(Jesus, thou who this my spirit) for soprano, alto, tenor and bass, vocal ensemble, flute, oboe I+II, horn, bassoon, strings and continuo.
The cantata “Jesu der du meine Seele” (Jesus, thou who this my spirit) BWV 78 numbers among the most starkly contrasting compositions of Bach’s cantata oeuvre. Composed for the Fourteen Sunday after Trinity in 1724, Bach outdid himself in creating an extraordinarily rich synthesis of highly contrasting movements and stylistic idioms.
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Luise Baumgartl, Martin Stadler
Musical director & conductor
Karl Graf, Rudolf Lutz
Recording & editing
GALLUS MEDIA AG, Switzerland
J.S. Bach Foundation of St. Gallen, Switzerland
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About the work
Text No. 1, 7
John Rist, 1641
Text No. 2–6
Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity,
10 September 1724
The cantata begins with an introductory chorus that ingeniously integrates a vocal chorale motet line for line into a repetitive passacaglia structure over a descending bass line. The skill with which Bach inverts and passes the motifs throughout the orchestra is overshadowed only by brilliant melding of the speech-like vocal section with the strict continuo framework and instrumental interludes.
After this display of contrapuntal mastery, Bach ventures a brazen change of style in the following duet “We hasten with failing, with diligent paces”. Over a buoyant continuo (to which Bach in a later performance added a pizzicato violine for more effect) the soprano and alto soloists strive to outdo each other in a virtuosic yet almost frivolous duo. After the weighty evocation of Christ’s Passion in the introductory chorus, the spirited eagerness that pervades this movement seems to offer a glimpse into a simpler human soul. That such a soul, however, cannot rely solely on his or her own strength is made abundantly clear in the following tenor recitative: contrition of heart, the admission of one’s sinfulness and a humble plea for forgiveness are the only path to salvation. Underscored by weighty bass tones, the vocal cantilena of this movement is – not coincidentally – highly reminiscent of Peter’s outpourings of remorse in the Passions. In the following aria, the theme of “relief” is subtly rendered through a shift to a tender pizzicato continuo line. The heroically rising lines of the solo voice seem initially to contradict the ethereal timbre of the transverse flute and the sad, disheartening key of G minor. This juxtaposition, however, illustrates precisely the feeling of deliverance and strength that is granted by faith alone, while the flute obbligato calls to mind the flight of the dove that was released on the last day of the Flood to seek dry land.
Enveloped in a warm string sound and the Trinitarian key of E-flat major, the bass recitative unfolds as a priestly gesture: out of the subjective confession, an emphatic statement emerges; out of hope, certainty and trust in the Lord’s word takes root. The recitative then melds into a richly harmonic andante-arioso in which the unification of the believing heart and the crucified saviour finally finds its musical expression. The vocal part, still halt-ing and burdened with sighs, is virtually carried by the expressive string accompaniment.
In good Lutheran tradition, this affirmation of faith not only brings comfort, but also the certainty of survival and effectiveness in a hostile world. The following bass aria is thus characterised by a continuing earnestness, but also a dance-like spirit, in which a virtuoso oboe obbligato accompanies the solo voice.
The fact that both arias are through-composed and that the recitatives develop into ariosos has not just musical, but also significant structural implications. Bach’s works of this type are rarely conceived as a com-mentary on a single affect; indeed, the cantata at hand gradually develops and unfolds into something akin to a miniature Passion and may be understood as a reflection on the Lutheran concept of the liturgy and the sacrament of communion. This view is confirmed in the final chorale with an assertion of faith in “sweet eternity”.
Jesu, der du meine Seele
hast durch deinen bittern Tod
aus des Teufels finstern Höhle
und der schweren Seelennot
und mich solches lassen wissen
durch dein angenehmes Wort,
sei doch itzt, o Gott, mein Hort!
2. Arie (Sopran, Alt)
Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen
o Jesu, o Meister, zu helfen, zu dir.
Du suchest die Kranken und Irrenden
Ach höre, wie wir die Stimme erheben,
um Hülfe zu bitten!
Es sei uns dein gnädiges Antlitz erfreulich!
3. Rezitativ (Tenor)
Ach! ich bin ein Kind der Sünden,
ach! ich irre weit und breit.
Der Sünden Aussatz, so an mir zu finden,
verlässt mich nicht in dieser Sterblichkeit.
Mein Wille trachtet nur nach Bösen.
Der Geist zwar spricht: ach! wer wird mich erlösen?
Aber Fleisch und Blut zu zwingen
und das Gute zu vollbringen,
ist über alle meine Kraft.
Will ich den Schaden nicht verhehlen,
so kann ich nicht, wie oft ich fehle, zählen.
Drum nehm ich nun der Sünden
Schmerz und Pein
und meiner Sorgen Bürde,
so mir sonst unerträglich würde,
ich liefre sie dir, Jesu, seufzend ein.
Rechne nicht die Missetat,
die dich, Herr, erzürnet hat!
4. Arie (Tenor)
Das Blut, so meine Schuld durchstreicht,
macht mir das Herze wieder leicht
und spricht mich frei.
Ruft mich der Höllen Heer zum Streite,
so stehet Jesus mir zur Seite,
dass ich beherzt und sieghaft sei.
5. Rezitativ (Bass)
Die Wunden, Nägel, Kron und Grab, ,
die Schläge, so man dort dem Heiland gab, ,
sind ihm nunmehro Siegeszeichen,
und können mir verneute Kräfte reichen.
Wenn ein erschreckliches Gericht,
den Fluch vor die Verdammten spricht, ,
so kehrst du ihn in Segen. ,
Mich kann kein Schmerz und keine Pein bewegen, ,
weil sie mein Heiland kennt; ,
und da dein Herz vor mich in Liebe brennt, ,
so lege ich hinwieder,
das meine vor dich nieder. ,
Dies mein Herz, mit Leid vermenget, ,
so dein teures Blut besprenget, ,
so am Kreuz vergossen ist, ,
geb ich dir, Herr Jesu Christ.
6. Arie (Bass)
Nun du wirst mein Gewissen stillen,
so wider mich um Rache schreit,
ja, deine Treue wird’s erfüllen,
weil mir dein Wort die Hoffnung beut.
Wenn Christen an dich glauben,
wird sie kein Feind in Ewigkeit
aus deinen Händen rauben.
Herr, ich glaube, hilf mir Schwachen,
lass mich ja verzagen nicht;
du, du kannst mich stärker machen,
wenn mich Sünd und Tod anficht.
Deiner Güte will ich trauen,
bis ich fröhlich werde schauen
Dich, Herr Jesu, nach dem Streit
in der süssen Ewigkeit.
The cantata “Jesu, der du meine Seele” makes conversion its theme, the turning of mental illness into confidence, of curse into blessing, of word into sound.
We are used to turning words over like coins; we often consider the ciphers on their reverse side more important than the face value of their meanings as determined by linguistic habit.
But doesn’t it also depend on the mood of the words, in other words, on their temperament? The voice that connects with the word lends it moodiness; it elicits its spiritual content.
And what about the human being in a state of tunefulness? He is attuned to something, in close contact with this something, and even more: interwoven with it. Mood is a state, a mental and physical condition that transforms all perceived objects into states. In the middle of the 19th century, the Genevan homme de lettres and diarist Henri-Frédéric Amiel spoke of the landscape as a state of the soul. Paul Valéry went further a century later when he claimed: “Sentence construction is a faculty of the soul.” In between, as so often, is Nietzsche with his claim that we still showed remnants of trust in God in the language-stabilising belief in grammar. All these are evidences of moods: Being attuned to a landscape or to the rules of language and communication denotes a process of spiritual transformation. In such a mood, even the word becomes a form of condition and a sign of state of mind.
Bach’s cantata compositions give the words of faith their temperament. They consist of well-tempered musicalised words and speech sequences. They call out, but without shawms and trombones; for they call for reflection – even more precisely: they sing themselves into self-reflection. “Jesu, sei mein Hort”, this invocation rhymes our cantata with “word”: the word as a refuge, as a protective, sheltering place where the soul finds itself. But this soul also knows it is safe in the choir, with which this attunement begins and to which the arias and recitatives lead back again.
“Torn out” rhymes with “know”, which means: drastic things must happen so that insight and knowledge can take place, knowledge of the distress of the soul in the den of evil and knowledge of the redeeming sacrificial death. Part of the inner dramaturgy of this cantata is that all certainty of redemption is called into question in the recitative. These two great recitatives, the first in particular, consist of sore points. Recitatives struggle for tunefulness anyway, for voice and melody; musically they sound rather unsecured, seemingly standing in the shadow of the melodious arias.
“If the soul speaks, then, alas, the soul no longer speaks.” This assertion by Friedrich Schiller strikes at the heart of the problem of spiritual poetry and art; for the soul corresponds first of all to the non-linguistic realm in which divine spirit qua hauch, in the sense of pneuma, works. The artistic expression of this sphere must necessarily transfer the pneumatic into a form of sensual concreteness that alienates the divine blowing, the purely spiritual breath, from itself.
According to this emphatically Protestant iconoclastic view of things, art, no matter how perfect, can only be a distortion of the divine. At best, this breath of the divine-spiritual remains approximately preserved in song, whereby the recitative, this peculiar form of half-speaking and half-singing, occupies a not unproblematic intermediate position. For in the recitative – in the case of our cantata – the distress of the soul is expressed, and at the same time it tries to rise again and again into song. It betrays the distress of the soul and strives towards the world of song in order to participate in the divine breath.
Friedrich Schleiermacher, the theologian among the art theorists of the Romantic period, which set out to rediscover Bach, spoke of the recitative as a “will to song” and a productive intermediate area, as a form of permanent transition from word to song and from song to word, without one side ever really being fully reached.
In accordance with the architecture and inner drama of this seven-part sacred cantata from September 1724, the decisive, moving thing happens in these two great recitatives. The I exposes itself, calls itself out repeatedly, names the scandal: “I am a child of sins”, “I err far and wide”, “My will seeks only evil”. This “will to evil”, which testifies to an intensity that seems to anticipate that of Baudelaire’s “Flowers of Evil”, this world of the tempting, the negative, is something our cantata self initially has little to oppose. And it confesses: “… to accomplish the good, / Is above all my strength.”
But this recitative is also the place of self-exploration. And this conscientiously pursued realisation of one’s own previous lack of conscience ultimately proves to be not only an insight, but also a force that prepares an inner turnaround. This takes place in the second recitative, which mirrors the first.
The drama of this cantata consists in the fact that the insightful sinner confesses his conversion by unreservedly handing himself over to Jesus, or, to use Luther’s expression, “surrendering”. This is to be understood literally: The sinner gives answers about himself before anyone else would have asked him. Of course, these are answers to the questions of one’s own conscience, and in a way that could not be more Protestant. This cantata celebrates conscience, the inner pacification of man through Jesus, the healing of the sick through the vision of eternity.
What does “conscience” mean? An inner knowledge about the soul, about the motives of our next step, which is somewhat generously called “acting”, but which can also be a backward step caused by misgivings, scruples. “Conscience” has to do with the mood of the soul; it senses and knows the suffering of one’s own weakness as a sign of the self. But it also knows about the power that emanates from this insight; it is the last instance, the unity of the ethical and the rational, it is heart knowledge.
It is striking that Bach’s music responds to the complex mental condition of this cantata-ego, which wants to be suspended in the We, with a correspondingly complex variety of forms. Multi-layered polyphonic variations alternate with simple chorale melodies. The main theme of the first part builds up passacaglia-like through multiple variations, as if the setting wanted to say: this theme should not let you go. No matter what state of mind you are in, it should always remain recognisable. For the basic message of this cantata is too important: The distress of the soul must have reached a certain level in order to be able to speak out, to sing out.
Despite the richness of musical form in this cantata, it is not musical art that “plays up”, pushes itself into the foreground, wants to dominate and offers itself as a source of redemption. The focus remains on the figure of faith, the struggle for expression, the serious, extremely concentrated interplay of word and sound, until it can assert itself to a “joyful”, joyful attitude.
As simple as the text seems, its contexts are complex. This solo cantata was written for the 14th Sunday after Trinity, whose biblical text comes from the 17th chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, namely the episode of the ten lepers whom Jesus encounters between Samaria and Galilee. His word “cleanses” them, even though only one of them was to become a true believer. Although he is cleansed of leprosy, his newfound faith will initially make him an outsider again. It remains unclear what will happen to him. “Arise, walk; your faith has helped you.” In Luke, this word of Jesus is the Samaritan’s way-station.
The first recitative of this cantata responds to the biblical text by speaking of “the leprosy of sins”. While Luke starts from the physical side of the suffering, from leprosy, and from faith as a means of healing, the cantata asks about sin and the spiritual suffering it associates with leprosy. In other words, the leper is marginalised; but the one who suffers from agony of conscience, from mental leprosy due to his sins, feels marginalised.
The poetic material of this cantata is based on a hymn written by Johannes Rist in 1641, a consolation for the soul in the bleak times of the Thirty Years’ War. This period was itself “leprous” because it was beset by denominational religious struggles functionalised by power politics.
However, that year 1641 is also significant in terms of intellectual history. Descartes had published his “Meditations on First Philosophy” and thus triggered a discussion that would eventually lead to the Enlightenment critique of religion. While Descartes still assumed the possibility of knowledge that was independent of experience, such as the knowledge of God, his critics, above all Thomas Hobbes and Pierre Gassendi, claimed the unconditional dependence of all knowledge and cognition on experience. Gassendi criticised above all the sharp separation of mind and body advocated by Descartes, a theme also essential to Rist’s hymn and Bach’s cantata, whose librettist remains unknown; for sin, evil, has physical connotations, as illustrated by the expression “der Sünden Aussatz”. The healing faith, but also the music itself, spiritualises this state. Decisively modifying Descartes, this cantata asserts: I suffer, but believe, therefore I am.
But is it possible to speak in any way of “redemption through art” in this Bach cantata, written, as I said, in the year 1724? Artistic religion and the opera house as a substitute for a cathedral are phenomena that belong to a later time, even if they can easily be traced back to this preparatory work in the art of faith. Under the heading “Religion in Music”, Friedrich Nietzsche, the son of a pastor who had apostatised from the confessional faith, noted the following thesis in his last year of work: “How much unconfirmed and even misunderstood satisfaction of all religious needs is still in Wagner’s music! How much prayer, virtue, anointing, ‘virginity’, ‘redemption’ is still involved! … That music may refrain from the word from the concept – oh how it draws its advantage from this, this guileful saint, which leads back to everything, seduces back what was once believed!”
That, precisely that, is the counter-world to Bach’s cantata, which precisely does not refrain from the word, knows no guile, no seduction and above all nothing “unconfessed”, as Nietzsche so inimitably puts it. For that is precisely what this cantata is, “confessed”; it seems confessed, in other words: it bears witness to the process of the I becoming confessed.
The sore soul of this cantata speaks, to take up Schiller’s thesis once again, but in reverse, because it strives for a different soul quality, a pneumatic-apostolic experience in a state of faith-mediated detachment. Then again, it takes a “soulful ear” (Georg Trakl) to sense the whole content of this cantata.
“Jesu, der du meine Seele” reveals itself as a word-sound work that makes conversion its theme, the turning of mental illness into confidence, of curse into blessing, of word into sound or into recitative-like echo. It is a turning around of which Friedrich Hölderlin will say, when in his poem “Peace Celebration” invoking the presence of the divine, he demands: “That when silence turns, there be also a language.” “Jesu, der du meine Seele” reveals itself as a word-sound work that makes conversion its theme, the turning of mental illness into confidence, of curse into blessing, of word into sound. This is above all a demand made on the poet himself to ensure through his work that man does not have to fall silent when his fear turns into happiness and he wants to speak out. Art thus offers sensual and spiritual points of reference and orientation in the chaos of our inevitably fragmentary experience of the world.
Applied to our cantata, this means that when the curse turns, we know how to speak and sing, to say what this means for us. That we do not just stammer before the light like the artist Zubarán’s St. Francis, but prove ourselves worthy of hope and grace by our way of expression, by speaking and singing movingly. Thus this cantata, which is in this sense originally Protestant, asserts that faith is also a problem of expression, of linguistic ethics, of the musical animation of what is meant and of the incorporation of the spirit, a phenomenon that lightens the body and makes the spirit a sword. Bach’s aim in this cantata was also to ensure that in our respective times, which never really belong to us completely, we can sing a song about such (suffering and healing) experiences.
This text has been translated with DeepL (www.deepl.com).