A Study of the Texts of J.S. Bach's Motets

The purposes of this study are threefold: to reveal the sources of the vocal texts of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), to point out the characteristics of the texts employed by Bach, and to evaluate the texts of Bach°≠s motets in the light of these studies.  I will divide the subject into two elements, the choral (hymn) texts and the biblical texts and deal with them accordingly.

The Choral (hymn) texts

It is reported that more than 80 hymnals were published during Bach°≠s life around the cities he lived in;(1) however, we know that four of them were more important than any other hymnals for Bach and the city of Leipzig.  They are: Wagnersches Gesangbuch (1697) which consists of eight volumes with 5000 tuneless hymns and is entitled Gospel and Epistle hymns appointed for every Sunday, festival day, and apostle day;(2) Neu Leipziger Gesangbuch (esp. 1682 ed.) published by Gottfried Vopelius (1635-1715) with 415 hymns and many choral settings on 1100 pages;(3)  Dresdener Gesangbuch (esp. 1725 ed.) which was intended for all Saxony cities with 804 hymns;(4) and Leipzig Gesangbuch (esp. 1724 and 1729 ed.) which contains nearly all the hymns used by Bach,(5) with 260 hymns.  Although only the Wagnersches Gesangbuch can be found in Bach°≠s inventory, °»originally the only possessors of hymnals were the clergy, the Cantor, and the choir°…(6) so that Bach seems to have had all four of these hymnals.  The Neu Leipziger Gesangbuch was an offficial hymnal of the city of Leipzig and the Leipzig Gesangbuch was a private hymnals in spite of both mainly being for choir use.(7)  The Dresdener Gesangbuch was also for choir use and Bach asked the City Council to let each choir member have this hymnal because the contents were more up-to-date than any other hymnals.  For example, in Vopelius°≠s Neu LeipzigerGesangbuch, only two poems written by Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676) published by Gottfried can be found, but in the Dresdener Gesangbuch there are twelve or more.(8)  I, therefore, conclude that Bach had enough sources, both old and new, for his textual choice of his vocal works.

A general survey of Bach°≠s vocal texts reveals the statistical facts as follows.(9)  There appears to be about 170 different kinds of choral (hymn) texts by about 90 poets about 290 times.  I divided these numbers into three chronological periods: (1)by 1600, (2)between 1600 and 1675, and <3>after 1675 (by 1750).  The results are: with respect to the choral melodies, (1)=67, (2)=36 and (3)=57; to the poets,(1)=36, (2)=20 and (3)=28; and to the total appearance times,(1)=140, (2)=66 and (3)=88.  This shows Bach°≠s wide-scale use of choral texts with special preference for his and Luther°≠s contemporaries.  Another examination is about Bach°≠s special preference for poets.

The poets who contributed more than two choral pieces among Bach°≠s vocal works are: Martin Luther (1493-1546), 20 chorals appearing about 43 times; Paul Gerhardt, 19 appearing 30; Johann Rist (1607-1667), 9 appearing 15; Johann Heermann (1585-1647), 7 appearing 17; Johann Franck (1618-1677), 5 appearing 7; Paul Eber (1511-1569) 4 appearing 5; David Denicke (1603-1680),3 appearing 3; and Nicholaus Herman (1480-1561), 3 appearing 6.  Five of them belonged to what we call the pietistic-personal hymn writing tradition. Especially among Bach°≠s larger works such as the St. Matthew and John°≠s Passions, and the Christmas and Easter Oratorios, Bach employed more of the Piestic poets°«  chorals than those of Orthodox poets.  Except for Luther, the preferable poets for Bach seem to have been more Pietistic than Orthodox.

There are up to 34 chorals which appear more than 3 times among Bach°≠s vocal works.  In this case, we can find many more of the Orthodox sixteenth-century chorals than the Pietistic ones.  Moreover, the chorals which appear more than 5 times among Bach°≠s vocal works are Was Gott tut written by Samuel Rodigast (1649-1708), Wie schone leuchtet by Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608), Nun lob mein Seel by Johann Graumann (1487-1541), which is employed in Bach°≠s motet BWV 225, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden by Gerhardt, Wo soll ich fliehen hin by Heermann, Meinen Jesum la¶¬ ich nicht by Christian Keymann (1607-1662), and Jesu Leiden, Pein und Tod by Paul Stockmann (1602-1636).  Here we can find Bach°≠s tendency towards Pietism again.

It is difficult to ascertain the reason Bach prefered these poets and poems: because of his preference to the texts, or the choral melody, or not his but the congregational preference.  It is reported that °»the churches (in Leipzig) clung to the old core collection of Reformation and post-Reformation hymns to the extent that they had become a firm tradition in Leipzig.°…(10)  Therefore, on the one hand we should keep in mind Bach°≠s personal tendency towards the Pietistic chorals, and on the other hand we can affirm that °»Bach was always seeking to widen hymnodic horizons, both of traditional and contemporary hymnody.°…(11)

Among these seven generally accepted as Bach°≠s motets, only BWV 230 does not have choral materials. BWV 225 employs Nun lob, mein Seel written by Graumann as I mentioned above, BWV 226 Komm, Heiliger Geist by Luther, BWV 227 Jesu meine Freude by Franck, BWV 228 Warum sollt ich mich denn gramen by Gerhardt, and BWV 229 Komm, Jesu, Komm by Paul Thymich (1656-1694) and BWV 118 O Jesu Christ by Martin Behm (1557-1622), the last two exclusively using choral materials.  In light of the above, we can observe the facts as follows. The choral in BWV 225 is one of the most frequently used among Bach°≠s whole vocal output. The chorals in BWV 226, 227, appear less frequently (but 3 times each) but were written by the most frequently used poets. The choral in BWV 228 appears only 1 time among Bach°≠s works but was written by the second most frequently used poets, Gerhardt.  O Jesu Christ of BWV 118 appears just 2 times and the poet was known only for the poem; however the hymn was also popular among the Orthodox Lutheran Churches(12)Komm,

Jesu, Komm of BWV 229 is the only example which seems to have been an unfamiliar choral.  I, therefore, conclude here that the choral texts employed for Bach°≠s 6 motets were very popular in Leipzig or beloved by Bach himself except Komm, Jesu, Komm of BWV 229, and represented both Orthodox (BWV 225, 226 and 118) and Pietistic (BWV 227, 228 and 229) choral traditions.

The Biblical texts

It was natural for eighteenth-century Lutherans in Germany to have and use the German Bible translated by Luther.  Bach, following the tradition, used the German Bible and °»when he set to music the text of the Bible, it was Luther°≠s translations he used.°…(13)  There were several versions of Luther°«s translation at that time including versions such as Wittenberg, Jena, Eisleben and Altenburg.  The Altenburg version was the most comprehensive and systmatically gathered version.(14)  Bach had the Altenburg version Bible and two Bible commentaries which contained the version, Calovii Schrifften 3. Bande (The Calov Bible) and Olearii Haupt Schu¶¬el der gantzen Heiligen Schrifft 3. B.(15)  The Altenburg version contains all of Luther°≠s German writings during 1516-1546 and those translated by him from the Latin into German.(16)  The version had a huge index volume which was almost 1300 pages and consisted of 12 indexes for more than 13,000 pages of printed matters.  It had, for example, indexes of topical subjects, Luther°≠s quotations, person and land names, the Church Year, Hebrew, Greek and Latin words, and other versions.(17)  The Calov Bible contains extended annotations among the original text by a Lutheran Orthodox theologian, Abraham Calov (1612-1686).  It was  °»essentially made up of quotations from Luther ... and can be seen as an edition of Luther°≠s works arranged in Biblical order, with additional material from Calov°…(18)  Therefore, Bach had excellent Bible study tools and studied the Bible with them.(19)

Bach got the Calov Bible before 1733 and the Altenburg version in 1742.  Both Bibles are very rare now so that it is difficult to study in detail these versions to compare them with Bach°≠s vocal texts.(20)  After studying these materials, Leaver observed that °»most of Bach°≠s books were reprinted many times and there is no way of knowing which edition Bach owned of each of them.°…(21)

The Biblical texts of Bach°≠s motets are excerpted from Psalm 149:1-3, 150:2 and 6 (BWV 225), Romans 8:26-27 (BWV 226), Roman 8:1-2, 9-11 (BWV 227), Isaiah 41:10 and 43:1 (BWV 228), and Psalms 117:1-2 (BWV 230).  BWV 229 and 118 do not contain direct Biblical quotations.  None of them can be idedntified with the texts for the Epistles and Gospels of the Church Year22 so that from a textual point of view, it is difficult to regard these motets as written for ordinary Sunday services.


We have observed the choral and Biblical texts and reached conclusions as follows.  In respect to the choral texts, (1) Bach obtained great deals of choral materials old and new, (2) he used them not only traditional but also new choral poems with his and Leipzig°≠s preferences, and (3) the choral texts used for Bach°≠s motets were popular in Leipzig or beloved by Bach himself.  In respect to the Biblical Sources, (1) Bach owned the best version of the Bible in those days with very useful study materials, (2) he used them with many autograph notes in the Bible, (3) but we can-not find direct information about the texts of the motets except for having no connection with the Church Year.

Luther said that the Gospel should be preached, not only to be read but also to be interpreted and proclaimed as living words of God.  We found Abraham Calov put his own words into the original Biblical texts and Bach read it as a part of the Bible.  With these considerations in mind, I have concluded that the texts of Bach°≠s motets were chosen and composed with his special preference.


[1] Von Delef Gojoy, "Kirchenlieder im Umkreis von J. S. Bach," Jahrbuch fur Liturgik und Hymnologie 22 (1978): 84-89.

[2] Robin A. Leaver, Bach°≠s Theological Library, (Neuhausen-Stuttgart: Hanssler-Verlag, 1983), 188.

[3] Guenter Stiller, Johann Sebastian Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig, trans. by Herbert J. A. Bouman, Daniel F. Poellot and Hilton C. Oswald, ed. by Robin A. Leaver (St.Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1984), 36.

[4] Ibid., 37.

[5] Ibid., 38.

[6] Charles S. Terry, Johann Sebastian Bach: Cantata Texts, Sacred and Secular with a Reconstraction of the Leipzig Liturgy of his Period (London: The Holland Press, 1964), 13.

[7] Stiller, 38.

[8] Ibid., 37.

[9] The following observations are based on Werner Neumann, Samtlich von Johann Sebastian Bach vertonte Texte (Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag, 1974).

[10] Stiller, 37.

[11] Robin A. Leaver, "Bach, Hymns and Hymnbooks," Hymn 36, no. 4 (1985): 12.

[12] John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology, Setting forth the Origin and History of Christian Hymns of all Ages and Nations, 2nd ed. (R/New York: Dover Publications, Inc.,1957), vol.1 126.

Bach 9, no. 3 (1978): 7.

[14] E. M. Hammer, "Indexes, 1,286 Pages: The Altenburg Luther," The Lutheran Quarterly 1 (1949): 214.

[15] Leaver (1983), 46-48, 81-82.

[16] Hammer, 214.

[17] Ibid., 221-224.

[18] Robin A. Leaver, J. S. Bach and Scriptures; Glosses from the Calov Bible Commentary (St. Louis: Concording Publishing House, 1985), 23.

[19] Leaver (1978): 27-30.

[20] There are 15 extant Altenburg version: 5 are in the U.S., 9 are in German and 1 is in Switzerland; Calov Bible: 2 are in the U.S., 10 are in German.

[21] Robin A. Leaver, "Bach°≠s Understanding and Use of the Epistles and Gospels of the Church Year," Bach 6, no. 4 (1975): 13.

[22] Ibid., 7-13.


Bach, Johann Sebastian: Neue Ausgabe samtlicher Werke. Leipzig: Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Institut; Gottingen: Bach-Archiv, 1954- .

------. Motetten, Serie 3, Bd.1, by Konrad Ameln. 1965.

Bach Compendium: Analytisch-bibliographisches Repertorium der Werke Johann Sebastian Bachs. By Hans-Joachim Schulze and Christoph Wolff. Frankfurt, New York and London: C. F. Peters, 1985- .

------. Vokalwerke, Bd.1, Teil 3, 1988.

The Calov Bible of J. S. Bach. Ed. by Howard H. Cox. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, [c1985].

Gojoy, Von Delef.  "Kirchenlieder im Umkreis von J. S. Bach." Jahrbuch fur Liturgik und Hymnologie 22 (1978): 79-89.

Hammer, E. W.  "Indexes, 1,286 Pages: The Altenburg Luther." The Lutheran Quarterly 1 (1949): 213-224.

Herz, Gerhard.  Essays on J. S. Bach. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1985.

Ingenborg, Robbelen.  Theologie und Frommigkeit im deutschen evangelisch-lutherischen Gesangbuch des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1957.

Julian, John.  A Dictionary of Hymnology, Setting forth the Origin and History of Christian Hymns of all Ages and Nations. 2nd edition. R/New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1957. 2v.

Leaver, Robin A. "Bach°≠s Understanding and Use of the Epistles and Gospels of the Church Year." Bach 6, no. 4 (1975): 4-13.

------. "Bach and Luther." Bach 9, no. 3 (1978): 9-12, 25-32.

------. Bach°≠s Theological Library. Neuhausen-Stuttgart: Hanssler-Verlag, 1983.

------. J. S. Bach and Scriptures; Glosses from the Calov Bible Commentary. St. Louis: Concording Publishing House, 1985.

-------. "Bach, Hymns and Hymnbooks." Hymn 36, no.4 (1985): 8-13.

Melamed, Daniel R. "J. S. Bach and the German Motet." Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1989.

Neumann, Werner.  Samtlich von Johann Sebastian Bach vertonte Texte. Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag, 1974.

Schmieder, Wolfgang. Thematisch-systematisches Verzeichnis der musikalischen Werke von Johann Sebastian Bach. 2nd edition. Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Hartel, 1990.

Spitta, Philipp. Johann Sebastian Bach: His Work and Influence on the Music of Germany, 1685-1750. Translated by Clara Bell and J. F. Fuller-Maitland. London: Novello & Co., 1899; R/New York: Dover Publications, 1951. 3v. in 2.

Stiller, Gunter.  Johann Sebastian Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig. Translated by Herbert J. A. Bouman, Daniel F. Poellot and Hilton C. Oswald. Ed. by Robin A. Leaver.  St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1984.

Terry, Charles S.  Bach: The Magnificat, Lutheran Masses and Motets. London: Oxford University Press, 1929.

------. Johann Sebastian Bach: Cantata Texts, Sacred and Secular with a Reconstraction of the Leipzig Liturgy of his Period. London: The Holland Press, 1964.

Trautmann, Christoph. "J. S. Bach: New Light on His Faith." Translated by Hilton Oswald. Concordia Theological Monthly 42 (Feb. 1971): 88-99.

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