Of Motets and Minuets: A Look at Renaissance and Baroque Music

In the Renaissance period, a shifted way of thinking emphasised art and literature. Music became prevalent, and it continued to thrive entering the following period of music: Baroque. In this column, aided by ten years of musical experience and passion, I examine the musical gems of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Read on, and, I assure you, what’s below will bring music to your ears!

Bach’s 21st Cantata, “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis,” translates to ‘I have greatly suffered.’ A cantata is a multi-movement musical work consisting of solo voices supported by a small orchestra and chorus. This is a prominent Bach Cantata; it was written during a period of great shift in Bach’s life, showcases a large orchestra, and includes modern phenomena (for the time) such as poetry as text and arias as part of the cantata’s structure.

Now that we have a pragmatic understanding of the cantana, we can dive into the music! Throughout the first three movements, an expressed feeling of suffering intensifies, leading into the fourth movement which describes isolation from God. The fifth movement, the emotional climax of the cantana, presents the culmination of these emotions, and the subsequent movements depict a trend of ascension as the character reaches towards the heavens. The final movement reinforces the idea of heaven and its respective joys. With this emotional pretext in mind, let us take a look at the fifth movement, “Bäche von gesalznen Zähren” (from my eyes stream salty tears).

The movement begins with an ominous tone—a clear, powerful minor chord. The orchestra carries on to introduce a verse’s worth of accompaniment, showcasing the tempestuous nature of the chordal movements and instrumental lines. This prelude from the orchestra soon softens to a hush as the tenor line enters with a declamatory articulation of the phrase, ‘Bäche von gesalznen Zähren.’ As the tenor tirades on about their tears in a pattern-like vocal passage, the orchestra heightens this sentiment by delicately yet intensely voicing a minor descending line. At times when the tenor melody silences before reentering a few beats later, the orchestral line awakens and takes charge by enunciating a certain passage throughout the tenor’s absence. In this way, there is a reinforcement of the tenor sentiment and a subtle back-and-forth between the tenor and the orchestra.

We then reach the next set of text: ‘Sturm und Wellen mich versehren’ (storm and billows overwhelm me). There is an abrupt mood shift from intense lamenting to literal drowning in grief. This shift is such that the tenor line loses its prior lyricality and transforms into a fast-paced, undulating pattern of swift vocal maneuvers.

The tenor line personifies the towering, stormy tidal waves that drown and overwhelm while the orchestra remains in the background, providing the tenor with a fugal foundation on which to sing. This section reminds me of the sensation of being conquered by a giant wave in the ocean. Losing all sense of orientation as you flail underwater, you return to floating in a calmer ocean, stunned and upright.

After this turbulent passage, we reach the final section. Describing the ‘trouble-laden sea,’ the main figure’s spirit is overcome as they sink down into hell’s despair. As this text describes a series of events, the tenor line features diverse vocal passages whose intensity and irregular patterns maintain the nail-biting edge of this movement. Empowering and embellishing the tenor’s narrative, the orchestral part remains in a supportive position, thus enhancing the experience of the story told in this section.

Finally, the first section returns. Listening to “Bäche von gesalznen Zähren” is an emotional journey: the musical functions employed by Bach highlight feelings of lament and despair. I hope you enjoyed learning about Bach 21st Cantata and are amazed by how Bach wielded the power of emotion in this musical example and the narrative it creates!


Cantata BWV 21,_BWV_21#Movements