A Bach cantata worth getting to know is BWV 179, “Siehe zu, daβ deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei,” or “Watch yourself, that your fear of God not be hypocrisy” [German text|English text|score for piano and voice|full score]. You can hear the cantata streaming here* (wonderfully provided by the bach-cantatas.com website for educational purposes).
1. Chorus. The cantata begins with a fugue on a citation of Ecclesiasticus 1:28: “See that your fear of God is not hypocrisy, and do not serve god with a false heart!” The fugue’s main subject leaps up on the word Gottesfurcht (fear of God) and the word Heuchelei (hypocrisy), linking those two ideas. And then in a stroke of brilliance (vividly illustrating hypocrisy, of course), Bach horizontally mirrors the main subject in the tenor voice that follows.**
2. Recitative (Tenor). The tenor recitative that gives the familiar lament that “Today’s Christianity is built upon a shaky foundation.” Bach’s dischordant setting depicts this “shaky foundation.” He continues, “Most Christians in the world/are lukewarm Laodicians/and puffed up Pharisees.” The tenor ascends on that last line, as he does a couple lines later, speaking of Christians’ “arrogant self-glory.” Although men go to church and do religious things, “does that really make them Christian?” “Nein!” is emphatic. “Hypocrites can also perform as much.”
3. Aria (Tenor). The third movement sounds pleasant on the top while descending sequences illustrate hypocrisy again. One commentator said, “The aria is full of wonderful things. Notice the sweet, almost saccharine, turn to the major at the “outward fairness” of the hypocrites, music as unctuous as Ted Haggart’s smile.” Listen to the tenor sour on “herrlich gleißen” (”glisten spendidly”). He also ascends on “vor Gott” (before God”). The second word “hypocrites” is also discordant.
The appearance of false hypocrites
Can be called Sodom’s apples
That are filled with filth
And from outside glisten spendidly.
Hypocrites, which are outwardly fine,
Cannot stand before God.
4. Recitative (Bass). The bass recitative that follows sets up wonderfully the powerful second aria. Listen to him descend as he sings of the tax collector “Der schlug in Demut an die Brust” (”who struck in humility his breast”). There is great color in the music as the tax collector teaches us that “Even if you are no thief or adulterer / no unjust breaker of oaths, / ah do not then imagine / that for this reason you are as pure as an angel!” Bach concludes, “Humbly acknowledge your sins to God, / then you can find grace and help.”
5. Aria (Soprano). The soprano aria that follows is where the cantata really shines. I wonder how someone can write something so moving. The two oboes da caccia beautifully intertwine to give us the sense of someone longing for mercy, perhaps symbolizing the human and divine, our confessing our sinfulness, and God giving mercy. Here is music that surely captures the proper human sentiment in their sinfulness, and the need for mercy before God. Here is Bach at his very best. You feel the words of the sinner, “Hilf mir, Jesu, Gottes Lamm” (”Help me, Jesus, Lamb of God”). The entire movement–the entire cantata, really–moves down to the final line, “Ich versink im tiefen Schlamm!” (”I am sinking in deep mire”).
Liebster Gott, erbarme dich,
Dearest God, be merciful.
Laß mir Trost und Gnad erscheinen!
Let your comfort and grace appear to me
Meine Sünden kränken mich
My sins sicken me
Als ein Eiter in Gebeinen,
like an abcess in my bones
Hilf mir, Jesu, Gottes Lamm,
Help me, Jesus, lamb of God,
Ich versink im tiefen Schlamm!
I am sinking in deep mire.
Let me quote the Emmanuel Music site again, which states the affect of this aria quite well:
Two dark and burnished oboes da caccia (here played by English Horns) play, mostly in tight overlapping sequences, figures fraught with suspensions and harrowing harmonic turns. The beginning tutti is one of the most exotic and gorgeous things in all of Bach; but it is also specifically suited to the anguished outcries of the soprano begging for forgiveness.
6. Chorale. The final movement is the first verse of a Christoph Tietze hymn set to the richly harmonized hymn-tune Wer nur den leiben Gott läβt walten (we sing the hymn “If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee” to it). This text provides a fitting conclusion to the investigation of human hypocrisy sinfulness, and the need for repentance and God’s mercy in the light thereof.
I, poor man, I, poor sinner,
stand here before God’s face.
Ah God, ah God, deal gently with me
and do not bring me to judgement!
Be merciful, be merciful
my merciful God, to me!
Recordings. If you are interested in recordings of this cantata, you may want to head in the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner. I have Helmuth Rilling’s recording, but it strikes me mediocre. The recording supplied in the free audio at bach-cantatas is better than Rilling. You are actually able to purchase this cantata featuring Gardiner and the soprano Magdalena Kozena on DVD, along with two others (BWVs 199 and 113) and a “documentary” on Gardiner’s “Bach Pilgrimage” Project. You could spend $27 on much worse.
*Warning: The music examples in the Bach Cantatas Website are for educational purposes only. Any distribution or commercial use of these music examples is absolutely forbidden.
**Bach later uses this first choral movement as the Kyrie eleison in his Mass in G Minor, BWV 236.