TBC Ep 3 | “Wer ein wahrer Christ will heissen,” BWV 47/2


Tiny Bach Concerts Episode 3: Remarks by Ellen Exner, performance by the Bloomington Bach Cantata Project (Daniel R. Melamed, Director)


Bach’s cantata BWV 47 was written for the 17th Sunday after Trinity in the year 1726. Its topic was linked to the Gospel lesson appointed for that Sunday, which had Jesus explaining the dangers of pride. The Gospel lesson itself that Bach’s congregation would have heard in conjunction with hearing this cantata was Luke chapter 14. And the first movement of the cantata actually literally repeated the closing text from verse 11 from chapter 14, which is “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the man who humbles himself will be exalted.” We hear that and then we hear an aria, which reflects on the meaning and the application of this lesson to the individual Christian’s life.

The poetry for cantata texts comes in two halves, and these two halves contrast. The first half will talk to us about humility, and the second half will talk to us about pride and boastfulness. In the first half, the text quite literally is, whoever wishes to be called a true Christian must strive for humility. Humility comes from Jesus’s kingdom. The B section of text—the contrast—is [that] haughtiness is exactly like the devil. God is wont to hate all those who don’t abandon pride. Bach creates musical settings to vividly depict the difference in these two halves, and to show us—through our emotions—to educate us as to what we should choose. [In] the A section, what we have to listen for is the concept of “Demut” or “humility,” and that it comes from (“stammt aus”) Jesu Reich [Jesus’s kingdom]. Bach makes sure that his listeners hear those words, by clearing the texture when the word “Demut” comes across—he makes sure we get that part. And [for] “stammt aus” (“comes from”), he will build long runs or melismas to show us humility growing out of Jesus’s kingdom (“Jesu Reich”). And these are things that we can listen for. I’ll play you a clip now so you can have that in mind as you listen.

The B section, on the other hand—unlike this beautiful, flowing melodic material that Bach gives us to teach our souls about the beauties of humility—the B section is loud. It is non-cooperative. We have clashes between the instruments and the voices. We have rhythms that don’t line up, and it becomes—it’s shrill. And it’s—honestly it’s a little bit hard to listen to, as for the distastefulness of pride and arrogance in the eyes of God. Who would want to choose that based on what Bach has set here for us? And what we’re listening for here is “Hoffart” and “hassen,” so “haughtiness” and “hates,” and “Teufel” or “devil,” and we’ll hear those words, but mostly what we’re getting is this barrage of dissonant sound to just demonstrate how bad these things are.

Fortunately for the listeners, after this noisy shouting B section, we get a return to the A section of music. And that is how Baroque arias worked: they had an A section and a B section and a return to the A section, which is called the da capo form, or “from the top.” And it was a form borrowed from opera. It’s not Bach’s own form, but it’s a really good teaching vehicle for liturgical content, because it leaves you with the moral of the story, which of course, is that humility is the choice of the true Christian and that it comes from Jesus’s kingdom. Interesting about this cantata is that when Bach was scoring this movement, he changed his mind about which instrument was going to play all the melodic material. Originally it was for organ. When he revised this cantata in the 1730s, he rewrote the part for violin. So if you listen to this cantata more than once, or if you want to try it out in your sonic imagination with organ instead of violin soloist, that can be kind of an interesting experiment. Another cool fact about this piece is that the librettist, Johann Friedrich Helbig, was not one of Bach’s usual librettists; in fact, this is the only libretto by Helbig that Bach set. I hope you enjoy this piece. It’s marvelous and it’s a lovely, lovely performance.

Text and Translation

“Wer in wahrer Christ will heissen,” BWV 47/2 “Whoever wishes to be called a true Christian,” BWV 47/2
Wer ein wahrer Christ will heissen,
Muss der Demut sich befleissen;
Demut stammt aus Jesu Reich.
  Hoffart ist dem Teufel gleich;
  Gott pflegt alle die zu hassen,
  So den Stolz nicht fahrenlassen.

Johann Friedrich Helbig
Whoever wishes to be called a true Christian
Must strive for humility;
Humility comes from Jesus’s kingdom.
  Haughtiness is exactly like the devil;
  God is wont to hate all those
  Who do not abandon pride.

(transl. D. Melamed and M. Marissen)