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Bach Cantata BWV 77 

"Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben"
with Commentary by the Rev. Dr. David Smith

Cantata 77 has often been singled out because its opening chorus is a tour de force of musical Scripture exegesis. But the whole cantata is a highly interesting presentation of the Lutheran doctrine of love - the two great commandments of the love of God and love of neighbour. Eric Chafe, in his book Analyzing Bach Cantatas, devotes two chapters to this cantata, and this discussion will follow his. 

The basic thematic movement of the cantata is as follows. The opening chorus, the text of which is the two great commandments which appear in the gospel reading for Trinity 13 along with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, starts out in a major key and a positive presentation of the law of love, but the music gradually shifts into a minor key as it sets the words "with all thy heart and mind and soul and strength." This shift musically depicts the inability of human strength to fulfill the law. The same move into minor keys is present in the cantata as a whole, signifying the same thing. The first recitative and aria have to do with the love of God. The recitative states that we can only truly love God when his Spirit enkindles our spirits and enables us to love him. The aria is an expression of the love of God. The believer has been moved by the Spirit to love God and to know his dependence on him. At the same time the believer knows that he needs to love God more and asks to understand his law. 

The second recitative and aria concerns the love of one's neighbour.  The recitative asks for a heart like the heart of the good Samaritan, to truly love one's neighbour and to feel with him in his troubles. The aria is the lament of the believer realizing that he is not able to love others as he should. The final chorus is not given a text in the manuscripts so various texts are supplied which fit the hymn tune that Bach set. The tune has a strikingly "weak" and unfinished ending, emphasizing the incompleteness of the believer's attempt to fulfill the law of love. 

The presentation of the love of God and the love of one's neighbour follows closely Martin Luther's teaching about the place of love in the Christian life (see Paul Althaus The Theology of Martin Luther, a book that casts light on many of the themes of the cantatas).  The believer, according to Luther, has been moved to a loving surrender to God within himself and to know his complete dependence on Him for salvation.  However, he also struggles to overcome the difficulties that the flesh creates for a whole-hearted love of God. The believer basically relates to God by faith and knowledge of his dependence.  When he turns to his neighbour, then it is love which is primary. In order to properly love his neighbour, the believer has to descend to the changing and ephemeral realm that humans dwell in, just as Christ did in the Incarnation. Luther has no use for a love of neighbour that tries to maintain the character of the heavenward love of God - that kind of love is unable to truly sympathize and be with one's neighbour in his trials. Luther says that faith is like the divine because it is inflexible and unyielding, holding firm to God's promise of redemption. But love is flexible and yielding, because it belongs to the human realm. As such it is necessarily very imperfect, and must be so in this life. 

Peter Manns writes helpfully about this in his article "Absolute and Incarnate Faith" in the collection Catholic Scholars Dialogue With Luther: "[For Luther] charity does not have to do with God, with existence coram Deo, with our divinization, nor with the intus of interiority, but rather with man, with existence coram hominibus, with our humanization and with the foris of external works." "Above all else, charity is no longer an independent virtue that has a constitutive significance as a power (a virtus) with respect to salvation. At best, charity is a proper answer that follows faith 'as a kind of gratitude.' Strictly speaking, charity is nothing but the external function of faith itself." "Luther defends himself here against the scholastic idea of charity, which, with its empty well-wishing and as a mere inhering quality, shows itself to be a caricature, 'a completely bare, meager and mathematical love, which does not become incarnate... and does not go to work.'" 

Obviously, Luther's teaching on love of neighbour represents a very significant shift of emphasis in the tradition, the general intent of which is to remove charity from the realm of "works." Without necessarily endorsing Luther's view completely, it does seem to me that it lies behind the commonly accepted view of our own day, where love of neighbour is thought to be independent of love of God, and is thus of great interest. 

We can see the same teaching in this cantata. The first recitative and aria represent the inward reality of the believer - genuinely loving God but with that love being a knowledge of dependence. The second recitative and aria mark a big shift from this inward realm to the outward realm of human needs, with the sharp distinction being made between the two that we noted above. The second recitative focuses on the need to be with the neighbour in his trials with all human sympathy, as the Good Samaritan was. The second aria laments the imperfectness of the believer's love towards his neighbour, which is the necessary outward expression of the inward knowledge of God treated in the first aria.  Love of one's neighbour is necessary if the inward relation to God is real, though it does not earn us merit as a work. It is the real measure of our relation to God, rather than some illusory idea of inward virtue. Althaus summarizes Luther's view thus: "Christ took on himself the form of a servant and took our love which is falsely directed toward heaven and directed it toward our neighbour...Since God has become man, our 
love for God should show itself as love for men" (Althaus p. 133). 


This Lutheran teaching about love is one of the main themes of the cantata. A second is the relation between law and gospel. The cantata begins with the statement of the law of love - we must love God and our neighbour. We will see how this theme is stated musically in the opening chorus. The stance throughout the cantata is that of the believer face to face with this law of love. As a believer, he really does share in the love that is required by the law, but his love is hindered by the flesh, and the law points this out. In this cantata, the movement to the gospel - the good news that God does enable us to fulfill the law of love by his Holy Spirit - is never made. The believer aspires to this but is pictured throughout this cantata as being up against the condemnation of the law not condemned completely by it but chastised and purified and made humble by it.



German Original  

1. Coro
Tromba da tirarsi, Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo

Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben von ganzem Herzen, von ganzer Seele, von allen Kräften und von ganzem Gemüte und deinen Nächsten als dich selbst. 


2. Recitativo B - Continuo    
So muß es sein! 
Gott will das Herz vor sich alleine haben. 
Man muß den Herrn von ganzer Seelen 
Zu seiner Lust erwählen 
Und sich nicht mehr erfreun, 
Als wenn er das Gemüte 
Durch seinen Geist entzündt, 
Weil wir nur seiner Huld und Güte 
Alsdenn erst recht versichert sind. 

3. Aria S - Oboe I/II, Continuo    
Mein Gott, ich liebe dich von Herzen, 
Mein ganzes Leben hangt dir an. 
Laß mich doch dein Gebot erkennen 
Und in Liebe so entbrennen, 
Daß ich dich ewig lieben kann. 

 4. Recitativo T - Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo 
Gib mir dabei, mein Gott! ein Samariterherz, 
Daß ich zugleich den Nächsten liebe 
Und mich bei seinem Schmerz 
Auch über ihn betrübe, 
Damit ich nicht bei ihm vorübergeh 
Und ihn in seiner Not nicht lasse. 
Gib, daß ich Eigenliebe hasse, 
So wirst du mir dereinst das Freudenleben 
Nach meinem Wunsch, jedoch aus Gnaden geben 
5. Aria A - Tromba da tirarsi, Continuo    
Ach, es bleibt in meiner Liebe  
Lauter Unvollkommenheit! 
Hab ich oftmals gleich den Willen, 
Was Gott saget, zu erfüllen, 
Fehlt mir's doch an Möglichkeit. 

6. Choral - Instrumentierung nicht überliefert  
Herr, durch den Glauben wohn in mir, 
Laß ihn sich immer stärken, 
Daß er sei fruchtbar für und für 
Und reich in guten Werken; 
Daß er sei tätig durch die Lieb, 
Mit Freuden und Geduld sich üb, 
Dem Nächsten fort zu dienen. 


Besetzung   Soli: S A T B, Coro: S A T B, Tromba da tirarsi, Oboe I/II, Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo  
Entstehungszeit   22. August 1723  
Text   unbekannter Dichter; 1: Lukas 10,27; 6: David Denicke 1657  
Anlass   13. Sonntag nach Trinitatis  


from Bach Cantata Page    
Created by Walter F. Bischof  
Used with permission 


English Translation  

1. Chorus [Dictum]
(S, A, T, B) with instr. chorale  

Thou shalt thy God and master cherish with all thy bosom, with all thy spirit, with all thy power and with all thine affection, as well thy neighbor as thyself.(2)

2. Recit. (B)  
So must it be!  
God would our hearts himself possess completely.  
We must the Lord with all our spirit  
Elect as he requireth,  
And never be content  
But when he doth our spirits  
Through his own Spirit fire,  
For we, of all his grace and kindness,  
Are only then completely sure.  

3. Aria (S)  
My God, with all my heart I love thee,  
And all my life depends on thee.  
But help me thy great law to fathom  
And with love to be so kindled  
That I thee evermore may love.  

4. Recit. (T)  
Make me as well, my God, Samaritan in heart  
That I may both my neighbor cherish  
And be amidst his pain  
For his sake also troubled,  
That I may never merely pass him by  
And him to his distress abandon.  
Make me to self-concern contrary,  
For then thou shalt one day the life of gladness  
That I desire in thy dear mercy grant me.  
 5. Aria (A)  
Ah, there bideth in my loving  
Nought but imperfection still!  
Though I often may be willing  
God's commandments to accomplish,  
'Tis beyond my power yet.  
6. Chorale (S, A, T, B)  
Lord, through my faith come dwell in me,  
Make it grow ever stronger,  
That it be fruitful more and more  
And rich in righteous labors;  
That it be active in my love,  
In gladness and forbearance skilled,  
My neighbor ever serving.(3)  
Lord Jesus, thou dost make thyself  
A model of true loving:  
Now grant that I may follow this  
And love of neighbor practise,  
That I, in ev'ry way I can,  
Love, trust, and help to ev'ryone,  
As I should wish, may offer.(4)  
1. Knauer's cantata used the final verse of this chorale by Martin Luther (Wackernagel, III, #22) as the final chorale. For a full account of Bach's treatment of Knauer's cantatas see H. K. Krausse, BJ (1981), pp. 7-22.  

2. The graceful simplicity of the traditional wording from Lk. 10:27 is not allowed by the syllabic requirements of the original:  

"Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself."  

3. The Denicke text suggested by Neumann T.  

4. The Denicke text suggested by BG.  

Johann Oswald Knauer, Gott-geheiligtes Singen und Spielen des Friedensteinischen Zions (Gotha, 1720); Facs: BJ (1981), p. 22; Bach uses only the second half of the cantata and makes several substantial changes.  

1. Lk. 10:27 and the chorale melody "Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot"(1) ; 6. Chorale without text, for which Neumann T suggests verse 8 of David Denicke, "O Gottes Sohn, Herr Jesus Christ," 1657 (Fischer-Tümpel, II, #438); BG follows Zelter's suggestion: verse 8 of David Denicke, "Wenn einer alle Ding verstünd," 1657 (Fischer-Tümpel, II, #436); the chorale melody is "Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein" (cf. BWV 2/1).  
22 August 1723.  
BG 18; NBA I/21, 3. 

English translation: 
© Copyright  Z. Philip Ambrose  
Used with permission. Visit his site at:  


Commentary by David Smith  

Opening Chorus  
Two characteristics of the opening chorus are especially noteworthy.  Firstly, both the framing melody played in the trumpet parts and the bass and the melody sung by the chorus are based on the tune to which Luther set his hymn paraphrasing the Ten Commandments. The trumpet and bass play the strict melody, forming a kind of objective framework to the chorus that represents the objective framework of the law. The trumpet enters ten times, playing phrases from the hymn tune. The ten entries represent the Ten Commandments. The chorus is more loosely based on the same melody and represents the believer within this framework of the law.


Secondly, as we noted above, there is a movement in the chorus from major to minor as the music moves into flatter keys. Thematically this represents a movement from an abstract appreciation for the divine character of the law into a more human reaction to the law as the text talks about loving God with "our soul and our strength and our heart."  Thus Bach treats musically the problematic character of our love.


1st Recitative  
The first recitative deals objectively with God's demand for the complete love of our hearts. Our love must be aligned with his and this can only happen when he kindles our love with his Spirit.



1st Aria
This is the subjective expression of the love of God. The believer does inwardly surrender lovingly to God - this is the fruit of conversion. The aria depicts musically in its minor key and wistful character the fragile and inward character of the believer's love of God, which is as much an aspiration to love Him as it is an achieved characteristic of his life.


2nd Recitative 
The recitative again expresses the objective side of love - the love of one's neighbour. The text picks up on the second part of the Gospel reading, the parable of the Good Samaritan, in asking for "ein Samariterherz". It emphasizes the aspect of love which Luther also emphasized as we saw above - that love fits in with and sympathizes with the lot of the neighbour at the human level. Although love of one's neighbour is not a work which earns salvation, it is a measure of genuine faith and thus of the possession of eternal life.


2nd Aria 
This is the subjective side of the love of one's neighbour. Because the power to love others can only come from inward transformation, which is only beginning in the believer, the outward practice of love is felt to be inadequate. The aria is a kind of lament about the limits of the believer's love. The return of the solo trumpet recalls the role of the trumpet as symbolizing the law in the opening chorus. However here it seems to represent the law as the bracing reality which keeps the believer striving to fulfill the law of love.  Althaus's account of Luther's teaching on the role of the law for the believer is illuminating here: "[The law] summons him to participate in the battle which the spirit must wage with the flesh, the new man with the old man, throughout his life until the old man is completely given up into death. In this battle the law still has a task to fulfill. The Holy Spirit and the new man of faith impress the law on the flesh and the old man. Otherwise the Christian is in danger of becoming secure and lazy, of going to sleep instead of going out to do battle." So the trumpet part here seems to represent the law as prodding the believer in his struggle to do battle with the flesh in loving his neighbour.


Final Chorus 
We remarked already on the "unfinished" character of the melody here.  Eric Chafe calls this the weakest ending of any cantata. This represents the unfinished character of both our love of God and our love of neighbour, as represented in the two arias. The exact text that Bach intended to set here is not known.