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Bach Cantata Listener's Guide

Komm, du süsse Todesstunde (Come thou sweet death's hour)

Cantata 161

  • Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
  • Epistle: Ephesians iii. 13-21 (Paul prays that the Ephesians may perceive the love of God)
  • Gospel: Luke vii. 11-17 (The raising of the son of the widow of Nain)
  • Rating: 1*

The theme of death being a welcome release from the travails of this earth is a common one in the cantatas and this solo work for alto is a lovely example of Bach illustrating this with style and with beauty.

The gentle theme of the opening aria is introduced by a pair of recorders (which will feature frequently later on) and is soon taken up by the alto. A notable feature of this movement is that from time to time the organ enters playing the melody of the Passion Chorale (Herzlich tut mich verlangen, by Hassler) in the treble, almost as a decoration of the main theme. What's it doing here? Well, the words of that hymn are a prayer of peaceful departure that complement the words of this aria perfectly. The congregation of Bach's time would have known that hymn well and would have immediately realised the significance of the tune. Following a heartfelt recitative, the next aria is possibly more notable for its grief stricken accompaniment (on the strings) than for the alto melody, it maintains the affekt effectively.

Only occasionally do I comment much on Bach's recitatives. They are almost invariably skilful, perhaps routine once in a while, but next we have a fine example, where the music so wonderfully complements the message. For example, the soul sinking to rest to a descending scale, the ticking of clock to the words strike the hour when I may rest in peace. It may sound corny described in words, but it's done so skilfully and tastefully! The following chorus is a lovely, delicate filigree of a thing with the recorders providing the final twist of decoration. Please, never let sopranos with wobbly voices near this one. Please. The tune of Hassler's hymn returns for the final chorale. The recorders perform their final dance up in the clouds. Are they the soul, perhaps?

There are few better examples of Bach's craft and inspiration working hand in hand. Although this cantata doesn't leap out and grab you immediately, if you listen carefully to it and study it, you will have a thing of beauty for ever.

Copyright © 1996 & 1997, Simon Crouch.