Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (Actus Tragicus) (BWV 106)
This cantata is considered the masterpiece of Bach's early cantatas. Like
the other early cantatas, it is based on bible texts and church chorales
and lacks recitatives and da capo arias. There are no original
sources of this cantata, although the surviving copies were probably
written from the original sources. The most important copy (Leipzig, 1768)
also bears the name "Actus Tragicus".
This cantata was presumably written in 1707 for an unknown occasion.
According to an unconfirmed tradtion, it was written for the funeral
service of Tobias Lämmerhirt, Bach's uncle from his mother's side,
from whom he had inherited the 50 guilders which contributed to his marriage
in 1707. Tobias Lämmerhirt died on August 10, 1707 in Erfurt.
According to Hermann Schmallfuss, however, the cantata was first performed
on June 3, 1708, at the funeral of Dorothea Susanne Tilesius, the sister of
Georg Christian Eilmar, the pastor of the St. Mary's Church in Mühlhausen and a friend of Bach's (Bach-Jahrbuch 1970, 36-43). The absence of a permutation fugue in this cantata might point in the direction of a pre-1708 origin,
because it is assumed that Bach applied this kind of choral treatment for
the first time in BWV 71 of February 4, 1708 (Ryuichi Higuchi in his
Preface to the Study Score of the New Bach Edition).
It is not known who wrote the text of this cantata, although there is an
obvious similarity with BWV 131, which was written by Georg Christian Eimar.
Also note that the famous words Bestelle dein Haus in this cantata
are, according to Isaiah 38, 1, addressed to king Hezekiah. King Hezekiah is
the father of Manasseh, who is mentioned in the second choral stanza of
BWV 131. Whoever the author, he or she did not have much to write because,
apart from three lines in the first chorus section, this cantata is entirely
based on existing texts from bible, apocrypha, and Lutheran hymns. Even
Bach could have written these three lines (as was in fact suggested by
Wilhelm Rust in 1876).
This is a cantata about death, one of Bach's beloved topics. In accordance
with the Baroque taste for strong oppositions, it confronts death under
the old covenant, the old-testamentic law ("der alte Bund" of section 2.),
with death according to the Gospel (where Jesus' sacrifice is supposed
to make the difference). Like
in BWV 21, the opposition is worked out in a rather systematic way. The
central section is 2d, in which death-old style ("Es ist der alte Bund",
sung by the choir) and the beginning of death-new style ("Ja, komm, Herr
Jesu!", sung by the soprano) are in direct confrontation. Alfred Dürr
has pointed out that the various parts of the cantata are grouped around
this central part in a near symmetric fashion (notated in organ pitch):
Sonatina (E flat major)
Chorus (E flat major - C minor)
Solo (C minor)
Solo (C minor - F minor)
Choral + Solo + Chorus (F minor)
Solo (B minor)
Solo (A flat major - C minor)
Choral (A flat major - C minor)
Choral + Fugue (E flat major)
Also as a whole, in other words, this cantata has a well-planned structure.
2. Individual sections
1. Sonatina [flauti dolci, viole da gamba, violone, organo)] (E fl/F, 4/4) (2'26)
This solemn, very beautiful introduction is the ideal music for one's
funeral. The obbligato group consists of two recorders and two violas da
gamba, while the continuo (organ) is reinforced by a violone.
2. Coro - Arioso - Arioso - Coro + Arioso [flauto dolce, viole da gamba, violone, organo] (8'24)
a. Coro [S, A, T, B] (E fl-c/F-d, 4/4, 3/4, 4/4)
The choir begins in a calm tempo (4/4), but after six measures there is a
transition to a lively allegro (3/8), expressing humankind's "leben" and
"weben". The text ("In ihm leben, weben und sind wir") is from the bible
(Acts 17, 28). Note that the word "lange" (long) occupies more than
three measures (31-34). In that respect, Bach's use of rhetoric figures
is rather straightforward. In measure (41) the discourse changes to the
topic of dying, which is expressed by a slow movement (adagio assai, 4/4).
b. Arioso [T] (c/d, 4/4)
This tenor arioso is about dying again, conventionally expressed by a
slow movement (lento, 4/4). The text is from Psalm 90, 12.
c. Arioso [B] (c-f/d-g, 3/8)
The bass arioso marks the transition to a very vivid movement (vivace, 3/8),
a magnificent expression of the text "Bestelle dein Haus" (set your house in
order) from Isaiah 38, 1. The prophet announces King Hezekiah's death: there
is very little time left to set his house in order because his hour has come.
The suggestion of rapidly fleeing time, brought about by the restless
semiquavers of the unisono of the recorders, is extraordinarily in this music.
d. Coro + Arioso [S, A, T, B] + [S] (f/g, 4/4)
This section is the center, the turning point of the whole composition.
It starts with a text about dying under the old covenant based on the
apocryphic Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 14, 18. It is a slow choir
movement (fugue) in a, presumably, purposefully archaic style ("der alte
After 15 measures, it is answered by the solo of the soprano, which
announces the new situation, which is characterized by Jesus' victory over
death. The words "Ja, komm, Herr Jesu, komm" are the last of the bible
(Revelations 22, 20) and have always been prone to mystic
interpretation. In the mystic tradition, which happens to be so important
for Bach, these words form one of the typical expressions of religious
desire with its erotic imagery. This ouverture must lead to a union with
Christ, which is brought about in the subsequent two sections.
After five measures, the soprano solo is combined with a three-part
instrumental citation of the hymn "Ich hab mein Sach Gott heimgestellt"
by Johann Leon (1582/1589). Alfred Dürr has demonstrated the remarkable
similarity between parts of the text of this hymn and the text of BWV 106.
After this, the choral fugue is resumed in ever shorter and more repetitious
phrases (with melismas on "sterben" (die)) and combined with the soprano
solo ("Ja, ja, Herr Jesu, komm"), leading to a climax of incredible
3. Aria - Arioso + Chorale [viole da gamba, flauti dolci, violone, organo] (5'56)
a. Aria [A] (b/c, 4/4)
The text of this alto aria ("In deine Hände befehl ich meinen Geist")
is from Psalm 31, 6 and also reminiscent of the last words of Jesus on the
cross. Once again, old and new covenant are symbolically linked. The
approaching moment of dying is expressed as a form of resignation to God:
"in deine Hände", which has five syllables corresponding to (the equivalent of) five
quavers (five fingers?). This phrase is echoed by the rising scale fragments
of the continuo, which might suggest God's response (compare the echo
aria in the Christmas Oratorio).
b. Arioso + Chorale [B] + [A] (A fl-c/B-d, 4/4)
Thanks to Christ's victory over death, dying has become a transition to
paradise. The text ("Heute wirst du mit mir im Paradies sein") is from
Luke 23, 43 and is sung by the basso as "vox christi" (voice of God). The
word "Paradies" is repeated many times and accentuated by
melismas. After 14 measures, the basso arioso is combined with Luther's
deathbed hymn "Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin" (1524). Like in many
later cantatas, Bach appears to be a master in this creation of a secondary
semantic level by the introduction of a background chorale (see also the
commentary on BWV 131).
The last part of this section is truly breath-taking and contains one
of the most impressive passages of all of Bach's oeuvre. The "vox christi"
(basso) stops, while the deathbed chorale continues pianissimo (on the
word "stille" (tranquil)). It continues, before the music comes to an
almost complete halt in the second pianissimo passage on the word "Schlaf"
(sleep) (measure 65). It is a moment of intense beauty which goes right
down the spine.
4. Coro [S, A, T, B, flauti dolci, viole da gamba, violone, organo] (E fl/F, 4/4) (2'54)
The final chorus, praising Trinity, has a calm beginning, with nice
instrumental echoes after each line. The text is the 7th stanza of
the hymn "In dich hab ich gehoffet, Herr" by Adam Reusner (1533). After 19
measures, it is concluded with an energetic fuga on "durch Jesum Christum,
3. Concluding remarks
This is one of the true masterpieces of Western music, written by Bach at
age 22. It also shows that right from the beginning of his career, Bach
was inspired by the idea of mystic union with Christ, by this odd combination
of burning desire and death wish which arguably makes Bach the most
impressive exponent of the rich tradition which has been such a prominent
part of the Christian world since the days of Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153).