Cantata 76, Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes
Second Sunday after Trinity, June 6, 1723
J. S. Bach’s Cantata 76, Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes, is clearly a companion work to the previous Sunday’s Cantata 75, Die Elenden sollen essen. Both are monumental cantatas in two parts, the first of which 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. Cantata 76’s movement structure parallels that of Cantata 75: Part 1 begins with the large-scale setting of a Bible verse for the full ensemble, while Part 2 begins with an instrumental Sinfonia; each part ends with a stanza of the same hymn set to the same elaborately concerted music. Bach’s aim to impress his new Leipzig congregation clearly extended into his second Sunday (and beyond!).
Through this similar structure, as well as the nature of the poetic language, we can infer that the same unidentified poet wrote the texts for both cantatas. The cantata’s text grows out of a Lutheran understanding of the Gospel for the Second Sunday after Trinity, Luke 14:16-24.
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 Second Sunday after Trinity records the words of Jesus in Luke 14:16-24:
Er aber sprach zu ihm: Es war ein Mensch, der machte ein großes Abendmahl und lud viele dazu. Und sandte seinen Knecht aus zur Stunde des Abendmahls, zu sagen den Geladenen: Kommt, denn es ist alles bereit! Und sie fingen an, alle nacheinander, sich zu entschuldigen. Der erste sprach zu ihm: Ich habe einen Acker gekauft und muß hinausgehen und ihn besehen; ich bitte dich, entschuldige mich. Und der andere sprach: Ich habe fünf Joch Ochsen gekauft, und ich gehe jetzt hin, sie zu besehen; ich bitte dich, entschuldige mich. Und der dritte sprach: Ich habe ein Weib genommen, darum kann ich nicht kommen. Und der Knecht kam und sagte das seinem Herrn wieder. Da ward der Hausherr zornig und sprach zu seinem Knechte: Gehe aus schnell auf die Straßen und Gassen der Stadt und führe die Armen und Krüppel und Lahmen und Blinden herein. Und der Knecht sprach: Herr, es ist geschehen, was du befohlen hast; es ist aber noch Raum da. Und der Herr sprach zu dem Knechte: Gehe aus auf die Landstraßen und an die Zäune und nötige sie hereinzukommen, auf das mein Haus voll werde. Ich sage euch aber, daß der Männer keiner, die geladen waren mein Abendmahl schmecken wird. (Biblia, Das ist, Die gantze Heilige Schrifft Alten und Neuen Testaments, Verteutscht durch D. Martin Luther, 1545).
Then Jesus said to him, ‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” Then the master said to the slave, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” ’ (New Revised Standard Version)
This Gospel continues those of the First Sunday after Trinity, that those seen as worthy on earth are not the ones who will reach the kingdom of heaven, but rather those who are seen as unworthy. In Luke 16:19-31, for the First Sunday after Trinity, this division was represented by the rich man and Lazarus. In the present Gospel, the first to be invited are ultimately rejected (v. 24), while “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” are welcomed in.
Martin Luther and later Lutheran theologians clearly identified the man in the story as God, who extended an invitation of eternal blessing to all people. In his German translation of the New Testament, Luther significantly uses the word “Abendmahl” to describe the occasion to which people are being invited. While this can simply indicate a dinner, “Abendmahl” is also the word Luther applies to the sacrament of the Eucharist, or the Lord’s supper. Furthermore, the Eucharist is understood in Lutheran theology both as a remembrance of Jesus’s final meal with his disciples before his crucifixion and as a prefiguring of the marriage feast of the Lamb in the eternal kingdom of God (see Revelation 19:6-9). Luke 14:15, the verse right before the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday after Trinity, likewise indicates such an eternal context for Jesus’s story: “One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, ‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’”
In his Evangelischer Glaubens-Sieg der Kinder Gottes (1672), Johann Olearius reflects a primary theme in Lutheran theology by emphasizing that the primary idea in Luke 14:16-24 is the grace of God as the one who invites people to eternal salvation. Olearius’s Evangelischer Glaubens-Sieg is a series of devotional reflections on the Gospel readings for the Sundays and feast days of the church year, with particular attention to Martin Luther’s interpretations of these texts. For the Second Sunday after Trinity, Olearius focuses the concluding words of Luke 14:17: “Kommt, denn es ist alles bereit!” He sees this Gospel as primarily being about “the merciful invitation to people to the great feast of the Most High” (803). Olearius indicates that the feast comes through Jesus’s death, which was sufficient to deliver the Christian believer from sin, death, and eternal condemnation (804). He indicates that eternal food and drink is received through faith in Jesus Christ and is offered to all people, Jews and Gentiles (805-807). Olearius summarizes the results of the two responses to this invitation in the Gospel for the day as eternal sorrow for those who refuse the invitation and do not eat of the meal and eternal glory for all who sit and eat (809).
Olearius thus interprets this Gospel through a key tenet of Lutheran theology, that salvation is by God’s grace and received through faith in Jesus Christ.
Readers can find the full German text of the cantata, with English translation, here: https://bachcantatatexts.org/BWV76. All English translations appearing in the following discussion are from this site, by Michael Marissen and Daniel R. Melamed, www.BachCantataTexts.org.
Cantata 76 is a large work in two parts, with seven movements in each part. As in Cantata 75, Part 1 closely reflects the Gospel for the day, while Part 2 draws on ideas from the Gospel but treats them more generally. The poet begins with Bible verse and ends each part with a stanza of the hymn “Es woll uns Gott genädig sein,” Martin Luther’s versification of Psalm 67. Each part contains three recitatives and two arias, with the recitatives tending to provide theological content and the arias a response to that content. Both the recitatives and the arias are shorter than typical for church cantata texts and both contain rich and evocative language. Readers can learn more about the biblical and theological sources of much of the poetic language from Marissen and Melamed, www.BachCantataTexts.org.
Part 1 reflects Olearius’s interpretation of Luke 14:16-24 through a focus on God’s gracious invitation to all people (mvts. 1-3) and that God’s invitation may be either rejected (mvts. 4-5) or accepted (mvt. 6-7).
In Jesus’s story in Luke 14:16-17, the man giving the feast does not extend his invitations directly, but rather sends his servant. Likewise, Cantata 76 tells us, God’s invitation comes to people through other means: the natural world in Part 1 and Christian believers in Part 2. The cantata begins by quoting Psalm 19:1 and 3, which state that God’s honor and works are evident to all people in nature: “The heavens recount the honor of God, and the firmaments make known the work of his hands. There is no language or speech where their voice may not be heard.” The movement 2 recitative then provides a theological explanation of God’s invitation: “Thus God does not leave himself untestified to! / Nature and grace addresses all human beings:” (lines 1-2). Like Olearius, the poet emphasizes the significance of God’s invitation: “Come; for everything is ready now” (“Kommt, denn es ist alles bereit,” Luke 14:17). Movement 2 concludes with a clear reference to the Gospel story:
God himself has inclined to you
And calls [to you] through messengers without number:
“Up, come to my love-feast.”
The voice of the movement 3 aria urges a response: “Hear, you peoples, God’s voice; / Hurry to his throne of grace” (lines 1-2). As is typical with arias, the text is in two parts: lines 1-2 and 3-5. The poet both closely connects the two parts and highlights key theological terms through the rhyme of “Gnadenthron” (throne of grace, line 2) with “sein eingeborner Sohn” (his only-begotten son, that is, Jesus, line 4).
But after these explications of God’s gracious invitation in movements 1-3, the following recitative and aria shift suddenly to focus on those who reject this invitation (Luke 14:18-20). In harsh language that goes far beyond anything stated in the Gospel reading, the speaker bemoans that “even Christians themselves run from Christ” (mvt. 4, line 8) and demands, “Go there [to your grave], idolatrous lot!” (mvt. 5, line 1).
The poet returns to hope-filled, positive language in movements 6 and 7, shifting to the final portion of the Gospel reading on those who do come to the heavenly feast (Luke 14:21-23). The movement 6 recitative begins with a summary of the Gospel spoken to God in the second person: “From all the streets, Lord, you have called us / To you” (lines 1-2). It once again links the heavenly feast of the Gospel with the Lord’s supper: “Indeed, with you yourself [in the eucharist], provided us food and drink / And bestowed on us your spirit” (lines 7-8). The recitative ends by introducing the prayer stated in the movement 7 hymn stanza, based on Psalm 67:1-2:
May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations.
Psalm 67:2 is expounded in the final three lines of movement 7 as the desire that “Jesus Christ’s salvation and strength” would be known to all people. While the “messenger” of God’s gracious invitation in Part 1 of the cantata was nature, in Part 2 it is the Christian believer. Just as the heavens demonstrate God’s glory, so, too, Christian believers are to demonstrate God’s love and faithfulness both to each other (mvts. 11 and 12) and to the unbelieving world (mvts. 9 and 13). Part 2 begins and ends with a prayer for God’s blessing on God’s people and on all the world (mvts. 9 and 14).
Part 2 resonates with Olearius’s interpretation of Luke 14:16-24 by emphasizing that the only way Christians can act in such a way is because of God’s grace. This is seen through the prayer that God would bless Christian believers so that they may be messengers of God’s honor (mvt. 9, lines 1-4). This is also seen in the work of Jesus Christ, that “Christ demonstrates to me / Love’s sweetness / And feeds me with manna” (mvt. 11, lines 2-4) and that “Jesus dies for the brethren” (mvt. 12, line 2). It also appears in the movement 13 recitatives resonances with Romans 5:8: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
Part 2 does expect certain responses from Christian believers, including belief (mvts. 9, 10), love (mvts. 9, 12, 13), holiness (mvt. 9), and self-denial (mvt. 10, 12). But the text continually emphasizes that these responses are only possible because of God’s grace and love as demonstrated through Jesus Christ. The cantata concludes, in response, with the third and final stanza of the hymn “Es woll uns Gott genädig sein,” based on Psalm 67:5-7:
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.
The earth has yielded its increase;
God, our God, has blessed us.
May God continue to bless us;
let all the ends of the earth revere him.
Cantata 76 is a virtuosic poetic display, deeply rooted in the Gospel for the day and in the Lutheran theological tradition, while offering rich, deep, and challenging language weaving together multiple themes and references. The poet set for Bach the task of reflecting musically, over a wide range of text types and emotions, God’s gracious invitation in the Gospel: “Come; for everything is ready now” (Luke 14:17).