Why fish to net men? – J.S. Bach, Cantatas 93 and 88, at Trinity V

Cantata 93 is troublesome. It is because I do not agree with its message and teaching. It has been troublesome to me for many months. That I persist in examination of it explains, I suggest, the value of Bach’s presentation..

First, there is the gospel reading (Luke 5:1-11). As I regard what is purported to be a miracle is in reality a narrative of the absurd in the employ of doctrine, I cannot accept the literal exposition of the great catch of fishes. I take it more that if one recognizes that another can give one more than one can give oneself—even at the risk of the loss of oneself—then there is some behavioural rationale for the fishermen to leave all they ‘have’ to follow Christ, and so ‘fish for men.’ But this has more than a whiff of an ignorant fanaticism eyeing political opportunity, not least opportunism in the form of the promise of regular meals.


Raphael : The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (1515)

Second, in relation to the epistle (1 Peter 3: 8-15), the assertion that the Petrine admonition that affliction can be borne with patience (if not with removal) if those afflicted will sanctify the Lord, is superficially noble, and, furthermore, rather too encompassing, but it is unrealistic. Faith may have been known to save men, but in the end it is men, when it has been or appeared possible, who save themselves. In the cantata’s first—and quite remarkable—recitative, the bass soloist declaims that the misery that so magnifies distress is a direct consequence of the profitless nature of dreary sorrow. The recommended ‘action’ is to bear the cross, as Christ did, uncomplainingly. But Christ did complain. The Passion was harsh, and at its mortal end, He cries ‘why am I forsaken?’ The response to despair was death. And the resurrection only brings one back to the doctrinal purpose of needing to narrate the miraculous.

As to the cantata itself, which is a 1732/33 version of that composed for 1724, the opening chorus is finely rendered, and introduces the chorale upon which the entire work is based. A feature of the work is that the chorale is deeply embedded in the entire fabric of the cantata, portions of the melody appearing in the music of each movement.

The bass chorale and recitative is particularly fine and didactically is brilliant. The subsequent tenor aria employs a metrical pattern that is tedious, and is only somewhat alleviated in the closing section (Abgesang). The soprano and alto duet and chorale is sung over low unison strings intoning the chorale melody. And a tenor chorale and recitative leads to the concluding soprano aria, with oboe solo, the chorale is embedded in portions of the voice line.

But, despite Bach relying on his music to gather the whole together, I’m still unconvinced. Bach is exceptional in the power of this reliance, but it is not like Bruckner’s, where, for example, in the closing bars of the first movement of the ninth symphony, one knows one could believe, that one sees the omnipotence that is found in the eye of God. Or like Michelangelo, whether he himself believed or not, in the portrayal of God in the Sistine Chapel. They are the same kind of certainty, relying neither on miracle nor on sermon.

Michelangelo : Eye of God. Sistine Chapel, 1508-12.

Michelangelo : Eye of God. Sistine Chapel, 1508-12.


I thank Phillip Larrimore for enabling me, at rather long last, to reach an understanding of what this cantata means, to me. I am grateful for the generosity of his consideration.


I continue to work through the contradictions of the warning to beware charisma and the adjuration that faith will set you free.

Musically, cantata 88, from 1726, fascinates more than cantata 93. The opening movement, a bass area, is in two parts, the first with beautiful melody and turns of phrase, the second depicting a hunting scene. The two halves use the same musical pulse of two to the bar, the first part in 6/8, the second in cut time. Julian Mincham argues that the first part ought to be repeated. This makes sense. But even without a da capo presentation, the whole is remarkable.

This opening movement has, I think, at long last enabled me to grasp more broadly what Bach (if not the Gospel) is saying. It may go something like this: The fishing is for the souls of men, who are in the depths, and who are the draught to be brought to the surface to be the food of the future for those who know not that they want and have forgotten what they are. Further, they are to be hunted for, for they are the too many who are lost. See: the sound of the rippling lake flows to those who hear and yet do not listen; the nets that bring forth multitudes who are now without motion and freedom, when drawn up from their depths; who must transform to transform themselves and all the others, who stay hungry, though they leave the catch to rot, even as the presence of the beatitude implores more of grace.

The subtlety of Bach is found in his text, for the opening aria uses neither portions of the gospel nor the epistle of the day, but, instead, Jeremiah 16:16, which employs a metaphor taken from the release from Babylon for the reclamation by the Lord of the children of Israel. Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the Lord, and they shall fish them; and after will I send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks.

This explains the beauty of the melisma on the word sollen in the bass aria. They shall fish, because they will be reclaimed by Me.

Verse 19 then can be seen as the connection to the epistle, whose purpose at Trinity V is then clearer. O Lord, my strength, and my fortress, and my refuge in the days of affliction, the Gentiles shall come unto thee from the ends of the earth, and shall say, Surely our fathers have inherited lies, vanity, and things wherein there is no profit.

The tenor recitative, with great expressiveness, asks the question raised in the aria: will God deny men blessing because they are not true to Him? And the answer to this is in the tenor aria that follows: for He shall not, but will come to find us. The aria begins in three-part structure: voice, continuo, and an independent line for one oboe d’amore. The entire aria is marked piano sempre, that is, softly throughout; there is no shouting or declamatory phrasing here: but God guiding men, “By His Mercy’s glowing ray.” The time signature is now 3/8, that is, a single pulse encompassing three beats. The da capo is shortened to an orchestral statement, the texture broadened by the return of the strings in what is in effect a final ritornello, the voice silent, but in which the oboe d’amore remains and so provides structural balance. And by this is the congregation prepared for the sermon.


Peter Paul Rubens: The Miraculous Catch, 1610. (Courtesy: Wallraf Richards Museum, Cologne)

The second part of the cantata, after the sermon, begins with a bass aria, solemnly introduced by two bars played by the strings, and the first words of Luke 5:10 intoned by the tenor, and continued with an aria for bass and continuo only on the final words of the same verse. The full orchestra, inclusive of the oboes, returns in the subsequent duet for soprano and alto, which reminds that the “talents God entrusts to men / Must be returned with strict accounting.” The motetic repetitions of this arithmetic construct simply ensure that both the merchants and homemakers in the congregation are clear about the calculations required to sustain divine blessing. The soprano recitative that follows presses the points of God’s plan, thereby allowing everyone in the church to agree when singing the concluding chorale.

There is sublimity in part one, but part two is all practicality.


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