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Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig, BWV 26

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Title: Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig, BWV 26  
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Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig, BWV 26

Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig (Ah how fleeting, ah how futile), BWV 26, is a church cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach. He composed the chorale cantata in Leipzig for the 24th Sunday after Trinity and first performed it on 19 November 1724. It is based on the hymn by Michael Franck (de) (1652).

History and words

Bach wrote the cantata in 1724 in his second year in Leipzig for the 24th Sunday after Trinity.[1] That year, Bach composed a cycle of chorale cantatas, begun on the first Sunday after Trinity of 1724.[2] The prescribed readings for the Sunday were from the Epistle to the Colossians, a prayer for the Colossians (Colossians 1:9–14), and from the Gospel of Matthew, the story of Jairus' daughter (Matthew 9:18–26). The cantata is based on the hymn in 13 stanzas by Michael Franck (de) (1652)[3] on a melody by Johann Crüger (1661),[4] "a meditation on the transience of human life and of all earthly goods".[5] This aspect is the only connection to the Gospel. An unknown poet kept the first and the last stanza as movements 1 and 6 of the cantata. He derived the inner movements as a sequence of alternating arias and recitatives from the inner stanzas.[2] John Eliot Gardiner points out that "several of Bach's late Trinity season cantatas" concentrate on "the brevity of human life and the futility of earthly hopes".[6]

Bach first performed the cantata on 19 November 1724.[2]

Scoring and structure

The cantata is scored for four soloists—soprano, alto, tenor and bass—a four-part choir, horn doubling the soprano in the chorale, flauto traverso, three oboes, two violins, viola, and basso continuo.[1]

  1. Chorale: Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig
  2. Aria (tenor): So schnell ein rauschend Wasser schießt
  3. Recitative (alto): Die Freude wird zur Traurigkeit
  4. Aria (bass): An irdische Schätze das Herze zu hängen
  5. Recitative (soprano): Die höchste Herrlichkeit und Pracht
  6. Chorale: Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig


The opening chorus is a chorale fantasia. The instruments play concertante music, to which the soprano sings the cantus firmus line by line. The lower voices act as a "self-contained group", mostly in homophony, and "declaim the individual lines of text in unison at the end of each choral passage, using a melodic formula derived from the beginning of the hymn." Bach illustrates the imagery of the text, "fleetingness and insubstantiality" in motifs such as "abrupt chords separated by pauses and ... hurrying scale figures".[5] Gardiner comments:
Long before the first statement of Franck's hymn (sopranos doubled by cornetto) Bach establishes the simile of man's life to a rising mist which will soon disperse. Fleet-footed scales, crossing and recrossing, joining and dividing, create a mood of phantasmal vapour.[6]
Musicologist Julian Mincham compares the instrumental music to "mist and fog, images which imply movements of wind and air" and hears the lower voices as "evincing a feeling of primeval power and solidarity".[7] In the first aria, the text "So schnell ein rauschend Wasser schieBt" (As quickly as rushing water) is illustrated in the flute, the violin and the voice by "fast-flowing" music.,[5] "each musician required to keep changing functions – to respond, imitate, echo or double one another – while variously contributing to the insistent onwardness of the tumbling torrent".[6] In the last aria, an "unusual oboe trio" accompanies the soprano in "An irdische Schätze das Herze zu hängen" (to dote on earthly treasures).[2] Gardiner comments: "He scores this Totentanz (Dance of the dead) for three oboes and continuo supporting his bass soloist in a mock bourrée", the oboes undermining in "throbbing accompaniment ... those earthly pleasures by which men are seduced", then representing "through jagged figures ... the tongues of flame which will soon reduce them to ashes, and finally in hurtling semiquaver scales of 6/4 chords ... surging waves which will tear all worldly things apart".[6] Mincham sees a connection of the runs to those of movement 1, but
now depicting thunder flames, stormy seas and the destruction of the world. The descending scales played in unison by the three oboes have great force. The vocalist has several prominent images, notably the long melisma on the word "zerschmettert" (shatter) and the weird, descending chromatic phrase towards the end, suggestive of a world of chaos and foolishness.[7]
The closing chorale is a four-part setting.[1]



External links

  • Cantatas, BWV 21–30: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project
  • Cantata BWV 26 Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig history, scoring, sources for text and music, translations to various languages, discography, discussion, bach-cantatas website
  • Emmanuel Music
  • Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig history, scoring, Bach website (German)
  • University of Vermont
  • University of Alberta

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