J. S. Bach, “Gute Nacht,”  Jesu, meine Freude  (BWV 227), ninth movement. [1]

J. S. Bach, “Gute Nacht,” Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 227), ninth movement.[1]

J.S. Bach’s motet Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 227) is made up of eleven movements, where the words to every other movement come explicitly from sacred literature ­— namely Romans 8:1, 2, 9-11. It is not certain what specific event the motet was composed for, but many scholars agree on (1) that 1723 is the date for its composition/premiere, (2) it fits into a category of Bach’s compositions called the “Leipzig motets,” and (3) the motet was presented on the occasion of a funeral.[2] The motet shifts between the polarities of a Lutheran hymn by Johann Franck (1653) that forms the basis of the chorale with counterpoint, and lighter textures that lead us to forget about sepulture and invite us to contemplate beauty beyond the gloom.

The ninth movement, “the sublime ‘Gute Nacht,’”[3] contributes to a debate on the motet Jesu, meine Freude as a whole. Some believe the entire motet is a piecemeal composition (incorporating elements from earlier works) and others firmly believe that the eleven-movement motet was composed as a unity. The words of this movement are not from Romans and it is also much simpler (from a musical perspective) than the five-part counterpoint of many of the earlier movements. Moreover, the “Gute Nacht” movement is noticeably different for its lack of an active, dramatic imagery in comparison with the other movements not based on the book of Romans — for example, the passage with the “old dragon” and the repetition of harsh consonants in the fifth movement: “Trotz dem alten Drachen, / trotz des Totes Rachen, / trotz der Furcht darzu! Tobe, Welt, und springe” [despite the old dragon, / despite the jaws of death, / despite the fear of death! / Rage, o World, and spring up]; and the storm of the third movement, with the fiend at the helm: “Lass den Satan wittern, / lass den Feind erbittern” [Let Satan storm, / let the foe rage].[4]

The motet has been performed and recorded in many different choral formations. Oftentimes we find children’s voices combined with adult voices and this strikes a balance between youth and maturity before a difficult topic. The innocence of children’s voices, especially in the “Gute Nacht” movement filters and tames the theme of night. The expression “good night” is repeated frequently and brings to mind the insistence used when nagging a child to go to bed to welcome night as a form of rest. When the presence of children’s voices can be detected in the timbre of the motet, it highlights this uncanny relation to childhood and innocence. It is important to note, nevertheless, that not all recordings use children’s voices. Recordings of this motet range from large choral groups with many singers to each part, to “soloist” ensembles with only one or two voices to each part. Philippe Herreweghe, with Collegium Vocale Gent, recently released a recording of this motet on LP with Outhere Music - Phi. Herreweghe’s vision is pristine, and this recording of Jesu, meine Freude is remarkably pared down from the majesty of Archiv’s Regensburger Domspatzen 1974 release. It may be that Herreweghe’s characteristic style (clean, delicate, and borderline clinical) draws the “Gute Nacht” movement closer to other movements in the motet. It lacks that rough feature of children’s voices —that is, the messiness in the style of youngsters who can sing each note but do not quite grasp the relevance of the deeper meaning at work. 

But let us return to the movement’s content and the peace that the words and their setting expresses. When we consider lines at the beginning and at the end, specifically “existence / that has chosen the world,” and “good night, pride and splendor” these lines express a truism — existence, that is life, as a material existence in this world suffers from some unfortunate conditions. By existing one enters into a relation of dialectic between positive and negative elements. And these difficulties seem to get resolved in ways that lead to a darker and darker existence. This is what we might call a manufactured darkness that does not come to the light, or truth, as existence itself depends to a certain extent on pride and glory, arrogance and conceit. As existence does not happen in an isolated place, but one populated by other individuals and structures, it necessarily dresses in vanity in order to accomplish anything at all. The comforting aspect of this predicament is that the mistakes that follow vanity around are committed in equal measure with the ambition for a particular end. The reassurance that one finds is that there is no real alterative to the choice of ambition and survival. It is like watching a spinning coin: one face of the coin is brilliant but blank; the other face is the darkness of everyday vanity.

Bach’s imagery in this movement has three distinct aspects; first, is the lightness in style in comparison with the counterpoint of earlier movements; second, is this unsettling perspective of innocence and youth on the darkness of existence — and this is carried out not only through the use of children’s voices but also through the commonplaceness of the expression “good night” in juvenile life and literature; and third, the expression “good night” is being used as a way to say “good-bye” to existence, as though we shut the door on the most disagreeable characteristics of life. But the line “come no more into the light!” reveals movement within the overall expression: on the one hand, we have this pseudo-astronomical vocabulary of the “night,” the “world,” and “light” that gives us a picture of the world in darkness (if we imagine that the entire world experiences night at the same time); on the other hand, there is a sense of light that exists someplace outside of the world. The night in this case banishes pride, and does not allow it to come “into the light.” We can read this to mean that this pride will not be revealed to the public at large or to the conscious individual in contemplation. This is a night that dismisses and cleans, and from which we might awake anew in light. The colloquial expression of “good night” — that this “night” should in fact be good — provides the calm reassurance of rest beyond the counterpoint of affliction and disgrace, joy and forgiveness that determine a certain belief; in a way, this offers respite to the listener of this motet from the mystery of the “night” that is really in question. The irony here is, when we consider the greater context, if we interpret this night as an expression of finality then this night will also consume the body.

The beauty of innocence and naïveté captured in the expression “good night” provides a platform for the concluding movements. It offers, moreover, a perspective from which to appreciate the final phrase of the motet (which is also the first line and the motet’s namesake) that emphasizes the joy of contemplating the absolute, and the joy of welcoming the absolute. Joy in the absolute may be recognized as the antithesis of the vanity we encounter in that desert of existence. The good found in opposition to everything else turns the irony of this particular night into an allegory for growth in how we imagine this darker side of the coin. To glimpse this light in joy, as illustrated in Bach’s motet, may afford us a vision of our circadian night as an opportunity for self-reflection and acceptance.

[1] The translation above is the responsibility of the author.

[2] See Peter Williams, Bach: a Musical Biography, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016, 269.

[3] “There are passages which suggest an earlier (Weimar) provenance — the sublime ‘Gute Nacht’ duet for sopranos to which the tenors provide a vocal bassetchen continuo with the altos threading a line through the middle of the hymn tune” (John Eliot Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, New York: Vintage Books, 2015, 468).

[4] “Jesu, meine Freude BWV 227” … English translation by Richard Stokes, see liner notes for Bach Motets, Monteverdi Choir, The English Baroque Soloists, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Soli Deo Gloria, SDG 716, 2012, compact disc, 32.  

Suggested recordings:

Bach, J. S. Motetten [2 LP]. Regensburger Domspatzen, Hans-Martin Schneidt. Archiv Produktion, Polydor International, 1974, 2533 161 (Seite 2), 33 1/3 rpm.

Bach, J. S. Motetten BWV 225-230 [2 LP]. Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe. Recorded 28-30 January 2011, Jesus-Christus-Kirche (Berlin-Dahlem), Outhere Music – Phi, 2011 / 2017, LPH950 (Face B), 33 1/3 rpm.

A Arte Alegre #7

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