[Video] Exploring 1000 Years of Classical Music through Bach’s Sacred Arias and Choruses

ByQuyen Anne

Jun 25, 2023

A jobbing composer under pressure to produce a constant stream of music; an artist and visionary reaching the divine and speaking directly to the heart of the human experience: Bach’s sacred music is unrivalled in the history of art.

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When were Bach’s sacred arias and choruses composed?

In 1723 Johann Sebastian Bach expands an earlier work to create for his Leipzig congregation—the cantata ‘Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben’—now famous for its chorale Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. Meanwhile:

  • Antonio Vivaldi writes a set of violin concertos entitled The Four Seasons.
  • Sir Christopher Wren, who was responsible for the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire, including the design of St Paul’s Cathedral, dies at the age of 91.
  • Peter the Great’s Peterhof Palace is completed. Designed to rival the grandeur of Versailles, the initial design for the palace and gardens has been completed by a French architect, Jean-Baptiste Le Blond.
  • In visual art, the Rococo movement is beginning to do away with the classical symmetry of the Baroque, in favour of florid, playful and ornate themes.

JS Bach Facts

  • Bach’s career falls into three stages: a series of early appointments in Arnstadt, Mühlhausen and especially in Weimar, where he became music director at the ducal court; then nearly six years in Cöthen as director of music to Prince Leopold, writing mostly instrumental music as the Prince’s Calvinist faith did not allow for elaborate music to be used in worship; and finally a 27-year tenure as Kantor at St Thomas’ School in Leipzig, where he was responsible not only for teaching the pupils, but also for directing all of the music at the city’s four major churches.
    As part of his duties in Leipzig, Bach undertook to write a new cantata for every Sunday of the year, plus the major feast days like Christmas and Easter – about 60 cantatas a year. He ended up writing five complete annual cantata cycles; about two fifths of the cantatas have been lost, but that still leaves us with nearly 200! A cantata is a piece for voices (soloists and/or chorus) and instruments, consisting of several movements, which tells a story or elaborates on a theme. Usually the theme is religious, but it doesn’t have to be: Bach also wrote several secular cantatas (the Hunt Cantata and the Coffee Cantata are the most famous examples) as entertainment for his employers.
  • Music was an important part of Lutheran worship, reflecting the views of its founder, Martin Luther, that music was a gift from God that revealed God’s wisdom. Through music, the Word of God as revealed in the Bible could have its full impact on the listener’s soul. The cantata was ideally suited to Luther’s ideal of ‘preaching in sound’: its multi-movement structure of contrasting arias, choruses and chorales, and the independence of the accompanying instrumental parts (which were not confined to merely doubling the singers) gave the composer a rich and complex palette of colours with which to heighten the intellectual and emotional impact of the day’s scripture readings.
  • Luther was a great enthusiast for involving the congregation in the music of worship through the use of chorales: simple but strong hymn tunes through which the congregation could publicly proclaim their faith. Bach included chorale tunes in many of his cantatas, and also in his settings of the Passion – the story of Christ’s betrayal, arrest, torture and crucifixion.

Bach’s Cantatas

Writing music for the Lutheran liturgy occupied Bach for most of his career, apart from five and a half years in Cöthen where the Calvinist prince did not permit complex music as part of the liturgy. Bach’s obituary states that at Leipzig, where he spent 27 years as Kantor (Director of Music) of St Thomas’ School, providing music for the city’s four main churches, he composed ‘five annual cycles of church pieces [cantatas] for every Sunday and feast day’, which comes to about sixty each year. (Two-fifths of these are now lost.) This output was by no means extraordinary for a typical North German Kantor. Johann Christoph Frauenholtz also composed five cycles; Johann Theodor Römhild, Johann Friedrich Fasch and Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel each composed twelve cycles; and Georg Philipp Telemann wrote three, in addition to 1,150 other individual cantatas.

Cantatas were typically performed within the context of the principal service (Hauptgottesdienst). In Leipzig the service began at 7am and generally lasted for about four to five hours, finishing just before noon. The music included organ preludes and voluntaries, Latin motets, hymns, plainchants and the cantata itself, which was normally set to a text related to the gospel reading for the day. The cantata was performed after the intoning of the Latin Credo; the sermon came after this, lasting an hour or more, and is known to have begun at sometime around 8am. Malcolm Boyd has pointed out that this means that the cantata began around 7.30am: ‘not the best time of day,’ he comments, ‘for young choristers and instrumentalists to get to grips with some of the most demanding new music in the whole of western Europe!’

There were four choirs resident at the Thomasschule. In return for board and lodging, the 55 or so pupils – all male – were expected to ‘provide the forces for church music and also accompany funerals and, three times a week … go street singing, as the residents will then let them have something for their sustenance.’ Students were admitted when they were about 13 or 14 (as sopranos and altos) and would remain at the school for at least six years. Contemporaries remarked that the usual age when an alto became a tenor was 18 – a combination of diet and living conditions meant that boys approached puberty much later than today. Bach himself, it was reported, was 15 when he was a soprano at Lüneburg and his voice broke ‘some time later’. Andrew Parrott has surmised that experienced tenor and bass voices must have been in short supply. And so the original voices for all of the works on this recording (with the exception of the secular cantatas and the Mass in B minor, parts of which were written for the court at Dresden, which permitted female singers in church) were those of boys and young men between the ages of around 13 and 21.

Jesus bleibet meine Freude (Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring)

Bach composed an early version of his cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deed and life) late in 1716 while he was music director at the ducal court of Weimar. Originally intended for the Fourth Sunday in Advent (the Sunday before Christmas) that year, its theme was Mary’s joyful acceptance that she was shortly to give birth to the child Jesus. Only the opening chorus of the Weimar version now survives.

At Weimar, Bach was expected to produce church cantatas at the rate of approximately one a month, but during his first year in Leipzig, with the rate more like one a week, he looked to recycle his Weimar cantatas unaltered whenever he could. He was unable to do so with this work, however, because only choral music without orchestral accompaniment was performed during Advent in the Leipzig churches. Bach therefore reworked the Weimar original to make it suitable for the Feast of the Visitation of Mary on 2 July 1723, by composing new recitatives with texts based on the Magnificat (the Canticle of the Virgin, from the Gospel of Luke). He completed the new version (BWV147) by composing a fine new chorale setting with orchestral accompaniment, now famous as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. A little-known fact is that the music of this chorale actually appears identically twice, first at the end of Part I of the cantata, and second at the very end, each appearance set to a different verse of a 1661 hymn Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne (Jesu, joy of my soul) by Martin Jahn. Bach set these words to an old tune by Johann Schop (c. 1590–1667), sung by the sopranos, with a new harmonisation in the lower voices. This chorale component at first alternates and later merges with the dance-like orchestral obbligato, its well-known melody a sort of gigue for violins and oboes in unison.

Zion hört die Wächter singen (Zion hears the watchmen singing)

Almost all of Bach’s sacred cantatas were composed for a specific day in the recurring annual church calendar. Theoretically, most of them could thus be repeated yearly (though in Leipzig, having composed several annual cycles, he seldom needed to perform the same work two years running). But the church calendar also has its ‘leap days’. One of these is the 27th Sunday after Trinity which only ever occurs in years when Easter falls before 27 March. Thus, when Bach composed his cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (A voice calls to us: Awake!, BWV140) for that particular Sunday in 1731 (it fell on 25 November that year) he could have calculated then that there would not be another opportunity to perform it until 1742! And before the next occasion after that arose, Bach was dead. Yet despite this original scarcity of performances, Wachet auf later became one of his most oft-performed cantatas. This is probably largely due to the appearance in its three main movements (the first, the fourth, and the seventh-and-last) of a popular mid-16th-century chorale tune, with words by Philipp Nicolai based on the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). In the fourth movement, Zion hört die Wächter singen (Zion hears the watchmen singing), Bach gave the tune to a tenor soloist (though it is often performed by tenors in unison), around which he set a newly devised obbligato melody for unison violins.

Ich habe genug (It is enough)

Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen (Sleep, dull eyes)

The cantata Ich habe genug,BWV82 was written for performance on the Feast of the Purification, 40 days after Christmas. The text begins with the words of the Biblical character Simeon, a ‘just and devout’ old man who was in the temple when Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus there for the purification rituals required by Jewish law. Taking the baby in his arms, Simeon declared he could now die in peace, having seen the Messiah with his own eyes. The librettist for the cantata’s text isn’t known, but he or she focussed firmly on this vision of death as a blessing and a release from earthly cares. In 2001 the director Peter Sellars chose to draw out the eternal relevance of this cantata through a dramatic staging in which the work was sung by a terminally ill patient in a hospital gown. The intensely personal directness of the text, with the singer using ‘I’ throughout, adds to the emotional impact. The exceptional beauty of the central aria ‘Schlummert ein’ is enhanced by the sense that it is a lullaby sung to oneself.

Schafe können sicher weiden (Sheep may safely graze)

This much-loved aria has, over the centuries, undergonenumerous transcriptions and arrangementsbut was originally scored by Bach for tworecorders, soprano and continuo. The poem’s imagery of a shepherd keeping his sheep safe has made many believe that the text is religious in nature, describing Jesus the ‘Good Shepherd’, but in fact the strong but benevolent ruler being praised in this aria is Duke Christian of Weissenfels. The aria comes from one of Bach’s secular cantatas, Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntreJagd! (The one thing I enjoy is a lively hunt!, BWV208), often known as the ‘Hunting Cantata’ and written as a birthday tribute to the hunt-loving Duke around 1713.

Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten (We hasten with weak but eager steps)

This enchanting duet follows immediately on from one of Bach’s great monumental choral movements – the passacaglia opening of Cantata BWV78, Jesu, der du meine Seele (Jesus, who has saved my soul) of 1724. The delicate, almost fragile scoring (‘pizzicato e staccato’ for violone and continuo organ only) suggests the frailty of the narrator, while a sense of eagerness is portrayed in the rising melody as well as in the escalating canonic entries.

Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (Rejoice in God in all lands)

Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen is one of the very few sacred cantatas Bach wrote for solo voice without choir, and one of only four composed for soprano and orchestra. It was written in 1730 or 1731, but for what event or occasion is uncertain. The text appears to have little if any relevance to the liturgy for the 15th Sunday after Trinity, which is the heading on its autograph score. It may have served as music for New Year’s celebrations, Michaelmas Day or even to celebrate an election of the Leipzig Council.

The demanding solo trumpet part was probably written for Bach’s friend and frequent collaborator, Gottfried Reiche. However, the identity of the original singer has provoked much speculation. The most likely theory is the one advanced by Bach scholar Simon Heighes, who has observed that a very gifted boy soprano called Christoph Nichelmann, later a composer of some note, arrived at St Thomas’ School in Leipzig in 1730 and was quickly appointed first soprano by Bach.

The scoring of Jauchzet Gott is reminiscent of the cantatas of Italian masters such as Alessandro Scarlatti, who particularly delighted in the combination of soprano, trumpet and strings. This opening aria is an ecstatic exclamation from both trumpet and soprano, contrasting with a more gentle middle section, before a return to the boisterous concertante opening.

Mein gläubiges Herzen (My believing heart)

The soprano aria Mein gläubiges Herze, now the second movement ofthe cantata BWV68, Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt (God so loved the world) of 1725, began as part of the Hunting Cantata (BWV208), where it was set to a text about woolly-coated flocks. The cheerful mood of the original secular aria tranfers easily to the new text supplied by Christiana Mariana von Ziegler: ‘My believing heart, be glad, sing, be merry.’ The sprightly writing for the violoncello piccolo – a smaller version of the cello, which Bach featured in several cantatas around this time – contributes to the joyous atmosphere.

Vergnügte Ruh’, beliebte Seelenlust (Contented rest, beloved inner joy)

The solo alto cantata BWV170, Vergnügte Ruh’, was composed in 1726 and was presumablysung by one of the young boys of theThomasschule. This unidentified young manseems to have been a particular inspiration to Bach,because three of his four alto cantatas datefrom this time. The image of a contented rest in heaven, far fromthe troubles and angst of an earthly realm, was an idea that featured prominently inmuch Lutheran religious poetry. Theharmonic rhythm and graceful shapes ofthis first movement offer a vision of calm, aided by the mellow tones of the oboe d’amore.

Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt (Nobody could overcome death)

This duet isfrom one of Bach’s earliest cantatas, Christ lag in Todes Banden (BWV4), written around 1707/8. The text by MartinLuther – nearly two centuries older than Bach’s musical setting – is a meditation on Christ’s resurrection, as celebrated at Easter. The tune is based on a 12th-century Easter hymn; underneath, the cello pours out a constant stream of notes which sounds almost like two instruments as it leaps up and down from one octave to the next: a symbolic representation of life and death rolling over and over, locked together in battle. The ‘allelujas’ which bring the duet to a close are introspective and solemn, full of awe rather than rejoicing.

Mass in B minor

Christe eleison (Christ, have mercy)

The great Mass in B minor, BWV232, has a complex history. Parts of it seem to have been written as a potential audition piece for the post of Kapellmeister, vacant since 1729, at the wealthy, influential and cosmopolitan court at Dresden. Although Bach travelled to Dresden in 1733 with his son Wilhelm Friedemann to present his credentials, the post was granted to the internationally famous composer Johann Adolf Hasse, whose music was much more in keeping with the progressive trends of the time. In the later years of his life Bach expanded the Dresden material into a full setting of the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Credo and Agnus Dei), encompassing sections which were not part of the Lutheran liturgy, but on a scale too large to be performed in the context of a regular Roman Catholic mass. Why Bach did this has been debated by scholars ever since – possibly he thought it to be a summation of his art. The Christe eleisonis one of the movements that comprised part of the audition material and so it was probably written with Dresden in mind. Lithe, compact and melodious, it relieves the awe-inspiring tension generated by the ‘Kyrie eleison’ chorus that precedes it.

St Matthew Passion

Erbarme dich (Have mercy)

Befiehl du deine Wege (Commit your path)

Mache dich, mein Herze, rein (Purify yourself, my heart)

The word ‘Passion’ refers to the story of Christ’s betrayal, torture and crucifixion. The story is recounted differently in each of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John); Bach is believed to have written settings of all four versions, but only two have survived to the present day: a St John Passion from 1724 – Bach’s first large-scale work for Leipzig – and an even larger-scale St Matthew Passion, for double choir and double orchestra, which was first performed on Good Friday in 1727. It was a revival of the St Matthew Passion by Carl Friedrich Zelter and a young Felix Mendelssohn in 1829 which reawakened interest in Bach’s music, which had mostly fallen into obscurity in the decades since his death in 1750.

Bach’s Passion settings are structured around three different musical styles. The text from the Bible is presented through the speech-like rhythms of recitative, establishing an immediacy and directness in the telling of the story. Then there are arias, in which the external events of the narrative are turned inwards to become personal meditations on the meaning of those events for the believer. The aria Erbarme dichfollows an intensely dramatic recitative in which Peter, to protect himself, three times declares publicly that he has nothing to do with the recently arrested Jesus and doesn’t even know who he is; the cock crows and Peter flees ‘weeping bitterly’, remembering how Jesus had foretold these exact events. Erbarme dich takes up the theme of weeping and remorse in a plangent duet between the alto soloist and solo violin. The bass aria Mache dich, mein Herze, reincomes much later in the Passion, at the point where Jesus has died and is about to be buried; here the music is gentle and tender, as the singer offers his own heart as a final resting place for his beloved lord.

The third musical style in Bach’s Passions is the chorale. These are hymns, their tunes familiar to worshippers as a regular part of the liturgy, sung by the choir on behalf of the congregation as an act of personal commitment in response to the events and their significance. Befiehl du deine Wege uses a tune well known to Lutheran congregations (and now also a frequent inclusion in English hymnals, to the words ‘O sacred head, sore wounded’); Bach uses this tune five times in the St Matthew Passion, each time harmonised differently to match the mood of the text. Befiehl du deine Wege comes in the middle of the trial scene, where Jesus is interrogated by Pontius Pilate. Just as Christ chooses to remain silent, putting his trust in God’s power, the believer is exhorted to trust that God’s plan will always show the way forward.

Lobet den Herrn (Praise the Lord)

The motet Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (BWV230) is scored for four vocal parts and an instrumental basso continuo. No copy survives in Bach’s own handwriting (or in that of any of his usual copyists), but though several scholars have raised doubts about its authenticity, the consensus is that the work is ‘plausibly’ by Bach, even if not certainly by him. It is a setting of the shortest psalm, number 117, to whose two verses a final ‘Hallelujah’ (or ‘Alleluja’ in the Latin spelling) is added. It is not based on a pre-existing chorale tune (though the slow central section could be described as chorale-like). It is also chorally virtuosic, its fast outer sections formed around a succession of fugues and other contrapuntal gambits.


The text of the Magnificat comes from the gospel according to St Luke; it is the song of praise sung by Mary after she has been told by the angel Gabriel that the power of the Holy Spirit will cause her to conceive and give birth to a son. Bach composed his setting of the Magnificat in 1723, during his first months in Leipzig. It was his first large-scale composition for his new employers, and Bach was clearly out to impress, with the biggest orchestra he could get his hands on: three trumpets, two flutes, two oboes and timpani, as well as strings and continuo. The choral writing is in five parts, producing a rich, full sound and, in the jubilant opening movement, the opportunity to feature pairs of voices in contrasting registers. The music leaps up as if to heaven as Mary proclaims the greatness of God.

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