Cantata 75, Die Elenden sollen essen
First Sunday after Trinity, May 30, 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 clearly sought to impress his new Leipzig congregations with his first cantatas, beginning with Cantata 75, Die Elenden sollen essen, for the First Sunday after Trinity. Many of these cantatas, including Cantata 75, are in two parts. The first was performed in the regular liturgical slot after the hymn of the day and Gospel reading and before the sermon, and the second during the Eucharist. The, by an unidentified poet, text clearly connects with the story of the rich man and Lazarus from the Gospel for the day, Luke 16:19-31.
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 First Sunday after Trinity was the words of Jesus recorded in Luke 16:19-31:
Es war aber ein reicher Mann, der kleidete sich mit Purpur und köstlicher Leinwand und lebte alle Tage herrlich und in Freuden. Es war aber ein armer Mann mit Namen Lazarus, der lag vor seiner Tür voller Schwären und begehrte sich zu sättigen von den Brosamen, die von des Reichen Tische fielen; doch kamen die Hunde und leckten ihm seine Schwären. Es begab sich aber, daß der Arme starb und ward getragen von den Engeln in Abrahams Schoß. Der Reiche aber starb auch und ward begraben. Als er nun in der Hölle und in der Qual war, hob er seine Augen auf und sah Abraham von ferne und Lazarus in seinem Schoß. Und er rief und sprach: Vater Abraham, erbarme dich mein und sende Lazarus, daß er die Spitze seines Fingers ins Wasser tauche und kühle meine Zunge; denn ich leide Pein in dieser Flamme. Abraham aber sprach: Gedenke, Sohn, daß du dein Gutes empfangen hast in deinem Leben, und Lazarus dagegen hat Böses empfangen; nun aber wird er getröstet, und du wirst gepeinigt. Und über das alles ist zwischen uns und euch eine große Kluft befestigt, daß die wollten von hinnen hinabfahren zu euch, könnten nicht, und auch nicht von dannen zu uns herüberfahren. Da sprach er: So bitte ich dich, Vater, daß du ihn sendest in meines Vaters Haus; denn ich habe noch fünf Brüder, daß er ihnen bezeuge, auf daß sie nicht auch kommen an diesen Ort der Qual. Abraham sprach zu ihm: Sie haben Mose und die Propheten; laß sie dieselben hören. Er aber sprach: Nein, Vater Abraham! sondern wenn einer von den Toten zu ihnen ginge, so würden sie Buße tun. Er sprach zu ihm: Hören sie Mose und die Propheten nicht, so werden sie auch nicht glauben, wenn jemand von den Toten aufstünde. (Biblia, Das ist, Die gantze Heilige Schrifft Alten und Neuen Testaments, Verteutscht durch D. Martin Luther, 1545).
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (New Revised Standard Version)
The Gospel reading is one of contrasts: rich and poor, exalted and lowly, full and hungry, time and eternity, eternally tormented and eternally blessed. It reflects Jesus’s consistent message in the Gospels that God cares for, and privileges, those who are marginalized in society. Lazarus was poor, sick, hungry, sitting day by day at the rich man’s gate. The rich man had all he needed and more, but apparently did not care for those in need, personified here as Lazarus. But after death, in eternity, Lazarus is healed and filled and comforted in Abraham’s bosom, while the rich man experiences eternal torment.
The Gospel resonates with Mary’s song of the world turned upside down in Luke 1:
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
It also reflects Jesus’s Beatitudes in Luke 6:
Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled. . . .
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
Readers can find the full German text of the cantata, with English translation, here: https://bachcantatatexts.org/BWV75. All English translations appearing in the following discussion are from this site, by Michael Marissen and Daniel R. Melamed, www.BachCantataTexts.org.
As noted above, Cantata 75 is a large work in two parts, and it and has thirteen movements. The anonymous poet drew on all four text types common in church cantatas at the time. These included the quotation of Bible verse and hymn (chorale) stanzas, as well as newly written poetry in the form of recitative and aria. The text is both compact and evocative. Most of the recitatives and arias have fewer poetic lines than typical for these types, but with language that is rich and full of imagery. The poet unifies the text by ending both parts of the cantata with stanzas from the same hymn, “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan” by Samuel Rodigast.
As with many church cantatas, the first movement quotes a Bible verse, in this case Psalm 22:26. It clearly emphasizes the two main themes of the day’s Gospel: God’s provision for the poor (“The afflicted shall eat”) and the eternal nature of this provision (“Your heart shall live eternally.”).
The second movement recitative contrasts the positive vision of the eternally blessed with the plight of the rich man in the Gospel: “What use is purple’s majesty, given that it dies away?” The movement concludes with the warning “That wealth, pleasure, splendor / Make [life for] the spirit hell.” The following aria (mvt. 3) affirms instead that all the riches of the Christian are found in Jesus: “My Jesus shall be my everything.”
The fourth movement recitative expounds on a theological perspective on these contrasts taken from the Gospel for the day: “God hurls [this person down] and lifts [that one] up, in time and eternity.” The voice of the Christian believer then responds in a first-person aria (mvt. 5) declaring “I accept my suffering with joy” and looking toward life in heaven after death.
The sixth movement recitative again returns to theological teaching, emphasizing that Christians may on earth “enjoy / A small good with great delight” and can continually rely on God’s goodness even if they suffer “extended distress toward death.” The poet ends the recitative with the word “wohlgetan,” clearly linking to the ensuing hymn stanza, “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan” (“What God does is done well”). In expressing such trust in God’s goodness, the first-person hymn declares hope and confidence that earthly suffering will give way to the ultimate passing of all sorrows.
While Part 1 of the cantata is built around the contrasts of rich and poor, time and eternity, hell and heaven from the Gospel, Part 2 focuses entirely on the response of the individual Christian believer. After the instrumental Sinfonia that opens Part II, the ninth movement recitative expresses the believer’s self-doubt it their own ability to be poor in spirit. The ensuing movements expound a number of key Lutheran doctrines addressing the relationship between God and the Christian believer:
- That the grace of God comes to the Christian not through the Christian’s work, but through God’s work. This is heard clearly in lines such as “Jesus makes me spiritually rich” (mvt. 10), “For Jesus’ sweet flames [of love], / From which my own [flames of love] emanate” (mvt. 12), and “Because he [Jesus] gives himself over to me” (mvt. 12)
- That the Christian’s call is to respond with faith to God’s grace. This appears in the opening lines of movement 11, “Whoever just abides in Jesus, / [Whoever] exercises self-denial, / Such that in God’s love he might exercise belief,” as well as the opening line of the movement 12 aria: “My heart believes and loves.”
- That salvation for the Christian believer is based on a “mystical union” with Jesus, in which Jesus dwells in the Christian’s heart. This idea, which appears frequently throughout Lutheran theology, and also in many of Bach’s church compositions, is expressed in the movement 13 recitative: “Oh [welcome] poverty that no wealth equals:
When the entire world / Flees out of the heart / And Jesus alone just rules [in our hearts]!”
The cantata ends with the Christian believer once again expressing trust in God through a stanza of “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan.”
In composing the music for Cantata 75, Bach was clearly inspired to creative heights both by the significance of the occasion and the evocative text the poet wrote based on the Gospel for the First Sunday after Trinity. From the opening chorus evoking a French Overture style to the four remarkable arias, one for each voice part, to the spectacular settings of the hymn tune “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan” in movements 7, 8, and 13, Bach’s music majestically proclaims of the Gospel and the cantata’s text.