J. S. Bach, Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, “From deep affliction I cry out to you” (Cantata BWV 38)

During Lent, our congregation has for several years been singing settings of Psalm 51 every Sunday. Often referenced by its Latin title, Miserere mei, Deus, this psalm is one of seven penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143). Regarded by many Christians as the most powerful of these seven expressions of lament, it has been set to music by many composers.

Psalm 130 — De profundis — has been almost as frequently set to music, especially in the German paraphrase by Martin Luther, published in one of the first Lutheran hymnals in 1524. Both the text and tune selected for this hymn are known by their initial German words, “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir.” (You can read more about this tune and text in my article, “Bend down thy gracious ear.”)

Luther described this psalm as a cry of a “truly penitent heart that is most deeply moved in its distress. We are all in deep and great misery, but we do not feel our condition. Crying is nothing but a strong and earnest longing for God’s grace, which does not arise in a person unless he sees in what depth he is lying.”

In 1724, two hundred years after Aus tiefer Not was originally published, Johann Sebastian Bach used it as the basis for one of his cantatas (BWV 38). The work was composed to be sung on the twenty-first Sunday after Trinity. The Gospel reading for that Sunday was the story in St. John 4 about the nobleman beseeching Jesus to heal his son: “Sir, come down [to my house] ere my child die.” While there is no explicit acknowledgment of penitence in this father’s petition, the urgency of his distress echoes the opening words of Psalm 130: “Out of the deep have I called uno thee, O Lord.” The cry of the Psalmist and the request of the nobleman alike are pleas for mercy.

In Bach’s time, the hymn that had long been sung in Lutheran churches in Germany on the Sunday in which this Gospel passage was read was Luther’s five-stanza paraphrase/expansion of Psalm 130. Bach used the opening stanza of the hymn as the text for the opening chorus of his cantata.

Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir,
From deep affliction I cry out to you,
Herr Gott, erhör mein Rufen;
Lord God, hear my call;
Dein gnädig Ohr neig her zu mir
incline your merciful ear here to me
Und meiner Bitt sie öffne!
and be open to my prayer!
Denn so du willt das sehen an,
For if you want to look at this,
Was Sünd und Unrecht ist getan,
what sin and injustice is done,
Wer kann, Herr, vor dir bleiben?
who can, Lord, remain before you?

The melody of Luther’s hymn is heard — in various fragments and modifications — in all four voices in the opening chorus of Bach’s Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir. Here’s how the melody sounds when heard alone (sung here with the German text of Luther’s first stanza:

The overall sound in the cantata’s introductory movement is striking. Bach called for four trombones to be used to double the vocal parts, creating a very distinctive instrumental texture. John Eliot Gardiner observes that the “unique burnished sonority” of the baroque trombones impart to this opening choraus a sense of “ritual and solemnity.” Critic Julian Mincham writes that “they impart an unearthly Stygian quality of sound, completely in keeping with the personal torment described in the text.”

Those trombones are heard again in the majestic chorale that concludes the cantata, in which Luther’s melody returns and the final stanza in his hymn is sung. But just before that solemn last movement, there is a lovely trio featuring soprano, alto, and bass soloists. The text sung here is not from Luther’s hymn, but is a pastoral reminder that our penitence is a pathway to grace. Remember that Jesus gets the last word in the Gospel reading for this Sunday, and he repeats that word three times: “Thy son liveth.” And so, the trio in this penultimate movement affirms that (in Mincham’s words) “sorrows may chain me but the Saviour will rescue me — soon will the hopeful dawn banish the sorrowful darkness. This sentiment seems in accord with what we may assume of Bach’s own optimism and, despite the doleful theme of the cantata as a whole, it provides the sought-after signal of hope and confidence. . . .There may yet be sadness and torment in this life but now we are able to glimpse stability and familiarity; and through these, hope.” This hope is evident in the musical form of the trio, as well as in the text:

Wenn meine Trübsal als mit Ketten
When my sorrow as if with chains
Ein Unglück an dem andern hält,
joins one misfortune to another,
So wird mich doch mein Heil erretten,
then will my saviour rescue me,
Daß alles plötzlich von mir fällt.
so that everything suddenly falls away from me.
Wie bald erscheint des Trostes Morgen
How soon appears a morning of consolation
Auf diese Nacht der Not und Sorgen!
after the affliction and worry of this night!

The entire cantata is sung in the recording below by Collegium Vocale, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe. The soloists are Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Daniel Taylor, alto; Mark Padmore, tenor; and Peter Kooy, bass. (The text with English translation is available here.)