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Cantata BWV 139
Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott
Discussions - Part 4

Continue from Part 3

Discussions in the Week of November 9, 2014 (4th round)

William Hoffman wrote (November 9, 2014):
BCW: Cantata 139, 'Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott': Intro.

For only the second time, Bach resorts to a recent pietist hymn writer in his chorale cantatas setting for Trinity Time, Johann Christoph Rube (c1665-1746), Cantata BWV 139, full title, “Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott / Recht kindlich kann verlassen!” (Happy is the man, who to his God / can abandon himself just like a child!). It is set to an earlier popular melody, following the previous Sunday (Trinity 22) with pietist Saxon Johann Buchard Freystein (1671-1718). Both offer cautionary pietist sentiments interpreting Gospel themes in a typical concertante setting for a striking pastoral chorale fantasia and comforting closing chorale, with two dance-like arias for male voices, interspersed with brief alto and soprano secco recitatives. What makes Cantata 139 special is that the surviving parts reveal three Leipzig performances in which Bach changed the instrumentation in the two arias, probably based on performing forces available, and assuming that Leipzig civic and church officials readily endorsed a work with pietist sentiments. The performances for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity were November 12, 1724, and 1732-35, and 1744-47.1

The Lutheran Church Year Readings for the Twenty Third Sunday after Trinity are: Epistle: Philippians 3: 17-21 Follow not carnal things, as many do; Gospel: Matthew 22: 15-22 The Pharisees and the tribute to Caesar; complete text, Martin Luther 1545 English translation, English translation Authorised (King James) Version [KJV] 1611; for complete texts, see BCW

Chorale Cantata 139 based on Pietist Hymn2

As Trinity Time in the chorale cantata cycle came to its end in November 1724, Bach had virtually exhausted appropriate, popular Trinity Time chorales in his first two cantata cycles involving nearly 50 works. For the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, he looked for a concise five- or six-stanza text to use for Chorale Cantata 139, with a theme of Trust in God appropriate for this Sunday's popular Gospel lesson of Rendering unto Ceasar (Mat. 22:15-22) and the Epistle commentary of Apostle Paul's cautionary Letter to the Philippians (3:17-21) to avoid earthly things of the flesh. Bach found such a five-stanza sacred text from the popular pietist songwriter Johann Christoph Rube (c.1665-1746), "Wohl dem der sich auf seinen Gott . . . kann verlassen" ("Well for him who himself on his God . . . can depend), dating to 1692. See Rube's short biography, BCW:

Serendipitously, the associated melody also has Bach Leipzig connections with J. H. Schein in his 1628 Death Song of comfort, "Machs mit mir, Gott, nach deiner Güt" (Do with me God, according to Thy Goodness). Although not in the NLGB, Bach had first set the melody (Zahn 2383) by 1710 as a chorale prelude for organ in the Neumeister Collection, previously listed as the beginning "Fugue in G major," BWV 957 (Zahn melody 2383). Subsequently, about 1714, Bach listed the chorale title for his Orgelbüchlein collection of chorale preludes, as No. 138 under the late Trinity Time omne tempore heading, "Death and Dying," but did not provide a new setting. For more information on the melody and related text, see BCW, For Schein's short biography, see BCW, For Bach treatment of the Cantata BWV 139 text, see Frances Browne's English translation, BCW,

Bach generously uses the Schein melody in all four voices in the opening chorale fantasia chorus, "Machs mit mir, Gott, nach deiner Güt" (Do with me God, according to Thy Goodness), sung to the opening stanza unaltered or paraphrased. Bach's librettist (perhaps Picander?) paraphrases and expands the next three Rube stanzas for three movements: No. 2, tenor da-cappo aria, "What avails the rage which . . . an enemy . . . has set up" (S.2); No. 4, bass aria (scena), "Misfortune wraps around . . . me" (S.3); and, No. 4, soprano recitative, "Yea, bear I even the greatest enemy."

Rube's pietistic, simplistic text is a dualistic study contrasting good God with the evil world where God is man's friend. Since the original text makes no reference to the Gospel teaching of rendering unto Caesar, a new text was written for No. 3, alto recitative, "The Saviour does send his people":

Der Heiland sendet ja die Seinen
(The Saviour does send his people)
Recht mitten in der Wölfe Wut.
(in the very midst of raging wolves.)
Um ihn hat sich der Bösen Rotte
(Around them the evil mob)
Zum Schaden und zum Spotte
(for harm and mockery)
Mit List gestellt;
(has gathered with cunning;)
Doch da sein Mund so weisen Ausspruch tut,
(however, since his mouth makes such wise utterances,)
So schützt er mich auch vor der Welt.
(he will then protect me also from the world.)
[Francis Browne's interlinear translation]

Here is a comparison of the original Rube hymn text and the "paraphrase" in No. 4, soprano recitative:

Indeed if the guilt of my sins
Is piled upon me altogether
If I am denied by God's grace
And want only to condemn myself
Then I would still never be afraiid even then,
since God my friend destroys these things
[Rube's original hymn text and Frances Browne's English translation are found at BCW,]

Yes, no matter that I bear my greatest enemy within myself,
the heavy burden of my sins.
My saviour will let me find inner peace.
I give to God what belongs to God
my innermost soul.
If he is willing to choose it for his own,
then the guilt of my sins grows less, the deceit of Satan falls away.
[See the cantata text and Francis Browne's text English translation, BCW,]

Cantata 139 closes with a four-part plain chorale setting of the fifth and last stanza: "Dahero trotz der Höllen-Heer!" (For this reason I defy the hosts of hell!).

Subsequently, Bach used the Schein melody, "Machs mit mir, Gott, nach deiner Güt," again in his St. John Passion, BWV 245/22(40) in 1724, set to the C. H. Postel 1704 Passion text "Durch dein Gefängniss Gottes Sohn" (Through your imprisonment, Son of God), at the point where Pilate wishes to free Jesus. In 1729, Bach used the melody in the opening tenor aria, "Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe" (I stand with one foot in the Grave" with the soprano singing the opening stanza as a duet. Finally, plain chorale BWV 377 was probably used with the first stanza in the St. Mark Passion, BWV 247/15(44) in 1731, after Jesus asks in the Garden of Gethsemane that the cup be lifted from him. See BCW short biography of Schein: BCW Details of the Chorale Melody, “Machs mit mir, Gott, nach deiner Güt,” Johann Hermann Schein (1628) (Zahn: 2383 | EKG: 321), are found at

Finally, in the Schemelli Songbook of 1736, the Rube (1714) nine-verse Evening Song, "Der Tag ist hin, die Sonne gehet nieder" (The day is gone, the sun is down), is set to the anonymous 1542 melody, "O höchster Gott, o unser lieber Herre" (O Highest God, o our loving Lord), as edited by Bach but with "very little evidence that Bach had anything at all to do with the fibass line," says BCW,

Cantata 139 Movements, Scoring, Texts, Key, and time signature are:3

1. Chorus (Stanza 1 unaltered) two-part with ritornelli and dal segno orchestra; introduction [SATB; Oboe d'amore I/II, Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo]: A. “Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott / Recht kindlich kann verlassen!” (Happy is the man, who to his God / can abandon himself just like a child!); B. “Den mag gleich Sünde, Welt und Tod” (Though he may at once by sin, the world and death); 4/4, E Major.
2. Aria (Stanza 2, para[phrased) da-capo [Tenor; Violino concertante, Continuo]: A. “Gott ist mein Freund; was hilft das Toben,” (God is my friend; what use is all the raging); B. “Ja, redet nur die Wahrheit spärlich,” (Yes, though you speak the truth only rarely); ¾ time dance style; A Major.
3. Recitative (Stanza 3 paraphrased) secco [Alto, Continuo]: “Der Heiland sendet ja die Seinen / Recht mitten in der Wölfe Wut.” (The Saviour does send his people / in the very midst of raging wolves.); 4/4, f sharp minor.
4. Aria (Stanza 4 paraphrased) modified da-capo [Bass; Oboe d'amore, Violino, Corno]: A. 4/4 “Allegro” “Das Unglück schlägt auf allen Seiten / Um mich ein zentnerschweres Band.” (From all sides misfortune wraps / around me a very heavy chain.); B. 6/8 dance-style “Vivace,” “Doch plötzlich erscheinet die helfende Hand.” (But suddenly appears his helping hand); f sharp minor.
5. Recitative (Stanza 5 paraphrased) secco [Soprano; Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo): “Ja, trag ich gleich den größten Feind in mir,” (Yes, no matter that I bear my greatest enemy within myself); 4/4, c sharp minor to E Major.
6. Chorale (Stanza 6 unaltered) [SATB; Oboe d'amore I/II e Violino I col Soprano, Violino II coll'Alto, Viola col Tenore, Continuo); “Dahero Trotz der Höllen Heer!” (For this reason I defy the hosts of hell!); 4/4 E Major.

Commentary (Thomas Braatz (November 11, 2002) includess “From Eric Chafe’s ‘Tonal Allegory in J. S. Bach,’” and Alfred Dürr Cantatas of JSB (German); BCW Provenance, Thomas Braatz (November 6, 2002) includes Missing obbligato Parts, First Performace, Text, and Chorale Melody.

Gardiner: Instrumental Changes, Bach Invention

Instrumental changes and Bach invention are explored in John Eliot Gardiner liner notes to the 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage on Soli Deo Gloria recordings.4 <<Lost, too, is the autograph score of BWV 139 “Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott” with which we began our concert. An incomplete set of parts survives, used at the cantata’s first performance in November 1724. Thankfully these can be augmented by Bach’s own transposed figured continuo part of the last two movements made for a revival in 1732/5, by the obbligato violin part written out by his future son-in-law J.C. Altnickol in 1744/7 for the bass aria (No.4), and by the convincing reconstruction Robert Levin made for us of the missing second violin part of the tenor aria (No.2). Such gaps in the source material of these occasional, ephemeral pieces are, alas, all too common. Fortunately we have all the necessary parts for the opening chorus, a craftily constructed chorale fantasia in E major. Grounding his material on the three segments of the chorale’s form (AAB), equal in length, Bach subtly varies the distribution of the melodic material shared between the three lower voices and the instruments (strings with two oboes d’amore) locked in vigorous concertante discourse. Yet what shines through is how strong Bach’s music is in invention throughout. The pastoral lyricism that characterises the first segment portraying the child-like trust of the true believer gives way to a defiant evocation of ‘all the devils [who] hate him’ in the second, while for the concluding (‘B’) segment (‘he nonetheless remains at peace’) Bach equalises the structural proportions between the vocal and instrumental episodes to achieve a satisfying resolution.

He continues with a powerful tenor aria with two obbligato violins, in which the reiterated confidence-building claims that ‘God is my friend’ are belied by the tempestuous music for the enemy’s raging, envy and hatred. It must be one of the few examples in baroque literature where facetiousness is attempted in music: ‘Continue to speak the truth but sparingly. Be ever false – what is that to me? You who mock are no danger to me.’ You sense Bach using all his resourcefulness in adapting an Italianate trio sonata style to the demands of this defiant text and to underpinning the tenor’s dilemma. Still more arresting is the bass aria (No.4) for concertante violin set against two unison oboes d’amore and continuo, in which Bach switches from a gritty double-dotted texture – loud and fast – to the most nonchalant texture imaginable in 6/8 for the words ‘But a helping hand suddenly appears’. This is achieved seamlessly (three times), almost like a cinematic fade or dissolve, conjuring up God’s outstretched hand as painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. Not for long: this is a mere prelude to the return of the gritty rhythms of ‘misfortune’ and to two passages when the tempo slows, the concertante instruments drop out, an arioso describing ‘the light of comfort [that] shines on me from afar.’>> © John Eliot Gardiner 2010 From a journal written in the course of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage

Hofmann: Gospel References, Rube Original

The Gospel references in the two recitatives and Rube’s original are explored in Klaus Hofmann’s 2005 liner notes to the Masaaki Suzuki BIS complete cantata recordings.5 <<Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott,” BWV 139 (Happy is the man who on his God). The cantata “Wohl dem, der sich auf seiner Gott” was written for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, which in 1724 fell on l2th November. The textual and musical basis is the hymn of the same name by the then well-known poet Johann Christoph Rube (1665-1746). At that time it was sung to the melody of “Machs mit mir Gott, nach deiner Gut,” which, in its most usual version, was by Bach's most famous predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630). The hymn originally contained five verses: the text of the third movement, 'Der Heiland sendet ja die Seinen recht mitten in der Wölfe Wut' ('Indeed the Saviour sends his people in among the angry wolves.') is a free addition, apparently with the intention of creating a connection with the gospel reading for the Sunday in question - Matthew 22, 15-22. This passage is about the Pharisees who ask Jesus the trick question of whether it is lawful to give tribute to Caesar, and receive the answer: 'Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's'. The words 'Wölfen' ('wolves') and 'der Bösen Rotte' ('the evil throng') refer to the Pharisees and, more generally, to the enemies of Jesus; the term 'weisen Ausspruch' ('wise sayings') refers to his reply. A further clear allusion to the gospel reading is found in the fifth movement, a soprano recitative, with the words 'Ich gebe Gott, was Gottes ist' ('l render unto God what belongs to God'). Otherwise. However, the cantata text follows the hymn and goes its own way. It is about the happiness of those who rely upon God with childlike trust, and about the friendship of God, who protects His people from all evil. These motifs are varied virtually throughout the cantata.

Bach's opening chorus follows the pattern that had become more or less a standard formula over the preceding five months, during which he had written and presented some 25 chorale cantatas. The overall sound is characterized by concertante orchestral writing into which, one at a time, the individual lines of the hymn are embedded. The hymn tune itself is presented as a cantus firmus in long note values by the soprano: the lower voices join in contrapuntally. Mostly they are linked together by imitation, and motivically derived from the melody heard in the soprano. In this cantata, following this principle, alto, tenor and bass form a fugato on a theme derived from the first notes of each respective line of the hymn tune. Here, however, the lower parts proceed in a far livelier manner that which was heard in minims and semibreves in the cantus firmus is presented in quavers and crotchets (i.e. four times faster) by the lower voices. Meanwhile the rising line of the opening motif of the orchestral ritornello that frames the movement (and which gives rise to the interludes) is also associated with the hymn tune. As well as strings, the orchestra includes two oboi d'amore which, as their name indicates, have an especially 'lovable' sound. Bach was particularly fond of using this instrument to express love, warmth, tenderness, sincerity and trust, and to describe the emotional sphere to which the last two lines of the hymn verse allude. The 'Wohl dem' ('Happy is the man') at the beginning of the hymn and the key-word 'wohlvergnügt' ('content') seem moreover to have inspired Bach to give the movement a particularly melodious character. The principal motif of the ritornello and the imitatory entries of the lower voices are almost always accompanied by the two oboi d'amore in parallel thirds or sixths. ln addition, the two wind instruments join in the choral passages - almost like a fifth and sixth voice and lend their 'lovable' sound to the choral sonority.

The tenor aria 'Gott ist mein Freund; was hilft das Toben' ('God is my friend; of what use is the fury') draws its energy from the contrast that is prescribed by the text: on one side God's friendship, the comfort and safety of the Christian who knows that God will protect him, on the other side the fury of the enemies, their falseness and hate. As the other cantatas of this period also reveal, Bach must then have had access to an especially talented solo tenor, for whom this aria was specifically intended. The fury and mockery are represented by lively coloraturas; at the other extreme is the calm, secure 'Gott ist mein Freund' ('God is my friend'), which recurs many times as a kind of motto and must have made a lasting impression on Bach's audience. The accompanying instruments develop the contrasting thematic material in the trio section. As Bach's score and some of the original parts have gone astray, however, the second instrumental part is missing. lt is assumed that this was for a second violin. When performing this cantata we are forced to resort to a reconstruction.

A similar loss has befallen the fourth movement, the bass aria 'Das Unglück schlagt auf allen Seiten' ('All around me misfortune wraps'), although to a lesser extent. Here, too, the vocal line is accompanied by two instrumental parts as well as continuo. One of these instrumental parts is for the two oboi d'amore; the other is -- according to the surviving sources, for violin. This part, however, was written not for the premiere in 1724 but for a repeat performance twenty years later and the violin was evidently substituted for an instrument no longer available, probably a violoncello piccolo, an instrument which probably would have Compendium BC the part an octave lower than indicated in the later violin part. Musically this aria is a rather unusual construction in terms both of thematic invention and of form. One observes the thematically different structure of each instrumental part; evidently this was a musical depiction of how misfortune fetters mankind ‘von allen Seiten' ('all around'). The oboes 'map their fetters' in a distinctive pattern of one long-held note followed by a few very fast ones, against the second part playing wide-reaching broken chords and dotted rhythms in the continuo. The form of the aria is characterized by numerous changes of tempo and expression, corresponding to the textual content and the emotional variance between the key concepts of misfortune, sudden help and comfort. After the drama of the bass aria, calm and contemplation return in the fifth movement, a soprano recitative.

The simple concluding chorale once more summarizes the content of the cantata and ends with the promise that was already heard in the opening strophe, 'Wohl dem, der Gott zum Freunde hat!' ('Happy is the man who has God as a friend !').>> © Klaus Hofmann 2005


1 Cantata 139, BCW Details & Discography,
2 Source: BCW Musical Context of Bach Cantatas, Motets & Chorales for 23rd Sunday after Trinity,
3Scoring, Soloists: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass; 4-part Chorus; Orchestra: 2 oboes d’amore, 2 violins, viola, organ, continuo. Score Vocal & Piano [1.74 MB],, and Score BGA [2.15 MB], References: BCW BG XXVIII (Cantatas 130-139, Wilhelm Rust 1881), NBA KB 26 (Glöckner 1994), Bach Compendium BC A 159, Zwang 97.
4 Gardiner notes,[sdg171_gb].pdf; BCW Recording details,
5 Hofmann liner notes,[BIS-SACD1451].pdf; BCW Recording details,


Cantata 139, Part 9, Linda Gingrich dissertation, “Hidden allegorical links in the Trinity season chorale cantatas of J. S. Bach,Bach’s late Trinity Time sequence from the deep repentance of Cantata 38, the judgment of Cantata 115, and the soul’s contentment in Cantata 139; Eric Chafe and on Bach’s late Trinity Time chorale cantatas; and the chorales for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, the Leipzig hymn schedule, Bach’s cantata opportunities.

Charles Francis wrote (November 9, 2014):
Richter offers a characteristically noble and clear interpretation of the opening:

A rather entertaining German-language video presentation may also be of interest:

William Hoffman wrote (November 12, 2014):
BCW: Cantata 139, Trinity 23 Pietist Influences, Repentance

See: Musical Context: Motets & Chorales for 23rd Sunday after Trinity

Aryeh Oron wrote (November 14, 2014):
Cantata BWV 139 - Revised & updated Discography

The discography pages of the Chorale Cantata BWV 139 “Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott” for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity on the BCW have been revised and updated.
The cantata is scored for soprano, alto, tenor & bass soloists; 4-part chorus; and orchestra of 2 oboes d’amore, 2 violins, viola, organ & continuo. See:
Complete Recordings (12):
Recordings of Individual Movements (4):
The revised discography includes many listening/watching options to recordings directly from the discography pages, just below the recording details.

I also put at the BCW Home Page:
2 audios and 2 videos of the cantata. A short description below the audio/video image is linked to the full details at the discography pages.

I believe this is the most comprehensive discography of this chorale cantata. If you are aware of a recording of BWV 139 missing from these pages, or want to correct/adetails of a recording already presented on the BCW, please do not hesitate to inform me.

You can also read on the BCW William Hoffman's detailed introduction to this week's discussion of the cantata in the BCML (4th round):


Cantata BWV 139: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Recordings & Discussions of Cantatas: Main Page | Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Cantatas BWV Anh | Order of Discussion
Discussions of General Topics: Cantatas & Other Vocal Works | Performance Practice | Radio, Concerts, Festivals, Recordings


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