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BWV 54 ‘Widerstehe doch der Sünde’

Sun 7 Mar, 10.00am

J.S. Bach - BWV 54, Full cantata stream, Online

For this edition of ‘Cantata of the Week’ we are streaming BWV 54 ‘Widerstehe doch der Sünde’ (‘Stand firm against all sinning’), composed by Bach for Oculi, the third Sunday in Lent, and first performed in either 1714 or 1715. This is introduced by the viola player Lisa Cochrane, who performed in many concerts across 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

Nathalie Stutzmann contralto

This live recording is from the MCO’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, recorded at Walpole St Peter, Norfolk, in March 2000. It features on Vol. 21 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 54 by John Eliot Gardiner

BWV 54 ‘Widerstehe doch der Sünde’, a twin-aria solo cantata for a deep-voiced alto (perfect for the amazing Nathalie Stutzmann), was written possibly in the same year as Himmelskönig for the Third Sunday in Lent (Oculi), or a year later. It is scored for a five-part string ensemble with divided violas, and is based by Bach’s librettist Georg Christian Lehms on the Epistle to James: ‘Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you’. The first aria is spellbinding. Twice within the space of a year we find Bach opening a movement with a harsh dissonance, a dominant seventh chord over a tonic pedal point (the other occasion comes in the Advent cantata BWV 61 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland). It is a deliberate shock tactic to rouse his listeners to the need to ‘stand firm against all sinning, or its
poison will possess you’. Was it also, one wonders, his way of announcing himself, two days after his appointment, as Concertmeister at the Weimar court? Bach creates a mood of urgent, unflinching resistance to the seductive, tenacious powers of evil. These he evokes in lyrically entwined violin lines which writhe and twist, then teeter for a whole bar in suspense before tumbling down to an apparent repose, a clear symbol of the reprieve available to those who stand firm against sin. A deadly curse (illustrated by two abrupt re-entries of the violas on the same dominant seventh) awaits those who lose the will to resist. And just in case anyone was not paying attention, he maintains the strong and stubborn chord pulsation throughout. Of the thirty-two quavers of the opening four bars only four are consonances, all the rest being dissonances, twelve of them five-note chords!

The recitative which follows strips the masks from sin, which on closer inspection turns out to be ‘but an empty shadow’. It is also a ‘sharpened sword that pierces us through body and soul’. The second aria is cast as a four-part fugue, with an insinuating chromatic theme and a long, contorted countersubject to portray the wily shackles of the devil. Did the piece really end there, or have we lost a chorale somewhere along the line, if not at the very end then, perhaps, as a missing cantus firmus, a musical superscription to the fugue? It occurs to me that Bach uses precisely such a device (strophes of Paul Gerhardt’s hymn ‘Warum sollt’ ich mich den grämen’) in his double-choir motet BWV 228 Fürchte dich nicht, very likely written around this time. Both fugues begin, intriguingly, with a descending chromatic figure. More striking still is the resemblance of the counter-subject to the theme in the last movement of BWV 63 Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, written for Christmas Day in Weimar in 1714. Suppose for a moment that Widerstehe was written the following year (and here, even the great Alfred Dürr sits on the fence); could it be that Bach was re-invoking his Christmas-tide appeal for grace (‘Almighty God, gaze graciously on the fervour of these humble souls!’) in the Lenten cantata, to nullify the tempting beauty of sin (‘outwardly wonderful’) which the devil has invented?