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Bach Cantata Listener's Guide

Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen? (I wretched man, who will deliver me?)

Cantata 48

  • Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
  • Epistle: Ephesians iv. 22-28 (Put on the new man)
  • Gospel: Matthew ix 1-8 (The sick healed of the palsy)
  • Rating: 2+

As the title of this cantata probably suggests to you, we're in for a bout of rather strident humility.

Don't let this put you off, the opening chorus is absolutely superb. Bach's music complements the text perfectly to establish an atmosphere of deep despair, an atmosphere that will later be contrasted with the mercy of Christ. After the opening chorus, however, this is an oddly and frustratingly mixed cantata in both music and text. The first recitative is so misery laden (the venom of my sin rages within my veins) it comes across as faintly ludicrous to modern ears. But then the following chorale has a chromaticism that has faint echoes of that in the astonishing concluding chorale in BWV 60. The alto aria starts off with a thoroughly genial oboe line but the libretto reads Destroy if Thou will Sodom's sinladen members! Perhaps the greatest frustration lies in the final aria for tenor, because of what it might have been. The aria lies at that pivotal point in the cantata where the Christian soul realises that its redemption lies in Christ and finally here the libretto reaches high above its previous level of inspiration. The orchestra starts playing an introduction. This is good. No, this is much more than good, this is profound! This is it! Sebastian is about to let rip with one of his greatest arias…But he doesn't. The vocal line is fine, but it could have been so much more. The cantata ends with a straightforward chorale setting.

Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch.

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