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Commentaries: Main Page | Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Other Vocal Works BWV 225-524 | Sources

Cantata BWV 118
O Jesu Christ, mein’s Lebens Licht

Aryeh Oron wrote (April 1, 2001):
BWV 118 - Background

Since this is a relatively short piece, I had the time to compile for you a detailed background from some sources (W. Murray Young’s book and the linear notes to the recordings below), adding something of my own.


This is a chorus (motet or 1st movement of a cantata, see below), which was performed at the grave-side ceremony for Count Friedrich von Flemming, October 11, 1740. Bach probably composed it about three years before this burial. Like BWV 50, it is a chorus in motet style but with only one four-part choir. It was performed a second time about ten years later using a different scoring.

Text and instrumentation

Stanza one of Martin Böhme’s hymn is its text; the exclusive brass and woodwind accompaniment suggests that the performance was in the open air at the cemetery. 2 litui, one cornetto, 3 trombones and organ compose the orchestra. No strings are indicated for the original or organ performance – the only time this has happened in any of Bach’s extant cantatas, except for the chorale part of the opening chorus of BWV 25. The organ would not have been used at the grave-yard ceremony, but only in the later indoor performances. In the 2nd version Bach decided to re-score the brass consort with four-part strings and continuo but retaining the independent part for litui. At the same time he indicated that 3 oboes and a bassoon might be added.

One source claims that the Lituo is a bass Cornett. Other says that it is in fact simply a natural horn or hunting horn (German Waldhorn). If Bach used the term Lituo rather than Corno da caccia, it is because this motet was written for a funeral procession (whence the fact that there is continuo): indeed it was traditional in ancient Rome to use three instruments of the brass family for funerals – that is to say, cornus, tuba and lituus. Thus, the symbolical reference to Roman antiquity in Bach’s choice of Cornett, trombone and lituus for this piece is obvious.

Motet or Cantata?

When Bach’s surviving works were systematically published during the 2nd half of the 19th century, this unique piece was included among the cantatas. This was presumably because it appeared to resemble the opening chorus of a cantata, with its instrumental prelude and interlude and the chorale-fantasia style of its vocal writing. Some experts think even today that it is the first (and the only extant) movement of an original funeral cantata. Others think that it is definitely not a cantata movement and it is complete in itself. Bach himself assigned the title ‘Motetto’ to both versions. It is included as such in the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (Series III). The idea that it is a motet would seem to be confirmed by the fact that it is funeral music. The instrumentation for the 1st version suggests a performance during a funeral possession or at the grave. The obbligato instrumental parts added for the second version are unusual in a case of a motet. Since the work is also very similar in style to certain chorales in the cantatas, it is impossible to assign it unequivocally to a specific genre.

Regarding the recordings of this movement – Harnoncourt, Rilling and Leusink did not include it in their complete Bach Cantatas cycles. On the other hand, both Gardiner (1st version) and Rilling included it in their 2-CD collections of the complete Bach Motets; Lasserre’s recordings is included in a CD of motets by composers of the Bach family, whose first name was Johann. Leusink’s recording is in a CD of vocal works by J.S. Bach, which did not find a place in any other grouping of the Brilliant Classics Bach Edition. Only Werner and Gardiner (2nd version) included this movement in a CD (or LP) dedicated to Bach Cantatas. Jürgens/Schröder is a special case. Originally it was included in a LP of Bach Cantatas issued in the late 1960’s, but in the Bach-2000 Teldec Edition it was put in Box 7 - ‘The Motets, Chorales & Songs’.


In the opening bars Bach takes a decorated motif derived from the slow stepwise rise and fall of the chorale tune (heard, when the voices enter, in long notes in the sopranos) and extends it as a six-part counterpoint. This passage returns unaltered after the last line of the chorale, while 3 shorter sections treating the same material serve to separate the individual lines of the text. A repeat sign, at the point where the opening bars return, allows for further stanzas (not otherwise indicated in the score) to be included and activates a large-scale architectural symmetry. Of the 5 recordings below, only Gardiner (in both his recordings) and Leusink use this option of adding a second stanza from the original Böhme’s hymn.

The unusual instrumentation and the serious declamation of the choir produce a motif of deep solemnity, reminiscent of some of the choral writings of Heinrich Schütz in the 17th century. The movement has a straightforward simplicity befitting the ceremony for which it was intended. The upper voices begin to sing the melody of each line, which is then repeated by the lower voice. The instrumental accompaniment is so laid out that in spite of a great degree of independence it is able to support the choir whenever it enters. This is one of the most moving chorale settings that Bach ever composed. It has a melancholy beauty all its own.

Personal viewpoint

The unanswered question ‘A Motet or part of a lost Cantata’ will most probably forever left unsolved, unless a miracle happens and the remains will be found. Remembering that about one-third of Bach Cantatas have been lost, we should better enjoy from what survived, instead of being sorrow of what we miss.


Cantata BWV 118: Details & Complete Recordings | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Commentaries: Main Page | Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Other Vocal Works BWV 225-524 | Sources


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Last update: Friday, September 01, 2017 13:36