Bach: The Cantatas

Bach Cantatas

– 16th Sunday after Trinity – 1st October 2023 – J.S.Bach cantata BWV 161 – ‘Komm, du suse Todesstunde’ –

Nov 15, 2023

A standard string orchestra,
-with organ continuo and 4-part chorus, is joined by 2 x flauto dolces, for this 6 movement cantata.

There are two solo arias,
-with alto and tenor soloists and one recitativo, with alto soloist.

Two versions come down to us, Fassung A and B, but apart from some details of phrasing and articulation, the only differences come in Fassung B
and the first number, where a soprano voice,
-instead of organ solo, marked Sesquialtera ad continuo, is used to intone the choral melody and the two flauti are joined in unison, with first and second violins.
The continuo in this version is also marked Viola in 8va il continuo.

The choral melody of movement 6, can be seen to be inspirational to the entire cantata, although this is seen to wane, as the whole progresses.

1/ Aria:

‘Come, sweet hour of death,
when my spirit shall feed on honey,
from the Lion’s mouth.
Make my departure sweet,
and do not linger, my last night,
as this is the moment, when I shall kiss my Saviour.’

‘Truly do I long for a blessed end,
as here, I am surrounded by tribulation and misery.
I have a desire to depart from this wicked world
and I long for heavenly joys.
O Jesus, do come soon.’

The two flauto dolce/transverso, + violins, of Fassung B, do indeed sweeten this textual theme,
-one of death, in that sweet hour.
Something of that sweetening can be heard throughout bar 8,where a chromatic bass line stretches our ears, to fit the harmony,
The long vocal stretch, at 11, ‘…Lowens Munde…’, reflects that beast as open-mouthed, for this sweet departure.

The mostly parallel movement of recorders, is accompanied by a functional continuo bass line,
but at 13, ‘Sesquialtera da continuo’, a choral melody, ‘Herzlich tut mich verlangen’ rises up, as if by magic, from an organ manual,
and a four part texture meets it maker. In doing so, it becomes the dominant event, certainly so far.

In fact, it is a fact, that this tune leaves more than just its mark on every theme in this cantata,
but, like the body of this text, wanes, the nearer it gets to the ‘…consummation, by worms’, of the the final choral.

2/ Recitativo:

Your delights are a burden.
Your sweetness is as loathsome to me as poison.
Your light of joy is my comet.
Where your roses are picked,
there are thorns without number,
bringing anguish to my soul.

Pale death is my dawn,
and with it, arises the sunrise of splendour,
with glory and heavenly bliss.
So I sigh from the very depth of my heart,
for nothing else, but my final hour.
I have a desire soon to feed and pasture with Christ.
I long to depart from this world.’

This dramatic and demonstrative tenor recit moves from secco, to arioso,
as the text moves from detailed narration, towards future idealistic vision.

Listen out for:
-the joyful scale of descending-light, bar 4
-the painful thorns, bar 6
-and the pale death, bar 9

The beautiful ‘tasto-solo’ moment, an evocation of feeding, pasturing and departure, haunts the final bars,
disappearing down into the silent depths of a deep faith.

3/ Aria:

‘My longing is to embrace The Saviour,
and to soon be with Christ.
Although, as mortal ash and dust,
I will be crushed to death,
Even so, the light of my soul,
will shine like the glory of angels.’

This music quickly sets a lonely scene, one that reflects the loneliness of longing,
and specifically, that desperate longing for The Saviour.

Long string drops,
-bars 3, through 6, in the first violins, followed by the violas, 6 and the continuo, 7,
quickly become lonely string drops, culminating in some clever mass imitation, bars 8, through 10,
where, eventually, cumulative droops and imitations, introduce the tenor voice.

The continuo-accompanied-only, initially, middle section, is,
-at ‘…the light of my soul…’, bar 71,
joined by, initially, crochet with some quaver movement, upper strings,
and these and their crochets, are developed,
-over the melismatic tenor voice, as the ‘…glory of angels.’ is explored, bars 76,
right through to 89, in moments of timelessness.

4/ Recitativo:

‘The decision is already made:
World, good night!
-and my only comfort is this:
that soon I shall die in the arms of Jesus.
He is my gentle sleep.
The cool grave shall cover me with roses,
until He shall restore me to life again,
and until He leads His sheep into the sweet pastures of heaven,
so that death may not keep me from Him.
So dawn, you joyful day of death.
Ring out, final hour.’

The textual images in this recit so stimulated Bach, that he seems to have set out boldly, to make them clear to the congregation.

Opening music, bars 2, through 4, might just send any member of that congregation,
-teetering on the verge, straight to sleep.
Reference to dying in the arms of Jesus, seemingly, does not disturb this, bars 5, through 6.

That same gentle sleep wins-out, where cumulative recorder imitation, bars 7, through 11,
-reminiscent of the first movement, with the languishing voice,
brings us to a cool, half close, at 12, followed by a yet greater chromatic celebration, of that same sleep, bars 12, through 15.

15, through 16 deals with the cool grave and 17, through 18, the restoration, back to life,
introducing important and life affirming semiquavers, in turn, accompanied by semiquaver recorders and strings.

Bar 19 leads towards the ‘…sweet pastures of heaven,’ celebrated in triplet-fashion, and then,
-second half of bar 20, the understanding that ‘…death does not keep me from Him.’

The dawn of the youthful day of death, bar 21, is announced, pageant-like, with more of those repeated semiquavers,
and this colour continues, right to the end, with the ringing out, of the final hour.

Here, Bach excels even himself.
We hear bells, whistles and the pendulum of a ticking clock, swinging forwards and back.
But let us remember, this is comedia, only in a black sense.

Make no mistake, this is the time of the final death and these are the bells of death,
-and in the last two bars, there is still time for some deathly humour.

5/ (chorus)

‘If it is My God’s will,
let the earth,
-even today,
take the burden of my body.
And let the spirit,
-the body’s guest,
be clothed in immortality,
-all in sweet heavenly joy.

Jesus, come and take me away.
May this be my last and final word.’

The only choral movement of this cantata shows itself to be a prayerful interlude,
one for fulfilment of a heart’s desire.

The pace is slow and peace-evoking, yet the demisemiquavers represent the quickening of the spirit,
-the bodies guest, as it looks forward to the clothing of immortality.


‘The body will, in the earth, be consumed by worms,
and yet, it shall rise again, through Christ,
beautifully transfigured.
It will shine like the sun, living without distress, in heavenly joy and rapture.
How then can death harm me?’

Rich harmony worm’s its way around and about, yet the lasting effect we are left with, is one of beautiful transformation.

This well known choral tune, is decked,
-also out and about, with a fifth part,
itself, ‘…shining like the sun, living without distress, in heavenly rapture…’

View more Cantata articles