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Cantata BWV 26
Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig
Discussions - Part 5

Continue from Part 4

Discussions in the Week of November 16, 2014 (4th round)

William Hoffman wrote (November 17, 2014):
Cantata BWV 26, 'Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig': Intro.

Cantata 26 Part 1

Michael Franck’s terse hymn (six short lines in 13 verses) on the transitory nature of human life, “Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig” (Ah how fleeting, ah how insubstantial) elicited a patterned, pictorial, concise and bleak-texted but musically joyous chorale cantata, lasting a quarter hour, for the 24th Sunday after Trinity in 1724. Using various water images from mists to torrents to floods, Bach assembled the usual format of a rushing opening chorale fantasia, here running just over two minutes, followed by his longest aria da-capo in dance style (part of a series of virtuosi tenor and flute duets), two traditional secco recitatives for alto and soprano, another dance in mock bourrée as a bass solo Totentanz (mvt. 4) for three oboes, and a closing plain chorale that finally concludes: “Wer Gott fürcht', bleibt ewig stehen.” (The person who fears God stands firm for ever).1

Interestingly, Bach set the Michael Franck 1682 hymn only one other time, 10 years earlier, using the same fantasia sense of rising and falling in his Orgelbüchlein chorale prelude, BWV 644 It is a “no more interesting example of Bach’s early adoption of certain musical ideas to represent certain modes or forms of imagery,” says W. Gillies Whittaker, who first noticed this resemblance in his Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach.2

The Lutheran Church Year Readings for the Twenty Fourth Sunday after Trinity are: Epistle: Colossians 1:9-14 (Paul: Prayer for the increase of grace); Gospel: Matthew 9:18-26 (Jesus’ Miracle of Raising of Jairus’s daughter); complete text, Martin Luther 1545 English translation, English translation Authorised (King James) Version [KJV] 1611; for complete texts, see BCW Readings, . The Introit Psalm for the 24th Sunday after Trinity is Psalm 90, Domine, refugium (Lord, Thou has been our dwelling), says Martin Petzoldt in His BACH Commentary, Vol. 1, Trinity Sundays.3 Petzoldt calls Psalm 90 “The frailty of manly life.” Bach may have used Gregorian chant-based polyphonic motet settings of Psalm 90 by Palestrina, Josquin des Prez (, Heinrich Schütz, and Orlando de Lasso.4

Cantata 26 was first performed on November 19, 1724, at the main early service before the sermon of Pastor Christian Weise Dr. (1671-1736), says Petzoldt (Ibid.: 662).

“In verbal content this cantata may have little in common with what a preacher of our time would have to say about the Gospel reading, says Alfred Dürr in the Cantatas of J. S. Bach.5 Yet in its imposing display of pregnant images it creates a stirring impression, it accords well with the general themes of the close of the church year, and from a musical standpoint, above all, it is an unrivalled masterpiece.”

Other Commentaries on Cantata 26

Other commentaries have praised various features of Cantata 26, including the significance of Bach’s use of Franck’s hymn (Ncholas Anderson), the sense of the “transitory nature of earthly life” in the opening fantasia (Richard D. P. Jones), and Cantata 26 as “a stupendous musical confectionary illustrating the brevity of human life and the futility of earthly hopes” (John Eliot Gardner):

*The basic theme of Cantata 139 is described in Nicholas Anderson’s essay in the Oxford Composer Companions.6 The hymn “on the transitoriness of mortal life” is based on then Gospel reading. The hymn category is “Death and Dying,” one of the last in the omnes tempore (Ordinary Time) second half of the liturgical year. “Franck’s hymn answers the description perfectly, though of curse a seemingly fatalistic preoccupation is used to stress the futility of laying up treasures on earth and to remind us of the everlasting life promised to the Christian believer.”

*The theme is conveyed in musical treatment in Richard D. P. Jones description in The Creative Development of Johann Sebastian Bach.7 In Cantata 26, “the transitory nature of earthly life is conveyed by evanescent rising scale figures, by homophonic accompanying vocal parts in short-note values, and by the unisono singing of the diminished first chorale line by the lower voices at the end of each line of the cantus reiterating time and again the words ‘Ah how fleeting, ah how empty [is the life of man].’”

*Cantata 26 “is a stupendous musical confectionary illustrating the brevity of human life and the futility of earthly hopes,” says John Eliot Gardiner in his recent Bach musical biography, BACH.8 “Long before the first statement of the hymn tune, Bach establishes the likeness of human life to a rising mist that will soon disperse, Fleet-footed scales, crossing a re-crossing, joining and dividing, create a mood of phantasmal vapour – a brilliant elaboration of an idea that first came to him ten years earlier in Weimar when composing an organ chorale (BWV 644) to a simplified version of the hymn.” Gardner’s complete liner notes are found below.

Notes on the Text

The Cantata 26 Text is uses Michael Franck’s hymn (Mvts. 1, 6 unaltered) and an anonymous paraphrase (Mvts. 2-5); Francis Browne English translation,; Michael Franck (1609-1667) BCW Short Biography, Here are Browne’s “Notes on the Text”:

<<BWV 26 was written for the 24th Sunday after Trinity and first performed in Leipzig on 9th November 1724. It is part of the series of chorale based cantatas that form an important part of Bach's second annual cycle at Leipzig. These cantatas have a regular pattern whereby one of the hymns assigned to the day is used as the basis of the cantata text : the first and last stanzas are used unchanged, but the intervening stanzas can be rewitten as recitatives and arias, curtailed, expanded or omitted.

BWV 26 uses a 13-strophe hymn by Michael Franck published in 1652, four years after the end of the devastating Thirty Years War. According to Hans Joachim Schulze the contrast between the unsatisfactory nature of the transient temporal world and the eternal life promised to the Christian believer is a frequent theme in Franck's hymns. In the hymn used by Bach in each stanza the same pattern is repeated: two unrhymed lines describe some aspect of human life as being ‘flüchtig’ and ‘nichtig,’ then three rhymed lines comment on or illustrate this. To facilitate understanding of how Bach's anonymous librettist has adapted the hymn the texts are printed together at:

As usual first and last stanzas are used unchanged. The first aria rewrites the second stanza, while the following recitative succinctly summarises the next seven stanzas. The second aria for bass adapts stanza 10. Stanzas 11 and 12 are combined in the second recitative.

The gospel reading for the Sunday is the raising of Jairus's daughter. The cantata may seem to have only a tangential connection with this story, but Günther Stiller points out that Bach followed the Leipzig and Dresden hymn schedules which directed that hymns “Concerning Death and Dying” should be used on this day and Franck's hymn answers this description perfectly.>>

Chorale Text, “Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig” (EKG: 327) author is Michael Franck (1652); for Francis Browne English Translation, see BCW The Chorale Melody is the same, “Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig,” composer: Michael Franck (1652) with Johann Crüger (1661) Zahn: 1887b | EKG: 327. Michael Franck’s chorale text with his melody made its first appearance in print in “Die Eitelkeit, Falschheit und Unbeständigkeit der Welt” (“Vanity, Falsehood and Transitoriness of the World”), Coburg, 1652 (This is Zahn 1887a). Johann Crüger later modified it somewhat for his collection entitled: “Praxis pietatis melica” (10th edition), Berlin, 1661. Details, see BCW Chorale Melodies used in Bach's Vocal Works,

Chorale Cantata BWV 269

<< For his penultimate setting of a chorale cantata in Trinity Time of his second cycle, Bach in Cantata BWV 26 premiered on November 19, 1724, utilized the hymn "Ach, wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig ist der Menschen Leben!" (Ah, how fleeting, how trivial is man's life!). Michael's Franck's chorale of "Death and Dying" begins each of its 13 stanzas of six lines each with the initial same two-line dictum, often in later settings with the words "flüchtig" (fleeting) and "nichtig" (trivial) in either order in the title. The theme is maintained the chorale text with the three responsory lines in each of the 13 stanzas. The associated melody of the same title was composer by Franck (1652) and adapted by Johann Crüger (1661).

Bach kept the text of the first stanza in his traditional opening chorale fantasia chorus:

Ach wie flüchtig,
(Ah how fleeting,)
Ach wie nichtig
(Ah how insubstantial)
Ist der Menschen Leben!
(is man's life!)
Wie ein Nebel bald entstehet
(As a mist soon arises)
Und auch wieder bald vergehet,
(and soon also vanishes again,)
So ist unser Leben, sehet!
(so is our life, see!)

Bach in his own handwriting uses the reverse title, "Ach wie nichtig, ach wie flüchtig," in his Chorale Prelude for Organ, <Orgelbüchlein>, BWV 644, composed in Weimar about 1714, the last (No. 45) setting in the incomplete collection and the only one set (No. 159) in the Appendix "Justification" category that lists six other titles under the category “The life eternal”:

157 (Riemenschneider or Zahn 4797) Jesu, meines Herzens Freud'
158 (Riemenschneider) Ach, was soll ich Sunder machen
160 (Zahn 1208) Ach, was ist doch unser Leben
161 (Zahn 1338b) Allenthalben, wo ich gehe
162 (Riemenschneider) Hast du denn, Jesu, dein Angesicht
163 (Riemenschneider) Sei gegrusset, Jesu gutig
164 (Riemenschneider) Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele

Chorales & Gradual Songs

Sung between the lessons of the Epistle and the Gospel, the Gradual Song plays an important part in Bach chorales, particularly in organ prelude settings and the chorale cantatas, says Bach theologian Robin A. Leaver in <Luther's Liturgical Music> (Lutheran Quarterly Books, 2007, p. 302): "The Primary examples of these Graduallieder, many of them written by Luther, figure prominently in Bach's compositions for the church. A major part of the< Orgelbüchlein> (BWV 599-644) is primarily a collection of chorale preludes on the principal Graduallieder of the church year. Similarly, many of the chorale cantatas of his second Jahrgang in Leipzig (1724-25) are based on such Graduallieder. . . ."

Bach has one other connection with "Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig." He presented his now-lost, three-part Funeral Cantata, "Was ist, das wir Leben nennen" (What is it that we call life) on April 2, 1716, for his beloved Weimar Prince Johann Ernst. The third movement is the first of four chorales, "Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig." The possible source is found in the Gotha Hymnal of 1715, one of Bach's favorites at the time, and with the melody cited in BCW,

Composer-Lyricist Collaboration

For Chorale Cantata BWV 26, Bach's anonymous librettist ingeniously adapted the 13-stanza hymn with the 11 internal stanzas condensed into the usual chorale cantata form of four internal movements of pairs of alternating arias and recitatives. Perhaps with Bach's movement outline in hand, the poetic paraphraser maintained only the natural and character images and descriptions. As usual, Bach set the first and last stanzas unaltered. The long tenor da-capo aria (Mvt. 2), paraphrases Stanza 2. The central alto recitative paraphrases Stanzas 3-9. The bass free da-capo aria paraphrases Stanza 10; the soprano recitative (Mvt. 5) paraphrases Stanzas 11-12, and the closing chorale uses Stanza 13 unaltered. Francis Browne's new English translation comparison of the original text and the cantata paraphrasing is particular intriguing: BCW, In addition are Paul Farseth's 2001 BCW literal and "polished" English translations,

Cantata 26 Movements, Scoring, Text, Key, Time Signature:10

1. Chorus (Stanza 1 unaltered) two-part with ritornelli (15-bar opening and closing) [SATB; Corno col Soprano (C.f.), Flauto traverso, Oboe I/II, Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo]: A. “Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig / Ist der Menschen Leben!” (Ah how fleeting, ah how insubstantial / is man's life!); B. “Wie ein Nebel bald entstehet” (As a mist soon arises); A minor, 4/4.
2. Aria de-capo (Stanza 2 paraphrased) [Tenor; Flauto traverso solo, Violino solo, Continuo]: A. “So schnell ein rauschend Wasser schießt, / So eilen unser Lebenstage.” (As swiftly as roaring water rushes by, / so hurry by the days of our life.); B. “Die Zeit vergeht, die Stunden eilen,” (Time passes, the hours hurry by); C major; 6/8 generic dance style.
3. Recitative secco (Stanzas 3-9 paraphrased) [Alto, Continuo): “Die Freude wird zur Traurigkeit,” / Die Schönheit fällt als eine Blume,” (Joy turns to sorrow / beauty falls like a flower); “Freude,” “Schönheit” embellished; C major to E minor; 4/4.
4. Aria (Stanza 10 paraphrased) free da-capo dal segno (15-bar intro. repeat) [Bass;Oboe I-III, Continuo]: “An irdische Schätze das Herze zu hängen, / Ist eine Verführung der törichten Welt.” (To hang one's heart on earthly treasures / is a seduction of the foolish world.); B. “Wie leichtlich entstehen verzehrende Gluten,” (How easily arise devouring embers); E minor; 4/4 gavotte style.
5. Recitative secco (Stanzas 11-12 paraphrased;) [Soprano, Continuo]: “Die höchste Herrlichkeit und Pracht / Umhüllt zuletzt des Todes Nacht.” (The highest majesty and splendour / are shrouded at last by the night of death.); G major to A minor; 4/4.
6. Chorale [SATB; Corno (C.f.) e Flauto traverso e Oboe I/II e Violino I col Soprano, Oboe III e Violino II coll'Alto, Viola col Tenore, Continuo: “Ach wie flüchtig . . . / Sind der Menschen Sachen!” (Ah how fleeting . . . / are mankind's affairs.); a minor; 4/4.

Gardiner: Late Trinity Theme, Brevity of Human Life

“Like several of Bach’s late Trinity season cantatas [Cantata 26] central theme is the brevity of human life and the futility of earthly hopes,” says John Eliot Gardiner in his 2006 liner notes to the 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage on Soli Deo Gloria recordings.11 <<The aquatic cantata, BWV 26 “Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig,” [was] composed in November 1724, which would otherwise not have got a look-in during our cantata pilgrimage (with Easter coming so late, there was no twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity in 2000). Bach bases his cantata on a paraphrase of the thirteen verses of a hymn by Michael Franck (1652), which was included in the Leipzig and Dresden hymn schedules for this Sunday. The instrumental ritornello to the opening chorale fantasia is a stupendous piece of musical confectionery. Long before the first statement of Franck’s hymn (sopranos doubled by cornetto) Bach establishes the simile of man’s life to a rising mist which will soon disperse. Fleet-footescales, crossing and recrossing, joining and dividing, create a mood of phantasmal vapour – a brilliant elaboration of an idea which first came to him in Weimar (1714/16) when he composed an organ chorale to a simplified version of Franck’s hymn (BWV 644).

In his second stanza Franck compares the course of human life to rushing water’ shooting down a mountainside before disappearing, an image dear to the Romantic poets. Could Goethe have known Franck’s hymn when he wrote his marvellous ‘Gesang der Geister über der Wassern’ (‘Song of the spirits over the waters’) in Weimar some time in the 1780s? There seems to me to be a proto-Romantic gestalt to the way Bach sets Franck’s verse for tenor, flute, violin and continuo (No.2), each musician required to keep changing functions – to respond, imitate, echo or double one another – while variously contributing to the insistent onwardness of the tumbling torrent. It is a technique Schubert might have admired when he came to set Goethe’s poem to music for male voice choir – no less than four times. Life as misty vapour, then as a mountain torrent; now Bach has to deal with material breakdown, the moment when ‘all things shatter and collapse in ruin’ (No.4). He scores this Totentanz for three oboes and continuo supporting his bass soloist in a mock bourrée. Where one would expect this trinity of oboes to establish a mood of earthly (even evangelical) pomp, with the stirring entry of the singer their role becomes gradually more subversive and pictorial, firstly in the throbbing accompaniment which seems to undermine the fabric of those ‘earthly pleasures’ by which men are seduced, then through jagged figures to represent the tongues of flame which will soon reduce them to ashes, and finally in hurtling semiquaver scales of 6/4 chords for those ‘surging waves’ which will tear all worldly things apart. Perhaps most imaginative of all are the two brief secco recitatives in which Bach depicts fleeting human aspiration (No.3) and the way even the god-like eminence of the rich will one day be turned to dust (No.5). Both the declamation and the word-painting are superb. Each of them could stand alone, both as eschatology and as Bach’s way of encapsulating the message in music of phenomenal economy and trenchancy.>> © John Eliot Gardiner 2006, From a journal written in the course of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage

Cantata 26: Transient Human Life & Vivid Imagery

Cantata 26 is described as a “meditation on the transience of human life and of earthly good,” with vivid imagery and a pictorial character, says Klaus Hofmann in his liner notes to the Masaaki Suzuki BIS complete sacred cantata recordings.12 <<Bach's chorale cantata ‘Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig,’ was written for 19th November 1724, the 24th Sunday after Trinity. The cantata is based on a hymn that remains popular to this day, written and composed by the teacher Michael Franck (1609-1667) from Coburg: it is a meditation on the transience of human life and of all earthly goods. Clearly the gospel reading for that day, the story of the awakening of the Ruler's daughter (Matthew 9, l8-26), along with the theme of death, provided the impulse for the choice of hymn. In the cantata text, however, no further attention is paid to this aspect.

The imagery of the text inspired Bach to compose music of a similarly vivid nature. Right from the first bar, the instrumental introduction to the opening chorus - with its abrupt chords separated by pauses and its hurrying scale figures - illustrates the fleetingness and insubstantiality mentioned in the text. All the same, it then develops into a genuinely joyous piece of music in which the woodwind and strings, in rapid alternation, play the motifs to each other [in terms of form and technique, Bach hugely follows his preferred pattern in chorale cantatas: surrounded by a thematically independent orchestral ritornello from which the interludes are derived, the hymn is presented one line at a time, with its melody as a cantus firmus in long-note values in the soprano. Here, as in many other cantatas in this series, this is reinforced by a horn. The lower voices are in counterpoint with the cantus firmus, on this occasion generally not imitatively but homophonic, as a self-contained group. Bach had the extremely effective idea of letting the three lower voices declaim the individual lines of text in unison at the end of each choral passage, using a melodic formula derived from the beginning of the hymn.

The continuation of the cantata is also characterized by its pictorial character. In its instrumental parts for the flute and violin, and then also in the vocal line, the second movement - the tenor aria 'So schnell ein rauschend Wasser schießt' ('As quickly as rushing water') - paints a picture of a fast-flowing stream as an image of our life hurrying past, in which our sins correspond to droplets of water. The third movement, an alto recitative, tells how joy decays into sadness - a far-reaching coloratura culminates in an uneasy dissonance, just as beauty passes and death destroys everything. The following bass aria, with its unusual scoring for three oboes, is a genuine display piece, as one might expect to find in a secular rather than in a church cantata. Its rejection of the 'foolish world,' with the words 'An irdische Schätze das Herze zu hangen' ('To hang our hearts on earthly treasures'), is set in a 'worldly' musical style, to be exact in the form of a courtly dance, a bourre. A soprano recitative then returns us to a meditation about the frailness of human life and activity, and the simple concluding chorale follows suit although promising that in this transient world the God-fearing man will endure.>>
© Klaus Hofmann 2005


1 Cantata 26 BCW Details & Discography,
2 Whittaker, The Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach (Oxford University Press: London, 1958: II: 358)

3 Petzoldt, Bach Kommentar: Die geistlichen Kantaten des 1. Bis 27. Trinitas-Sontagges, Vol. 1; Theologisch Musikwissenschaftlicke Kommentierung der Geistlichen Vokalwerke Johann Sebastan Bachs, Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2004: Commentary, 651; Cantata 26 text & Franck hymn text, 658-62; Cantata 26 commentary, 662-667.
4 BACH'S MOTET COLLECTION: Otto Riemer, "Erhard Bodenschatz und sein Schünigen": Kaminsky, 1927 ML 410 B67R4; Partial Index of Motets in Florilegium Portense with links to online scores and biographies: and; Dissertation on Bodenschatz Collection.
5 Dürr, Cantatas of J. S. Bach, revised and translated by Richard D. P. Jones (Oxford University Press, New York, 2005: 637)
6 Anderson, Oxford Composer Companions: J. S. Bach, ed. Boyd, Malcolm (Oxford University Press: New York, 1999: 5).
7 Jones, The Creative Development of Johann Sebastian Bach, Volume II: 1717-1750. “Music to Delight the Spirit” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013: 149).
8 Gardiner, BACH: Music in the Castle of Heaven (Alfred A, Knopf: New York, 2013: 325).
9 Cited from “Musical Context: Motets & Chorales for 24th Sunday after Trinity,” BCW
10 Scoring: Soloists: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass; 4-part Chorus; Orchestra: transverse flute, 3 oboes, 2 violins, viola, continuo including organ & horn. Score Vocal & Piano [1.65 MB],, Score BGA [2.47 MB], References: BGA: V/1 (Church cantatas 21-30, Wilhelm Rust 1855), NBA I/27 KB (Cantatas for Trinity +24-27), Alfred Dürr, 1968), Bach Compendium| BC A 162, Zwang K 98 Provenance, Thomas B(November 16, 2002): “The Autograph Score,” “The Original set of Parts,” “Text,” and “Date of Composition and 1st Performance”;
11 Gardiner liner notes,[sdg115_gb].pdf; BCW Recording details,
12 Hofmann liner notes,[BIS-SACD1451].pdf; BCW Recording details,


To come: In Cantata 26 Part 2, The Linda Gingrich, dissertation, “Hidden allegorical links in the Trinity season chorale cantatas of J. S. Bach, deals with Bach’s slight shift in his penultimate Trinity Time choral cantatas composed in 1724, BWV 26, both in tonality from E to A minor and hermeneutical theme, the transience of life, while retaining a metaphorical tonal plan; while Bach’s Cantatas 29 and 60 for the 24th Sunday after Trinity and the hymn book chorales mostly deal with death, the Last Days and eternity; Bach also presented two Carl Heinrch Stölzel Cantatas on the same Sundays in 1735 and about 1736.

Aryeh Oron wrote (November 17, 2014):
Cantata BWV 26 - Revised & updated Discography

The discography pages of the Chorale Cantata BWV 26 “Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig” for the 24th 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 transverse flute, 3 oboes, 2 violins, viola, continuo including organ & horn. See:
Complete Recordings (17):
Recordings of Individual Movements (11):
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 26 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 William Hoffman's detailed introduction to this week's discussion of the cantata in the BCML (4th round):

Charles Francxis wrote (November 17, 2014):
Re: Cantata BWV 26, 'Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig': harmonium performance

A worthy adaptation of the 4-part chorale for harmonium can be heard here:

William Hoffman wrote (November 18, 2014):
Cantata BWV 29, Late Trinity Time Chorales: Fear & Hope

Cantata 26, Part 2

The Linda Gingrich, dissertation, “Hidden allegorical links in the Trinity season chorale cantatas of J. S. Bach, deals with Bach’s slight shift in his penultimate Trinity Time choral cantatas composed in late 1724, BWV 26, “Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig” (Ah how fleeting, ah how insubstantial) for the 24th Sunday after Trinity. There is a change both in tonality from E to A minor and hermeneutical theme, the transience of life, while retaining a metaphorical tonal plan.1 Julian Mincham in his Commentary offers a more optimistic view of Cantata 26, given Bach’s collaborative method. Eric Chafe finds the final Trinity Time Cantatas in Cycle 1 the previous year turn back to hope and trust.

Meanwhile, Bach’s Cantatas 29 and 60 for the 24th Sunday after Trinity and the hymn book chorales mostly deal with death, the Last Days and eternity. Later, Bach also was able to present two Carl Heinrich Stözel Cantatas on the same Sundays in 1735 and about 1736.

Cantata 26 now descends to the key of A minor and creating a much darker view of the end,” says Gingrich. “but maintaining the allegorical continuity of the sequence through a dominant relationship with the key of E. The twenty-fourth Sunday after trinity typically deals with the transient nature of life and” for November 19 [1724] conjures up bleak visions of emptiness, futility and looming death. Like the previous three [BWV 38, 115, and 139] it uses a metaphorical tonal plan, in this case ascending to the fourth movement [bass aria] in a rising arc that opposes its theme, and like the previous three it also pairs two movements through an identical key, this time the second and third movements through the relative major C . . . . Its inner formal layout mimics Cantata 139, moving from tenor aria to alto recitative to bass aria to soprano recitative in an ever-widening figure and its E minor fourth movement, the apex of the work, preserves the centrality of the key of E. But its spotlight on the utter nothingness of life is almost unrelieved by any sense of hope. It actually belies, to some extent, the hope-filled miracle described it the Sunday Gospel. Matthew 9:18-26 narrates the raising by Jesus of a young girl who has just died. The cantata, on the other hand, relates the swift passage of life, the withering of beauty, the transience of honor and glory and the frailty of earthly treasures. The link between the two is the chorale, which enumerates the fleeting things of this world, and provides the only consolation in the entire work, a hint of triumph over death in the last line (“Wer Gott fürcht', bleibt ewig stehen.” [The person who fears God stands firm for ever]).

Mincham: Collaboration & Optimism

A more optimistic view is found in Julian Mincham’s BCW commentary on Cantata BWV 26 looks at the collaborative process of composer Bach and the anonymous lyricist yielding Bach's powerful interpretation:2 <<When enjoying a cantata such as this, one is tempted to speculate about the relationship between Bach and his librettist. We have some evidence that Bach did not always accept texts meekly because there are instances of his making changes, particularly later in the cycle. However, one wonders, did he give clear indications as to the sorts of text he would welcome or expect? Was he, on this and possibly other occasions, pro-active in seeking stanzas which contained the sorts of imagery that begged for musical expression? Or did he simply wait until they came along, grasping the more imaginative possibilities with enthusiasm and doing what he could with the pedestrian offerings?

We shall never know, but it is not unreasonable to assume that he seized upon this particular text with relish. There is an energy and enthusiasm in the setting of these images, the pugnacious cantor quite possibly extending them further than his librettist had thought possible.

The theme is the transitory nature of fortune and beauty and, indeed, of life itself, all those things which we humans are tempted to both over-value and take for granted. The chorale is short, dour and solidly minor. The overall mood of the text is pessimistic and gloomy, nevertheless, Bach's interpretation is far from negative. Clearly this raises some interesting questions, not the least of which is to what extent did Bach agree with the premises of the various texts he was given and this one in particular?

His unrelenting optimism in the most extreme circumstances continually shines through his life and his art. Bach was not a man to give way to depression; for one thing, he would hardly have had the time! Hexpression of faith is always positive and even given the most disheartening of texts, somewhere he will find some light and hope. This is manifestly true of this cantata. If taken out of its context, one would hardly suppose that the first aria had emerged from a libretto and chorale of such general dourness; it is as buoyantly carefree as any in the cycle.

Some have doubted whether Bach was a staunch Lutheran believer although there is no evidence to support this view. A more interesting (and equally hypothetical) question might be, what sort of believer was he? Just how much did he accept of the Lutheran dogma without analytical scrutiny? To what extent did he, whilst accepting the basic premises, create his own sensibly pragmatic position-----one that would have to satisfy both his inherited religious beliefs and his ever-questing, restless intelligence?

Certainly it could be argued that he did not absorb uncritically the 'all is ephemeral' premise of this cantata. He lived quite comfortably. His last years were spent ensuring that his greatest masterpieces (e.g. Art of Fugue, Mass in B minor) were presented so as to survive beyond his lifetime. His great and well-attested enthusiasm for both teaching and composing indicates his ability to rise above personal tragedy and look optimistically towards the future. This was, after all, an individual who was orphaned at ten and widowed with young children in his thirties but who still made of himself an organ authority, adept composer and performing virtuoso before he was out of his teens! Bach must have been an exceedingly positive and determined human being!

Certainly, a belief in a positive afterlife may have been helpful to him. But there is little in what we know of his life and music to indicate any fatalistic or pessimistic streak in his core faith. And it does seem that he may have been one of the first European composers who actively sought to ensure that at least some of his music survived beyond him; although whether he thought that survival was to be on earth or in heaven (or both) we can only speculate.

Furthermore, one finds these positive attributes leaping out from his music more often than not. Despite the fatalistic theme, nowhere in this work do we find the tragic inevitability of torment that is expressed, for example, in one movement from C 20 (chapter 2). Schweitzer describes the alto aria from that work as 'quite excessive' (vol 2, p196). 'Nowhere else in music' he continues, 'has the painful writhing of a body been so realistically depicted' (ibid p196).

So Bach could certainly trawl the depths of hopeless dejection when he considered it appropriate. But whilst the theme and imagery gave him every scope for doing so in this cantata, he declined it.>>

Cycle 1 Trinity Time Positive End

Thus Bach in his second cycle, with Trinity Time chorales, takes a more pessimistic track despite the joys found in his music, particularly the opening fantasia in Cantata 26. The first cycle of 1723, without the emphasis on chorales of death and dying, shows “the change from the last weeks of Trinity to Advent involved a series of Cantatas in which fears of eternity, death, and judgment give way to hope and Trost” (trust), says Eric Chafe in Analyzing Bach Cantatas.3 The beginning and ending symbolism “links the turning of the liturgical year to the distant past (usually represented by an Old Testament viewpoint) and the future as embodied in the believer’s fear of judgment and hopes for eternal life. Thus “O Ewigkeit du Donnerwort” (O Eternity, thou word of thunder, BWV 60), for the twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity [1723], is a dialogue between “Fear” and “Hope,” in which Hope finally overcomes Fear.” In Cantata 60, “this symbolic progression from the first to the last book of the Bible prepares for the eschatological final chorale, “Es ist genug” (it is enough), which represents in a single setting the transformation from fear of death to the anticipation of a blessed death.”

Chorales for Trinity 24 4

<<William Hoffman wrote (September 9, 2012): With the 24th Sunday after Trinity, the schedule of extended Sundays in late Trinity Time is observed in the flexible church year calendar. The emphasis in the hymn schedules is on <omne tempore> chorales for "Jüngsten Tage" or the "Last Days." These hymns are part of the final topical section in Das Neu Leipziger Gesangbuch of 1682 (NLGB), Bach's favored hymnbook during his final, Leipzig tenure.5 Under this category also are sacred songs for the "Resurrection of the Dead, and Eternal Life."

In the church year calendar, the final Sunday in Trinity Time falls between the 23rd and the 27th Sunday after Trinity Sunday. This depends on how long the earlier, other flexible <omne tempore> period of Epiphany Sundays lasted involving three to six Sundays after the Feast of the Epiphany, on January 6. Bach's church year calendar observed 70 main services for Sundays and holidays while Leipzig practice allowed music only for 61 services, omitting the three final Sundays in Advent, the four Sundays in Lent, Passion (Judika) Sunday and Palm Sunday.

Thus, Bach had fewer natural opportunities to compose cantatas for the extended Sundays of late Trinity Time. During Bach's active cantata-producing period in Leipzig from 1723 to 1726, there occurred 26 Trinity Time Sundays in 1723, 25 Sundays in 1724, 26 Sundays in 1725 when he composed almost no cantatas, and only 23 Sundays in 1726. For these final Trinity Time Sundays Bach's six Cantatas -- BWV 60, 26, 90, 116, 70, and 140 - more than fill the bill, or need, in terms of appropriate texts and chorales. At the same time, these cantatas also address the concerns and themes of late Trinity Time: the NLGB "Last Days, Resurrection of the Dead and Eternal Life" as well as in the Leipzig and Dresden hymn schedule themes of "Death and Dying," and Lament and Comfort," says Günther Stiller's <JSB and Liturgical Life in Leipzig> (p. 246)

Late Trinity Time Chorales, Themes

At the same time in the extended, three closing Trinity Time Sundays of November 1723, Bach was able to utilize appropriate, popular chorales and fashion cantatas with special forms despite the pressing need to create numerous new works for the approaching Christmas season. For Cantatas BWV 60 and 90 Bach chose the simple but highly effective palindrome form of five movements in mirror form: opening dictum solo aria, closing four-part plain congregational chorale, and two teaching recitatives flanking the central (third) movement dramatic yet expressive aria. For the final Trinity Time 26th Sunday, Bach serendipitously and shrewdly salvaged Weimar Advent Cantata BWV 70, expanding it to the two-part form with which he began his first cycle six months earlier at the beginning of Trinity Time.

In addition, in the contemporary lectionary of service readings for the final Sundays in Trinity Time (now called Sundays after Pentecost), other Bach <omne tempore> cantatas are particularly relevant in these eschatological Last Days, Omega, or End Times. The Appendix to the <Evangelisches Kirchen Gesangbuch> (EKG) lists the following as appropriate for the Second to Last Sunday in the Church Year: Cantatas 105 (Trinity 9), 114 (Trinity 17), 115 (Trinity 22), and 127 (Septuagesima); Next to the Last Sunday, BWV 70 (Trinity 26), 94 (Trinity 9), 105 (Trinity 9), and 168 (Trinity 9); and the Last Sunday, BWV 140 (Trinity 27).

The New Testament readings in Bach's one-year lectionary are particularly appropriate for the 24th Sunday after Trinity: Paul's Epistle to the Colossians 1:9-14 "Prayer for the increase of grace"; and the Gospel of Matthew 9:18-26, the miracle of Jesus' "Raising of Jairus's daughter"

NLGB Chorales

The four chorales appointed to be sung for the 24th Sunday after Trinity involve a simple Luther teaching on death, a popular contemporary hymn with strong Passion undercurrents, a poignant personal Trinity Time sacred song, and a little-known setting of a favored text:

+"Mitten wir im Leben sind" (We are in the middle of Life), not set by Bach; Martin Luther's three-stanza teaching hymn, found with the four-part setting of J. H. Schein in the NLGB, No. 344, "Death and Dying";
+Herr Jesus Christ wahr Mensch und Gott (NLGB 338, Death & Dying; cf. chorale Cantata BWV 127, Estomihi 1725); BWV 336.
+Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (NLGB 178, Catechism (Trinity 3, 11, 22); BWV 33/5 (Tr. 13), BWV 261 (Justification & Penance).
+Ich weiß, das mein Erlöse lebt, ob ich schon (I know that my Redeemer lives, Hebrews 19, trust in death), NLGB Death & Dying No. 354; Prince Johann Wilhelm of Weimar 1573, 3 stanzas (Zahn 7539); not set by Bach.

Two Trinity 24 Cantatas: BWV 60, 26

For the 24th Sunday after Trinity, Bach's surviving cantatas BWV 60 and 26 and the prescribed <NLGB chorales> for this Sunday are particular relevant for the final Trinity Time services. Cantata BWV 60, "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort" (O Eternity, thou word of thunder), is a solo "dialogue" cantata framed by two well-known chorales of Bach's time: the opening dictum "Final Days" Hymn (NLGB 394), sung by an alto representing Fear, and the closing plain "Death & Dying" chorale, "Es ist genug, so nimm, Herr, meinen Geist" (It is enough! Therefore, Lord, take my spirit, NLGB 386). Chorale Cantata BWV 26 "Ach, wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig is der Menschen Leben!" (Ah, how fleeting, how trivial is man's life!), is a paraphrase of Michael's Franck's 13-verse 1652 hymn of "Death and Dying."

Interestingly, only one of these three once-popular chorales melodies survived into the 20th century, sung in English. "Es ist genug, so nimm, Herr, meinen Geist" (It is enough! Therefore, Lord, take my spirit) is found in <The Lutheran Hymnal> of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (Concordia, St. Louid MO, 1941), in three places: Easter, No. 196, "I am content, my Jesus liveth still" (text, "Ich habe genug"); Missions, No. 509, "There still is room" (text, "Es ist noch Raum"); and No. 599, "My course is run" (text, "Es ist vollbracht")

As for the nature of the collaboration, Harald Streck's 1971 dissertation on the verse art in the poetic texts of Bach's cantatas suggests that by Middle Trinity Time, Bach had found two paraphrase collaborators for the chorale cantatas. The one in question for Cantata BWV 26 is identified as the lyricist of Group 1 cantatas, actually beginning previously with the text for Cantata BWV 181 at Septuagesima (February 13) 1724 late in the first cycle. Streck suggests that this poet began the chorale cantata paraphrases with BWV 78, "Jesu, der du meine Selle," for the 14th Sunday after Trinity, September 10, 1724. It appears that the writer began alternating the production of individual cantata texts with the lyricist of group 3, who had begn a week earlier with Cantata BWV 33, "Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ," for the 13th Sunday after Trinity, September 3, 1724. Their putative alternate production continued until the end of Trinity Time 1724. Beginning at Christmas through the Lenten season, when Bach abandoned weekly composing of chorale cantatas, Group 3 lyricist took over, producing 10 libretti while Group 3 lyricist wrote only BWV 124 for the First Sunday after Epiphany and Bach's final chorale cantata, BWV 1, for Annunciation/Palm Sunday, March 1, 1725.

There is the possibility of a repeat of Cantata BWV 26 in the first half of the 1730s when Bach composed several <per omnes versus> chorale cantatas to fill gaps and may have presented a revival of the entire Chorale Cantata second cycle. The best possible dates on the 24th Sunday after Trinity are November 23, 1732, which was the final Trinity Sunday that year, or on November 15, 1733, one week before Trinity 25, when the last Trinity Time Chorale Cantata, BWV 116, could have been performed.

Bach's Other Trinity 24 Opportunities:

+It seems likely that Bach composed no cantatas at Trinity Time 1725, instead searching for published texts (Lehms, Rudolstadt) for the new and final third cycle, which began at the traditional start of the church year, the First Sunday in Advent, December 2, 1725.
+The Picander published annual cycle of 70 Cantatas for 1728-29, lists a libretto for the 24th Sunday after Trinity (November 7, 1728), P-68, "Küsse, mein Herz, mit Freuden" (Kiss, my heart, with joy), but with no closing chorale listed.
+On Trinity, November 20, 1735, Bach probably performed a Stözel two-part cantata, "Dazu ist Christus gestorben und auferstanden" [Therefore, Christ is dead and arisen; not extant], as part of the cycle "Saitenspiele testeddes Hertzens" (Music Playing of the Heart), text by Benjamin Schmolck, with two chorale settings not identified.
+About November 11, 1736, Bach may have performed a Stözel two-part cantata, from the cantata cycle "Das Namenbuch Christi," (Book of Names of Christ), Schmolck text, No. 65. No musical source with the presumed chorales is extant.

Dialogue Cantata 60

First performed on November 7, 1723, Cantata BWV 60, "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort," is dialogue between the alto (solo or chorus) representing Fear and the tenor representing Hope with the bass representing the consoling Jesus Christ. In the the opening chorale adaptation, the alto sings the first stanza of Johann Rist's 1642 original 12-stanza hymn, O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort," set to the Johann Schoop 1642 melody. Fittingly, Bach set the same hymn as the paraphrased Chorale Cantata BWV 20 to open the second Leipzig Cycle, beginning Trinity Time, on the Alpha First Sunday after Trinity, June 11, 1724. For the BCW cover page for Cantata BWV 60, see BCW Francis Browne's English translation of the entire Cantata 60 text is found at BCW,

There is an important theological connection between Cantata BWV 60 and the four Cantatas, BWV 165, 95, 8, and 27 for the 16th Sunday after Trinity with is Gospel lesson of the miracle of the raising of the dead son of the widow of Nain, says Alfred Dürr in <<The Cantatas of JSB> (p. 631). The concept of the coming resurrection finds the individual struggling with doubt and hope, with despair and confidence as a theme found in Late Trinity Time and in Bach's musical treatment of the poetic texts and chorales.

Cantata BWV 60 is Bach's first effort in true dramatic dialogue form, beyond mere duets. Bach mines, combines, and transforms four key components:

1, The symbolic duo of Fear and Hope, first found in Georg Christian Lehms' 1711 cantata texts using Jesus and the Soul, the latter also referred to as the Believer or the Christian Church;
2, The <Vox Christi> bass voice of Jesus;
3. The arioso form of melodic recitative used in the opening movement and the two recitatives (Nos, 2 and 4), first introduced in Weimar Cantata BWV 61, bass solo, "Siehe, ich stehe vor der Tür" (See, I stand before the door, Revelation 3:20; and
4. The rhetorical repetition of text in the "hybrid" dialogue recitative arioso movement, BWV 60/4, the bass Jesus singing "Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herren sterben, von nun an" (Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, from now on), Revelation 14:13, also found in the two German Requiems of Heinrich Schütz and Johannes Brahms.

Julian Mincham in his BCW monograph of Cantata BWV 60 speaks at length of Bach's amazing musical technique ( It should also be noted that Bach's dramatic dialogue is exploited further a few months later in the St. John Passion of 1724 and achieves fruition in the St. Matthew Passion of 1727/29.

Chorale "It is Enough"

Befittingly, Cantata BWV 60 closes with the fifth verse of the hymn "Es ist genug, so nimm, Herr, meinen Geist" (It is enough! Therefore, Lord, take my spirit, NLGB 386), in the closing plain chorale (Movement 5), the only movement that does not contain dialogue between two voices. The text is: Es ist genug;/ Herr, wenn es dir gefällt, (It is enough;/ Lord, when it pleases you). The five-stanza text of Franz Joachim Burmeister (1662) was set to the melody (Zahm 7173) of the same name by JRudolf Ahle in 1662). It is a hymn of Death and Dying in the< NLGB>, No. 386. As with the chorale, "Ach, wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig," "Es ist genug" repeats the dictum to introduce all five stanzas. Francis Browne's English translation is found at BCW, Chorale: Es ist genug - Text & Translation

"The text was inspired by and considered to be an extension of Elijah's prayer as found in 1 Kings 19:4," says BCW, This article cites Bach's use of whole tones, in Eric Chafe "Tonal Allegory in the Vocal Music of J.S. Bach", California University Press, 1991, pp. 194-5, as well as Alban Berg's use of Bach's version of the chorale melody. There is no other documented use of this sacred song which is not written in the style of a hymn.

It is possible that Cantata 60 was repeated on November 4, 1731, possibly as part of Bach's first annual cantata cycle repeat in 1731 when he systematically reperformed cantatas from his first and third cycle during the entire Easter Season (see BCW, It is documented that Cantata BWV 70, "Wachet, betet" (Watch, pray), was repeated two weeks later on November 18, on the 26th Sunday after Trinity, and that <per omnes versus> Chorale Cantata BWV 140, "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme Der Wächter" (Wake up, cries to us the voice of the watchmen) was premiered on November 25 for the final, 27th Sunday after Trinity, a rare occasion. For the 25th Sunday after Trinity on November 11 it is possible that Bach repeated either solo Cantata BWV 90, Es reißet euch ein schrechliche Ende" (There ripens for you a dreadful ending), or Chorale Cantata BWV 116, "Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ" (Thou Prince of Peace, Lord Jesus Christ).


1Gingrich, D.M.A., University of Washington, 2008; 3303284: 102f). The Sixth (and final) Sequence involves the five chorale Cantatas BWV 38, 115, 139, 26, and 116, running from the 21st to the 25th Sunday after Trinity ( 115.
2 Mincham, Cantata 29,; The Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach: A listener and student guide, Revised 2014; Home Page,
3 Chafe, Analyzing Bach Cantatas (Oxford Univ. Press: New York, 2000: 15.
4 Musical Context: Motets & Chorales for 24th Sunday after Trinity, BCW
5 NLGB, BACH'S HYMN BOOK: Jürgen Grimm, "Das neu [?] Leipziger Gesangbuch des Gottfried Vopelius (Leipzig 1682),"Berlin: Merseburger, 1969. ML 3168 G75.


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