. Here we move to a more internal seat of feeling and affection represented in a sighing motif, the falling third and rising second in the violins, like the one seen on the "seufzen" of the previous recitative. The ultimate emotional arrival of the piece occurs in the last four lines of text, set to an andante tempo, making an interesting exchange between the singer and Christ. Instead of Christ now offering his sufferings to help mankind, the sinner / singer offers his own heart "wrought with suffering, / sprinkled with your specious blood / shed on the cross" to Christ (14-15). The singer presents his inner feelings to another, sharing of himself and making his emotions more audible and extraverted. As in movement three, the arioso section illustrates the sinner giving something of himself to Christ. There are many more melismatic ornaments in this section; for lines 13 and 14 the singer's sixteenths and trill on "vermenget" (m. 19) may show how carefully "wrought" his heart is, while a very similar ornament on "besprenget" in m. 21 seems to paint the "sprinkling" of Christ's blood. This section also shifts between A and D flat, tonal realms of extreme poignancy. In addition there are heart-wrenching minor 6th leaps on "Leid" (injury) and "Blut" (blood). For the last two lines Bach colors "vergossen" (spill, shed) with a sweeping descent and adds an ornament and trill to "Jesu." The strings and continuo conclude with two measures of their own, resolving the B flat dominant of "Christ" to F minor. (Example 12)

Just as Buelow has noted in his article, Bach's recitatives indeed prove unique and intricately linked to his text. Through his music, Bach shows how recitatives can be not only patterns of sung speech but marked soliloquies full of pathos where characters reveal to us their souls. Bach's close attention to narrative modes and to the relationship between the sinners and Christ demonstrates a remarkable sensitivity to the text's delicate form. As the sinners wander and shift from their own predicaments to Christ, Bach captures these struggles and triumphs in his tones. As Buelow writes, the recitative "provides a glimpse into that still indefinable balance of musical genius, all-encompassing craft, and the indestructible faith and zeal of the German protestant" (35). Buelow has been right in turning our attention to this largely "ignored resource" in our study of Bach's sacred music; in any study of Bach's pairing of music to text, these cleverly crafted recitatives demand credit and attention.


1George Buelow, "Expressivity in the Accompanied Recitatives of Bach's Cantata's," Bach Studies, ed. Don Franklin (Cambridge, 1989), p. 19.


2Richard Taruskin, "Facing Up, Finally, to Bach's Dark Vision," Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (New York: Oxford Press, 1995) p. 310.


* Please use MCD 560, Das Kautatenwerk vol. 20 (Bach's Cantata's volume 20), kantate 78, "Jesu, der meine Seele," CD 2.