Cantata 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben

Feast of the Visitation of Mary, July 2, 1723

When Bach took up his careful attention to the composition and performance of church cantatas for his new Leipzig position in 1723, he approached each liturgical occasion fairly consistently. If he had an existing cantata for a particular day, he would generally use it, sometimes altered for its new context. If not, he would compose a new cantata. But for three cantatas in his first year in Leipzig, he took a distinctive approach: Cantata 147 for the Feast of Mary’s Visitation, Cantata 186 for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, and Cantata 70 for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Trinity.

Bach did not have an extant cantata to perform for these three liturgical occasions. He did, however, have three Advent cantatas, or portions of them, that would not have a home in the Leipzig liturgy, Cantatas 147a, 186a, and 70a. He had composed the cantatas in 1716 in Weimar, for the Second, Third, and Fourth Sundays of Advent (though it appears that, for reasons unknown, he did not complete the composition of Cantata 147a). But in Leipzig, church cantatas were performed only on the First Sunday of Advent, not the Second, Third, or Fourth. So Bach had three extra cantatas that he was unable to use for their original liturgical occasions in Leipzig.

With the help of his librettist, clearly a skilled poet, Bach transferred Cantatas 147a, 186a, and 70a to new liturgical occasions in Leipzig. The original versions of each had text by Weimar court poet Salomo Franck, published in his Evangelische Sonn- und Fest-Tags-Andachten (Weimar and Jena, 1717). Each begins with a movement Franck labels as a Chorus, then proceeds with a series of arias followed by a concluding hymn stanza. The poetry contains no recitatives or Bible verses. In transferring these cantatas to new liturgical occasions in Leipzig, Bach depended on his librettist to both expand the compositions and make them fitting for their new day in the church year. The poet did this by finding a day in the church year that had similar themes (though we do not know if it was the poet or Bach who selected the new liturgical occasion, or if was a collaborative decision), retaining most of the existing movements, and adding recitatives that are very specific to the new day in the church year. In keeping with Bach’s early Leipzig practice, they also divided the cantata into two parts, one to be performed in the cantata’s regular spot in the service and the other during the Eucharist, and added a second hymn stanza so that each part ended with same chorale setting.


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 feast of the Visitation of Mary is Luke 1:39-56:

Maria aber stand auf in den Tagen und ging auf das Gebirge eilends zu der Stadt Juda’s und kam in das Haus des Zacharias und grüßte Elisabeth. Und es begab sich, als Elisabeth den Gruß Marias hörte, hüpfte das Kind in ihrem Leibe. Und Elisabeth ward des heiligen Geistes voll

und rief laut und sprach: Gebenedeit bist du unter den Weibern, und gebenedeit ist die Frucht deines Leibes! Und woher kommt mir das, daß die Mutter meines HERRN zu mir kommt? Siehe, da ich die Stimme deines Grußes hörte, hüpfte mit Freuden das Kind in meinem Leibe. Und o selig bist du, die du geglaubt hast! denn es wird vollendet werden, was dir gesagt ist von dem HERRN.

Und Maria sprach: Meine Seele erhebt den HERRN,
und mein Geist freuet sich Gottes, meines Heilands;
denn er hat die Niedrigkeit seiner Magd angesehen. Siehe, von nun an werden mich selig preisen alle Kindeskinder;
denn er hat große Dinge an mir getan, der da mächtig ist und des Name heilig ist.
Und seine Barmherzigkeit währet immer für und für bei denen, die ihn fürchten.
Er übet Gewalt mit seinem Arm und zerstreut, die hoffärtig sind in ihres Herzens Sinn.
Er stößt die Gewaltigen vom Stuhl und erhebt die Niedrigen.
Die Hungrigen füllt er mit Gütern und läßt die Reichen leer.
Er denkt der Barmherzigkeit und hilft seinem Diener Israel wieder auf,
wie er geredet hat unsern Vätern, Abraham und seinem Samen ewiglich.

Und Maria blieb bei ihr bei drei Monaten; darnach kehrte sie wiederum heim. (Biblia, Das ist, Die gantze Heilige Schrifft Alten und Neuen Testaments, Verteutscht durch D. Martin Luther, 1545).

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home. (New Revised Standard Version)

In its original Weimar version, Cantata 147a was written for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The Gospel for this day is John 1:19-28, which focuses on John the Baptist’s witness to Jesus as Messiah. Franck’s poetry for the cantata focuses on John’s proclamation of Jesus and applies it for the Christian believer: like John, the Christian is to confess Jesus as Messiah in every area of life. Since Franck’s poetry for the most part does not mention John specifically, the Leipzig poet who crafted Cantata 147 was able to retain these themes from Franck’s poetry and transfer them to Mary, the mother of Jesus, as model rather than John the Baptist. The Leipzig poet wrote one new aria to replace Franck’s final one, a text that had named John the Baptist.

The story of God’s salvation in Luke 1 is largely the story of two women who were cousins, Elizabeth and Mary, and of the births of their sons, John and Jesus. The Gospel for the Feast of the Visitation of Mary continues the story of these four, following immediately the Gospel for the Feast of the Annunciation of Mary in Luke 1:26-38. After learning from the angel that she had been chosen as mother of the Messiah (the Annunciation), Mary departed to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, and remained with her three months. Luke 1:39-56 recounts Mary’s arrival, Elizabeth’s words of faith and grace, and Mary’s song of response, the Magnificat.

The Magnificat is one of three New Testament canticles, Psalm-like texts that are recorded in Luke 1 and 2. The other two are the song of Zechariah in Luke 1:68-79 (Benedictus) and the song of Simeon in Luke 2:29-32 (Nunc dimittis). In Lutheran and many other Christian traditions, these texts are prayed each day: the song of Zechariah in Morning Prayer (Lauds), the song of Mary in Evening Prayer (Vespers), and the song of Simeon in Night Prayer (Compline). In Bach’s Leipzig, the song of Mary was one of the texts most frequently heard in the church, sung for Vespers about 100 times each year. In the Lutheran church year, Zechariah’s song is included in the Gospel reading for the Feast of John the Baptist (June 24), Mary’s for the Feast of Mary’s Visitation (July 2), and Simeon’s for the Feast of Mary’s Purification (February 2).

Like they did for the Feast of John the Baptist the previous week, Lutheran theologians focused on themes of God’s grace and mercy in Mary’s song. Johann Olearius, in his Evangelischer Glaubens-Sieg der Kinder Gottes (1672), highlights Mary’s two statements about God’s mercy: the Lord thinks on his mercy (Luke 1:54), and God’s mercy continues on and on for those who fear God (Luke 1:50, 889). Olearius states that Mary praises with her entire being: he explains soul and spirit (Luke 1:46-47) as representing Mary’s whole life and whole understanding. He further declares that Mary praises God first of all, and most of all, for God’s mercy poured out on all people but especially on those who fear God (891-92). Olearius’s perspective is a consistently Lutheran approach to the Gospel that focuses above all on God’s mercy and grace (892-95).

Olearius quotes Psalm 25:6-7:

      Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love,
         for they have been from of old.
      Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
         according to your steadfast love remember me,
         for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!

And Psalm 103:8:

      The Lord is merciful and gracious,
      slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

He presents Mary as a model of faith, humility, and praise (897). In answer to the question “Was werde ich?” (“Who will I be?”), Olearius writes:
     “Out of grace and mercy, a child and heir of eternal salvation, as Saint Paul says in Titus 3[:4-5]: But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy. With great mercy, with eternal grace he will redeem me (Isaiah 54).”


Readers can find the full German text of the cantata, with English translation, here: All English translations appearing in the following discussion are from this site, by Michael Marissen and Daniel R. Melamed,

Given the details of its transfer from the Fourth Sunday of Advent to the Feast of Mary’s Visitation, the poetry of Cantata 147 is an interesting new creation. The original movements by Salomo Franck (mvts. 1, 3, 5, and 7) referenced John the Baptist’s proclamation of Jesus as Messiah and called on the Christian believer to emulate John. In moving the text to the Feast of Mary’s Visitation, Bach’s Leipzig librettist offered Mary and her Magnificat as models for the Christian, while adding language very specific to Luke 1:39-56 in the recitatives.

The cantata begins with a short text that is general enough to be appropriate for most occasions in the Lutheran church year:

      Heart and mouth and deed and life
      Must bear witness of Christ,
      Without fear and hypocrisy,
      That he is God and savior.

For the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Frank was referencing John the Baptist’s words about Jesus. For the Feast of Mary’s Visitation, Bach’s Leipzig librettist was referencing instead Mary’s Magnificat.

The cantata continues with a recitative very specific to Luke 1:39-56 (mvt. 2). It begins “Blessed mouth!”, referencing Elizabeth’s words to Mary in the Gospel: “Blessed are you among women” (Luke 1:42) and lauding Mary as a model of praise to God. The recitative flows naturally into the movement 3 aria calling on Christian believers to proclaim Jesus as savior. The movement 4 recitative begins with a retelling of Luke 1:51-52:

      He has shown strength with his arm;
         he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
      He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
         and lifted up the lowly;

It continues by calling on the Christian believer to respond to God’s call in faith, echoing the words of II Corinthians 6:2: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”

The movement 5 aria contains some of the most specific Advent language of the cantata, beginning with the call to “Prepare the highway,” a reference to Isaiah 40:3. In Lutheran theology, John the Baptist was seen as fulfilling the prophecy of one who would prepare the way for the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. Advent thus regularly references both the prophet Isaiah and John the Baptist. In this aria, Franck instead invokes Jesus as the one to “Prepare the highway for you [into my heart]” (line 1) and “look upon me with eyes of grace” (line 4). Part 1 of Cantata 147 concludes with a stanza of the hymn “Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne.”

The cantata’s second part contains just four movements: one aria from Franck (mvt. 7), a new recitative (mvt. 8), a new aria (mvt. 9), and another stanza of the hymn “Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne,” set to the same music as mvt. 6 (mvt. 10). While most of the movements are general calls for the Christian to proclaim Jesus as Messiah, the movement 8 recitative refers very specifically to the Gospel reading, to John and Elizabeth and Jesus and Mary (lines 3-11):

      John has to be filled with [the Holy] Spirit:
      The bond of [Christian] love clothes him
      Already in his mother’s [Elizabeth’s] womb,
      So that he knows the savior,
      Even though he [John] does not yet
      Call him [Jesus, by name] with his mouth;
      He [John] is stirred, he skips and jumps
      As Elizabeth proclaims the wonderwork,
      As Mary’s mouth brings the offering of [praise from] the lips.

Cantata 147 thus presents a very interesting example of poet and composer working together to both preserve an existing cantata (Cantata 147a) and transfer it to a new day in the church year. In doing so, they highlight a key theme in Lutheran theology: the mercy of God as proclaimed in Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat.