I remember the first time I sang this cantata as a chorister, having just jokingly lamented that the basses almost *never* are able to sing the cantus firmus (melody on which the work is based) in choral movements… well, here we are.
The opening chorus features the melody from a Martin Moller hymn called “Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid” from the late 16th century. While this is far from uncommon in Bach’s cantatas, this hallmark is usually reserved for the Soprano voices, but not this time. The basses carry the mantra which shapes the yearning, even undulating melodic material given to the upper three voices, the beauty of which at times belies the toiling contained within the text itself, but never losing it entirely. Indeed Bach seems to telegraph throughout how while suffering is imminent — even upon us as we speak — salvation and comfort are at hand, and through Jesus is this achieved.
The bass aria „Empfind‘ ich Höllenangst und Pein“ (“Though I may feel Hell’s anguish and pain”) is a perfect example of this aforementioned affect. It illustrates the torment of the mind and soul, and the fear associated with Hell’s suffering, interweaving angular intervallic leaps with sinuous, seemingly timeless passages, really leaning into the anguish and pain. Soon after, the spell is broken with the reminder that through faith in Jesus and the joys of heaven, these worries are „als einen leichten Nebel“ - as if they were a light mist - which Bach sets in an airy, almost chuckling way, as if to say “why even bother worrying about that?”
Bach always seemed to have a way of capturing the texts that describe how frivolous and even foolish worries of hell and suffering are when you have true love and faith in your heart which really highlight just how needless and ponderous those feelings are. Then again, he could strike the fear of an overwhelming storm which one cannot overcome quite brilliantly, too. The mark of any good vocal composer is to the present the text in a way which truly speaks to its deeper meaning, and Bach was one of the best we’ve ever seen.