Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen

BWV 048 // For the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity

(Alone to thee, Lord Jesus Christ) for alto and tenor, vocal ensemble, oboe I+II, bassoon, strings and continuo.

In the introductory chorus to cantata BWV 48, Bach lends the wretched words of Paul, “A poor man am I; who will set me free from the body of this dying?” a musical interpretation that reveals much about the composer’s associative reading of the Bible. The movement opens with a bittersweet ritornello by the strings, which, underpinned by a sparse double bass line, is more a subdued confession of sorrow than a heated expression of despair. Indeed, it is precisely the lack of terrifying rhetoric that heightens the impact of the movement: although the text speaks of personal apprehension, it is not the acute sin of the individual that is at issue but the fundamental depravity of humankind under the law of God, a message that is expressed in its full rigour by the setting’s archaic motet style and the masterful double canon for the vocalists and obbligato instruments.

J.S. Bach-Stiftung Kantate BWV 48

Video

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Workshop
Reflective lecture

«Lutzogram» for the introductory workshop

Rudolf Lutz’s manuscript for the workshop
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Audio

The sound recording of this work is available on several streaming and download platforms.

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Performers

Soloists

Alto
Ruth Sandhoff

Tenor
Johannes Kaleschke

Choir

Soprano
Guro Hjemli, Susanne Frei, Jennifer Rudin

Alto
Antonia Frey, Jan Börner, Lea Scherer

Tenor
Nicolas Savoy, Manuel Gerber, Marcel Fässler

Bass
Chasper Mani, Matthias Ebner, Othmar Sturm

Orchestra

Conductor
Rudolf Lutz

Violin
Renate Steinmann, Livia Wiersich

Viola
Joanna Bilger

Violoncello
Martin Zeller

Violone
Iris Finkbeiner

Oboe
Kerstin Kramp, Meike Gueldenhaupt

Bassoon
Susann Landert

Organ
Ives Bilger

Musical director & conductor

Rudolf Lutz

Workshop

Participants
Karl Graf, Rudolf Lutz

Reflective lecture

Speaker

Ursula Pia Jauch

Recording & editing

Recording date
10/20/2006

Recording location
Trogen

Sound engineer
Stefan Ritzenthaler

Director
Meinrad Keel

Production manager
Johannes Widmer

Production
GALLUS MEDIA AG, Switzerland

Producer
J.S. Bach Foundation of St. Gallen, Switzerland

About the work

Librettist

Text
Poet unknown

First performance
Ninteenth Sunday after Trinity,
3 October 1723, Leipzig

In-depth analysis

In the introductory chorus to cantata BWV 48, Bach lends the wretched words of Paul, “A poor man am I; who will set me free from the body of this dying?” a musical interpretation that reveals much about the composer’s associative reading of the Bible. The movement opens with a bittersweet ritornello by the strings, which, underpinned by a sparse double bass line, is more a subdued confession of sorrow than a heated expression of despair. Indeed, it is precisely the lack of terrifying rhetoric that heightens the impact of the movement: although the text speaks of personal apprehension, it is not the acute sin of the individual that is at issue but the fundamental depravity of humankind under the law of God, a message that is expressed in its full rigour by the setting’s archaic motet style and the masterful double canon for the vocalists and obbligato instruments. Respite from this repressive music is offered solely by the chorale melody – intoned in canon by the winds – “Lord Jesus Christ, I cry to thee”, whose wordless presence, coupled with the helplessly questioning conclusion of the movement, throws into relief the seemingly insurmountable distance between mortals and their Saviour.
This is followed by an impassioned alto recitative replete with despair: the depravity of human nature and its poisoning by the burden of sin renders the whole world a “house of death and sickness”. In this passage, Bach presents a series of painful interpretations in which harmonic severity, falling dissonances and effective pauses converge to pronounce a truly devastating verdict. It is difficult to imagine that the composer, ever open to new ideas, did not draw upon his exposure to the death scenes so popular in early baroque opera.
The following chorale represents a return to a familiar form of solace and congregational unity; its inclusion allows for a moment of distanced reflection, an effect also achieved by the hymn verses inserted in the Passion compositions. Nevertheless, its bold, otherworldly setting – especially the line “Continue on, Refine me there” – ensures that the chorale remains embedded in the emotional drama of the cantata. Indeed, Bach lent the chorale such an exquisite harmonic language that it goes beyond all collective tradition to express an individual acceptance of penance and suffering in this world.
With a distinctive oboe obbligato, the alto aria echoes the sad and gentle character of the introductory chorus, while the Old-Testament metaphor of Sodom couples personal sin and weakness, thus underscoring this familiar trope of baroque Bible interpretation. The individual effort required to transform the soul of the believer into the holy Zion is, however, made abundantly clear in the childlike simplicity of Bach’s musical gesture. As the ensuing tenor recitative succinctly reveals, this transformation is achieved with the helping hand of the Saviour, who can not only raise the dead, but also revive and strengthen those who are dead of soul.
With such solace in sight, the tenor is buoyed in the following aria to a spirit of generous character and defiant determination that could hardly have been predicted at the beginning of the cantata. In this sacred minuet with its echoes of a pithy Schemelli hymn, gratitude and humility are suspended in miraculous balance over a subdued orchestral fundament.
The closing chorale “Lord Jesus Christ, my only help” resolutely upholds this aura of cautious yet pious hope. After overcoming their crisis of faith, the “weak in spirit” can now (unlike in the opening chorus) join in the singing, but the chorale is an audible reminder that such participation requires unceasing insight into the unfathomable workings of the Almighty.

Libretto

1. Chor

«Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen vom Leibe
dieses Todes?»

2. Rezitativ (Alt)

O Schmerz, o Elend, so mich trifft,
indem der Sünden Gift
bei mir in Brust und Adern wütet:
Die Welt wird mir ein Siech- und Sterbehaus,
der Leib muß seine Plagen
bis zu dem Grabe mit sich tragen.

Allein die Seele fühlet
den stärksten Gift,
damit sie angestecket;
drum, wenn der Schmerz den Leib des Todes trifft,
wenn ihr der Kreuzkelch bitter schmecket,
so treibt er ihr ein brünstig Seufzen aus

3. Choral


Solls ja so sein,
daß Straf und Pein
auf Sünde folgen müssen,
so fahr hie fort
und schone dort
und laß mich hie wohl büßen.

4. Arie (Alt)

Ach lege das Sodom der sündlichen Glieder,
wofern es dein Wille, zerstöret darnieder!
Nur schone der Seelen und mache sie rein,
um vor dich ein heiliges Zion zu sein.

5. Rezitativ (Tenor)

Der zeitlichen Ehrn will ich gern entbehrn,
du wollst mir nur das Ewge gewährn,
das du erworben hast
durch deinen herben, bittern Tod.
Das bitt ich dich, mein Herr und Gott.

6. Arie (Tenor)

Hier aber tut des Heilands Hand
auch unter denen Toten Wunder.
Scheint deine Seele gleich erstorben,
der Leib geschwächt
und ganz verdorben,
doch wird uns Jesu Kraft bekannt.
Er weiß im geistlich Schwachen
den Leib gesund, die Seele stark zu machen.

7. Choral


Herr Jesu Christ, einiger Trost,
zu dir will ich mich wenden;
mein Herzleid ist dir wohl bewußt,
du kannst und wirst es enden.
In deinen Willen seis gestellt,
machs, lieber Gott, wie dirs gefällt:
Dein bin und will ich bleiben.

Bibliographical references

All libretti sourced from Neue Bach-Ausgabe. Johann Sebastian Bach. Neue Ausgabe sämtlicher Werke, published by the Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Institut Göttingen and the Bach-Archiv Leipzig, Series I (Cantatas), vol. 1–41, Kassel and Leipzig, 1954–2000.
All in-depth analyses by Anselm Hartinger (English translations/editing by Alice Noger-Gradon/Mary Carozza) based on the following sources:  Hans-Joachim Schulze, Die Bach-Kantaten. Einführungen zu sämtlichen Kantaten Johann Sebastian Bachs, Leipzig, 2nd edition, 2007; Alfred Dürr, Johann Sebastian Bach. Die Kantaten, Kassel, 9th edition, 2009, and Martin Petzoldt, Bach-Kommentar. Die geistlichen Kantaten, Stuttgart, vol. 1, 2nd edition, 2005 and vol. 2, 1st edition, 2007.

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