The Moral Worth of Riches – The Cantatas of J.S Bach – BWV 75, 20, and 39, at Trinity I

Bach begins each of his five cantata cycles at the start of the second half of the Lutheran liturgical year, the 27 Sundays after Trinity, which deals with faith doctrine, whereas the first half deals with the life of Christ, from Advent to Trinity, which is the Sunday after Pentecost.

Cantata 75 (1723), Die Elenden sollen essen (The miserable shall eat), for the first Sunday after Trinity Sunday, begins the first annual cycle of cantatas. Cantatas 20 (1724) and 39 (1726) also are written for Trinity I. Cantata 75 is also Bach’s first Leipzig cantata, and as it was his début at Thomaskirche he chose to make it musically elaborate, theologically intricate, and longer than the norm, with a first part before the sermon, and a second part after.


Thomaskirche, Leipzig

In addition to the music itself, and the place of the cantata in the Lutheran liturgical year, my interest in this is in the presentation of the themes, and the questions that the themes pose, and their relevance to today. In terms of relevance some of these questions continue to be explored in a current manuscript in progress titled Constellations of Desire.

The Epistle is I John 4:16-21 (“God is love”). The themes that particularly interest me are: (1) love extinguishes fear (2) fear has torment (3) love of God makes individual love universal. The questions they raise are: (1) what is love? (2) what is divine love?

The Gospel is Luke 16:19-31 (the parable of the rich man and Lazarus). The themes are: (1) without the law is destruction; (2) riches not used well warrant condemnation; (3) death liberates the poor; (4) set good example by thy life (by right action). The questions are: (1) what constitutes the law? (2) what is the social purpose of riches? to help the poor? (3) how is death a worthwhile liberation? (4) what constitutes moral integrity?


Bartholomeus van Bassen : The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Circa 1620-30.

The first part opens with a chorus that begins with a splendid, stately, sombre opening, and is followed by a fine animato section. A bass recitative leads to a tenor aria; and a tenor recitative leads to a soprano aria, with oboe d’amore. A soprano recitative leads to the fine concluding chorale, Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan (What God does, is well done), which is the basis of the cantata, first explored in the opening chorus, and suggested in the soprano aria.

The second part begins with a sinfonia for the strings, with tromba da tirarsi nicely intoning the chorale melody of the chorale that concluded part one. Alto recitative leads to an alto aria; bass recitative leads to a bass aria, with solo trumpet, the melody of the aria suggesting the chorale. A tenor recitative leads to the concluding chorale, which is identical musically to the chorale closing prima parte, but with different words.

It will be clear that structurally the two parts are identical.

The relationship of the music to the epistle and gospel of the day is direct. One excellent analysis of this is by Julian Mincham.


The Biblical text of I John 4:16-21 is:

16 And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.

17 Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world.

18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.

19 We love him, because he first loved us.

20 If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?

21 And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.

Loyalty Oath of the populace in the town square of Leipzig, July, 1733 (Courtesy

Loyalty oath of the populace, town square, Leipzig, July, 1733 (Courtesy:

The Biblical text of Luke 16:19-31 is:

16 The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it.

17 And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail.

18 Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.

19 There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day:

20 And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores,

21 And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.

22 And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;

23 And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.

24 And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.

25 But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.

26 And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.

27 Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house:

28 For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.

29 Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.

30 And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.

31 And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.


stemsorg Thomaskirche

Leipzig, 18th century. The principal building is Thomaskirche. (Courtesy:

Cantata 20 (1724, O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort / O Eternity, you word of thunder), which opens the second Leipzig cycle, is a massive work, in two parts, beginning with a French overture. This dwells concentratedly on Eternity, the “word of thunder…, [the] sword that bores through the soul…, [the] beginning without end.”

The opening chorus is in the style of a French overture, with alternating sections in ¾, which is the fundamental rhythm of the cantata, and in which the most unusual harmonies and displaced rhythms are employed. The oboes ride the terrible sea over the rest of the orchestra.

The soprano instruments move from intense states of shock to mystical exultations of the Divine Relief. In the overture the three oboes, upon the return of the first tempo and its dotted rhythms, announce in bare isolation from the orchestra and chorus, the chorus’s impending phrase of Mein ganz erschrocknes Herz erbebtAll my terrified heart trembles. Yet, in the exposed accompaniment to the first bass aria, Gott is gerecht — God is just, they chatter along pleasingly, notwithstanding the severity of the text: Kurz is die Zeit, der Tod geschwind — Time is short, death quick. And the slide trumpet, which almost unobtrusively doubles the sopranos in the overture, opens the cantata’s second part with a purified dotted stepping-stone of an arpeggio. Wacht auf, wacht auf … vom Sündenschlafe … Wacht auf, eh die Posaune schallt, Die euch mit Schrecken aus der Gruft —  Wake up, wake up, lost sleep … from the sleep of sin … wake up before the trumpet sounds, that calls you in terror out of the grave.

This crepuscular, ecstatically rising, annunciation, gives way to a recitative dwelling on the spiritual immateriality of “splendour, pride, riches, honour and money,” that in turn moves the social editorial, the spiritual tax still unchanged to this day, of how the rich man will suffer in Hell without a drop of water to alleviate his torment.

O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort
O Schwert, das durch die Seele bohrt,
O Anfang sonder Ende!
O Ewigkeit, Zeit ohne Zeit.
O Eternity, you word of thunder,
O sword that bores through the soul,
O beginning without end.
O Eternity, time without time.

Die Zeit, so niemand zählen kann,
Fängt jeden Augenblick
Time, which nobody can count,
Begins every moment

Kurz is die Zeit, der Tod geschwind
Time is short, death quick

The following tenor aria, in ¾, contains unusual harmonies that almost seem to blur the progress of the music, whose parts move antagonistically against one another, making the syncopations, ties, and cantilena of the voice part seem a struggle. Ewigkeit, du machst mir bange. Eternity, you make me fearful.

A recitative for bass leads to an aria for bass, which speaks, as if it were a parable, with great impression, the three oboes providing a fine obbligato. Gott is gerecht. God is just. The succeeding alto aria is in ¾, with same characteristics as the tenor aria. O Mensch, errette deine Seele. O man, save your soul. And the Chorale ends the first part.

The second part begins with a bass aria, with trumpet obbligato, again in the dotted rhythm of the French overture. Wacht auf, wacht auf, verlornen Schafe. Wake up, wake up, lost sheep. A duet for alto and tenor duet, only with continuo, follows. This, again, is in ¾, with some of the characteristics of the other two arias with the same time signature. O Menschenkind, Hör auf geschwind, Die Sünd und Welt zu lieben. O child of man, Cease quickly, To love sin and the world. And a second Chorale, using the same four-part setting as the first, but with different words, concludes the work.


Cantata 39 (1726, Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot – Break your bread for the hungry) is also in two parts. It opens Bach’s third cycle of cantatas.

The opening Chorus is a splendid movement, with exceptional writing in the voices, and a fascinating part in the bass. The text is brilliantly illustrated, with two changes of tempo, from the opening ¾, to common time, to 3/8. After a bass recitative, the first part concludes with an alto aria, counterpointed by solo oboe and violin.

An aria for bass as vox Christi has a wonderfully expressive line in the bass, which is imitated by the voice. A soprano aria, with two flutes, follows; and an alto recitative, with the strings, introduces the concluding Chorale.

Aspects of the meaning of this Chorus are examined in the poem “Postscript to Siegfried,” which appears in the central section, “Passacaglia Pier,” of the second part, “Covenant of the Lost Arias,” in my book, Mahler and Freud Meet in Leiden.


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