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Cantata BWV 222
Mein Odem ist schwach

Discussions in the Week of August 11, 2013

William Hoffman wrote (August 10, 2013):
Cantata 222: Intro., Details, Text, Chorale, J.E. Bach

Cantata 222

Another cantata classified for an unknown sacred occasion with memorial overtones, once erroneously attributed to Sebastian Bach, Cantata BWV 222, "Mein Odem is schwach" (My breath is weak, Isaiah 17:1), emphasizes the acceptance of death. It includes a three-stanza chorale version of the Song of Simeon, Nunc dimmitis (Let thy servant depart in peace), in the Purification chorale, "Herr Gott, nun schleus den Himmel auf" (Lord God, now open the heavens) as well as biblical quotes and original poetry. This chorale motet cantata is appropriate for the Marian Feast of the Purification, February 2, and for a memorial service. It is now attributed to Johann Ernst Bach (1722-1777), Bach Erfurt cousin, student, and lawyer-composer [See BCW Short Biography, , based primarily on Christoph Wolf's brief account in <The New Grove Bach Family> (Chapter 10: 307f; New York: WW Norton & Co., 1983)].

The other apocryphal Bach Cantata, BWV 221, "Wer sucht die Pracht" wer wünscht den Glanz" (Who seeks the splendor), for an unknown occasion, emphasizes the soul blossoming in eternity in a tenor-bass dialogue in Italian style. In contrast, Cantata 222 combines the traditional homophonic German chorale and polyphonic motet-style central to Sebastian's creative and spiritual life, as well as the later <stile-misto> (mixed style) that also embraces the contemporary <Empfindsamkeit> (sentimental, sensitive) manner.

There is another Purification-memorial connection with Bach Cantata BWV 157, "Ich lasse dich nicht" I leave Thee not." It was first presented for the funeral service of Johann Christoph von Ponicau on February 6, 1727, and was designated for the Feast of the Purification, February 2 (1728 or later). It has a Picander text for the presumed "Fourth Cycle" but survives only in a copy by Penzel with a "Purification" designation.


Cantata 222, BCW Details & Discography:
BWV Catalogue 222 / Anh. III 157>; forces: soprano canto, alto and bass soloists; orchestra of strings (2 violins, viola) and continuo (organ); text author unknown. The movements [and recording timings] are:
1. Aria (bass, SATB chs., tutti orch.): "Mein Odem ist schwach" (G minor, 4/4) [3:36];
2. Aria (da capo, alto, tutti): "O seid mir sehn suchts voll geküsst" (B-flat Major, ¾) [9:35];
3. Chorus (SATB tutti colle parte): "Unser Wandel ist im Himmel" (B-flat Major, ¾, homophonic Allegretto); Alla breve fugue, "welcher unsern nichtigen Leib verklären wird" (who will transform our worthless body) [2:33];
4. Chorale (SATB: "Wie du mir, Herr, befohlen hast" (B-flat Major, 2/2) [1:32];
5. Chorale (S canto, tutti): "Lass mich nur, Herr, wie Simeon (G minor, 4/4); [4:08] and
6. Chorus (SATB, tutti colle parte): "Wir aber sind getrost und haben vielmehr Lust" (Vivace, 4/4, B-flat Major) [2:15].

"Mein Odem ist schwach," BWV 222, Score: Carus-Verlag: (Beyond Bach - A musical expedition). By Johann Ernst Bach. Edited by Wolfgang Helbich. For vocal soloists (AB, S ad lib), mixed choir (SATB), strings (violin 1, violin 2, viola) and basso continuo, bassoon ad lib.. This edition: ED 21628; Saddle-stitch. Scores. Beyond Bach. Full score. Text language: German. 32 pages. Published by Schott Music (SD.49019637) [Parts, .638-41]

ISBN 9790001193085. With Text language: German.
"In the new series 'Beyond Bach - A musical expedition", Schott Music accompanies the many years of research of Prof. Wolfgang Helbich who has studied intensively the 'apocryphal' works by Johann Sebastian Bach. This term refers to the works contained in J. S. Bach's personal library, evidently performed by him and included in the BWV catalogue, but very likely or certainly not composed by him. 'Beyond Bach' will publish these works in practical editions in no particular order, thus contributing to not only studying, but also performing this varied and rich repertoire. The editor Wolfgang Helbich is both a renowned discoverer of previously unknown music as well as an experienced and highly esteemed choir director. With his Alsfelder Vokalensemble, he has already released some of Bach's apocryphal works on CD on the label CPO. The series starts with the cantata 'Mein Odem ist schwach' (BWV 222) the authorship of which can be confidently attributed to Johann Ernst Bach. This offspring of the Bach family was the son of a cousin of Johann Sebastian Bach. His cantata has no recitatives and leaves the choir unusually much room. The choral pieces are only reinforced by the instruments which explains the fact that some movements of this cantata also exist in an a-cappella version."
[ , More info.]

Original Motet Core

Three of the movements in Cantata BWV 222 also are found (without colla parte tutti strings and continuo) in the Apocryphal Bach Motet, BWV Anh. III 165, "Unser Wandel ist in Himmel": BWV 222/3=Anh. 165/1; 222/4=Anh. 165/2, and 222/6=Anh.165/3. Motet BWV Anh. 165 is a typical late baroque German motet with two biblical quotation fugues flanking a chorale: No.1, Prelude and fugue; No. 2, plain chorale; and No. 3, fugue. It also is attributed to Johann Ernst Bach and may have been composed c. 1740, when he was a student of cousin Sebastian in Leipzig. It could have been presented <a capella> at a memorial service. Sources are the Bach Gesellschaft Ausgabe (BGA) Vol. XXXIX, Motets (Franz Wüllner, 1892:20-22), and Neue Bach Ausgabe (NBA), Kritischer Bericht III/3, "Motets, Chorale Movements and Songs of Doubtful Authenticity," Frieder Rempp (Bärenreiter Kassel, 2002: 82).

The original Bach Society Edition describing the motet, "Unser Wandel ist in Himmel," printed the opening four-part homophonic chorus (18 measures), followed by the 17-measure beginning Alle Breve fugue with the entrances of SATB singing, "welcher unsern nichtigen Leib verklären wird." After a mention of the homophonic chorale (Mvt. 2), a 17 measure four-part imitation on the word "zu wallen" is printed from the closing fugue (Mvt. 3), "Wir aber sind getrost."

Cantata 222 Biblical Text, Poetry

Besides the three chorale stanzas in Cantata BWV 222 (Mvts. 1, 4, & 5), the unknown librettist uses biblical text, and original poetry. The biblical quotations are in Mvt. 1, "Mein Odem is schwach (My breath is weak, Isaiah 17:1); Mvt. 3, "Unser Wandel ist im Himmel" (Our conversion is in heaven, Phil. 3:20-21a); and Mvt. 6, "Wir aber sind getrost und haben vielmehr Lust" (We yet are confident and have much greater desire, 2 Cor. 5:8). Original poetry is found in Mvt. 1, following the opening bass aria biblical dictum and beginning of the interpolated chorale, with original text beginning "Die Zeit meines Abschiedes ist vorhanden" (The time of my departure is at hand), and Mvt. 2, alto da-capo aria, "O seid mir sehn suchts voll geküsst" (O let me kiss you with desire).

The three additional movements (Nos. 1, 2, 5) in Cantata BWV 222 likely were composed c.1760 as this music is in the newer style at the unified Saxon courts of Weimar, Gotha and Eisenach. The unknown poet could have been a member of the court. The original poetry is typical of the <Empfindsamkeit> style of sentiment and sensitivity - and simplicity. It seems earnest yet sometimes posturing, with clichés and a touch of melodrama. Cantata 222 also is restricted to the key signature of two flats: B-flat Major and its relative minor, G minor. The opening dramatic scena bass aria with interpolated chorale is a fine blend of <stile misto> mixed old style (chorale) and new style (aria). The alto capo aria with strings (No. 2) is an effective use of shifting moods, despite its excessive length [9:35]. The soprano chorale aria with the interplay of two solo violins is another effective use of stile misto with treadmill continuo.

The German text of BWV 222 is found at BCW,

The English translation of Susan Marie Praeder) in Movements 1, 2, 3, and 6 (Wolfgang Helbich, Apocryphal Bach Cantatas; BCW Discography No. 1, CPO 999139, Feb. 1991) is:

1. Bass aria

My life's breath is failing; my days are numbered. The grave is waiting for me (Isaiah 17:1-2a). The time of my departure is at hand, for I know that I must soon put aside my earthly attire. [chorale trope] I have fought the good fight, I have completed my course, I have held on to faith: from now on the crown of righteousness is set aside for me, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will bestow on me that day. [chorale trope] Oh, when will the time come for me to behold the face of God!

2. Alto aria
O, let me kiss you with desire, groaning of my last hours, concluding the toil of life and gloomy nights, until I find heaven's rest. The death of the body is the price for vain life. Can heaven's messenger frighten me?

3. Chorus
Our life is in heaven: from there we await Jesus Christ the savior, the Lord, who will transform our worthless body and make it like his glorious body" (Phil. 3:20-21a)

6. Chorus
"But we have our consolation and much greater desire to be rid of the body and to dwell with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8).

Cantata 222 Chorale

The three stanzas of the Purification chorale, "Herr Gott, nun schleus den Himmel auf" (Lord God, now open the heavens), are strategically placed in Cantata 222: Stanza 1 is an SATB plain chorale inserted (troped) into the opening bass aria (Adagio ma non troppo); Stanza 2, "Wie du mir Herr befohlen hast" (As you, Lord, have commanded me) is the plain chorale (Mvt. No. 4), and Stanza 3, "Laß mich nur, Herr,/ wie Simeon in Friede zu dir fahren" (Then let me go/ like Simeon in peace with Thee to dwell) is a soprano canto aria (No. 5) chorale adaptation with strings. The information below comes from "Musical Context of Bach Cantatas
Motets & Chorales for Feast of Purification of Mary," BCW , "Another <Simeon Canticle> chorale" (October 27, 2012).

Here is the German text and English translation of the chorale, "Herr Gott, nun schleuß den Himmel auf":

1. Herr Gott, nun schleuß den Himmel auf,
mein Zeit zum End sich neiget.
Ich hab vollendet meinen Lauf,
des sich mein Seel' sehr freuet,
hab g'nug gelitten, mich müd gestritten,
schick mich fein zu zur ew'gen Ruh.
Laß fahren, was auf Erden
will lieber selig werden.

2. Wie du mir Herr befohlen hast,
hab ich mit wahrem Glauben
mein'n lieben Heiland aufgefaßt
in mein'n Arm dich zu schauen.
Gott zu bestehen, will frisch eingehen
aus dem Thränenthal in Freuden Saal.
Laß fahren, was auf Erden,
will lieber selig werden.

3. Laß mich nur, Herr,
wie Simeon in Friede zu dir fahren,
befiehl mich Christo deinem Sohn,
der wird mich wohl bewahren,
wird mich recht führen,
im Himmel zieren mit Ehr
und Kron' fahr ich davon.
Laß fahren, was auf Erden,
will lieber selig werden.

i. Lord God, now open wide Thy heaven,
My parting hour is near;
My course is run, enough I've striven,
Enough I've suffered here;
Weary and sad
My heart is glad
That she may lay her down to rest;
Now all on earth I can resign,
But only let Thy heaven be mine.

ii. As Thou, Lord, hast commanded me,
Have I with perfect faith
Embraced my Saviour, and to Thee
I calmly look in death;
With willing heart
I hence depart,
I hope to stand before Thy face:
Yes, all on earth I can resign,
If but Thy heaven at last be mine.

iii. Then let me go like Simeon
In peace with Thee to dwell,
For I commend me to Thy Son,
And He will guard me well,
And guide me straight
To the golden gate:
And in this hope I calmly die;
Yes, all on earth I can resign,
If but Thy heaven may now be mine.
(Translation Catherine Winkworth 1868)

Sebastian's Organ Chorale Prelude Settings

Early in his career, Sebastian Bach composed two organ chorale prelude settings of "Simeon's Canticle," the Tobias Kiel (1584-1626) three-stanza, chorale, "Herr Gott, nun schleuß den Himmel auf" (Lord God, now open up heaven), with its direct reference to the <nunc dimittis> in the third stanza. They are the Neumeister Chorale, BWV 1092, dated to c.1700, in E Major is a small fantasia "hymn with interludes, echoes and coda" (Peter Williams, <Organ Music of JSB> 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, 2003: 546), and the Weimar <Orgelbüchlein> Chorale, No. 20, BWV 617 (c.1714), an organ trio with interludes (Williams, <Ibid.>: 270f), also in E Major.

Kiel's original setting of three stanzas was published in Erfurt in 1620 in the songbook of Johann Michael Altenberg, to whom the melody was attributed). The last of its three stanzas refers to the <nunc dimittis> for Purification. The chorale is not found in the <Neu Leipziger Gesangbuch (NLGB) of 1682. It also is not found in "Sebastian Bach's Choral-Buch" of C.1740. The melody currently is listed in Das Evangelisches Gesangbuch (EKG) as No. 211 but no Zahn melody can be located.

"Bach's version of the melody," says Charles S. Terry, "is a combination of the descant and Quinta vox of Altenburg's five-part setting. Bach, however, was not the author of the reconstruction. In the Gotha Cantional of 1646 the positions of the descant and Quinta vox of 1620 are reversed, the latter becoming the melody. (Christian Friedrich) Witt (Gotha Capellmeister) in 1715, formed a new melody by piecing together parts of the original descant and Quinta vox. His version passed into the Hymn-books of Telemann (1730), Konig (1738), and Freylinghausen (1741). His variation of the second phrase seemingly is his own. Bach uses the tune in the Orgelbuchlein." [Bach's Chorals. Part III: The Hymns and Hymn Melodies of the Organ Works, by Charles Sanford Terry (Cambridge University Press, 1915-1921). 3 vols. Vol. 3 (English translation): Herr Gott, nun schleuss den Himmel auf. - Johann Sebastian Bach, Bach’s Chorals, vol. 3 The Hymns and Hymn Melodies of the Organ Works [1921] (Online Library of Liberty)]

Manuscript Sources

Both sources, Cantata BWV 222 and Motet BWV Anh. 165, are dated to about 1800 when the cantata was found in four score-copy sources and the motet in one parts set. The <Neue Bach Ausgabe> Critical Commentary, NBA KB 1/41, <Various: Cantatas (attributed to Bach), Quodlibet, Single Movements, Arrangements> (Andreas Glöckner, 2000, Bärenreiter, Kassel: 127f) lists Cantata 222 first source with the main title, "Concerto con Corale | Festo Purificat: Mariae | di J. C. Bach" (Hamburg State and University Library M B/2734).

The next three Cantata 222 score copy sources, based on the first, are listed in the 1990 Schmieder Catalogue, BWV 222 / Anh. III 157: 1, British Library MS 31, 310ff (London), "J. E. Bach"; 2, Staatsbibliothek, Preußischer Kulturbesitz (SPK), Berlin, MM Bach P 1124 (without Mvt. 3), "di Bach"; and 3, SPK P 1125 ("Bach"), a copy of MS 31, 310ff.

The parts account Motet BWV Anh. 165, "Unser Wandel is im Himmel" (SATB a capella) is found in Cantata BWV 222, Movements 3, 4, and 6. It dates to the first half of the 19th century, ownership of Franz Hauser, in the Hesse library in Darmstadt, Mus. Ms. 528/1 ("Bach"). In Cantata BWV 222/3,4,6 the strings (2 violins, viola) and continuo double the parts, colle parte.

The attribution of Cantata BWV 222, "Mein Oden ist Schwach," and thus, Motet BWV Anh. 165, to Johann Ernst Bach was determined by Karl Geiringer in <The Bach Family: Seven Generations of Creative Genius>, "The Music of Johann Ernst Bach," pp. 454-463 (London, GeoAllen & Unwin, 1954/59). The initial attribution to Sebastian Bach's youngest son, Johann Christian (1735-1782) was rejected on stylistic grounds because Johann Ernst Bach's attribution is the earliest correct one allowed. (NBA KB III/3 (Ibid.). J. E. Bach could have presented Cantata BWV 222 on the Feast of the Purification (February 2) in Weimar where he was the capellmeister, c. 1760.

"There is hardly a single form employed by the Thomas cantor in his chorale cantatas which was overlooked by his pupil" in Ernst's vocal works, says Geiringer (Ibid.: 459f). In "Mein Odem ist schwach," Geiringer says "Ernst creates a kind of rondo form through the alternation of numbers based on the hymn tune with others that are freely invented." Geiringer calls the opening bass aria and chorale "one of these deeply moving dialogues well known to us from the cantatas of the young Sebastian." After the "passionate" da capo aria, comes another harmonization of the chorale. A "vigorous fugue" leads to the chorale in cantus firmus. The work closes with a "second fugue on the impressive subject," "Wir aber sind getrost." Geiringer concludes: "As this number ends with a half-close on the dominant of the key, it seems likely that, at the service, a verse of the hymn was attached."

Geiringer offers a broad assessment of Ernst's music (Ibid.:454f). He "was one of the most talented men of the younger generation of Bach's, and he belongs to the artists who attempted to distinguish between secular and sacred music, using a different approach to each of them." Ernst began composing in the late 1730s under Sebastian's spell. "The works of the fifties and early sixties show a somewhat different character." They continued to utilize Baroque techniques while increasingly embracing the new idiom of "Empfindsamkeit." His sacred cantatas and oratorios reflected the practices of Karl Heinrich Graun, still using contrapuntal art while also championing the new "language of the heart." In secular music, Ernst used the <style gallant> -- "light, graceful and entertaining."

Analyzing Ernst Bach's sacred music, Geiringer points out that "the chorale is the lifeblood of Ernst's church music, as it was for his great kinsman" (Ibid.:459). "Fugues are frequent in Ernst's church music" (Ibid.: 461). "Syncopations are almost a trademark, with this composer, imbuing his church music with a feeling of excitement and impatience. Chromaticism plays a big part in his melodic language," citing the descending octave half-step progression in the alto aria, "O seid mir sehn suchts voll geküsst."

Additional Commentary

"BWV 222 has been identified as being by J.E. Bach. It's interesting to note that the motet BWV Anh. III 165 is taken from movements of this work (and you can hear a recording of this motet, again by Wolfgang Helbich, on CPO 999235-2). The cantata opens with a mournful bass aria with suitably somber accompaniment from the choir singing a chorale as a backdrop. A very long and affecting alto aria maintains the somber mood. A choral interlude followed by a simple and beautiful chorale setting leads into another chorale setting, accompanied by the orchestra, in which the soprano soloist joins in with the choir. The choir finishes off the work with an upbeat chorus. A strong pattern, familiar from J.S. Bach's cantatas, is repeated here: Hopelessness is banished by the joyful release of death. It's difficult to see this ever seriously having been attributed to J.S. Bach!" Copyright © 1998, Simon Crouch. .


Cantata BWV 222: Details & Recordings | Discussions | Discussions of Non-Bach Cantatas: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Recordings & Discussions of Cantatas: Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Cantatas BWV Anh | Order of Discussion

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