Cantata 186, Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht

Seventh Sunday after Trinity, July 11, 1723

When Bach took up his careful attention to the composition and performance of church cantatas for his new Leipzig position in 1723, he approached each liturgical occasion fairly consistently. If he had an existing cantata for a particular day, he would generally use it, sometimes altered for its new context. If not, he would compose a new cantata. But for three cantatas in his first year in Leipzig, he took a distinctive approach: Cantata 147 for the Feast of Mary’s Visitation, Cantata 186 for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, and Cantata 70 for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Trinity.

Bach did not have an extant cantata to perform for these three liturgical occasions. He did, however, have three Advent cantatas, or portions of them, that would not have a home in the Leipzig liturgy, Cantatas 147a, 186a, and 70a. He had composed the cantatas in 1716 in Weimar, for the Second, Third, and Fourth Sundays of Advent (though it appears that, for reasons unknown, he did not complete the composition of Cantata 147a). But in Leipzig, church cantatas were performed only on the First Sunday of Advent, not the Second, Third, or Fourth. So Bach had three extra cantatas that he was unable to use for their original liturgical occasions in Leipzig.

With the help of his librettist, clearly a skilled poet, Bach transferred Cantatas 147a, 186a, and 70a to new liturgical occasions in Leipzig. The original versions of each had text by Weimar court poet Salomo Franck, published in his Evangelische Sonn- und Fest-Tags-Andachten (Weimar and Jena, 1717). Each begins with a movement Franck labels as a Chorus, then proceeds with a series of arias followed by a concluding hymn stanza. The poetry contains no recitatives or Bible verses. In transferring these cantatas to new liturgical occasions in Leipzig, Bach depended on his librettist to both expand each text and make it fitting for its new day in the church year. The poet did this by finding a day in the church year that had similar themes (though we do not know if it was the poet or Bach who selected the new liturgical occasion, or if was a collaborative decision), retaining most of the existing movements, and adding recitatives that are specific to the new day in the church year. In keeping with Bach’s early Leipzig practice, they also divided the cantata into two parts, one to be performed in the cantata’s regular spot in the service and the other during the Eucharist, and added a second hymn stanza so that each part ended with same chorale setting.


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 Seventh Sunday after Trinity records the story of Jesus’s miraculous feeding of the 4,000 in Mark 8:1-9:

Zu der Zeit, da viel Volks da war, und hatten nichts zu essen, rief Jesus seine Jünger zu sich und sprach zu ihnen: Mich jammert des Volks; denn sie haben nun drei Tage bei mir beharrt und haben nichts zu essen; und wenn ich sie ungegessen von mir heim ließe gehen, würden sie auf dem Wege verschmachten; denn etliche sind von ferne gekommen. Seine Jünger antworteten ihm: Woher nehmen wir Brot hier in der Wüste, daß wir sie sättigen? Und er fragte sie: Wieviel habt ihr Brote? Sie sprachen: Sieben. Und er gebot dem Volk, daß sie sich auf der Erde lagerten. Und er nahm die sieben Brote und dankte und brach sie und gab sie seinen Jüngern, daß sie dieselben vorlegten; und sie legten dem Volk vor. Und hatten ein wenig Fischlein; und er dankte und hieß die auch vortragen. Sie aßen aber und wurden satt; und hoben die übrigen Brocken auf, sieben Körbe. Und ihrer waren bei viertausend, die da gegessen hatten; und er ließ sie von sich. (Biblia, Das ist, Die gantze Heilige Schrifft Alten und Neuen Testaments, Verteutscht durch D. Martin Luther, 1545).

In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way—and some of them have come from a great distance.’ His disciples replied, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?’ He asked them, ‘How many loaves do you have?’ They said, ‘Seven.’ Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Now there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. (New Revised Standard Version)

After Bach’s two previous cantatas—Cantata 167 for the Feast of John the Baptist, and Cantata 147 for the Feast of Mary’s Visitation—focused on stories around Jesus’s birth in Luke 1, Cantata 186 returns to stories of Jesus’s earthly ministry in Mark 8:1-9. While the accounts for the earlier Sundays in Trinity focused on Jesus’s teachings, Cantata 186 recounts Jesus’s miraculous feeding of 4,000 people.

Johann Olearius, in his Evangelischer Glaubens-Sieg der Kinder Gottes (1672), lauds Jesus as “the one who makes much out of little” (960) and repeatedly returns to Jesus’s words in Mark 8:2: “I have compassion for the people.” Olearius emphasizes that Jesus cares not only for the soul, but also for the body (961). He highlights that Jesus spoke to and fed the people out of his mercy. Olearius cites Psalm 102, which refers to God as the one “who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy” (Psalm 103:4; 963) and further quotes, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8; 964).

Olearius writes that Jesus was concerned for the people both in word and in works. Jesus proclaimed God’s Gospel to them and also fed them (966-67). Olearius states that Christians should follow Jesus’s example: “Regarding the mercy and love that is due to the neighbor, he [Jesus] says here: ‘I have compassion on the people’ [Mark 8:2], and says also to us: ‘Learn from me’ [Matthew 11:29] and ‘Be merciful’ [Luke 6:36]” (968). Olearius explains that the greatest work we can do in service to God is to bring other people, and especially those in our own family, to an understanding of the holy Gospel (970). In reflecting on the fact that Jesus met the peoples’ physical needs of hunger after teaching them for three days, Olearius again emphasizes that Jesus came to help both the soul and the body (971).


Readers can find the full German text of Cantata 186 here:  English translations for Cantata 186 in the following discussion are from this translation by Tobin Schmuck.

In its original Weimar version, Cantata 186a loosely reflected the Gospel for the day, Matthew 11:2-10. This Gospel focuses on the John the Baptist as the prophet who came before Jesus, the Messiah. As the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Advent, it focused on the coming of Jesus as Messiah. However, Salomo Franck’s cantata text for the day was not closely modeled on the Gospel for the day, but rather reflected general themes of Advent and the coming of Jesus as Messiah. The general nature of the text facilitated the shift of the text from the Third Sunday of Advent to the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, made by Bach’s unidentified Leipzig librettist.

The Leipzig poet retained the opening chorus from Franck and what became the movement 8 and 10 arias. The poet altered the movement 3 and 5 arias to better match the cantata’s new liturgical occasion and added recitatives more specific to the Gospel for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity. Finally, the poet indicated a new hymn, drawing stanzas from it to conclude the two parts of the cantata, the first performed after the proclamation of the Gospel and the second during the Eucharist.

The cantata begins with the comforting words, “Be not concerned, O soul” and continues to reference Philippians 2:7, that Jesus took on the form of a servant (line 4). For its original context for the Third Sunday of Advent, the text anticipates the coming birth of Jesus at Christmas. For the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, it instead highlights Jesus’s bodily presence as the model for him caring about both a person’s spiritual and physical needs, as Olearius highlights in his commentary on the Gospel. Bach’s music for this movement emphasizes the reassuring nature of the text for the Christian believer, with its stepwise flowing melodic lines repeating the opening line, “Be not concerned, O soul,” in imitation. These statements alternate with the reasons for this comfort (in lines 2-4), which Bach sets for the choral ensemble to declare together. He organizes the movement so that the statement, “Be not concerned, O soul,” is declared at the beginning, middle, and end. It is truly one of the most comforting movements in all of Bach’s church music.

The movement 2 recitative, newly written for the Leipzig version of the cantata, names Jesus as poor and needy in his human life and acknowledges the same can be true for the Christian believer in the present. Echoing Olearius’s perspective on Mark 8:1-9, the text reassures the Christian that Jesus cares both their salvation and their physical needs. But it still acknowledges that the Christian may doubt this in the present life, concluding: “Oh Lord, how long will you forget me?” The ensuing aria, which the Leipzig poet altered from Franck’s original version, continues this idea. In it, the Christian believer calls on Jesus for help, then the text reassures the Christian that they should not doubt, but rather trust. The focus here is not on physical need, but rather spiritual. It concludes:

      Yet, O soul, do not doubt,
      let reason not entangle you;
      your helper, the light of Jacob
      is revealed in the scriptures.

While Olearius emphasizes Jesus’s care for both the soul and the body, the movement 4 recitative prioritizes soul over body. It bemoans Christians who focus too much on the body and focuses instead on the salvation of the soul that comes through Jesus. The recitative interprets Jesus’s teaching in the Gospel as a spiritual food and concludes with a reference to Psalm 34:8, “O taste and see that the Lord is good.”

This theme continues in the movement 5 aria, which begins:

      My Savior makes himself apparent
      in his works of mercy.

Bach’s Leipzig poet rewrote Franck’s text to shift it from Advent-centered language to words specific to the feeding of the 4,000 and Jesus’s care for the Christian’s soul and body. Part 1 of the cantata concludes with Stanza 12 of Paul Speratus’s hymn, Es ist das Heil uns kommen her (1523), for which Bach composed an elaborate setting for instruments and voices in keeping with his early Leipzig practice.

Part 2 of the cantata begins with a new recitative that connects with the Gospel reading by beginning with the image of the people in the wilderness who were listening to Jesus but had nothing to eat. The movement ends with a statement that Jesus had compassion on the people and that Christians should likewise show compassion. It states that Jesus’s care and blessing is present both here in this life and in eternity (lines 9-14):

      Only here, by the Savior’s word,
      the highest treasure finds
      a place in their hearts.
      Yes, if the people there lament to him,
      so too must his heart here be breaking
      and it speaks to them the benediction.

The cantata continues with an aria unchanged from Franck’s Weimar text. The movement is surely fitting within any context in Lutheran theology, expressing key themes of a Lutheran understanding of Christianity:

      The Lord will embrace the poor
      with grace, both here and away;
      he bestows on them, out of mercy,
      the highest treasure, the word of life.

The movement 9 recitative states that salvation and blessing flow from Jesus’s words, with a focus on the promise of eternal life in Paradise for the Christian believer. The movement 10 aria continues this idea, stating that the Christian believer will be present with Jesus through grace after death. The cantata concludes with stanza 11 of Paul Speratus’s hymn, Es ist das Heil uns kommen her, which emphasizes the Christian’s trust in God’s word for the future.

In shifting the cantata, through alteration and expansion, from the Third Sunday of Advent to the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, Bach and his Leipzig librettist moved from a focus on John the Baptist’s prophecy of Jesus as Messiah to the story of Jesus’s miraculous feeding of the 4,000. They retained, however, the focus on Jesus’s personal relationship with the Christian believer and his care for both body and soul, in the present and the future. The cantata’s text, and Bach’s musical interpretation of it, emphasize the words of Jesus in the Gospel, “I have compassion for the people” (Mark 8:2).