Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Widerstehe doch der Sünde BWV 54

Bach monogramWiderstehe 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.

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Text & Translation: Widerstehe doch der Sünde BWV 54

Recitativo A

Violino I/II, Viola I/II, Continu

Aria [Alto]

Widerstehe doch der Sünde,
Sonst ergreifet dich ihr Gift.
Laß dich nicht den Satan blenden;
Denn die Gottes Ehre schänden,
Trifft ein Fluch, der tödlich ist.

Stand firm against sin,
otherwise its poison seizes hold of you.
Do not let Satan blind you
for to desecrate the honour of God
meets with a curse, which leads to death.

Recitativo A

Continuo

Recitative [Alto]

Die Art verruchter Sünden
Ist zwar von außen wunderschön;
Allein man muss
Hernach mit Kummer und Verdruss
Viel Ungemach empfinden.
Von außen ist sie Gold;
Doch, will man weiter gehn,
So zeigt sich nur ein leerer Schatten
Und übertünchtes Grab.
Sie ist den Sodomsäpfeln gleich,
Und die sich mit derselben gatten,
Gelangen nicht in Gottes Reich.
Sie ist als wie ein scharfes Schwert,
Das uns durch Leib und Seele fährt.

The nature of loathsome sins
is indeed from outside very beautiful;
but you must
afterwards with sorrow and frustration
experience much hardship.
From outside it is gold
but if you want to look more closely
it is shown to be only an empty shadow
and whitewashed tomb.
It is like the apples of Sodom
and those who join with it
do not reach God’s kingdom.
It is like a sharp sword
that goes through our body and soul.

Aria A

Violino I/II all’ unisono, Viola I/II all’ unisono, Continuo

Aria [Alto]

Wer Sünde tut, der ist vom Teufel,
Denn dieser hat sie aufgebracht.
Doch wenn man ihren schnöden Banden
Mit rechter Andacht widerstanden,
Hat sie sich gleich davongemacht.

Who commits sins is of the devil,
for it is he who has produced them.
but if against its despicable mobs
with true devotion you stand firm,
sin has at once fled away

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

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