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Bach Cantata Listener's Guide

Wo Gott, der Herr, nicht bei uns hält (If God, the Lord, hold not with us)

Cantata 178

  • Eighth Sunday after Trinity
  • Epistle: Romans viii. 12-17 (We are joint heirs with Christ)
  • Gospel: Matthew vii. (Beware of false prophets)
  • Rating: 3+

The chorale cantata BWV 178, built around Justas Jonas' eponymous hymn, is something of a disappointment. Bach, the master of chorale harmonisation, seems to have been put off his stride by the awkward rhythm of the chorale tune (which is not so different in melody from some of the great chorales) and never seems at ease with his task. There's always a sense of a stubborn tune being pulled in the wrong direction!

The cantata opens with vigorous call to arms (unusually, in this context, not featuring trumpets) with strongly dotted rhythms and sweeping semiquavers. This is followed by a chorale interpolated by the alto soloist's commentary. The bass aria that follows is the most memorable part of the cantata: An excellent string introduction and accompaniment to a vocal line that, apart from a few inspired phrases, seems to just "fit in" with the instruments. Perhaps the instrumental parts came from a previously composed piece? Another hymn verse follows, this time rhythmically sung by the tenor over an ostinato accompaniment. And then another! By this time, the chorale settings are beginning to wear a bit thin. The final aria for tenor is pleasantly unmemorable and the cantata closes with a straightforward (and fully successful) chorale setting. Visit this cantata for the bass aria only.

Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch.