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Cantata BWV 81
Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?
Discussions - Part 4

Continue from Part 3

Discussions in the Week of January 31, 2016 (4th round)

William Hoffman wrote (January 31, 2016):
Cantata 81, 'Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?' Intro.

Again in Epiphany Time in the first Leipzig cantata service cycle, Bach composes special features in Cantata BWV 81, “Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?” (Jesus sleeps, what should be my hope?) for the less-frequent Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. He returns to the intimate, dramatic solo cantata format with seven balanced, symmetrical movements (both form and content-wise) in true palindrome (mirror) form with three solo voices, alto, tenor, and bass. The 18-minute work is shaped as a mini, chamber opera with opening alto aria followed by pairs of tenor and bass recitative/arioso-arias, and an alto recitative. It closes with a congregational plain chorale, Johann Franck’s 1653 “Jesu Meine Freude” (Jesus, my joy), which has an omnes tempore (ordinary time) theme of “Cross, Persecution, and Challenge.” Full of graphic images and repeated texts, the possible librettist was Christian Weise Sr. (1671-1736).

The opening free da-capo aria is a lament-lullaby with the use of recorders signifying death/sleep. The two internal storm/rage arias for tenor and bass are accompanied by stirring strings: (no. 3) “Die schäumenden Wellen von Belials Bächen / Verdoppeln die Wut.” (The foaming waves of Belial’s streams / redouble their rage) and (no. 5) “Schweig, aufgetürmtes Meer! / Verstumme, Sturm und Wind!” (Be silent, towering sea! / Keep quiet , storm and wind !). The central, brief ariosi for bass and continuo, is a vox Christi, citing the gospel verse, Matthew 8:26, “Ihr Kleingläubigen, warum seid ihr so furchtsam?” (You people of little faith, why are you so fearful?). Bach adds doubling oboes d’amore to the bass da-capo aria and the closing chorale.1

Cantata 83 was premiered on January 30, 1724 at the early service at St. Thomas Church, before the sermon (not extant) on the day’s Gospel, Matthew 8:23-27, Christ stills the tempest on the sea of Galilee), by Archdeacon Johann Gottlieb Carpzov (1679-1767), who was substituting for Pastor Weise, says Martin Petzoldt in Bach Commentary.2 Bach’s pastor had periodic voice difficulties until preaching regularly again from Easter 1724 onwards, says Alfred Dürr in the Cantatas of J. S. Bach.3 The Epistle for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany in Bach’s time was Paul’s letter to the Romans 13:8-10 (Love is the fulfiling of the law). The German text of Luther’s translation published in 1545, and the English Authorised (King James) Version 1611 is found at BCW,

The Introit Psalm for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany was Psalm 46, Deus noster refugium (God is our refuge, KJV, or “Gott ist unser Zuversicht”), says Petzoldt (Ibid.: 503), which he describes as “Der Kirche Trost und Sicherheit” (The Church’s trust and certainty). Luther's popular Reformation hymn, "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" (A Mighty Fortress is our God) (4 stanzas) is a setting of Psalm 46 (see “Motets and Chorales for the Feast of Reformation,” BCW For the full text of Psalm 46, see There are Latin motet settings of Frescobaldi, Hassler, Palestrina, di Lasso, and Schütz. The source is BCW Musical Context of Bach Cantatas, Motets & Chorales for Epiphany Time,

The Johann Franck (1618-77) six-stanza nine line text often was used in Bach’s time at funerals. The full text and Francis Browne’s English translation are found at Franck’s BCW Short Biography is found at Bach also used the associated Johann Cruger melody (see BCW melody and text information,

Cantata 81 Commentaries

In lieu of dance style, except for the suggestion of 3/8 gigue style in the A section of the tenor da-capo aria (no. 3), Bach’s other contemporary compositional use in Cantata 81 is operatic style, as the Cantata 81 has been liken to a mini Italian opera, especially Peter Smaill’s BCW commentary below, ‘Leipziger’s Reaction, Images, Text.’ It is possible to liken the alto to the Soul, the bass to Jesus, and the tenor as the narrator. For extended commentary on Cantata 81 and all its movements, see the liner notes below of Klaus Hofmann, ‘Gospel Storm Re-Creation,’ and John Eliot Gardiner, ‘Theatrical, Operatic Sea Voyage.’

A brief summary description of Cantata 81 is found in Julian Mincham’s introduction to his Cantata 81 BCW essay (revised 2012 and 2014), <<We come now to another cantata lacking a chorus but, as if by way of compensation, containing three stunning arias. It is constructed with perfect symmetry, aria--recit--aria preceding the centrally placed bass arioso with aria--recit--chorale following it. The fourth movement acts as a fulcrum around which the two connecting themes are balanced, firstly a life of separation from Jesus and, to conclude, life in His presence and under His protection. Furthermore, the arias on either side of the arioso are theatrical ′rage and storm′ movements, highly operatic in style and declamation. In particular, the first of these is a piece of quite hair-raising virtuosity in term of its demands upon the musicians and striking originality in terms of its construction.>>

A summary “Personal Viewpoint” of the dialogue form’s storm male arias and the arioso is provided in Aryeh Oron’s BCML Cantata 81 Introduction Part 1 (Feb. 6, 2000),

<< Everyone who thinks that the best description of storm in music could be find in the Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony or the opening scene of Verdi’s Othello Opera, should listen to this cantata first and especially to the Arias for Tenor and for Bass. And what is most impressive about Bach’s writing here is that he draws the picture and achieves the maximal effect with minimal means – only strings and Continuo, where Beethoven and Verdi do it with the full orchestra at their disposal. The Arias call for vocal soloists with sense for drama. Operatic background may help. The dialogue form, so familiar from other cantatas, mainly between Jesus and the Soul, takes a different shape here. The relationship between the voice and the strings reminds me a ship in storm, trying to pave its way between the high, shaky and frightening waves.>>

Cantata 81 Movements, Scoring, Incipits, Key, Meter4

1. Aria free da-capo (extensive repeat of A) [Alto; Flauto I/II, Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo]: A. “Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?” (Jesus sleeps, what should be my hope?); B. “Seh ich nicht / Mit erblasstem Angesicht / Schon des Todes Abgrund offen?” (Do I not see / with pallid face / death’s abyss already open?); e minor; 4/4.
2. Recitative secco [Tenor, Continuo]: Herr! warum trittest du so ferne? / Warum verbirgst du dich zur Zeit der Not” (Lord! why do you walk so far away? / Why do you hide yourself in the time of my distress); closing, “
“Ach leite mich durch deiner Augen Licht, / Weil dieser Weg nals Gefahr verspricht.” (Ah guide me by the light of your eyes / since this way promises nothing but danger; a minor to G Major; 4/4.
3. Aria free da-capo [Tenor; Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo]: A. “Die schäumenden Wellen von Belials Bächen / Verdoppeln die Wut.” (The foaming waves of Belial’s streams / redouble their rage); B. 4/4 Adagio (with strings 3/8 allegri) “Ein Christ soll zwar wie Felsen stehn [or wie Wellen like a wave] / Wenn Trübsalswinde um ihn gehn” (A Christian should stand like a rock / when the winds of affliction go over it); G Major; 3/8 gigue style.
4. Arioso [Bass (vox Christi)], Continuo: “Ihr Kleingläubigen, warum seid ihr so furchtsam?” (You people of little faith, why are you so fearful? Matthew 8:26); quotation repeated; b minor to e minor; 4/4.
5. Aria da capo [Bass; Oboe d'amore I/II, Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo]: A. Schweig, aufgetürmtes Meer! / Verstumme, Sturm und Wind!” (Be silent, towering sea! / Keep quiet , storm and wind !); B. Dir sei dein Ziel gesetzet, / Damit mein auserwähltes Kind / Kein Unfall je verletzet.” (Let a limit be set for you, / so that my chosen child / no mischance may harm.); e minor; 4/4.
6. Recitative secco [Alto, Continuo]: “Wohl mir, mein Jesus spricht ein Wort” (How happy I am, my Jesus speaks a word); G Major to b minor; 4/4.
7. Chorale plain [SATB; Oboe d'amore I/II e Violino I col Soprano, Violino II coll'Alto, Viola col Tenore, Continuo]: Unter deinen Schirmen / Bin ich für den Stürmen” (Beneath your protection / I am free from storms); e minor; 4/4.

Gospel Storm Re-Creation

A gospel storm recreation embodies Cantata 81 as provided in Klaus Hofmann 2002 liners notes from the Maasaki Suzuki BIS recording.5 It is quoted in John Pike’s BCML Cantata 81 Discussion to Part 2, Following it, Pike adds a one paragraph note on the words “rocks” and waves” in the (no. 3) tenor aria. <<In terms of both text and music, Bach's cantata for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany is wholly determined by the gospel that is traditionally read on that day and then explained by the preacher. It is the story of the quietening of the storm according to Matthew 8:23-27: Jesus and his disciples are travelling across the sea; he himself is a sleep. A storm arises, and the ship is covered with waves. Greatly distressed, the disciples wake Jesus. He, however, "arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm". This episode, which is also related by Mark and Luke, has caught the imagination of many artists through the centuries, and evidently inspired Bach and his unknown text author as well. With this cantata, for 30th January 1724, the Cantor of St. Thomas comes strikingly close to the operatic genre, and thus to a stylistic level that had been decisively banned from church music in Leipzig. It may therefore be the case that this work provided the more conservative members of what Bach described in 1730 in a letter to his old friend Georg Erdmann [in Danzig] as the "wondrous authorities who have but little devotion to music" with their first bone of contention. We know nothing, however, about the reactions in Leipzig to Bach's sacred music.

Bach's cantata consists essentially of a dramatic sequence of scenes. At the beginning there is an idyll: Jesus is asleep, the boat is gliding across calm waters. The gentle sound of recorders determines the sound image; the vocal line and the strings seem to be holding back, "in order not to wake Jesus". This, however, proves quite literally to be the calm before the storm: apprehension starts to blend in, with sighing figures and pauses in the wind and string parts, and questions in the vocal line. Jesus sleeps on; he does not react or take any action; what hope remains in the face of death? The text author manages almost imperceptibly to reinterpret the perilous situation on the ship as a reflection of the problems faced by Christians in his own time.

In the second aria (third movement), Bach lets loose the powers of nature. Now the waves foam, the storm rages; and behind it all stands Belial, the epitome of evil, Satan. Amid all the wild activity, however, the Christian stands firm, like a rock; this, too, is shown with great flexibility by Bach, who asks the tenor to maintain his long-held, high notes against all the turmoil in the strings.

Now the scene changes again: Jesus enters. As usual, he is represented by a bass voice. In an arioso accompanied just by the continuo (fourth movement), a strictly imitative, often canon-like piece of writing, he literally reproaches the disciples (and thus also the Christians of his own era): "Ihr Klein-glaeubigen, warum seid ihr so furchtsam?" ("Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith"; Matthew 8: 26). And then he takes action: in the following aria (fifth movement) the sea again rises up and Jesus commands it to be still - and indeed, there are moments at which Bach's wild, turbulent music falls silent.

A brief alto recitative (sixth movement) leads into the final chorale, and this seems to formulate the quintessence for the Christians of the time; "Unter deinen Schirmen bin ich vor den Stürmen aller Feinde frei" ("Beneath your protection I am free of the storm"). With the beautiful, simple final strophe by Johann Franck (1653) to a melody by Johann Crüger (1653) - well known from Bach's motet "Jesu, meine Freude" (BWV 227) - Bach leads his listeners back into the more familiar world of undramatic, meditative music for church services.

Masaaki Suzuki adds "The principal surviving materials relating to this cantata are! The full score in Bach's own hand and the original parts, together with the vocal texts that were printed to be handed out among the congregation. These texts include those of six cantatas. Among the parts, the continuo parts include one transposed for organ and one untransposed part with figuring attached, suggesting that a harmony instrument of some type was used". Suzuki uses a harpsichord for his performance.

Considering that numerals do not appear in the tenor recitative that constitutes the second movement, it is not inconceivable that the Harpsichord was absent from this movement. But, since the tenor melody appears in this piece, there are no problems involved in performing the harmony even in the absence of figuring, and we decided to include the harpsichord throughout the work on this occasion.>>

Pike note: <<The word "Felsen" ("rock") in the passage "Ein Christ soll zwar wie Felsen stehn" [A Christian should stand like a rock] in the third movement tenor] Aria appears in Bach's manuscript as "Wellen" ("waves"). But the expression "like waves" seems inappropriate for conveying the notion of Christ standing upright in the midst of billowing waves, and "like a rock" as appears on many occasions in the Bible is surely correct. Ulrich Leisinger, editor of the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (New Bach Edition KB I/6), writes in his commentary to this work that it seems likely that this was an error that appeared in the source from which Bach copied the text, and in accordance with his recommendation we have therefore decided to sing "Felsen" rather than "Wellen".>>

Theatrical, Operatic Sea Voyage

Its theatrical, operatic portrayal of life as a sea voyage characterizes Cantata 83, observes John Eliot Gardiner in his 2006 liner notes to his 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage series on Soli Deo Gloria recordings.6

<<If asked what kind of opera composer Bach would have been, I would point immediately to BWV 81, “Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? For it seems to me that nothing in his secular cantatas, despite their titles as dramma per musica, is remotely as vividly theatrical or indeed operatic as this amazing work, first performed in Leipzig on 30 January 1724. It is one of only a handful of cantatas in which Bach seizes on a dramatic incident from the Gof the day – here Matthew’s account of Jesus calming the violent storm on Lake Galilee which threatens to capsize the boat in which he and his disciples are sailing – and makes it the basis of a metaphor pertinent to the Christians of his day: life as a sea voyage.

Jesus’ sleep on board ship is the initial backdrop to an eerie meditation on the terrors of abandonment in a godless world – cue for a pair of old-fashioned recorders (so often associated in Bach’s music with contemplations of death as well as sleep) to be added to the string band. Nor is it a surprise that Bach gives this opening aria to an alto, the voice he regularly turned to for expressions of contrition, fear and lamenting. Here he challenges the singer with a serious technical (and symbolic) endurance test, to hold a low B flat without quavering for ten slow beats (twice!) and then to go on to evoke the gaping abyss of approaching death. There is also a balance problem to resolve: of blending the pair of fixed volume recorders sounding an octave above the strings – which are, of course, dynamically flexible – while retaining maximum expressivity. Life without Jesus (his soporific silence lasts all the way through the first three numbers) causes his disciples and later generations acute anguish and a sense of alienation which comes to the surface in the tenor recitative (No.2) with dislocated, dissonant harmonies. One thinks of Psalm 13: ‘How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?’, and of the guiding star precious to all mariners and to the magi.

Suddenly the storm bursts. It is astonishing what a vivid scena Bach can create from a simple 3/8 allegro in G major just for strings. A continuous spume of violent demisemiquavers in the first violins set against a thudding pulsation in the other instruments reaches ear-splitting cracks on the 7/6/4/2 flat chords to convey the rage of ‘Belial’s waters’ beating against the tiny vessel. The overall effect is similar to one demanding an equivalent virtuosity of rapid passagework by both tenor and violins but imbued with vastly more harmonic tension. Three times Bach halts the momentum mid-storm, as it were, for two-bar ‘close-ups’ of the storm-tossed mariner. Though intensely real, the tempest is also an emblem of the godless forces which threaten to engulf the lone Christian as he stands up to his taunters.

Jesus, now awake (how could he possibly have slept through all that racket?), rebukes his disciples for their lack of faith. In an arioso with straightforward continuo accompaniment (it is almost a two-part invention) the bass soloist assumes the role of vox Christi. After the colourful drama of the preceding scena the very spareness and repetitiveness of the music is striking. One wonders whether there is an element of dramatic realism here – of yawn-induced irritation and rebuke (all those repeated warums [why’s]) – or even of mild satire: is this perhaps another of those occasions when Bach is having a bit of fun at the expense of his Leipzig theological task-masters?

There follows a second seascape, just as remarkable as the earlier tempest, in the form of an aria for bass [No. 5], two oboes d’amore and strings. The strings in octaves evoke the pull of the tides, the undertow and the waves welling up only to be checked at the point of breaking by Jesus’ commands ‘Schweig! Schweig!’ (‘Be silent!’) and ‘Verstumme!’ (‘Be still!’). Neither Bach’s autograph score nor the original parts contain any helpful indication of articulation (which of course does not necessarily preclude their introduction in his performances). We experimented with different slurper mutations and with localised crescendi aborted one beat earlier than their natural wave-crest. These seemed to work idiomatically and pictorially, as did the final ritornello played smoothly and softly, now obedient as it were to Christ’s commands. The stilling of the storm is implicit both in the alto soloist’s concluding recitative (No.6) and in the final chorale, the seventh verse of Johann Franck’s hymn Jesu, meine Freude – a perfect conclusion to this extraordinary and genuine dramma per musica.

The land-locked Bach might never have witnessed an actual storm at sea, but one of his favourite authors, the seventeenth-century theologian Heinrich Müller, could certainly have done: he lived in Rostock on the Baltic coast and commentated eloquently on this particular incident in Matthew’s gospel. For the true believer to travel in ‘Christ’s little ship’ is, metaphorically, to experience the buffetings of life and bad weather, but to come through unscathed: ‘the paradox of total peace in the midst of turbulence’. A tropological interpretation of this biblical event was, one would have hoped, sufficient justification for Bach’s brilliantly inventive and, yes, dramatic treatment, and a foretaste of his St John Passion, whose premiere lay just over two months away. But we can be sure that it would have ruffled the feathers of Leipzig councilmen like Dr Steger who, nine months earlier, had voted for Bach as Cantor with the implied proviso ‘that he should make compositions that were not theatrical’..>> © John Eliot Gardiner 2006, from a journal written in the course of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage

Leipziger’s Reaction, Images, Text

Leipzigers’ reaction to Cantata 81 as well as images and word text are the key features in Peter Smaill’s Cantata 81 Introduction to Part 3 of the BCML Discussion ( The text in the tenor storm aria (no. 3), “Ein Christ soll zwar wie Felsen stehn” (or wie Wellen like a wave; A Christian should stand like a rock) also were discussed (at length) in Cantata 81 Part 2 (BCML<< Just about a year separates the performance of BWV 81 (January 30th 1724) from Bach’s Pröbestuck, BWV 22, for Quinquagesima 1723 (February 7th”). This Cantata, one of the most operatic in its exuberant word-painting and declamation, is evidence that the Leipzig Council had perhaps got more than they bargained for. As Martin Geck points out, “Bach’s reputation for refinement had preceded him, otherwise Leipzig’s Mayor Steger would not have expressly laid down the condition to Bach later on, upon his being appointed, to make such compositions as are not theatrical.”

What would the Leipzigers made of the rushing semiquavers and leaping vocal passages depicting the storm at sea, in which the terrified disciples are enjoined to calm by the lately woken Jesus? If they had felt a yearning for a more restrained setting by the failed first choice as cantor, Christoph Graupner of Darmstadt, they would have been mistaken; for this Sunday also elicited later on a dramatic work from him, the 1734 Cantata “Herr, die Wasserströme erheben sich”, which in the recording by Phillip Herreweghe (“Before Bach” CD, Harmonia Mundi) makes the storm that of a Vivaldian winter, concluding with a most beautiful chorale setting in which a poignant lullaby motif in the strings leads to solo and duet vorimitation of the chorale, “ “Was bist so hochbetrübet”, the whole closing in an atmosphere of calm and resignation.

So both Bach and Graupner took the opportunity to dramatise the Gospel for the day. Previously, in discussing the sea-faring BWV 56, “Ich will mein Kreuzstab gerne tragen”, we discussed the metaphysical sermon of a Lübeck pastor ( formerly of the Thomaskirche) August Pfeiffer, which was set for this Sunday (published in 1679 in the “Evangelische Schaetz-Kamer”, and in Bach’s library). It becomes clearer that the particular Gospel for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany was an inspiration to many over a long period. In Baroque ideology, the account of the Disciples is turned into a homily on personal experience, that of tnavigatio vitae, in which the Christian is enjoined to endure the storms of this life. BWV 81 is an exemplar of how the originally medieval idea migrates through renaissance imagery and becomes a personal, devotional, abstraction in which musical and physical imagery are strongly intertwined.

Emblemata and BWV 81

Following the pioneering work of Detlef Gojowy and Lucia Häselbock, increasing interest is being shown by scholars in the connection between the scores of emblemata books arising from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and the texts of the Bach cantatas. The origin of this movement in visual symbolism is the famous Alciati. The storm-tossed ship is a commonplace of this genre (“Spes Proxima”, originally a pagan reference to Castor and Pollux) and so it is not difficult to relate BWV 81 to the artform. Two good searchable resources are supplied by Glasgow University:,

Thus there is a general link to emblemata. However, there was in our previous discussions a specific question as to the imagery of BWV 81. The tenor aria, Mvt. 3, has the puzzling line, “Ein Christe soll zwar wie wellen stehn”, “A Christian should stand like a wave...”

From Wustmann onwards, many have considered this word a scribe's mistake, and the conventional image of “Felsen” (“Rock”) might be substituted. However, the libretto booklet (discovered in 1970) and J.C.F. Bach’s surviving transcription, make it clear that “wellen”, not “felsen” is intended. In our previous discussions, a subsidiary possible translation of “wellen” as “pillar” or “shaft” (Kepler and Dürer support this) was considered, but the image of a pillar and stormy waters did not seem to go together. I wondered if old emblemata books could help solve this riddle.

In examining as many emblemata books as could conveniently be accessed, there could not find this combination of pillar and stormy waves; nor the even more unusual idea of the “wellen” being the rods used to test depth, which occurs as an image in nineteenth century Romantic painting. Then, almost by chance, an obscure engraving caught my eye in which very particular emblems are capable of being linked to at least two Cantatas and a solution to the “wellen” problem occurs; “pillar” is indeed an appropriate combination with, or rather antithesis to, “waves.”

A discovery?

The source image is a version of the frontispiece to the “Eikon Basilica”, the book of pious reflections of Charles 1 of England, Scotland and Ireland, whose beheading in 1649 resulted through this publication (39 English and 20 foreign editions, including in German) in his transformation into the image (especially) in Northern European court circles of the suffering of the believing Christian. This particular engraving, made after 1662 in Antwerp, was used in three late editions and may have made its way to Weimar following the visit of the Prince Johann Ernst to the Low Countries in 1716. Alas, the copy of the Eikon in the Anna Amalia library was lost to fire in 2004 but in any event so many were in circulation that the transmission to Bach’s librettist may have come otherwise.

The fate of Charles I was of great interest on the continent; paradoxically the only play on the subject is not in the English language but in German, Gryphius’ Carolus Stuardus. To follow the argument it is recommended that the image on which the case turns is examined and printed out:

Here we see a storm at sea, with Charles as boatman (“Steursmann”) to the ship of state (Pfeiffer gives this role at the tiller to Jesus in his sermon for the day). Proximate to the stormy waves, Charles is praying in front of a detached fluted pillar, an element separated from the architectural capriccio (an effect not so clearly seen in the usual William Marshal frontispiece). Given the analysis of the emblems of the Eikon, namely that they are paradoxically paired or grouped (“crown” being the earthly discarded in favour of the Crown of Thorns and the Crown of Heaven, for example) it would be not surprising in a development of this imato have a dual meaning for “wellen.”

What drives the interrelationship further are the palm trees weighed down in the right of the engraving, an idea originating in Alciati and indicating the ancient idea that the burden cause the tree to grow stronger. This is also the image given in BWV 44, “Sie werden euch in der bann tun” in connection with the suffering Christian:
“However, Christians resemble palm branches / Which through their burden just climb higher.”

It is also the case that a rock, “Felsen”, the more conventional counter-image to waves, features and indeed this is a word used in Gryphius’ Carolus Stuardus. Hans-Joachim Schulze concludes that we may use “Felsen”: “Hier ein wort so substitieren, das etwas mehr Widerstandskraft suggestierert, beispielwise “Felsen” , ist sicherlich nicht verboten”.(Here that a word may be substituted, something more suggestive of upright standing, the exemplar being “Rock”, is surely not forbidden”.)

Now, however, that we have a famous emblemata engraving in which a pillar sits alongside the conventional image of the rock, the possibility of the text being wholly intended as “wellen” tips the balance in my opinion towards probability.

Causation or Coincidence?

Had the librettist of BWV 81 and BWV 44 seen the illustration for the Eikon? It is tempting to say so; especially a BWV 81 was performed on the exact day of Charles’ execution, January 30, which was a day for State prayer in the Church of England for nearly two hundred years.

However, it could be more likely contended that it was the illustrators of the Eikon who had earlier taken the reading for that day (if it be a Sunday) to emphasise an arcane connection between Charles’ death and the readings at that time. In any analysis, however, we can see in this example an intimacy between emblemata techniques and the Cantatas, drawing their imagery from the same well.

Bach, whatever the sources, responds with dramatic intensity in which the turning point, the bass arioso, acts as the fulcrum for the believers’ see-saw, from fear to assurance. Structurally, musically, and in richness of imagery the work has an especial appeal quite apart from its role as an exemplary answer to the question: if Bach had composed an opera, what would it have sounded like? To which we can add - that the sets might well have had the odd pillar….?? !!

Raymond Joly, in concluding this topic in the last conversations, ends “This is enormous fun, and thanks to everyone”. In that spirit we can look forward to the BCW having another shot at debating this long-standing verbal problem in the text of BWV 81, and exchanging views on the especial musical experience of the arias set by Bach…>>


1 Cantata 81 BCW Details with revised and updated Discography,
Score Vocal & Piano,; Score BGA, References: BGA: XX/1 (Cantatas 81-90, Wilhelm Rust 1872), NBA KB I/6 (Eph. 4 Cantatas, Peter Wollny 1996), Bach Compendium BC A 39, Zwang: K 60
2 Petzoldt, Bach Kommentar: Theologisch Musikwissenschaftlicke Kommentierung der Geistlichen Vokalwerke Johann Sebastan Bachs; Vol. 2, Die Geistlichen Kantaten vom 1. Advent bis zum Trinitatisfest; Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2007: 506).
3 Dürr, Cantatas of J. S. Bach, revised and translated by Richard D. P. Jones (Oxford University Press, New York, 2005: 27).
4 German text and Francis Browne BCW English translation,
5 Hofmann notes, BCW[BIS-CD1311].pdf; recording details
6 Gardiner notes, BCW[sdg115_gb].pdf; BCW Recording Details,


To come: Cantata 81 Commentaries (Dürr, Stephen A. Crist, W. Gillies Whittaker), chorale “Jesu, meine Freude,” Bach’s Epiphany 4 performance calendar and Provenances, recorder as death-sleep motif, and fugitive notes.

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (January 31, 2016):
[To William Hoffman] The Bach Players (based out of London, U.K.) has recently released a 2 CD album called "Bach and his rivals," the first CD in the set has some pieces from the Leipzig auditions of Telemann and Grauper. The second CD in this set features cantatas for this particular Sunday's readings (Jesus calming the sea), but from 30 January 1725. The CD set also includes some instrumental items as well.

Georg Philipp Telemann:
Cantata ‘Laß vom Bösen und tue Gutes’, TWV 1:1038

Christoph Graupner:
Ouverture in C minor, GWV 413
Cantata ‘Gott führt die seinen wunderbar’, GWV 1115/24 (a lot of storm musical metaphors)

J. S. Bach:
Cantata ‘Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen’, BWV 81

Aryeh Oron wrote (February 1, 2016):
Cantata BWV 81 - Revised & updated Discography

The discography pages of the Solo Cantata BWV 81 "Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?" (Jesus sleeps, what should be my hope?) for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany on the BCW have been revised and updated.
The cantata is scored for alto, tenor & bass soloists; 4-part chorus; and orchestra of 2 recorders, 2 oboes d’amore, 2 violins, viola & continuo. See:
Complete Recordings (21):
Recordings of Individual Movements (9):
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 solo cantata. If you are aware of a recording of BWV 81 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):

Note: Please notice that the details of the last audio in the 2nd discography page of this cantata [M-9] are missing. If you identify the alto singer, conductor, orchestra and recording date & place, please inform me and I shall add them.

William Hoffman wrote (February 2, 2016):
Cantata 81, 'Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?' Notes

Bach’s Cantata BWV 81, “Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?” (Jesus sleeps, what should be my hope?), composed for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany 1723, has several distinctions not found in his other works. It’s closing plain chorale, Johann Franck’s 1650 Jesus Hymn, “Jesu, meine Freude,” served the dual needs of Christmas-Epiphany as well as memorial services. The extended palindrome form of this seven-movement solo cantata utilizes both symmetry in its form and content, according to scholar Alfred Dürr (See ‘Formal Symmetry’ below). Scholar Stephen A. Crist examines the ‘Images, Illusions, Phrases’ in his summary of the Cantata 81 movements (see below). Bach’s use of the recorder is discussed below in “Bach’s Blockflöte: Death/Sleep.’ Bach’s settings of the Epiphany Time cantatas and the provenance of the rarer 4th Sunday after Epiphany also are discussed.

Franck’s “Jesu, meine Freude” appears to have been popular in Leipzig at the Christmas-Epiphany season as well as serving as a memorial hymn. The six stanzas were set to the associated tune of Johann Cruger and first found in his Praxis Pietatis in 1653. It is classified an omnes tempore (ordinary time) chorale of “Cross, Persecution, and Challenge” (No. 301) in Das neu Leizgier Gesangbuch of 1682 (Zahn melody 8032). Bach originally set the chorale as a motet, BWV 227, probably for a funeral service in Leipzig in July 1723. The six stanzas are interspersed with five contrasting choruses from lines of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter 8, “Life in the Spirit,” verses 1-2 and 9-11.

Bach again used the second stanza, “Unter deinen Schirmen / Bin ich für den Stürmen” (Beneath your protection / I am free from storms), as a plain chorale to close solo Cantata 81, “Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?” (Jesus sleeps, what should be my hope?) for the Fourth Sunday in Epiphany, January 30, 1724, with the libretto possibly provided by Bach’s St. Thomas Pastor Christian Weise (1671-1736).

For his first cantata cycle a month before, Bach again set the fifth stanza, “Gute Nacht, o Wesen, / Das die Welt erlesen” (Good night, existence / chosen by the world” as a plain chorale to close Cantata 64, “Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget,” dass wir Gottes (See, what sort of love the Father has shown to us,” 1 John 3:1) for the Third Day of Christmas (Feast of Apostle John). A chorus cantata with two internal chorales, it is based on a text of Johann Oswald Knauer, as adapted possibly by Weise.

In addition to the motet and two cantata plain chorale settings, Bach also set the Franck/Cruger hymn as a free-standing plain chorale, BWV 358.

Formal Symmetry

The “formal symmetry that distinguishes this cantata” is its most striking feature, finds Alfred Dürr in Cantatas of J. S. Bach.1 The closing chorale and opening alto aria movements of Cantata 81 emphasize trust in God, “the contrasting calm of distance from God (no. 1) and security in God (no. 7),” he observes. Pointing out that Bach’s musical sermon has symmetrical form and content, he says the “substance of the text divides the work into two parts: life without Jesus (nos. 103) and life with Jesus (nos. 5-7). In the central vox Christi arioso (no. 4), “Ihr Kleingläubigen, warum seid ihr so furchtsam?” (You people of little faith, why are you so fearful? Epiphany 4 Gospel, Matthew 8:26), “mankind is addressed by Jesus himself.” This is surrounded by two storm arias for tenor and bass, with relative calm and reflection in the recitatives and other, outer movements. A tonal overview also is provided the dominant B minor at the center, toin E minor and relative major G in the outer movements, with the subdominant (A minor) and dominant (B minor) “touched upon in the recitatives).”

Images, Illusions, Phrases

The almost-exclusive solo movements (three arias and two recitatives/arioso) are analyzed in Stephen A. Crist’s Cantata 81 essay in Oxford Composer Companions: J. S. Bach.2 An authority on Bach arias (see OCC aria essay: 15-17), Crist describes the images, illusions, and repeated phrases as well as the forms and uses of instruments. The opening alto lullaby-lament, “Jesus’s slumber is the dramatic context for a solemn meditation on the terror of death,” “following none of the usual aria forms” as a free da-capo. The recorders, as in other works, “are associated with the contemplation of death.”

In the tenor recitative (no. 2), Herr! warum trittest du so ferne? / Warum verbirgst du dich zur Zeit der Not” (Lor! why do you walk so far away? / Why do you hide yourself in the time of my distress), “Jesus’s soporofic silence leads to a sense of alienation from God,” says Crist. In a series of dark questions reminiscent of passages from the Psalms, God is accused of remaining distant and hiding himself. He is then implored to provide guidance by his ‘Augen Licht’ (the ‘light of [his] eye’), just as the wise men were led by the light of the star.

The succeeding tenor free da-capo aria, “Die schäumenden Wellen von Belials Bächen / Verdoppeln die Wut.” (The foaming waves of Belial’s streams / redouble their rage), also is unusual in its operatic use of interspersing three brief contrasting (placid) adagio passages, says Crist, in 4/4 to the rushing strings in 3/8 suggestive of a gigue. The repeated affirmation is, “Ein Christ soll zwar wie Felsen stehn [or wie Wellen like a wave] / Wenn Trübsalswinde um ihn gehn” (A Christian should stand like a rock / when the winds of affliction go over it).

The next pairing begins with the vox Christi bass arioso, Jesus speaking in the Gospel admonition to his frightened disciples, which also is a general warning to all Christians. It is followed by the bass da-capo aria (no. 5), “Schweig, aufgetürmtes Meer! / Verstumme, Sturm und Wind!” (Be silent, towering sea! / Keep quiet , storm and wind !), “in which Jesus commands the sea, storm and wind to be silent,” observes Crist. In the middle section, the bass affirms in another Epiphany Feast reference. “Dir sei dein Ziel gesetzet, / Damit mein auserwähltes Kind / Kein Unfall je verletzet.” (Let a limit be set for you, / so that my chosen child / no mischance may harm.).

Then, “it is surprising that the stilling of the storm receives no direct musical representation,” Crist remarks. “Instead, it is implicit in the alto recitative,” “Wohl mir, mein Jesus spricht ein Wort” (How happy I am, my Jesus speaks a word), “which declares that the storm’s fearful effects must retreat at Jesus’s word. The closing plain chorale, “ Unter deinen Schirmen / Bin ich für den Stürmen” (Beneath your protection / I am free from storms), Stanza 2 of “Jesu, meine Freude” (Jesus, my joy), “ Unter deinen Schirmen / Bin ich für den Stürmen” (Beneath your protection / I am free from storms), “sums up the work, expressing assurance of Jesus’s protection from evil,” Crist concludes.

Bach’s Blockflöte: Death/Sleep

Bach’s use of the recorder (blockflöte) to represent death/sleep is found throughout his vocal works. It is sometimes paired with lute and gambas, as in the 1707 memorial Cantata 106, “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” (God's time is the very best time, Actus tragicus) the opening chorus, tenor arioso and bass aria, chorus and soprano, and closing chorus (see BCML Discussion, week of February 28). It appears also in Cantata 198/St. Mark Passion, opening chorus and closing choruses, tenor aria, and alto arioso, where it is played by transverse flute, as in several of the recordings of Cantata 81 (see BCW Details and revised and updated Discography,

The blockflöte is featured in Cantata 25, “Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe” (There is nothing healthy in my body) for the 14th Sunday after Trinity 1723 (BCML Discussions Parts 4,, where is plays the Passion Chorale in the opening chorus, the soprano aria, and the closing chorale. In chorale Cantata 96, “Herr Christ, der einge Gottesshon (Lord Jesus Christ, God’s only son), it is found in the opening chorus and tenor aria.

Its use in arias is prominent in the soprano aria with violas, “Mein Seelenschatz ist Gottes Wort” (My soul's treasure is God’s word), in Cantata 18 for pre-Lenten Sexagesimae 1715 in Weimar and 1724 in Leipzig (see BCML Discussion, week of February 14). It also is found in the alto aria, “Leget euch dem Heiland unter” (Put yourselves beneath the Saviour) of Cantata 182 for Palm Sunday 1714 and repeated for the Feast of the Annunciation of Mary, March 25, 1724 in Leipzig (BCML Discussion, week of March 20).

Epiphany Time Works

Recordings of Bach’s Cantata 81, as well as two cantatas of Georg Philipp Telemann and Christopher Graupner, presented on the same Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 30, 1724, are available on one disc, tahnks to the recent BCML entry of Kim Patrick Clow. They are Telemann’s ‘Laß vom Bösen und tue Gutes’, TWV 1:1038, in Hamburg, and Graupner’s ‘Gott führt die seinen wunderbar’, GWV 1115/24, in Darmstadt (Recording details, BCW

The Sundays after Epiphany (January 6), depending upon when Easter occurred, ranged from the most often, the Second after Epiphany, to the Sixth (the most rare), occurring only three times in Bach years, 1685, 1696, and 1707 (see BCW, Dates of the Sunday after Epiphany,

While Bach was actively composing in Leipzig (1723-50), he was able to compose/present works for the After Epiphany Sundays in all three cycles: Epiphany 1 (BWV 154, 92, 32; 1724-26), Epiphany 2 (155, 3, 13), and Epiphany 3 (73, 111, 72; 1724-26; 156, 1729). For Epiphany 4, he composed Cantata 81 in 1724, there was no date in 1725 during the chorale cantata Cycle 2 but he did compose such a cantata, BWV 14, in 1735 to fill the gap. In 1726, during his third cycle, following his composition of Cantata 32 for Epiphany 1, Cantata 13 for Epiphany 2 and Cantata 72 for Epiphany 3, Bach turned to the works of his Meiningen cousin, Johann Ludwig Bach, for Epiphany 4 and 5, JLB-1, and JLB-2, respectively. For the first three Sundays after Epiphany in 1727, according to recent research, Bach may have presented cantatas to texts by his student, Christoph Brinkmann, which survive as libretti only, although Bach the previous year already had composed three works, BWV 32, 13, and 72 for the third cycle. There is no record for 1728 of Bach presenting any music for the first three Sundays after Epiphany, but in 1729 during the so-called Picander cycle (only libretti survive for all but 10 works) for the four Sundays of Epiphany Bach composed Cantata 156 for Epiphany 4.

The manuscripts for the cantatas Bach presented on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany show that both the score and parts of Cantata 81 survive, Friedemann receiving the parts set and Emmanuel the score. Chorale Cantata 14, “Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit” (If God were not with us at this time) had the usual estate division with Friedemann inheriting the score and Anna Magdalena the parts set. Emmanual inherited the entire collection of 18 J. L. Bach cantatas Sebastian performed in 1726 during the third cycle.


1 Dürr, Cantatas of J. S. Bach, revised and translated by Richard D. P. Jones (Oxford University Press, New York, 2005: 217).
2 Crist essay, Oxford Composer Companions: J. S. Bach, ed. Boyd, Malcolm (Oxford University Press: New York, 1999: 249f).

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (February 2, 2016):
[To William Hoffman] Tonight's 2nd lesson BWV 81 cantata ;)


Cantata BWV 81: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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Last update: Monday, September 11, 2017 15:25