Bach for starters: “Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot” from Cantata No. 39

Hello everybody,

It took me longer than I hoped, but the first guide is finally here. I decided to start with the one that has seen some success in the past, and translated it from its original Hebrew to English. I have Grand Plans for the next ones, so if you enjoy this guide, stay tuned. And now without further ado –

(The recording is by the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, one of the greatest Bach conductors of our time, and a big musical hero of mine.)

The piece is from a larger work by Bach, a Cantata – those were liturgical works, performed each Sunday in the church, before and after the sermon. The Kapellmeister – the composer-on-duty/head-of-music at the local court – was in charge of composing or procuring one for each Sunday. The text (those are works for singers and/or a chorus accompanied by an orchestra) had to relate to the text of the sermon, and the text of the sermon would fit the time of the liturgical year.

We do not know for sure how many cantatas Bach wrote, but more than 200 survive (and we’re quite certain there were more than 300). Each one is at least 20 minutes long (and there are longer ones, up to 35 minutes), and Bach, as opposed to most other Kapellmeisters who would usually write one cantata a month and use other composers’ works for the rest of the time (18th century outsourcing), at least during two years wrote all of them himself. That would mean 3-4 days to write a masterpiece (and those are masterpieces), another day to copy the musicians’ parts, two days to rehearse, and then the performance – and repeat, week after week. Genius alone would never suffice – we’re speaking of an incredible work ethic.

A note on the text: it’s Isaiah 58:7-8, which in the King James Version reads as follows:

 – (7) Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?

– (8) Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward.

Bach used the Martin Luther translation which differs from the above in several points (of importance to us, for as we shall see, Bach treated the text with utmost attention, and the music often references the words). A literal translation of the German text would read:

Break to the hungry your bread, and those who are in misery lead into the house; when you see one naked, so clothe him, and do not avoid your own flesh. (Verse 8 is nearly identical between the two.)


So, here we go. (By the way, feel free either to read the following first and listen afterwards, or read while listening, to go back if something is unclear, or to do it in any other way that feels right to you. My only suggestion would be, after you have gone through this with the guide, to listen to the music once again, without the notes – I’m going to break this down into small pieces and details, and a second listening would help put the work back together).

00:00–01:13 – the orchestral opening. There is a very short motif here, consisting of two repeated notes, that gets passed between three groups of instruments (one could imagine them playing Catch): two notes in the flutes, two notes in the oboes, two notes in the violins, and repeat. A sort of a steady, unending dribble. Beneath them is the harmony – the basso continuo; celli and a chamber organ. The harmony changes from bar to bar – but this entire section is one musical phrase. The rules of harmony don’t matter so much to us; you will feel, I think, the directionality of the phrase, the sense that it’s going somewhere; there are harsher, more dissonant harmonies that want to resolve into calmer, less tense ones, and from a series of these small progressions the larger line is created. One noteworthy change will come at 00:44: the two-note motif disappears, replaced by a longer, more elaborate one, and a new, metallic color is added to the orchestra. The metallic color is the cembalo and the motif does not disappear – rather, it passes to the bass line: to the cello and the organ. Listen to this – how the bass that was just the back rest for the flutes, oboes and violins now becomes melodic and would itself repeat the main motif. There is a mounting tension starting from 0:56 and at 01:06–01:13 comes the cadence. In musical language the harmonies say – we’re nearly done, here comes the full stop. And on we go.

01:14 – the entrance of the chorus. The standard chorus consists of four groups: Soprano (high female voice), Alto (low female voices), Tenor (high male voices) and Bass (low male voices) (sorry if that’s self-evident). Here, in the beginning, the division is into two larger groups – the women and the men. The women open with a single word: “Break”, and immediately, as an echo, the men answer: “Break”; the women continue: “to the hungry”, but the men would not wait until they finish but enter in the middle: “to the hungry”, and then the two unite: “thy bread”. Beautiful polyphony.

Break…………… the hu ————-ngry……………….thy bread.
…………..Break…………… the hu————-ngry……thy bread.

Here we can see right away why it was important that Bach’s text said “break” rather than “deal” – Bach interprets the text literally, or rather lets the text manifest itself in the musical composition – and to correspond to the “break” in the text, Bach made two breaks here: breaking the chorus into two distinct groups and breaking the sentence into short pieces. In musical terminology this kind of text illustration via the music is called word-painting, and Bach was a great master of it.

Following that, at 01:29, is the same bit, only reversed – the men start and the women answer. And then, at 01:34, all come together: “and those who are in misery…”, a long, winding phrase, nearly 30 seconds long. Again and again, when one of the voices would finish, the rest would immediately pick up the line. And only at 02:03 comes the end of the phrase: “… lead into the house”. Again, word-painting: after the short, split “breaking of the bread”, we have the long, never-ending distress of misery that comes and goes in waves, and when you’d think it’s over, there comes yet another voice and carries it forward.

02:03-02:13: “…lead into the house”. Bach illustrates the text once again with the big prolongation of the word “lead” (führe) that can seem to demonstrate the walk home, followed just at the very end by the two short words “ins Haus”.

02:14-02:31: it’s a repeat of the last portion of the text (“and those… “), but there is a wonderful moment there, a short one, just 4 seconds long (short?), at 02:14, when the voices enter one straight after another in descending order.

And those—
…………….And those—
……………………………And those—
…………………………………………..And those—

This is called ‘stretto’, meaning narrow, tight. It’s a musical means of increasing the tension and it’s used here to do so before the cadence that follows (that’s standard phrase construction in Bach’s music – and not only Bach’s – building the phrase from the bottom up, with the climax arriving just a few notes before the end, immediately followed by a cadence, repose).

And what is the orchestra doing all that time? Go back to 01:13 and try listening just to the orchestral accompaniment behind the voices. Do you recognize it? That’s the section that came before it, 00:00-01:13, and it gets repeated here in its entirety. What previously was all the music there was and lacked nothing, becomes a backdrop, a counterpoint to the chorus – like two strata uniting to form something bigger.

02:31-03:45: in the beginning we are only left with the tenors, who sing the same text, from “and those…” to “… the house.” It’s a new motif, but with same principle of text illustration – prolongations of “misery” and “lead”:

Und die, so in E-e-e-e-e-le-end sind… fü-ü-ühre ins Haus.

The altos join in at 02:43, repeating the same motif the tenors just sang. Later they will be joined by the sopranos (03:04) and the basses (03:20). Each time a new voice joins in it becomes the main melodic voice, and the rest continue accompanying it with a counterpoint. This sort of writing – voices joining-in one by one, with a gradual thickening of the musical texture – is called ‘fugal writing’, from ‘fugue’ (which comes itself from ‘fugare’ in Latin, meaning ‘to chase’, as if the voices were chasing each other, but not quite catching). When a fugue is just a part of the work and not the work itself, it’s called ‘fugato’. Very effective (I remember my counterpoint textbook stating that “whatever beauty can be achieved by a single voice [this comes after endless single-voice drills – BG], its effect can be doubled by a second voice and further enhanced by every additional one. – Well, it can, definitely).

There is a rather strange thing here – all voices except the tenors (the first ones to enter the chase) start their lines not from “and those…” but rather from before that: “Break to the hungry…”. How so? Normally, in a fugue or a fugato the voices are supposed to repeat each other faithfully, at least in the beginning. The trick Bach’s using here is really neat: at the end of the previous section, 02:25-02:31, when the rest of the chorus was singing “lead into the house”, the tenors were already starting with “Break to the hungry…”. That’s quite incredible – four voices singing together, in full harmony, but one voice is singing a completely different text! In this recording JE Gardiner chose not only not to show this but to hide it away completely, so much that even knowing it’s there, I can hardly hear it. If you’re interested, you can hear it very clearly here, 01:50-01:55 (a rather less exciting recording overall, but very clear in this spot.)

During all that time the orchestra goes on with the same two-note motif, accompanying the chorus – though the harmonic progression is different from the one at the beginning, as the harmonies follow whatever direction the voices take (and the voices follow whatever direction in which the fugal writing leads them – it’s a rather strictly regulated form of composition, and the seeming ease with which Bach can handle four [and at times five, six or eight voices], is, well, seeming; it’s rather the result of years-long experience and a complete mastery). Another small difference – the cembalo, which was mostly absent up to here, now strikes a short chord on every beat with hypnotic clock-like regularity, giving the entire section a measured, slightly relentless feel – and all this contrasts nicely with the very smooth singing in the voices.

03:45-05:01: after all the voices unite in one last “lead into the house” (where the ticking of the clock in the orchestra stops, and we heave an internal sigh of relief, as the music finally lets go of the steady tension it maintained during the last minute – it will return in a few seconds, but without the cembalo – and what a difference this makes) we have a full repeat of the section from 01:13 till 02:31, but with the voices reversed. Thus, in the initial “Break”, the men will start first and the women will answer, and in the short stretto, 04:44-04:49, the voices will enter in ascending order, from bass to soprano (“and those—, and those—, and those—, and those—”). Bach truly squeezes whatever polyphonic potential and variety there is (a common trait for him – he is very economic in his use of melodic material, and can often write a rich and varied movement of some 10 minutes based on a short phrase. The counterweight to this is his incredible overall output – more than 1100 works, and also, I would say, the richness of inspiration of so many of his melodies).

We are also in a different key here than the one we were in at the beginning, but that really doesn’t matter so much (it’s a technical issue, related to the construction of the whole movement, and while crucial for composition, it’s not crucial at all for listening; especially as various researches have shown that those of us who don’t have absolute pitch cannot know whether a musical work started and ended in the same key. If you would like to hear it, just jump from 03:45 to 00:00, and you’ll hear the difference right away).

05:02-05:36 – a new section, on the text of clothing the naked and not avoiding your flesh. There is a new, slightly faster tempo (‘tempo’ = speed) and a new meter – we had three beats in a bar and now we have two (all the musical changes are to underline the changes in the text). Bach divides the section into two connected phrases:

05:02-05:19 – the clothing. First the motif appears in the basses only (05:02), and then it’s answered in the full chorus (05:04); then for the second time it comes in the altos accompanied by the sopranos (05:07), answered by the full chorus (05:10), and for the third time in the tenors accompanied by the altos and the sopranos (05:13), again answered by the full chorus (05:16). (Three times is the standard number of repetitions of a phrase in any section, both for theological and aesthetic reasons – a fourth repeat was considered superfluous and bad taste [one can find it sometimes in Beethoven’s works, mostly because of harmonic constraints, and then some people would say triumphantly that Schubert wouldn’t have had those constraints. Musicians.]). Notice the variety of voice combinations in such a short section – basses only, full chorus, soprano and alto, full chorus, soprano alto and tenor, full chorus. We could also possibly see word-painting here – the gradual “clothing” of the bare motif that was first found in one voice only, later appeared in two voices (S+A) and then in three (S+A+T). (<– that’s a cool way of looking at it. I haven’t thought of this when I first wrote the guide.)

05:19-05:36: the non-avoidance. It’s a free polyphonic section – all the voices participate, there are a few motifs jumping from voice to voice, but no particular points of interest or word-painting.

05:36 to the end: that’s my favorite part. The text is the whole of verse 8, but we’ll once again have a division into sections. The meter has changed again and we’re back to triple, though the length of the base beat is now twice as short as in the beginning, resulting in a lighter, more dance-like feeling, as befits the much brighter text of this verse.

05:36-06:08 – a beautiful fugato on “Then shall thy light break forth as the morning”. The entries are as follows: the tenors start, then the altos (05:43), the sopranos (05:52) and the basses (05:59). If the order sounds familiar to you, that’s because this is the same one we had in the first fugato (02:31-03:45). Bach does this often – holds the basses back until all the other voices have entered, as the bass entry is usually the most effective (in this case the entire orchestra – the flutes, the oboes and the violins [prior to 05:59 we only had the basso continuo] – enters together with the basses, which only intensifies the effect).

06:08-06:14 – “and thine health shall spring forth speedily”. A homophonic section (meaning the chorus works as a single unit, all four voices singing together). Two points of interest: the quick, impatient repetition of “schnell” (‘quickly’) at 06:11-06:13 and the ending. This is slightly tricky to hear, but in 06:14 one of the voices, the tenors, finishes just a tiny bit after the rest. This has no textual meaning – it’s just one of the many available polyphonic devices, and quite common. (You might hear this through the double ‘ks’ sound at 06:14, coming from the superimposition of the differently timed “wachsen”s (“grow”):


06:14-06:18 – a short orchestral interlude.

06:19-06:33 – “and thy righteousness shall go before thee”. Another free polyphonic section (meaning the voices work independently – as opposed to homophony – but not in a fugato or anything else with strict rules). The many “Eh” sounds you will hear come from a prolongation of the word “herge-e-e-e-hen” (to go) in all voices. Again, word-painting, not unlike “fü-ü-ü-hre” (lead) which we had before. It’s interesting to note that Bach does not choose to illustrate the much more significant word “righteousness”, but rather the word that he can illustrate – “go”. One can also illustrate “righteousness”, and Bach does it a few times in chorales by certain harmonic progression that lack dissonances. But not in a section like this – the harmonies here change too quickly for that.

06:34-06:36 – another short orchestral interlude. These serve as musical buffers/breaths of air, separating the various sections.

06:36 to the end – one last fugato, on “the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward.” It uses the same motif (the official term in a fugue or a fugato is ‘subject’, but I think motif is clearer) as the fugato at 05:36, with just the first entry being slightly different, in order to make the transition from major to minor smoother. The second entry – the tenors at 06:43 – is already identical to the original motif. Then comes the alto entry at 06:50, and then suddenly something cool – instead of a last entry in the sopranos and there we are, Bach expands the section – he adds a fourth entry in the flute at 07:01 – then a short interlude in major, and only then the fifth entry in the sopranos (07:07) – the flute now functioning as a fully independent fifth voice.

07:15-07:19 – one last orchestral interlude. The music is already making cadence sounds, as my late counterpoint teacher used to say; there is a sense of a mounting tension, and then in the very end, the climax – one last glorious entry in the sopranos at 07:19, with all the other voices joining in right away, and that’s it, the end. Fugues and fugatos should always end in a spectacular last entry of the motif.


So, that’s it for today. Hope you enjoyed it, and I will post again soon(er).