Felix Mendelssohn
Aus tiefer not

Based on Martin Luther’s paraphrase of Psalm 130, Felix Mendelssohn’s setting of Aus tiefer Not is the first of three works grouped together in Drei Kirchenmusiken (Op. 23). The other two pieces are a setting of Ave Maria and Mitten wir im Leben sind (In the Midst of Life we are in Death”), Luther’s re-working of an eleventh-century Latin antiphon, Media vita in morte sumus.

Mendelssohn’s Aus tiefer not is a cantata-like piece in in F-minor in five movements, each movement featuring one of the five verses in Luther’s paraphrase of the psalm. It has often been recognized as Mendelssohn’s most “Bachian” composition, both in the sound of the music and in the work’s overall structure. The opening and closing movements are four-voice chorales, the 2nd and 4th movements are more complex contrapuntal pieces, and the middle movement (in the relative major key of A-flat major) is a tenor aria accompanied by organ, coupled with a short and lyrical four-part chorus.

The entire piece run around 12 minutes. Because of the piece’s length, when our choir has sung it in a service, we have only sung three of the five movements.

For more on the history of the text and tune, and on Mendelssohn’s own life situation when he wrote this piece, see “Bend down thy gracious ear.”

Felix Mendelssohn’s Aus tiefer Noth schrei’ ich zu dir, Op. 23, No. 1
performed by the Chamber Choir of Europe, Nicol Matt, Conductor

Here is Luther’s text, with an English translation:

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?

Bei dir gilt nichts denn Gnad’ und Gunst
With you nothing but your grace and favour counts
Die Sünde zu vergeben;
in the forgiveness of sins;
Es ist doch unser Tun umsonst,
our deeds are therefore useless,
Auch in dem besten Leben.
even in the best life.
Vor dir Niemand sich rühmen kann,
Before you nobody can boast,
Des muß dich fürchten jedermann
but everyone must fear you
Und deiner Gnade leben.
and live by your grace.

Darum auf Gott will hoffen ich,
Therefore I shall hope in God,
Auf mein Verdienst nicht bauen;
not build on my own merit;
Auf ihn mein Herz soll laßen sich,
on him my heart will rely
Und seiner Güte trauen,
and trust in his goodness,
Die mir zusagt sein wertes Wort,
which his precious word promised me,
Das ist mein Trost und treuer Hort,
this is my consolation and faithful refuge,
Des will ich allzeit harren.
for this I shall always wait.

Und ob es währt bis in die Nacht
And even if it delays through the night
Und wieder an den Morgen,
and again in the morning,
Doch soll mein Herz an Gottes Macht
yet in God’s might my heart will
Verzweifeln nicht noch sorgen,
not doubt nor be anxious,
So thu’ Israel rechter Art,
act in this way, true race of Israel,
Der aus dem Geist erzeuget ward,
that is produced from the spirit
Und seines Gott’s erharre.
and wait on God.

Ob bei uns ist der Sünden viel,
Although there is much sin among us,
Bei Gott ist viel mehr Gnade;
with God there is much more mercy;
Sein Hand zu helfen hat kein Ziel,
his helping hand has no limit,
Wie groß auch sei der Schade.
however great the harm may be.
Er ist allein der gute Hirt,
He is alone the good shepherd
Der Israel erlösen wird
who can free Israel
Aus seinen Sünden allen.
from all his sins.