Cantata 170, written in 1726 for Trinity VI, on doctrinal themes of righteousness, identity, and the imperative to understand the other, would appear to be for Bach’s third cantata cycle, but may have been used to fill a gap in the second. It is written for alto voice, oboe d’amore, strings, and organ obbligato (for two keyboards and without pedal). The text is from Georg Christian Lehms’s 1711 cantata yearbook.
The theme of righteousness, embodied in the epistle from Paul, is specifically elaborated through the Gospel reading, which is the Sermon on the Mount’s asseveration of the supremacy of justice over the law, in this instance represented by the law of the Pharisees: Pharisaic beliefs are fundamental to Rabbinical Judaism.
The Apostle Paul was a Pharisee. Although historically there were both conflicts with and congruencies with Christianity, both the Pharisees and the Christians believed in monotheism. Differences included the Pharisaic lack of interest in messianism and the ranking of commandments. The two great commandments of Christianity are to love God with the fullness of one’s being and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. A profound similarity between the Pharisaic and Christian views is the essential and elemental sanctification of the daily world and the role of one’s actions to effect sanctification within it.
The Epistle for Trinity VI is Romans 6:3-11:
3 Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?
4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:
6 Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.
7 For he that is dead is freed from sin.
8 Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him:
9 Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.
10 For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.
11 Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The epistle reading omits the question asked by the Apostle Paul, viz.,
1 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?
2 God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?
That is to say, does grace abound, even though we sin? This may be characterized as the ineluctability of reality arraigned against the impossibility of perfect idealism. And should the ideal be realized, can it be sustained? This hardly is solely a consideration only of Christianity. The lectionary of the epistle is Paul’s response to his question. The response can be seen as an expansion of inescapable realism to, in this reality, to our identity and how we expound and inhabit this identity.
Paul’s answers say, first, one must be baptized, that is, purified and admitted to the faith. Second, baptism aligns the believer with the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, which, third, is to be the death of sin; and so, fourth, the enablement of the believer in life to and for God.
Although again not in the lectionary for the day, Paul concludes that grace (and the justice it represents) are beyond the law. And this forms the bridge to the Gospel of the day.
12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof.
13 Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God.
14 For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.
The Gospel for Trinity VI is Matthew 5:20-26:
20 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
21 Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:
22 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
23 Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;
24 Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.
25 Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.
26 Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.
The meaning of ‘brother’ in verse 22, from the Greek, is ‘disciple,’ whether male or female. The Aramaic ‘Raca’ is a term of contumely and abhorrence.
The Gospel reading is from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), and it is necessary, as Bach’s congregation would have been, intimately, to be familiar with its teachings.
The Sermon is a sequence. Jesus begins by enunciating the Beatitudes. From this, He examines the salt and light of the earth, and propounds the supercession of justice above the law. Specific elaborations follow: that murder includes the destruction of relationships, that adultery is indefensible, that divorce pertains only to sexual immorality and is thus permanent.
A key adjuration is that an oath is sacrosanct and inviolable, and a key principle that the law of retaliation (the lex talionis) is ineffective, and which personal understanding and interaction replaces, that one must love one’s enemies and greet not only one’s own people.
A second key adjuration is to care for the needy and do so without show, to pray in solitude and without public display, and fast privately without announcement.
A further fundamental proposition is that treasure is not in goods but in the heart (to which “the eye is the lamp of the body”), for one cannot serve two masters (“you cannot serve both God and money”), that one must not worry, for Nature does not and is splendour.
This understanding of what identity is leads to the premise of “do not judge, or you too will be judged” (yet “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces,”) which in turn announces the actionable metaphor of ask and seek and knock in order to embody the Golden Rule (“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets,”) that the seldom found gate to life is the one that is narrow and not the one that is wide through which passes the road of destruction. Hence, beware of false prophets for they cannot bear good fruit and “by their fruit you will recognize them,” and beware of false prophets who claim to emulate you and what is your identity through falsities, for wisdom is to be built as if upon a rock and not upon sand.
The cantata’s structure is three arias separated by recitative. The oboe d’amore is prominent in the opening aria, the organ obbligato in the second and third. Each of the five moments uses measures of four beats, the opening aria in 12/8, that is, a division of each beat into three, and the following four in common time.
The first aria is superb: Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (O blessed rest, O welcome soul’s delight). The 12/8 time allows the music to bask in this rest granted through belief. The oboe d’amore doubles the first violins throughout, and the opening ritornello is repeated for the aria’s conclusion. The aria is a dialogue, unitary in structure, between the voice and the orchestra.
The first, and brief, recitative, Die Welt, das Sündenhaus (this world, this house of sin), spells out how Satanic and full of enmity we are, and so it, and us, warrant only a continuo of figured bass.
The middle aria, Wie jammern mich doch die verkerhen Herzen (how sad I am for those of perverted heart), also superb, is full of the strife of recognition of this exemplification of the human condition. As in the opening aria, the opening ritornello is repeated for the conclusion; but this aria is dualistic, not only because of the two keyboards, but because the organ and the voice express different lines of the music. The organ’s obbligato part is exceedingly expressive, and the strings’ part marvellously spare, for it functions as the continuo, and does not participate in the dialogue.
The second recitative brings into sight that we must love our neighbour. Also brief, it is, however, set for voice accompanied by separate parts in the first and second violins and violas, along with continuo. When hate and wrath are recounted as flying from the heart, and the path made clear, the alto enjoys four bars of arioso.
The final aria, Mir ekelt mehr zu leben, Drum nimm mich, Jesu, hin! (My life is distasteful, so take me to Thee, Jesus), is a sort of baptismal confirmation in which Paul can agree with the Sermon. Some take the text to mean a desire to leave the world, but I think it is closer to Paul’s concept of how to dwell within grace, and Jesus’s assertion that the world’s treasure is in the heart. I place great trust in Bach’s erudite interpretation of Lutheran theology. The aria is, accordingly, triune in concept, with independent parts often full of illustrative bliss for the organ, the voice, and the strings, and, in this instance, a continuo line participatory in the argument. It is also the only aria of the three that is da capo.
Cantata 9, written around 1732 or 1735, is scored for four solo voices (SATB), chorus, flute, oboe d’amore, strings, and continuo and is in seven movements, beginning with a choral movement, closing with a chorale, both of which use the text of a 1524 hymn by Paul Speratus, and in between three recitatives for bass alternating with two arias, the first for tenor, the second a duet for soprano and alto, on anonymous texts. Speratus, originally a Catholic priest, became a disciple of Martin Luther, and assisted Luther as a preacher and hymnist in the creation of the first Lutheran hymnal, published in 1524. The hymnal contains eight hymns, four by Luther, three by Speratus, and one by Justus Jonas.
The 1524 hymnal includes Speratus’s most famous hymn, Es ist das Heil uns kommen her (Salvation now has come for all), the music a 15th century Easter chorale, the words written when Speratus as an excommunicate was imprisoned in Moravia and under sentence of death by fire, and which is the hymn employed by Bach. Its essence derives from Romans 3:28 (Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law), that is, justification is by faith alone, the implication being that faith is justice above and beyond the law and the good deeds performed within the law. This is clear in the verses set by Bach in the cantata’s opening chorus.
Es ist das Heil uns kommen her
Von Gnad und lauter Güte.
Die Werk, die helfen nimmermehr,
Sie mögen nicht behüten.
Der Glaub sieht Jesum Christum an,
Der hat g’nug für uns all getan,
Er ist der Mittler worden.
Salvation has come to us
Through goodness and grace.
Works help no longer.
They cannot protect us.
Faith looks to Jesus Christ,
He has done propitiation for us all,
He has become our mediator.
It states an abandonment that goes beyond Paul’s recognition that the ideal cannot be substituted for reality, that reality is not sinless, and that one’s identity and one’s work resides within this reality. It is a considerable and unfortunate shift towards the absolutism of justification by faith, a declaration still all too common today.
This chorus is a bravura piece, and serious. All of the parts (flute, oboe d’amore, strings, voices) are individualistic, with the hymn in its chorale clothing sung by the sopranos. The first recitative remarks on how, in our weakness and despite the efforts of the Creator, we pursue only sin; and when we come to the tenor aria that follows, Der Abgrund schluckt uns völlig ein, the abyss has swallowed us completely. The descending plaintiveness, in 12/16 time, of the solo violin, despairs at long length of this moral catastrophe. The second recitative, though, brings Jesus into the picture to fulfill the Law and appease the Creator, the text implying Paul’s conclusion of the value and purpose of baptism, and the succeeding aria, a duet for soprano and alto with interlocking accompaniment by flute and oboe d’amore, waxes exceeding much on the strength of this justification by faith alone. The last recitative draws in, if peripherally, the gospel of the day, and introduces the summational chorale, which states that one can depend on the Word, and even if one’s reason refutes it, do not fear. So laß doch dir nicht grauen. The teachings of the Sermon on the Mount are not examined or presented by this cantata. There is only insistence on the absolute validity of faith.
Despite the prevalence of justification in the name of faith that remains in modern times, it will nonetheless be clear that modern thinking on topics of import frequently do not depart from what is propounded in the Sermon; most particularly, if hardly solely, these are the moral worth of justice, the understanding without judgment of those who oppose or differ, the succour of the needy in the land of the rapacious and the falsity of their mendacity, the elemental importance of our part in Nature, and the selection of one’s service in the world. And, necessarily above all, the Golden Rule.
And as to Bach, his emphasis in cantata 170 on the desire for restfulness and holding on to one’s identity in the face of the increasing deterioration of right action throughout humanity and the constant obsession with greed and materialism, hardly lacks relevance today. The course of understanding is difficult, but necessary if we are to persevere and survive in any meaningful way.
I am reminded of the concluding sentences of Spinoza’s Ethics:
For if salvation were at hand, and could be found without great effort, how could nearly everyone neglect it? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.
Nothing that is new is no more than what is old. For we are what we always were, and still so little understand.