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Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig, BWV 26

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Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig
BWV 26
Chorale cantata by J. S. Bach
Michael Franck.jpg
Michael Franck, author of the hymn's text and melody
Occasion 24th Sunday after Trinity
Performed 19 November 1724 (1724-11-19)
Movements 6
Chorale "Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig"
by Michael Franck
Vocal SATB choir and solo
  • horn
  • flauto traverso
  • 3 oboes
  • 2 violins
  • viola
  • organ
  • continuo

Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig (Ah, how fleeting, ah how insignificant),[1] 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.

The cantata is based upon the hymn "Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig", versed and composed by Michael Franck in 1652. The tune was later edited by Johann Crüger. It is the only time Bach used this hymn, except BWV 644 (Orgelbüchlein). Its theme, the transience of human life, is the only connection to the prescribed gospel reading. The first and last stanza are used unchanged in both text and tune: the former is treated as a chorale fantasia, the latter as a four-part closing chorale. An unknown librettist paraphrased the inner stanzas as arias and recitatives. Bach scored the cantata for four vocal soloists, a four-part choir, and a Baroque instrumental ensemble of horn, flute, three oboes, strings and continuo.

History and words[edit]

Bach wrote the cantata in 1724 in his second year in Leipzig for the 24th Sunday after Trinity.[2] That year, Bach composed a cycle of chorale cantatas, begun on the first Sunday after Trinity.[3] 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 the Raising of Jairus' daughter (Matthew 9:18–26). The cantata is based on the hymn in 13 stanzas by Michael Franck (1652),[4] to a melody by Johann Crüger (1661),[5] "a meditation on the transience of human life and of all earthly goods".[6] This aspect is the only connection to the gospel. An unknown poet retained the first and the last stanza unchanged 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.[3] 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".[7]

Bach first performed the cantata on 19 November 1724.[3] It is the only time that he used this hymn.[8]

Scoring and structure[edit]

Bach structured the cantata in six movements. The text and tune of the hymn appear unchanged in the outer choral movements, a chorale fantasia and a four-part closing chorale, which frame a sequence of alternating arias and recitatives. Bach scored the work for four vocal soloists (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), a four-part choir and a Baroque instrumental ensemble of a horn (Co) doubling the soprano in the chorale, flauto traverso (Ft), three oboes (Ob), two violins (Vl), viola (Va), organ (Org) and basso continuo.[9]

In the following table of the movements, the scoring follows the Neue Bach-Ausgabe.[9] The keys and time signatures are taken from Alfred Dürr, using the symbol for common time (4/4).[2]

Movements of Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, BWV 180
No. Title Text Type Vocal Winds Strings Others Key Time
1 Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig Franck Chorale fantasia SATB Co Ft 3Ob 2Vl Va Org Bc A minor common time
2 So schnell ein rauschend Wasser schießt anon. Aria T Ft Vl Org Bc C major 6/8
3 Die Freude wird zur Traurigkeit anon. Recitative A Org Bc common time
4 An irdische Schätze das Herze zu hängen anon. Aria B 3Ob Org Bc common time
5 Die höchste Herrlichkeit und Pracht anon Recitative S Org Bc E minor common time
6 Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig Franck Chorale SATB Co Ft 3Ob 2Vl Va Org Bc A minor common time



The opening chorus, "Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig" (Ah, how fleeting, ah how insignificant),[1] 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".[6] 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.[7]

The 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".[8]


In the first aria, the text "So schnell ein rauschend Wasser schießt" (As quickly as rushing water)[1] is illustrated in the flute, the violin and the tenor voice by "fast-flowing" music,[6] "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".[7]


In a recitative for alto, "Die Freude wird zur Traurigkeit" (Joy becomes sadness),[1] images such as flowers speak of transience until the grave.[8] The Bach scholar Klaus Hofmann describes it as a "far-reaching coloratura [which] culminates in an uneasy dissonance".[6]


In the last aria, an "unusual oboe trio"[3] accompanies the bass boice in "An irdische Schätze das Herze zu hängen" (To hang one's heart on earthly treasures).[1][3] 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".[7] Mincham sees a connection of the runs to those of movement 1, but points out how different their function is here:

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.[8]


A recitative for soprano, "Die höchste Herrlichkeit und Pracht" (The highest glory and magnificence),[1] expresses that even highest power will not escape death.[8]


The closing chorale, "Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig" (Ah, how fleeting, ah how insignificant),[1] is a four-part setting.[2]

Selected recordings[edit]

The listing is taken from the selection on the Bach-Cantatas website.[10] Choirs and orchestras are roughly marked as large by red background; instrumental groups playing period instruments in historically informed performances are highlighted green under the header Instr..

Recordings of Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig, BWV 26
Title Conductor / Choir / Orchestra Soloists Label Year Choir type Instr.
Les Grandes Cantates de J.S. Bach Vol. 10 Werner, FritzFritz Werner
Heinrich-Schütz-Chor Heilbronn
Pforzheim Chamber Orchestra
Erato 1961 (1961) Chamber
Bach Cantatas Vol. 5 – Sundays after Trinity II Richter, KarlKarl Richter
Münchener Bach-Chor
Münchener Bach-Orchester
Archiv Produktion 1966 (1966) Bach Bach
Bach Kantaten, Vol. 2: BWV 26, BWV 62, BWV 191 Hellmann, DiethardDiethard Hellmann
Bachchor Mainz
Bachorchester Mainz
DdM-Records Mitterteich 1968 1968 (1968) Bach Bach
J. S. Bach: Das Kantatenwerk • Complete Cantatas • Les Cantates, Folge / Vol. 7 Harnoncourt, NikolausNikolaus Harnoncourt
Concentus Musicus Wien
Teldec 1973 (1973) Boys Period
Bach Made in Germany Vol. 4 – Cantatas V Rotzsch, Hans-JoachimHans-Joachim Rotzsch
Eterna 1977 (1977) Boys Symphony
J.S. Bach: Kantaten/Cantatas BWV 80, BWV 26, BWV 116 Richter, KarlKarl Richter
Münchener Bach-Chor
Münchener Bach-Orchester
Archiv Produktion 1978 (1978) Bach Bach
Die Bach Kantate Vol. 59 Rilling, HelmuthHelmuth Rilling
Gächinger Kantorei
Bach-Collegium Stuttgart
Hänssler 1980 (1980)
Bach Edition Vol. 11 – Cantatas Vol. 5 Leusink, Pieter JanPieter Jan Leusink
Holland Boys Choir
Netherlands Bach Collegium
Brilliant Classics 1999 (1999) Boys Period
Bach Cantatas Vol. 19: Greenwich/Romsey Gardiner, John EliotJohn Eliot Gardiner
Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists
Soli Deo Gloria 2000 (2000) Period
J. S. Bach: Complete Cantatas Vol. 14 Koopman, TonTon Koopman
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir
Antoine Marchand 2000 (2000) Period
J. S. Bach: Cantatas Vol. 28 – Cantatas from Leipzig 1724 Suzuki, MasaakiMasaaki Suzuki
Bach Collegium Japan
BIS 2004 (2004) Period


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Dellal, Pamela. "BWV 26 – Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig". Emmanuel Music. Retrieved 23 November 2014. 
  2. ^ a b c Dürr, Alfred (1981). Die Kantaten von Johann Sebastian Bach (in German). 1 (4 ed.). Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag. pp. 520–522. ISBN 3-423-04080-7. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Wolff, Christoph (2000). "Conclusion of the second yearly cycle (1724–25) of the Leipzig church cantatas" (PDF). Bach Cantatas Website. pp. 2, 3. Retrieved 14 November 2012. 
  4. ^ "Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig / Text and Translation of Chorale". Bach Cantatas Website. 2009. Retrieved 14 November 2012. 
  5. ^ "Chorale Melodies used in Bach's Vocal Works / Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig". Bach Cantatas Website. 2006. Retrieved 14 November 2012. 
  6. ^ a b c d Hofmann, Klaus (2004). "Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig, BWV 26 / Ah how fleeting, ah how trivial" (PDF). Bach Cantatas Website. p. 8. Retrieved 14 November 2012. 
  7. ^ a b c d Gardiner, John Eliot (2006). "Cantatas for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany / Abbey Church of St Mary and St Ethelflaeda, Romsey" (PDF). Bach Cantatas Website. p. 9. Retrieved 16 November 2012. 
  8. ^ a b c d e Mincham, Julian (2010). "Chapter 25 BWV 26 Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig". The Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. Retrieved 18 November 2012. 
  9. ^ a b Bischof, Walter F. "BWV 26 Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig". University of Alberta. Retrieved 12 November 2015. 
  10. ^ Oron, Aryeh. "Cantata BWV 26 Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig". Bach-Cantatas. Retrieved 12 November 2015.