Bach, J. S.: BWV 54, Cantata No. 54, ‘Widerstehe doch der Sünde’

The 54th Cantata of J.S. Bach is short, and its message is clear: stand firm against sin, which is of the devil. It doesn’t require much further clarification. It was almost certainly composed in Weimar, fairly early in Bach’s career, likely for the 4th Sunday in Lent (during which time the need to resist sin could probably use a bit of reinforcement). Some elements of tone-painting might benefit from a bit of spotlighting: the ‘curse’ showing itself in the violas in the first aria; the ‘sword’ driving to the end of the recitative; the snaky ‘devil’ of the second aria. These are fairly conventional elements of enriching text and meaning with music.

There is one underlying question which deserves commentary, however inconclusive or cursory: is the cantata itself beautiful, and, if so, is it straightened enough by its own ‘right devotion’? The question of whether the cantatas were too theatrical to be devotional was not a casual one for an iconoclastic time: the can- tata must rectify itself. But as in most representations of temptation, sin gets the most interesting bits. This may be too sophisticated a reading: the message seems clear enough. Stand firm, like the resolute tonic bass line at the opening, against sin. That the dissonant tension is beautiful need not be dwelt upon.

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