J. S. Bach
Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben
(“Heart and mouth and deed and life,” BWV 147)

Bach composed two cantatas to be sung on the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. For the first of these, performed first in 1723 — not long after he had assumed his duties as Kantor at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche — Bach adapted a cantata that he had earlier composed for use during Advent.

The text presented in this cantata encourages the congregation to recognize the spirit of the Virgin Mary’s own confident expression of faith to be the model for Christian faithfulness. The opening chorus proclaims: “Heart and mouth and deed and life must bear witness of Christ, without fear and hypocrisy, that he is God and savior.”

Throughout the work, allusions to the events of the meeting between Mary and Elisabeth, as well as the words uttered on that occasion, are interwoven with exhortations to wonder and confident profession. An annotated text with English translation is available here.

The recording below is from the Netherlands Bach Society “All of Bach” project. The soloists are Griet de Geyter, soprano; Alex Potter, alto; Guy Cutting, tenor; and Matthias Winckhler, bass. The NBS musicians are conducted by Marcus Creed. In the second video, below the performance, you can listen to comments from two of the performers from the Netherlands Bach Society about the most famous chorale in this work.

Reconnecting with an old friend

The chorale melody sung in this cantata is one of the most famous of Bach’s compositions. The tune is commonly heard with the words “Jesu, Joy of man’s desiring.” In the cantata, this tune is heard twice, first in the middle of the cantata, and then as the concluding movement.

The words sung in both instances are taken from an 18-stanza hymn by the German poet Martin Jahn (c.1620–c.1682). Here is a translation by Michael Marissen and Daniel R. Melamed of the text sung in the first presentation of the melody:

[It is] well with me that I have Jesus;
Oh, how fast I hold him,
That he might refresh my heart
When I am ill and sad.
I have Jesus, who loves me
And gives himself to me, to be my own;
Ah, thus I will not let Jesus go,
Even if my heart breaks.

Marissen and Melamed translate the second stanza taken from Jahn’s poem of the chorale as follows:

Jesus remains my joy,
The consolation and sap/blood of my heart;
Jesus bars all sorrow;
He is the [protecting] power of my life,
The desire and sun of my eyes,
The treasure and bliss of my soul;
Thus I will not let Jesus
Out of heart and sight.

In the video below, tenor Immo Schröder and oboist Emma Black share some thoughts about why the melody sung with these words has such emotional power.