for a peaceful end
because here I am surrounded
with sorrow and wretchedness
I desire to depart
from this evil world
I look for heavenly joys
Oh Jesus, come soon!
Herzlich tut mich verlangen (verse 1)
First, lets continue with some Bach 101. Bach wrote his sacred cantatas for church services. Which, if you think about it, is pretty freaking cool. Imagine you, the devout Lutheran, going to church on Sunday, like you do. Suddenly the most heavenly music you have ever heard reaches your ear. It is music by the new cantor, Sebastian Bach. You are one lucky son of a bitch. A lot of classical music that we have today is sacred in nature because the church employed many musicians. Thank you church! Bach would use the weekly gospel reading for the theme of the cantata. The gospel reading for the week during which Bach wrote BWV 161, Komm du süße Todesstunde, (come, sweet hour of death) was about death. Surprise! However, the gospel reading isn’t about death, so much as it is about Jesus bringing someone back to life. Life, death, one would think they would be two sides to the same coin. Not necessarily according to Bach’s worldview.
The primary theme that runs throughout the entire cantata is the protagonist’s desire for death. Even the chorale melody text (above) that is not spoken in the first movement, rather played, expresses yearning for death. This, taken at face value, would seem to be a strange counterpart to the gospel reading about non-death, otherwise known as life. Jesus saved a child from death. However, it is likely that Bach was referring to the Christian idea that Jesus would save you from death. Not actual physical death, but that if you followed him, then there would be a life after death. Not just any life, but life without pain, death, hunger, evil, etc. So, in the Christian cannon, the afterlife is much sweeter than just straight up death. Cake or Death? You can have cake with your death! However, one must first actually die in order to obtain this afterlife. This idea, that something sweet comes from death, that the afterlife is so much better than this current terrible life, with all its pain and suffering and evil, runs through the entire cantata on a musical and textual level.
All of this is clearly reflected in the first movement. While this movement is mostly in major, with pastoral thirds played by recorders, and no jarring chords throughout the entire movement, there are significant sections of unease. This at first confused me, and led me to begin my research. I thought the title was clear enough that the theme of the movement was sweet death. Was the bitterness in the movement about not being so happy about the actual death part? Why the chromatic sections? When I looked up the text to the embedded choral, it became clear to what the unease in the music was referring. So, while death is this magical thing to aspire to, the current life is full of all sorts of evils.
This idea, that out of death comes sweet eternal life, is also reflected in the “eating honey out of the lion’s mouth,” phrase. I did a lot of research into the Samson myth, (check out pt. 1) because the entire story didn’t make sense to me. Apparently the Samson myth doesn’t make sense to a lot of people. At first I thought that the chromaticism in the first movement referred to the Samson story. I found some people that thought that Samson became unclean when he ate the honey because as a Nazarene he wasn’t allowed to touch anything dead. However, within the context of the text, this didn’t make much sense. So I continued my studies. Eventually, I put all the different puzzle pieces, and the reference became clear. The lion was dead, so I can say with certainty that he represented death. The bees made honey out of the lion, so they literally made death sweet.
There is so much one can talk about in each of the Bach cantatas. There has been so much study on Bach and his music. One could probably properly argue diverging points depending on whom you reference. It goes without saying that Bach was a master at what he did, and I am happy to have the opportunity to play and study his music, and have the B minor mass original scores less than 10 miles from my home. Life is pretty crazy.
Day, J.C.J. "The Texts of Bach's Church Cantatas: Some Observations," German Life and Letters 13 no. 2 (January 1960): 137-144.
Emmrich, Martin. "The Symbolism of the Lion and the Bees: Another Ironic Twist in the Samson Cycle," Jets 44/1 (March 2001): 67-74.
Yadin, Azzan. "Samson's hîdâ," Vetus Testamentum 52, fasc. 3 (July 2002): 407-426.