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Bach Cantata Listener's Guide

Ach wie Flüchtig, ach wie nichtig (Ah, how fleeting, ah, how fading)

Cantata 26

  • Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Trinity
  • Epistle: Colossians i. 9-14 (Prayer for the increase of grace)
  • Gospel: Matthew ix. 18-26 (Raising of Jairus's daughter)
  • Rating: 1

Listening to this fine chorale cantata without paying much attention to the words may give you the impression that this is a very joyful piece. However, this is a meditation on the Gospel story, reflecting on the fleeting nature of human existence. The subject is dealt with by the music, not with gloom and resignation but with the knowledge that redemption is the goal of human existence, rather than the pursuit of Mammon here on Earth.

The first chorus opens with a striking and attractive orchestral introduction that continues with rapid upward and downward figures that commentators have variously described as representing the fleeting nature of existence or the clouds forming and disappearing referred to in the libretto. Whatever it refers to, it works very effectively. The sopranos hold the chorale melody whilst the rest of the choir weave their lines around. The tenor aria is accompanied by attractive solo flute and violin figures, perhaps depicting the rushing waters. The recitative is notable for the very testing, florid run on the word Freude with which it opens. The following bass aria is accompanied by bassoon and oboes to great effect, especially in the middle section where the bassoon has a very fast and florid run. The final recitative is a very fine piece of declamation. However, I found translation (in the Teldec series) of the rhyme Die höchste Herrlichkeit und Pradt, Umhullt zuletzt des Todes Nacht to The greatest lord, the meanest clod, Both end their days beneath the sod rather undermined the seriousness! The chorale setting which ends the cantata is an especially beautiful one.

Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch.

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