Cantata 83, Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde
Feast of the Purification of Mary, February 2, 1724
In the Lutheran church year in Bach’s time, three days were named for Mary, the mother of Jesus: the Feasts of Mary’s Purification (February 2), Annunciation (March 25), and Visitation (July 2). These days reflected Martin Luther’s great respect for Mary and also reminded congregants of stories of Jesus’s birth at points throughout the year and not only at Christmas. The Gospel readings for these feast days come from Jesus’s birth narrative in Luke 1-2.
While occurring first in a calendar year, the Feast of the Purification of Mary comes last in the Gospel narrative, with Annunciation and Visitation relating stories from before Jesus’s birth. Purification tells the story of Mary and Jospeh fulfilling the Mosaic law’s injunction to present a first-born boy in the temple and offer a sacrifice to God.
The law stipulates that this take place on the fortieth day after the child’s birth, and the Gospel specifies that this was the day Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple. The Feast of the Purification of Mary thus occurs in the church year on the fortieth day after Christmas, February 2.
Since the Feast of the Purification of Mary was always on February 2, it usually did not fall on a Sunday. It was, however, celebrated with Hauptgottesdienst and Vespers services, no matter what day of the week it was. In 1724, the services included the first performances of Bach’s Cantata 83, Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde.
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 Purification of Mary is Luke 2:22-32:
22 Und da die Tage ihrer Reinigung nach dem Gesetz Mose’s kamen, brachten sie ihn gen Jerusalem, auf daß sie ihn darstellten dem HERRN 23 (wie denn geschrieben steht in dem Gesetz des HERRN: “Allerlei männliches, das zum ersten die Mutter bricht, soll dem HERRN geheiligt heißen”) 24 und das sie gäben das Opfer, wie es gesagt ist im Gesetz des HERRN: “Ein Paar Turteltauben oder zwei junge Tauben.” 25 Und siehe, ein Mensch war zu Jerusalem, mit Namen Simeon; und derselbe Mensch war fromm und gottesfürchtig und wartete auf den Trost Israels, und der heilige Geist war in ihm. 26 Und ihm war eine Antwort geworden von dem heiligen Geist, er sollte den Tod nicht sehen, er hätte denn zuvor den Christus des HERRN gesehen. 27 Und er kam aus Anregen des Geistes in den Tempel. Und da die Eltern das Kind Jesus in den Tempel brachten, daß sie für ihn täten, wie man pflegt nach dem Gesetz, 28 da nahm er ihn auf seine Arme und lobte Gott und sprach:
29 HERR, nun läßt du deinen Diener in Frieden fahren, wie du gesagt hast;
30 denn meine Augen haben deinen Heiland gesehen,
31 welchen du bereitest hast vor allen Völkern,
32 ein Licht, zu erleuchten die Heiden, und zum Preis deines Volkes Israel.
22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.”
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
Although the feast day was named for her, cantatas, sermons, prayers, and devotional texts for the Purification of Mary generally did not focus on Mary and often did not mention her at all. The day usually centered instead on the words and actions of Simeon in Luke 2:25-32 and on themes of death and dying, reflecting on Simeon’s statement “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace” and the Gospel’s account that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. The song of Simeon, known by its opening words in Latin, “Nunc dimittis,” is one of three canticles featured in the opening chapters of Luke, along with the songs of Mary (“Magnificat,” Luke 1:46-55) and Zechariah (“Benedictus,” Luke 1:68-79).
(For more on the theological content of the Marian feasts in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Lutheranism, see my article, “Marian Theology in Printed Cantata Librettos for the German Lutheran Church, 1704-1754,” in the Yale Journal of Music & Religion.)
In his Evangelischer Glaubens-Sieg der Kinder Gottes (1672), Johann Olearius tells the story of Mary and Joseph visiting the temple to fulfill the law, but focuses primarily on Simeon and his song. Olearius reflects on two main themes: that the salvation Jesus brings is for all people and that the Christian should approach death with peace and joy.
Olearius begins by explaining the purification from sin that Jesus provides: “My light, my Jesus, alone makes my heart pure from all sins.” He writes that even though Jesus himself was free from sin, he obeyed the law of Moses in order to redeem us from the curse of the law. Olearius states that Simeon’s song praises God because the child Jesus was the Savior who would bring redemption for all people.
Olearius writes that Simeon could state “now you are dismissing your servant in peace” because he was confident that Jesus would overcome sin, death, and hell. He continues, applying this perspective to every Christian believer:
The one now who has this Savior, who is the Savior from God, can have a quietly still heart. For even though death is so terrifying, sins so powerful, the devil as evil and venomous as he wishes, we have God’s Savior, that is, an almighty, eternal Savior, who is strong enough that he can deliver us out of death into life and out of sins into righteousness. (p. 231)
Olearius emphasizes the Lutheran belief that salvation is for all people and comes only through the grace of God. He highlights Simeon’s reference to Jesus as the light for revelation to the nations, stating that this light is revealed through the preaching of the Gospel and gives understanding of God, grace, righteousness, comfort, peace, joy, and blessedness.
In light of these ideas, Olearius continues by explaining that the Christian not only does not need to fear death, but should face death with peace and joy as Simeon did. In portraying Simeon as a model for the Christian’s consideration of death, Olearius was participating in a long Christian tradition associating Simeon’s song with both death and sleep. Since at least the sixth century, the Christian church has prayed the song of Simeon as part of Compline, the final prayer service before sleep. The words are often framed by the antiphon, “Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping, that awake we may keep watch with Christ and asleep we may rest in peace.” Paired with Simeon’s song, the Christian prays in reliance on God at our most vulnerable times, in sleep and in death.
Olearius emphasizes that the Christian should consider that death means the death of sin. His repeated urging that the Christian should approach death with peace and joy echoes the opening lines of Martin Luther’s hymn based of the Song of Simeon, “Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin,” “In Peace and Joy I Now Depart.” Olearius, and other Lutheran theologians of the seventeenth century, surely felt compelled to address themes of death and dying in the wake of the recent Thirty Years’ War (1618–48).
Olearius’s application of Simeon’s story in Luke 2 is summarized in his answer to the question, “What will I be?” He writes:
A blessed child of God, a co-heir of Jesus Christ, which lets me travel home in peace through death as out of an arduous prison, out of a miserable tower of guilt, and from a lengthy journey brought home into the true fatherland and heavenly life of joy. (p. 252)
Readers can find the full German text of Cantata 83 here: https://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/BWV83-Eng10.htm. English translations for Cantata 83 in the following discussion are from this translation by Tobin Schmuck.
Like Olearius, the unknown poet of Cantata 83 focuses on Simeon’s role and words in the Gospel story and on an application of these to the Christian’s perspective on death. The text includes the entire song of Simeon, quoting Luke 2:29-31 in movement 2 and concluding with the final stanza of Luther’s “Mit Fried und Freud,” based on Luke 2:30-32.
The opening aria of the cantata reflects Luther’s conception of the “blessed death” for the Christian believer. In tones that sound foreign to the modern ear, the text is celebratory, concluding with the words:
How joyously will, in the final hour,
that place of rest, the grave, be appointed! (lines 3-4)
Here death is seen not as something to be feared, but rather something to be welcomed with joy. Such a perspective would have been shaped by Luther’s perspective in “Mit Fried und Freud.” While the Gospel reading cites Simeon’s words as stating he could now depart “in peace,” Luther expands this to “With peace and joy.” Bach’s composition for this text highlights and intensifies such joy through vigorous vocal and instrumental lines and extended melismas on the words “erfreute” (“gladsome”) and “freudig” (“joyously”).
In movement 2, the poet combines text types, beginning and ending with Bible verse (Luke 2:29-31), with recitative in the middle. The movement opens with Simeon’s statement, “Lord, now you let your servant depart in peace, as you have foretold,” which the poet uses to expand on the Lutheran perspective that death is “an entryway into life” (line 4) in the recitative. The text continues with further reflections on God’s actions to bring the Christian believer peace and comfort in the face of death. The final line of the recitative section serves to introduce the continuing words of Simeon and return to themes of joy:
It [the heart] can make the gladsome statement:
For my eyes have beheld your Savior,
which you have prepared for all peoples.
Bach composed this movement for bass and strings in such a way as to highlight Simeon’s words. The bass sings the biblical text to a Psalm tone, which gives them a simple, chanted feel. But the strings weave elaborate lines around the words, emphasizing the special nature of the text. The recitative is set simply, with only basso continuo accompaniment. However, Bach returns to the strings’ opening music for two brief interludes, highlighting the words “life” (line 4) and “peace” (line 9). He returns fully to the opening music for the words of Simeon that conclude the movement.
The third-movement aria continues these themes of joy:
Hasten, heart, full of joyfulness
to step before the throne of grace!
You shall receive your consolation
and acquire compassion,
even in grief-stricken times,
strong in spirit, pray boldly.
As in the previous movement, the poet ties Bible verse closely to new poetic text, though not in such an obvious way. While the text is a typical aria, with meter and rhyme, it draws much of its language from Hebrews 4:16: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” As in movement 1, Bach fully conveys the joy of the text in an elaborate aria, here for tenor and strings and featuring an elaborate solo violin part.
The cantata ends with two brief movements: a recitative in which the voice of the Christian believer expresses confidence in Jesus’s salvation upon death and the closing stanza of “Mit Fried und Freud.” The cantata thus ends as it had begun, with the Christian believer celebrating God’s salvation and anticipating eternal life after death.