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Excerpt from the manuscript of the alto part for cantata 33 (copied out by Bach’s student Johann Andreas Kuhnau), Leipzig Bach-Archive.

It is now the 13th Sunday after Trinity — time for the story of the Good Samaritan. For a sublime cantata that stays close to that Gospel text, read my earlier post about cantata 77 Bach wrote for this Sunday in 1723.

When Bach receives the libretto for Cantata 33 Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ in 1724, it is -except for one line- not related to the Bible story at all. Maybe he already knows this, since he himself was probably responsible for selecting the chorale to serve as the basis for this cantata: a hymn of penitence from 1540, asking Christ to be freed of the pressing burden of sins. The part of the libretto that might have moved him the most* is this:

Wie furchtsam wankten meine Schritte,
Doch Jesus hört auf meine Bitte
Und zeigt mich seinem Vater an.
Mich drückten Sündenlasten nieder,
Doch hilft mir Jesu Trostwort wieder,
Dass er für mich genug getan.

How fearfully were faltering my footsteps,
but Jesus listens to my entreaties
and bears witness for me to his Father.
The burden of my sins weighed down heavily on me,
but Jesus’ word of comfort reassures me
that he has done enough for me.

The first line probably made Bach think of the soprano aria he wrote a little over a year ago, for the ninth Sunday after Trinity in 1723. (click on the link to listen to it). **

The text of that aria is:

Wie zittern und wanken
Der Sünder Gedanken,
Indem sie sich untereinander verklagen
Und wiederum sich zu entschuldigen wagen.
So wird ein geängstigt Gewissen
Durch eigene Folter zerrissen.

How tremble and waver
the sinners’ thoughts
while they bring accusations against each other
and on the other hand dare to make excuses for themselves.
In this way a troubled conscience
is torn apart through its own torments.

Bach is in general also still exploring ways to get more drama and text illustration into the music of his cantatas without it coming across as too operatic. So after a delicate opening chorus (Gardiner describes this as “an antique ring” in which the ornate beauty of the orchestral setting almost eclipses the inner gem of the hymn setting) and a powerful bass recitative, he writes a heart-wrenching alto aria on the moving text.

Damien Guillon. Photo by Julien Mignot

Click on this link to hear the amazing interpretation by countertenor Damien Guillon and the instrumentalists of Belgian ensemble Il Gardellino. Nobody delivers such a fantastic combination of completely “getting” the text and wonderful, seemingly effortless singing.  And listen to how he pronounces the consonants r-ch-t-s in the word “Furchtsam” without any concession to the vowel sounds.

When the libretto finally comes to the only quote of the Good Samaritan story: “I may love my neighbour as myself” in the fifth movement, Bach takes the opportunity to write a striking duet, including the parallel thirds and sixths characteristic of the amorous duets in Venetian operas of the time. If you thought that the famous soprano-alto duet from cantata 78 came out of the blue, here is the  artist’s study for it, one week before 🙂

A wonderful live performance of this cantata by the J.S. Bach Foundation is available here on YouTube. Soloists in this video registration are Ruth Sandhoff, alto; Andreas Post, tenor; Markus Volpert, bass.

Find the text here, and the score here.

Wieneke Gorter, September 8, 2017, updated September 3, 2020.

*of course I don’t know for a fact that this was the part of the libretto that moved Bach most. It is the text that moves me most, and of course that is partly because of Bach’s beautiful setting of it.

**and of course I don’t know this for a fact either, but it is the first thing I wrote down when I listened to this cantata, without having read Gardiner’s notes, which state that this alto aria from cantata 33 “bears a striking kinship in mood, subject-matter, and even melodic outline” to the soprano aria from cantata 105. So I am not alone in noticing this.