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Bach Cantata Listener's Guide

Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen (My sighs, my tears)

Cantata 13

  • Second Sunday after Epiphany
  • Epistle: Romans xii. 6-16 (Love and other duties are required of us)
  • Gospel: John ii. 1-11 (Christ turns water into wine)
  • Rating: 1

My goodness, this is an unremittingly gloomy cantata! The usual pattern of soul-in-pain eventually finding joy in Christ's salvation isn't repeated here. The wedding feast at Cana, subject of the Gospel reading, seems a long way away. It's worth relating the entire first verse to give a good idea of the atmosphere of this piece: My sighs, my tears, cannot be counted. If woefulness is met with every day and misery does not disappear, oh this pain must already be paying the way for death!. It goes on like this. Perhaps the only shafts of light come in the penultimate verse (God can quite easily turn the wormwood juice into the wine of joy) and in the final verse (…he who looks towards Heaven….to him a light of joy can….appear…).

The music has the feeling of chamber music (there is no great introductory chorus) and the use of recorders and of the oboe da caccia lend great interest to the instrumental texture. This is immediately apparent in the opening movement which is a superbly noble and grave aria for tenor. Following a recitative is a chorale movement where the chorale tune (by Louis Bourgeois, of old hundredth fame) is sung unadorned by the alto soloist with a suprisingly optimistic orchestral accompaniment. The final aria for bass is introduced by a desperately sad theme played by a solo violin and recorder in unison. The sorrow expressed by the bass is amplified throughout by the sighing phrases from the violin and recorder. To round it all off, the cantata is concluded by a setting of perhaps the most beautiful chorale melody of them all, Isaac's O Welt, ich muss dich lassen, that you will be familiar with from the St. Matthew Passion where it appears to such supreme effect as Ich bin's, ich sollte büssen and later as Wer hat dich so geschlagen.

There is no great display of the outpouring of grief in this cantata. The small scale of the setting ensures this. This is a small, private marvel.

Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch.