Vocal tenor solo SATB choir
|Cantata text Christoph Birkmann|
|Occasion 22nd Sunday after Trinity|
Performed 17 November 1726 (1726-11-17): Leipzig
Chorale "Werde munter, mein Gemüte"
Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht (I, wretched man, a servant to sin), BWV 55, is a church cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach. He composed it in Leipzig for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity and first performed it on 17 November 1726.
History and words
Bach wrote the cantata, a solo cantata for a tenor, in 1726 in Leipzig for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity. It is Bach's only extant cantata for tenor.
The prescribed readings for the Sunday were from the Epistle to the Philippians, thanks and prayer for the congregation in Philippi (Philippians 1:3–11), and from the Gospel of Matthew, the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23–35). Christoph Birkmann, the poet of the cantata text stressed the opposites of the gospel, God's justice versus unjust men, in the words of the first aria "Er ist gerecht, ich ungerecht" ("He is just, unjust am I"). In the first two movements the singer reflects his sinful condition, in the following two he asks God for mercy, beginning both with Erbarme dich ("Have mercy"). The following closing chorale is verse 6 of Johann Rist "Werde munter, mein Gemüte" (1642). Bach used the same verse later in his St Matthew Passion, again following Erbarme dich, the aria of Peter, regretting his denial of Jesus.
Bach led the first performance on 17 November 1726.
Scoring and structure
The cantata in five movements is scored for a tenor soloist, a four-part choir (only for the final chorale), flauto traverso, oboe d'amore, two violins, viola, and basso continuo.
- Aria: Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht ("I, wretched man, a servant to sin")
- Recitative: Ich habe wider Gott gehandelt ("I have offended against God")
- Aria: Erbarme dich! Laß die Tränen dich erweichen ("Have mercy! Let my tears move Thee")
- Recitative: Erbarme dich! Jedoch nun tröst ich mich ("Have mercy! However, I console myself")
- Chorale: Bin ich gleich von dir gewichen, stell ich mich doch wieder ein ("Though I have turned aside from Thee, Yet shall I return")
A rich polyphonic setting for flute, oboe d'amore and two violins, without viola, accompanies the opening aria. The motifs seem to illustrate the faltering steps and a despairing heart of the steward summoned before his master. The second aria is as expressive, accompanied by a virtuoso flute. The first recitative is secco, but the second one accompanied by string chords.
The closing chorale is verse 6 of Johann Rist's "Werde munter", to Johann Schop's tune. The same text and melody occur in the St Matthew Passion, there in a simpler four-part setting, and Bach uses Schop's melody with other texts such as the well known "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" in Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147.
The last three movements of the autograph score differ from the Leipzig performance parts, leading some to conclude they were originally part of an earlier composition, possibly the lost 1717 Weimar Passion.