Cantata 103 was written for the 3rd Sunday after Easter, but the opening line of the text, “You shall weep and lament, but the world will rejoice”, seems more to foreshadow Easter, not act as a reminiscence of it. The work was first performed in Leipzig in 1725, indeed, for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, known in those days as “Jubilate” Sunday, as the opening hymn for the day was “Jubilate Deo omnis terra” (Psalm 100 – make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all you lands). While the buoyant tempos and lively orchestration in Cantata 103 lend a joyful feeling, the minor keys Bach chooses for most of the work seem to focus much more on the weeping and lamenting, rather than rejoicing. You can see in the chart below, in fact, that only one movement is based primarily in a major key (the tenor aria in D major), and that, too, makes heavy use of dissonant chord tones, minor chords, and even passages set in minor keys.

The text was written by the Leipzig poet Mariane von Ziegler, and published a few years later in a collection of verse in 1728. Bach actually composed several cantatas using Ziegler’s texts. In this case, Schulenberg speculates that Bach may have abbreviated or altered the text occasionally – perhaps on his own – because of some peculiarities to the text. The final movement, a chorale, comes from the ninth verse of Paul Gerhart’s “Barmherzger Vater”, from 1653.

The movements are summarized below:

Movt. Meter & Tempo Key Scoring Texture
1a 3/4, quick B minor SATB choir, flauto piccolo, 2 oboes d’amore, strings, continuo Polyphonic, frequently imitative
1b 4/4, adagio F-sharp minor, to B minor, to C-sharp minor, to A minor Bass voice (might be solo bass), thin orchestration (though all instruments participate) Simple recitative
1c 3/4, quick Moving back to B minor Same as 1a Polyphonic, frequently imitative
2 4/4 Unstable, ends in C-sharp minor Tenor solo with continuo Recitative
3 6/8, moderate F-sharp minor Alto solo, violino concertante or flute, continuo Trio sonata texture
4 4/4 B minor to D major Alto solo with continuo Simple recitative
5 4/4, fast D Major tenor solo, trumpet, strings, continuo Homophonic with active accompaniment
6 4/4 B minor SATB choir, doubled by orchestra and continuo 4-part chorale

You’ll notice that I’ve designated movements 1a, 1b, and 1c. These comprise a single movement in the score, but the middle section is so distinct from the outer two that I felt it necessary to distinguish. Bach uses a “flauto piccolo” – a piccolo recorder, a high, shrill instrument – in this movement. The shrill sound is undoubtedly deliberate, because we know what thoughtful choices Bach makes throughout his works. As to what it means, we can only speculate. The high sound of the instrument, which dominates the opening movement, may represent the idea of rejoicing (Schulenberg), or it may signify the “unbelieving world maliciously mocking the Christians apparently deserted by their leader” (Robertson). Whichever interpretation you prefer, the sound is definitely peculiar and unique among Bach’s works.

In this movement, Bach writes short melismas on the words “weinen” (weeping) and “heulen” (lamenting); later, longer, more elaborate melismas appear on the word “freuen” (joy). Bach thus takes the melisma and transforms or turns it into something else – just as the Lord will turn weeping and lamenting to rejoicing.

BWV 103 Example 1

The middle of this movement is a recitative for bass. It is unlike the rest of the movement in texture, tempo, meter, character, and text. Indeed, the final segment of the movement returns to the opening meter, tempo, texture, and text (and eventually the opening key as well). You can see in comparing this to the short excerpts above how dramatic the differences are.

BWV 103 Example 2

Following this movement are two recitative-aria pairs. Most notable among these movements are the long, interesting melismas on key words, such as “Schmerzen” (sorrows) and “Freuden” (joy). In the tenor aria, the word “Freuden” has a melisma nearly 100 notes long! If that isn’t emphasizing the word joy, then I don’t know what else will.