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Jesus soll mein erstes Wort from Cantata 171 for soprano, violin and continuo

April 3, 2016: Ying Fang, soprano; Sean Lee, violin; Nicholas Canellakis, cello; Paolo Bordignon, harpsichord

When Bach took the position of Kantor of the Thomasschule and civic music director in Leipzig in 1723, he set out to compose five cycles of cantatas, roughly sixty per year, for use in the city’s main churches. The two hundred or so that survive represent a remarkable achievement in inventiveness and quality. Bach typically chose his texts from a variety of poets, but in the summer of 1728 Christian Friedrich Henrici (Picander), his chief librettist between 1725 and 1742, provided him with a full year’s series of texts. This, the fourth of Bach’s cycles, is often called the “lost” cycle, because only nine survive. Of these, Cantata 171, Gott, wie dein Name, written for New Year’s Day and the Feast of the Circumcision, was most likely first performed on January 1, 1729.

The Gospel text for New Year’s Day (Luke 2:21) refers to the naming of Jesus when he was circumcised, so the poet’s expansion of the idea into a multimovement cantata revolves around the importance of his name for the Christian world. In the midst of a large-scale work for chorus, oboes, trumpets, and strings, Bach writes a beautiful, intimate soprano aria with lovely violin obbligato, in which the protagonist says that just as Jesus’ name shall be the first word uttered in the new year, so shall it be the last in the hour of death.

Always a judicious recycler, Bach reworked this aria from “Angenehmer Zephyrus” (Pleasant zephyr) from his secular Cantata 205 (1725), where the elaborate violin phrases depicted a gentle zephyr wind. Bach changed the basically though-composed form, albeit with instrumental ritornellos, into a ternary form by keeping the first and middle sections as well as the closing ritornello basically unchanged, but making the third section an artfully modified return of the opening section.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

Text and Translation

Jesus soll mein erstes Wort

In dem neuen Jahre heißen.

Fort und fort

Lacht sein Nam in meinem Munde,

Und in meiner letzten Stunde

Ist Jesus auch mein letztes Wort.


Jesus should be my first word

spoken in the new year.

On and on

his name laughs in my mouth,

and in my last hours

Jesus is also my last word.

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