The editors of the Bach Gesellschaft Edition, the first (and often still the best) edition of Bach’s compositions, decided in 1852 to begin the series with ten church cantatas. They were asserting their conviction that the cantatas are central to Bach’s enterprise. At the time of this first publication they already had examined and begun editing a large number of cantatas. Their choice of the first ten expressed the following criteria: 1) quality; 2) variety; 3) textual significance, including awareness of the major church holidays; 4) immediacy and impact. This volume of ten needed to attract subscribers and buyers – scholars, performers, libraries, and members of the small public that had heard some of Bach’s music. It offered and still offers a grand tour of all the basic Bach cantata types, at a stunning artistic level.
Amid the obvious peaks of the two Easter period pieces 4 and 6, and the great Christmas season works 1 and 10, Cantata 9 at first seems light – transparent, airy, and pretty, mainly due to the charm of the opening chorus. This chorus announces the destination of this cantata, to be learned in the succeeding movements. It rejoices in the revelation of a certain piece of doctrine dear to Lutheranism: “Deeds can never help, they cannot protect us. Faith beholds Jesus Christ”. Bach and his librettist chose a hymn for the day as basis for their text. The actual lesson for the day from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:20, has a different thrust: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes, you shall never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The gossamer sound of the opening movement disguises the fact that this cantata is the locus classicus of Lutheran fervor in all of Bach’s work, the clearest expression in cantata form of the composer’s lifelong identification with the founder of his denomination. The 'story' of this cantata is Luther’s story, so familiar to Bach, a progress from utter despair to hope for salvation which forms the heart of so many cantata-dramas and must have had personal resonance for the composer.
Luther, in a characteristic state of doubt, anguish, and torment, reads and re-reads a statement, which he says he had always hated: “The justice of God is revealed in the Gospel” (Romans 1:17). He ponders this for many days and nights, passionately, despairingly disturbed by his understanding that 'justice' implies judgmental punishment. Here he is, in the tenor aria, the desperate sound of the low tenor voice plunging to the abyss, hectored by an avenging, distended tarantella played by the solo violin. Suddenly he sees a connection to the next of Paul’s phrases, “The just shall live by faith.” Justice acquires a connection to compassion, faith suggests a way through. Luther, always feeling insufficient in the world of deeds, described the effect: “I felt as if I had been born again and had entered Paradise through wide open gates. Immediately the whole of Scripture took on a new meaning for me.” So we next hear the most extended vocal canon (Canon = Law) in all of Bach, the seraphic wind scoring of the first chorus returns, and two sing in the plainest folk poetry about this wonderful discovery, Luther called it a recovery: "Nur der Glaube macht gerecht, Alles andre scheint zu schlecht / Only faith can justify, all the rest is just a lie" (trans. JH).
Canons in Bach’s generation: not only a metaphor for Law, something given or proved, but also a bridge to the next world, since if carried out strictly it cannot end, (But in the generation of Bach’s sons it was regarded as the essence of Old Hat, hard-disciplined, anhedonic).
A singer in Aspen said during the coaching of this duo, “At first I thought it was the most beautiful duet I’d ever sung, but the more I sing it, our parts together, it feels very important and permanent.”
The word Gesetz (Law) appears in the first sentence of each of the three Preacher’s recitations in Cantata 9. Trying to grasp the meaning of this moment in Luther’s life, E.H. Harbison, in his 1958 book The Christian Scholar in the Age of Reformation writes: “The only analogy that seems helpful is that of a modern scientist searching long and painfully for the answer to some question about nature, to be rewarded when all the pieces miraculously fall into place. Luther...was convinced that there was something objective about his discovery...The experiment could be performed by someone else. Discovery is not a revelation...it is a verifiable insight.”
This helps us to understand how Bach and his librettist could be excited to make a piece of music about doctrine. Excited enough to take it up as late as 1735, long after Bach’s cantata writing days, to substitute as text a popular hymn for the day for the lectionary lesson, to boil that hymn’s sixteen verses down to fit five concise movements. Excited enough to create in the middle movements two extreme contrapuntal masterpieces, the first contorted and crazed, the second seemingly effortless, so calmly composed it seems like a natural phenomenon.
Cantata 9 presents some features which – especially for a non-Lutheran listenership – could be easy to miss. Why are these abstract and didactic words rendered with such glowing warmth? Why did the first editions of the Bach Gesellschaft put it in their showcase Volume I? Does translation do anything to illuminate these questions?
Bach's setting of "Es ist das Heil" is one of his freshest and most appealing chorale settings. Flute and oboe d'amore play a concerto-style movement accompanied very lightly by strings and continuo. Most of the musical material is not based upon the chorale tune, which appears high and light in the choral sopranos. Rather, all of the melodies act as countersubjects to the tune. All of the recitatives in our cantata are concerned with the rule of law, so Bach sets them all for a rather authoritarian-sounding bass voice. This is in extreme contrast that the passion of the tenor aria and the childlike simplicity of the soprano-alto duet. The sinking into the mire in the text of the tenor aria is characterized not only by the downward rush of the voice, but also the devilish Tartini-like violin writing. After the sinister tenor aria and the stern recitative, the re-entrance of the flute and oboe d'amore to accompany the soprano and alto adds a heavenly light touch. The musical material is so tuneful and attractive that the listener hardly notices that the work is an extremely skilled four-voice canon. Bach often uses the greatest learning to characterize childlike purity. The harmonization of the chorale that ends our cantata is as fresh and spring-like as the opening chorus.