How are the meaning of the words conveyed in Bach’s aria “Buß und Reu”?

Essay by ewrightHigh School, 11th grade November 2014

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Ellyn Wright, 12Wo

How are the meaning of the words conveyed in Bach's aria "Buß und Reu"?

Buß und Reu is an aria in da capo form, from Bach's St Matthew Passion, an oratorio that tells the Easter story from the gospel of Matthew. The title translates from German to guilt and pain, themes which are evident in the A section of the aria, however a contrasting tone of repentance and salvation is present in section B. The emotions behind the meaning of the words are conveyed in a number of ways.

The first words sung by the soloist are in fact "guilt and pain", set to a chromatic melody, with a B sharp occurring on the word pain. This is repeated, with "pain" on an A sharp. These notes are outside of the key F sharp minor, and therefore they sound jarring and harsh much like the remorse and hurt felt by the character in the oratorio.

Furthermore, the melody feels sequential, as do the following notes on "break the sinful hearts in twain", which gradually descend in pitch. Not only do the falling pitches sound lamenting, but the sequences sound repetitive, as if the guilt is ongoing or inescapable.

Moreover, Bach includes a grace note in bar 19, on the words "heart in twain". In some ways, this reflects how the heart is broken, by breaking up the melody with this decoration, disrupting the legato slurs and movement of the melody. Alternatively, the grace note could reflect a broken sob as though the character is stuttering because they are overwhelmed by emotion. Another way in which the pain is conveyed is the use of large and disjunct intervals. These are especially evident in bars 30 and 32, where "reu" is sung between...