The wedding at Cana was Christ's first miracle and is the Gospel reading for the 2 nd Sunday in the Epiphany. All three of the cantatas for that day are concerned less with the miracle than the mysterious line of Jesus answering his mother's plea for help: in the KJV "Woman, what have I to do with thee? Mine hour is not yet come." All three cantatas associate this day with the beginning of Christ's difficult journey, and by association our souls' difficult journey.
The chorale "Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid" was a favorite of Bach but not particularly popular in the canon of Lutheran chorales. We see very few settings of it by other composers. Bach's versions of the melody cover an enormous range, from the brilliant and vivacious allegro that ends Cantata BWV 58, through the crabbèd and knotty continuo-with-soprano setting in Cantata BWV 44. Our setting that begins Cantata BWV 3 is the most exotic sounding of all and one of the most ravishing bits of chromaticism in all of Bach.
The chorus begins with a quiet string chord that becomes the accompaniment to an extraordinarily expressive and chromatic oboe d'amore line. Soon the other oboe enters and the two sing an amazing duet above a string part that includes both sustained chords and also an expressive sighing motive that goes through the movement. The entrance of the chorus is magical. The chorale is in the bass, doubled by a trombone. The sopranos, altos, and tenors enter before the bass chorale with the same theme as the oboes. The only accompaniment is a sketchy and barren string part. The most important point about the harmony throughout this movement is that for all of its chromaticism, it has a kind of warm melancholy glow about it. It is worlds away from the kind of harshness that we saw, for instance in the opening chorus of BWV 101 or, for that matter, in the version of "Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid" in Cantata BWV 44. Each line of text is highly characterized. Notice how "Der schmale Weg ist trübsal voll" includes in the vocal parts not only the opening theme but also a new trudging countermelody. This rising line will come back to us in the last phrase in "Den ich zum Himmel wandern soll." The whole color of this movement is bathed in a kind of Romantic glow that is unique in Bach. The chorale with tropes movement #2 is like a splash of cold water. Only continuo accompanies the chorus and soloists. The harmony is hard and brittle instead of warm and rounded. Each phrase is introduced by a tough little reduction of the chorale theme. All of the mysterious cross relations that Bach found in the first movement are gone, replaced by an almost banal diatonicism. The journey has begun.
The chorale with tropes leads directly into the bass aria with continuo. The aria treats "hell and pain" in an almost abstract manner. One could almost call smug the way that the opening line is encapsulated in the texture. The opening jagged line is omnipresent in the aria and undergoes amazing transformations as it underpins what is mostly a joyful and confident text. At first the aria, a full da capo, can seem too long, but its secure doctrine is at the spiritual center of this cantata. Its bare-bones quality makes one long for the richness of the opening chorus.
The soprano-alto duet, which follows a brief secco tenor recitative, occupies a halfway ground between the lush opening and the thorny bass aria. For all of its easy melodiousness and childlike quality, it is very complex in phrasing and textual content. The opening tune seems so easy until one tries to figure out how it really is phrased. The phrasing throughout the movement is complex and determined with Bach's most artful overlaps. Look at what happens with the connection between the 2nd line of text back to the first. The alto is still firmly in E Major while the soprano begins its line in A Major. The duet is one of those pieces that is very difficult for performers and when successfully played will seem completely artless to the listener. The final chorale harmonization is rich without ever reverting to the lushness of the opening.