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Cantata BWV 55
Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht
Discussions - Part 4

Continue from Part 3

Discussions in the Week of March 2, 2014 (4th round)

William Hoffman wrote (March 4, 2014):
Cantata 55: Ich armer Mensch: Intro

Bach’s sacred solo cantatas for male voice comprise only one-third of his extant, authentic production of a dozen works that display an intimate, personal character, often use previously-existing borrowed material, and explore instrumental sounds of oboe and strings often in dialogue with the voice. The character of the chosen solo voice changes from the soprano slumber-song and alto soul-song to the proclamation of the tenor in the sole work, Cantata BWV 55, “Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht” (I, wretched man, I, slave of sin) and three with bass bride-groom or Jesus-like symbolic figures. These musical sermons continue in the framework of his final extant cantata cycle and its extension, using mostly old-style texts with pastoral dance-style arias alternating with straightforward through extended recitatives in symmetrical, palindrome form of seeming, disarming simplicity.

Coincidentally, two other sacred solo tenor cantatas in five-movement mirror form with similar stylistic music and striking solo instruments were long-thought to be works of Bach: Cantata BWV 160, “Ich weiß, daß mein erlöster Schar” (I know that my redeener lives), for Easter Sunday, a work of Georg Philipp Telemann, and Cantata 189, Meine Seele rühmet und preist” (My soul praises and extols), the German Magnificat of Georg Melchior Hoffmann, earlier Leipzig composer whose alto solo funeral, Cantata, BWV 53, “Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde” (Strike then, longed for hour), also was previously attributed to Bach as well as Hoffmann’s German Magnificat, “Meine Seel erhebt den Herren” (My soul praises the Lord), BWV Anh. 21.1

Cantata 55, “I, wretched man, I, slave of sin,” premiered on the November 17, 1726, the 22nd Sunday after Trinity and the penultimate Sunday of the shortened Trinity Time of that year, with its extended Epiphany Time. In the final six cantatas for Trinity Time 1726, beginning on October 20, Bach composed works for all four solo voices. These distinctive cantatas, usually with borrowed material, are: BWV 169 (alto, BCML Discussion February 16), BWV 56 (bass solo), BWV 49 (alto-bass dialogue), NWV 98 (SATB with chorale chorus), 55 (tenor solo), and 52 (soprano, BCML Discussion January 12). The poet/text parodist for these works could well have been Picander since he was collaborating with Bach on the St. Matthew Passion and planning his own cycle of text that Bach utilized in nine late cantatas, that included textual adaptation and parody (text substitution).

The movements, scoring, and first lines of Cantata 55 are as follows:2

1. Aria (Tenor; Flauto traverso, Oboe d'amore, Violino I/II, Continuo): “Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht”
(I, wretched man, I, slave of sin), 6/8 pastorale-gigue
2. Recitative (Tenor, Continuo) “Ich habe wider Gott gehandelt” (I have acted against God)
3. Aria (Tenor; Flauto traverso, Continuo) “Erbarme dich!” (Have mercy!)
4. Recitative (Tenor; Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo) “Erbarme dich!” (Have mercy!)
5. Chorale (SATB; Flauto traverso e Oboe e Violino I col Soprano, Violino II coll'Alto, Viola col Tenore, Continuo): “Bin ich gleich von dir gewichen, / Stell ich mich doch wieder ein” (Though I have abandoned you, / I give myself back to you again)
[Unknown German text, Francis Browne English translation, BCW,]

The poet’s text inspiration for Bach’s musical sermon is based on the biblical Readings for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity: Epistle: Philippians 1:3-11 (Paul’s love for the Philippians); Gospel: Matthew 18:23-35 (Parable of the unmerciful servant); BCW, [German text, Luther 1545; English text, Authorised (King James) Version (KJV), 1611]. The Introit Psalm is 6, Domine, ne in furore, “O Lord, rebuke me not in thine anger” (KJV, The Psalm subject is the “Bußgebet um Gesundheit des Liebes und Seele” (the penitent prayer for the health of love and the soul), says Martin Petzoldt in Bach Commentary, Vol. 1.3

Chorales, Trinity +22 Cantatas

Beginning with bass solo Cantata 56 for the 19th Sunday after Trinity, Bach used chorales in all five works while some previous works omitted chorales in the texts of Lehms and other contemporaries during the final weeks of Trinity Time. The overall theme is the “New Kingdom of Grace and Righteousness” as declared in the Last Things (eschatology) when the penitent individual believer is urged to wait, watch and pray at the end of the church year. In Cantata 55, Bach used the Johann Rist chorale “Werde munter mein Gemüte” (Be alert, my soul), to the Johann Schoop melody of the same name, harmonizing the fifth verse, Bin ich gleich von dir gewichen, / Stell ich mich doch wieder ein” (If I have ever abandoned you, / now I come back again). 4

“Werde munter mein Gemüte” is described as a “Morning Hymn of Comfort.” 5

Tenor Solo Cantata BWV 55,"Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht" (I, poor man, I sin's slave) closes (Movement No. 5) with the four-part chorale, "Werde munter mein Gemüte" (Be alert, my soul), in Johann Rist 8-stanza text, set to the Johann Schoop 1642 melody. This <omne tempore> Morning Song of comfort is listed in the NLGB as No. 208. Bach harmonized Stanza 5, "Bin ich gleich von dir gewichen,/ Stell ich mich doch wieder ein;" (If I have ever abandoned you,/ now I come back again. Bach's other setting of the melody and the same stanza of the text is found in the St. Matthew Passion (Mvt. No. 40) plain chorale, just after Peter weeps bitterly and the alto aria "Erbarme dich" (Have mercy). Interestingly, the BWV 55/5 chorale setting is preceeded by the tenor aria and arioso both beginning with the dictum, "Erbarme dich" (Have mercy on my) and all three probably originated as Weimar Passion music.

Text, Music, Materials

Here are notes on the sacred texts, intimate music, and recycle materials in the three extant Bach cantatas for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity (BCVML Discussion, July 30, 2012):
+Solo SAB Cantata BWV 89, Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim?" (What shall I of thee make Ephriam?"); Leipzig, Oct. 24, 1723); details, BCW,
+Chorale Cantata BWV 115, "Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit" (Make thyself, my spirit, ready); Leipzig; Nov. 5, 1724; details, BCW,
+Solo (Tenor) Cantata, BWV 55, "Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht" (I, poor man, I sin's slave); Leipzig, Nov. 17, 1726; details, BCW,

Sacred Texts

The penitential teachings through music are reinforced in the intimate form of the two solo cantatas for this 22nd Sunday after Trinity, BWV 89, and 55, traced back to Weimar and reflecting a pattern in both the first and third Leipzig cantata cycles. Bach's choice of chorales, particularly for the chorale cantata of the second cycle, BWV 115, reveals a great freedom in the use of the particular texts and melodies for each of the three cantatas.

While the librettists of all three cantatas remain unknown, the results show a close collaboration with Bach in his crafting of three very distinctive works fusing text and music. For example, all three musical sermons are generally cast particularly in the first person singular of "I," "me" and "my" as well as the third and three persons singular of the Triune God of "he, "thee," and "thy."

Intimate Music

As the church year approached its end in late Trinity Time, Bach looked back in all three cantata cycles as he soto fulfill his calling of a "well-ordered church music to the glory of God." That ordering involved the reuse of existing materials, the setting of appropriate, established Lutheran hymns as a key component in the sacred cantatas, and the utilization of the most effective structure to engage his musicians and the Leipzig churches' congregations on particular Sundays.

For the remaining five weeks of Trinity Time in the first cantata cycle of 1723, Bach eschewed his three existing musical forms of opening collective choruses declaring the biblical dictum, turning instead to intitmate, individual opening arias. Where Bach initially had employed large-scale forms featuring choruses in the first six Trinity Time services in two-part or double cantata presentations, in late Trinity Time he alternated chorus with solo cantatas, beginning with the 16th Sunday after Trinity, and turned exclusively to solo cantatas on the 22nd Sunday. This practice was entirely in conformance with the intimate Gospel teachings of the last Trinity Time Sundays, an observance employed during Bach's years in Weimar, and repeated in the third cycle of 1726.

Two musical elements Bach uses in the three Cantatas BWV 89, 115, and 55 to strengthen the sense of personal engagement are the use of dance style in arias of all three works and the solo horn in the first two. The cantatas and their dance-style movements are: BWV 89/5, 6/8 passepied menuett for soprano with oboe. "Righteous God, ah, reckonest Thou"; BWV 115/2, 3/8 siciliano lullaby for alto, oboe and strings, "Ah, sleepy soul, why rest thou yet?"; and BWV 55/1, 6/8 pastorale-gigue lament for tenor, flute, oboe d'amore and srings, "I, poor man, I sin's slave." The solo horn reinforcing the melody, a Bach practice particularly in Trinity Time cantatas, is found in BWV/89, opening bass tutti ritornello aria and closing four-part chorale; and the same opening and closing movements of Cantata BWV 115, chorale fantasia and closing plain chorale.

Recycled Materials

Another practice was Bach's use of existing materials, also in both the first and third cycles. In the first cycle, he reperformed some 17 Sunday solo and festive chorus cantatas created in Weimar and expanded three Advent works (BWV 70a, 186a, and 147a) for other Leipzig services. For the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, Bach selectively employed surviving Weimar music in Cantatas BWV 89 (alto aria, No. 3) and 55 (Nos. 3-5, aria-arioso-chorale) from a Passiontide cantata or the lost 1717 Weimar Passion, BC D-1, says Alfred Dürr in <The Cantatas of JSB>: 612, 618.

To accomplish this task of transforming old materials for new usage, putting old wine into new bottles, possibly with new text underlay (also called parody), Bach probably collaborated closely with the lyricist(s) of Cantatas BWV 89 and 55. Given the intimate nature of the texts and the adaptation of existing music, including Bach's special choice and use of chorales, it is possible that Bach in both cases selectively relied on his favorite text adapter, Picander. Bach already had used Picander lyrics as early as the 14th Sunday after Trinity in Cycle 1 (Cantata BWV 25), and at St. Michael's Festival in Cycle 3 (Cantata BWV 19).


During Bach's lifetime or the first 50 years after his death in 1750, there is no record of reperformances of any of the three Cantatas BWV 89, 115, and 55 for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity. In all likelihood, Bach's sons and supporters found little opportunity to present intimate cantatas for late Trinity Time, other than festive works for St. Michael's Day, September 29, and Reformation Day, October 31.

Musical Context of Bach Cantatas: Table of Motets & Chorales for Events in the Lutheran Church Year

Here is Julian Mincham commentary introduction (revised 2012,
<<Thus far in this third cycle we have had three solo cantatas for alto and one for bass. This, the only extant one Bach wrote for tenor, is one of the least expansive of the five but this does not detract from its quality. One can only wish that Bach had written more works for this voice because this cantata is a perfect little gem!

Lasting well under a quarter of an hour in performance, it consists of two arias (accounting for two thirds of its length) two recitatives and a final chorale. Its chamber qualities are further enhanced by the instrumentation, one flute, one oboe, strings and continuo. Even the violas are dispensed with in all but the second recitative and the normal doubling duties in the chorale.

Gardiner: Musical Ingredients

The musical ingredients are the main interest in John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata 2000 Pilgrimage liner notes to his Soli Deo Gloria CD.6 <<BWV 55 Ich armer Mensch, ich Suüdenknecht, Bach’s only extant cantata for solo tenor – or at least to its three concluding movements, which might have stemmed from a lost Passion cantata. The autograph score and the original parts suggest that only the first aria and its recitative sequel were newly composed in Leipzig in 1726. For this opening tableau Bach seems to have in mind the unjust steward (‘a slave to sin’) summoned before his master, approaching with faltering steps and a despairing heart. Voice and instruments (an unusual coalescence of flute, oboe d’amore, paired violins and basso continuo) rarely double each other, so that six-part writing is the norm. Only Bach could carry this off so naturally, with great intensity but no gratuitous show of erudition. Four ideas alternate: a four-bar woodwind passage in sixths, expressive of utter wretchedness, a derived waving figure for the violins in thirds, a slowly climbing phrase for the flute and oboe d’amore, and an expansion of the waving figure in thirds creeping up by semitones. It is Bach with pre-echoes of Schumann. The opening vocal phrase is weighed down with deep anguish. The twin statements (‘Er ist gerecht, ich ungerecht’ / ‘He is just, unjust am I’) are purposely contrasted: if one clause moves up the other moves down and vice versa, helping us to trace the process whereby the flint-hearted creditor is transformed into a penitent.

The second aria is in D minor with an elaborate flute obbligato. It is one of Bach’s striking ‘Erbarme dich’ / ‘have mercy’ pieces, and the same words recur in the ensuing accompanied recitative with a motif similar to the one Bach was to use in the alto recitative (No.51) in the St Matthew Passion. When we were rehearsing I found the two keyboard players, Howard Moody and Paul Nicholson, in intense discussion over the missing figuring of the aria’s bass line: should it reinforce the flattened supertonic on the second quaver beat or leave it ‘open’ so that the flute E flat is left to clash with and contradict the bass D on its own?

What other great composer could elicit such passionate debate on the lacunae of his musical notation, I wonder? Beautiful as are the two recitatives and this second aria, it is the closing chorale-harmonisation in B flat of the sixth strophe of Johann Rist’s ‘Werde munter, mein Gemüte’ that draws the ear. Bach’s harmonisation is so perfectly appropriate for its setting that no other would have done – not even the glorious one in A major from the St Matthew Passion (No.40) –, while at the same time managing to assure the listener that the penitent has at last found peace. [© John Eliot Gardiner 2010, From a journal written in the course of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage]

Biblical Theme, Bach’s Treatment

The biblical theme and Bach’s treatment are found in Klaus Hofmann’s liner notes to the Masaaki Szuki BIS recording.7 <<The cantata for solo tenor that was premièred at the Leipzig Sunday service on 17th November 1726, the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, alludes to the gospel passage for that day, Matthew 18, 23–35, with the parable of the unforgiving servant. It is about the generosity of God, but also about the limits of that generosity. Jesus says that heaven is like a king who asks his servants to repay their debts. One of them, who owes him ten thousand talents, is unable to repay the money and asks for mercy, whereupon the king excuses him. Having then to witness how this same debtor wickedly coerces and pressurizes those who in turn owe him money, the king

finally gives him over to ‘the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him’. The cantata likewise deals with the mercy of God and the hard-heartedness of man. Its theme is the recognition of one’s own sinfulness and the request for God’s mercy.

The two arias are dominated by feelings of mourning and lamentation. Sighing figures in parallel thirds and sixths in the contrasting pairs of woodwind and violins determine the character of the first aria from the outset, whilst a note of imploring humility characterizes the second.

To judge from the available sources, this second aria (along with the following recitative and the final chorale) probably comes from an earlier com position – perhaps, as has also been suggested, from a lost Passion that Bach wrote in 1717 for the court in Gotha. The concluding strophe, ‘Bin ich gleich von dir ge wichen’(‘Though I have now turned away from you’ – from Werde mun ter, mein Gemüte [Be alert, my soul] by Johann Rist 1642, melody by Johann Schop 1642) can be heard as an anticipation of the St Matthew Passion that was performed shortly afterwards, in the spring of 1727, in which the same strophe concludes the scene of Peter’s denial. © Klaus Hofmann 2008


See Cantata 160 Discussion, BCW,, scroll down to BCML “Discussions in the Week of June 27, 2010”. Cantata 189 Details, BCW, scroll down to BCW “Musical Context of Bach Cantatas: Motets & Chorales for Feast of Visitation of Mary,” “+Anonymous Cantata "Meine Seele erhebt den Herrn" (1725, Monday)” and “Two Vocal Works Once Attributed to Bach.”
2 Cantata 55 Sources: BCW Details, Score Vocal & Piano [1.09 MB],; Score BGA [1.14 MB], References BGA: XII/2 (Cantatas BWV 51-60, Wilhelm Rust 1863), NBA: I/26 (Cantatas for Trinity +23, Andreas Glöckner, 1995), Bach Compendium BC: A 157, Zwang: K 159. Provenance (Thomas Braatz 2002, BCW
3 Introit Psalm and subject, see Petzoldt, Bach-Kommentar: Theologisch Musikwissenschaftlicke Kommentierung der Geistlichen Vokalwerke Johann Sebastan Bachs; Vol. 1, Die Geistlichen Kantaten des 1. bis 27. Trinitas Sontages; Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2004: 609) text 626f; commentary 627ff. Picander could have been assisted by Bach’s pastor Christian Weise (1671-1736), who preached the sermon after Cantata 55 at the St. Thomas church that day in 1726 (Ibid., 627).
4 Rist chorale text and Francis Browne English translation,; Schop chorale melody,

5 Musical Context: Motets & Chorales for 22nd Sunday after Trinity,
6 Gardiner,[sdg171_gb].pdf; BCW Recording details,
7[BIS-SACD1631].pdf; BCW Recording details,


See new list of recordings compiled by Aryeh Oron (September 2002 - March 2014) with YouTube Videos:


Cantata BWV 55: 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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