Cantata 21, Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis

Third Sunday after Trinity, June 13, 1723 (first documented performance, June 17, 1714)

When J. S. Bach began his Leipzig tenure, he took up the task of regular performance of his own church cantatas for each Sunday and feast day. Throughout his first year, he composed about forty new cantatas, but he also reperformed, often in revised versions, cantatas he had composed earlier, primarily in Weimar. Bach considered each Sunday and feast day in light of this cantata preparation. If he did not have an extant cantata for a particular occasion, he would compose a new one. But if he did, he would instead perform his existing cantata for that day, often updated for Leipzig.

Bach’s first two Leipzig cantatas, Cantata 75 and 76, were for the First and Second Sundays after Trinity, occasions for which he had not previously composed cantatas. As we have seen in discussion of those cantatas, both are monumental works in two parts clearly intended to impress his new Leipzig congregations. For the Third Sunday after Trinity in 1723, Bach performed an extant Weimar cantata, Cantata 21, Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis. Not only was it fitting for its liturgical occasion, but it also matched Bach’s approach in his early Leipzig cantatas. Cantata 21 is longer than most of Bach’s cantatas, with 11 movements. It could also easily be divided into two parts, one that would have been performed in the regular liturgical spot in relation to the Gospel and the second during the Eucharist.

Little is known about the early history of Cantata 21. Christoph Wolff speculates it may have originated as a dialogue cantata for soprano and bass with Bible verse interpolations. It may have first been performed as just the first 9 movements in 1713, with another possible performance of all 11 movements in December 1713 in Halle. The first clearly verifiable performance was for the Third Sunday after Trinity in Weimar, June 17, 1714.

A curious aspect of the cantata is that its text is only loosely related to the Gospel for the Second Sunday after Trinity, Luke 15:1-10. Given this loose connection to the Gospel, it is fitting that Bach at one point labeled Cantata 21 as “per ogni tempo” (“for any occasion,” Dürr, The Cantatas of J. S. Bach, 408).


The starting point for considering every Bach church cantata is the Gospel for the day, the passage from the biblical books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John that was designated as the focus for that liturgical occasion. The Gospel readings were assigned by Martin Luther and largely consistent with the medieval liturgy on which he based his church reforms. Unlike the modern Revised Common Lectionary that uses a three-year cycle, the readings in Bach’s time were on an annual cycle so that the same Gospel reading returned each year for a particular liturgical occasion.

The Gospel for the Second Sunday after Trinity records the words of Jesus in Luke 15:1-10:

Es nahten aber zu ihm allerlei Zöllner und Sünder, daß sie ihn hörten. Und die Pharisäer und Schriftgelehrten murrten und sprachen: Dieser nimmt die Sünder an und isset mit ihnen. Er sagte aber zu ihnen dies Gleichnis und sprach: Welcher Mensch ist unter euch, der hundert Schafe hat und, so er der eines verliert, der nicht lasse die neunundneunzig in der Wüste und hingehe nach dem verlorenen, bis daß er’s finde? Und wenn er’s gefunden hat, so legt er’s auf seine Achseln mit Freuden. Und wenn er heimkommt, ruft er seine Freunde und Nachbarn und spricht zu ihnen: Freuet euch mit mir; denn ich habe mein Schaf gefunden, das verloren war. Ich sage euch: Also wird auch Freude im Himmel sein über einen Sünder, der Buße tut, vor neunundneunzig Gerechten, die der Buße nicht bedürfen. Oder welches Weib ist, die zehn Groschen hat, so sie der einen verliert, die nicht ein Licht anzünde und kehre das Haus und suche mit Fleiß, bis daß sie ihn finde? Und wenn sie ihn gefunden hat, ruft sie ihre Freundinnen und Nachbarinnen und spricht: Freuet euch mit mir; denn ich habe meinen Groschen gefunden, den ich verloren hatte. Also auch, sage ich euch, wird Freude sein vor den Engeln Gottes über einen Sünder, der Buße tut. (Biblia, Das ist, Die gantze Heilige Schrifft Alten und Neuen Testaments, Verteutscht durch D. Martin Luther, 1545).

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance. ‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’ (New Revised Standard Version)

The Gospel for the Third Sunday after Trinity continues the primary theme of the two preceding Sundays, that those considered to be unworthy are welcome, and even privileged, in the kingdom of God, while those considered to be worthy are rejected. For the First Sunday after Trinity, this was Lazarus and the rich man; for the Second Sunday after Trinity, the first to be invited are ultimately rejected, while “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” are welcomed in. In Luke 15:2, the religious leaders, the Pharisees and scribes, complain that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus tells three parables in response, each highlighting the joy in heaven over the lost one who is found. The first two of these, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, constitute the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday after Trinity.

In his Evangelischer Glaubens-Sieg der Kinder Gottes (1672), Johann Olearius emphasizes the message from Jesus in these parables, that God is not the enemy of sinners but rather seeks them out and rejoices when they repent (824). As with the previous two Sundays, the Gospel and Olearius’s commentary on it highlight a central tenet in Lutheran theology, that salvation always originates in the grace of God through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Olearius further stresses that the response of the Christian believer is only “to trust in God’s goodness through Christ” (829). He indicates that the believer only needs to hear the words of Jesus, who has already paid for their sins and reconciled them to God (836).


Readers can find the full German text of the cantata, with English translation, here: All English translations appearing in the following discussion are from this site, by Michael Marissen and Daniel R. Melamed,

The poetry of Cantata 21, by an unidentified poet, is a curious mixture of text types. Four of its movement quote Bible verses, an unusually high percentage of biblical quotation. In this way, the text looks back to seventeenth-century Lutheran church music, which often consisted entirely, or almost entirely, of Bible verse and hymn quotation. However, the text also includes recitatives and arias, reflective of the newer style of cantata from the early eighteenth century. The cantata quotes stanzas of the hymn “Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten,” included in movement 9 in dialogue with a Bible verse.

Most unusual is the fact that the poetry does not clearly reference the Gospel for the day or closely connect to it. In fact, the perspective of the cantata is largely the opposite of the one in the Gospel. In Luke 15:1-10, God is portrayed as seeking out the lost sheep and the lost coin, and they likely do not know they need to be found. In Part 1 of Cantata 21, the first-person speaker, presumably the Christian believer, cries out to God in their misery, but God is nowhere to be found. However, these perspectives were actually seen as consistent and complimentary in Lutheran theology, which stated that even in the midst of trouble, God is still faithful.

This shared recognition of earthly troubles and God’s faithfulness is summarized in the cantatas second movement (the first texted movement, following an instrumental Sinfonia): “I had much grieving in my heart; but your [my God’s] consolations restore my soul” (Psalm 94:19). Movements 3-5 then focus entirely on the “much grieving in my heart,” enumerating all the troubles of the speaker’s life: sighs, tears, grief, distress, anxious yearning, fear, death, misery, pain (mvt. 3). In movement 4, we learn that the speaker’s woes are compounded because they feel God has rejected them. The recitative begins:
   How is it that you, my God,
   In my distress,
   In my fear and dismay,
   Have turned yourself from me entirely?
   Ah, do you not know your child?

The cantata returns in movement 6 to the recognition of God’s faithfulness despite the believer’s trouble. The text quotes Psalm 42:12 and 43:5 and concludes: “Wait for God; for I will yet thank him, because he is the help/salvation of my countenance, and my God.” This movement concludes Part 1 of Cantata 21.

Part 2 begins with a recitative representing the soul’s hope for Jesus’s salvation in the midst of trouble. Movements 7 and 8 are both dialogue movements for soprano and bass, with the soprano singing lines attributed to the Soul (Seele) and the bass singing words of Jesus. Such dialogue movements are not uncommon in church cantatas of the eighteenth century, with different characters named as the voices. Dialogues between the Soul and Jesus appear also in Cantatas 57, 32, 49, 145, and 140. Other dialogues appear both in Bach’s church cantatas (for example, between Hope and Fear in Cantata 66) and secular cantatas (for example, between Vice and Virtue in Cantata 213).

Cantata 21 is a good example of how the dialogue genre works in Bach’s church cantatas. In the movement 7 recitative, the poet uses a dialogue structure in which the Soul speaks in fear and doubt and Jesus responds with comfort. The movement begins with the Soul’s question, “Ah, Jesus, my rest, / My light, where are you tarrying?”, and Jesus’s response, “O soul, see, I am with you.” By the end of the movement, the soul has heard Jesus’s faithful words of promise and responds in hope, “Break in, then, with your luster / And light of consolation,” before the movement ends with further words of assurance from Jesus. Bach sets this as a conversation, going back and forth between the soprano (Soul) and bass (Jesus), as the text is structured. In the eighth movement aria, Bach interweaves the two vocal lines in a duet, reflecting the shared language of the Soul and Jesus. The two parts have identical poetic structures and much shared language. For example, while the Soul begins, “Ah, Jesus, my rest, / My light, where are you tarrying?”, while Jesus responds, “Yes, I come and restore / You with my gaze of grace.” The text is essentially an argument, in which Jesus convinces the Soul of his salvation and grace. The text implies that the Soul continues to speak in movement 9 Bible verse: “Be now again at peace, my soul, for the Lord does good unto you” (Psalm 116:7). This text is combined with two stanzas of the hymn “Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten” in one of the most spectacular movements in all of Bach’s cantatas.

The Christian believer responds with faith and joy in the movement 10 tenor aria that begins, “Gladden yourself, soul; gladden yourself, heart,” and concludes, “So long as Jesus consoles me with heavenly delight.” The cantata’s final movement quotes verses from the book of Revelation in praise of God. The content does not have a clear connection to the preceding cantata texts, but rather fulfills the common role in church music of doxology, a concluding text in praise to God regardless of previous content. In Cantata 21, it reflects the final verse of the Gospel: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).