By Johann Sebastian Bach
Composed in 1736-37
A large number of Bach’s compositions are choral works, most of them centered on the liturgy and church services. They include over 200 sacred cantatas; secular cantatas; monumental works like the B Minor Mass, Christmas and Easter Oratorios, and St. Matthew Passion; and chorales, masses and motets. The motets fall into a special category of smaller-scale works which were often written for special occasions, such as weddings or funerals.
Bach composed this motet in 1736-7, when he was serving as the Cantor at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. It was most likely written for a funeral. The original instrumentation calls for six brass instruments: 2 “litui” (horn-like instruments), a cornetto, and 3 trombones. The scoring for such portable instruments makes it likely that this introspective motet was used outdoors, either in a procession or a graveside service (Bach later re-orchestrated it for more conventional winds and strings for indoor church use).
The text of BWV 118 is taken from an early 17th-century hymn written by Martin Behm, which contains some 15 stanzas. Bach’s score indicates that multiple stanzas can be used, and for today’s performance we are using 2 of them (1 and 12). The music and text evoke the hope of redemption in death and entry into heaven.
|O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht,|
Mein Hort, mein Trost, mein Zuversicht,
Auf Erden bin ich nur ein Gast,
Und drückt mich sehr der Sünden Last.
Auf deinen Abschied, Herr, ich trau,
|Oh Jesus Christ, my life’s light,|
my refuge, my comfort, my confidence,
on earth I am only a guest
and by sin’s burden sore oppressed.
In your departure, Lord, I place my trust—