Over the past few years I have completed a few projects that I would like to release to the public. I would like to begin with an arrangement I made of J.S. Bach’s Chorus & Recitative from Cantata BWV 27 for two guitars. This project was completed during my time in Spain while studying the Master de Guitarra at The University of Alicante.
This is a particularly beautiful cantata brimming with melancholic themes and sombre descending lines throughout. Especially haunting is the opening oboe line with its painful and distraught dissonances that are sustained for maximum effect.
The title of the Chorus gives us an indication as to the mood of the piece, “Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende?” (Who knows how near my end is to me?). The theme of the text is as follows: the narrator must not fear death as a normal person might, but to welcome death as Jesus will awaken him. Therefore, he reasons, his fear of death is groundless. (A copy of the original text with English translation appears below.)
J.S. Bach Cantata BWV 27 for Two Guitars .PDF Download
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On the work
Johann Sebastian Bach’s great body of cantatas represents a large portion of his work and are considered to be among his most significant and celebrated compositions. Bach’s cantatas are numerous in quantity, with over 200 hundred cantatas from his first three cycles that have survived until now, while his fourth and fifth cycles have been entirely lost to us, bar a handful of examples. This cantata was originally written during Bach’s third church cycle for the 16th Sunday after Trinity and was first performed on October 6, 1726 in Leipzig. It comes from a time when Bach had mastered the formal and structural elements of the cantata and is clearly indebted to the experimentation and development that characterise his first two cycles. Including the well known and widely popular cantatas such as BWV 140, 56 and 51, as well as his larger vocal works such as St. Matthews Passion, St John’s Passion and the Mass in B minor, they embody some of the greatest works ever made, whether for a religious audience or otherwise.
Sadly, many of Bach’s cantatas have been lost to us over time, particularly those of his later period (all but a few of the works from his fourth and fifth cycles have disappeared). The later cantatas show little new innovations (from what can be gleamed of the remaining works) but do show a developing late period and maturing of style characterised by both the changing role of polyphony in the final chorale and a more refined sensibility. These final cycles would have been composed mainly in the 1730’s over a long period of time. If it were not for a note in Bach’s obituary, written shortly after his death by family members, of ‘five cycles of church pieces, for every Sunday and holy day’ it is likely we would be unaware of just how much we had lost from this period.
Bach left us four Cantatas for the 16th Sunday after Trinity (BWV 161, 27, 8 and 95), with all drawing their inspiration from the Biblical account of the raising of the widow of Nain’s son in Luke 7:11 – 17. In this account, Jesus is approaching the town of Nain when he comes across a widow and her dead son. Upon seeing her, Jesus feels deeply for her in her moment of loss and in a swelling of compassion commands the son to get up. The boy awakens from the dead and Jesus returns him to his mother. While all four cantatas feature similar themes and are based on the same Biblical reading for this week, we find a great deal of thematic and musical difference between each cantata.
In BWV 27, like all the cantatas written for this day in the church cycle, the setting of the text to instrumentation is filled with sombre, grievous and deeply moving themes. In three of these four cantatas (BWV 95, 161 and 8), we find the ‘Leichen-Glocken’ or the ‘tolling of funeral bells’ to represent death (all three make use of pizzicato strings to represent these bells; the latter two utilise high repeated recorder notes). The title, which when translated into English reads, “Who knows how near my end is to me?” is clearly the most positive of the four remaining cantatas from this week in the church cycle.
Despite this, the opening movement is full of dissonances and chromatic notes. In only the first phrase we find a dissonant B natural in the oboe line against the continuo’s C pedal tone. Within a short amount of time we are confronted with more chromatic notes in the second oboe line. Meanwhile, underneath the soaring, tragic lines of the oboes, we find a dirgeful, crestfallen descending arpeggiated line in the violins and violas reminiscent of the walls of the damned.
It is possible that such an anguished beginning to the cantata was due to Bach’s personal knowledge and understanding of the pain and grief associated with death; his first wife had died not many years before this cantata was composed and despite having many children, 11 died at death. It is equally plausible that Bach planned the cantata to traverse the feelings of pain and loss that death gives before leading us to the warm embrace of Christ’s love with his promise of eternal life that the cantata ends with. And so, it is with these sombre themes that the cantata starts and constitutes the main theme of the Chorus and Recitative.
CANTATA BWV 27: CHORAL AND RECITATIVE
Who knows how near is my last hour?
Our God know this and only He.
Per chance my pilgrimage on earth is short may hap longer will it be.
For these goes time, and here comes death,
And one day it will come to pass
That Time and Death will run together.
Ah, how too suddenly and swiftly
Will come my final dying breath!
Who knows, but that today
My lips my final word will say?
So pray I ev’ry hour:
My God, in Jesus’ Name I pray
Send Though a blessed death to me!
CANTATA BWV 27: CHORAL UND REZITATIV
Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende?
Das weiß der liebe Gott allein,
Ob meine Wallfahrt auf der Erden
Kurz oder länger möge sein.
Hin geht die Zeit, her kommt der Tod,
Und endlich kommt es doch so weit,
Daß sie zusammentreffen werden.
Ach, wie geschwinde und behende
Kann kommen meine Todesnot!
Wer weiß, ob heute nicht
Mein Mund die letzten Worte spricht.
Drum bet ich alle Zeit:
Mein Gott ich bitt durch Christi Blut,
Machs nur mit meinem Ende gut!