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BWV 56 ‘Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen’

Sun 18 Oct, 10.00am

J.S. Bach - BWV 56, Full cantata stream, Online

For this edition of ‘Cantata of the Week’ we are streaming BWV 56 ‘Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen’ (‘Gladly shall I bear the cross’) composed by Bach in 1726 for the nineteenth Sunday after Trinity. This cantata for solo bass is introduced by Peter Harvey, who sang on this recording and featured in many other performances 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

Peter Harvey bass

This live recording is from the MCO’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, recorded at the Erlöserkirche, Potsdam, in October 2000. It features on Vol. 10 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 56 by John Eliot Gardiner

BWV 56 ‘Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen’ was Bach’s third cantata for Trinity 19, composed in 1726. The composer takes his lead from the first verse of the Gospel for the day, ‘And he entered into a ship, and passed over, and came into his own city.’ Following a medieval tradition, Bach treats the course of human life allegorically as a sea voyage, a nautical Pilgrim’s Progress.

No stranger himself to life’s tribulations, Bach has left us several memorable evocations of adversity, yet none more poignant than this cantata. The opening aria introduces a pun on the word ‘Kreuzstab’ (crossstaff) – raised to a sharpened seventh. What lifts it from the commonplace is the very modern, or at least Romantic, word-painting: the successive changes in mood and adjustments to the melodic outline, from its initial upward climb via an excruciating arpeggio to the benign ‘es kommt von Gottes lieber Hand’ and the more measured ‘der führet mich…’. Bach reserves the biggest change for the B section, switching to triplet rhythm in the voice part in a kind of arioso as the pilgrim lowers all his griefs into his own grave: ‘Then shall my Saviour wipe the tears from my eyes’. The idea of life as a sea voyage comes first in the arioso (No.2) with cello arpeggiation to depict the lapping waves while the voice-line describes ‘the sorrow, affliction and distress [which] engulf me’. Where the first movement was forward-looking, this arioso seems to hark back to the music of Bach’s forebears, the music he learnt as a child. One can pick up hints of an early reliance on God’s protection in the whispered comfort of ‘Ich bin bei dir’ – with the death of both of his parents when he was only nine years old, there was no human substitute on whom he could wholly depend. As the waves die down and the cello comes to rest on a bottom D, the voice of the pilgrim continues in secco recitative with the Bunyan-like words: ‘So I step from my ship into my own city, which is the kingdom of heaven, where I with all the righteous shall enter out of so great tribulation.’

The metaphor of the oboe as guardian angel celebrating with the now jubilant pilgrim comes to mind in the extended da capo aria ‘Endlich, endlich wird mein Joch’. Again, the biggest surprise is reserved for the B section where the pilgrim’s desire to fly up into the stratosphere like an eagle can hold no bounds, ‘Let it happen today!’ he exclaims, the emphasis shifting from ‘O!’ to ‘gescheh’ to ‘heute’ and finally to ‘noch’.

The cantata ends serenely. An accompagnato leads to a return of the words and tripletised rhythms of the opening aria, now slowed to adagio and transposed to F minor, and from there by means of melisma floating effortlessly upwards, for the first time, to C major. The final four-voiced chorale is Bach’s only setting of Johann Crüger’s melody, here set to the sixth verse of Johann Franck’s hymn ‘Du, o schönes Weltgebäude’. His harmonisation belongs to the late seventeenth century sound-world of his elder cousin, Johann Christoph Bach, organist in Eisenach, possibly his first keyboard teacher and mentor – the one he called a ‘profound composer’.