Texts and Historically-Informed Translations for the Music of Johann Sebastian Bach
Michael Marissen and Daniel R. Melamed

About the translations

Neither Bach scholarship nor historically informed performance has given enough attention to an essential question: What did the decidedly premodern German texts that Bach set in his church cantatas most plausibly mean to their creators and listeners?1 For present-day students of this music, both German-speaking and not, the answer necessarily involves interpretation in light of eighteenth-century language and contemporary Lutheran understanding. Here we present scholars, students, and performers with the German-language librettos from Bach's cantatas in renditions in American English that are as transparent as possible.

Many published translations of the librettos from Bach's cantatas are designed to accommodate foreign-language performances of the works, focusing on matching syllable counts, preserving word order, and aligning syllables with musical rhythms, particularly in arias and chorales. For these and other reasons, such translations often substantially alter the meanings of the German librettos. The translations here are literal, not intended for singing.

Many translations, especially those produced for recording booklets and concert programs, often contain serious errors as well as a host of smaller inaccuracies. Apart from simple mistakes, much of this infelicity stems from lack of knowledge of premodern German vocabulary, of historical Lutheran theology, and of interpretively significant biblical expression. The footnotes in the translations here provide extensive annotations explaining choices, particularly old usages and (especially) the indebtedness of cantata texts to Martin Luther's translation of scripture.

Yet another problem is that many translations simply copy their biblical excerpts verbatim from standard English Bibles like the King James Version, the New Revised Standard Version, or the New International Version. These Bibles typically reflect neither the readings of the Hebrew and Greek sources for Martin Luther's German Bible, the specific language Luther used in rendering them in German, nor the premodern Lutheran interpretive understanding of his particular translations. Even the readings in today's "Luther Bibles" differ substantially from those of Bach's day,2 and so it is crucial to consult historical Bibles like the versions (with commentary) edited by Olearius and Calov known to have been in Bach's personal library.3 (Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Luther Bibles are close to the wordings of the 1545 Luther Bible, but have updated its orthography.)4 The translations here rely on Luther's text as it was known in Bach's time.

There are existing reference works that attempt to indicate places where Bach's cantatas quote or allude to Luther's translation of the Bible.5 Recognizing these passages is essential to grasping how a religious text might have been heard and understood in Bach's time, but these modern works are problematic, sometimes suggesting vague or loose associations between cantata poetry and scriptural texts even when particular and specific references are probably intended. In the translations here we have tried to better identify allusions and references, and to provide the complete scriptural text that the poetry refers to.

Another problem with many translations is their reliance on modern German usage and meanings. Word forms, senses, and spellings were often different in Bach's time, and one has to approach his cantata texts with an eye to early eighteenth-century meanings. We have attempted to do that here, relying on contemporary dictionaries,6 modern historical dictionaries,7 and scholarly works that examine the older German of Bach's cantatas.8

The close study of Bach's cantata texts reveals that there are many ways in which the German-language texts of the cantatas have been edited, misread, or willfully changed; and that too little attention has been paid to conflicts among Bach's scores, parts, original printed librettos, and other primary sources. Because of this, the first step in our translation work has been to establish the text of a cantata as best we can. The German-language versions presented here fall somewhat short of a comprehensive critical text, but comes closer than anything else we know, including the Neue Bach Ausgabe. The versions here include include notes on the German that point out variant readings, conflicting wording between original sources, and problematic wordings that appear in well-known editions.

We have rendered the texts in modern spellings ("Tränen" in place of "Thränen," "beide" instead of "beyde," and so on), but kept original orthography where eighteenth-century usage suggests a different meaning from a word's rough modern equivalent. We have also retained contractions (mostly dropped inflections at the ends of nouns and adjectives), introduced most frequently to make lines of text fit the prescribed poetic meter.

The notes on the English translations attempt to explain our choices in rendering the German texts in English, paying particular attention to eighteenth-century meanings and usages, and to resonances (presumably intended) with scriptural texts in Martin Luther's translation. We also aim to explain the Lutheran theological underpinnings of the cantata librettos on the assumption that listeners and readers of the time would have understood Bach's cantata poetry in light of well-established doctrine.

The English versions attempt to preserve the rough line-by-line sense of the original, but the differences between German and English grammar sometimes makes this impossible—or at least stylistically very awkward. The translations are designed to make possible a line-by-line comparison of the texts; because the English is meant to be read along with the German and not on its own, its style and syntax will often leave something to be desired. Within a cantata we have attempted to be consistent in translating words that appear several times in a work.

Following the conventions of cantata-libretto printing, hymn texts are given here in bold type, biblical excerpts in italics, and recitatives and arias in Roman type; formally distinct portions of text, such as a middle section of a da Capo aria, are indented.


1This problem is also explored, but via discussion of isolated cantata passages rather than via closely annotated translations of entire librettos, in Michael Marissen, "Historically Informed Rendering of the Librettos from Bach's Church Cantatas," in Music and Theology: Essays in Honor of Robin A. Leaver on his Sixty-Fifth Birthday, edited by Daniel Zager (Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2007), 103–20 (reprinted as Chapter 2 of Marissen, Bach & God [New York: Oxford University Press, 2016]).

2Especially troublesome is the heavily revised text of 1984, published by the German Bible Society as Die Bibel: Nach Martin Luthers Übersetzung, Neu Bearbeitet ("The Bible: After Luther's Translation, Newly Revised"), which is often referred to, confusingly and misleadingly, as "the Luther-Bible"—its bindings typically advertise its contents as Die Bibel: Lutherübersetzung ("The Bible: Luther Translation"); the same problem holds true for the further revised text of 2017.

3Abraham Calov. Die heilige Bibel nach S. Herrn D. Martini Lutheri Deutscher Dolmetschung und Erklärung, 3 vols. Wittenberg, 1681–82. Johann Olearius. Biblische Erklärung: Darinnen, nechst dem allgemeinen Haupt-Schlüssel der gantzen heiligen Schrifft, 5 vol (Leipzig, 1678–81).

4It is also worth noting that the fantastically convenient searchable Bible presented as "Luther Bibel 1545 (LUTH1545)" is not, in fact, the unaltered text of the 1545 Luther Bible. Its wordings are, however, much closer to the texts of the Bibles from Bach's day than modern so-called Luther Bibles are.

5Ulrich Meyer. Biblical Quotation and Allusion in the Cantata Libretti of Johann Sebastian Bach. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 1997. Martin Petzoldt. Bach-Kommentar: Theologisch-musikwissenschaftliche Kommentierung der geistlichen Vokalwerke Johann Sebastian Bachs, 4 vols.Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2004–19.

6Teutsch-Englisches Lexicon, worinnen nicht allein die Wörter samt den Nenn- Bey- und Sprich-Wörtern, sondern auch so wol die eigentliche als verblümte Redens-arten verzeichnet sind (Leipzig, 1716).

7[Johann Christoph Adelung.] Grammatisch-Kritisches Wörterbuch der Hochdeutschen Mundart (Ausgabe letzter Hand, Leipzig 1793–1801). Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm.

8Lucia Haselböck. Bach Textlexikon: Ein Wörterbuch der religiösen Sprachbilder im Vokalwerk von Johann Sebastian Bach. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2004. William B. Fischer. When God Sang German: Etymological Essays about the Language of Bach's Sacred Music. [Independently published], 2017.   Deutsches Sprichwörter-Lexicon von Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Wander, 5 vols. (Leipzig, 1867-80)