J.S. Bach – Cantata BWV 156, at Epiphany III

The healing of a leper. Illustrated manuscript. Unknown French master.

The healing of a leper. Illustrated manuscript. Unknown French master.

The first words of the aria that follows the opening sinfonia for oboe and quietened strings, with its melody of the rarest beauty, are: Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe (I am standing with one foot in the grave); Bald fällt der kranke Leib hinein (Soon my ailing body will fall in). I employ the melody as an epigraph to one of the central elegies in my book Caravaggio’s Dagger, the first part of the trilogy Solitary Ethics. 

Bach himself seems to have been keen on the melody, which first appeared in an oboe concerto (which has been reconstructed) and later in the harpsichord concerto in F minor, which, like the cantata, where the melody is also given to the oboe, is one of Bach’s later works. The gospel is Matthew 8:1-13 (the healing of the leper). The epistle is Paul’s epistle to the Romans 12:17-21.

17 Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.

18 If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.

19 Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.

20 Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.

21 Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

I had, in the early spring of 2001 in Vancouver, reached this work in my study of the Bach cantatas when my mother telephoned and said the time had come for me to be in Ottawa, as my father was dying.

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