Cantata 56 was written for the 19th Sunday after Trinity in 1726 (October 27 that year). The Gospel reading for that day mentions a voyage in a ship over the sea; the storms encountered on such a journey are related to the burden of carrying the cross and living with all of life’s obstacles. It is ultimately a metaphor for sailing life’s journey to reach heaven (Robertson, The Church Cantatas of J.S. Bach, p. 298). The text, whose author remains anonymous, makes numerous references to the sea, to ships, and to a journey throughout, making both overt and subtle ties to the Gospel of the day. Here are a few examples:

  • Movt. 1: “Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen” (I will the cross-staff gladly carry) – this is a double reference to both the cross and to the cross-staff, which was a forerunner of the sextant, and used astronomical readings to navigate
  • Movt. 2: “Mein Wandel auf der Welt ist einer Schiffahrt gleich” (My sojourn in the world is like a voyage at sea)
  • Movt. 2: “Und wenn das wütenvolle Schäumen” (And when the raging ocean is shaking)
  • Movt. 2: “So tret ich aus dem Schiff in meine Stadt” (So from the ship I will go into my city)
  • Movt. 4: “Wenn ich den Port der Ruhe werde sehn” (When I the port of rest shall come to see)
  • Movt. 5: “Löse meines Schiffleins Ruder, Bringe mich an sichern Port!” (Loosen now my small bark’s rudder, bring though me secure to port!)

The final movement uses a verse of Johann Franck’s “Du, o schones Weltgebäude” (1653); the chorale tune was written by Johann Crüger (1649); and the harmonization is, of course, all Bach.

The cantata contains a mere five movements. The first four are scored for solo bass and alternate aria-recitative-aria-recitative, while the final movement is a four-part chorale for SATB voices doubled by instruments. The instrumental ensemble includes two oboes, taille, strings, and continuo.

The first movement is marked by numerous slurred eighth notes, which might be seen as reflecting tears or at least setting a lamenting tone. Bach is careful to mark the longest melismas (and they are very long!) on the word “tragen” (carry), to show perhaps the burden of the cross or journey, or at least the length of life’s journey. In the example below, the tear motive is marked in green; its inversion (where it does not have the same effect) is marked in orange. A few melismas are marked in blue, although those seen in this example are some of the shortest melismas in this aria.

BWV 56 Example 1

The first movement leans towards the da capo aria design, but falls short. After the lengthy opening section, a shorter but new section emerges in which triplet figures abound in the solo bass part; the lamenting eighth notes are still present here, though they are fewer in number and effect; our ears are strongly drawn to the triplet figures. Following this, the orchestra jumps to near the beginning (using a dal segno), and replays the instrumental introduction. The opening vocal material does not return, and so the da capo gesture is understood, even if the form is not followed.

The second movement is an accompanied recitative for cello, continuo, and solo bass voice. The cello plays arpeggiated sixteenth notes which might be perceived as the gentle lapping of waves against the sides of a ship.

BWV 56 Example 2

The final words are “Wohin ich mit den Frommen aus vieler Trübsal werde kommen” (which I will all the righteous from deepest sadness will have entered). Bach marks one of only two melismas in this recitative on the word “vieler” (deepest); at the climax of the rising melisma, the word “Trübsal” (sadness) arrives, highlighted by the discord of an A-flat minor triad – which is completely out of place in the realm of B-flat major, the key of this recitative. (It is also unrelated to G minor, the relative minor key, which occurs in the middle and which dominated movement 1.)

The third movement is another aria. This retains the B-flat major of preceding recitative, as well as the sixteenth notes, although the sixteenth notes no longer exist exclusively in arpeggiated forms; rather they comprise the most common rhythmic figure throughout this movement. This aria is overwhelmingly joyful, a direct response, no doubt, to the deepest sorrow the true believers felt at the end of the preceding recitative. This is also a great example for students who need to find a sequence.

Unlike the first aria, which made gestures towards da capo form, this aria actually is a da capo aria.

The fourth movement is another unusual recitative. Like movement two, this is an accompanied recitative. This recitative acts in my opinion, as a microcosm of the preceding three movements, as it contains:

  • the lamenting tear motive
  • triplet figures in the bass solo
  • a return to G minor, which dominated the first movement and appeared for a stretch in the second
  • limited long melismas (this time on “Trübsal”[tears])