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Cantata BWV 181
Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister
Discussions - Part 4

Continue from Part 3

Discussions in the Week of February 14, 2016 (4th round)

William Hoffman wrote (February 17, 2016):
Cantata BWV 181

Bach’s Cantata 181, “Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister / Rauben sich des Wortes Kraft” (Scatterbrained frivolous people / rob themselves of the Word’s power) for Sexagesima Sunday 1724 is an unorthodox and most unusual work with many anomolies and a strange text. Its form is a secular cantata with pairs of alternating arias and recitatives and a closing chorus, with no closing chorale. Its surviving state and origins are still in doubt and it may have something to do with its apparent pairing on a double bill with another unusual early Weimar solo cantata. Cantata 18, “Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt” (Just as the rain and snow fall from heaven, Isaiah 55:10-11), has complimentary movements, especially a central dramatic scena with bass and tenor recitatives interspersed with a chorale-like litany chorus set to an Erdmann Neumeister text.

Both works focus on the Gospel, Luke 8.4-15: The Parable of the Sower, with its earthy images and potential for striking texts. While Neumeister focuses on intercessory prayers and a warning against evil, embodied in Turks and Papists, the unknown librettist of Cantata 181 (?Picander) also cautions against evil with an austere text that finally becomes affirmative only in the final da-capo chorus (no. 5) with trumpet, “Laß, Höchster, uns zu allen Zeiten / Des Herzens Trost, dein heilig Wort” (Grant, o most high God, to us at all times / the heart’s consolation, your holy Word).1 The question of instrumental designation and the lack of parts also leads, for example, to various uses of solo flute and oboe or violins in the opening bass “free da-capo-aria.”

Bach’s second version of Cantata 18, “Gleichwie der Regen was presented on a double bill on Sexagesima Sunday, February 13, 1724, with newly-composed chorus (closing) Cantata 181, “Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister” They were presented before and after the sermon of Superintendent Salomon Deyling (1677-1755) at the early main service in the Nikolaikirche, says Petzoldt (Ibid.). Alternately, the two were performed separately “in two different churches” (?Nikolaikirche and Thomas Church), says Alfred Dürr in his essay on Cantata 181 in Cantatas of J. S. Bach.2

The readings for Sexagesima Sunday, or the Second Sunday before Lent, are: Epistle: 2 Corinthians 11.19-12.9 (God’s power is mighty in the weak [Paul’s suffering], Gospel: Luke 8.4-15: The Parable of the Sower. The German text of Luther’s 1545 translation and the English Authorised (King James) Version 1611 is found at BCW, The introit Psalm is popular Psalm 1, Beatus vir qui non abiit (Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, KJV), says Petzoldt (Ibid.: 571). The theme of Psalm 1 is “Apprenticeship in Bliss of Piety and Punishment by Removal” (Lehre von Glückseligkeit der Frommen und Strafe der Gottlosen), says Petzoldt. The full text is found at

Cantata 81 State & Origins

The surviving state of Cantata 181 and its origins are still in doubt, as Julian Mincham explains in his Cantata 181 essay, << Sadly, this work is incomplete and brings with it several unanswered questions. That does not prevent us enjoying (particularly) the outer movements but it makes it difficult to deduce much about Bach′s development of the cantata at this time.

For example, and for only the second time in the cycle (the first being C 199, Trinity 11, 1723), there is no concluding chorale. It seems inconceivable that one was not intended although it may be related to the theory that this work was intended to be paired with C 18, one to be played before and one after the sermon. That may well have been the case; Bach had done this previously with Cs 24 and 185 (Trinity 4, 1723) although there was still a chorale concluding each part. The most convincing explanation is that it has been lost or detached from the score, a reasonable conclusion considering the generally incomplete transmission of the work.

For example, it is clearly apparent that an obbligato line is missing from the tenor aria. Dürr [Ibid.] suggests that it might have been for violin (p 237) although Koopman has reconstructed and recorded the aria effectively using an oboe (Complete Cantatas vol 7). Bach added wind parts for later performances (Dürr p 236, Koopman has recorded both versions). It is also generally believed that some or all of the movements may have been paraphrased from a lost secular cantata. This is highly probable in the case of the chorus where there is little convergence between the textual imagery and the musical structure but it is unlikely to be the case with the opening aria. As to the tenor aria and the two recitatives, it is anyone′s guess.

In the context of the discussion about Bach′s experiments with cantata structure in the last chapter, it is worth noting that they continue in this and subsequent works. Here it would seem that Bach reverts to the aria as the appropriate first movement, presenting us with a fully developed chorus for the fifth.>>

Idiomatic First Movement

The idiomatic opening movement, a bass aria with solo flute and oboe plus string, is typical of the quarky form, text, and musical treatment. The Gospel reading of the day (according to Oxford J.S. Bach Composers Companion, Malcolm Boyd)3 is Luke 8: 4-15, telling the parable of the sower. "The 'frivolous, fickle people' of the opening Bass Aria (Mvt. 1) are the 'fowls of the air' that devour the seed that 'fell by the wayside.'" Hence, the seeds are used for selfish means and cannot grow--God's words cannot take root. Boyd says, "[The frivolous, fickle people] “are suggested in the music by the fleeting tempo (Vivace), the fragmented melodic line, the staccato articulation, and the frequent trills. The structure, too, is somewhat capricious. What promises to be a modified da capo repeat of the first section loses its way after four bars and is transformed into a modified repeat of the second section (B). This is one of the relatively few cantatas of which the [printed church] original libretto has survived, and it is obvious from this that it was Bach, not his poet, who was responsible for the Aria's unusual, possibly unique, structure."

Cantata 181 Movements, Scoring, Incipits, Key, Meter.4

1. Aria bi-partite (ABA’B’), dal segno) with ritornelli [Bass; Flauto traverso, Oboe, Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo]: A. “Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister / Rauben sich des Wortes Kraft” (Scatterbrained frivolous people / rob themselves of the Word’s power); B. “Belial mit seinen Kindern / Suchet ohnedem zu hindern” (Belial with his children / anyhow seeks to obstruct it); e minor; 4/4.
2. Recitativo secco and arioso [Alto, Continuo]: Recit. “O unglückselger Stand verkehrter Seelen” (O unfortunate state of perverted souls); Arioso, “Es werden Felsenherzen, . . . Ihr eigen Heil verscherzen” (Hearts of stone . . . will forfeit their own salvation); Recit., “Es wirkt ja Christi letztes Wort, / Dass Felsen selbst zerspringen” (Christ’s last word had power / to split open the very rocks); e minor to b minor; 4/4.
3. Aria half-form, A only [Tenor, Continuo]: “Der schädlichen Dornen unendliche Zahl, . . . Die werden das Feuer der höllischen Qual” (The countless number of harmful thorns, . . . -- these things feed the fire of torment in hell); b minor; 3/8.
4. Recitativo secco [Soprano, Continuo]: “Von diesen wird die Kraft erstickt” (By these things our strength is choked); D ; 4/4.
5. Chorus da-capo with ritornelli [SATB; Tromba, Flauto traverso, Oboe, Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo]: Laß, Höchster, uns zu allen Zeiten / Des Herzens Trost, dein heilig Wort” (Grant, o most high God, to us at all times / the heart’s consolation, your holy Word); B. SA (?soloists), Bc, “Du kannst nach deiner Allmachtshand / Allein ein fruchtbar gutes Land” (Through your almighty hand / you alone can prepare a good fertile soil); D Major; 4/4.

Interesting Topics

Interesting topics – Form, Doctrine, Emblamata and Numerology – are explored in Peter Smaill’s Introduction, BCML Discussions Parts 3, << “Introduction: We must assume that at least the closing Chorus and perhaps other movements too are parodies whose musical substance is derived from an earlier work-probably a secular cantata. So far it has not been possible to ascertain further details”. Thus Dürr commences his review and all the surface factors concur. BWV 181 feels bitty, an assembly job. It is unusual in the Cantatas to have a Chorus at the end (though the Oratorios do); the solo part for BWV 181/3 (Mvt. 3) is missing, perhaps because it was borrowed from an older composition. A trumpet is added at the end, whereas the earlier movements in their first setting do not even have any woodwind. The operatic quality of the opening aria suggests the ire of a Zeus or thwarted Minerva. And yet, as declamation of pre-Lenten scorn for worldly things the extended metaphor, based on the parable of the Sower, is successfully pursued such that, if parody it be, the work succeeds too on a religious level.

Doctrine: Whereas the seeds in BWV 18 were expressed as a simile (“just as….”), in BWV 181 it is the device of metaphor at work. It is the heart that is sown, either in fruitful ground for those “fitted in spirit” who taste sweetness; or becoming the hard heart. Even there the reflection is that the power of Jesus’ word, which can cause rocks to shatter, can easily enter the human heart.

Emblemata: BWV 181 has a rich crop of emblematics. Although an illustration of “Leichgesinnte Flattergeister” (Richard Jones delightfully translates this as "Frivolous flutter-spirits") has eluded the search engines so far, the collections are replete with images of the heart, rocks, devils, the Word, sowing and cultivation. One source which revolves often around the theme of worldly disdain is the Himmlischer Leibes-Kuss of Heinrich Müller, “mit vielen schönen sinnbilden gezieret”, the many beautiful images therein mattering especially because this book was in Bach’s own library. The whole collection can be viewed at:

The illustration with little devils inside a hollowed-out heart playing with orbs and gold, symbols of earthly vanity, is quite apposite, but not the only one resonating with this Cantata. I thoroughly recommend visiting the site and matching images to Cantata texts generally, as Renate Steiger has in part done in her work “Gnadengegnwart: Johann Sebastian Bach im Kontext””… There is room for interpretation and perhaps no single exact match here, but taken together the correlation of emblematics and the Cantatas is not in dispute.

Numerology: The idea the work is a parody does not, however, sit easily with the numerological analysis of Arthur Hirsch. He detected in 1985 that the tenor aria’s title computes, according to spelling of schädlichen/schedlichen, at 314/315; as against the 314 notes sung by the tenor. The chief parody suspect, the final Chorus BWV 181/5 (Mvt. 5), has a title with a numerical value of 711 using the natural order number alphabet. The soprano and alto sing 711 notes (ignoring the da capo).

Of course it is possible that one or other of these relations is a coincidence, but both? The alternative is that the movements may have had a prior existence with these words; and, for example, we do find a closing chorus in the Weimar Cantata BWV 182, “Himmelskönig, sei Willkommen”. The numerology of the first line could be right as well as the work being a parody or a repeat.

Conclusion: Dürr manages to pen only three paragraphs on this short (14 minute) work and suggests it was coupled with BWV 18, before and after the service. In such a permutation the congregation would have had a chorale at least in one part. However, why would Bach employ four violas and a bassoon in one part, and then upper strings and trumpet in another? The further idea that the works were performed in two different churches is for these reasons more plausible.

We are left again with an unorthodox work leaving unanswered questions, and thus a warm invitation is on offer to BCW participants to comment on the causes and effect of this unusual work, which concludes - whatever the origin- with a finely-wrought chorus that must have briefly cheered the Leipzigers as they faced Lent in 1724.>>

Thorny Brambles Image

The thorny branbles image of worldly temptation is central to Cantata 181, observes Smaill in his BCML Discussion Part 2 commentary (March 2006), <<As the first Church year at Leipzig draws towards Lent Bach includes an image in this Cantata BWV 181, "Leichtgesinntes Flattergeister", which seems to be special to him. It is that of the thorns of temptation, which we first encounter in the early Cantata BWV150, in English translation: "Christians on the thorny paths / Are led by heaven's power and blessing"

Here in BWV 181 the text is :
"Der schaedlichen Dornen unendliche Zahl
Die Sorgen der Wollust, die Schaetze zu mehren
Die werden das Feuer der hoellische Qual
In ewigkeit naehren
which is loosely translated as :
"The venomous brambles of pleasure and again,
Will furnish to Satan a fuel infernal
To feed the fire and redouble the pain
Of torment eternal"

Bach's own annotations to his copy of the Calov Bible, acquired around (some say before) 1733 include: "What is the world but a large thorn growth that we must tear ourselves through?"

BWV 181 continues the development of the image by reference to the parable of the sower, merging the ideas from nature of the stony (heart), misspent seed, thorns and fowls, in contradistinction to the images of goodly ground, fertile land and abundant fruit.

This short Cantata is thus notable for its extended metaphor, carried through four of the five numbers and IMO the reason for the poetic conclusion being suited to a bespoke Chorus rather than adapting a Chorale which would have not permitted the closing stanza with its highly appropriate "fruchtbar gutes Land", the fruitful land prepared in Christian hearts.>>

Stone Images

Later, Smaill comments on the stone images and the hardening of the Christian heart in the alto recitative-arioso (no. 2), “O unglückselger Stand verkehrter Seelen” (O unfortunate state of perverted souls). <<Two thoughts on this Cantata and the interesting tension pointed out in the imagery of 181/2, between the "the hearts of stone that one day will be ruined" "that rocks that split themselves in pieces" and "the angel's hand moves the Grave's stone."

Although the focus of this Cantata (coming at Sexagesima 1724) as Lent fast approaches, is the parable of the sower, this set of images is prefiguring the Easter Gospels. The gap between this Cantata for 13 February and the first performance of the SJP on 7 April 1724 is but seven weeks. The thorns reappear in SJP, but this time as the "Dornenkroenen "; the 1725 version reflects the images of "Das Felsen selbst Zerspringen" (That rocks themselves split in pieces) with "Zechsmetterert mich, ihr Felsen und ihr Huegel" (Crush me, oh ye rocks and crags).

The theological point that the libretto of BWV 181/2 (Mvt. 2) is making is that hardening of the heart exby the wealth and pleasure seekers renders them the same material as the stone sealing the Grave, and will be split apart at Resurrection. By contrast, the loving Christian (like the fig tree in fertile ground in Luke 13:6) will flourish.

Thus this Cantata is also functioning as a preparation for Lent. Was it the only Cantata performed that day? As already observed, it is very short, c.14 minutes. Dürr [Ibid.] states (I apologise for repeating a surmise by another and using the English translation version): "This cantata was first performed on 13 February 1724, perhaps alongside the revival of cantata 18-one before the sermon and the other afterwards, or else in two different churches.">>

Compare, Contrast Cantatas 144, 181

Especially in the structures of the chorus movements, comparison and contrast of Cantatas 144, “Nimm, was dein ist, und gehe hin” (Take what is yours and go on your way, Matthew 20:14) for Septugesima Sunday, 1724, and Cantata 181, “Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister / Rauben sich des Wortes Kraft” (Scatterbrained frivolous people / rob themselves of the Word’s power), for the succeeding Sexagesima Sunday, are found in Julian Mincham’s commentary in Cantata 144 BCML Discussion Part 2, (March 7, 2006), << I hope I may be forgiven if I pre-empt the introduction to the latter of these cantatas set for discussion in the second week of March. The reason is that it seems illuminating to compare and contrast these two works written (or at least performed) a week apart in the second month of 1724.

Both are relatively short cantatas lasting around 13-15 minutes in performance. BWB 144 has six movements, BWV 181 five. Each contains one fully worked out chorus (i.e. not just a simple chorale setting) and two arias.

However it is when noticing the differences in structure that one becomes aware of the range of experimentation in cantata form that Bach explored in his epoch making first cycle, before settling on a more established pattern for the first 40 works of [chorale cantata] cycle two. For example, BWV 181 has, unusually, no chorale; BWV 144 has two (third and sixth movements). The large scale chorus is the opening movement of BWV 144 -- it closes BWV 181. BWV 144 has one recitative; BWV 181 has two, the first of which transforms itself seamlessly into an arioso.

Comparing the two major choral movements it will be seen that that which opens BWV 144 is clearly a traditional fugal motet type movement which is largely vocally self sufficient, requiring virtually no instrumental support (the bass continuo line would press on when the lowest voices were silent and the upper parts may well have been doubled by brass instruments for safety--but that is all). The concluding chorus of BWV 181 is entirely different. This is the Italianate concerto ritornello structure in which the instrumental forces play a large part in introducing the musical material and accompanying the singers (although the word 'accompany' is usually misleading in the context of Bach's contrapuntal textures). Examples of both choral structures are commonly to be found in the cantatas, not least in the first group of the second cycle where Bach demonstrated his great versatility in bending very different formal principles to the purpose of introducing the selected chorales, phrase by phrase.

The BWV 144 chorus is a very tight fugue of which it need only be said that the subject or opening theme (introduced by the tenors and derived from the shape of the first phrase of the first chorale) has the imperious quality of a command---'take what is yours'---and the countersubject, constructed of quavers and crotchets, conveys the feeling of movement or dispersal. Within the first few bars Bach has musically encapsulated the two fundamental images of the one line text.

Of the arias, three of the four are in minor keys. In fact, minor predominates in BWV 144 with the exception of the two chorales: the major modes here possibly reflect the light cast by the guidance of the Lord. The first (bass) aria of BWV 181 is particularly striking. Possibly it is this sort of muscular, angular melody which CPE and Agricola had in mind when, in the Obituary they refer to Bach's melodies as being 'strange' and 'unlike those of any other composer!' Bach had a particular liking for 'strange' but greatly energetic bass arias; see, for example, the fourth movement of BWV 40 (earlier in this cycle [Christmas 2, 1723]) and the first movement of BWV 168 [Trinity 9, 1725] -- a piece of monumenta1 force. What a beginning, in each case! One wonders how the sermon could have adequately followed or matched such drama!

Why are these two short works so differently structured? (a different question from the one which asks why are they so expressively different? Musical character is obviously a direct consequence of the structuring of the basic elements--melody, harmony rhythm etc.)

But one can have the same movement structures repeated time and again but achieving greatly contrasting characters---e.g. the classic symphony or concerto. Here the whole architectural structure is different. Is it simply Bach's need to experiment? Is it directly related to, or derived from the text? Did he consciously seek musical contrast of this kind in weekly adjoining works? Re recordings, Koopman has done a reconstruction of the obbligato part of the tenor aria of BWV 181 and he also provides both the earlier and later (from Bach's last decade) versions of the first and last movements.>>

The 1750 estate distribution of the three Bach cantatas composed for Sexagesima Sunday, BWV 181, 126, and 18, shows an interesting, pragmatic distribution, given that two, BWV 181 and 18, probably were presented on the same Sunday in 1724. Cantata 181 was part of the first cycle distribution between Bach’s two oldest sons. Emmanuel possessed the score, which was found in his 1789 estate, while the non-extant parts set presumably was lost by Friedemann. Although Cantata 18 originally was composed early in Weimar, Bach placed it in the third cycle estate distribution, presumably between the same brothers. An unusually inheritance pattern exists

At this time in the third cycle division of scores and parts sets,from Purification and the Pre-Lenten gesimas to Easter Tuesday, for some unknown reason, the scores and parts were not uniformly allocated with Emmanuel receiving the scores and probably Friedemann the parts sets from Advent to early Trinity Time. Instead the parts and sets together alternated between the two inheritors. The distribution pattern for the other double-bills in the first cycle, usually involving a Weimar repeat and a new composition (BWV 179-199, 182-Anh.199, 4-31, 197-59, 194-165).


1 Cantata 181 BCW Details and revised and updated Discography, Score Vocal & Piano [1.16 MB],, Score BGA [1.79 MB], References BGA XXXVII (Cantatas 181-190, Alfred Dörffel, 1891, NBA KB I/7 (Sexegesima, Werner Neumann, 1957), Bach Compendium BC A 45, Zwang K 63.
2 Dürr, Cantatas of J. S. Bach, revised and translated by Richard D. P. Jones (Oxford University Press, New York, 2005: 236).
3 Oxford Composer Companions: J. S. Bach, ed. Boyd (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999: 263).
4 German text and Francis Browne English translation,
4 German text and Francis Browne English translation,

Aryeh Oron wrote (February 21, 2016):
Cantata BWV 181 - Revised & updated Discography

The discography pages of the Solo Cantata BWV 181 "Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister" (Scatterbrained frivolous people) for Sexagesima Sunday on the BCW have been revised and updated.
The cantata is scored for soprano, alto, tenor & bass soloists; 4-part chorus; and orchestra of trumpet, transverse flute, oboe, 2 violins, viola & continuo. See:
Complete Recordings (11):
No recordings of Individual Movements.
The revised discography includes many listening/watching options to recordings directly from the discography page, 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 solo cantata. If you are aware of a recording of BWV 181 missing from these pages, or want to correct/add details of a recording already presented on the BCW, please do not hesitate to inform me.

You can also read on the BCW the recent discussion of the cantata in the BCML (4th round):


Cantata BWV 181: Details & Complete Recordings
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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