Born on March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, Thuringia,
Germany, Johann Sebastian Bach had a prestigious
musical lineage and took on various organist positions
during the early 18th century, creating famous
compositions like "Toccata and Fugue in D minor." Some
of his best-known compositions are the "Mass in B
Minor," the "Brandenburg Concertos" and "The
Well-Tempered Clavier." Bach died in Leipzig, Germany,
on July 28, 1750. Today, he is considered one of the
greatest Western composers of all time.
There can be little doubt that this is the best known
and most admired of Bach's earliest cantatas. It could
be argued that in later years Bach's art became a great
deal more mature, but it hardly grew more profound.
It is one of those art works that stands at the
crossroads of time, seeming to look both forward and
backwards. In the latter instance it is highly
sectional, with little in the way of the extended,
developed movements of the later years, it is lightly
orchestrated, begins with a short introductory sinfonia
and it draws principally upon chorales and biblical
references with the minimum of added text. On the other
hand, it is created from structural elements which
operate across and unite movements, the writing is
highly idiomatic and the musical architecture derives
principally from the essence of the text.
It is a work of such depth and intensity that one can
scarcely avoid speculating that the deceased for whose
internment it was composed, had some personal
connection with the twenty-two year old composer. Or
perhaps it simply struck a chord that reminded him of
the death of his own parents, scarcely more than a
dozen years previously. But whatever the personal
impact the occasion might have had on him, there is no
disputing the depth and profundity which the emerging
composer managed to elicit from the minimal lines of
The segmented nature of this work makes it seem more
complex than it really is. It falls into four basic
movements thus: sinfonia, chorus (with solos), aria
(becoming a duet) and closing chorale.
The longest and most complex of the two hybrid
movements is the second.
It is a compendium of short segments, tenor and bass
solos enclosed by two choral sections. The text
stresses God’s and nature’s law that we should all die,
the universality of this concept reinforced by its
statement by the choir rather than through an
individual aria. The tenor represents the voice of Man
asking for divine guidance and the bass that of the
Lord who commands us. Thus, although a superficial
analysis of this movement might deem it to be
backward-looking, particularly with regard to its
various short segments, closer scrutiny reveals an
inspired elucidation of the substance of the text by
means of a fully mature architectural grasp of the
musical material. The general structure is as follows:
1. Chorus (andante/ allegro/adagio): God’s time is the
best time: through His will we live and have our being:
in Him we die at the right time, just as He wills. 2.
Tenor arioso (lento): Lord, Teach us that we must die
so as to become wise. 3. Bass arioso (vivace): Set your
house in order since you will cease living and die. 4.
Chorus (andante): The ancient law is, Man you must die:
so come Lord Jesus.
Although originally written for Flutes (2), Viola da
Gambas (2), Alto Voice and Basso Continuo, I created
this arrangement for Flute, French Horn & Strings (2
Violins, Viola & Cello).