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February 2, 2012

Bach Cantatas (8): Feast of Purification of Mary (Feb. 2)

The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple celebrates an early episode in the life of Jesus, and falls always on 2 February. It is also known as the Feast of Purification of Mary (Mariae Reinigung). A woman who had born a child was regarded as unclean for 40 days; after that, she had to go to the temple for a purification rite and also to introduce her first-born son to the priests. According to the Gospel story, at that occasion an old man, Simeon, recognizes the little Jesus as the Christ. In fact, Simeon had been promised by God that he would not die before he had seen Christ. He now expresses his joy of meeting with Christ in a hymn (Canticum Simeonis, "Nunc Dimittis"), which has often been scored for music - and then he dies. The Lutheran Mariae Reinigung festival is therefore always set in the sign of the acceptance of death.

Forty days after Christmas was also the date that in Northwestern Europe the days gradually become lighter and candles (lighted 40 days before Christmas) could be extinguished (Candlemass).

Epistle:  Malachi 3:1–4, the Lord will come to his temple
Gospel: Luke 2:22–32, the purification of Mary and the presentation of Jesus in the temple, followed by Simeon's prophesy of Christ


  1. Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde, BWV 83, 2 February 1724

    Aria (alto): Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde
    Aria (Chorale e recitativo, bass): Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener in Friede fahren, wie du gesaget hast - Was uns als Menschen schrecklich scheint
    Aria (tenor): Eile, Herz, voll Freudigkeit
    Recitativo (alto): Ja, merkt dein Glaube noch viel Finsternis
    Chorale: Es ist das Heil und selig Licht

    The brilliant and energetic opening aria ("Joyful time in the new covenant") somewhat resembles the First Brandenburg Concerto with its prominent horn parts. This is an expression of joy at the purification of Mary. The recitative and plainsong intonation turns towards Simeon ("Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace, as You have spoken"), reflecting on his situation. The tenor aria ("Hurry, heart, full of joy to step before the throne of grace") with solo violin is interesting because of the rhythmical stepping gait, indeed, "hurrying full of joy." A harmonization of the traditional Luther chorale "Mit Fried und Freud" ends the work. (****)

  2. Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, BWV 125, 2 February 1725

    Chor: Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin
    Arie (Alto): Ich will auch mit gebrochnen Augen
    Recitativ und Choral (Bass): O Wunder, daß ein Herz
    Arie - Duett (tenor, Bass): Ein unbegreiflich Licht erfüllt den ganzen Kreis der Erden
    Rezitativ (Alto): O unerschöpfter Schatz der Güte
    Choral: Er ist das Heil und selig Licht

    Chorale cantata. The impressive opening chorus starts with an introduction in 12/8 time, like pastoral siciliano music, and is based on Luther's rendering of the Nunc Dimittis. The long and slow alto aria is accompanied by a flute and an oboe d'amore (without strings). This is rather dissonant music. Note the broken melody caused by the words "broken eyes" and the full stop on the word "sterben" - Bach was a great rhetoric! A recitative with interpolation of quiet phrases of the Luther chorale follows. The duet between tenor and bass is lively and tuneful, as the light in the darkness of which it sings. A recitative leads into the final chorale setting. (****)

  3. Ich habe genug, BWV 82, 2 February 1727

    Aria: "Ich habe genug"
    Recitative: "Ich habe genug"
    Aria: "Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen" ("Fall asleep, you weary eyes")
    Recitative: "Mein Gott! wenn kömmt das schöne: Nun!" ("My God, when will the lovely word come: 'Now!'")
    Aria: "Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod" ("I look forward to my death")

    One of the most beautiful solo-voice cantatas Bach wrote and one of his most popular. There is no chorus or chorale, the cantata only consists of three arias and two recitatives, all for bass voice. Meant for performance at Candlemass, it is about the story of Simeon. The first aria ("I have enough, I have taken the Savior, the hope of the righteous, into my eager arms") is a poignantly beautiful movement that treats the end of Simeon's long life with a mixture of melancholy and resignation. The second aria ("Fall asleep, you weary eyes, close softly and pleasantly") is the emotional highlight of the cantata: a lullaby both for the death of Simeon and for the sleeping Christ child. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. The final aria is joyful and even life affirming, although the text is about something quite different: "I delight in my death, ah, if it were only present already..." (*****)

  4. Ich lasse du nicht, du segnest mich denn, BWV 157 (Leipzig, 1727)

    Arie (Duett Tenor & Bass): Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn!
    Arie (Tenor): Ich halte meinen Jesum feste
    Rezitativ (Tenor): Mein lieber Jesu du
    Arie, Rezitativ und Arioso (Bass): Ja, ja, ich halte Jesum feste
    Choral: Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht

    This cantata is a reworking of the first part of a funeral cantata for Johann von Ponickau, a privy councillor and chamberlain at the Saxon court. Although small in scale - it calls for only six instruments - the work is of great density. It opens with a fine duet ("I will not let You go, therefore bless me"), a canon for tenor and bass with flute, oboe, and violin. The tenor aria ("I hold my Jesus tightly") has a beautiful oboe d'amore accompaniment. The "holding" of Jesus is illustrated with typical long notes. The bass aria has an integrated recitative and a lovely part for flute. An intimate  harmonization of the chorale "Meinem Jesum lass ich nicht" ends the cantata. (***)

  5. Der Friede Sei mit Dir, BWV 158 (Weimar years 1713-1717)

    Rezitativ (Bass): Der Friede sei mit dir
    Arie (Bass und Choral Soprano): Welt, ade, ich bin dein müde
    Rezitativ und Arioso (Bass): Nun, Herr, regiere meinen Sinn
    Choral: Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm

    This seems a mixture of fragmentary movements from two originally different cantatas: the most substantial parts, 2 and 3, are clearly for the Purification of Mary as they point at the story of Simeon. But the first and last movements refer to Easter, so this cantata may also have been used at the third day of Easter. But the individual movements are all excellent, especially the bass aria ("World, farewell, I am tired of you") which is woven around a chorale sung by the soprano and accompanied by a solo violin in the high register. The work finishes with the fifth part of Luther's hymn Christ lag in Todesbanden. (***)

(1) New Year's Day (2) New Year I (3) Epiphany (4) Epiphany I (5) Epiphany II (6) Epiphany III (7) Epiphany IV (8) Feast of Purification of Mary (9) Septuagesima (10) Sexagesima (11) Quinquagesima (Estomihi) (12) The Consecration of a New Organ (13) The Inauguration of the Town Council (14) Oculi (15) Wedding Cantatas (16) Feast of Annunciation (17) Palm Sunday (18) Easter Sunday (19) Easter Monday (20) Easter Tuesday (21) Easter I (Quasimodogeniti) (22) Easter II (23) Easter III (24) Easter IV (25) Easter V (26) Ascension Day (27) Ascension I (28) Pentecost Sunday (29) Pentecost Monday (30) Pentecost Tuesday (31) Trinity Sunday (32) Trinity I (33) Trinity II (34) Trinity III (35) St. John's Day (36) Trinity IV (37) Visitation (38) Trinity V (39) Trinity VI (40) Trinity VII (41) Trinity VIII (42) Trinity IX (43) Trinity X (44) Trinity XI (45) Trinity XII (46) Trinity XIII (47) Trinity XIV (48) Trinity XV (49) Trinity XVI (50) Trinity XVII (51) Trinity XVIII (52) Trinity XIX (53) Trinity XX (54) Trinity XXI (55) Trinity XXII (56) Trinity XXIII (57) Trinity XXIV (58) Trinity XXV-XXVII (59) Advent I-IV (60) Christmas Day (61) Second Day of Christmas (62) Third Day of Christmas (63) Sunday after Christmas