Today’s cantata, "Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe," is a
meditation on the Gospel reading in the Lutheran calendar, Matthew 8:1-13.
The lesson describes Jesus healing a leper and his conversation with
a centurion from Capernaum. The soldier beseeches Jesus to heal his
servant, but not by visiting his home and laying hands on the sick man,
for, says the centurion, “I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under
my roof; but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.” Jesus
marvels at his faith and grants his request, saying, “As thou hast believed,
so be it done unto thee.”
Probably first performed on January 23, 1729, the cantata conveys its lesson with an economy of means and musical forces. The introductory sinfonia, for solo oboe accompanied by strings, creates a mood of perfect serenity and calm, its cadence to the dominant leading directly into an aria for tenor. The sustained note with which unison violins and viola open the ritornello suggests at once the firmness of faith even when beseiged by deadly illness; the figure is taken up by the tenor soloist to the words “Ich steh,” “I stand.” Against tenor, strings, and continuo, Bach sets a soprano singing a strophe from a chorale by an earlier Leipzig Thomascantor, Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630). Next, the first of two recitatives, both for bass, sounds a more anguished note at the words “Angst und Not” (fear and affliction), but soon resolves to accept whatever God wills. This theme is taken up again in the following aria, whose generally sunny affect is only momentarily disturbed by more charged harmonies at the words “Im Sterben, in Bitten und Flehn” (In dying, beseeching, and pleading). The second recitative sums up by quoting Psalm 73:26 (When body and soul fail me, then art thou, God, my comfort and my heart’s portion). Bach subtly underlines the unmistakeably hopeful meaning of the cantata’s text (despite its speaking largely of sickness and death) by concluding with a chorale in C major, a key higher in the Baroque harmonic scheme than the F major of the Sinfonia and tenor aria and the B-flat major of the alto aria.
Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703), Sebastian’s father’s cousin, was highly esteemed by later generations of Bachs. His works were preserved in the family music collection known as the Altbachisches Archiv and in the family genealogy Johann Sebastian described him as a “profound composer,” to which his son Carl Philip Emanuel added, “This is the great and expressive composer.” The short five-voice motet Fürchte dich nicht demonstrates what the 18th-century Bachs so valued in their forebear: a deep understanding of Lutheran theology, perfectly embodied in music; persuasive, affective declamation of German; immersion in the great tradition of chorale settings; mastery of counterpoint and harmony; and, not least, a dramatic flair made evident here in the long-delayed entrance of the chorale in the soprano.
Bach cantata BWV 156 is a relatively late work. It begins with a transcription for obe and strings of the slow movement of the Harpsichord Concerto in f. The wonderful tenor aria with its halting bass line is crowned with the marvelous soprano chorale. A recitative leads into the wonderful and detailed aria for violins, oboe, and alto. A simple chorale ends the cantata.