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Bach Cantata BWV 18
"Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt"
with Commentary by the Rev. Dr. David Smith

The libretto for this cantata was written by Erdmann Neumeister and is based on the gospel for Sexagesima, the parable of the sower. Neumeister was a pastor in Hamburg who was known to Bach personally. He was a champion of the orthodox Lutheran party against the pietists and he wrote important theological treatises to champion Lutheran orthodoxy. He was also the originator of the kind of cantata texts that Bach often used in his cantatas, where the basic pattern is to have poetic meditations on the Scriptural themes in the form of alternating recitatives and arias. This style of cantata text was considered modern because it was obviously influenced by opera. When Bach failed to get the post of organist at Hamburg because he couldn't pay a customary donation, Neumeister commented in his Christmas sermon, "If one of the angels who sang at the first Christmas came down from heaven and tried to become the organist of this church and had no money, he might as well fly away again." 

Neumeister's text for Sexagesima starts with a long recitative, a quotation from Isaiah 55:10-11. Exegetically, this is very apt, as the point of the passage, that God's Word is effectual, is closely related to the meaning of the parable of the sower. The main secton of the text is a series of recitatives joined together by petitions from Luther's litany (these petitions are quite similar to the petitions of the Anglican litany).  The four sections correspond to the four types of soil in the parable. The effect is of invoking the common prayer of the church against the temptations represented in the parable. The aria that follows contrasts the treasure that is God's word with the deceits of the temptations. The final movement is a chorale, an early reformation hymn expressing trust in Holy Scripture. 

What this cantata offers exegetically is a short but powerful meditation on the gospel reading, seen through the sensibility of a church in which the Word was of primary importance. The present reality of unbelief, apostasy, and worldliness is underlined and the love of the genuine believer for the Word is expressed, but from within a state church whose authority is not questioned. The believers' reaction to these dangers is not revolution and schism but the prayer of the church and personal faith. 

A summary view of the movement of the cantata might be this.  The opening sinfonia represents musically and abstractly the activity of God's effectual Word going out from him into the world - an orderly yet forceful and complex activity.  This is represented theologically by the quotation from Isaiah.  The first tenor recitative in the litany is the aspiration to receive God's Word, but this hasn't happened yet.  The following recitatives in the litany represent the temptations by which the aspiration of the believer is tested and refined, through constant prayer.  Then the austerity and spiritual struggle of the litany turns into a beautiful pastoral and "flowery" aria in which the love of God showed in the going out of the Word is received and returned to God as a love of his Word - "God's Word is my heart's treasure."  This aria is not at all abstract but conveys the beauty of human love and human civility.  Then these sentiments are amplified by the voice of the whole church in the chorale.

German Original  
Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt  

1. Sinfonia 

2. Recitativo B 
Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt und nicht wieder dahin kommet, sondern feuchtet die Erde und macht sie fruchtbar und wachsend, daß sie gibt Samen zu säen und Brot zu essen: Also soll das Wort, so aus meinem Munde gehet, auch sein; es soll nicht wieder zu mir leer kommen, sondern tun, das mir gefället, und soll ihm gelingen, dazu ich's sende.  


3. Recitativo (e Litanei) S T B  
Mein Gott, hier wird mein Herze sein:  
Ich öffne dir's in meines Jesu Namen;  
So streue deinen Samen  
Als in ein gutes Land hinein.  
Mein Gott, hier wird mein Herze sein:  
Laß solches Frucht, und hundertfältig, bringen.  
O Herr, Herr, hilf! o Herr, laß wohlgelingen!  
Du wollest deinen Geist und Kraft zum Wortegeben  
Erhör uns, lieber Herre Gott!  
Nur wehre, treuer Vater, wehre,  
Daß mich und keinen Christen nicht  
Des Teufels Trug verkehre.  
Sein Sinn ist ganz dahin gericht',  
Uns deines Wortes zu berauben  
Mit aller Seligkeit.  
Den Satan unter unsre Füße treten.  
Erhör uns, lieber Herre Gott!  
Ach! viel verleugnen Wort und Glauben  
Und fallen ab wie faules Obst,  
Wenn sie Verfolgung sollen leiden.  
So stürzen sie in ewig Herzeleid,  
Da sie ein zeitlich Weh vermeiden.  
Und uns für des Türken und des Papsts  
grausamen Mord und Lästerungen,  
Wüten und Toben väterlich behüten.  
Erhör uns, lieber Herre Gott!  
Ein andrer sorgt nur für den Bauch;  
Inzwischen wird der Seele ganz vergessen;  
Der Mammon auch  
Hat vieler Herz besessen.  
So kann das Wort zu keiner Kraft gelangen.  
Und wieviel Seelen hält  
Die Wollust nicht gefangen?  
So sehr verführet sie die Welt,  
Die Welt, die ihnen muß anstatt des Himmels stehen,  
Darüber sie vom Himmel irregehen.  
Alle Irrige und Verführte wiederbringen.  
Erhör uns, lieber Herre Gott!  

4. Aria S  
Mein Seelenschatz ist Gottes Wort;  
Außer dem sind alle Schätze  
Solche Netze,  
Welche Welt und Satan stricken,  
Schnöde Seelen zu berücken.  
Fort mit allen, fort, nur fort!  
Mein Seelenschatz ist Gottes Wort.  

5. Choral  
Ich bitt, o Herr, aus Herzens Grund,  
Du wollst nicht von mir nehmen  
Dein heilges Wort aus meinem Mund;  
So wird mich nicht beschämen  
Mein Sünd und Schuld, denn in dein Huld  
Setz ich all mein Vertrauen:  
Wer sich nur fest darauf verläßt,  
Der wird den Tod nicht schauen.  

Besetzung  Soli: S T B, Coro: S A T B, Flauto I/II, Viola I-IV, Fagotto, Violoncello, Continuo 
Entstehungszeit  1713/14 
Text  1-4: Erdmann Neumeister 171; 5: Lazarus Spengler 1524 
Anlass  Sexagesimae 

from Bach Cantata Page    
Created by Walter F. Bischof  
Used with permission   

  English Translation  

1. Sinfonia  

2. Recit. [Dictum] (B)  
Just as the showers and snow from heaven fall and return again not thither, rather give the earth moisture and make it fertile and fruitful, so it gives seed for the sowing and bread for eating: Just so shall the word which from mine own mouth proceedeth, be too; it shall not come again to me empty, but shall do what I have purposed and shall that accomplish for which I send it.  

3. Recit. (T, B) & Litany (S, A, T, B)   
My God, here shall my heart abide:   
I open it to thee in Jesus' name now(1);   
So scatter wide thy seed then   
As if on fertile land in me.   
My God, here shall my heart abide:   
Let it bring forth in hundredfold its harvest.   
O Lord, Lord, help! O Lord, O let it prosper!(2)   
(S, A, T, B)   
That thou might to the word thy Spirit add, and power,   
O hear us, O good Lord, our God!   
But keep us, faithful Father, keep us,   
Both me and any Christian soul,   
From Satan's lies attending.   
His mind has only one intent,   
Of this thy word to rob us   
With all our happiness.   
That Satan underneath our feet be trodden,   
O hear us, O good Lord, our God!   
Ah! Many, word and faith renouncing,   
Do fall away like rotting fruit,   
When persecution they must suffer.   
Thus they are plunged in everlasting grief   
For having passing woe avoided.   
And from all the Turk's and all the Pope's   
Most cruel murder and oppression,   
Anger and fury, fatherlike protect us.   
O hear us, O good Lord, our God!   
One man may but for belly care,   
And meanwhile is his soul left quite forgotten;   
And Mammon, too,   
Hath many hearts' allegiance,   
And then the word is left without its power.   
How many are the souls   
Of pleasure not the captive?   
So well seduceth them the world,   
The world which must by them instead of heav'n be honored,   
So that they then from heaven stray & wander.   
All those now who are gone & led astray recover.   
O hear us, O good Lord, our God!   

4. Aria (S)   
My soul's true treasure is God's word;   
Otherwise are all those treasures   
Mere devices   
By the world and Satan woven,   
Scornful spirits for beguiling.   
Take them all now, take them hence!   
My soul's true treasure is God's word.   

5. Chorale (S, A, T, B)   
I pray, O Lord, with inmost heart,   
May thou not take it from me,   
Thy holy word not from my mouth;   
For thus shall not confound me   
My sin and shame, for in thy care   
I put all mine assurance:   
Who shall steadfast on this rely   
Shall surely death not witness.   

1. Literally, "I open it to thee in the name of my Jesus."  
2. Ps. 118:25.  

Sexagesima Sunday.  
Erdmann Neumeister, Geistliches Singen und Spielen (Gotha, 1711); Facs: Neumann T, p. 294.  
2. Is. 55:10-11; 3. Martin Luther, portions of the Litany, 1528/29, with interpolated recitative; 5. Lazarus Spengler, verse 8 of "Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt," 1524 (Wackernagel, III, #71).  
1713 to 24 February 1715 (latest possible date according to Dürr, pp. 209-210), Weimar; revised in A Minor in Leipzig.  
BG 2; NBA I/7.  

English translation: 
© Copyright  Z. Philip Ambrose  
Used with permission. Visit his site at:  

by David Smith 
1. The opening instrumental sinfonia, unusually scored for four violas, makes a strong introduction to the work. It contains "descending rain and snow phrases" (Tadashi Isoyama, in the liner notes to the Suzuki recording). The picture conveyed is described as "the feeling of longing for the blossoming of Holy Scripture in the midst of desolation" (Isoyama) or "the steadfastness and inviolability of the Word of God" (Albert Schweitzer).  

2. The recitative, according to Schweitzer, is a masterpiece. "The nearly equal divisions of the original passage are gathered up by the music into one great unified phrase that resolves and obliterates, as if by magic, all the rigidities of the verbal passage, giving us the impression that the poetic thought has waited for centuries for this music in order to reveal itself in its true plastic outline." Some later writers are a little less excited. We should at least notice how the images of the fruitfulness of the rain are highlighted by the accompaniment.  

3. The main section of the cantata is made up of recitatives and litany responses. The first tenor recitative is derived from the good soil in the parable that produces a hundredfold. The believer asks that his heart could be good soil for the Word. The litany petition - that God add power and the Spirit to the Word.  

The first bass recitative asks to be delivered from the lies of Satan, who tries to take the Word away from us, along with our happiness (the seed that falls on the path). The petition - "to tread down Satan under our feet." 

The second tenor recitative is about those who fall away from the Word due to persecution (the seed that falls on thin soil). The petition is for deliverance from the violence of the "Turk and the Pope" - secular and religious persecution. 

The second bass recitative is about those who care for their "bellies" and for "Mammon" so that the Word is deprived of its power. These lead many to wander from the path of heaven. Note the elaborate vocal setting of "vom Himmel irregehen"  ("from heaven stray and wander"), which represents musically the wandering path. The petition is for God to recover those who have strayed.  








4. The soprano aria moves away from the dramatic character of the former movement to an inward and personal reflection on the treasure of God's word. The individual believer assents to what the church has prayed. Schweitzer describes the accompanying musical figures as a "wave" motif, inspired by the idea of Satan's "nets."  

5. The final movement is a chorale, an early reformation hymn expressing trust in Holy Scripture. The style is simple, bringing together the varied styles of the previous movements in one united prayer that God not take his Word from the believer.