Orchestra Seattle | Seattle Chamber Singers
George Shangrow, music director
PO Box 15825
Seattle, WA 98115


Der Herr denket un ans, BWV 196

Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, on March 21, 1685, and died in Leipzig on July 28, 1750. Although the circumstances surrounding the first performance of BWV 196 are not known, Bach is believed to have written the work at Mühlhausen in 1707 or 1708. In addition to three vocal soloists and chorus, the cantata is scored for string orchestra and continuo.

In 1723 Bach was offered a job as Cantor and Director of Music at St. Thomas' Church and Choir School in Leipzig, a position he would hold until his death in 1750. As part of his duties Bach was to provide music for each Sunday's church service, as well various feast days. Bach thus set about composing a five-year cycle of cantatas, amounting to 60 cantatas a year, for a total of 300 works of an average duration of 25 minutes. While some of his contemporaries composed an equal or greater number of cantatas, what makes Bach's feat so remarkable is that he accomplished it in five years, producing on average more than one cantata a week during that period (on top of all of his other duties as a performer, teacher and choir director) — not to mention that the works are of such uniformly high quality.

While the vast majority of Bach's more than 200 surviving cantatas date from his Leipzig period, he had begun composing these works as early as 1707; his earliest known cantata, Aus der Tiefe rufe ich, Herr, zu dir, BWV 131, dates from that year and was composed shortly after Bach arrived to take up a position in Mühlhausen.

Bach was hired by the town council of Mühlhausen and assigned as organist at St. Blasius' church, although he served as general music director of the entire city as well. The superintendent at St. Blasius was a Pietist, and thus did not have any use for elaborate church music; hence, the five cantatas that Bach composed during his brief one-year tenure in Mühlhausen were written for various public occasions, rather than for specific church services. It is believed that BWV 131 was commissioned in response to a fire that swept through the town on May 20, 1707, two weeks prior to Bach's arrival, destroying at least half of the municipality. Another, Gott ist mein König, BWV 71, was written for the installation of a new town council; the politicians were so impressed that they had the composition engraved in copper — it was to be the only cantata Bach would see published during his entire lifetime.

In Arnstadt, where Bach had been employed the previous three years, he had met the love of his life, his second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach. She wed Sebastian on October 17, 1707 at the small church in Dornheim, with the Reverend Johann Lorenz Stauber officiating; a recent widower, Stauber would soon remarry, to Maria Barbara's aunt, Regina Wedemann.

Bach biographer Philip Spitta proposed that the cantata Der Herr denket an uns, BWV 196, was written for the ceremony in Dornheim uniting Reverend Stauber and Miss Wedemann. There is no evidence for or against this hypothesis, but it does seem to fit the available facts: The Mühlhausen council cantata, BWV 71, was scored for a relatively large ensemble, including three trumpets, five wind instruments and timpani, so we know that Bach had an impressive number of instrumentalists at his disposal during this time. The Dornheim church, however, was quite small and perhaps this explains why Bach chose to use a more intimate ensemble consisting of merely strings and continuo for the wedding cantata.

Like many of the earlier cantatas — and unlike most of the later ones — BWV 196 features no recitatives: simply arias, choruses and an opening sinfonia that through its march-like character and understated elegance brings to mind a wedding processional. The following chorus features a fugue; a lovely soprano aria is accompanied solo violin and continuo. The full orchestra returns for a tenor and baritone duet and the concluding chorus, which is longer than any of the previous movements.

© 2002 Jeff Eldridge

Last performance:

Other works
on this program:

G. F. Handel
Henry Purcell

Other Bach works:
Cantata No. 140
Cantata No. 174
Flute sonatas
Suite No. 1
Suite No. 2

BWV 196 links:
German text
English translation
Cantatas guide

Bach links:
Performance Today
BBC profile

Good CDs:

Helmuth Rilling leads very fine performances of BWVs 195-197


Good books:

Klaus Eidam's entertainingly opinionated revisionist biography of Bach


The third edition of Malcolm Boyd's wonderfully accessible biography of Bach