Cantata No.159

Johann Sebastian Bach

Cantata No.159

BWV159 • “Sehet, wir geh'n hinauf gen Jerusalem”

About this work

Intended for liturgical use only (the composer could scarcely have imagined otherwise), Bach's sacred cantatas came to serve two roles in the twentieth century. Even as they continued to sustain the faithful in numberless church services, these sublime works also began to inhabit the concert hall, heard as much for their musical genius as for their religious message. Bach's Cantata No. 159 is among his finest works in the genre. Composed (most likely) in 1729, it was intended for Quinquagesima Sunday, the Sunday that precedes Ash Wednesday. It invites preparation for the 40 days of Lent, urging the listener to enter upon a journey that culminates in Christ's Passion and Resurrection during Holy Week. Composed for three soloists (alto, tenor, and bass), chorus and orchestra, the work opens with the bass soloist exhorting "Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem!" (Behold, we go up to Jerusalem!). Then, in an intertwining of bass arioso and alto recitative, the soloists describe the arduous path, anguishing over the upward climb. The alto soloist cries out "Ach, gehe night! (Oh, do not go!), describing a cross already prepared, a scourging to come. The alto aria "Ich Folge dir nach" (I follow thee) follows the anguished recitative, affirming the singer's resolve to stand by the cross, to enfold the Savior in her arms and bosom. The tenor soloist next voices his grief for his Jesus, vowing to wish for no joy until he sees the Savior in Glory. The bass aria "Es ist vollbracht" (It is fulfilled) is one of Bach's loveliest. An oboe introduces the aria, is heard in the middle, and concludes the six-minute meditation in which the singer observes that in God all are made righteous, freed from the temptations of sin. He will hasten and give thanks to Jesus, concluding, "Welt, gute Nacht!" (World, good night!). Flowing in utmost consolation, the contemplative mood is emboldened only when the singer vows to hasten to the Savior. The poignant sound of the oboe brings the aria to a close, leading to the concluding chorale, "Jesus, deine Passion ist mir lauter Freude" (Jesus your passion is my purest joy).