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'Death' in Bach's sacred libretti

 By Thomas Braatz (June 2005)

Since this subject matter is quite crucial to understanding the texts that Bach set to music, I have decided to include a summary-translation of the information contained in Lucia Haselböck's book "Bach-Textlexikon: Ein Wörterbuch der religiösen Sprachbilder im Vokalwerk von Johann Sebastian Bach" [Bärenreiter, Kassel, 2004.] The item entry is "Tod" ["Death"] which gives an overview of some important aspects or special uses of the word, while, at the same time, branching out in various directions pointing to other related entries in this rather comprehensive ,Dictionary of Religious Images in the Sacred Music of Johann Sebastian Bach.'

>>Tod (es)-bande, -schweiß, -stunde<<

[This main entry includes the compound nouns used in Bach's texts such as "Todesbanden" ["The Bonds of Death"]; "Todesschweiß" ["The Perspiration exuded just before the point of death" - think ,Sudarium' which was discussed on this list some time ago] and "Todesstunde" ["The Hour of Death"]

This is how Haselböck begins this entry [there will be no additional quotation marks to set apart this entire entry; also, the Bible translations are from the New Living Translation to make them as modern and as understandable as possible]:

Death was ever-present in the consciousness of those living in the Baroque and it was widely celebrated in poetry and music with verses expressing a longing for death as a crossing over/transition into another world.

According to the Bible, all the riches of the world are subject to the shadow of death:

Matthew 4:16 ".the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. And for those who lived in the land where death casts its shadow, a light has shined."

Luke 1:79 ".to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace."

However, there is besides the physical death which occurs at the end of life after which the resurrection takes place, a spiritual death which can be rescinded by the forgiveness of sins. Particularly St. Paul sees the origin of death as arising from sin:

Romans 5:12 "When Adam sinned, sin entered the entire human race. Adam's sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned."

Romans 5:17-18 "The sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over us, but all who receive God's wonderful, gracious gift of righteousness will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ. Yes, Adam's one sin brought condemnation upon everyone, but Christ's one act of righteousness makes all people right in God's sight and gives them life."

Romans 6:23 "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord."

1 Corinthians 15:21-22 So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, Adam, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man, Christ. Everyone dies because all of us are related to Adam, the first man. But all who are related to Christ, the other man, will be given new life."

Christ takes away the power of sin. The possibility of a spiritual death no longer exists since this spiritual death has been consumed "verschlungen" ["devoured"] by Christ's victory over death:

Romans 6:9 "We are sure of this because Christ rose from the dead, and he will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him."

1 Corinthians 15:26 "And the last enemy to be destroyed is death."

1 Corinthians 15:54-56 "When this happens-- when our perishable earthly bodies have been transformed into heavenly bodies that will never die-- then at last the Scriptures will come true: "Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power."

1 Thessalonians 5:10 "He died for us so that we can live with him forever, whether we are dead or alive at the time of his return."

The resurrection of Christ paves the way for his followers.

1. The world has been bewitched by death (is under the thralldom of death)

The text of BWV 26/5 "Ach, wie flüchtig" states this in this manner: "Die höchste Herrlichkeit und Pracht / umhüllt zuletzt des Todes Nacht" ["The greatest magnificence and splendor will, in the end, be enshrouded by the night of death."]

2. The death of sin brings about the new human being

The death of the 'old Adam,' that is, the renouncing of sin is required before the new human being, the 'new Adam,' can begin to exist. Every sinful human being "trägt den Tod am Halse..Der Tod hänget an der Sünden, wie der Apffel am Baum" from a text by Heinrich Müller in "Himmlischer Liebes-Kuß" (Hof, 1738, p. 58) ["{Every sinful human being} carries death around his/her neck..death clings to these sins like apples {clinging to} hanging from a tree."]

Also in Bach's texts, death, in the sense of killing off the 'old human being', the 'homo vetus,' by turning away from the 'sinful world' is an important theme:

"Diese Welt und die verbotne Lust" ["This world together with its forbidden desires/pleasures"] needs to be crucified "in der verderbten Brust" ["within
one's own heart." ] "Doch wenn ich nun geistlich ertötet da bin, / so ziehe mich nach dir im Friede dahin" ["However, once I have been spiritually destroyed (once I have had that part of me destroyed spiritually) , then I ,pull myself' after you peacefully / I will calmly let myself be led by you"] from BWV 22/3. The prayer is offered: "Ertöt uns durch deine Güte, [...] den alten Menschen kränke [verdirb], /daß er neu leben mag" (from the chorale »Herr Jesu Christ, der einge Gotts Sohn« ["Lord Jesus Christ, God's only Son"] by Elisabeth Kreuziger) ["Let your goodness/kindness destroy us (that part of us that needs to be destroyed)..damage (make sick to the point of death) the ,old human being' so that the remaining human being may begin a new life."

Further references to this type of fatal illness of the soul that brings about a new life are found in BWV 22/5, BWV 96/6, BWV 132/6, and BWV 164/6

3. Christ as the Victor who has conquered death

Bach set all of the verses of Luther's Easter chorale "Christ lag in Todes Banden" ["Christ lay in the bonds of death"] to music. Here, in verse 5 (BWV 4/5). Life has "verschlungen" ["devoured"] death in a "wunderlichen Krieg" ["strange and wondrous war."] A similar thought is expressed in the Easter cantata BWV 31/1, where the text reads: ""Der Höchste triumphieret / und ist von Todes Banden los" ["The Most Exalted One has triumphed and is free of death's bonds."] In the tenor aria from BWV 165/5, Jesus is described as the "Heilschlange" "Healing Snake."

4. The death of death itself

This is a favorite formulation found in the sacred poetry of the Baroque. In Paul Fleming's poetry ("Poetische Wälder. Erstes Buch" Jena, 1660) there is the following notion: "Dein Tod hat meinen Todt / Du Todes Todt / getötet" ["Your death has killed off my death, you Death of Death(s)."] In Bach's cantata BWV 165/5 "O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad," ["O Sacred Baptism of the Spirit and the Water"] Jesus is called "meines Todes Tod" ["death of my death,"] while in BWV 67/3 Jesus is asked whether he is "des Todes Gift" ["the One who poisons death."] He dies for us, brings about a reconciliation between God and us, he cleanses us of our sins, when the soul asks Him "Wasch mich mit deinem Todesschweiß" ["Wash me with the sweat/perspiration from your own death {experience}"] as referenced in BWV 113/8 and BWV 168/6. Particularly moving is the use of this thematic material in the chorus accompanying the arrest ofJesus in the SMP (BWV 244): "O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß" ["O human being, cry over your own great sin"] (text by Sebaldus Heyden): "Den Toten er das Leben gab" ["He gave life to the dead (or those doomed to die as the Old Adam)"]

In the garden of Gethsemane, Christ is "bereit, / den Kelch, des Todes Bitterkeit / zu trinken" ["prepared to drink the cup containing the bitterness of death."]: SMP 22. Death is "ersäuft" ["drowned to death"] in the blood of Christ in Luther's chorale
text in Bach's Easter cantata BWV 7/1: "Ersäufen auch den bittern Tod / durch sein selbst Blut und Wunden" ["His personal blood and wounds also drown bitter death."]

5. "Todessehnsucht" - The longing for death

Outstanding features that characterize Baroque poetry are the "Lebenslust" ["lust/zest for life, joie de vivre"] standing to one side, but right next to it is "Todessehnsucht" ["longing for death,"] the thought centered upon the transitory nature of life and the ,vanitas mundi' ["the vanity of the world or worldly vanity."] Based upon the following quotations from the Bible:

Acts 14:22 "They encouraged them to continue in the faith, reminding them that they must enter into the Kingdom of God through many tribulations."

Romans 8:18 "Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will give us later."

The typical individual from the 17th century, despite the very high rate of mortality resulting from the ravages of war and the spread of fatal diseases, viewed death very positively since it offered a liberation/release "von der bösen Welt" ["from the evil world."] In the literature providing material for sermons of this time, there are conceits of the following type: »Der Christen Tod ist [...] ein Zucker-Tod« (Müller, "Liebes-Kuß," S. 58)["The death of a Christian is a sweet death like sugar"]. "Mein Tod, o Leben, wird allein bei dir mir zuckersüße sein" Paul Fleming ["My death, o Life, will only be as sweet as sugar in your presence."] What follows is a list of those cantata texts (actually the titles of these cantatas) in which is clearly recognizable a "Todessehnsucht" ["a longing for death"] that resulted from the impression of type of insecurity caused by a quickly passing life on earth:

"Liebster Gott, wann werd ich sterben" (BWV 8) ["Dear God, when am I going to die?"
"Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende?" (BWV 27) ["Who knows how close my time of death is?"]
"Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen?" (BWV 48) ["O miserable me as a human being, who is going to save me?"]
"Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen" (BWV 56) ["I will gladly bear the cross"]
"Wo soll ich fliehen hin?" (BWV 5) ["Where should I flee to/where can I run to get away from it all?"]
"Wachet, betet, betet, wachet" (BWV 70) ["Always be watchful and pray"]
"Was frag ich nach der Welt" (BWV 94) ["Of what concern is the world to me?"]
"Christus, der ist mein Leben" (BWV 95) ["Christ is my life/gives me life"]
"Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen" (BWV 146) ["We have to go through a lot of misery in order to get into the kingdom of God"]
"Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe" (BWV 156) ["I'm already standing with one foot in the grave"]
"Komm, du süße Todesstunde" (BWV 161) ["Come, sweet hour of death"]
"Wo gehest du hin?" (BWV 166) ["Where are You going"]
"Komm, Jesu, komm" ["Come, Jesus, come"] (Motet BWV 229).

But also in the majority of Bach's remaining sacred compositions, the thought concerning the ",vanitas' alles Irdischen" ["the vanity of all earthly/worldly things"] is present as well. The transitoriness of life is found in numerous allusions to natural phenomena as the transient, fleeting light emitted by a comet, or death is compared with dawn, and eternal life with the steady, unfailing source of light, the sun:

"Der blasse Tod ist meine Morgenröte, / mit solcher geht mir auf die Sonne /der Herrlichkeit und Himmelswonne" (BWV 161/2) ["Pale death signifies my dawn, for with this dawn the sun of splendor and heavenly joy will rise for me."] "Entziehe dich eilends, mein Herze, der Welt, / du findest im Himmel dein wahres Vergnügen" (BWV 124/5). ["Remove yourself quickly from this world, my heart, for in heaven you will find true pleasure."] "Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende, / hin geht die Zeit, her kommt der Tod" (BWV 166/6). ["Who knows how soon my death will come, time flies away and death comes {to me.}" In the cantata "Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid" ["O God, how much deep sorrow and worry"] the soul says: "Mein Heiland, ich sterbe mit höchster Begier" BWV 57/7. ["Dear Savior, my greatest desire is to die."]

Several cantatas composed for the special Feast Day "Mariae Reinigung" ["The Purification of Mary"] contain texts with "Todessehnsucht" ["a longing for death."] Accordingly, BWV 83/2 is a contemplation of death which uses a text from Luke 2:29ff as a framework: "Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener in Friede fahren, wie du gesaget hast [...]," ["Lord, now I can die in peace as you have promised me."] Death is "ein Eingang zu dem Leben, / es ist der Tod / ein Ende dieser Zeit und Not, / ein Pfand, so uns der Herr gegeben. [...] Und weil der Heiland nun /der Augen) Trost, des Herzens Labsal ist, / was Wunder, daß ein Herz des Todes Furcht vergißt, /es kann erfreut den Ausspruch tun: /Denn 'meine Augen haben den Heiland gesehen, welchen du bereitet hast für [vor] allen Völkern" (K 83/2). ["Death is an entrance into life, the Lord gave us death, the end of this time and the end of trouble/misery/want, as a security {death was a necessary element given in an exchange which made it possible for death to be removed again just as with objects given to a pawnbroker in exchange for something else, but hopefully the object can be redeemed again when the necessary time or need for it has expired}..And because the Savior is now a comfort to my eyes and a refreshment for my heart, it is really no wonder that such a heart forgets all about the fear of death and is able to say: ,For my eyes have seen the Savior, whom You have prepared for us and have prepared for/given to all people.'"] BWV 83/2

In Cantatas BWV 82, BWV 114, and BWV 156, this longing for a union with Jesus is expressed in connection with Simeon's experience (BWV 82/2, BWV 114/5, and BWV 158/3). With great longing the poet asks about the time of his death and expects "das letzte Licht" ["the last light"] to appear in order to be able to kiss his Savior (BWV 11/9, BWV 161/1.) Several of the texts present folksong-like images of "Weltflucht" ["escaping or fleeing from this world"] and "Todessehnsucht" ["a longing for death"] - with the departing words being the "Gute Nacht-Gruß" ["Good night greeting"], a farewell ,greeting' to the world: BWV 27/5,6, BWV 60/5, BWV 64/8, BWV 82/4, BWV 128/2, BWV 158/2, BWV 161/4, Motet BWV 227. In the ,Kreuzstabkantate' BWV 56, death appears as the ferryman, whom one has summoned in order tobe taken to the promised City of God BWV 56/5

6. Death as sleep (this is covered in another large section on the keyword ,sleep' [,Schlaf']

7. Death ,in pots'

This derives its significance from the Biblical narration in the OT where some hungry men, followers of Elisha, had some inedible food presented to them as food, they said "O Mann Gottes, der Tod im Topf!" ["O Man of God, there is death in the pot!"]:

2 Kings 4:40-41 "But after the men had eaten a bite or two they cried out, "Man of God, there's poison in this stew!" So they would not eat it. Elisha said, "Bring me some flour." Then he threw it into the kettle and said, "Now it's all right; go ahead and eat." And then it did not harm them!"

Cantata BWV 93/5 picks up on this event as follows: "Der täglich wie der reiche Mann /in Lust und Freuden leben kann, /der sich mit stetem Glücke speist, / bei lauter guten Tagen, / muß oft zuletzt / nachdem er sich an eitler Lust ergötzt, /'der Tod in Töpfen' sagen."["The rich man who can live happily pursuing his pleasures, and who continually enjoys good fortune having many good days will often finally have to say, after he has reveled in pure pleasure: "There is death in those pots!"] In the very end, such a pleasure-seeking man will have nothing palatable left to sustain life.


Written by Thomas Braatz (June 8, 2005)

Death in Bach's Vocal Works: Discussions | Article: 'Death' in Bach's sacred libretti [by Thomas Braatz]


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