Favorite Bach Cantatas

On this page, I will share some of my favorite cantatas by Bach. For each cantata, I include a brief discussion, a link to a high-quality video, and a link to the German text with English translation. The videos are mostly from the Netherlands Bach Society’s “All of Bach” project (which aims to ultimately cover all the surviving works of Bach) or from the J. S. Bach Foundation (which covers only the vocal works of Bach). These are “period instrument” performances, with instruments that look and sound a bit different from their modern counterparts. Look, for example, at the valveless trumpet in the opening aria of “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen.”

Another resource I have found useful is the “Listener’s Guide” to the cantatas by Simon Crouch, which provides commentary and a rating for each work. These ratings are subjective (and I certainly do not agree with all of them) but still useful in deciding where to start with the over 200 surviving cantatas of Bach.

The included cantatas are all favorites of mine, but listed in an essentially random order—except that I selected “Jauchzet Gott” as an sure-fire place to start. I am hoping to cover 20-30 cantatas when I get the chance. Enjoy!

Here are the cantatas I have added so far.

  1. Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (Celebrate God in every land), BWV 51
  2. Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How beautifully shines the morning star), BWV 1
  3. Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? (Jesus sleeps, what shall I hope for?) BWV 81
  4. Schwingt freudig euch empor (Soar joyfully upward) BWV 36
  5. Ich habe genug (I have enough) BWV 82
  6. Freue dich, erlöste Schar (Rejoice, redeemed flock), BWV 30
  7. Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren (Praise the Lord, the mighty king of honor), BWV 137
  8. Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (Be quiet, don’t chatter) “Coffee Cantata” BWV 211
  9. Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (God’s time is the best time of all) “Actus Tragicus” BWV 106
  10. Herr Gott, dich lobe alle wir (Lord God, we all praise you), BWV 130
  11. Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deed and life), BWV 147
  12. Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (Dissipate, you troublesome shadows), BWV 202
  13. Jesu, der du meine Seele (Jesus, you who my soul), BWV 78
  14. Gott soll allein mein Herze haben (God alone shall have my heart), BWV 169
  15. Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben? (Dearest God, when will I die?), BWV 8
  16. Ich geh’ and suche mit Verlangen (I go and seek with longing), BWV 49
  17. Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir (We thank you, God, we thank you), BWV 29

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1 Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (Celebrate God in every land), BWV 51

This is a solo cantata for soprano—no other singers! In Bach’s day, the soprano parts were mostly sung by boy sopranos, but this cantata may be an exception, since the vocal part appears to be too high and difficult for a boy. Some have speculated that Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, may have sung it! The cantata starts with a bang with a spectacular duet for trumpet and soprano. The more meditative third-movement aria (Highest [God], make your goodness new again every morning), is very affecting. The cantata ends on a high note (literally: a high C) with an aria based on a single word: Alleluia!

  1. Aria (soprano): Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (Celebrate God in every land)
  2. Recitative (soprano): Wir beten zu dem Tempel an (We pray at the temple)
  3. Aria (soprano) Höchster, mache deine Güte (Highest [God], make your goodness)
  4. Chorale (soprano): Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren (May there be glory and praise with honor)
  5. Aria (soprano): Alleluja!

Video from the Netherlands Bach Society with soprano Maria Keohane.

Text and English translation from Emmanuel Music.

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2. Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How beautifully shines the morning star), BWV 1

This lovely cantata has the well-deserved honor of being the very first listing in the BWV catalog of Bach’s works. The opening chorus is based on a hymn by Philipp Nicolai from 1599. Listen for the main melody of the hymn (“cantus firmus”) sung by the sopranos. Other highlights include a dazzling aria for soprano (“Fill, you divine flames of heaven, the faithful hearts that long for you!”), and a festive tenor aria.

  1. Chorus: Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How beautifully shines the morning star)
  2. Recitative (Tenor): Du wahrer Gottes und Marien Sohn (You true son of God and Mary)
  3. Aria (Soprano): Erfüllet, ihr himmlischen, göttlichen Flammen (Fill, you divine flames of heaven)
  4. Recitative (Bass): Ein ird’scher Glanz, ein leiblich Licht (A glitter from the earth)
  5. Aria (Tenor): Unser Mund und Ton der Saiten (Our mouths and the sound of strings)
  6. Chorale: Wie bin ich doch so herzlich froh (How full I am therefore of heartfelt joy)

Video from the J. S. Bach Foundation, conducted by Rudolf Lutz.

Text and English translation from Emmanuel Music.

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3. Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? (Jesus sleeps, what shall I hope for?) BWV 81

According to the Netherlands Bach Society page for this cantata, Bach’s employers in Leipzig told him that his music should not be too “operatic.” Fortunately for us, he did not pay attention to this instruction when producing this dramatic piece about the time Jesus fell asleep in the boat during a raging storm. The cantata opens with a highly charged aria for alto, in which the soloist holds the word “schläft” (“sleep”) for loooonger than you can imagine to convey the terror the disciples must have felt. She continues with further drama: “Do I not see, with pallid face, death’s abyss already open?” There is then a tenor aria with slashing violins that conveys the fury of the storm—but curiously in a major key. Then the bass, in the voice of Christ, says, “You of little faith” twelve times, once for each disciple. (Bach loved this sort of numerological trick.) Jesus then goes on with “Schweig! Schweig!” (“Be silent!”) to the waves, and the cantata ends with the chorus singing “Beneath your protection, I am free from storms and all enemies.” You will not be disappointed!

  1. Aria (alto): Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? (Jesus sleeps, what shall I hope for?)
  2. Recitative (tenor): Herr! warum trittest du so ferne? (Lord! why do you walk so far away?)
  3. Aria (tenor): Die schäumenden Wellen von Belials Bächen (The foaming waves of Belial’s streams)
  4. Arioso (bass): Ihr Kleingläubigen, warum seid ihr so furchtsam? (You of little faith, why are you so fearful?)
  5. Aria (bass): Schweig, aufgetürmtes Meer! (Be silent, towering sea!)
  6. Recitative (alto): Wohl mir, mein Jesus spricht ein Wort (How happy I am, my Jesus speaks a word)
  7. Chorale: Unter deinen Schirmen (Beneath your protection)

Video from the J. S. Bach Foundation.

Text and English translation from Emmanuel Music.

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4. Schwingt freudig euch empor (Soar joyfully upward) BWV 36

This cantata was written for the first Sunday of advent but is a joy to listen to at any time! The cantata is in two parts, which in a church service would have been separated by the sermon. The opening chorus sets the festive mood: “Soar joyfully upward to the lofty stars, you tongues, which are now joyful in Zion!” The movements that follow are of consistently high quality: a duet for soprano and alto, arias for tenor and bass, and the high point, the soprano aria: “Even with subdued, weak voices God’s majesty is honored if only the spirit resounds.” The soprano aria is accompanied by a solo violin played with a mute, to express the “subdued” voice mentioned in the text.

  1. Chorus: Schwingt freudig euch empor (Soar joyfully upward)
  2. Duet (soprano, alto): Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Come now, savior of the Gentiles)
  3. Aria (tenor): Die Liebe zieht mit sanften Schritten (Love draws with gentle steps)
  4. Chorale: Zwingt die Saiten in Cythara (Strike the strings in Cythera)
  5. Aria (bass): Willkommen, werter Schatz! (Welcome, worthy treasure)
  6. Chorale: Der du bist dem Vater gleich (You who are equal to the father)
  7. Aria (soprano): Auch mit gedämpften, schwachen Stimmen (Even with subdued, weak voices)
  8. Chorale: Lob sei Gott, dem Vater, g’ton (Praise be given to God, the Father)

Video from the J. S. Bach Foundation, featuring soprano Nuria Rial.

Text and English translation from Emmanuel Music.

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5. Ich habe genug (I have enough) BWV 82

This cantata was originally written for a solo bass voice, but Bach later wrote a version for soprano. The title expresses the feelings of Simeon in the Bible, who after holding the baby Jesus says:

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
You may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation.
(Luke 2:29-30)

The opening aria, accompanied by an oboe in the bass version and a flute in the soprano version, is one of Bach’s most beautiful. It expressed Simeon’s thoughts as:

I have enough.
I have taken the Savior, the hope of the righteous, into my eager arms.
I have enough.

The second aria is a lullaby (of the “sleep equals death” variety) that is another highlight of Bach’s cantata output: “Slumber, my weary eyes. Fall softly and close in contentment.” This cantata is not to be missed!

  1. Aria: Ich habe genug [or, in older German, “genung”] (I have enough)
  2. Recitative: Ich habe genug!
  3. Aria: Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen (Slumber, my weary eyes)
  4. Recitative: Mein Gott! wenn kömmt das schöne: Nun! (My God, when comes the lovely “Now!”)
  5. Aria: Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod (With gladness, I look forward to my death)

Video from the J. S. Bach Foundation, with bass Peter Harvey—with English subtitles!

Video of the soprano version from La Divina Armonia, featuring a soprano with the wonderful name of Miriam Feuersinger (“firesinger”).

Text and English translation from Emmanuel Music.

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6. Freue dich, erlöste Schar (Rejoice, redeemed flock), BWV 30

This is another two-part cantata, with many enjoyable movements. After a festive opening chorus, the first bass aria is a lovely song of praise to God. The memorable alto aria that follows is about sinners saved by grace, with the happy tone emphasizing the positive side of that dichotomy. (I’m posting a humorous video about just that aria.) In the second part, another bass aria emphasizes the word hassen (hate) to show the singer’s desire to “hate and leave everything that is contrary to you, my God.” The following soprano aria is another standout. There different approaches to the tempo of this aria. A slower pace can be lovely but the faster pace of the video from the J. S. Bach Foundation is exciting, especially when paired with the soprano’s dramatic hair style! (See the third video link for the slower approach.) An all-around excellent cantata!

  1. Chorus: Freue dich, erlöste Schar (Rejoice, redeemed flock)
  2. Recitative (bass): Wir haben Rast (We have rest)
  3. Aria (bass): Gelobet sei Gott, gelobet sein Name (Praised be God, praised his name)
  4. Recitative (alto): Der Herold kömmt (The herald comes)
  5. Aria (alto): Kommt, ihr angefochtnen Sünder (Come, you troubled sinners)
  6. Chorale: Eine Stimme läßt sich hören (A voice is heard)
  7. Recitative (bass): So bist du denn, mein Heil, bedacht (Since it is your intention, my savior)
  8. Aria (bass): Ich will nun hassen (I want now to hate)
  9. Recitative (soprano): Und ob wohl sonst der Unbestand (And although in other ways inconstancy)
  10. Aria (soprano): Eilt, ihr Stunden, kommt herbei (Hurry, you hours, come on)
  11. Recitative (tenor)Geduld, der angenehme Tag (Be patient, the delightful day)
  12. Chorus: Freue dich, geheilgte Schar (Rejoice, sacred host)

Video from the J. S. Bach Foundation.

Video of the alto aria “Kommt, ihr angefochtnen Sünder” with mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, with an appearance by J. S. Bach himself!

Video of the soprano aria “Eilt, ihr Stunden, kommt herbei” with soprano Franziska Bobe, taken at a slower tempo than in the video from the J. S. Bach foundation. (The aria starts at 1:22 in the video, after a recitative.)

Text and English translation from Emmanuel Music.

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7. Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren (Praise the Lord, the mighty king of honor), BWV 137

This cantata is based on a hymn by Joachim Neander from 1680, known in English as “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation.” (My wife and I used this hymn in our wedding!) The five movements set five verses of the hymn to music, with the words unchanged. The hymn tune is present in some form in all five movements, but you may have to listen for it. In the first movement, as is often the case, the hymn tune is sung in a straightforward way (“cantus firmus”) by the sopranos, with the other voices and instruments weaving around them. In the second movement, the alto (or altos, depending on the recording) sing the melody with a lovely violin accompaniment. In the third-movement duet, the voices start with the first few notes of the hymn tune and then go in a different direction. The fourth movement is an aria for tenor, with the hymn tune supplied by a trumpet. The cantata closes with a straightforward harmonization of the hymn. If you are not familiar with the tune, you might want to take in the last movement first to know what to listen for, and then start again from the beginning. The hymn itself is enduringly popular and Bach does wonderful things with it!

  1. Chorus: Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren (Praise the Lord, the mighty king of honor)
  2. Aria (alto): Lobe den Herren, der alles so herrlich regieret (Praise the Lord who rules all things so excellently)
  3. Aria (soprano, bass): Lobe den Herren, der künstlich und fein dich bereitet (Praise the Lord who endows you with such subtle art)
  4. Aria (tenor): Lobe den Herren, der deinen Stand sichtbar gesegnet (Praise the Lord, who has clearly blessed your position)
  5. Chorale: Lobe den Herren, was in mir ist, lobe den Namen! (Praise the Lord, all that is in me, praise his name!)

Video from the J. S. Bach Foundation—with English subtitles!

Text and English translation from Emmanuel Music.

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8. Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (Be quiet, don’t chatter) “Coffee Cantata” BWV 211

Most of Bach’s cantatas were church cantatas, written for a specific occasion in the liturgical calendar of the Lutheran church. (Many are tied, thematically, to the prescribed Scripture readings for a particular Sunday.) But Bach also wrote some secular cantatas, including this entertaining cantata about drinking coffee, which apparently was considered slightly scandalous in Bach’s day. There are three characters: the narrator (tenor), Herr Schlendrian (bass), and Liesgen, his daughter (soprano). The narrator invites us to be quiet and hear what is going on with Schlendrian and his daughter, at which point, Schlendrian sings an aria about how children cause “a hundred thousand aggravations.” After a recitative in which father and daughter argue about the daughter’s coffee habit, Liesgen sings a love song to coffee: “Lovelier than a thousand kisses, smoother than muscatel wine.” The two argue some more before Schlendrian sings an aria about “girls with obstinate minds.” He finally hits on the idea of offering to find a husband for her if Liesgen will give up coffee. Liesgen eagerly agrees—or so it seems—and sings a lusty aria about wanting a man this very day. Father then goes off to look for a husband, while daughter reveals that she will put into her marriage contract that she can have as much coffee as she wants! The cantata closes with father, daughter, and narrator singing a trio about how cats will never give up mice and women will never give up coffee. Great fun and lovely music!

  1. Recitative (narrator) Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (Keep quiet, don’t chatter)
  2. Aria (Schlendrian) Hat man nicht mit seinen Kindern (Don’t we have with our children)
  3. Recitative (Schlendrian, Liesgen) Du böses Kind, du loses Mädchen (You bad child, you wild girl!)
  4. Aria (Liesgen) Ei! wie schmeckt der Coffee süße (Ah! how sweet coffee tastes!)
  5. Recitative (Schlendrian, Liesgen) Wenn du mir nicht den Coffee lässt (If you don’t give up coffee)
  6. Aria (Schlendrian) Mädchen, die von harten Sinnen (Girls with obstinate minds)
  7. Recitative (Schlendrian, Liesgen) Nun folge, was dein Vater spricht! (Now follow what your father says!)
  8. Aria (Liesgen) Heute noch (This very day)
  9. Recitative (narrator) Nun geht und sucht der alte Schlendrian (Now old Schlendrian goes off and looks out)
  10. Trio, Die Katze lässt das Mausen nicht (The cat does not leave the mouse)

Video from the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, featuring soprano Anne Grimm—set in a coffee shop with English subtitles.

Text and English translation from Emmanuel Music.

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9. Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (God’s time is the best time of all) “Actus Tragicus” BWV 106

This cantata was obviously intended as a funeral cantata, possibly for an uncle of Bach’s. It is also an early work, quite different stylistically from Bach’s later cantata style and consisting mostly of direct quotations from Scripture. It is, nevertheless, an emotionally powerful piece. The instrumental accompaniment is by two “flutes” (what we would call recorders today), two violas da gamba (old-fashioned stringed instruments similar to cellos but with a warmer sound), and the “basso continuo” (the bass part that plays continuously throughout the piece). The piece does not have movements in the traditional sense but flows from one section to another for a total of eight.

The easiest way to describe what is happening in the various sections is to quote more extensively than usual from the text. After an instrumental opening section, the chorus sings:

God’s time is the best time of all.
In him we live, and move and have our being (
Acts 17:28), as long as he wills.
In him we die at the appointed time, when he wills.

Then the tenor sings:

Ah, Lord, teach us to consider that we must die, so that we might become wise (Psalm 90:2).

Next the bass sings:

Put your house in order; for you will die and not remain alive! (Isaiah 38:1).

After this comes the centerpiece of the cantata. The altos, tenors, and basses sing the bad news:

It is the ancient law: man, you must die!

while the soprano floats above them singing words of hope:

Yes, come Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)

There is a magical moment at the end of this section where the lower voices and the instruments fade away, the soprano gently sings “Come Lord Jesus” one last time—and then there are several seconds of expectant silence. This ending of the section is poignantly “unfinished,” reflecting our yearning for the coming of Jesus.

The closing sections of the cantata turn from the inevitability of death to the hope of heaven. First, the alto sings the words of Jesus on the cross: “Into your hands I commit my spirit” (alto, from Luke 23:46, quoting Psalm 31:6). Then the bass sings the words of Jesus to the thief on the cross: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (bass, Luke 23:43), while the alto sings words of “peace and joy” from Simeon, who before his death saw the savior. The cantata then ends with a lovely closing hymn: “Glory, Praise, Honor, and Majesty.” And Bach being who he was did not just give us a straightforward harmonization of the hymn but closes with a little fugue on the final line: “[victorious] through Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Bach probably wrote this amazing piece when he was only 22 or 23 years old!

Video from the Netherlands Bach Society—with English subtitles!

Text and English translation from Emmanuel Music.

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10. Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir (Lord God, we all praise you), BWV 130

The occasion for this high-octane cantata is Michaelmas, the feast celebrating the archangel Michael and his defeat of “the great dragon … the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan” (Revelation 12:7–9). The opening chorus sings the praise of God for his creation of the angels, accompanied by trumpets and timpani. The words are drawn from a hymn by Paul Eber. The sopranos, as is often the case, sing the hymn tune, known as the Old Hundredth or (to many of us) as the tune of The Doxology. After a recitative, the bass soloist sings a dramatic aria about Satan’s attempts to divide God’s little flock, while the trumpets blare with Satan’s ultimately impotent rage. The tenor aria that follows the second recitative then changes the emphasis back to the angels that protect us, with a heavenly (and virtuosic) flute line accompanying the tenor’s celebration of the “Prince of the cherubim.” The cantata closes with a straightforward harmonization of the lovely hymn tune from the opening chorus.

  1. Chorus: Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir (Lord God, we all praise you)
  2. Recitative (Alto) Ihr heller Glanz und hohe Weisheit zeigt (Their dazzling brilliance and lofty wisdom show)
  3. Aria (bass) Der alte Drache brennt vor Neid (The ancient dragon burns with envy)
  4. Recitative (soprano, tenor) Wohl aber uns, dass Tag und Nacht (But how fortunate we are that day and night)
  5. Aria (tenor) Lass, o Fürst der Cherubinen (Grant, O Prince of cherubim)
  6. Chorus: Darum wir billig loben dich (Therefore we rightly praise you)

Video from the Netherlands Bach Society.

Text and English translation from Emmanuel Music.

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11. Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deed and life), BWV 147

This cantata is “the grandaddy of them all,” the one that you already know, even if you don’t know that you know it! If you have ever heard “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring” at a wedding, then you are familiar with not one but two movements of “Herz und mund.” But the rest of the cantata is also top-notch, starting from the festive opening chorus accompanied by trumpets, oboes, and strings:

Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben
Muss von Christo Zeugnis geben.

Heart and mouth and deed and life
must bear witness to Christ.

The cantata celebrates the angel’s visit to Mary to tell her that she will give birth to the savior, and to encourage believers to acknowledge the savior, too. A lovely, gentle aria for alto follows a recitative, accompanied by an oboe d’amore (literally, “oboe of love,” a sort of oversized oboe), with the text “Do not be ashamed, O soul, to acknowledge the savior.” The recitative for bass that follows paraphrases part of the Magnificat (Mary’s song of praise), telling how God raises the humble but thrusts the mighty from their thrones.

The fifth movement is a superb aria for soprano with a lovely violin accompaniment. Then follows the first occurrence of the famous melody—or, rather, a pair of melodies—with the words (translated literally from the German):

What joy for me that I have Jesus,
Oh, how firmly I hold on to him.

The second part of the cantata has high-quality arias for tenor and for bass and closes with another verse of that famous chorus:

Jesus remains my joy,
the comfort and life’s blood of my heart.

It’s worth noting that the traditional English text “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring” is unrelated to the German text that Bach used, besides the overall theme of Jesus.

  1. Chorus: Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deed and life)
  2. Recitative (tenor): Gebenedeiter Mund! (Blessed mouth!)
  3. Aria (alto): Schäme dich, o Seele nicht (Do not be ashamed, O soul)
  4. Recitative (bass): Verstockung kann Gewaltige veblenden (Astonishment might dazzle the mighty)
  5. Aria (soprano): Bereite dir, Jesu, noch itzo die Bahn (Prepare, Jesus, even now the path for yourself)
  6. Chorale: Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe (What joy for me that I have Jesus)
  7. Aria (tenor): Hilf, Jesu, hilf, daß ich auch dich bekenne (Help, Jesus, help that I may also acknowledge you)
  8. Recitative (alto): Der höchsten Allmacht Wunderhand (The wondrous hand of the exalted Almighty)
  9. Aria (bass): Ich will von Jesu Wundern singen (I will sing of Jesus’ wonders)
  10. Chorale: Jesus bleibet meine Freude (Jesus shall remain my joy)

Video from the J. S. Bach Foundation—with English subtitles!

Text and English translation from Emmanuel Music.

Video of the English version of the famous chorus. You can also find arrangements online for piano, organ, harp, and any number of other instruments!

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12. Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (Dissipate, you troublesome shadows), BWV 202

This glorious wedding cantata, for soprano, has a mythological story line about Flora, Phoebus (Apollo), and Cupid, which can mostly be ignored. All you really need to know is that it about springtime, love, flowers, kisses—that sort of thing. The music is of a high quality throughout. Certainly, the couple whose wedding featured this music was a lucky one! (Conceivably, it could have been written for Bach’s own wedding to his second wife, Anna Magdalena.)

There are nine movements, alternating arias with recitatives. The first aria starts on a somber note, hoping for the troublesome shadows of the title to dissipate, but has a more up-beat middle section. The second aria is about Phoebus hastening through the newborn world, looking for a lover. The third aria, about the caressing breezes of spring, has a delightful line about love’s treasure: “that one heart kisses another.” The fourth aria, about playful cuddling, is particularly cheerful and is often performed as a separate piece. The final aria concludes with the wish that “in the coming time, your love may bear fruit.” Listen and your mood will lighten!

  1. Aria: Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (Dissipate, you troublesome shadows)
  2. Recitative: Die Welt wird wieder neu (The world becomes new again)
  3. Aria: Phoebus eilt mit schellen Pferden (Phoebus hastens with rapid horses)
  4. Recitative: Drum sucht auch Amor sein Vergnügen (Therefore Cupid himself seeks his pleasure)
  5. Aria: Wenn die Frühlingslufte streichen (When the springtime breezes caress)
  6. Recitative: Und dieses is das Glücke (And this is happiness)
  7. Aria: Sich üben in Lieben (To be accustomed in love)
  8. Recitative: So sei das Band der keuschen Liebe (So may the bond of chaste love)
  9. Aria: Sehet in Zufriedenheit (May you behold in contentment)

Text and English translation from Emmanuel Music.

Video from the Netherlands Bach Society, featuring the luminous soprano, Julia Doyle.

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13. Jesu, der du meine Seele (Jesus, you who my soul), BWV 78

This cantata features marked contrasts in mood, alternating between serious reflections on the reality of sin and Christ’s suffering (on the on hand) with celebration of the salvation that Christ’s suffering brought about (on the other hand). The opening chorus is a somber but beautiful setting of a hymn by Johann Rist, featuring these words:

Jesus, you, who my soul,
through your bitter death,
out of the devil’s dark pit
and the heavy anguish of the soul
have powerfully rescued…

The following duet for soprano and alto is one of the most popular movements in all of Bach’s cantatas. The mood shifts to bouncy joy, with the words,

We hasten with weak, yet eager steps,
O Jesus, O Master, to you for help.

The festive cello accompaniment presumably represents the “steps” mentioned above.

After a serious recitative (“Ah, I am a child of sin”), the mood lightens again with a lovely tenor aria with flute accompaniment:

The blood that cancels my guilt
makes my heart light again
and pronounces me free.

The following recitative takes the mood back to seriousness (“The wounds, nails, crown and grave, the blows given there to the Savior”). The bass aria that follows emphasizes again the positive outcome of Christ’s suffering:

If Christians believe in you,
no enemy will ever
steal them out of your hands.

The cantata closes with a straightforward setting of another verse of the hymn by Rist.

  1. Chorus: Jesu, der du meine Seele (Jesus, you who my soul)
  2. Aria (duet for soprano and alto): Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten (We hasten with weak yet eager steps)
  3. Recitative (tenor): Ach! ich bin ein Kind der Sünden (Ah, I am a child of sin)
  4. Aria (tenor): Das Blut, so meine Schuld durchstreicht (The blood that cancels my guilt)
  5. Recitative (bass): Die Wunden, Nägel, Kron und Grab (The wounds, nails, crown and grave)
  6. Aria (bass): Nun du wirst mein Gewissen stillen (Now you will still my conscience)
  7. Chorus: Herr, ich glaube, hilf mir Schwachen (Lord, I believe, help my weakness)

Text and English translation from Emmanuel Music.

Video from the Netherlands Bach Society.

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14. Gott soll allein mein Herze haben (God alone shall have my heart), BWV 169

Bach frequently reused his own music in various ways. The process is called parody, which in this setting does not have a satirical connotation. One of Bach’s greatest works, for example, the Mass in B minor, consists mostly of works parodied from earlier works of Bach. In BWV 169, the lengthy opening sinfonia is believed to be based on a lost concerto of Bach’s for an unknown instrument (oboe?). After BWV 169 was composed, Bach used the music yet again as the first movement of his second keyboard concerto, BWV 1053. The second movement of BWV 1053 is then drawn from the fifth movement of BWV 169, the second aria. This process of musical recycling in no way detracts from Bach’s greatness. On the contrary, it is a pleasure to hear the same music in different settings.

The cantata is a solo cantata for alto, with only the brief closing chorus featuring any other singers. After the opening sinfonia, comes an arioso (something between a recitative and a full-blown aria), which introduces the words of the title. These words are then developed more fully in the lovely aria, with organ accompaniment, that follows:

God alone shall have my heart.
I find in him the highest good.

The aria features a striking contrast between the jaunty music from the organ and the hymn like tone of the vocal soloist.

A poignant recitative follows:

What is the love of God?
The rest of the spirit,
The delightful pleasure of the mind,
The paradise of the soul.

Then comes another striking aria, with a darker tone:

Die in me,
World and all your love.

After a recitative about the importance of loving God and one’s neighbor, the cantata closes with a chorus:

O sweet love, bestow your favor on us,
Let us feel the fervor of love,
So that we might love each other from our hearts.

This cantata was an early love of mine and is still one of my favorites!

  1. Sinfonia
  2. Arioso (alto): Gott soll allein mein Herze haben (God alone shall have my heart)
  3. Aria (alto): Gott soll allein mein Herze haben
  4. Recitative (alto): Was ist die Liebe Gottes? (What is the love of God?)
  5. Aria (alto): Stirb in mir (Die in me)
  6. Recitative (alto): Doch meint es auch dabei (But also keep in mind)
  7. Chorus: Du süße Liebe, schenk uns deine Gunst (O sweet love, bestow your favor on us)

Text and English translation from Emmanuel Music.

Video from the J. S. Bach foundation, with English subtitles, featuring alto Claude Eichenberger.

Video of Bach’s second keyboard concerto, BWV 1053, whose first two movements share music with the first movement (sinfonia) and fifth movement (aria Stirb in Mir) of Cantata 169, performed by pianist Anastasia Injushina.

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15. Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben? (Dearest God, when will I die?), BWV 8

In case you have not already noticed, many of the cantatas of Bach deal with the theme of death. The extraordinary opening chorus of BWV 8 hits the theme immediately:

Dearest God, when will I die?
My time runs away continually.

The flute (recorder in the video linked to below) plays a central role here, with a repeated bell-like tolling sound, while the plucked strings represent bells or the workings of a clock. The tone of the movement, however, is not despairing but suffused with a peaceful golden glow. Definitely among the most memorable of the opening choruses in Bach’s cantatas!

The lovely tenor aria that follows continues the peaceful mood. Accompanied by an oboe d’amore (literally, oboe of love, a big version of the oboe), the tenor sings:

Why should you recoil, my spirit,
when my last hour strikes?

Listen for the repetition of the word “schlägt” (strikes), imitating again a bell.

After a recitative, the mood in the bass aria shifts from peaceful resignation to outright joy, with the flute accompanying cheerfully:

But hence, you foolish, useless worries!
My Jesus calls me: who wouldn’t go?

and

May the blessed, joyful day dawn for me,
Transfigured and glorious to stand before Jesus.

While the opening chorus speaks of inheriting death from “old Adam,” the subsequent soprano recitative speaks instead of the inheritance we have in Christ:

What is my inheritance
but the faithfulness of God my father?
This is new every morning
and cannot die.

The closing chorus is based on the same hymn as the opening one, ending the cantata in the same peaceful mood as the opening:

Teach me to give up my spirit
In calm self-possession.

  1. Chorus: Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben? (Dearest God, when will I die?)
  2. Aria (tenor): Was willst du dich, mein Geist, entsetzen (Why should you recoil, my spirit)
  3. Recitative (alto): Zwar fühlt mein schwaches Herz (Indeed my weak heart feels)
  4. Aria (bass): Doch weichet, ihr tollen, vergeblichen Sorgen! (But hence, you foolish, useless worries!)
  5. Recitative (soprano): Behalte nur, o Welt, das Meine! (Keep then, O world, my possessions!)
  6. Chorus: Herrscher über Tod und Leben (Lord over death and life)

Text and English translation from Emmanuel music.

Video from the Netherlands Bach Society. English subtitles are available, but you will have to turn them on by clicking on the “gear” button at the bottom.

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16. Ich geh’ and suche mit Verlangen (I go and seek with longing), BWV 49

Cantata 49 is dialog cantata, with the bass representing the vox Christi (voice of Christ) and the soprano representing the soul. The cantata is loosely based on the Gospel reading for the day the cantata was first performed, the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22. The theme is common biblical metaphor of believers (the church) as the bride and Jesus as the bridegroom. The cantata opens with a sinfonia with a featured organ part, effectively a movement of an organ concerto. There is an obvious similarity to the opening sinfonia of “Gott soll allein mein Herze haben” (discussed above). Indeed, these two movements, together with the fifth movement of “Gott soll allein,” were the basis for Bach’s second keyboard concerto, BWV 1053. After the sinfonia, a bass aria introduces the theme of cantata:

I go and seek with longing
you, my dove, fairest bride.

Then the true dialog portion of the cantata begins, with the bass and soprano alternating and then singing together:

Bass: Come, fairest one, let me kiss you.
You shall enjoy my rich meal.
Soprano: Let me enjoy your rich meal.

The soprano then has a lovely aria, “I am glorious, I am beautiful, to kindle my savior’s love.” After a joint recitative, the cantata ends in spectacular fashion with a duet in which the bass sings an aria while the soprano sings a verse of a hymn by Philipp Nicolai, “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern,” which was the basis for BWV 1, discussed above.

Bass: For ever and ever I have loved you.
Soprano: What heartfelt joy is mine,
that my treasure is the alpha and omega,
the beginning and the end.

A cantata filled with joy, as is fitting for the wedding theme!

  1. Sinfonia
  2. Aria (bass): Ich geh’ and suche mit Verlangen (I go and seek with longing)
  3. Recitative (bass and soprano): Mein Mahl ist zubereit’ (My meal is prepared)
  4. Aria (soprano): Ich bin herrlich, ich bin schön (I am glorious, I am beautiful)
  5. Recitative (bass and soprano): Mein Glaube hat mich selbst so angezogen (My faith itself has drawn me here)
  6. Aria (bass) and chorale (soprano): Dich hab ich je und je geliebet (I have loved you for ever and ever)

Text and English translation from Emmanuel Music.

Video from the J. S. Bach Foundation, featuring the dazzling soprano Nuria Rial. English subtitles are available, but you will have to turn them on by clicking on the “gear” button at the bottom.

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17. Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir (We thank you, God, we thank you), BWV 29

This happy cantata was written for the inauguration of the town council in Leipzig in 1731. It opens, as with “Gott soll allein mein herze haben” and “Ich geh’ and suche mit verlangen” (both discussed above), with an orchestral sinfonia with a featured organ part. In this case, the sinfonia is based on a work of Bach for unaccompanied violin, the prelude from the Partita #3 in E major. (You can watch this work here, performed by Augustin Hadelich.) The highest praise I can give the choral movement that follows is that Bach reused the music not once but twice in his great Mass in B-minor (in the “Gratias agimus tibi” and the “Dona nobis pacem”). The words are from Psalm 75:1:

We thank you, God, we thank you and proclaim your wonders.

A dramatic tenor aria follows, with a lovely violin accompaniment: “Hallelujah, ‘strength’ and ‘might’ be the highest-of-all’s names.” After a recitative comes a poignant aria for soprano:

Think of us with your love,
Enclose us within your mercy!

Then the alto gives a shortened version of the tenor aria, this time with the organ accompanying. The cantata closes with a hymn:

Let there be glory, praise and honor
To God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!

  1. Sinfonia
  2. Chorus: Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir (We thank you, God, we thank you)
  3. Aria (tenor): Halleluja, Stärk und Macht (Hallelujah, strength and might)
  4. Recitative (bass): Gottlob! es geht uns wohl! (God be praised ! All goes well for us!)
  5. Aria (soprano): Gedenk an uns mit deiner Liebe (Think of us with your love)
  6. Recitative (alto): Vergiß es ferner nicht, mit deiner Hand (For the future do not forget with your hand)
  7. Aria (alto): Halleluja, Stärk und Macht (Hallelujah, strength and might)
  8. Chorus: Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren (Let there be glory and praise with honor)

Text and English translation from Emmanuel Music.

Video from the Netherlands Bach Society.