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BWV 3 ‘Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid’ I

Sun 17 Jan, 10.00am

J.S. Bach - BWV 3 , Full cantata stream, Online

For this edition of ‘Cantata of the Week’ we are streaming BWV 3 ‘Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid’ I (‘Ah God, what deep affliction’), composed by Bach in 1725 for the second Sunday after Epiphany. This is introduced by the cellist David Watkin, who features on this recording, and performed in many other concerts during our Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000.

Click here to download the vocal score of the cantata.

Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists
John Eliot Gardiner - conductor

Joanne Lunn soprano
Richard Wyn Roberts alto
Julian Podger tenor
Gerald Finley bass

This live recording is from the MCO’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, recorded at the Old Royal Naval College Chapel, Greenwich, London, in January 2000. It features on Vol. 19 of our Complete Bach Cantata series, which is available to purchase from the MCO shop by clicking here.

English translation by Richard Stokes from ‘J. S. Bach: The Complete Cantatas’ (1999, Scarecrow Press)

Commentary on BWV 3 by John Eliot Gardiner

In BWV 3 ‘Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid’, the chorale melody of the first movement is assigned on this occasion to the vocal bass-line supported by a trombone. Bach takes a simple device and a frequent symbol of grief in the tragic chaconnes of Baroque opera – six notes in chromatic descent – and makes it the melodic germ of his entire chorale fantasia: the introduction, each vocal entry, the instrumental interludes, and the coda. His method is to work from the natural accentuation of the German text (and not the barlines!) and to underline this with a succession of appoggiaturas and chromatic harmonies which results in what Gillies Whittaker calls ‘a fascinating maze of cross accents such as we find in Tudor choral music’. Even the effortfully ascending counter-subject reinforces the image of ‘the narrow path… full of sorrow’. It is only with the mention of going to Heaven (‘zum Himmel wandern’) that Bach offers us a glimmer of hope through a radiant ascent by the sopranos to a top A, re-establishing the home key, though by a circuitous route.

The chorale tune returns (No.2), this time harmonised without frills and in straightforward diatonic chordal form, each line separated by an ostinato motif in the continuo (derived from the chorale tune in diminution) and ‘troped’ by recitatives for each of the four solo voices in turn. The following bass aria is an uncomfortable, tortuous ride for both cello and singer, their lines constantly criss-crossing each other as it twists and turns to convey ‘Hell’s anguish and torment’ (the altar painting of St Paul and the viper on the back wall of the Naval College Chapel seemed to complement this image). This is only the first line of a six-line stanza, yet Bach extends its influence over all but eight of the sixty-two bars of the aria’s ‘A’ section – which even the mention of ‘a true delight in Heaven’ cannot completely dispel.

Bach reserves his most winning music for the E major duet (No.5) sung in free canon by the soprano and alto to a fugal accompaniment of violins and oboes d’amore in unison. His achievement here is to prove how, through joyful singing, one can win the battle to rid oneself of the cares that revolve within the troubled mind – his equivalent of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, I suppose. It took me until the ‘B’ section to realise that the melodic outline of the entire duet (and the purposeful fugal exchanges between all four lines) is based not on some external musical whim but on aural symbols of the Cross to which the words refer (‘Jesus helps to bear my cross’), appearing both in the melodic shapes inscribed across the stave and in the characteristic use of double sharps, symbolised by an ‘x’. It also refers us back to the sorrowful heaviness of the opening fantasia and its chromatic expressivity. This is finally purged in Bach’s plain harmonisation of Martin Moller’s hymn (No.6).