From Heavenly Harmony
Consolation in Death
On Bach's Cantata BWV 106, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbesteZeit ("God's time is the very best time")
by Ken Myers
We really don't know whose funeral it was. For some time, it was suggested that Johann Sebastian Bach composed one of his earliest cantatas to honor the death of his maternal uncle, Tobias Lämmerhirt, who was buried on August 14, 1707. But that is now regarded as more a legend than a reliable fact.
What we do know is that Cantata BWV 106, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbesteZeit ("God's time is the very best time") is both a musical and theological tour de force. In this 20-minute-long work (also known as Actus tragicus) Bach organizes biblical texts, Lutheran melodies, and instrumental textures to convey the comforting message of the gospel in the face of death. Musicologist Eric Chafe observes that "the chronological aspect of the text mirrors the eras of 'salvation history'—the time of Israel, time of Christ, and time of the church."
I'm tempted to stop writing here and ask you to go listen to the work right now (the allofbach.com website has a splendid performance), but maybe I should try to explain how Bach managed (at the age of 22) to create this minor masterpiece.
God's Time Is Best
As is the case in about 25 of his cantatas, Bach begins Cantata BWV 106 with a brief instrumental introduction; these movements are often called Sinfonias, but here he uses the term Sonatina, a more modest and humble description appropriate to the simple scoring of the movement: two recorders, two violas da gamba, and continuo. Not only are the forces spare, they represent what at the time were old-fashioned instruments. Recorders were often used to suggest a more rustic or primitive sensibility. But this brief (two-and-a-half minutes) introduction is captivating. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner judges that "the opening sonatina comprises twenty of the most heart-rending bars in all of his works."
This compelling prelude is followed—seamlessly—by the second major section of the work, in which a four-part choir sings, somewhat somberly, the text that gives the cantata its name: "God's time is the very best time." After a very brief pause, a text from Acts 17 is sung in a lively and intricate fugue in triple meter: "In him we live, move, and are—so long as he wills." The word solange ("so long") is first sung in the soprano part and is dramatically sustained, before the other voices join in to finish with "so long as he wills." Then the tempo slows down, and the voices enter a minor key to sing: "In him we die at the right time, when he wills."
At the end of this phrase, there is a brief pause before a new section begins, this time with a tenor solo singing (still in that minor key) a verse from Psalm 90:12— "Ah, Lord, teach us to think that we must die so that we become wise." The singing of "Ach, Herr" ("Ah, Lord!") repeatedly comes across as an urgent cry.
Come, Lord Jesus
This tenor solo is followed by an assertive bass aria declaring (in a text from Isaiah 38): "Put your house in order, for you will die and not remain living." This short injunction is quickly followed by a dour, dirge-like chorus with a text from Ecclesiasticus: "It is the old covenant: Man, you must die!" In the midst of this gloom, a soprano solo is suddenly heard singing brightly: "Ja, ja, ja komm Herr Jesu, komm!" "Yes! Come, Lord Jesus." The hope articulated in the last chapter of the New Testament breaks into the darkness with a refreshing lyricism, reiterating over and over the call to Jesus to come.
Shortly after this soprano interruption begins, Bach subtly ornaments the soprano solo with the recorders and one viola da gamba playing a short snatch from a little-known chorale melody that was linked with a 12-stanza Lutheran hymn that proclaims: "I have left all that concerns me up to God. Let him do whatever he wants with me. . . . My time and hour will be when God wills; I do not dictate to him any bounds." This brilliant layering of one theological idea introduced sheerly through musical association with another that is being explicitly proclaimed by singers demonstrates both a musical and pastoral genius.
At the end of this movement, the soprano soloist finishes with a final, delicate "Ja, komm Herr Jesu" that fades quietly to a final haunting a cappella "Jesu!" Bach then inserts a single measure with no notes, just a prolonged rest. He wants to guarantee silence before the next movement.
Peaceful & Calm
That movement begins with an alto solo performing a poignant rendition (in a minor key) of a text from Psalm 31: "Into your hands I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, Lord, faithful God." These are, of course, the words that our Lord uttered as he was dying. But then Bach introduces another word from the cross, this time (via a bass soloist) the hopeful words to one of the dying thieves: "Today you will be with me in paradise." These words are repeated in a lush and intricate aria, and the bass voice is soon joined by a return of the alto soloist (or the alto section in some performances) singing the text of Luther's paraphrase of the Song of Simeon as he is preparing to die:
With peace and joy I travel there in God's will,
my heart and mind are confident, peaceful and calm.
As God has promised me: death has become my sleep.
These words are being sung to a very slow rendition of the chorale melody to which Lutherans had been singing this text since the 1520s (and many still do), all while the bass soloist continues with his elaborate aria with the words of Jesus promising paradise. Again, Bach demonstrates his shrewd use of silence: when the alto voice sings "Sanft und stille" (peaceful and calm)‚ the instruments accompanying the voices drop away for a second, leaving the voices tenderly and quietly exposed, before returning gently to conclude Simeon's words.
Praise & Consolation
The final movement is a chorus featuring all voices singing the final stanza of that 12-stanza hymn we heard alluded to only with instruments while the soprano was singing:
Glory, praise, honour and majesty
be given to you, God, Father and Son,
to the Holy Spirit by name!
God's strength makes us victorious through Jesus Christ. Amen.
The last note of the "Amen" is a modest eighth note, followed by a short and equally humble two-note nod from the recorders and violas da gamba. "This extraordinary music," writes John Eliot Gardiner, "composed at such a young age, is never saccharine, self-indulgent or morbid; on the contrary, though deeply serious, it is consoling and full of optimism." I would prefer the word "hope." This remarkable and confidently assuring work should be much better known than it is. So now: go hear it. Be comforted and amazed.
Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He also serves as music director at All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.