Christus, der ist mein Leben, BWV 95, was first performed in September of 1723 during Bach's first cycle (Jahrgang) of cantatas in Leipzig. The Gospel reading for the 16th Sunday after Trinity is the story of Jesus raising from the dead the son of the widow at Nain. Four cantatas were written for this day. What is somewhat unusual is that all not only have a remarkably similar take on the story but that each is musically very different. Our cantata here, BWV 95, is from the first Jahrgang and is one of Bach's most interesting experiments in the use of chorale melodies from that year. Here he uses four chorales joined by recitatives and one aria. The progress from one chorale to the next is what is of interest here.

One of the largest and most impressive German pieces from the 17th century is Heinrich Schütz' “Musicalische Exequien.” In its first movement, perhaps the longest single movement in 17th century German music, Schütz strings together a meditation upon death by alternating biblical passages with chorale tunes. The associative connection between these chorales and the biblical passages makes a large and impressive patchwork, a kind of narrative of the soul's progress from life to death. While it is unlikely that Bach knew this work, our cantata uses a similar technique.

Cantata BWV 95 begins with a setting of the chorale “ Christus, der ist mein Leben” for two oboes d'amore, strings and chorus. A horn doubles the soprano in the choral movements. The piece starts out with a gently rocking theme that is passed back and forth between the oboes and the strings. Gradually the theme is transformed in the strings to an ecstatic rising theme that clearly illustrates the soul's journey to heaven. The four phrases of the chorale are presented in a simple block fashion except for the second, which is a hushed piano expansion of the word ”sterben.” After this moment the chorale is allowed to continue. The last line of this first chorale is “mit Freud' fahr' ich dahin.” Bach uses this line after a series of tenor recitatives to connect to the next chorale, the great Luther tune “Mit Fried' und Freud' ich fahr' dahin.” This verbal association is very similar to the way in which Schütz connects his material in the “Musicalische Exequien.” The setting of “Mit Fried und Freud” is austere. Tight little canons between the trumpet and the unison oboes are played over an inexorable running bass line as introductions to each phrase of the chorale. As with the earlier chorale the tune itself is presented in a block like fashion. As with the first chorale the action is stopped at the mention of death, here the words "sanft und stille.”

Although the movement here comes to a full close, there is a strong suggestion that the whole cantata is played segue and that the following recitative should be attacca. The focus here becomes personal rather than the communal sense that a chorus inevitably brings. For all of that there is a remarkable consistency, textually throughout the cantata. The soprano leads from the brief recitative into the third chorale of the cantata, a solo performance of “Valet will ich dir geben” with the two oboes d'amore playing an obbligato in unison. There is a great variety of not only character but texture in these three chorale settings. The first has a soft-edged warmth, the second, an almost forbidding austere quality. This, the third is personal almost casual. The obbligato is schematic in the extreme, but very appealing. It perhaps most resembles the great tune that accompanies the tenor chorale in Wachet auf! (BWV 140).

The text has been remarkably unified up to this point. That unity does not change, but we go from chorale as the lynchpin to aria. The secco tenor recitative leads directly into the only concerted piece with no connection to a chorale, an enormously appealing aria with the two oboes d'amore and pizzicato strings. All of the cantatas for the 16th Sunday after Trinity have prominent pizzicato sections because of the association with death. The “funeral bell” sound permeates this aria. Over the bells of the strings the oboes d'amore play a beautiful swinging tune which has at the end of each four-bar period a built-in echo. The strings play rapid bell-like pizzicati and the bass plays slow bells which have a built-in augmentation. The phrasing is square and comforting. The aria could become boxy sounding if the voice line didn't have such an interesting, conversational tone. This wonderful casual rhetoric is supported by the gliding counterpoint of the first oboe d'amore. This large aria is so skillfully drawn and magically orchestrated that it becomes the emotional center of the cantata.

Surprisingly there is a long and rather complicated secco bass recitative before the final chorale. It is a warm and increasingly passionate statement of faith ending in a beautiful affirmative arioso. The last chorale in this work is a setting of the touching tune “Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist.” Rising above the four part texture is a high and sweet 1st violin obbligato. This is one of the very great Bach cantatas. It is not an emotional journey like some of the other best pieces, but rather a consistent declaration of faith.

©Craig Smith

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