Widerstehe doch der Sünde (Stand firm against sin) is an early cantata belonging to Bach’s time in Weimar it’s his earliest surviving cantata for a solo and was first performed on July 15th 1714. The text is by Georg Christian Lehms and is more than somewhat lurid. The structure of the cantata aria → recit → aria gives little indication of how innovative it was. The convention was that movements should begin by clearly establishing their key but in BWV 54 Bach flew in the face of that convention with dissonance which he promptly highlighted with a throbbing rhythm and rising pitches. It’s not until the eight bar in that he begins to establish the key of E-Flat major.
The contrast between the dissonance of the opening and the aria could not be more pronounced Bach makes extensive us of many levels of chromatic harmony to portray sin – both its attractiveness and its danger to the soul. Throughout the first two verses of the cantata Bach makes extraordinary use of musical colour and shading to bring out the dual nature of sin in Lehms’ text the glitter of the gold contrasted the with the dank tomb it conceals, the visual attractiveness of Sodom’s apples whose spiritual poison is so severe that it’s likened to "a sharp sword, that goes through our body and soul". His setting of the the final verse is no less chromatic than its predecessors if somewhat sparser in tone. It’s a musical tour de force which is by no means easy to sing. Nowadays it’s sung by adults, either women, or by a counter tenor as in the recording below but in Bach’s time it would have been sung by a choirboy. It says a lot for the abilities of those boys that Bach clearly expected that one of their number would be able to sing this challenging piece.
Text & Translation: Widerstehe doch der Sünde BWV 54
Violino I/II, Viola I/II, Continu
Widerstehe doch der Sünde,
Stand firm against sin,
Die Art verruchter Sünden
The nature of loathsome sins
Violino I/II all’ unisono, Viola I/II all’ unisono, Continuo
Wer Sünde tut, der ist vom Teufel,
Who commits sins is of the devil,
Translation Source: Cantata BWV 54 – English Translation [Parallel Format].
Julian Mincham’s excellent notes on Widerstehe doch der Sünde BWV 54 are here: The Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach – Chapter 66 BWV 54