Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word. The gospel reading includes the words of the Nunc Dimittis, the prayer of Simeon requesting release from this world now that he has seen the arrival of his Saviour. I won't mince words: This is my favourite cantata and perhaps my favourite piece of music! Please, when I die, have this sung at my funeral. Why? It is a perfect marriage of an exceptional text (alas, the author remains anonymous) to sublime music. The text paraphrases (and expands) the Nunc Dimittis so that the soul identifies itself with Simeon and itself asks for release now that it has achieved fulfilment through Christ.
The opening phrase of the oboe in the opening aria will remind you of Erbarme dich from the St. Matthew Passion. This time there is a lilting accompaniment from the violins. Any half way decent performance should have you in tears very soon. After a short recitative, one of Bach's most famous arias, Schlummert ein. I'm afraid that you'll need another handkerchief. Death is seen as tranquillity: Here I must cultivate misery, but there, there I shall behold sweet peace, tranquil rest. Another recitative and then a more up-beat aria that anticipates death with joy.
There are many fine recordings of this wonderful piece but do try to hear Hans Hotter with the Philharmonia Orchestra (conducted by Anthony Bernard). Not a trace of HIP but perhaps a window on a lost time of beauty and innocence.
Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch.