Most of the chorales set before the fifteenth Sunday after Trinity in the 2nd Jahrgang are familiar ones. They are for the most part tunes that are still in the Lutheran hymnal today. More importantly, they are works that were already old and established in the repertoire when Bach set them. Of a completely different order is the song set in the Cantata for the 16th Sunday after Trinity, “Liebster Gott, wenn werd’ ich sterben?” It was written in the late 1600’s and thus relatively new. Apparently already a favorite with the congregation, its theology is sentimental, very different than the bedrock Lutheranism that we have come to expect in these cantatas. Certainly Bach’s treatment is fundamentally different than we have seen in the earlier pieces. We have grown to expect the minutest examination of the melodic and verbal content of these melodies. Here the tune is used in almost an impressionist manner. Although the middle verses seem to be influential in the recitative and aria movements, they are not treated with any thing like the reverence of some of the earlier chorale verses. What we have in Cantata BWV 8 is a ravishingly beautiful tone poem that has as its jumping-off point a rather free version of some verses of a recent popular song.
The opening chorus has always astounded even those who think they know a lot of Bach. Spitta described it as having the sound of a “church-yard full of flowers in the springtime.” It is an apt comparison, because though the text is directly about death, the sound of the piece is warm, friendly and leisurely. The Gospel reading for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity is the story of the raising of the son of the widow at Nain. It is one of the few readings after Trinity that is not associated with a pithy parable. All four of the cantatas for this day are permeated with bell-sounds and the affect of all of them is remarkably similar.
Our cantata here has a unique texture. Plucked violins and violas play slow broken arpeggio patterns over isolated arco bell tones in the bass. Two oboes d’amore weave sinuous patterns above sometimes imitative, sometimes in thirds and sixths. On top of all of this the flute plays two types of figures, a repeated note pattern of 24 notes, the number of times the church bell in Leipzig rang to announce the death of a parishioner. The flute also at times goes into a wonderfully lazy arpeggio figure that brings on the final cadence before the chorus enters. As is usual the sopranos in the chorus sing in long notes, but here the melody is ornamented and softened by passing tones. The fact that the chorale is made to fit into an easy-going 12/8 meter gives it an even more refreshing “popular” cast. The opening tutti and the interludes are quite lengthy giving the orchestral sections an even more prominent role in the musical argument. Although unusually complicated, the texture has a kind of miraculous clarity that is positively hypnotic.
The bell tones continue in the bass of the tenor aria #2. Not only do the instruments remain pizzicato, but also the rhythmic pattern is set up in the first bar and repeated in virtually every bar throughout the piece. The oboe and the tenor weave an arching and very detailed duet over this bass. The whole mood is of a mildly melancholy yearning. The accompanied alto recitative brings forth a bit of the terror of death, but it is just a transition to the amazingly jolly bass aria with flute and strings. Like the opening chorus this aria is in 12/8 time, but the calm flowing character of the opening has been replaced by a real jig tempo. The aria is in a very sophisticated da capo form. One should notice how the melodic contour of the last line of the A section is completed and answered by the opening of the B section.
As is so often the case, the voice of the child soprano has the last word with its wonderful piping recitative. The final chorale has none of the severity of most of the four-voice chorale settings that we have seen at the end of the 2nd Jahrgang cantatas. It is a bravely marching thing, with the sopranos leading the way. It is interesting that the melody of this chorale is never sung in an unadulterated manner in this cantata.