Cantata 24, Ein ungefärbt Gemüte, and Cantata 185, Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe
Fourth Sunday after Trinity, June 20, 1723
When J. S. Bach began his position as music director for the town of Leipzig and cantor of the Thomaskirche in May 1723, he undertook a two-year task of intensive composition of church cantatas. While Bach was responsible to lead the performance of a cantata in the Thomaskirche or Nicolaikirche (on alternating Sundays or feast days, and occasionally at both), he was not required to compose them. That was his choice. During his first year in Leipzig, Bach composed about 40 new cantatas, while reperforming other cantatas he had composed earlier, often in revised versions.
Bach began his first year in Leipzig with two newly composed cantatas in two parts, Cantatas 75 and 76. For the Third Sunday after Trinity, he reperformed his Weimar cantata, Cantata 21, Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, an eleven-movement cantata also in two parts. For the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, Bach had an existing work, Cantata 185, Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe, composed for this occasion in Weimar, July 14, 1715. But given Bach’s ambitious approach to his first year in Leipzig, he was not content to simply perform this six-movement cantata. Instead, he composed a new cantata to pair with it, performing Cantata 24, Ein ungefärbt Gemüte, alongside the Gospel and reperforming Cantata 185 during the Eucharist. This allowed Bach to continue his early Leipzig practice of performing cantatas both in their regular liturgical spot and during the Eucharist.
The starting point for considering every Bach church cantata is the Gospel for the day, the passage from the biblical books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John that was designated as the focus for that liturgical occasion. The Gospel readings were assigned by Martin Luther and largely consistent with the medieval liturgy on which he based his church reforms. Unlike the modern Revised Common Lectionary that uses a three-year cycle, the readings in Bach’s time were on an annual cycle so that the same Gospel reading returned each year for a particular liturgical occasion.
The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity records the words of Jesus in Luke 6:36-42:
Darum seid barmherzig, wie auch euer Vater barmherzig ist. Richtet nicht, so werdet ihr auch nicht gerichtet. Verdammet nicht, so werdet ihr nicht verdammt. Vergebet, so wird euch vergeben. Gebt, so wird euch gegeben. Ein voll, gedrückt, gerüttelt und überfließend Maß wird man in euren Schoß geben; denn eben mit dem Maß, mit dem ihr messet, wird man euch wieder messen. Und er sagte ihnen ein Gleichnis: Kann auch ein Blinder einem Blinden den Weg weisen? Werden sie nicht alle beide in die Grube fallen? Der Jünger ist nicht über seinen Meister; wenn der Jünger ist wie sein Meister, so ist er vollkommen. Was siehst du aber einen Splitter in deines Bruders Auge, und des Balkens in deinem Auge wirst du nicht gewahr? Oder wie kannst du sagen zu deinem Bruder: Halt stille, Bruder, ich will den Splitter aus deinem Auge ziehen, und du siehst selbst nicht den Balken in deinem Auge? Du Heuchler, zieh zuvor den Balken aus deinem Auge und siehe dann zu, daß du den Splitter aus deines Bruders Auge ziehest! (Biblia, Das ist, Die gantze Heilige Schrifft Alten und Neuen Testaments, Verteutscht durch D. Martin Luther, 1545).
‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’ He also told them a parable: ‘Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye”, when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.’ (New Revised Standard Version)
While the Gospels for the previous three Sundays record parables of Jesus focused on God’s grace, the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity relates Jesus’s instructions for how his followers should live: be merciful, as your father is merciful; do not judge, do not condemn, forgive, examine your own self before you judge another. The reading can feel like a rather pedantic list of instructions, but Johann Olearius, in his Evangelischer Glaubens-Sieg der Kinder Gottes (1672), explains that the primary message of this Gospel is the mercy of God (860-861). He writes that Christians should follow Jesus by having mercy on all persons (862-863, 869). He continually returns to the words of Jesus in Luke 6:36: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Olearius cites Martin Luther’s instruction that this Gospel teaches all Christians to follow a new life, set free from sin, death, and all misfortune, by obeying these words of Jesus to be merciful to others. He emphasizes the grace, mercy, and love of God (883) and answers the question, “Who am I?” with “Praise God! a blessed child of my heavenly Father” (885). Olearius further states the words of God to God’s followers: “I forgive your sins through my dear son Christ, who was crucified and died for you, that no sin should condemn you, no death consume you, no hell devour you” (885). Olearius’s commentary emphasizes a Lutheran understanding of the Gospel that focuses on the grace of God.
Readers can find the full German text of Cantata 24, with English translation, here: https://bachcantatatexts.org/BWV24, and of Cantata 185 here: https://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/BWV185-Eng10.htm. English translations for Cantata 24 in the following discussion are from Michael Marissen and Daniel R. Melamed, www.BachCantataTexts.org, and for Cantata 185 from Tobin Schmuck, https://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/BWV185-Eng10.htm.
By contrast, the poetry for Cantata 24, by Erdmann Neumeister, focuses on what the Christian believer needs to do to live a good and faithful life without hypocrisy. Its first movement puts the onus on the followers of Jesus to live an upright life, beginning:
An unfeigned disposition
Toward German faithfulness and goodness
Makes us beautiful before God and humankind.
While the Gospel can be read in this way, a more faithful Lutheran perspective (like that of Olearius) would stress that since Christians have received mercy from God, they should also show mercy to others. But Neumeister instead continues in the second movement with his perspective on the Gospel that stresses what the Christian believer must do: love your neighbor, love your enemy, treat others as you would want to be treated, have mercy on your neighbor, whether friend or enemy. This recitative is followed by a Bible verse summarizing the cantata’s perspective for the Christian believer: “Everything, then, that you may wish people should do to you, do that to them” (Matthew 7:12).
The movement 4 recitative bemoans hypocrisy, reflecting Luke 6:41-42. The movement 5 aria asks God for faithfulness and truth and the movement 6 hymn stanza for a healthy body, an unvexed soul, and a clear conscience.
Cantata 185, Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe, by Salomo Franck, more closely reflects a Lutheran understanding of the Gospel by emphasizing the mercy of God. Its first-movement aria begins:
[Merciful] heart of eternal love,
arouse, stir my heart through you;
so that I practice mercy and goodness,
Franck continues to emphasize this theme from Luke 6:36, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” in the second movement recitative. His instructions to not judge others and to forgive are presented as responses to God’s mercy. He urges the Christian to “practice, practice [mercy] / and seek while still upon earth / to become like the Father” (mvt. 2, lines 5-7).
Franck’s third-movement aria draws primarily on Psalm 126:6:
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
The following movement closely follows the concluding verses of the Gospel, Luke 6:39-42, warning against hypocrisy and egotism. Franck instructs in movement 5 that the Christian believer should instead love others, not judge them, and be generous. In the concluding hymn stanza, the opening of Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, the Christian believer asks God for the grace to live for God, benefit their neighbor, and follow God’s word.
Choosing to perform both Cantata 24 and 185 for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity in 1723 allowed Bach to continue his practice of presenting two-part cantatas in his early Leipzig tenure. Bach set texts by two prominent poets of the church cantata, Erdmann Neumeister and Salomo Franck, with very different interpretations of the Gospel for the day. He also paired an earlier Weimar composition with a new work, offering the Leipzig congregation distinctive ways to hear the Gospel set to poetry and music.