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Leipzig During the time of Bach, c.1736

Bach’s Sacred Cantatas

Within the output of certain composers there are seminal groups of works whose sheer volume has ensured for them neglect out of all proportion to their value.  No more notable example exists than that of the cantatas of J.S. Bach, the body of works that stands at the very heart of his output.  As an early music enthusiast you almost certainly know the Brandenburg Concertos and are familiar with the four Orchestral Suites.  Hopefully the Mass in B minor and the St. Matthew and St. John Passions play an important part in your life.  But ask yourself a question.  How many of Bach’s cantatas can you honestly say you know?  Not just heard, but know.  Five?  Six?  Beyond that you’re doing well and if the answer is more than a dozen you may want to move on to reading another article on this site!


Bach composed probably around 300 cantatas, of which about 200 are extant today.  A formidable figure, yet not remarkable by the standards of the day – the output of composers such as Graupner (with a total of some 2000 cantatas) and Telemann could be considered to make Bach look lazy.  While we may enjoy the odd revival of a cantata by Graupner or Telemann, both fine composers admired by Bach himself, their output is never going to play a major part in the lives of all but a few specialists.  With Bach it’s different.  It is not going too far to say that without knowledge of at least a representative cross-section of those 200 cantatas, we cannot arrive at any real understanding of one of the greatest of all composers.  Today there is no difficulty gaining access to the cantatas on disc; in addition to several complete sets, the catalogues boast dozens of individual recordings performed in a wide variety of styles. 


But where to start?  Those with deep pockets and unlimited time on their hands could, of course, simply buy one of the complete sets now on offer (some at relatively modest cost) and work their way gradually through.  Yet past personal experience has shown that while many would like to explore at least a part of this marvellous repertoire, the sheer mass of music involved is so daunting as to deter any but the real enthusiast or an intrepid few from such an all inclusive approach.  It has long seemed apparent that there would be many who would welcome guidance on putting together a core collection of the cantatas, a selective group of discs that would enable their owner to become thoroughly familiar with, say, some ten or fifteen works.  The present article is addressed to those who fall into this category.  The final choice is based on those cantatas and discs that I believe will provide the most rewarding introduction to the non-specialist. As such it is inevitably highly personal. Those with in-depth knowledge will inevitably scan through the selection muttering to themselves ‘How could he have left out the wonderful number this or that’.  So be it.  If the article inspires knowledgeable readers to suggest their own choices, it will only benefit Bach and those who would know him better. 

The Musical and Religious Background

There is always a lazy if understandable temptation to view the output of the greatest composers in a vacuum.  Of course, such splendid isolation never exists.  Every artist is influenced not only by what he sees and hears around him on a day-to-day basis, but by the work of his predecessors.  Of no composer is this truer than Bach, who coming from an extended musical family known throughout most of the region of Thuringia was in constant contact with music making almost from the day he was born.  One of the strongest early influences on the young Johann Sebastian was undoubtedly his father’s cousin Johann Christoph (1642-1703), organist and court harpsichordist of Eisenach (Bach’s birthplace) and unquestionably the finest composer produced by the Bach family before Sebastian himself.  The high quality of Christoph’s motets and sacred concertos may be gauged from his best-known work, the deeply moving lament Ach. Dass ich Wassers genug hätte.  Another Bach to play an important role in Sebastian’s formative years was also a Johann Christoph, his eldest brother (1671-1721), who took the orphan into his home after the boy had lost both his parents by the age of ten.  This Christoph is not known to have been a composer, but he was an excellent keyboard player who had recently studied with Johann Pachelbel.  To his younger sibling he introduced a wide range of keyboard works that encompassed not only such German masters as Pachelbel, Buxtehude and Kuhnau, but French and Italian repertoire by Lully, Marais, Albinoni and Steffani.  By the time Bach went to Lüneburg in 1700 to complete his academic and musical education as a choral scholar, he was thus already familiar with an exceptionally broad repertoire.  


The musical life of the region in which Bach grew up was centred around three dominating forces – church, court and town.  As Stadtpfeifer or town musician of Eisenach, Bach’s father Ambrosius was involved with all three.  Although a less distinguished position than that of cantor (who was responsible for the organisation of church music and education), it was none the less a respected post.  In addition to Ambrosius’ secular duties, each Sunday and feast day would have found him in St. George’s, the principal church of Eisenach, to participate in services.  The music Ambrosius was called upon to play would have included sacred vocal concertos dominated by Lutheran hymns, or chorales.  It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of Lutheranism in the region in which Bach was brought up and worked.  Its influence extended far beyond Sunday worship to also stand at the centre of education, much of which was itself controlled by the church.  Much of Bach’s academic instruction (and he was the most academically minded of all the Bach family) revolved around the works of Martin Luther, the output of whom formed the foundation of his own personal library.


Music played an integral part in Lutheran philosophy and liturgy, which above all lays emphasis on justification by faith and the propagation of the scriptures.   At its heart lay the collection of chorale tunes and texts commenced by Luther and subsequently expanded during the 16th and 17th centuries.  By Bach’s time many hundreds of chorales were in existence, either composed expressly for the purpose or borrowed from other sources, which were not infrequently secular.  While the principal function of chorales was to serve as simply harmonised congregational hymns, during the course of the 17th century they increasingly became part of the fabric of more ambitious works.  The introduction of the Baroque Italian vocal concerto and the development of an organ repertoire opened up new opportunities eagerly seized upon by Lutheran composers such as Schein, Scheidt, Schelle, Thiele and Buxtehude, who variously employed the chorale not only in sacred vocal concertos and motets, but also organ works.  Bach’s forerunners thus provided a framework for the chorale that was established in the lifeblood of every Lutheran composer by the time of Bach’s appearance on the scene in 1685.  That framework would remain the thread running through his entire compositional life, dominating both his sacred vocal works and much of his organ music.

Bach and the Cantata: An Overview

Bach composed cantatas throughout much of his creative life.  Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV4, possibly the earliest of his church cantatas, may date from the period of Bach’s first major appointment as organist in Arnstadt, a post he held from mid-1703 until June 1707, while the latest extant works take us up to the end of the 1730s.  It is, incidentally, worth making the general observation that Bach and his contemporaries rarely used the term ‘cantata’ themselves, preferring such looser terminology as ‘Konzert’ (concerto), ‘Stück’ (piece) or even simply ‘Musik’.  Such appendages underline the flexible nature of the genre, which underwent considerable transformation and development during the period Bach was composing cantatas.


The earliest works written in Arnstadt and Mühlhausen (1707-8) largely conform to late 17th-century forms, with biblical and choral texts often arranged in a sequence of varied strophic verses. Solos are short, through-composed episodes and a symmetrical structure is maintained by the opening and closing choruses being framed by the solos and a central chorus.  Following his appointment as court organist at Weimar in 1708, Bach composed only the odd cantata until 1714, when he became Konzertmeister and was required to compose such works once a month.  The twenty-odd cantatas produced as a result show Bach moving away from the old style to experiment with new structures, a development much influenced by the texts contributed by his principal collaborator, the Weimar court poet Salomo Franck.  The texts provided for Bach by Franck belong to reforms dating from the turn of the century in which freely written poetic sections of a libretto were combined with biblical and chorale texts.  A major consequence was the introduction of recitatives and da capo arias, thus moving the Lutheran church cantatas ever closer to the style of the Italian cantata and the consequential greater dramatic potential.


The only major break in the production of church cantatas came during the period Bach was Kapellmeister at the Calvanist court at Cöthen (1717-1723), during which all that was required of him were occasional secular celebratory works composed for his employer Prince Leopold.  Many of these are now lost, but scholars believe that Bach later drew on a number of them for the cantatas he later composed in Leipzig.  It is therefore salutary to remind ourselves of the narrow dividing line between Bach’s sacred and secular vocal music, a lack of distinction that recalls Luther himself unashamedly fitting his sacred chorale texts to popular secular tunes.



The events surrounding Bach’s move in 1723 from Cöthen to Leipzig to become Cantor of St. Thomas’s Leipzig and civic director of music are sufficiently well known to require little comment here.  His biographers have frequently pointed out that for Bach to move from the position of Kapellmeister to Kantor represented a distinct step down the social ladder, yet it must also be recalled that the position was one of the most important in Protestant German music, with a distinguished line of incumbents culminating in Bach’s immediate predecessor  Johann Kuhnau.  Above all it provided the opportunity to compose the sacred music that lay closest to Bach’s heart.  Anxious to modernize the music heard at St. Thomas’s, he immediately made the decision to compose all the cantatas himself.  The new Cantor was setting himself a formidable task.  The annual number of cantatas required was 60, which included one for each Sunday starting with Advent Sunday, the fourth before Christmas and the start of the Lutheran church year.  The rest were made up of cantatas composed for major feast days.  During the first two liturgical years (covering a period from 1723-1725) most of the newly-composed cantatas or those adapted from previous works have survived, giving us over 100 cantatas, by far the largest proportion from any stage of Bach’s career.  While the structure of these works incorporated too many variants to detail here, they largely conform to the type of fully-fledged ‘reform’ cantata that had become standard by the 1720s, that is to say the alternation of a freely written text set to alternating recitative and da capo aria framed and punctuated by choruses and chorales.  During 1724 Bach specifically concentrated on a genre now know as chorale cantatas, works in which the chorale becomes the scaffolding for the construction of an entire cantata.  For the 1725-1726 cycle, Bach composed fewer new cantatas and was by now prepared on occasions to perform the cantatas of other composers, in this instance keeping it in the family by using eighteen of those of his cousin Johann Ludwig Bach (1677-1731).  From 1727 the chronology of Bach’s cantata output becomes more problematical, the confusion not helped by the number of lost works and the fact that by this time Bach was doubtless reusing earlier works.  He also turned increasingly to performing cantatas composed by others, among them Telemann.

Performance Practice in Bach’s Time & Today

The function played in the liturgy by Bach’s church cantatas ensures that there can be no such thing today as an ‘authentic’ listener to Bach’s cantatas.  Unlike those of Buxtehude composed for the famous Abendmusik (evening music) in Lübeck, their purpose was strictly functional and integrally bound to the context of Sunday Mass.  Since the Reformation it had been customary for a motet to follow the reading of the gospel, pointing up its message.  Later in the 17th century it was succeeded by a concerted sectional motet that included chorale interspersions, the progression to cantata following around 1700.  The reform of the cantata involving the inclusion of new poetic text in addition to biblical passages elevated the cantata to what leading Bach scholar Christoph Wolff has termed a ‘musical sermon’ involving the text of the day, theological instruction, and the moral conclusions to be drawn.  The cantata thus became a central part of the liturgy, a complement to the spoken sermon, which in some instances was framed by two-part cantatas.  The chorales used in the cantatas would often have a special contextual, unspoken agenda for a congregation thoroughly familiar with them in a way largely lost today.


The practicality and desirability of full liturgical reconstruction of Bach’s cantatas is debatable and only one attempt on record is familiar to the present writer.  This is Paul McCreesh’s Gabrieli Consort and Players in a hypothetical reconstruction of an Epiphany Mass that introduces two cantatas, No. 65 Sie warden aus Saba alle kommen and No.180 Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele.  The sermon given is a short, doubtless abbreviated expiation by Martin Luther on the topic of the three kings’ search for the newly born Jesus, the subject of the Gospel and Cantata No. 65.  The two-disc Archiv set (4576312) is an interesting experiment and essential listening for anyone interested in trying to gain at least some insight into the contextual significance of Bach’s cantatas.


Doubtless many in our own more secular age will dismiss the original purpose of the cantatas, requiring from them no more than some vague undefined spiritual quality.  Yet the original message remains.  If few today are likely to empathize with, say, sentiments of world weariness accompanied by a longing for everlasting life attainable only in physical death (a recurrent topic), it remains my view that any performance that fails clearly to express Bach’s rhetorical intention and didactic message is of little or no value.  Whether or not we choose to take that message on board is obviously a matter of personal choice. 


The subject of communication leads directly to another question relating to current performance practice – the thorny problem of boys voices.  The performance of church music in Bach’s Germany was almost entirely a male preserve – a few courts used women in sacred music - with both chorus and solo soprano (treble) and alto parts largely sung by boys, although there is evidence that adult falsettists were also used in Lutheran church music.  Many today still view this element of Bach’s own performance practice not only desirable but in fact essential; indeed the pioneering integral Teldec recording by Nicholas Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt bravely maintained the policy of employing boy soloists and choristers (with rare exceptions) throughout its course.  While there are unquestionable advantages to using boys there are also major difficulties, particularly when it comes to solo arias.  As is well known, a boy’s treble voice is today liable to break several years earlier than it was in Bach’s time.  The boys who attended the Thomasschule in Leipzig might not only expect to retain an unbroken voice up to the age of eighteen or even beyond, but equally importantly had reached a maturity and level of Lutheran education that has no equivalent today.  Put another way, when Bach’s boys sang his cantatas they had not only greater musical training and experience, but also an academic education that ensured they understood what they were singing about.  It is therefore difficult to escape the conclusion that a female soprano who has taken the trouble to assimilate the texts of the arias she is singing is in general preferable emotionally and musically to all but the most exceptional of boys.  This compromise is one today adopted by many leading Bach conductors and is probably the best answer to an insoluble problem.


No more controversial issue has surfaced in the musical world during the past few decades than the unresolved argument relating to the size of the vocal forces employed by Bach in his sacred works.  Here a brief summary must suffice.  Following detailed study of the performing parts of many of Bach’s sacred works, scholar and performer Joshua Rifkin came to the conclusion that they largely fall into the tradition of the German sacred concerto, with choruses intended to be sung with single voices per part by the same performers who performed the solos.  Rifkin claimed that only rarely were extra singers (ripienists) added to reinforce choral textures.  He subsequently introduced a startled world to the implications of this theory in a famous (or notorious, according to your viewpoint) recording of the Mass in B minor (Nonesuch) and has since recorded a number of the Bach cantatas in this manner.  His theories immediately divided scholars and performers, who have since engaged in an often-heated debate that continues to this day.  The Rifkin camp has amassed much persuasive evidence, much of it articulated in Andrew Parrott’s indispensable The Essential Bach Choir (2000), required reading for anyone who would attempt an understanding of the topic. However it must be stressed that the argument is by no means one-sided.  A particularly pertinent contribution comes from Bach himself. In a famous memorandum of 1730 addressed to the Leipzig town council, he unequivocally states that ‘Every musical choir should contain at least 3 sopranos, 3 altos, 3 tenors, and as many basses’, adding a few lines later ‘Though it would be still better if the group were such that one could have 4 subjects on each voice and could thus provide every choir with 16 persons’.  While this would appear irrefutable, the argument arises as to whether Bach was basing his figures on an ideal or practicality and it has also been noted the term ‘musical choir’ could include instrumentalists. My own, non-scholarly but much considered view now inclines to the belief that evidence suggests that Bach would have essentially used single voices to a part, with ripienists reinforcing the vocal line in more fully scored passages. 

Ten Cantatas for a Basic Collection

The listing is given in numerical order taken from their allotted BWV.  As will be readily apparent this sequence bears little relationship to the chronological order of composition. When first published the article carried CD recommendations; given that these can rapidly go out of date in an on-line article I have decided that it is preferable not to do so now. 


Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis BWV 21


No better evidence that not one of Bach’s cantatas is immature could be advanced than this lavishly scored work.  Here the young Bach announces himself to the world as a fully-fledged great composer in a work of dazzling technical skill.  One of the first composed for Duke Ernst in Weimar, scholars believe that in its original form it may date from as early as 1713, that is to say before Bach’s promotion to Kappellmeister required him to compose one cantata a month.  Bach himself obviously held the cantata in high regard, since he almost certainly performed it in Hamburg in a revised version while seeking a post there in 1720, and further alterations were made for a performance in Leipzig on 13 June 1723, the third Sunday after Trinity.  Variants concern key (C minor for Weimar and Leipzig, D minor for Hamburg), the disposition of arias among the soloists and the addition of three trombones to the Leipzig version. The text attributed to Salomo Franck is drawn from the Epistle for the 3rd Sunday after Trinity and the Psalms.  In two parts, its subject is the redemption of the afflicted soul of the deeply sorrowing opening chorus through to recognition of the power of Jesus to provide comfort.  The whole cantata therefore represents a journey from darkness to the triumphant light of the final resplendent chorus.



Wiederstehe doch der Sünde  BWV 54


One of only twelve extant cantatas for solo voice, No. 54 dates from either 1714 or 1715, the year after Bach was appointed concertmaster by Duke Wilhelm Ernst in Weimar.  Scored for solo alto and a five-part string ensemble (two viola parts) influenced by French orchestral practice, the cantata’s libretto shows it was intended for the third Sunday in Lent. The text comes from a published collection by G. C. Lehms in 1711, being originally intended for Graupner and his fellow Darmstadt Kappellmeister Gottfried Grünewald.  Its message is a warning to beware the wiles of Satan.  There are only two arias separated by a recitative, at this point in the development of the Lutheran cantata a modern concept establishing a clear relationship to the Italian chamber cantata.  Long a favourite with both male and female altos (Janet Baker recorded a memorable version some years back). 


Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland BWV 61


Another brief Weimar cantata, again an example of the experiments with varied styles being made by Bach at this time.  Composed in 1714 for the first Sunday in Advent, it is one of two cantatas bearing the same name, the other, No. 62, dating from exactly ten years later and forming part of Bach’s second Leipzig cycle.  The text paraphrases Luther’s famous Advent hymn of the same name.  The magnificent opening chorus imaginatively superimposes the chorale melody onto an orchestral French overture.  There are only two arias, a graceful Italianate da capo for tenor, the other an exquisitely tender invitation by the soprano to the coming Saviour to enter her heart.  Cantata No. 61 is deservedly one of the most popular of Bach’s cantatas, it therefore being unsurprising that it has been recorded by most of today’s outstanding Bach directors.



Jesu, der du meine Seele  BWV 78


This supreme example of the chorale cantatas Bach composed during his second Leipzig cycle (or Jahrgang) was first performed on 10 September 1724, the 14th Sunday after Trinity.  The anonymous text is based on a 12-stanza hymn by Johann Rist.  Only loosely connected with the Gospel of the day (the healing of the ten lepers), its theme is that of the redemption of the sinner through the suffering of Jesus.  The opening G minor chorus is one of Bach’s greatest, a huge tragic fantasia on the chorale theme (heard in the soprano line) over a profoundly moving falling chromatic ostinato bass.  In the succeeding duet for soprano and alto, the “hastening, feeble but eager steps” of the text are vividly illustrated by the continuo’s relentless forward movement and the use of canonic imitation between the two vocal parts.  The anguished tenor recitative that follows (“Ah, I am a child of sin”) has an intensity as could be found in any opera, but the succeeding aria with flute obbligato finds solace in Jesus’ sacrifice. The final solo sections are for the bass, the first a vivid and highly flexible accompanied recitative, the second a resolute aria confidently asserting the strength of the redeemed Christian. 


Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott  BWV 80


One of Bach’s most powerful chorale cantatas, BWV 80 has a complex history.  Originally composed in Weimar for the third Sunday in Lent in 1716, the composer was unable to utilize it for that purpose in Leipzig, where it was not normal to perform cantatas during Lent.  However the cantata’s foundation on Luther’s great Reformation hymn Ein feste Burg made it eminently suitable for performance on the anniversary of the Reformation, celebrated annually on 31 October.  Bach prepared versions for this event on at least two occasions, the first in 1723, then again sometime between 1735 and 1740.  No autograph manuscripts survive, the version generally performed today being based on a copy by Bach’s son-in-law, Johann Christoph Altnickol.  To further add to the complications, around 1750 Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedemann added trumpet and timpani parts to the two choruses (No’s 1 and 5), a further modification that found its way into the published version and is still a feature of many performances today.  While their use is therefore spurious, many listeners are likely to share my hedonistic preference for their presence.   There can certainly be little argument that they enhance the spirit of the great opening chorus, a paean celebrating the strength of God’s (Lutheran) church and one of Bach’s most awe-inspiring contrapuntal feats.  The great hymn is heard treated in four quite separate ways during the course of the work: intoned by three oboes (trumpets) above the opening fugal chorus, in an ornamented version for the solo soprano superimposed on the dynamic base aria (No.2), superimposed by the chorus above a dazzlingly orchestral tapestry, and finally the simple harmonization with which the work concludes.  Neither can mention of the duet for solo alto and tenor be omitted, its sublime opening section embellished by a ravishing dialogue for oboe da caccia and solo violin. 


Ich habe genug BWV 82


Another solo cantata, this time for bass, it was composed for the Feast of the Purification and first performed in Leipzig on 2 February 1727.  The anonymous text is a paraphrase on the words of the devout old man Simeon after the fulfilment of God’s words that he would see the infant Jesus before his death (‘Nunc dimittis’).  In an alternating sequence of aria and recitative, the cantata progresses from world weary acceptance of death to joyous anticipation of the after-life – a familiar topic in the cantatas.  But here the opening aria is ambiguous – the Weltschmerz softened by the peace granted Simeon, its tranquility memorably evoked by long cantabile lines and counterpointing of voice with solo oboe.  Gentle sentiments also prevail in the second aria, cast in ritornello form and one of the composer’s most exquisite “slumber” arias.  The whole cantata is suffused with both tender warmth and profundity, making it one of Bach’s most satisfyingly personal works.  Later Bach produced a second version for soprano, but it is in the bass version that the cantata remains one of Bach’s most popular.



Aus den Tiefen rufe ich, Herr BWV 131


Vying with BWV 4 for the status of being Bach’s first cantata, Aus den Tiefen is another example of his extraordinary youthful maturity.  A note on the manuscript in Bach’s hand states that the cantata was composed at the request of the Mühlhausen pastor Georg Christian Eilmar, thus dating the work from 1707-1708.  The cantata is typical of the earlier cantatas in following 17th-century models – the use of a biblical text, in this instance Psalm 130 ‘Out of the deep’, the lack of closed forms and symmetry of design (an opening, central and closing chorus between which are sandwiched two solos – one for bass, the other for tenor), considerable flexibility within sections (the concluding chorus has five tempo changes), and the strongly rhetorical character of much of the vocal writing.  But there are also innovative features like the juxtaposition of the chorale melody Herr Jesu Christ with the two solos, the contrast of its deliberate progress with the fast moving solo lines creating a layering which would become a characteristic feature of the cantatas.  From the dark opening sinfonia to the wonderful broadening in the final few bars, the level of musical invention is on the highest level, making the cantata worthy of comparison with any of its successors. 


Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme  BWV 140


One of the last cantatas Bach is known to have written, BWV 140 is also one of the most popular.  Dating from 1731, it was written for the 27th Sunday after Trinity, a date in the church calendar only possible when Easter falls early.  The Gospel for the day is the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25: 1-13), a text eminently suited to Bach’s use of 'Wachet auf', Johann Rist’s famous chorale of 1599. The construction is a juxtaposition of chorale cantata and dialogue, all three stanzas of the hymn being used.  The first forms the foundation of the magnificent opening chorus, the melody intoned by the sopranos above a vigorous choral fantasia woven by the lower voices.  The second stanza, sung by the tenor against an orchestral ritornello, stands at the heart of the work, while the cantata concludes with a four-part harmonization of the third.  Like Rist’s hymn, the two anonymously texted dialogues draw on the Song of Solomon in their subject matter, the mystical marriage of Jesus (bass) and the Soul (soprano).  The subject is more chastely treated than it was in Cantata No. 49, decorum preserved in the first duet by the addition of a third party, a florid obligato part for solo violin.



Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben BWV 147


The earlier version of this composite cantata was composed for the ducal chapel in Weimar.  Dating from 1716, it was composed for the fourth Sunday in Advent to a text by Bach’s favourite Weimar librettist, Salomo Franck.  In 1723 it was revised and expanded shortly after Bach took up the post of cantor in Leipzig, being redesignated for the Feast of the Visitation on 2 July of the year.  For this later version Bach added three recitatives (possibly written by himself) and the 17th-century chorale universally known in the English-speaking world as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, which is heard at the end of each part.  The cantata opens with an exuberant orchestral sinfonia leading straight into a dynamic contrapuntal chorus exhorting its auditors to “bear witness to Christ”.  The texts of the added recitatives focus on the Gospel reading for the Visitation (Luke 1: 39-56), making reference to Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and her famous song of praise, the Magnificat.  There are four arias, one for each soloist, all of the highest quality. 


Komm, du süsse Todesstunde BWV 161


This cantata for the 16th Sunday after Trinity was composed in Weimar in 1716.  Some twenty years later Bach revived it for Leipzig, making a few small changes.  It is not surprising that the composer felt little need for alteration, since the work is one of Bach’s most tranquil and beautifully expressed reflections on the familiar topic of welcoming death.  The Gospel for the day is the story of the raising of the son of the widow Nain (St Luke 7: 11-17), but the libretto by Salomo Franck uses the story as allegory, the miracle of the young man‘s physical return to life replaced by the miraculous concept of Christian certainty of life after death.  The alto’s gentle invocation in the opening aria ‘Come, hour of sweet death’ is complemented by a pair of recorders, an instrument traditionally associated with death.  At certain points the organ introduces Hassler’s chorale Herzlich tut mich verlangen, a melody famous for its extensive use in the St Matthew Passion and which also appears in the final chorale.  The sweetness of death is also emphasised in the chorus immediately preceding the chorale.



Originally published in Goldberg Early Music Magazine. Copyright: Brian Robins, 2017

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