Home cantates varia biografie

Going to Church with J.S. Bach -

an inquiry into the spiritual world of the Bach cantatas


The opening choir of Bachs Saint-Matthews Passion (Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen) read against the background of common 17-18th century devotional Bible exegesis, in particular the rev. Heinrich Müller’s very famous Hertzensspiegel, gives us insight in the devotion of Bach and his contemporaries.



In Bach’s days Lutherans read the Bible in a very creative and imaginative way, mainly using a kind of sacred word-association-technique, almost at random combining texts from all 66 (or 72) books of the Bible. In this network of words and phrases (today we would say: hypertext) new meaning emerges that is not 'really' there (really = historical-literal). Often one recognises traditional allegorical and typological topoi. Since nowadays Bach's cantata texts are almost the only vital specimina of this almost lost biblical spirituality - which in se is as old as (or even older than) christianity itself - today’s listeners often find it hard to make sense of these texts. However, this is the spiritual world Bach lived in. It was the basis of the sermons he heard, it permeated the devotional or exegetical books he possessed (and read): Heinrich Müller, Johann Olearius, and Johann Arndt, to name only the most influential ones. And it is the material Bach’s libretto-writers (among whom Christian Friedric Henrici (known under his nom de plume Picander) was the most prolific) used to write the cantata-texts, and the scripts for the Passions. One could almost use any text to illustrate this, but I will focus on one text only, the famous opening choir of the St. Matthew Passion. I will analyze this short text with the help of Heinrich Müller's Evangelischer Hertzensspiegel [Meditations on the gospel of every sunday in the liturgical year]. This book was widespread and well-read especially because Müller had included a number of Passionspredigten in it.[1] In these sermons he meditates on every moment of Jesus’s  Passion and finds meaning in every aspect/detail of it. Traces of these sermons can be found in many contemporary sermons, poems (e.g., Salomon Franck, Bach’s colleague and ‘librettist’ in Weimar [2]) and – of course – in the texts produced by Picander for Bach’s passions. I do not claim to be original in my research nor in my conclusions. My source is a thorough and profound study in German by Elke Axmacher, "Aus Liebe will mein Heyland sterben". Untersuchungen zum Wandel des Passionsverständnis im frühen 18. Jahrhundert (Neuhausen-Stuttgart, 1984). In chapter 7 (p. 166-203) she deals with the text of the Saint Matthew's Passion. She suggests quite convincingly that Heinrich Müller’s text was often a direct source for Picander to ‘compose’ his text. Müller on his turn was not original, he never claimed to be. In his work we easily discern echos of over 1500 years of meditational biblical exegesis. His writings had a huge impact because he had theological authority (he was orthodox, but the pietists also liked him), was an excellent preacher, and a sensitive author.


The texts

Between the introductory choir of St. Matthew’s Passion, which already clearly refers to the crucifixion it self (especially in the last two lines), and some passages from Müllers 8th Passionspredigt (sermon on Christ’s Passion) entitled ‘From the Death of Christ’, conspicuous similarities can be found. If one compares the texts, it is clear that one can not speak of Picander simply poetising the prose of Müller (as he did for some of the aria’s), but it is clear that he could easily find all motifs of the introitus including the chorale he cites, in Müllers sermon. In the table below I reproduce the relevant sections from Müller’s sermon juxtaposed with Picander’s text, first in German, then in an English translation.


Müller (DEUTSCH)


Wann denn, liebste Hertzen, ich am heutigen Tage der Braut Christi den Tod ihres allerliebsten Freundes ankündigen soll, möchte ich wol sagen: Ach, wie gern wolt ich, daß ich nicht predigen könnte. Eine traurige Botschafft, der Bräutigam ist todt…  Was wird die Braut Christi am heutigen Tage anders sagen, wann ihr geprediget wird von dem Tode ihres Bräutigams Christi, als diß: Ach, Meine Sünden haben ihn zerrissen! (S. 395)
Im Alten Testament hatte Gott verordnet, daß die Sünd-Opffer ausser dem Lager solten geschlachtet werden. Hier ist auch das Sünd-Opffer, Jesus, der sich selbst hat auffgeopffert Gott zu einem süssen Geruch ...  (S. 397).
- Hie muß Christus erfüllen das Vorbild Isaacs, Der das Holtz, darauff er solte geschlachtet werden, selbst tragen muste, nach dem Berg Moria. Mein Hertz, so gehet das Lamm Gottes, und träget der gantzen Welt Sünde, kanst leicht gedencken, mit was für Schmertzen. (S. 398)

Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen,
Sehet - Wen? - den Bräutigam,
Seht ihn - Wie? - als wie ein Lamm!
O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig
Am Stamm des Kreuzes geschlachtet,
Sehet, - Was? - seht die Geduld,
Allzeit erfunden geduldig,
Wiewohl du warest verachtet.
Seht - Wohin? - auf unsre Schuld;
All Sünd hast du getragen,
Sonst müßten wir verzagen.
Sehet ihn aus Lieb und Huld
Holz zum Kreuze selber tragen!
Erbarm dich unser, o Jesu!

Müller (ENGLISH)


Oh, my beloved friends, when I have to tell the bride of Christ that her dearest friend has died, I would like to say: ‘Oh, how I would that I could not preach. It is such a sad message I have to bring: the Groom is dead’... What else can the bride of Christ say to day when the message of the Groom’s death arrives? Nothing then this: ‘Oh, My sins have torn him!’ (p. 395)
- In the Old Testament God had decreed that the guilt offerings should be slaughtered oustide of the camp. Here we also have a guilt offering, Jesus, who gave himself to please God... (p. 397).
- Here Christ is going to fulfil the example of Isaac, who carried himself the wood on which he would be slaughtered, up to Mount Moriah. My dearest, when the Lamb of God, carrying the sins of the world, goes by, you can easily imagine what it is that hurts him (p. 398)

Come, ye daughters, help me lament,
Behold! - Whom? - The Bridegroom.

Behold him! - How? - Like a lamb.

O guiltless Lamb of God,

Slaughtered on the stem of the cross,

Behold! - What? - Behold his patience.

Always found patient,

Although thou wast despised

Behold! - Where? - Behold our guilt.

All sin hast thou borne,

Else we must have despaired.

Behold Him, out of love and graciousness,
Himself carrying the wood of the cross.

Have mercy upon us, O Jesus.



The introductory choir is full of ancient traditional motifs, mostly typological, of which the understanding is indispensable for a true appraisal of this text. Picander framed the opening choir as a lamentation in which ‘the daughters of Zion and the community of the faithful’ (so they are identified in the libretto) accompany Jesus on his way to the cross. The term ‘Daughters of Zion’ first of all refers literally to the women mentioned in Luke 23:27, adressed by Jesus in verse 28 as ‘Daughters of Jerusalem’. They lamented him. Behind them, however, other ‘daughters of Jerusalem’ emerge,  literary-traditional ancestors of these women: the ‘daughters of Zion’ from the Song of Songs, to whom the ‘Bride’ turns several times for help. A glance at the first lines of Müller makes clear that Bernhard of Clairvaux's famous 86 allegorical sermons on this Bible Book were not discarded by the Reformed exegetes. Protestant post-Reformation homiletics embraced medieval hermeneutics. This is a bit surprising remembering the way Luther criticized this hermeneutical method. Moreover: without a basic knowledge of this ‘reading of the Old Testament’ one will never understand the texts Bach set to music in many of his ‘dialogue’ cantatas, where the ‘soul’ converses with Christ as a Bride with her Groom. As a particularly clear prophetic vision of the crucifixion ch. 3,11 was understood: “Go forth, O daughters of Zion, and gaze on King Solomon with the crown with which his mother has crowned him on the day of his wedding”. This was understood as a reference to the crown of thorns, esp. because a rose-garden is also present in the Song of Songs. Müller quotes this verse using the traditonal allegorical interpretation: “King Solomon is Jesus Christ, the true Prince of Peace. His mother is the Jewish Synagogue ... The day of his wedding is the day of his suffering, for on that day he bought his Bride with his blood. The crown are the thorns the soldiers put on his head.” (p. 371).

In the third line, Picander mentions the second and most famous ‘typos’, which, according to the ancient Passion tradition, prefigures Christ on his path towards the execution: the Lamb. The basic text for this typology of course is Isaiah 53:7 “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” Already in the New Testament, the lamb becomes the type of Christ in the baptismal testimony: “Behold, this is the lamb of God that carries away the sins of the world.” (John 1: 29). The hymn quoted by Picander is the first stanza of the Lutheran choral version by Nikolaus Decius of the classic Agnus Dei. The reference to the sacrifices of Israel in general and the one on Atonement Day (Pesach, Easter) in particular are self-evident.

The third christological type Picander found in Müller, is the “example of Isaac, who carried himself the wood on which he would be slaughtered, up to Mount Moriah”(p. 398). Only if one is aware of this then very common interpretation of the story of Isaac the expression in the opening choir ‘das Holz zum Kreuze selber tragen’ (to carry the wood to the cross himself) reveals itself as a reference to Christ as the anti-typos of Isaac. Once one is aware of it, the two last lines of the madrigal text clearly evoke this story.



The material with which Picander constructs the opening choir, is thus made of the rock of elementary and traditional passion theology. The Lamb and lsaac are fixed types of Christ carrying his cross. The word ‘lamb’ is also connected to that other semantic field of the ‘wedding’ (Jesus as the Bridegroom). In Revelation 19:7 the ‘Wedding of the Lamb’ even explicitly links the two field. The lamb is the groom, the same who is so eagerly attended by the Bride and her friends (the ‘daugthers of Zion’) in the Song of Songs, who in their turn of immediately suggest those other bridesmaids from the famous parable of Jesus in Mt. 25,1-11 waiting for his arrival in the night. Many hymns use this imagery, f.i. the second stanza of ‘Jesu, meine Freude’ (Salomon Franck), beginning ‘Gottes Lamm, mein Brautigam’ (Lamb of God, my Bridegroom) or the very popular hymn of Adam Drese ‘Seelenbräutigam, Jesu, Gottes Lamm’ (Bridegroom of my soul, Jesus, lamb of God), of which the melody is later associated with the famous hymn of Nicolaus von Zinzendorf, Jesus lead Thou on / Till our Rest is won. And of course the well-known hymn of Philipp Nicolai ‘Wachet auf ruft uns der Stimme’ (Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying), a song entirely build around these equations.[3]

It is interesting to see how Picander uses this traditional material in the opening choir. He cleverly combines it with the hymn and gives it a very lively colour by introducing the exclamations of the women: Kommet, sehet (Come, look!). This adds a dramatical, even theatrical, aspect to the text. The allegorical meaning and the historical setting oscillate. The ‘daughters of Zion’ refer at the same time to the historical women alongside the road (Luke 23,27) and to the friends of the bride eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Bride (Song of Songs 3,11) and to the maidens of the eschatological parable of Jesus (Mt 25,1-11) and – finally – to the community of the faithful present in Church for the service of Good Friday. It is exactly that ambiguity that creates he richness of meaning, so characteristic for he sermons, mediations and spirituality of Bach’s times. These were the times when polysemy was celebrated. In the rest of the opening choir, the choral of course determines the possibilities of the madrigal (free) text. The exclamations ‘wer, wie, was, wohin’ (who, how, what, where) are dictated by the text of the choral. From being a mere ‘spectator’ the faithful are drawn into the action. They not only ‘participate’ in lamenting the fate of Jesus, they get personally involved. As a matter of fact: the imagery of the lamb of God makes them the protagonists of the entire event. It is their sinfulness that triggered this dramatic scene: As in a mirror they suddenly see themselves as who they are: sinners (‘Sehet auf unsre Schuld’, Behold our guilt). At the same moment the meditation deepens and turns into a humble prayer: ‘Erbarm dich meiner’ (Have mercy). In the meantime the imagery of Isaac, as the obedient Son, who without asking why, fullfils the commandments of his Father, designates Jesus as the true Messiah. In the view of Picander this should be interpreted as a gesture of ‘love and graciousness’. That mount Moria, the place of the ‘sacrifice of Isaac’ and the temple mountain are one and the same, at least for the readers of the Old Testament, exponentially heightens the significance of the events that are going to be depicted in the rest of the Passion. Picander’s text introducing the Passion is equal in value and depth as the music it evoked with Bach.



Three classic typologies of Christ are present in the opening choir: 1. the Lamb (sacrifice in the OT, esp. on Atonement Day, the ‘Servant of the Lord’ from Isaiah), 2. Isaac, carrying the 'wood' for his own sacrifice (his willingness to comply with his Father's command) and 3. the Groom (implicit in the women along the road who bemoan Jesus’ fate, identified as the 'Daughters of Zion/Jerusalem, a reference to the friends of the Bride from the Song of Songs, and thus from the wedding parables in the Gospel). Without knowledge of this ‘way of reading Scripture’ one can not begin to understand Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and many a Cantata.

Antwerp, Reformationday 2016 Dick Wursten

[1] Heinrich Müller, Evangelischer Hertzens-Spiegel. In offentlicher Kirchen-Versammlung bey Erklärung der Sonntäglichen und Fest-Evangelien, nebst beygefügten Passion-Predigten (Frankfurt am Main, 1679), often reprinted.

[2] In one of Franck’s florilegia with spiritual poems we find a poem entitled 'Auf Christi Begräbnis gegen Abend' (for the burial of Christ in the evening). In this poem we find the same twists, imagery and biblical associations as in the famous bass-arioso: Am Abend da es kühle war. This way of meditating on Christ’s burial is also present in Müller’s Passionspredigten and of course can be found with the Churchfathers, both early and high Middle-Ages.

[3] Bach’s choral cantata BWV 140 makes this point very nicely. See my analysis of this cantata at this website: mystical_Bach



Dick Wursten (dick@wursten.be)