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Psalms in Bach’s Vocal Works

Psalms in Bach's services

Bruce Simonson wrote (May 6, 2011):
Still trying to get a handle on this scripture as part of the cantata thingy.

Several sources seem to indicate that singing and/or reading Psalms were not part of the normal order of service in Bach's (Leipzig) time.

If I am not mistaken, an order of service is presented in Wolff's "Learned Musician", and there is Robin Leaver's "Bach's Organ Music in the Context of the Liturgy" - an article in the recent Westfield Center's "Keyboard Perspectives, vol 3" (my copy arrived yesterday), and certainly Douglas Cowling has posted carefully on this topic.

Yet, where is the Psalm for the day? Was there one? (There is one now in Lutheran (and Catholic) services, typically, but how about then?)


If Psalms were not explicitly part of the service, then well, after Juneau's recent performance of BWV 187 (I know, it's a cantata for Trinity VII, and not due for a bit ... but please bear with me!), it is clear to me that this cantata is very explicitly about Old and New Testament texts, on the topic of "the propensity to be anxious" (to simplify one aspect of the matter). In particular, this cantata's texts are Psalm 104:27-28, and Matthew 6:31-32.

What I find interesting here, are several things:

a) The pericope for Trinity VII on the Bach Cantata website calls out Mark 8: 1-9 (definitely related, but not the same as the Matthew passage).

b) The Psalm 104 passage is totally on the mark.

The questions that I have, I guess, are:

i) Who substituted Matthew for Mark in BWV 187, for Trinity VII?

ii) Who was smart enough to recognize the appropriateness of Psalm 104 for use in BWV 187?

iii) Does this type of thing happen a lot?

End of Back-story.

More generalized questions:

1) Were spoken and/or musicked Psalms a part of the services, in Bach's Leipzig?

2) When were parallel texts substituted in for the pericope, and by whom?

3) Am I starting to be annoying?

Douglas Cowling wrote (May 6, 2011):
Bruce Simonson wrote:
< Yet, where is the Psalm for the day? Was there one? (There is one now in Lutheran (and Catholic) services, typically, but how about then?) >
The current 3-year lectionaries in the Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican churches are quite different from the 1-year cycle which was maintained before the post-Vatican II reforms and was familiar to Bach. For instance, the new lectionaries have three readings: Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel. The Revised Common Lectionary provides for the singing or reading of a psalm between the first two readings, although it's worth noting that portions of the psalms have always been the source of the Propers of the Catholic mass: Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory and Communion.

If we look at the pattern of worship in Leipzig, we can see how the psalms were sung by Bach's choirs.

On Sundays and feasts days, a small choir of scholarship boys from the St. Thomas School sang Matins (Morning Prayer) at 5 am in St. Nicholas Church. This was an abridged version of the Roman Matins and included 3 or 4 psalms chanted in Latin to Gregorian chant with their introductory antiphons.

At the principal mass at 7 am when the cantata was sung, Luther's Formula Missae was followed, and Bach's choir sang a Latin motet instead of the psalm-based Introit (it's significant that nearly all of the motets have psalm texts). The Gradual and Alleluia chants between the two readings were replaced by Hymn of the Season (e.g. "Christ Lag in Todesbanden" during the Easter season). Thus there were no psalms at the mass/eucharist chanted or sung in polyphonic settings.

At the office of Vespers at 1 pm, most Lutheran churches sang a psalm in German on the pre-Reformation model of Roman Vespers. Praetorius, Schütz and Schein (Bach's predecessor) all composed huge collections of nearly all 150 psalms. The Lutheran historian, Robin Leaver, is not sure if Bach's choir followed the traditional pattern and sang a setting of a psalm at Vespers -- the Leipzig rite had many unique features. Bach may have had Schein's published psalm collections in the library.

During the daily services alternating between St. Thomas and St. Nicholas, metrical chorale versions of the psalms may have been sung as well.

Bruce Simonson wrote (May 6, 2011):
Douglas Cowling wrote ...
< ... at length about the use of Psalms in Bach's Leipzig services. >
Excellent, Doug, thank you much.

To follow up, you wrote:
< On Sundays and feasts days, a small choir of scholarship boys from the St. Thomas School sang Matins (Morning Prayer) at 5 am in St. Nicholas Church. This was an abridged version of the Roman Matins and included 3 or 4 psalms chanted in Latin to Gregorian chant with their introductory antiphons. >
Was there any way to predict in advance which Psalms would be used for a particular Sunday of the church year, or on feast days?

My memory may not be reliable on this point, but wasn't there a prescribed ordering of the psalms for Vespers, that guaranteed none would be missed, in a tradition that went "way" back, in the Catholic church, at least? And certain Psalms brought into play in particular festivals, like the "Lauda" Psalms?

Where I'm going is, did Bach pick the Psalm(s), or were they part of the established scripture for the day? Do we know?

Douglas Cowling wrote (May 6, 2011):
Bruce Simonson wrote:
< Where I'm going is, did Bach pick the Psalm(s), or were they part of the established scripture for the day? Do we know? >
The original Benedictine cursus was to sing all 150 psalms in the course of one week. The contemplative monastic orders disappeared at the Reformation, and somewhere Luther probably produced a simplified ordo or schedule for the recitation of the psalms through the year. I've never seen one, but I wouldn't be surprised if some of the psalm allusions in the cantata texts echoed the psalms prescribed in the daily office.

If I recall, "Lobe den Herrn" was sung at Christmas, which might suggest that Bach's festive motet with text from the psalm might have been intended for that season. Bach's training as a choirboy would have meant daily immersion in both the Latin and German psalters.


Psalms in Bach's Hymn Book

Douglas Cowling wrote (May 15, 2011):
I recently noticed that the Vopelius hymnbook lists a number of psalms for use at Communion: "Bey der Communion oder Gebrauch d. H. Abendmahls"

Psalms 8, 15, 20, 23, 30, 42, 67, 84, 92, 103, 111, 117, 121, 146

It would be interesting to go through the list and see if anything corresponds to works of Bach. I can't ascertain if they are metrical versions.

The one that jumped out at me was Psalm 117 which is "Lobet den Herrn", the shortest of psalms at two verses and which Bach (?) used entirely for his motet of the same name.

Was Bach's motet written specifically as a Communion motet? It's liturgical context is otherwise unknown.

William Hoffman wrote (May 29, 2011):
[To Douglas Cowling] Edition Bachakademie Vol. 82
A Book of Chorale-Settings for Incidental Festivities, Psalms
Chorale from BWV 80b
Chorales: BWV 258, 267, 280, 286, 303, 305, 308, 309, 311, 312, 323, 324, 326, 337, 338, 372, 374, 376, 382, 390, 411, 438, BWV 1123, 1126
Choral Preludes: BWV 616, 653a, 677, 685, 720, 721, 732, 733

Of 24 tracks of free-standing chorales and organ preludes, eight are for omne tempore lesser festivals, Marian, John and Michael, the rest are psalm hymns, including those used in chorale cantatas. Psalms play a major role in the omne tempore cantatas for Trinity and Epiphany times, related to the Introits and Lessons teachings. I'm just working on the liturgy and music for the First Sunday After Trinity, as found in Bach's music and the Vohymnbook.


Bach & the Psalms

Douglas Cowling wrote (June 10):
William Hoffman wrote:
< Psalms play a major role in Bach's well-ordered church music. >
Once again, a magisterial well-regulated accounting of the use of psalms in Leipzig. You have a touch of Bachian encyclopediaism in you, Will.

The importance of the psalms in Lutheran indeed all Christian worship cannot be overestimated. One of the early church fathers called the Psalter the "Song book of the Church" and nearly all polyphonic and concerted music from the middle ages to Bach's time were psalm settings. Will has pointed out how frequently psalm texts are used in the cantatas either in scriptural quotations or in metrical paraphrases in metrical poetry. To this we can add the polyphonic motets of the Bodenschatz collection which are overwhelmingly settings of psalm texts.

Study and memorization of the psalms to teach Latin and theology was long one of the core curricula in schools, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Bach's students had committed all 150 Latin psalms (or a large portion of them) to memory by the end of their studies. We know that the scholarship boys sang the psalms in Latin every Sunday at the 5 am Matins in St. Nicholas. And the singing of psalms was a prescribed part of the daily weekday services.

Bach would have had a number of musical sources for the singing of psalms:

1) Latin psalters with Gregorian chant formula (the Sunday Matins books)

2) Latin settings in harmonized fauxbourdons (the Vopelius hymn book)

3) German settings in metrical settings for unison or harmonized singing (Vopelius)

4) German settings in harmonized fauxbourdons (the Vopelius hymn book)

Lutheran composers in the 17th century such as Praetorius wrote enormous quantities of psalms in everything from unison to 7-choir polychoral settings. That would indicate that the psalms were needed on a regular basis for weekday and Sunday Lutheran worship.

That is the tradition that Bach inherited in Leipzig. The two most interesting composers for our purposes here are Heinrich Schütz in Dresden and Bach's predecessor in Leipzig, Johann Hermann Schein. Schein wrote a large corpus of German metrical psalm settings, principally his "Cantoral", a hymn book of nearly the entire psalter in elegant 4-part harmony, but also large-scale settings of psalms clearly intended for festal occasions.

Did Bach know and use these published collections? They were widely known in the 17th century. Were the simple settings of Schein used at weekday services and the Schütz blockbusters used at festivals? It's not hard to imagine this Schütz setting of the Christmas psalm being used at the same Vespers as Bach's Magnificat:

Track 3:


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Last update: ýJune 28, 2011 ý08:28:31