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Oh Jesus, my rest, my light, where are you? / Behold, O Soul, I am beside you. / Beside me? But here there is nothing but night! / I am your faithful friend who, too, is on the lookout for scoundrels dwelling in the darkness. / Then break forth with your splendor and consoling light! 

– Dialogue between the Soul and Jesus in Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21)

In 1914 the musicologist Rudolf Wustmann wrote, “Bach’s church cantata texts are the product of an earlier generation, and anybody wishing to take a narrow, contemporary point of view will probably find great fault in them. Sometimes their poetry seems to us to be greatly exaggerated and, at other times, too sober. What they derive from a Sunday gospel reading often does not seem to us to be its main point . . . and many other details seem strange to us.” Nearly a century after Wustmann, audiences still find it difficult to fully comprehend the Baroque poetry that Bach set in his cantatas, but twentieth-century research in German philology by Detlef Gojowy and others has revealed that an understanding of the graphical emblems popular in Bach’s day can help us to decode the origins and meanings of his texts.

Collections of Christian emblems were an important source of inspiration for Bach’s text writers and were generally as familiar to the educated classes as the Bible and classical mythology. By referring to these well-known emblems, authors had an additional means of conveying their ideas to their audiences.

The emblem reproduced above, which Johann Mannich tied to the Third Sunday after Trinity, is from the collection Sacra emblemata that he published in Nuremberg in 1674. For each Sunday and feast day in the Lutheran church year, Mannich provided an engraving by Michael Heer that graphically related to the Bible readings of the day, which Mannich then cross-referenced with other biblical passages. In addition, he composed a poem that established links between each picture and the scriptures.

Likewise, each of Bach’s church cantatas were composed for a specific Sunday or feast day of the liturgical year. The readings, excerpts from the gospel and epistles, determined the contents of the sermon for the occasion, the selection of the chorale to be sung by the congregation, and the theme of the cantata to be performed by the soloists and chorus.

It was typical for cantatas to be composed as annual sets, not as individual pieces, and evidence suggests that Bach attempted to compose as many as five yearly series of cantatas. Most of the librettists that he selected for his cantatas published multiple sets of cantata texts that were suitable for adaptation by composers, according to their individual requirements.

Shortly after he was appointed to the concertmaster position in Weimar in 1714, Bach composed the cantata Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis for the Third Sunday after Trinity. Based at least partially on a cantata text by Salomo Franck, who frequently took inspiration from Mannich’s sets of emblems, Bach musically depicted the Soul’s trust and hope in Jesus with the same gentle expression that Herr had created when he showed a reclining sinner taking comfort in the companionship of his faithful canine friend.

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