Today’s cantata, Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot, exhorts the theme of loving one’s neighbor, allied with the parable of the rich man who, should he share that which he has with the less fortunate, will ensure his own grace in the eyes of the Lord. The plea for generosity in feeding the hungry is emphasized in the text of the opening chorus using the Hebrew Bible reading Isaiah 58: 7-8. Like many of the cantatas from Bach's third Leipzig cycle, the huge opening chorus dominates the work. The short notes from the recorders, oboes and strings can either be read to represent the breaking of the bread or, more compellingly, the teardrops of the hungry. In any case the orchestra is a stunning backdrop for what is at the beginning a deeply felt and emotional fugue and later on an energetic call to arms.The bass recitative takes the form of a sermon. The lovely alto aria with violin and oboe obbligati is an inward and stunningly pure vision of the touching words. The text speaks of imitation or reflection of the Creator’s goodness, concluding with the metaphor of sowing on earth those seeds that we will harvest after death. These two clear images are captured in the music: that of imitation (the oboe follows the violin throughout) and the scattering of fertile seeds (the melisma on the word ‘streuet’).

The stern, preachy bass aria is a splash of cold water – Bach at his most severe and Lutheran. The sweet soprano aria with recorder breaks that mood with a touching child-like sweetness. The personal element continues in the penultimate movement, a recitative for alto accompanied by lush string chords. Almost working against the positive nature of the text, this recitative is set mostly in minor, perhaps reminding us of the challenge of faith. The final chorale setting, one of Bach’s simplest and most direct, provides a phrase structure that is symmetrical and predictable until the last two phrases. Each of these is two-and-a-half bars long, having the effect of extending outwards beyond ourselves.

©Ryan Turner and Craig Smith

Back to Bach Notes & Translations