Although numbered amongst the church cantatas, BWV 198 (Die Trauerode - Funeral Ode) is more properly classified as a secular cantata in that it was not written for any of the regular church services, thus its rare appearance in the cycle of sacred cantatas in Emmanuel’s repertoire. In its original form, it was written in 1727 for the commemoration service of Christiane Eberhardine, Queen of Poland and Electress of Saxony, with a libretto by J.C. Gottsched. To confuse the matter more, in 1865, Wilhelm Rust – organist, scholar, and chief editor of the Bach-Gesellschaft – adapted the original text by Gottsched to be used in a liturgical setting, specifically All Saints Sunday. It is this adapted text by Rust that we use today.
When Christiane Eberhardine, Electress of Saxony and Queen of Poland, died in 1727, two of the most eminent men in Leipzig, the poet, J.C.Gottsched and J.S. Bach, were commissioned to write an ode of mourning. The state of Saxony mourned no ordinary Queen. When her husband had converted to Catholicism in order to gain the throne of Poland, she remained true to the Lutheran faith, something that won her the hearts of all Saxony.
Gottsched was not only a notable poet in the Leipzig, he was integral in establishing German as a respectable literary language. However, Bach ignored much of the structural integrity of Gottsched’s verses, devising his own system in structuring the music: the solo recitatives and arias are set for all four voices, beginning with the soprano and proceeding down to bass. He includes most of the idioms appropriate to the “Italian style”: the dense texture of the opening movement, four accompanied recitatives, the final secco recitative that flows into an arioso, the fugue in the middle chorus, and the closing movement for chorus set as a gigue.
Bach employed an unusually extensive and exotic instrumentation for the Trauerode. While the violas da gamba are typical in Bach’s settings of mournful texts (Cantata 106 and the two Passions), it is highly unusual to find him employing two lutes as well. It is clear that Bach gave as much care in planning and writing this work as he did in his passion settings. The opening chorus contains echoes of the final chorus of the St. Matthew Passion, which Bach had performed for the first time earlier the same year. He reused this and movement seven in a cantata mourning the death of Leopold I of Cöthen in 1729, a piece that is essentially a contrafactum (same music, different text) of the St. Matthew Passion. Most of the other movements he reused in the now lost St. Mark Passion, something that confirms the passion- like nature of this work.
The opening chorus, as eloquently portrayed by Simon Crouch, “is not a great outpouring of grief but delicate, almost dancelike movement beseeching the deceased to look down and observe the sincerity of the tears shed.” After a striking narrative recitative comes the heart wrenching soprano aria characterized by rising and falling figures in the opening ritornello, paired with wailing chromaticism of the soprano on the text Schmerzenswort (“word of suffering”). The stunningly vivid recitative for alto depicts the clangor of funeral bells while all the instruments play in imitation. The beautifully lyric alto aria, scored for two violas da gamba, two lutes and continuo, illustrates the comfort of Christ through the cradling swing of the gambas' melodic line and the especially long held notes by the voice. The tenor recitative that follows promotes the theme of comfort, gently escorted by two oboes d’amore. The first half ends with a short choral fugue.
The second half starts with a lilting line from the flute, supported by oboe d'amore leading into one of the finest and most difficult tenor arias in all of Bach. Note the elegant text painting on the phrase "was Liebe wob, was Gnad’ gesponne" [what Love has woven, what Grace has spun] as the tenor spins a floating melisma. The complex and capricious bass recitative and arioso gives way the final chorus. Set as a gigue in 12/8, it concludes the work with gentle confidence while quoting Job 19: 25-26: "I know that my Redeemer liveth."