Cantata BWV 138Warum betrübst du dich, mein Hertz?
Discussions - Part 1
Suzuki - Vol. 11
Ryan Michero wrote (December 17, 1999):
 Here is my review for Vol. 11 of Suzuki's complete cantata series, and it's a big one! Enjoy!
Suzuki is still working his way through Bach's first cycle of Leipzig cantatas. Many of these pieces are not well-known and were written under extreme time constraints. Hence, Bach's inspiration is not uniformly high--it is merely astoundingly high! In spite of some awkwardness in these pieces here and there, Bach still managed to craft some fine, unified works with many exceptional movements. There are some great moments in the cantatas on Suzuki's Vol. 11, and all four are lovely, fascinating works if not "favorites." Additionally, I think some cantata recording devotees will be surprised by some of Suzuki's revelations in this volume. It goes without saying that Suzuki's exceptionally high standards are maintained here, and for fans like me this volume is self-recommending. On to the individual cantatas:
BWV 138 - "Warum betruebst du dich, mein Herz"
This is an interesting work about renouncing material riches for the glory of heaven, strangely juxtaposing earthbound worries with heavenly peace. The two opening movements are experimental, mixing serene chorales and impassioned recitative. Suzuki makes sense of these juxtapositions, making the unusual structures seem dramatically natural. Kai Wessel makes a stronger impression in the recitative passages of the first movement than in the previous work, singing with much expression and drama. In the second movement, bass, soprano, and alto all have their moments in the spotlight with recitative alternating with choral passages. This movement marks soprano Midori Suzuki's return to the role of soloist (welcome back) and she sounds great. Wessel and Kooy impress as well, and the pacing again makes dramatic sense of Bach's musical juxtapositions. After a sweet tenor recitative in which fear and trepidation give way to peace, the fourth movement, a virtuoso aria for bass, appears and steals the show. This incredible minuet-like aria in D-major has a joyous string ritornello and impressive coloratura passages for the singer. Suzuki, the BCJ strings, and Kooy all surpass themselves, and the result is pure Bach bliss. A WOW moment! After a short alto recitative renouncing material things, there is a richly accompanied chorale, apparently illustrating the riches of heaven. It sweeps by beautifully, a rich tapestry of sound.
BWV 138—Harnoncourt , Herreweghe 
I give Harnoncourt's version credit for a nice opening chorus. However, the bass aria, so wonderful in Suzuki's recording, is downright painful here. Robert Holl sings with too much vibrato, and Harnoncourt prolongs the agony with a slow, ponderous tempo. Ugh.
On the other hand, I really like Herreweghe's version, which is altogether more somber than Suzuki's. The sound is darker and softer grained, and the singing of soloists and orchestra, while more operatic in style, is wonderful and suits the interpretation very well. The bass aria, again sung by Kooy, is less joyous, more bittersweet than Suzuki's, but equally beautiful. I give a slight edge to Suzuki because of his bass aria, but Herreweghe's version is equally inspired. Buy both!
Piotr Jaworski wrote (December 17, 1999):
 (To Ryan Michero) Ryan! You'll go straight to Heaven! Terrific job done! I'll have to suffer probably two more days before I get my copy of this volume. Many thanks.
Patrik Enander wrote (December 27, 1999):
 Ryan wrote an extensive and excellent review of Vol.11. I've a last started to listen to it, I bought it a couple of weeks ago. It is very good. They really play with great feel for the style and they seem to be full of self-confidence! No wonder why considering the reviews.
The alto is new to me and he is good but not very good. I agree with Ryan that he sounds a bit strained, not in Mera's class. Sakurada is excellent as always but Peter Kooy blows me away. Being an amateur baritone in a choir, I can't imagine how he does it. Those long lines with all the, is it called coloratura? (That is what it is called in Swedish, and it is probably a loan from Italian). I would need tubes to breathe in to sing those lines!
What if Bach wrote a Requiem mass?
Lightmanaj wrote (December 3, 1999):
< I bet it would have been one really powerful work!
What pieces would you consider "close to being" a requiem mass? I personally would say Cantatas BWV 4 and BWV 150, with some elements from BWV 21.
< Charles K. Moss (Charley) wrote: To pose this question is to deny the very essence of Bach's somewhat fanatical Lutheran faith. >
No, I just denied that the Requiem mass was a Roman Catholic event. Thanks for clearing that up.
More candidates for what would have been Bach's "Requiem" had he been Catholic, just according to my "feelings": Motet BWV 229 "Komm, Jesu, Komm", Cantata BWV 131 "Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir", Cantata BWV 105 "Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht", Cantata BWV 138 "Warum betruebst du dich, mein Herz?"
The only problem with most of Bach's choral works when trying to compare them to a "Requiem" is that none of them are loud enough! Mozart and Verdi sure packed a punch in their Requiem masses! (although I like Bach's music much better.
Discussions in the Week of October 1, 2000
Aryeh Oron wrote (October 1, 2000):
This is the week of cantata BWV 138 according to Ryan Michero's suggestion. This is very unusual cantata regarding its structure. The hymn upon which this chorale cantata is based is conjectured to be composed by Hans Sachs (from the Meistersingers, I presume) and set to an anonymous melody. The format is experimental. Stanzas 1, 2, and 3 of the hymn are set in their original form (movements 1, 3 & 7); however, 1 and 2 are broken by the insertion of recitatives after their third lines in No.1 and No.3 of the cantata. Especially for an opening number, this procedure is most unusual and must have given Bach scope for experimentation. Most probably that this is relatively a late cantata, because it looks like as if Bach, after composing cantatas in (almost) every possible form, wanted to try his hand with something new and unconventional.
This experimental, although impressive, cantata is not very attractive to the occasional and even the experienced cantata listener. But so many recitatives (Mvts. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6) should not in any way detract you from listening to this odd cantata. Because among all the recitatives, close to the end, is hidden a splendid aria for Bass - 'Auf Gott steht meine Zuversicht' (No.5). This aria is one of the best of its kind. But as has already been said many times, every Bach cantata and every movement from it is one the best of its kind.
Aria for Bass - Text
Original German Text
Auf Gott steht meine Zuversicht,
Mein Glaube läßt ihn walten.
Nun Kann mich keine Sorge nagen
Nun kann mich auch kein Armut plagen.
Auch mitten in dem größten Leide
Bleibt er mein Vater, meine freude,
Er will mich wunderlich erhalten.
English Translation (by Richard Stokes)
I put my trust in God,
My faith lets Him govern.
Now no worries can prey upon me,
Nor can poverty plague me.
Even amid the greatest sorrows,
He remains my father, my joy,
He shall sustain me in wondrous wise.
Whittaker's Viewpoint of the aria for Bass
Whittaker's description of this aria in his book 'The Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach' is very detailed and supplies us common platform for examining how the various Bass singers follow 'his' instructions.
"(The tenor recitative) leads without break into a very long aria (the only one in this cantata) for bass and strings. There are few themes. The straightforward openingtune (musical quote) plainly harmonized, is associated later with 'Auf Gott steht meine Zuversicht' ('Oh God stand my confidence'). A persistent figure based on the joy-motive (musical quote) and a semiquaver passage lead to an elongation of the bold melody with the joy-figure reiterating in the bassi. The latter dominates most of the number; even during a momentary attempt to paint 'plagen' it must needs be present. Sometimes two or three of the upper strings play it in unison; it comes legitimately to 'Freuden'. The fine 'Auf Gott' melody is heard from the violins above holding notes to 'erhalten' and 'walten', the latter followed by a lengthy semiquaver run. 'Walten' does not call for coloratura; it is rare to find such a treatment of a word without special significance. Here it just a question of general mood. There is a strange treatment of 'nagen' in 'Nun kann mich auch kein Armut plagen' (Now can me no care gnaw'); although the joy-motive occurs twice in the run, in the middle there is a drop of a major seventh to a law sustained C, a pang of pain in the midst of happiness. The portions of text so far unquoted are 'Mein Glaube läßt ihn walten' ('my faith let Him rule') after the opening, 'Nun kann mich auch kein Armut plagen' ('now can me too no poverty torment') after 'Non…nagen', and for the middle section, 'Auch mitten in dem größten Leide Bleibt er mein Vater, meine freude, Er will mich wunderlich erhalten' ('Even midst the greatest sorrow remains He my Father, my joy, He will me wonderfully sustain'). The last clause is beautifully set; a confident melody begins, unison upper strings play against it another melody derived from (a), violin I joins (a) on 'Freude' a tenth above, inner parts dovetail (musical quote) arpeggi with the continuo, and 'wunderlich' is stressed by repetition. The penultimate 'walten' consists of four bars of holding note followed by more than five bars of semiquavers. That would seem the climax of delight, but Bach has yet one more surprise for us; at the end of the vocal section is: (musical quote). When Bach adapted this number as Gravitas agimus of the short Mass in G major (BWV 236), he gave more detailed instructions as to manner of performance, and these should be added to the orchestral parts. The bowing of semiquaver groups (musical quote) and the staccato dots in (musical quote) indicate that the aria must be played and sung in a very lively manner."
This is indeed quite a lengthy description of one aria. But, believe me, listening to the aria following this description is a fascinating, instructive and enjoyable experience.
The list below includes all the recordings I am aware of BWV 138. See: Cantata BWV 138 – Recordings. 5 of them are from the complete cantata cycles, and one from the first generation of cantata recordings (Ramin). It is strange to find BWV 138 in the not very long list of Herreweghe's cantata recordings. Does it indeed belong to 'Les plus belles Cantatas'? I wonder, because I can think of at least dozen cantatas more beautiful than this one. Very impressive, yes, but most beautiful? However this is Herreweghe's taste and I respect it, because he has enriched our world of recorded Bach cantatas, and for many Bach cantata lovers he is the favorite performer in this genre. In my review below I shall cover this time only the aria for bass. The reasons were given earlier.
(1) Günther Ramin with Hannes Kästner (bass) (1953; Aria for Bass: 5:19)
The playing of the strings, which opens this aria, is painful. The singing of Kästner is flowery, operatic and old-fashioned. I like it because it put more emphasis on the singer than the other recordings do. The relatively slow playing and the over expression of the singer cause you paying attention to every word. The main reason to listen to this rendering is to understand how a Bach cantata was performed about half a century ago. It is interesting and unique approach, dedicated to its matter, quite different from the more modern recordings, which are becoming more and more similar to each other.
 Helmuth Rilling with Philippe Huttenlocher (bass) (1977+1978; Aria for Bass: 5:15)
Lush and lively strings in the introduction lay a convenient ground for the singing of Huttenlocher. He does not hesitate to give the right weight to every word, to express every feeling hinted in the text and the music. But he is also full of confidence and self-assured in his way.
 Nikolaus Harnoncourt with Robert Holl (bass) (1983; Aria for Bass: 5:10)
A gentle and tender playing is coming from Harnoncourt's strings. This is a very precise playing, without any sign of the dogmatism or monotony we sometimes hear in the H/L cantata cycle. But it still sounds somewhat dry and calculated. In any case it is a world apart from Rilling's approach. Holl is a surprising success. Helped by the sympathetic and humble accompaniment, he expresses convincingly the confidence and the fear, the distress and the joy.
 Philippe Herreweghe with Peter Kooy (bass) (1998; Aria for Bass: 4:31)
 Ton Koopman with Klaus Mertens (bass) (1998; Aria for Bass: 4:43)
 Masaaki Suzuki with Peter Kooy (bass) (1998; Aria for Bass: 4:26)
There are many similarities between the above three renderings of this aria, which were recorded during 1998. The playing time is almost identical and it is much shorter than the three earlier recordings. I would dare saying that to my taste it is a little bit faster than it should be. The general atmosphere created by the accompaniment is transparent and light. Every nuance of the strings and the continuo can be clearly heard. Even the smallest detail is not left without notice. The differences between the three groups are minor and reflect the general approach of each - Herreweghe has more delicacy and softness, Koopman has more humanity and warmth, and Suzuki is bolder and clearer. All the three bass singers prefer warm, gentle and sensitive expression, which reflects even slight fear of the situation, to more authority and confidence. I believe that the text fully justifies also the latter approach (as heard, for example, in Huttenlocher's singing with Rilling). Anyway, I like all the three performances, with some preference for the last two.
 Pieter Jan Leusink with Bas Ramselaar (bass) (1999; Aria for Bass: 5:02)
Leusink's approach is also very similar to the previous three recordings. But the impression I have got is that it is in lower league than they are. The flaws in the playing of the strings, the slight weariness, and even the insecurities in the singing of Ramselaar, who is usually a very impressive Bach singer. But I believe that if it is the only recording of this cantata you know, it still can please.
Although none of the various recordings of the aria for Bass from BWV 138 is perfect, I have also not met any really weak one. Even the old-fashioned Ramin/Kästner interpretation has its own merits and justification of approach. The ratings below are, of course, very personal:
Almost first rate - Koopman/Mertens , Suzuki/Kooy 
Very good - Rilling/Huttenlocher , Herreweghe/Harvey 
Good - Harnoncourt/Holl , Leusink/Ramselaar 
Problematic - Ramin/Kästner (1)
After two complete rounds of listening to all the 7 recordings of BWV 138 above, I decided to concentrate on the aria for bass. Then I listened only to the aria for bass in each one of the recordings. During listening to one of them, I forgot to stop the playing and it continued until the end of the cantata. I decided to follow this procedure and to listen to recording from the aria for bass, through the short recitative for alto, to the concluding chorale. It was like putting this part of the cantata under magnifying glass. With each repeated listening a strange phenomenon has happened. The aria for bass sounded to me more and more like a recitative. I have noticed that the part of the bass singer is mostly declamatory, where most of the melodious weight of this aria is put on the strings. It seems that while he was writing this aria Bach was still inspired by the nature of the previous movements. On the other hand, during the many listenings to these three consecutive movements, the concluding chorale has started to grow on my ears. At the end it sounded to me much more attractive than the aria for bass and eventually the best part of this cantata. If there is any conclusion from this observation, then it is familiar and simple. Bach's music has endless faces.
And as always, I would like to hear other opinions, regarding the above mentioned performances, or other recordings.
Marie Jensen wrote (October 3, 2000):
It took me long time learning to appreciate BWV 138. This cantata from 1723 is a big experiment in mixing forms especially recitativos and choruses and has only one traditional aria. The cantata follows the often used sorrow-joy plot, but is at the same time a dramatic and emotional dialogue between recitativos sung by different soloists and verses from a hymn sung by the choir. The recitativos wail. Lack of wordly goods seems to be signs of the wrath of God, and the chorus answers with comforting words and encourages the soul to be patient. Suddenly the soul finds out that adversity from this world can be hidden under the pillow and every sorrow can be thrown onto the Lord and without even the tiniest pause the bass aria -a joyful minuet- rises. Finally the chorale from the opening comes back but not in its melancholic garment. In stead it is dressed for a dance…
The text addresses itself to the poor people of the congregation. None of us go hungry to bed, but in 1723 this problem was highly relevant.
The cantata is inspired by the gospel of 15th Sunday after Trinity, Matthew 6: 24-34 taken from Jesus' Sermon of the Mount. It deals with how birds and flowers don't work, but God takes care of them anyway.
31 therefore, take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?
32 (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.
33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
34 Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
The wisdom of verse 34 is a good advice, no matter if you are religious or not.
I have three versions of BWV 138: Koopman , Suzuki  and Leusink .
Koopman and Suzuki are not very different, and as Aryeh writes perhaps a little too fast. I also agree with Aryeh that their versions are better than Leusink's.
This cantata gets better and better for every listening. I have begun to love the recitativos, and now where I'm going to leave it for the cantata of next week, it is not the aria or the final chorale I have on my mind but these words sung by a soprano: Er sättiget die jungen Raben, beautiful original words fitting so perfect to the autumn right now…
Roy Reed wrote (October 5, 2000):
BWV 138 - What a wonderful cantata this is. Here is cantor Bach in his first year on the new job boldly staking out new territory in what might be called a "wohl regulierte Kirchenmusik." And what do we have in this grand opening movement: a chorale (tune and text), an organ chorale prelude on that tune (structurally speaking), a concerted choral/orchestral piece, a recitative...all glued together with the different pieces of the hymn, the inspiration of Matthew 6: 24-34, and some wonderfully elegant counterpoint.
I suppose one could look upon this as a jumble. To me it seems a brilliant integration. Bach is not just showing off here. He has a hard assignment. There are several pieces to put together. The obvious I have enumerated above...but consider the elements of the Gospel lesson lifted up in this first movement: human anxiety and care, continuing distress, poverty, bodily ills...the cares of the world which are to us such a worry. The librettist lays this lament out in a strange prosy, colloquial sort of, sort of not "poetry." How can Bach not resort to recitative to put his movement together? And what wonders his recitative are: marvels of logical, emotional word-bound musical speech. So Bach can move easily in and out of the different musical idioms he wants to use here. How can you not love it?
What the author and the composer try to do in this cantata is to put these words of Jesus from the "Sermon on the Mount" in some effective homiletical/spiritual expression. I think that the first movement begins with an allusion to Psalm 42:5: "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?" This is the beginning of the hymn verse. The conclusion of this verse is what the psalmist then adds: "Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God." Indeed, the verses from Jesus, which this cantata is all about, are truly hard to take. They fly in the face of all we think of as "real." Taking thought for the morrow...come on...do I have insurance, life, house, auto et. al...do I have investments, and retirement plan. Plan heck...I am living, eating, etc., etc. on that plan. It is my life. What are you talking about, Jesus, and how in the world can I hear you?
Bach and his librettist rub in the contradictions. Our worldly worries are not sluffed off here with a lot of pious blather. There is real pain and lament and confusion. No.3 is sort of a simplified version of No.1, although musically it develops with increasing musical complexity. In general the words of Jesus are represented by the expression of trust and confidence in the chorale text and the pain and confusion of the lives we lead by the librettist's text.
Then we come to the great bass aria, No.4. In spite of all, the human cry of faith..."I shall again praise him, my help and my God." Confidence in God, whom faith allows to rule in a human life. And Bach rubs in "rule." This aria begins deceptively, sort of as a song, but soon picks up complexity. It is a devilishly difficult thing to sing well. I think Bach has the right idea. The main thing about faith is incredibly simple...as a kind of "main tune" in life...but around and about are questions, doubts, mysteries...
I have heard six readings: Harnoncourt , Leusink , Suzuki , Koopman , Herreweghe , Rilling . Personal favorite performance: Koopman. He has the right tempos and everyone does a great job. Mertens excellent in the long and tough aria. But I was much taken with the singing of Bas Ramselaar in the Leusink CD. Very dramatic and excelling agility. Disappointed in the aria with Herreweghe. He takes it just a bit too fast for his singer, Peter Kooy.
The concluding chorale. Just plain genius. Bach takes his inspiration from the first words of the chorale verse: "Weil du mein Gott und Vater bist, dein Kind wirst du verlassen nicht." Oboes and strings...and what strings. The whole sets forth in a stately 6/8. Steady the bottom...the bass continuo, stately the hymn. And then there are the fiddles...just exploding with impulsive exuberance. How marvelous! And so it is with faith in God. Right there in the midst of the ordinary there isthis inner outburst of joy and confidence.
Last evening Nancy and I went to a performance of the B Minor Mass (BWV 232) at St. Joseph's Cathedral in Columbus, Ohio...by "Ensemble Corund" from Switzerland. Conducted by their leader, Stephan Smith. Very serious man, never cracked even a hint of a smile. An American, actually, from our south-east, posing as a sober Swiss. A very creditable performance. Very dramatic and fast...too fast, as one has come to expect. The cathedral presents some acoustical and spatial challenges, and touring groups never quite have time to get the lay of the land, so one doesn't want to be too critical. 16 singers and a HIP ensemble...quite good. Soloists very fine, especially sopranos Maria Schmid, and Carmen Wuersch. Excellent "Christe eleison" and alto Brigette Kuster. She sang an inspired "Agnus dei." Just melted me. I asked my wife if we could take her home with us. She considered it not to be necessary.
Continue on Part 2
Cantata BWV 138: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4