Leonard Cohen in the 18th Century? This long and complex cantata describes the pain felt in the soul of the lost sheep and its eventual re-uniting with God. In two parts, BWV 21 would probably have been divided by the sermon. I would imagine that the congregation would have been pretty depressed by the middle of the sermon! After an opening Sinfonia, the choir gets down to business with what Bach did best: A fugue. And what a fugue! A famous criticism of 1725 by Johann Mattheson took Bach to task for the way in which he had set the words: "I, I, I, I had much grief, I had much grief, in my heart, in my heart. I had much grief, etc., in my heart, etc., etc." Bach was not alone in being criticised for this technique, whose introduction was one indication of the changing fashions within the church music during those times. Then comes a beautiful oboe-accompanied aria for soprano and then, what is for me the emotional heart of the cantata, the aria Bäche von gesalzen Zähren,. I can only describe the empty, hopeless loneliness conveyed by this aria by comparing its emotional effect to Barber's Agnus Dei. Another big choral interlude introduces hope: Why do you mourn my soul…Trust in God and a recitative followed by a duet (in which an emotional turning point seems to be signalled by a change to triple time) between the soul and Jesus introduces the ideas of the Gospel reading. The outstanding chorus Sei nun wieder zufrieden that follows is worthy of special mention. Its chorale prelude form with soloists weaving in triple meter around wer nun den lieben Gott lüsst walten, contains writing of astonishing accomplishment. Finally, you may wonder whether Handel studied the last chorus of BWV 21 before he composed Worthy is the Lamb in his Messiah. There are considerable similarities of style! Westrup (Bach Cantatas,) assures us that Handel and Bach were composing according to common procedures of the time and thus there is no need to assume that Handel was borrowing.
Cantata 21 is long and perhaps, on first hearing, rather daunting. The mood is of desolation, never quite fully lifted by the end: The soul's agony is relieved but not removed by the love of God, perhaps? The music is complex and fugal. But without a doubt, persistence is repaid many times over. Arguably the best of Bach's cantatas, this is truly to be counted among the master's greatest works.
Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch.