Thomas Braatz wrote (January 24, 2003):
“In the 1st chorus of this work the cantus firmus is in the bass – an unusual position. In the sorrowful orchestral accompaniment we hear with especial clearness the sighs of the 1st violins – [Example given] The march-like character given to the mvt. by the remaining strings and the orchestral basses has been suggested to Bach by the text, which speaks of the narrow and calamitous way that leads to heaven.”
“In the recitative with chorale,…the stubborn basso continuo symbolizes the word “zwingen” [“to force”].
“The joyous duet….”
The opening mvt. is very charming and appealing. Continually appearing in each ritornello, the singing melodies played by the woodwinds are particularly beautiful due to their intimate expression. This mvt. is also significant because the cantus firmus is in the bass. Particularly charming is the moment at the end of the choral section when the sopranos reach all the way to a high ‘a’ while singing “zum Himmel” [“toward Heaven.”]
The important melodic part of the oboes can be supported by clarinets.
This section is best performed using a much reduced choir. As accompaniment use the organ or the string orchestra. Change the phrase in the final recitative section to “drum schmecket auch”.
The text of the bass aria is hardly very pleasant and the music seems to treat rather superficially the contrast of “Höllenpein” and “Freudenhimmel”
This duet is not a first class work, but the middle section alone makes this mvt. worth performing. Some cuts can be made in this mvt. (they are listed.)
The instrumentation is rather modest. This is a pure example of a chorale fantasia. Constructed completely independently around the chorale melody sung by the basses and supported by the instrumental bc including organ and the trombone, the remaining orchestra (oboi d’amore and upper strings) presents painfully poignant thematic material that permeates the entire mvt. from beginning to end.
This has a plain 4-pt chorale interrupted by recitatives where all voices make an appearance and the bc presents the 1st phrase of the chorale in diminution.
Here there is a contrast between “Höllenangst”/“Pein” [“Hell’s anguish and pain”] and the pure joys of heaven that can already be experienced by those who call upon Jesus.
This mvt. expresses the idea that the assistance of Jesus will help, when believing in Him, in carrying the cross. This is, in reality, a quartet consisting of the upper instruments (oboi d’amore, violins), the two voice parts and the bc. It expresses joyful praise despite the worries that continue to plague us.
The final chorale combines the request to maintain ones belief with the yearning cry: ”O mein Heiland, wär ich bei dir” [“O my savior, if only I were with you.”]
This is an emotional lament. The leading melody is presented in very expressively broad melodic phrases as a concertante duet by 2 oboi d’amore in the opening instrumental ritornello. The strings have a subordinate accompanying role. The 1st violin assumes a dominating role among the string players by playing many ‘sigh-like’ figures, while the other strings supply chord-like, contrapuntal progressions. The melodic scaffold upon which the material presented by the oboi d’amore is based consists of a chromatically descending scale. The accompanying voices (Sopran, Alto, Tenor) derive their material from that presented by the oboi d’amore. Combining all these elements skillfully, Bach achieves a monumental lament created as a unified whole.
The ostinato bass figure, developed from the 1st line of the chorale, serves as a unifying element for the disparate elements: segments of chorale with interrupting recitatives.
This aria, accompanied only by a bc. and in a way similar to Mvt. 1., also has chromaticism throughout. Each vocal section represents one of the two contrasting pairs of ideas from the text: 1. “Höllenangst und Angst” [“hell’s anguish/fear”] – “Freudenhimmel” [“heavenly joy”] 2. “Schmerzen [“pains/sorrows”] – “leichter Nebel” [“a light fog/mist.”] The melodic structure contrasts in each section a syllabic, expansive, chromatically dominated beginning followed by a melismatic, figurative, diatonic conclusion.
The obbligato voice for the vocal duet is provided by the oboes and violins. Once again, the effort at a unified thematic structure becomes apparent: in the introductory instrumental ritornello, the bc develops highly characteristic complementary figures of a contrapuntal type, figures that can perhaps be interpreted as those representing the “Cross” that is hinted at in the middle section: “Mein Kreuz hilft Jesus tragen” [“Jesus helps me bear my cross.”] This material is then imitated by the voices.
A simple 4-pt. chorale concludes this cantata which is impressive because Bach’s inventive genius is very apparent here.