Program Notes | J.S. Bach: Motets and Songs of Devotion

Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, BWV 226

In addition to the more than 200 church cantatas he wrote in his capacity as Leipzig’s municipal music director and cantor of the St. Thomas School, Bach composed or arranged dozens of religious motets, chorales, and sacred songs. All were intended, as stipulated in his employment contract, to “incite the listeners to devotion.” Tonight’s program is built around four motets that Bach wrote for various special church services in the late 1720s and early 1730s. In the case of Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf (The Spirit gives aid to our weakness) the occasion was the funeral, on October 20, 1729, of Johann Heinrich Ernesti, the St. Thomas School’s long-time rector and a distinguished professor of poetry at Leipzig University. For a man of such eminence, Bach naturally took full advantage of the resources at his disposal: not only does the score call for double chorus (plus the conventional continuo accompaniment of organ and contrabass viol), but the two four-voice choirs are reinforced by ensembles of string and wind instruments respectively. 

 As is typical of Baroque motets, the text of BWV 226 combines scripture with contemporary devotional poetry in a manner designed to buttress the message of the day’s sermon. The main body of Der Geist hilft is taken from the apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Ernesti’s funeral service was held at St. Paul’s, the university church), while the words of the concluding chorale are by Martin Luther. Structurally, the motet unfolds as a sequence of continuous, loosely linked sections that are differentiated both musically and textually. The opening evocation of the Holy Ghost soars aloft in swirling gusts of sixteenth notes. A more sedate section, still in 3/8 time, ensues as the singers ruminate on the Spirit’s prayerful intercession. After a brief cadential pause, Bach abruptly switches to duple meter at the words “sondern der Geist selbst” (but the Spirit itself), with breathless syncopations and sighing figures painting the words “unaussprechlichem Seufzen” (unutterable sighs).  Der Geist hilft culminates in a vigorous fugue followed by a four-part chorale invoking the “holy fire” of faith that conquers human weakness and strengthens us to press onward to God “through death and life.”


“Lasset uns mit Jesu ziehen,” BWV 481

“Jesu, Jesu, du bist mein,” BWV 470

In 1737, Johann Adolph Scheibe delivered an infamous put-down of Bach, lambasting his music for its “bombastic and confused style” (schwülstiges und verworrenes Wesen). Although Scheibe later ate his words, Bach’s reputation as a fusty academic lingered for decades after his death in 1750. Scheibe’s criticism seems especially misguided in light of the simple and affecting hymns in Georg Christian Schemelli’s Musicalisches Gesang-Buch of 1736, to which Bach is thought to have contributed some sixty-nine continuo accompaniments and at least three tunes. (Schemelli’s songbook marked the music-publishing debut of Bernhard Christoph Breitkopf, the founder of Leipzig’s renowned Breitkopf & Härtel firm.) The four sacred solo songs to be performed this evening reflect the anthology’s emphasis on private devotion. As with all the hymns in the Gesang-Buch, the texts are drawn from the extensive repertory of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century German religious poetry. “Lasset uns mit Jesu ziehen” (Let us go with Jesus) exhorts the worshipper to walk, suffer, die, and, ultimately, live in eternity with Jesus. “Jesu, Jesu, du bist mein” (Jesus, Jesus, you are mine) posits an equally intimate relationship with the Savior, in keeping with the prevailing pietism of the day. The minor tonality of the two short songs accentuates their intense spirituality.

Jesu meine Freude, BWV 227

Like Der Geist hilft, BWV 227 is a funeral motet; indeed, some scholars believe Bach intended it for himself. Its exceptional length–three times that of BWV 226—and carefully plotted symmetry suggest that Jesu meine Freude (Jesus, my joy) had special meaning for the composer. The biblical texts of the five choruses, again taken from Romans, invoke the believer’s wished-for release from pride, glory, and other earthly temptations. These homilies are interspersed with six verses from Johann Franck’s hymn  “Jesu, meine Freude,” in sundry settings for three, four, and five voices. (BWV 227 is the only one of the four motets on our program that calls for five voices instead of eight.) The overarching theme is the contrast between flesh and spirit, finite existence and the boundless joy of eternal life. The motet’s eleven movements are framed by musically identical four-part settings of the titular hymn, in plaintive E minor. Nested within them, in a neat concentricity that has clear theological overtones, are four more strophes of “Jesu, meine Freude”; a closely related pair of five-part choruses; and two sharply contrasting trios in bright major keys. The keystone of Bach’s majestic musical arch is a brisk five-part fugue, “Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich” (You, however, are not of the flesh); its G-major affirmation of faith contrasts dramatically with the minor-key quietude of “Gute Nacht, o Wesen” (Good night, existence), in which the four singers bid farewell to the vanity of an “existence that cherishes the world.” Bach presents the latter chorale melody as a slow-moving cantus firmus in the alto, its successive phrases interspersed with fantasia-like elaborations in the soprano and tenor voices. Jesu, meine Freude is as cunningly crafted musically as theologically; the musicologist Christoph Wolff surmises that Bach may have used it as a model exercise for his students at the St. Thomas School.

Komm, Jesu, Komm, BWV 229

            Another double-chorus funeral motet, BWV 229 couches its somber theme in music of surpassing tenderness and optimism, even gaiety. Alongside images of world-weariness, leave-taking, and deliverance, Paul Thymich’s poem conveys a countervailing message of comfort and spiritual solace. Fully half of Komm, Jesu, Komm (Come, Jesus, come) is devoted to a melodious meditation on the words “du bist der rechte Weg, die Wahrheit und das Leben” (you are the true path, truth and life). Bach’s setting, in lively 6/8 meter, is characterized by florid melismas, trills, and other quasi-operatic embellishments. (Thymich, who also wrote opera librettos, provided abundant cues for text painting.) Indeed, the motet ends not with a traditional chorale but with an aria in four-part harmony to the words “Drum schließ ich mich in deine Hände” (Therefore, I enclose myself in your hands), which one of Bach’s predecessors as cantor in Leipzig had set as a religious song. In Komm, Jesu, Komm!, Bach largely eschews contrapuntal complexity in favor of a more transparent, homophonic style, with the two choirs often singing in alternation. Although the dominant tonality is G minor, both sections of the motet cadence on warm G-major chords. All in all, BWV 229 reveals a distinctly approachable side of Bach—less rigorous contrapuntist than expressive word-setter attuned to the emerging aesthetic of Empfindsamkeit (sentimentality) that would come to be associated with his son, C. P. E. Bach.


“Brunnquell aller Güte,” BWV 445

“Mein Jesu! was für Seelenweh befällt dich,” BWV 487 

“Willst du dein Herz mir schenken,” BWV 518

“Bist du bei mir,” BWV 508 

“Dir, dir, Jehova,” BWV 299

Of this second set of songs, the first two are found in Schemelli’s collection and the last three in the Clavierbüchlein (Little Keyboard Book) that Bach began compiling for his second wife, Anna Magdalena, soon after their marriage in 1721. “Brunnquell aller Güte” (Wellspring of all goodness) is a plea for God’s grace, while “Mein Jesu, was für Seelenweh befällt dich” (My Jesus, what anguish besets you) alludes to Christ’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane. By contrast, “Willst du dein Herz mir schenken” (If you wish to give me your heart) is a sweet-tempered love song of uncertain authorship; its inclusion in Anna Magdalena’s notebook, under the cryptic title “Aria di Giovannini,” may simply indicate that either she or her husband succumbed to its artless appeal. The song’s celebration of secular love makes an effective foil to the Jesus worship implicit in the aria “Bist du bei mir” (If you are with me). The latter has been ascribed to Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel, a composer of numerous operas (the scores of which have all been lost) who was once considered Bach’s peer. The upbeat chorale “Dir, dir, Jehova” (T you, to you, Jehovah, will I sing), a different version of which appears in the Schemelli songbook, is heard tonight in Bach’s four-part setting.

Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 225

            One of Bach’s most popular and readily accessible vocal works, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (Sing to the Lord a new song) takes its title, and much of its irrepressible exuberance, from the biblical Book of Psalms. The two choirs’ insistent repetitions of “Singet” exhort listeners to celebrate the Lord both in song and—by virtue of the music’s viscerally kinetic energy—in dance. The concerted choral rejoicing in the motet’s outer sections encloses a central Aria-cum-Chorale of a markedly more introspective character, with the two choirs in dialogue singing different, but complementary, texts by the Lutheran theologian Johann Gramann. The tripartite structure of BWV 225 (fast-slow-fast) owes a debt to the instrumental concerto form that Bach gleaned from Vivaldi and other Italian composers. Among the motet’s many admirers was Mozart, who heard it on a visit to Leipzig in 1789. Bach’s successor at the St. Thomas School, who conducted the performance, reported that “Mozart knew this master more by hearsay than by his works, which had become quite rare; at least his motets, which had never been printed, were completely unknown to him. Hardly had the choir sung a few measures when Mozart sat up, startled; a few measures more and he called out ‘What is this?’ And now his whole soul seemed to be in his ears. When the singing was finished, he cried out, full of joy: ‘Now there is something one can learn from!’”


Notes © by Harry Haskell

A former performing arts editor for Yale University Press, Harry Haskell is a program annotator for Carnegie Hall in New York, the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, and other venues, and the author of several books, including The Early Music Revival: A History and Maiden Flight.