Cantata 81, Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 30, 1724
J. S. Bach composed Cantata 81, Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?, for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany in his first annual cantata cycle in Leipzig, January 30, 1724. The text, by an unknown poet, closely follows the structure and content of the Gospel reading for the day.
The Sundays after Epiphany in the Lutheran church year focus on Jesus’s earthly ministry. The Gospel readings for the first Sundays after Epiphany relate significant moments of the beginning of this ministry, most notably Jesus’s baptism by John and the calling of the first disciples. Ensuing Sundays recount well-known stories from Jesus’s ministry, with today’s telling of Jesus’s miraculous calming of the storm in Matthew 8:23-27.
The cantata’s poetry is intensely emotional, tracing the arc from terror to trust that the Gospel reading tells us the disciples experienced in the story. Bach’s composition matches this intensity with a highly dramatic musical interpretation of the text.
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 Epiphany is Matthew 8:23-27:
23 Und er trat in das Schiff, und seine Jünger folgten ihm. 24 Und siehe, da erhob sich ein großes Ungestüm im Meer, also daß auch das Schifflein mit Wellen bedeckt ward; und er schlief. 25 Und die Jünger traten zu ihm und weckten ihn auf und sprachen: HERR, hilf uns, wir verderben! 26 Da sagte er zu ihnen: Ihr Kleingläubigen, warum seid ihr so furchtsam? Und stand auf und bedrohte den Wind und das Meer; da ward es ganz stille. 27 Die Menschen aber verwunderten sich und sprachen: Was ist das für ein Mann, daß ihm Wind und Meer gehorsam ist? (Biblia, Das ist, Die gantze Heilige Schrifft Alten und Neuen Testaments, Verteutscht durch D. Martin Luther, 1545).
23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24A gale arose on the lake, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25And they went and woke him up, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We are perishing!’ 26And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. 27They were amazed, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?’ (New Revised Standard Version)
Johann Olearius, in his Evangelischer Glaubens-Sieg der Kinder Gottes (1672), crystallizes this Gospel reading in the following couplet:
My Jesus is the only person
Who can calm the wind and waves.
In his reflection for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Olearius emphasizes the comfort the Gospel provides, stresses the importance of prayer, and affirms that faith is a gift from God.
Olearius stresses the comfort the Gospel brings precisely because every human will experience great difficulties in life. He particularly notes this is true for the Christian, explaining, “If Christ comes in the boat, then also come weather and storm” (206).
Even the disciples, who had the almighty Savior there with them, nevertheless had lost all hope because of the storm. Olearius expounds on the disciples’ cry in a series of questions, including: “Will you not allow your disciples’ trouble and danger to reach your heart? . . . Have you forgotten to be gracious? (Psalm 77) Oh Lord, how long will you utterly forget us, how long shall we have fear in our hearts? (Psalm 13)” (205).
But Olearius notes that the disciples’ response was, in fact, a prayer. He writes that even though the disciples’ faith was small and weak, they still had enough faith to seek help from Jesus, wake him, and cry out: “Lord, help us, we are perishing” (207). Jesus does not rebuke them for not having faith, but rather for having little faith. Olearius commends the disciples as examples of prayer, noting “For no-one can pray unless he believes” (207).
Olearius thus affirms the Lutheran theological perspective that faith is not something that comes from the Christian believer’s will, but is a gift of the Holy Spirit given through the Word of God (208). He summarizes a key idea of the Gospel and the comfort it provides for the Christian believer: “Remember that we learn in time of need and temptation to awake our savior with prayer, whether he appears to not see us, yet we should still see him and believe that he can help us” (211). Olearius urges the Christian to not depend on human strength, but only on God and God’s Word (212).
Readers can find the full German text of Cantata 81 here: https://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/BWV81-Eng10.htm. English translations for Cantata 81 in the following discussion are from this translation by Tobin Schmuck.
While Olearius focuses primarily on the comfort this Gospel brings for the Christian believer and on faith as the gift of God, the cantata text dramatically reflects the disciples’ terror in the midst of the storm and broadens it to the fear of death experienced by every person. In the opening aria, the speaker responds with despair to the fact that Jesus is asleep:
Jesus sleeps, what hope do I have?
Do I not see
with an ashen face
the chasm of death already open?
Bach emphasizes this sense of despair in his composition, a somber reflection on the fear of death if Jesus sleeps. The aria sets a dire mood, and one on which the music dwells: in the Netherlands Bach Society’s recording, the first movement takes nearly a third of the cantata’s total time (the aria is 5 minutes, the whole cantata 17 minutes). The singer ends the movement with multiple repetitions of the words, “what hope do I have?”
The movement 2 recitative continues this spirit of hopelessness in a series of questions reminiscent of Olearius’s reflections on the disciples’ questioning. It begins:
Lord! why do you tread so far away?
Why do you conceal yourself at this time of need
while a tragic ending looms before me? (lines 1-3)
The questions echo the parallel account of the Gospel story in Mark 4:35-41, in which the disciples cry out to Jesus, “‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38).
The poet makes a fascinating shift in line 6, stating to God that God had once guided the wise men to Jesus by way of a star. On the basis of this, the speaker prays that God would guide them out of peril “by the light of your eye” (line 9). By evoking the wise men and the star, the poet contextualizes the Gospel story in the Epiphany season of the church year. The Gospel for Epiphany (January 6) is Matthew 2:1-12, which tells the story of the wise men from the East who were led to Jesus by a star.
The third-movement aria names the source the Christian believer’s terror as the “frothy waves from Satan’s torrents” (line 1) and the “winds of tribulation” (line 4). The reference to Satan is consistent with Olearius’s reflection on this Gospel, which frequently names Satan as the one bringing fear and trials to the believer (see pp. 211-12). The aria text seems to place responsibility on the believer to keep their own faith steadfast:
A Christian should of course stand like rocky cliffs
as the winds of tribulation swirl about him, (lines 3-4)
Bach, however, does not focus on these lines, but instead dramatically portrays the storm, choosing to highlight the opening two lines:
The frothy waves from Satan’s torrents
double their fury. (lines 1-2)
Both poetry and music suddenly shift in movement 4, which quotes the words of Jesus from Matthew 8:26: “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” This brief statement transforms the cantata’s perspective from fear to peace and trust in Jesus’s words. Bach follows the common musical practice, best known in Passion settings, of setting the words of Jesus for the bass voice.
The fifth-movement aria continues the portrayal of Jesus’s words:
Be still, towering sea!
Silence, storm and wind!
While this is new poetic text and not a quotation from the Bible, it echoes the words of Jesus recorded in Mark 4:39: “He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’” Bach once again represents the storm and wind through vigorous instrumental accompaniment, emphasizing the power of Jesus’s words.
In the sixth-movement recitative, the Christian believer replies by succinctly stating their complete trust in the words of Jesus:
Blessed am I, my Jesus utters a word,
my helper has awoken,
so must the storm of waves, the night of misfortune
and all worry be gone.
The cantata ends with stanza 2 of Johann Franck’s Jesu, meine Freude, in which the Christian expresses faith in Jesus despite the threats of Satan, enemies, thunder and lightning, sin and hell. The final line, “Jesus will cover me,” likely references Psalm 36:7 with its image of God as a mother bird protecting her young: “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.”
The cantata’s poetry thus very closely reflects the Gospel for the day, with much of the story’s language and imagery: from the disciples’ fear at the storm and their prayer to Jesus to Jesus’s calming of the storm. It ends with the application for the Christian believer to fully trust Jesus’s words.