The Wages of Sin is Death – J.S. Bach, Cantatas 186, 107, and 187, at Trinity VII

Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. Mosaic, c. 504 (Courtesy: Northeastern Illinois University)

Righteousness: “the quality of being morally right or justifiable.” We are not, here, dealing with self-righteousness, with its elements of hypocrisy, unfounded certitude, and unassailable superiority.

The Christian Scriptures present the concept that the Christian God is righteous, and being righteous is equivalent to being just, that is, one who is “morally right and fair;” and Christ, as Son of the Father, the righteous one, the one who is to fulfill the righteousness of His Father; that is, to bring it to completion, to effect its realization and thereby its actualization. Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology offers that “the Father through the Son and in the Spirit gives the gift of righteousness (justice) to repentant sinners for salvation; [and] such believing sinners are declared righteous (just) by the Father through the Son, are made righteous (just) by the Holy Spirit working in them, and will be wholly righteous (just) in the age to come.”

In other words, the people (metaphorically, Israel) enter into a covenant relationship with the deity; and, in the quotidian actuality of Israel, life is to be lived in acceptance of and integration into, an established conformity that has a defined standard of behaviour, and, hence, morality; ethics being the examination of moral principles, and morality adherence to a given and systemic, socially prevalent and indisputable, array of moral principles, which, thus, is an effectual and unchallengeable arbiter of conduct and, necessarily then, behaviour. Justifiable behaviour, therefore, has righteousness as its consequence and substance.

The Scriptures are regarded as providing discussion and elaboration of this justifiable righteousness through the pronouncements and examples, most particularly, of Christ and of John the Baptist; Jesus predominantly in terms of the Mosaic law and the Messianic requirements, and especially through the Sermon on the Mount.

The Epistle for Trinity VII is Romans 6:19-23.

19 I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness.

20 For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness.

21 What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death.

22 But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.

23 For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The passage, especially Verse 23, is famously proverbial. The choice of eternal life is made through repentance, and abandonment of sin, which here is defined as conduct inadmissible to and unsuitable in the moral code of Christian righteousness. One chooses which slavery to live by and in: sin, which concludes in death, or righteousness, which concludes in the kingdom of heaven. The choice is Manichean and does not permit of independent interpretation. One perspective is that one is either self-determinant and not with the promulgators of the moral law, or one is absorbed into the dependence required by the moral law being promulgated. Put another way, one lives in and for the present or one lives solely for the future. The implication in the Christian code is that the gift of eternity is without compulsion, but the wages of sin are earned with the expectations of those others, including oneself, who pay the wage. I allow I see no practical difference between the two.


Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. Unknown artist. 6th century. Basilica di Sanappolinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy.

The Gospel of the day (Mark 8:1-9) is simpler, as it recounts the miracle of the feeding of the four thousand. The symbolism that Christ is the bread of life is also a commonality of Christian belief, most constantly in the Holy Communion contained in the Catholic Mass and similar rites, where the Eucharist, the bread rather than the wine its more important consecration, is a recollective celebration of and, for a moment, communion with, through the body of Christ Himself, the Last Supper.

1 In those days the multitude being very great, and having nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples unto him, and saith unto them,

2 I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now been with me three days, and have nothing to eat:

3 And if I send them away fasting to their own houses, they will faint by the way: for divers of them came from far.

4 And his disciples answered him, From whence can a man satisfy these men with bread here in the wilderness?

5 And he asked them, How many loaves have ye? And they said, Seven.

6 And he commanded the people to sit down on the ground: and he took the seven loaves, and gave thanks, and brake, and gave to his disciples to set before them; and they did set them before the people.

7 And they had a few small fishes: and he blessed, and commanded to set them also before them.

8 So they did eat, and were filled: and they took up of the broken meat that was left seven baskets.

9 And they that had eaten were about four thousand: and he sent them away.

Bach uses the natural opposition of hunger and repletion, as presented in the Gospel, as metaphorical for the opposition of mortal sin and Christian righteousness. The structure he employs is the two-part cantata 186, one part before, and the second after, the sermon; with four solo voices, choir, and an orchestra of strings, oboes, and continuo. It is based on a 1716 version for Weimar, and is for the first Leipzig annual cantata cycle in 1723.

The opening chorus, for all the musical forces, is well crafted, the contrast between abundance and scarcity emphasized by using all the forces for the former and, for scarcity, reducing the forces to the choir and continuo. Throughout, the bass line, in the continuo, climbs up repeatedly and without cessation, making the theological lesson implicit.

Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht / Daß das allerhöchste Licht, / Gottes Glanz und Ebenbild, / Sich in Knechtsgestallt verhüllt. Fret not, mortal soul, at the meanness of your mortality; God pervades all, and in His image you are made.

The bass recitative reminds that wealth, which Christ eschews, is the domain of Satan. The bass aria provides instructions on how to search, relying on faith rather than reason, for the attainment of righteousness. The tenor recitative, first making vivid the mortal wages of sin, the which yield our reversion to only a lump of dirt, then moves to the concept that earthly existence is but preparation, through redemptive salvation gained by the Son, for the ever after of loving-kindness, which the voice explores in arioso. The subsequent aria discourses, in greatly florid gestures, on this mercy of Christ’s grace; this anticipation of grace redoubled in the choral fantasia for all the forces, with much imitative work suggesting the benefit and the blessing of integration with God the Father, and with the bass line climbing as in the opening chorus, that concludes the first part.

The accompanied bass recitative that opens the second part of the cantata finds us back in the wilderness of our ways and deprivations, the very same that necessarily leads our thoughts towards divine compassion. And, as the soprano explains in the subsequent aria, with its interesting chromaticism, is such compassion will grant the most precious gift, the Word of Life. Das höchsten Schatz, das Lebenswort. The bass recitative reveals how this compassion leads the faithful ones from the desert wastes; and, as the following duet for soprano and alto, after one’s spiritual liberation, salvation awaits one the weary, mortal journey is through. The concluding choral fantasia, musically identical to the one that concludes the first part of the cantata, but asserts, in new words, that, in all this, the wisdom of the Word of the Lord can be trusted.

Cantata 107 is for the second annual Leipzig cantata cycle of 1724. Musically, it is more interesting than its predecessor for Trinity VII, not the least of which are its structural analogies the Easter cantata, BWV 4, Christ lag in Todes Banden, of 1707, in which each movement specifically deals, in succession, with each of the verses of the text, of which, in both cantatas, there are seven. The chorale is Ludwig Helmbold’s 1563 tune, Von Gott will ich nicht lassen (I shall not abandon God), which first appeared as a secular melody in Lyon in 1557, and whose text, decidedly not sacred, is worth presenting:

Une jeune fillette
De noble coeur
Plaisante et joliette
De grand’ valeur,
Outre son greon
l’a vendu’ nonette,
Cela point ne luy haicte
Dont vit en grand’ douleur.

A young girl
with a noble heart
pleasant and good-looking
and of great worth,
against her will
was sold to a nunnery,
which she despised
for therein she lived in great sorrow.


Johann Heermann (Courtesy:

The text of the cantata is Lutheran minister and poet Johann Heermann’s 1630 hymn, Was willst du dich betrüben (Why dost thou wish to distress thyself), published during the Thirty Years’ War. Bach frames the middle verses with two choral movements, the first of the middle verses is a melismatic recitative, and all the following four movements are arias. The arias are not, however in da capo form, but in the olden Bar form, with its AAB structure comprised of two Stollen (stanazas, with melody repeated in the second) and an Abgesang (aftersong). Bach also embeds this Bar form in the opening and closing choral movements. The structure of this cantata, then, parallels Heerman’s hymn, which is written in Bar form, The cantata is scored for three voices (soprano, tenor, bass), choir, tromba da tirarsi, flutes, oboes d’amore, strings, and continuo.

The opening chorus is of immense breadth and impact, asking those who are besest with sadness to stand beside the Throne of the Saviour. The presentation by the voices of the chorale, as cantus firmus, between the orchestral statements is breath-taking, the orchestral sections even more so in their intensified calm. The highly charged bass recitative that then follows states that those who repent are never by God forsaken. It is complex and dramatic, with its tolling oboes, against which the declamation in the voice line changes to arioso, and, in turn, becomes a remarkable duet of alternating figurations between the voice and the continuo.


The presence of striking, rolling figurations in the continuo continues the first of the four arias; becomes arpeggiated, with a turn on the second half of the second beat of the 3/4 time of the second aria; coheres with the oboes in the third; and, with the flutes in the fourth. Bach differentiates the arias by voice type (bass, tenor, soprano, tenor), key, meter (4/4, 4/4, 3/4, 12/8), orchestration (violins, solo continuo, oboes d’amore with continuo staccato, flutes with continuo pizzicato).

The first aria deals with the omnipotence of God; the second, the defeat of Satan; the third, the inexorability of divine purpose; and, the fourth, the integration of humanity with the divine. As the arias succeed one another, there is a palpable relaxation of tension in the music; the master stroke of which is the introduction as the Abgesang of the third aria of the chorale in the soprano voice. It is an exquisite moment.

The concluding chorale, with all the musical forces, changes to 6/8 meter, and against the motion of the instruments the choir intones the chorale four times and then an epilogue that brings the work to its end, the congregation, as the text relates, kneeling before the Trinity.

There is no reference whatsoever in cantata 107 to the miracle of the loaves and fishes, but this miracle is effectively the subject-matter of cantata 187.

Cantata 187, written for the third annual cantata cycle at Leipzg, is, like cantata 186, in two parts. It is scored for soprano, alto, and bass voices, choir, oboes, strings, and contnuo. Its opening chorus, in which all the lines are independent, is large in scale, weighty, and intricately wrought, the finely conceived vocal parts interacting in almost mesmerizing fugal counterpoint with the instrumental lines. The text is Psalm 104:27-28:

27 These wait all upon thee; that thou mayest give them their meat in due season.

28 That thou givest them they gather: thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good.

The spirit of this psalm seems to me to as much to permeate the cantata as does the passage from the gospel of the day from Mark. Some commentators consider the opening chorus sombre and gloomy, but I incline to those who are not of this view, for I think the chorus is one of adoration of the work and bounty of the divine as manifested in the magnificence and plenitude of the world. This psalmic influence continues in the subsequent recitative for bass voice, the text referring to the multitudinous plenty of God, rather than the miracle of the loaves and fishes; this line of almost rapturous theological exegisis brought to a point of rest, before the sermon, in the aria for alto voice that concludes the first part.

The aria for bass voice that opens the second part returns us to the Sermon on the Mount. The text is Matthew 6:31-32:

31 Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?

32 (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.

This is the theological centre of the work, sung by the vox Christi. Moreover, as Alfred Dürr noted, the first part is in the third person, the second in the first person; in effect, a shift from communal to personal expression; the change made especially vivid by having Christ as the narrator in this bass aria. The aria is also the middle point of the chiastic structure of the cantata: chorus, recitative, aria, aria, aria, recitative, chorus. There is little that occurs by accident, musically, theologically, and intellectually, in Bach.

The succeeding soprano aria, then, returns to the plenty of God that is the subject matter of the alto aria that concludes part one; and the recitative for soprano that follows mirroring the subject matter of the recitative for bass in part one. The final chorale completes the chiasmus and sums the religious message.

The application to the modern world seems to me straightforward, and transcends the Biblical and Lutheran context of these cantatas for Trinity VII: the world is one of sacred beauty and plenty, and, in and from this plenty, the hungry are to be fed, and the need of all creatures is to be met.

The persistent purpose of art is bring before us the awareness that the earthly reality we have come into is almost too beautiful to bear, too beautiful not to lose.


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