Chapter 19 BWV 95 Christus, der ist mein Leben

Christ is my life.

Chorus/recit/chorus--recit (sop)--chorale (sop)--recit (tenor)--aria (tenor)--recit (bass)--chorale.

The eighteenth cantata of the cycle for the sixteenth Sunday after Trinity.

NB The macro-structure of this work may be viewed as four musical ‘blocks’ (see also C 138, chapter 18)

Block 1: chorus/recit/chorus.     Block 2: recit/chorale.     Block 3: recit/aria.  Block 4: recit/chorale.

Did Bach get the bit between his teeth with C 138 from the previous week? Did his innovative experimentation with the integration of recitative, chorale and chorus into the one united structure tempt him to travel even further down the road of experimental formats? It would seem so because the chorus that begins this week’s cantata is so forward-thinking, particularly in terms of its rhythmic organisation, as to stand right outside of contemporary practice.

The similarities between the overall shape of this work and that of C 138 are many and cannot have been accidental. In the previous chapter it was suggested that Bach saw C 138 as an edifice of four vast musical slabs, the first two of which amalgamated recitative and chorus, the third recitative and aria. One further short, freestanding recitative and plain chorale setting formed the fourth, which, in traditional terms, might also be thought of as a coda.

In C 95 the blueprint is very much the same: an opening movement combining chorus recitative and chorale (block 1) precedes a conjoined soprano recitative and chorale (block 2 ) which is followed by a similarly abutting tenor recitative and aria (block 3). A final recitative and chorale (block 4) conlude the work. There are minor deviations from C 138 in that there is no chorus in the second block, both recitative and chorale here being carried by the soprano. Furthermore, instead of basing successive movements on the same chorale melody as in C 138, Bach chose four different ones, each of which is quoted in full (two in the first and one in each of the second and fourth blocks).


And yet for all its novel inventiveness this cantata begins so disarmingly, disguising its maverick intentions with a seemingly innocent engagement of the most disingenuous of motives between oboes and upper strings. The 6/8 time signature, the little ‘lifts’ of the syncopated rhythms, the charming ‘knockabout’ between wind and strings and the rising violin scales (from bar 6) all contribute to the feeling of innocent pleasure.

   Oboes answered by violins.

After all, the librettist has begun with a wholly positive mantra, one which may have come of something of a relief to congregations that had become saturated with presentations of sin, sickness, corruption and doom----Christ is my life and gladly I accept my reward of death and surrender to Him. The immediate impression one has with the choir’s first homophonic statement of the chorale is that of a fantasia of the type which was to engage Bach so fully in the second cycle; but we are misled. The three phrases of this short chorale are interrupted by the sustained dissonances of Sterben----death---- (bars 21-26). This, and the following hiatus, suggest that this is not a clear-cut fantasia; the musical picture has become unexpectedly powerful, contrasting bleakly with what has gone before. Might it be a relatively rare example of Bach’s painting the individual image at the expense of the essential message? The text portrays death almost as a consummation to be wished for, not as something to be feared. Bach's constant experience of it in his own life serves to remind him that it is not without its own sorrows.

Consequently this gloomy depiction is but momentary and the lilting ritornello theme resumes, encompassing the final two chorale lines and leading us to the tenor solo with his inserted lines of text. To the accompaniment of the original musical motive, still exchanged between string and woodwind, he stresses the joy of departure (with striking melismas on both words) but very quickly (from bar 74) the mood changes. Technically, it is an alternation of 2/2 (or 2/4) and 3/4 bars i.e. two beats thence three to the bar! 
Alternating tenors and oboes and time signatures.

This is allied to a progression through keys quite remote from the original G major e.g. Bb major and Cm. It is as if the cold hand of death has touched the brow;  the inserted lines convey the message----if I were to be told today that I need return my wretched body and limbs to the earth and throw off this mantle of mortality----then my requiem is ready and I would sing it now.

But why is death painted in such miserable terms if it is the gateway to eternal bliss? Is Bach being uncharacteristically simplistic? A little deeper examination of this passage may reveal more of his subtlety.

The point of the 3/4 bars is that they allow the placement of the originally jovial motive to be inserted between most of the singer’s lines. The singer is articulating the conventional and natural fear of death but the symbols of joyous expectation hover all around. Their (musical) forms may alter but they remain recognisable, acting as a reminder that the terror of demise is not necessarily valid in a world where Christ has provided a means of salvation.

Bach’s immense subtlety when setting this piece of text also makes sense, albeit in retrospect, of the momentary freezing of the blood on the word Sterben earlier in the movement.

The earthbound four-in-a-bar articulations by the bass voice provide Bach with another opportunity to make a discreet musical point. The final section of the movement (from bar 89) is, indeed, in that time and in the minor mode. Bach has adopted them both to set, in full,  the six phrases of a second chorale ----I now depart peacefully and am consoled as He has promised---death has become my sleep. The mood is forceful, decisive  and affirmative, the horn dividing its attention between doubling the sopranos and leading the oboes, the striding quaver continuo bass underpinning all. The horn and oboe trio pre-empts each choir entry with their own version of the chorale melody. The only interruption to this almost unstoppable impetus is, in itself, wholly assuring; a beautiful representation of that calm and peace of which we are now confident (bars 119-121).

This is a movement of great originality, imagination and technical innovation which, it must be suspected, was conceived alongside the experiments of the previous week. There would appear to be no precedent for the setting of two complete chorales in this way within a single movement, the first in the major mode, the second in the minor.

In one sense there should be little to add to this particular Sunday’s theme after that complete operatic scena. But the remorselessness of C18 Lutheranism does not work that way; points made have to be made, remade and even then reinforced. The rest of the cantata is a rejection of this world and a craving for death. Doubt has been dispelled and faith is unassailable.

Soprano recitative.

The soprano recitative is a forthright rejection of this world and its temptations (Sodom’s apples!). Its mood is affirmative, even perhaps oratorical and its ending is particularly subtle. It retains the gravity of minor modes throughout and concludes in Bm. The melodic line, however, comes to rest on the note of d, that with which the following chorale begins, quickly establishing a new mode and key, that of G major, itself a transit point to the final key of D.The singer literally takes leave of key and mode musically, thus mirroring the words of the text----I take leave of you, wicked world.

Soprano chorale.

With mode now major and a rhythm of three beats to the bar, the soprano intones the third chorale, almost completely unembellished, a melody that would have been extremely familiar to Bach’s congregations. The text is calm, simple and dignified----I leave this evil world which pleases me no more----it is good to reside in heaven where God rewards His servants. The vocal line sustains the sense of calm and tranquillity but this is not quite what we detect in the other two parts. Both continuo and oboe d’amore obbligato are rhythmically disjointed. The rests in the former contrast with the certainty of the continuous quaver bass that had underpinned the last section of the opening movement.

  From bar 19.

The tone colour, enticing suspensions and sinewy movements of the latter all paint a picture of temptation and perhaps even the slithering of the serpent of Eden. Nevertheless, in the midst of hesitation and enticement, the soul (soprano) remains tranquil, certain and steadfast.

Tenor recitative.

The tenor recitative is short and blunt, a simple plea for death to arrive swiftly and end all suffering and anguish. It has a moment of genuine pathos at the thought of the ending of personal distress (bars 3-4). Its final (dominant) chord of A leads us directly into the aria with which it is paired.

Tenor aria.

The tenor aria is a masterpiece of musical invention, second only to the inspired opening chorus. It calls upon the final hour to strike and end all distress----every moment is counted until it envelops us. It is impossible to avoid comparisons with the fantasia from C 8, When, Oh Lord shall I Die, composed a year later, also written for this sixteenth Sunday after Trinity (vol 2, chapter 16). There too are the persistent pizzicato strings, the suggesting of the death bell and the urgent ticking of the inescapable passing of time. Both movements employ major modes, now sounding at their most subdued and enigmatic, made melancholic by the frequent incursions of minor notes and harmonies. The similarities are surely too great not to suggest that Bach looked back over the score of C 95 when planning the composition of C 8.

The oboes declaim a flowing and peaceful four-square melody above staccato strings operating in different rhythms: the continuo has crotchets against the viola/violin 2 quavers and first violin semiquavers. The effect is magical.

   Oboes above pizz first and second violins.

The second oboe completes its phrases with a little echo of a sob, reminiscent of the very first chorus Bach presented at Leipzig, C 75. Sustained woodwind notes elicit pathos from the minor harmonies (first heard in bars 13-14.)

It is perhaps the energy and aggression of the vocal line that initially surprises the listener and subsequently drives the music forward. The calls for the hour to strike and for death to approach are urgent and imperative. Once committed to faith and its path to salvation, death is not feared but urgently sought. The energy of this line makes it seem more a commandment than an entreaty.

There are numerous moments of word painting that the astute listener will enjoy; the oboe trills pointing to the presumably not completely dissipated morbid fear of death (bar 84) and the woodwind scales suggesting the outstretching of arms (bar 91). The movement is in conventional da capo form reprising the first section exactly. Bach had no need to extend or experiment with formal structures when traditional ones were perfectly suited to his purpose.

Bass recitative.

The final recitative adds little that is new and is probably only included for balance----I believe that death is but sleep and repose----Jesus, my Saviour shall find me as does a shepherd his lost sheep. It concludes with a flowing arioso stressing the idea of creating one’s own resurrection founded on that of the Saviour. The marching quavers, echoes yet again  from the opening chorus, affirm the utter certainty of this declaration of commitment.


This, the fourth complete chorale of the cantata, states forthrightly----since You arose from the grave I need not remain there----the fear of death is now discarded and I shall live with You forever, happily departing from this world. The melody is major, uncomplicated and quietly confident, all that we might expect from a soul bolstered by a reassured faith. The writing for the lower three voices is solidly chordal, lacking any show of ostentation. There are, however, two points which it is important to note.

The first is the violin solo floating above all else and extending the four lines of counterpoint into five. Dürr (550) interprets it as a yearning for Jesus. It might also suggest the breaking free from earthly mortality and aspiring to the House of Heaven and eternity; one notes how it evolves from initially being yoked to the chorale melody to a greater assertion of its own independence.

The second is the unexpected flowing of the vocal parts in the final phrase. Perhaps this is a musical representation of mortals departing earth to live with Christ. The music thus conveys the final words of this essentially positive cantata with calm dignity and appropriate delicacy.


Copyright: J Mincham 2010. Revised 2012 and 2014.
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