Perhaps the greatest achievement in Bach’s first year in Leipzig is the monumental chorus that begins the Cantata BWV 77. There has perhaps never been such a profound reaction to the parable of the Good Samaritan in all of art. About ten years before the composition of this work, Bach wrote an altogether more personal and modest reaction to this parable. The work was written in Weimar during a period when Bach was expected to provide service music once a month for the court chapel. The resulting work, BWV 164, was never performed in Weimar, because soon after its conception a period of mourning and thus silence as declared for the tragic death of the young Prince Johann Ernst, who was also one of Bach’s favorite pupils.
The work was finally first performed in Bach’s third year at Leipzig. Bach never had a better librettist than his Weimar poet Salomo Franck. In our cantata today, Franck builds a series of touching and skillful metaphors: the pair of hands, wringing and open to help the victim; the weeping eyes, both hypocritical and real; and the heart, hard as stone or full of compassion. The work begins with a melancholy, rolling tenor aria with strings, reflecting Christ’s sadness at the hypocrisy of the professed Christian. The following bass recitative is tougher in tone and unforgiving in its judgment upon the priest and the Levite.
Bach portrays the mercy of the Samaritan in the alto aria with gorgeous flutes, which are like a balm after the austerity of the continuo recitative. Bach then brings back not only the tenor voice but the strings as well, in a melting and forgiving texture in the accompanied recitative. The following duet for soprano and bass is a surprise. Mercy and forgiveness are usually portrayed in music with quiet and soft-edged music. Here the quicksilver music of all the treble instruments, often in canon with the bass instruments, creates a rapier lively texture. Notice how the close canons between the top and bottom instruments sound like the two open hands moving symmetrically. While it is true that the extraordinary grand design of the Cantata BWV 77 might have been beyond Bach in this Weimar period of his career, there is a personal warmth and connection to the text that is truly heart-warming in this lovely piece.